“Silence is part of what allows abuse to continue. I have found my voice, and I will use it to warn others and to remind them that this is not a normal Christian experience.”
As some readers of this blog will know, my family and I experienced significant spiritual abuse many years ago in a church in Australia. It was a horrific experience, made all the more challenging by the struggle to make (some) people understand the reality of what we were enduring.
This anonymous article came to me some weeks ago from a woman who has her own first-hand experience of spiritual abuse. Having endured this abuse and largely come through, she now has a deep desire to support others—especially other women—who are experiencing this very real, very dangerous situation. Though the author has wisely asked to remain anonymous, she can be confidentially contacted here.
Whether or not you have first-hand experience with this kind of abusive relationship, this sad, honest but important article will prove illuminating and is well worth your time.
It’s hard to know where to start. Gaslighting is like that.
There’s no one big thing—no particular blow up, no bruise on the face, no specific workplace incident or thing you can point to. It’s lots of little things over a long period of time.
It’s the subtle undermining of your self-confidence, the little indications that they think you can work harder, do more, be better. It’s the ignoring of your opinion in a staff meeting—until that opinion is repeated by a male colleague. It’s the not-so-subtle comments about how important it is for you to get along with his wife for you to keep your job. It’s giving you blank looks when you enthusiastically share an idea on how to improve something—then telling people you are undermining him (by having an idea of your own). It’s being mocked when you try to get him to take major pastoral issues (like domestic violence) seriously. It’s telling you not to worry, because he asked the husband and he said he ‘just pushed his wife and she accidentally fell over’, and he believes him. It’s shutting you out of staff meeting and leaving you alone in your office while everyone else meets in another room. It’s telling everyone of a minor conflict between you and a ministry trainee, while covering his own major conflicts with three others. It’s telling you, as the only women’s pastor, that you are not pastorally responsible for every woman at church—just the ones that he says have problems (i.e. 95% of the women who make up a majority of our very large church); the five men on staff will deal with all the men. It’s letting you know of any time you have failed to be there for one of those hundreds of women.
And it’s a million other things besides…
All these things slowly build up at the same time as your self-confidence gets eroded. You start to think you are going crazy—and, eventually, you are. The stress hormones build up and slowly fry your brain until everything becomes foggy and your judgement becomes impaired. Despite everyone else saying you are the hardest working minister they’ve seen, you start to believe you have to do more. You work twice as hard to earn half the respect the men get. But the more you do, the crazier you become.
When you (perhaps foolishly) reach out to him and say you are burning out, he ignores you and puts more pressure on. Then he starts to tell his all-male elder team that you are crazy, difficult to work with, and (the all-time killer for an evangelical woman) “failing to submit to his authority”. The male elders look at you, and they sympathise with him. Yes, it’s clear she’s become too difficult to work with—we need to manage her out.
Despite the fact he already has all the power, the all-male eldership team tell you that their job is to support the senior minister. The church board tells you that they only act in an advisory capacity regarding theological issues, not staffing issues. There is no grievance policy and, as you are a stipendary worker rather than an employee, Fair Work Australia is no use to you.
Your mental health goes further and further downhill as his gaslighting both makes you feel crazy and causes other people to see you as crazy. You ask for mediation in the hope of gaining some clarity on why this ‘Christian’ working relationship is so hard when you are pouring so much effort into it. You are warned by a Christian psychologist familiar with the mediation process being used that it will be abusive in itself. You will be made to think of anything you have ever said or done wrong, then told to repent of it. When this is done, you will be fired anyway. You hear her advice, but you hope she is wrong. She is exactly right.
The gaslighting has worked. You have drowned in a sea of cortisol and it takes years of trauma counselling to finally be able to breathe.
Breathe. Be restored. Place one foot in front of the other. Start to live again.
Finally, one day, people you respect start to notice that you are looking healthy again.
A denominational leader who has helped you regain meaningful employment rejoices because he can see you are finally free. Your aunt comments that the family finally have you back from the black hole you went into working at that church. The friends who walked with you on the journey and have stayed in touch can see the difference, and they know you are finally in a good place.
Friends, this has been my journey over the past 6-7 years.
It has been awful, but God has carried me through it and brought me safe to the other side. I am finally free of the abuse I experienced.
But that does not mean I have to stay silent. For silence is part of what allows this type of abuse to continue. I have found my voice, and I will use it to warn others and to remind them that this is not a normal Christian experience. I will speak up for the vulnerable, as I believe Jesus both did and commanded us to do. And I will speak up for those who are at the start of this journey—as I wish more people had done for me.
Instead of silencing the victims of abuse, we should question why a person who used to seem happy and used to approach Christian ministry with joy seems to have become angry, withdrawn, difficult, and mentally challenged? When Jesus tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves, he includes the people who have become like this.
If you were the one experiencing gaslighting and slowly going crazy, how would you want to be treated? I can tell you, it’s not by being told “you failed to submit” or “our job is to support the senior minister (or the brand name)” or “you just need to get over it” or “ you are just seeking revenge and feeding the Facebook trolls”.
Until we take seriously the fact that abuse—whether it be sexual abuse, domestic violence, workplace bullying, or gaslighting—is present in our own churches and being committed by people we know, we will never care for the vulnerable in our society.
I believe this care is meant to be a marker of a follower of Jesus, and I intend to keep showing it.
If you need an ear, I am here.
* * * * *
If you would like to be put in touch with the author of this article to receive support or advice, click here to email me. All communication will be treated in strictest confidence, and no judgements will be made about your situation; I will simply act as a point of contact between you and the author.