The church held a meeting.
We were not there.
I had only heard about it as a fluke, really. They had not removed me from their email list as they had the others.
Tired of insensitive questions and advice (“You two need to just get things together and work them out” was a favorite), I asked if I could write a letter to the congregation.
They allowed it.
Then they edited it.
“Well, we shouldn’t use the word abuse, you know, just in case.”
In case of what?
Apparently they believed my abuser would have precedent to sue them
if I told the truth.
They had already told those who knew anything not to talk about it, issued a gag order over anyone who knew anything.
Once I had officially left, they opened the floor of the annual meeting to “answer questions,” a slick move to ensure control over the narrative.*
Still, I sighed, cried over this new voice I had just discovered, now filtered, and I changed the words of the letter.
“Abusive” became “toxic.”
Some came to me before I left, had heard whisperings, and came with wide eyes, and tight voices, and said
me too me too me too.
I had spent the last months educating myself on abusive relational systems. I had asked several others to do the same.
Once you learn these things, you see them. Once you see them, you can’t unsee them. But you can’t just tell someone what you see.
So you start asking questions.
They have to do their own work of discovery. You can’t decide this kind of thing for anyone. But you can make yourself a safe space to share.
And when they share, you can say, that’s not okay.
It’s not okay to be called gross
in your most vulnerable spaces.
It’s not okay to never have a choice
where to work
where to live
who your friends are
or if you are allowed to have friends at all.
I wrote my letter and it was printed and shoved into a box in a hallway at the church.
Only one came after the letter and said, I feel like you wrote that letter right to me.
I said, I did.
To him, and all the others.
You can’t make anyone’s choices for them, but you can open your mouth and speak truth.
You are valued
You are loved
You are free.
And if those words are like a slap across the face, then it’s possible you’ve been sold subtly opposite messages,
and they’ve gotten up under your skin.
This was my message, over and over, to the broken spirits around me
and I was dubbed as dangerous.
So the church held a meeting.
The one who spoke up to me was the music minster. He asked me and two others who were close to help. He asked us to write letters. The two others were the only ones who had stayed close enough to see.
But lies are like a heavy blanket. It felt safer to most to keep the blanket in place.
We knew what would happen if we helped him pick up the lies that had covered his life for so long.
I knew it would be especially dangerous for me.
My abuser had made his way into the homes of church members, told them just enough, I guess, to let them think…something still unclear but dripping with enough innuendo to get any church gossip to whisper.
But just like the years of abuse, it was never clear, really…just that I was wrong somehow.
Many tear-filled prayers and long drives and screams to heaven and still, I never came away with anything other than that this man’s life was surely worth far more than own reputation.
So we wrote our letters, a last ditch effort to save another broken marriage.
We lifted the blanket
And the horrors we expected came bursting out like flames.
We expected them.
Expectation doesn’t make a fire not sting when it sizzles across your skin.
The church held a meeting.
He had gone to the pastor, begging for help.
Was told he was over-reacting
Was given dangerous advice
Was invited to pull that blanket of lies right back over the fire
Was invited to go down in flames.
The pastor crafted a letter and attached it to the annual report.
Come to the meeting
Let’s talk about how we can prevent this for the rest of us
With small group attendance
Did I just read that right? I thought.
Did the pastor just use this deep personal tragedy, the utter destruction of at least two families…to boost small group attendance?
“They’re gone now,” it seemed to say, “And now I can you tell their story.”
A gag order. And then, an open mic.
I almost vomited there in my small kitchen, reading that letter.
The church held a meeting.
I couldn’t bring myself to go, to speak up for myself, to re-enter the burning building I had barely made it out of alive.
I guess our absence had meant to them that all the stories they had heard were true.
There had been four letters written, all begging his wife to reconsider how she treated him, asking her to consider why she believed he should be treated this way. We offered support to them both, hoped we had found the key to unlocking this kind of mess. Maybe it wasn’t too late for them?
But she said we attacked her.
And the church opened a mic up at the meeting for those who felt led to attack us back, on her behalf.
An abuser doesn’t actually have to do much work, if they can get others to do it for them.
They only have to get someone to believe two things:
- that their feelings are paramount above all else, including truth
- that those feelings are hurt
There are books, articles, blog posts, infographs, memes, quote pictures, a thousand resources pointing to what might happen when a narcissist is confronted.
It was uncanny, for his abuser, and for mine. It was like they were following a checklist.
The church, though,
The church held a meeting.
I have had to process just what it has to mean to truly let go of what people think of you, when they keep trying to stick labels on you, like someone else’s clothes that don’t fit.
Hateful words were sent my way. (You’re disgusting, one woman loudly said to me in front of my kids, smiling, after awkwardly trying to hug my daughter.)
Narrow-eyed looks from once familiar faces
Or avoidance all together. (I may as well be dead, as far as any of them are concerned, he once said after running into an old choir member who was working hard to playact at making him invisible.)
The church held a meeting. We were blamed for bringing down a church already set ablaze by the collective agreement to shut their eyes tight
and stoke into existence a version of the story where they had tried all they could.
And I can only imagine that since that meeting,
every broken spirit still there
every voice that had said
is now silenced, effectively shut down, trapped by the aftermath
of the meeting.
It is important that if any of this feels familiar, or if you are in a similar situation, that you educate yourself and seek out sound counsel. Here are some good resources to start. Click for links.
For information about smear campaigns and flying monkeys
For a good analogy on who is to blame when an abusive marriage ends, read “Who Burned the House Down“
*The actual text of the letter read:
“If you have serious questions about the personal crises of those staff members that have resigned, please know that at this year’s annual meeting the Elder Board will be addressing this issue and doing their best to answer any questions you might have. Please feel free to join us, even if you are not a member“
“But (apart from its evangelistic potential) I also believe that this kind of connectedness within our church body would go a long way towards preventing what we have experienced this past year. That is, with a strong sense of community and connection there are a fewer surprises about how, say, a particular couple in the church is having serious troubles in their marriage, or struggling with a teenager who is suicidal, or drowning in financial problems, etc. If we could become a community that is defined by strong friendships, emotional safety, authenticity, and vulnerability, these “sudden” surprises will happen less often. To say it another way, deep connections make it less likely that these kinds of issues will just stay “under the radar” until it’s too late.
By the way, this is also the main priority we have right now in the hiring process we are engaged in for a groups director. We are not only looking for someone who can be over our community groups, but someone who knows how to tap into the passions and skills of our congregation to get everyone (or, as many people as possible) involved…”
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