One of the first times I interacted with Jeff, he told me he planned to be a youth pastor.
“Be nice to the kids in your youth group, okay?” was my reply.
At the time I had no idea why those words were my reaction. A quizzical look crossed Jeff’s face. He promised me he would be nice to the kids in his youth group.
This conversation took place just weeks after my leaving home for college.
I had a pretty good family life growing up. My dad worked hard to put my brother and I through Christian schools. My mom was always around and took an interest in our likes and dislikes. In the few years we homeschooled in between Christian schools, mom took us all over the state to visit museums and parks.
We spent our Sunday mornings going to church and then to lunch as a family where we caught up on what happened during our week. Dad was often working a second job, which was also a favorite hobby of his, on evenings and Saturdays. So Sunday dinners were a good time to be together to talk. I felt loved and understood among my family.
Such was not always the case in my church. My dad desired for my brother and I to know the Bible well. I believe this is the reason I do know it and love it so much today. Because of his desire, we not only attended Christian school, we went to a church that taught the Bible verse by verse.
I received many good things from my church. We had a steady community of friends I was able to grow up with and I received opportunities to attend summer camps and participate in mission trips for many years. Our church was also good at putting children front and center. We served alongside adults at outreaches. As a teenager, my friends and I got to run the VBS while the adults were the secondary volunteers.
Many of my days at my church were good days. I have some fond memories.
However, much of the difficulty began when I entered youth group.
The summer before entering seventh grade, we received a stern talk. I remember what I was wearing that day. A pink t-shirt with flowers in the front and flowy, flowered coulottes that matched. They were a couple inches from hitting my knees. That night we found out that any shorts above our knees were immodest and now against the rules.
I remember shame washing over me. From my head to my toes, I felt dirty and sorry for something I would never have even known was a problem a few hours prior. I was still young enough that I had never even shaved my legs and here I was with this tremendous guilt over a pair of flowered coulottes.
The push regarding purity continued. That fall our youth pastor launched a series on dating. My best friend Amy and I sat on the front pew each week. We were the perpetual good girls. We wanted to do everything right for Jesus.
We found out that if a guy has a bad thought about us, it’s our fault. We vowed to never kiss a boy before being married. We giggled on the phone about such things. But deep down I think we were trying to process thought patterns that were outside our age as well as the unhealthy focus of male and female relationships placed on us for years. That was only the beginning.
Other confusing messages followed. Don’t listen to music that has a beat. It’s Satan’s tool because drums cause your heart to race to a certain pattern and then the Holy Spirit no longer has control over your life.
Another youth pastor came and he made rude comments to kids who played sports. As mentioned in another post, he told me God would make me break my ankle if I continued to play volleyball because it was my “god.” I just liked playing. That’s all. It was fun. I played while maintaining a place on the youth group leadership team. He did not like that I had not been able to attend a retreat because I had practices that week.
When my parents separated during my junior year, this particular pastor accused me of “not having enough faith.” He did this in front of the whole youth group during Sunday School.
That familiar sense of shame found its way from my head to my toes again that day. The whole group turned to look at me. I fought back tears and looked at the floor until I could run out after we were dismissed.
I ran to my dad in tears. He took me our Senior Pastor, who I believe did have a heart of compassion for us, even though he could sometimes be strict about things like women staying in their place and the fact that he didn’t like the college I attended. He didn’t hold back his opinion regarding those things.
All of these experiences welled up deep inside of me. And so when Jeff said he was going to be a youth pastor, I responded in what must have seemed like the strangest response imaginable.
I was afraid that this guy I was beginning to fall for would end up mistreating young people in the church and I couldn’t let it happen as far as I could stop it.
Through college and beyond, Jeff and I managed to stay in more non-denominational congregations that did not hold so tight to rules about music and dress and a woman’s place.
We experienced even more freedom when we entered the particular church we’ve been attending since Kyla was about three years old. With an emphasis on who God is and what He has done for us, rather than what we should do or not do, we realize that we are free to respond to His leading out of those things. Not out of obligation.
The spirit of shame is far from those pews and those doors. It gives me hope. I feel as if I have a healthier path to walk out my calling.
But I remain concerned about leadership in the church.
You see, believe it or not, our parent church is on the opposite end of the same street as the church of my childhood.
I find this poetic.
Being in my hometown means I run into people from my former church. I see the building from time to time. I have even attended some events, such as weddings, there in the last few years. Sometimes my heart gets confused and I am taken back into those moments of shame.
Adding to the confusion is a phone call I received a few years ago. The message I heard that day took me by surprise. I almost couldn’t breathe.
You see someone I have known most of my life was abused by a person in my former church. It was serious.
I wish I could say that the leadership acted appropriately in handling this issue once it was brought to them. But they did not. They re-victimized this person and tried to cover it all up. They tried to convince the abused that it may not have actually happened.*
This has been the turning point for me. I cannot abide the type of behavior that covers up abuse. I will not put up with it. This is beyond a youth pastor who wants control, a church leader who says terrible things to teenagers that embarrasses them in front of their fellow friends, or someone who uses shaming language to get their way.
When the news broke about the abuse, my childhood church was already going through a difficult split and the most recent senior pastor was on the verge of leaving. I get that the board was under a lot of pressure. However, I have been left wondering if I was ever really safe there? I don’t know. Probably not.
See these tendencies to want control over a congregation are not harmless. They breed an atmosphere where it’s not okay to bring sin to the light. And sin in the light is the only way for there to be healing.
The same year that this information was brought to my attention through a phone call, Jeff and I moved to another state. It was hard to be in a new faith community where I was unsure how our family would be treated. It was also hard to watch from afar as people I love began hurting from a pastor leaving and a leadership coming unraveled. Hurtful words and actions were exchanged. More terrible secrets came out about people I respected for decades. It was ugly.
During that time it was also difficult not to have the regular support of our parent church anymore, the one that had shown us freedom. They had walked alongside us and, whether they knew it or not, had aided in a lot of my healing. They taught us that true leadership means shepherding and a shepherd does not harm his sheep when they wander off.
Control and abuse are not God’s best. This is not how He desires for His people to live. I will shout it from the rooftops. I will join others in singing a new song. I will strive, as far as it be with me, to allow for the truth to be a part of our faith communities.
No more children with shame washing over them. No more victims being abused and then re-victimized over and over again. I will speak. For there has been silence long enough.
I pray on many days for the survivors of abuse in the church. I pray for their healing. I pray that current leaders can shepherd, truly shepherd, in ways that build up the people in their congregations. In ways that strengthen all of us in the church.
May it be so, Lord. We are Your people. We need Your help.