Friday, February 2, 2024

Breaking Through a Bad Church Experience: A Couple of Notes in the Music

"If you love deeply, you're going to get hurt badly." - C. S. Lewis

It was one of the oddest seasons of our lives.

Just a few months later, I would write that in twenty-five years of marriage and thirty of working for churches, we’ve never experienced such middle school girl drama normalized among adults.

Sometimes, when you're in the middle of a dysfunctional situation, it can become easy to think the dysfunctional behavior is actually normative or healthy and that healthy behavior is abnormal. Particularly if the one displaying abnormal behavior insists their way is correct.

My wife served for five years as the Director of Music Ministries at her home church. My children participated there. Most of that season, I served as a bivocational pastor at another area church. When she was hired, the church was in decline. The former senior pastor resigned about six weeks after she started. In the five years of her tenure, the church steadied and slowly began growing again. The current senior pastor often referred to Tracey as the church's favorite staff member. She was well-loved, as was our family. And she loved serving them and working with the musicians to create great music.

For two years, our youngest son and the pastor’s oldest son clashed. Both Alpha males, they didn’t get along great, and they both had a habit of running their mouths too much. Tracey and I had no expectation of their ever being great friends. We had numerous conversations within our family where we advised, “In the real world, you don’t have to be great friends with everybody. You will likely have a few close friends. You do, however, have to be able to live at peace with others. And many times that comes down to bearing with each other – and letting each other be.”

On a few occasions, at the insistence of the pastor and his wife, the fathers sat down with the boys and talked things out. As time went along, it become apparent to Tracey and me that the pastor and his wife had different expectations of how this should play out than did we. Tracey I have discovered through the years that many times, unnecessary conflict can be avoided when we don’t fan the flame, insist on our own way, and instead agree to disagree with other people over non-essential matters. Instead of setting the record straight we can simply let things go.

We've also seen on more than one occasion the dynamics that take place when an insecure person feels threatened by people they can't control. I've told congregations for years, It's very important that we learn to take the right things seriously. Take the Lord and His Word seriously. Take the Holy Spirit, the Great Commandment, and the Great Commission seriously. But please, please do not take yourself too seriously!

At the end of an exhausting day of Vacation Bible School a couple of years ago, the pastor and his wife confronted Tracey as she left the church that night, insisting they have a meeting immediately. Tracey suggested they wait, but they would not have it. Supposedly, our son had said something derogatory about their son, and the mother was livid. One or two days later, this led to me and our son having to meet with the pastor and his son. During that meeting, the pastor accused our son of saying some very specific things – and promised to follow up the meeting with investigation. 

After several days of asking youth face to face, he – and we – could not find one person to confirm the accusation. At that point, the pastor accused our daughter of foul play. Supposedly, she, who was a college student, was intimidating people in the youth group online and warning them to not tell the pastor what he wanted to hear. He asked me to research all of her online accounts, which I did. Again, we found nothing, and my daughter laughed at his accusations.

During the same week of VBS, my wife and the pastor’s wife had an unpleasant confrontation as did the pastor’s wife and my youngest son. This led to an insistence by the pastor and his wife that the four of us sit down together. That two-hour meeting was probably the most miserable one my wife or I have ever endured.

When we left the meeting, my wife and I walked into her office, and I said “Both of our families cannot stay here. I’ve seen this before, and it will not work unless the Lord significantly intervenes.” It was becoming very clear that the pastor and his wife were not going to agree to disagree and give us space. That was July.

From then until December, my wife began regularly hearing from the senior pastor things like, “I need you and my wife to be on good terms. I need you to meet with her. She doesn’t feel loved by you. My life is much better when my wife is not upset. I need you two to be able to sit down and take the Lord’s Supper together.” This went on and on. We told each other numerous times, "I cannot imagine any other work situation where your boss tells you that one of your job expectations is to make his wife feel good." 

During part of this time, I worked for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. I told Tracey that BGEA would never put up with such nonsense - nor would most professional places of employment. Unfortunately, many churches are not known for being run well internally, and this was no exception.

My wife would respond to the pastor by saying things like, “I am good with your wife.  I would have no problem sitting down and taking the Lord’s Supper with her. She and I have never been best friends, and I don’t have any expectation of our being best friends. We disagree over some parenting issues, and Rhett and I made it clear in our meeting last July that it was ok with us for the two sets of parents to agree to disagree and move on.”

But some people will not let you move on if you do not agree with them and submit to them. Their deep need for praise and admiration won't respect your boundaries.

Middle School Drama

The pastor insisted my wife meet his wife in September for a long, miserable, 2+ hour meeting. Tracey painfully listened to her tell all kinds of things she (Tracey) had done wrong – and how she did not feel loved by Tracey. And, as was the case in our July meeting, Tracey owned her part ("I’m sure I could respond better, I’m sorry for any way I have offended you, etc.") – but the pastor’s wife owned no wrong on her own account.

The rest of that year, Tracey continued hearing every few weeks that the pastor needed Tracey to show love to his wife. It was obvious that we were living on two different spectrums.

I can't begin to count the times our son would come home over a two-year period and tell us something the pastor's son had said negative about him. Over and over, we would say, "Son, just let it go. It's not worth always trying to correct a wrong."

One day, in mid to late fall, the pastor left a note on Tracey's desk that he had set up a meeting for her and the chairman of the Personnel Team to talk the next day. He claimed that “our families are not in unity right now and it stems from” his wife and my wife coupled with his son and our son.

In the meeting, Tracey rebutted every accusation leveled against her by the pastor. When the meeting was over, the chairman came to her office and said that it sounded to him like Tracey had done what she needed to do to maintain a good relationship with the pastor’s wife.

At this point, Tracey and I knew loud and clear that we were dealing with unhealthy expectations.  We learned a valuable reality years ago: you cannot fix someone else’s insecurity. That is an inside job. But the insecure person will blame people outside of themselves for their own negative feelings. And they will eventually try to remove the other persons.

The harassment was something my wife and son endured for months, and it continued growing. My wife described it numerous times as feeling like we were in a witch hunt.

Too Much Stress

For the previous two years, my wife experienced growing stress at church related to the pastor. When the church hired him, she and I had serious reservations. He had very little administrative experience – other than leading youth groups. And we later found out he had been asked to leave at least one of his former churches. When you’ve been in church work for thirty years, you’ve seen the same patterns surface in different settings. This wasn’t our first rodeo. We knew the angst a charismatic leader can cause internally for a staff when he or she is lacking in administrative ability.

For much of those two years, Tracey regularly come home stressed. It was normal for her to arrive and say, “He is driving me crazy.” About a year earlier, I just about begged her to go to several of the key lay leaders for help. She refused again and again, saying, “I can’t do that. It will split the church. It will come down to who is for me and who is for him, and I can’t do that to the church.” Not long after our family eventually left the church, she told me, “I can’t believe I kept my mouth shut for so long trying to protect those people.”

By the fall of 2022, we knew that she – and our family – could not keep this up for long. She could not continue dealing with the stress of the inner-functionings of the church. And our family could not keep enduring this unhealthy yo-yo cycle of the pastor and his wife challenging our family. 

And, no one in our immediate family was satisfied nor comfortable with the pastor’s preaching. Our daughter had already informed us that she would not be back to the church after December. Our oldest son, a college student was frustrated with the pastor every time he came home. My mother, who had considered moving to the town, later told me that one of the main reasons she did not is that she knew she could not listen to him preach weekly. He was regularly ill-prepared, shot at the hip, and had what one seminary professor calls "loosey-goosey" theology on several issues that concerned us.

The biggest example of the latter occurred on a Maundy Thursday service, when he explained how God the Father really did not turn his back on His Son at the cross - despite what 2000 years of Christian theology says. No, in fact, God the Father was "hugging" him in the darkness, which shows how he hugs us and doesn't forsake us in our dark times. Great example of a true application - but terribly theology. That's what theologians and pastors call isogesis - when you make a passage say what you want it to say. 

I was greatly alarmed when I heard that message. In retrospect, we probably should have begun an exit then. But like the frog in the kettle, you keep hoping the water will cool down, which it does not. When someone gets their theology of the cross wrong, it is very likely they will be loose and fast with many other things.

One solid couple left the church that year. The husband was seminary trained, and they were very concerned about the pastor's preaching, among other things. We later found out that he had challenged the pastor on more than one occasion about his sermon preparation. Another couple who had been in pastoral ministry left not long after our family eventually did. That man later told me that on his best days, the pastor's sermons were a 6 out of 10, but most of his sermons were a 3. Tracey and I concurred. And as the old saying goes, "When there's a fog in the pulpit, there's a mist in the pew."

Our youngest son was to graduate in May of 2023, and Tracey kept saying, “I’ve got to make it until he graduates, and then I can resign.” She did not want to rock any boats or create a stir. She told me repeatedly, “I want to ride off into the sunset.” The main reason was that her parents had attended this church for about twenty-five years. Her sister’s family regularly participated, as did her other sister’s daughter. This was their family’s church, and she wanted to protect it. And she wanted her family to be able to remain at the church after she left.

Tracey and I had both been careful the previous two years to share our concerns about the church and pastor with almost no one. There was no system in place for any staff member beside the pastor to be heard. We did not even share with her family our growing concerns until the last three or four months of our family's time there. 

The Battle of the Band

In January, my son and two of his friends were asked by the youth pastor to form a band for a children’s event at the church. All three are talented musicians. They were excited and began preparing, throwing themselves into the project. Then, suddenly, they were told by the youth pastor that he – instead of them – would be leading - and that he was bringing in the pastor’s son to play as well. He would choose the music, not them. Because the youth pastor is not skilled musically, they thought this was odd. Our son and his two friends were very disappointed and deflated that they were not allowed to lead. Tracey and I knew there were machinations and chess moves going on behind the scenes.

Then, the youth pastor told my son and the pastor’s son that they needed to sit down to try and work out their relationship. I texted the youth pastor and told him I did not think that was a good idea and I nixed it. There was no pressing reason to continue popping this zit. But, I’m sure at this point the youth pastor was getting an earful from someone else.

A few days later, the pastor insisted to my wife that our two sons get together - in spite of what I had clearly said. His son needed to get some things off of his chest. Feeling pressured and coerced, she agreed, though she told the pastor she did not think it was a good idea. As soon as I heard about it several hours later, I knew it was a bad idea. There was no wise, mature reason to keep trying keep pressing this issue.

Or wait – maybe the real goal was to try and make the Wilsons confess, “You all are so right, and we are so wrong!”

In this confrontational meeting, in which I have no doubt the two young men both ran their mouths, the pastor’s son challenged my son – and my son’s two best friends – to a fight in the parking lot after band practice that night. He told my son that he knew he could whoop all three of them. 

In the heat of the moment, my son agreed. That night after band practice, my son came to his senses and drove straight home. He and his two friends came into our den, and he said to me, “Dad, I need to tell you something.” He told us all about it, which was the right thing to do. (That is called repentance, a changing of mind and direction.) While the three of them were telling us about the challenge to fight, the pastor’s son tried to call my son and one of his friends. Then he texted my son and said, “Coast is clear” – meaning he was at the church and everyone else had left. I told the three boys, “Do not respond to him.”

Two days later, I called the pastor and said we needed to talk about what happened. He told me that everything was my son’s fault, that if my son would not run his mouth then his son would not respond that way. When I told him, “Your son challenged my son to a fight. My son made the right choice. He changed his mind, did not follow through, and came home and told his parents.” The pastor’s reply was, “That’s right. My son expects people to be men of their word. Your son should have kept his word.”

At that point, I knew we were walking in the twilight zone. Numerous times during the last several months Tracey worked at the church, she and I would summize the situation by saying to each other, "It's like middle schoolers are in charge."

Henry Cloud has helped many Christians learn how to not be controlled by other people. He writes in his book, Safe People: How to Find Relationships that are Good for You and Avoid those that Aren't, "Love withers and dies without separateness. It's simply impossible to connect if you are not free to disagree. That kind of love is compliance and people-pleasing. It is not real love.

The opposite of separateness is enmeshment. Enmeshing relationships are those in which one person is swallowed up in the needs of another. In enmeshment, one person feels threatened by the individuality of the other, and actively seeks to control the other by intimidating or manipulating him."

Talking with the pastor that morning was another strong confirmation to me that we were in an unhealthy enmeshment.

Two hours later, an older gentleman from the church called me and said, “I have been asked to serve as a mediator between you and your son and the pastor and his son.” So, it appeared the pastor had called someone else, complained about how awful the Wilsons were being, and asked for intervention.

I agreed to bring my son to that man’s house that night for the three of us to meet, which was a mistake.

Sincere but Misguided

I agreed to go for one reason – I respected the older gentleman, who I will call Jack. Now, the role of a mediator is to listen to two sides of a situation and then attempt to bring the two sides together or offer solutions. That is not what we experienced.

Instead, my son and I were guilty before proven innocent. He accused us all of kind of things, told me how I was fueling this disagreement, and even told my son that he might be responsible for a church split. (One thing you should never – ever -  put on a 17-year old. And how can a 17-year-old split a church?) Once, when I was about to clarify something our son had said, Jack looked at me, raised his hand in a stop motion, and declared, ‘I am speaking to him. I will deal with you next.”

It took me months to wade through that experience with Jack. In retrospect, I don’t doubt his sincerity – or his desire to protect church unity. However, what he practiced was not in any way mediation – nor helpful. In hindsight, I should not have agreed to the meeting. Or, in the middle of the meeting I should have stopped it and said, “This is over. We are going home.”

It was sadly but painfully obvious that we were now in an unhealthy situation with political moves, and we were playing with a deck stacked against us. Leaving his house that night, I knew our time at the church was over. I would not have our family staying in such a toxic, erratic environment. I just did not know when my wife needed to resign.

Two or three weeks later, after Jack met with the pastor and his son, the pastor texted me, asking for a meeting between he, my wife, and me. We reluctantly agreed. At that meeting, he told us he needed to apologize for all kind of things. He had a long list, including apologizing for making our lives miserable the last several months. He told us how he recognized Tracey and I had age and maturity that he and his wife needed and that he hoped we could help them. 

We told him that we wanted to help him succeed in his ministry. But we also tried to make it clear to him, though, in the spirit of Henry Cloud’s Boundaries series, that it was not Tracey’s job to make his wife feel good. Nor should her boss expect her to do so. And, we made it clear that we would not stay at the church if the harassments continued.

When we left, we were somewhat hopeful for change - but were not holding our breaths.

Providentially, Tracey then had two weeks off, which the church gave to her after her serving them for five years. It had been such a stressful year, she badly needed the time to decompress and allow the Lord to fill her. The end of her sabbatical coincided with the beginning of the Asbury Revival, taking place at the campus of Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. For years, testimonies from the 1970s Asbury Revival had inspired us, so we decided spontaneously to go one night. We spent three hours in Hughes Auditorium and returned to campus the next day. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's Decision Magazine even used one of my photographs as the cover of their edition covering the revival.

Driving home on Friday, we shared with each other that during our time at Asbury we individually sensed confirmation from the Lord that it was indeed time for Tracey to resign. That was Friday.

Sparrows and Birds

On Monday or Tuesday of the next week, a picture surfaced of my son and one of his best friends in a posed shot “shooting the bird.” That’s the middle finger! The previous summer, on a youth trip, the two of them were sitting next to each other on a bus. Someone turned around with a camera and said something like, “Do something crazy.” They decided to shoot the bird simultaneously and the picture was taken. The picture surfaced that week.

Now, I don’t recommend anyone going around shooting the middle finger. However, I’ll be the first to admit that I'm awfully glad cell phones and digital technology were not around when I was a teenager or college student. There was a whole lot of foolishness I engaged in that could have been captured by a cell phone! Like when I spray-painted a street in our neighborhood the night that the Furman University Paladins won the national championship in football. Can I get an amen?

So, the youth pastor found out about the picture and told my wife the two young men would be permanently kicked off of the youth band. (Remember this was about a month after the pastor’s son challenged the other three band members to a fight - and tried to follow through.) My wife, who was technically in charge of the youth band, said, “Absolutely not.” This led to a power struggle, and the youth pastor went to the senior pastor. Together, they agreed the boys would be kicked off. 

We heard later that the story changed. A few weeks later they told people they did not intend to permanently kick them off but just for a week of two. That was not what was communicated to Tracey.

Reflecting on that decision, I’ve remembered the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., former Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court: “The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.”

Tracey told the pastor, “I will resign over this. I am not doing this to those boys.”

Of course, her words were said in the context of all of the drama that had gone on the previous year. We later agreed, “It was just a matter of time. If it had not been this incident, it would have been something else. This 'bird' picture was simply the nail they needed to hang our son on. We’ve seen the writing on the wall for months. It’s time to leave.”

It was one of the most grace-less actions of church leadership I’ve ever witnessed in over thirty years. But, it was par for the course, and there was more to come.

Rick Renner writes, "One of the most difficult moments in life is when you realize one season has ended, and the time is right for you to move on to the next season." It had become loud and clear to us, after months of growing harassments from the pastor and his wife, that we were not in a healthy environment for our family. 

Tracey came home that night, and we wrote a resignation, which she submitted the next day. 

We were later told that the pastor contacted a church leader the night before she resigned and warned him she may resign. The leader walked him through some detailed instructions about how to try and give her options - like giving a week off immediately to think and pray, among other things. When Tracey walked in his office and resigned the next morning, none of that was mentioned.

She gave a two-week notice, wanting to prepare the choir and musicians for her absence. It takes a lot of behind-the-scene details to make a large music ministry happen. She wanted to leave well, leave the musicians in good hands, and enjoy celebrating with them what they had accomplished together. She had no desire to air any dirty laundry.

Punitive and Unnecessary

But oh, how quickly the waves change. One big lesson we learned through this ordeal was this: There are people who tell you how much they love you when you are meeting a need in their lives. But when you are no longer meeting that need, they have no use for you anymore.

On Saturday morning, Tracey was informed by the chairman of the Personnel Team that her resignation was accepted, she was immediately relieved of her duties, she could not resign to the church in person, she could not return to church in any leadership capacity, and that she would be paid through her two-week notice.

Tracey begged him to not follow through with that line of action. It was punitive, unnecessary, and decided by two people: the senior pastor and him. After her pleading, he agreed to allow her to meet the choir in person on Sunday evening and tell them goodbye.

Now, in church work, how you allow a staff member to leave is very, very important. It's important for the church to be able to have a healthy ending. It is important for the staff person and their family to have some good closure. It is important for everybody involved to have time to hug each other, say thank you, and wish each other well. It is simply foolish to not do so.

At the church I currently pastor, we, for example, had a staff member resign last year. When he did, I told our chairman of deacons, “We are going to celebrate him as he leaves and make this healthy for everybody.” We collected letters of thanksgiving for he and his wife. We threw them an appreciation banquet and gave people the opportunity to say nice things about them publicly. We honored them on their last Sunday and asked everyone to come to the altar and pray over them. And we paid him a three-month severance, to help them as they moved forward. I would be happy to run into him anywhere, and I think he would me. That’s just how it’s done.

After the Personnel Team and pastor's knee-jerk reaction, my wife was crushed. After five years of giving herself to those people, they were discarding her like a used soft drink bottle.  And the pastor did not have the character to honor her as she left. Tracey, her parents, and a sister and I went to the church on Saturday and completely cleaned out her office.

Tracey emailed the choir a few days later a "goodbye" email. In it, she told them, "I’m resigning not because I don’t love you. I wish I could take each face, cup it in my hands and tell you that “I Love you” to each person.  Choir, Band & Tech are faithful, fun and fairly easy to lead! You are loving and generous in so many ways."

Church Politics

The Personnel chairman made a vague announcement to the church that she had resigned, giving no explanation, which was foolish. We then heard of one couple who thought either I or Tracey had an affair. Another woman assumed Tracey was dying of cancer. And one man from the choir came to Tracey after receiving her explanation and said, “Oh, thank you. I was worried Rhett had done something.” That’s what happens when resignations are handled incorrectly.

I know how church politics work, and I know that this was a matter of, “We might have a church split on our hands and have to do whatever we must to keep the ship from sinking.”

It's likely happened more than 10,000 times in church after church or ministry after ministry. When a crack appears, the powers that be attempt a bold move towards "unity" and solidarity, rallying behind the fearless leader, even if the emperor - or system - is wearing no clothes. It's textbook, unfortunately, for how many systems deal with anxiety.

One church member texted me, “This is 100% silencing.”

Allowing an employee (who gave her life to your church for five years) to serve out their notice does three things:

1)      It allows the person leaving and their family to leave on a good note with some healthy closure.

2)      It allows the church to end the relationship on a positive note – even if there has been disagreement in the process. The church should have a Sunday to celebrate the staff member leaving, allow people to thank them, give them a gift. That’s just how it’s done.

3)      When there are disagreements fueling the resignation, when you allow the person to serve out their notice and celebrate them as they leave, it does not raise red flags and questions that the church leadership then has to deal with.

Tracey repeatedly asked for help in a terribly stressful situation. And she kept her mouth shut for almost two years, internalizing it, trying to keep her integrity and protect the church.

The pastor and chair of Personnel should have helped the church celebrate her five years. Instead, they dismissed her two days after she resigned and responded to her like she was a villain. She said she felt like she should wear an orange jumpsuit to church. In our 25 years of marriage, and almost 30 years of working for churches, that was the single most disgraceful and hurtful thing ever done to our family.

She had enjoyed a great relationship with the children’s minister for several years. Tracey invested deeply in her as a mentor. She later said that she treated her like one of our own children. After Tracey resigned, she never heard once from her. That is a resounding example of an unhealthy system.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Tracey cried herself to sleep numerous forthcoming nights. She waded through all the normal cycle of feelings when you have been mistreated – feelings of vulnerability, not being protected, being unnecessarily exposed.

We received multiple emails and letters from church members – and later from people outside of the church - deeply grieved over Tracey’s leaving – and over how the few in leadership had slammed the door behind her.

One choir member almost immediately emailed Tracey after receiving her resignation email, they had witnessed the “dirty underbelly” of church leadership before: “I guess I thought I could just put my head in the sand and ignore such things. But here we are, watching and experiencing a dear Sister go through what you have gone through. I admire the way you continued, even while you were going through this, to be your sunny self so that few if any knew anything was going on at all. We really are sad that you weren't allowed to make the announcement to us personally and that you were not allowed to give your notice .  .  . Anyway, for us, we will miss being part of the music, but most of all we will miss you.” 

And another: “This is the hardest kind of thing when a church acts out of its character.  It wounds so many.”

We especially appreciated this one:

"I'm so sad and heartsick and am upset by the way you have been treated. I went through a similar situation some years ago. I was a musician at a church for years. The new pastor couldn't deal with the success of the choir and music director. He made it impossible to continue. . . . It just hurts to see the church acting like the world."

And we received numerous contacts from people outside of the church, like the two following:

“I'm so sorry to hear these latest details and the pain Tracey & you are experiencing.  ‘Command and control’ type of leadership in churches causes great harm.  As a friend of mine says, ‘What you don't own, will own you’... and it causes great pain.  

My love and prayers are with you.  In my own very similar moments, the words of Joseph were a great comfort, ‘What you intended for evil (or simply mishandled), God used for good’ (Gen. 50:20).  Even with leaders' wrong choices, God provided an escape from a toxic situation which I should have left much early... though it was still very painful for me for a long time.  I trust that the Lord will bring peace and healing, and eventually open a new chapter after freeing Tracey from a toxic environment.” - MS

"And another: “A dysfunctional system always finds a scapegoat for its pain.” -KF

“I’m so sorry Tracey is going through this. She must be devastated especially after trying so hard to leave in a good way. I am praying for Tracey to trust the Lord as He unfolds the next steps for her.” - CJ 

So then, three months before our youngest son graduated from high school, our family found ourselves making important decisions to keep ourselves from further collateral damage.

Breaking Through

In my own research about spiritual abuse, in years past I have written . . .

“Victims of spiritual abuse must experience a break-through barrier in order to move forward. This barrier describes the point when they are confronted with the truth that the system is abusive and they must decide to leave the abusive church. An authoritarian pastor will perpetuate the myth that there is never a legitimate reason to leave that church. Those who do leave do so without his blessing. Mike Fehlauer shares pointedly,

If you find yourself needing to leave an abusive and controlling church, you need to realize that many times it will bring attacks against your character. If you discover that you are in an abusive or unhealthy church and must make the decision to leave, it will be one of the most difficult challenges you will ever face. How you leave will determine and affect the condition of your heart.

When someone decides that the best decision for their well-being is to leave a toxic church, system, or work environment, they must break through the barrier in spite of the risks. They will be attacked. They will be maligned by others in public and in private. They will lose friends. They will lose their church. They will experience a death, leaving one season of life for another. They will experience emotions and hurts similar to that of a divorce. But they must break through the barrier in order to move forward toward healing.”

We decided to leave, and we have never regretted it. When the pain of staying becomes greater than the pain of leaving, you know you must. The back cover of Gary Thomas' When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People, says . . .

"As Christians, we often feel the guilt and responsibility of meeting the needs of unhealthy people in our lives. Whether a sibling, parent, spouse, coworker, or friend, toxic people frequently seek to frustrate our life's calling. While you're seeking first God's kingdom, they're seeking first to distract your focus and delay your work.

Instead of attempting the impossible task of mollifying toxic people, it's time we dedicate our energy to a more worthwhile effort: completing the work God has given us by investing in reliable people. It's only when we learn to say no to bad patterns that we can say yes to the good work God has planned for us."

Tracey’s entire family left the church. Every one. After my parents left their home church of twenty-five years during a horrible church split a quarter of a century earlier, never did I think my wife’s parents would have to go through a similar set of circumstances. If the pastor and Personnel Team had responded to her resignation appropriately – rather than reactively – her parents and other family members could have remained at the church. But not with this slap in the face. When asked if they would remain, one of her parents replied, “Would you stay if they had done that to your child?”

Forgiveness is granted, but trust is earned.

Arterburn and Felton wrote in their groundbreaking book, Toxic Faith, about the "outcast" of the system - the persons willing to speak up, rock the boat, and challenge the unhealthy system. They write, "When outcasts surface, they are identified as troublemakers and pushed out of the system as soon as possible.” The outcasts are unimpressed by position or title; they see through the delusion and are willing to suffer great personal loss in order to make a stand and leave the system. Unfortunately, these outcasts will be discredited by the leadership immediately through the process called labeling. Even if they are long-time supporters of the church, the leadership will be glad to see them leave.

We prayed for our children – especially our youngest – that they would not blame God for the wrongful actions of a few people. That this experience would not cause them to distance themselves from church. And, we had many conversations where we said, “What you experienced here is not wise, healthy, nor God-honoring.” It’s given us the opportunity to have long talks about leadership, emotional maturity, and dealing with insecure people.

Allow the Notes to Pass

In the past year, we have tried to remember the reality of the pause in symphonies. Anthony De Mello said, “Do you want to enjoy a symphony? Don’t hold on to a few bars of the music. Don’t hold on to a couple of notes. Let them pass, let them flow. The whole enjoyment of a symphony lies in your readiness to allow the notes to pass.”

My friend and mentor Dan Miller wrote, “The darkness of winter and the new birth of spring, the feelings of happiness and the misery of despair, the state of waking and sleeping, these divergent forces all complement each other, resulting in a richness that gives life its true depth.

Without the struggle of metamorphosis, there is no butterfly. In what we consider adversity, there is the opportunity to discover something that will separate us from the competition. We can then use what we’ve learned to create something so extraordinary that people can’t help but talk about it, recommend, and choose it. I want my life to be a symphony, not a reprise.”

We’ve waded through shock, hurt, anger and disappointment. In my own study of spiritual abuse years ago, I discovered that people mistreated by religious establishments often journey through similar feelings as those who endured sexual abuse. There are layers of negative emotions to wade through when a person or persons in leadership, who should have been trustworthy, misuse that authority.

We've worked through layers of forgiveness, asking the Lord to bless those who hurt us.

We prayed, embraced solitude, consistently practiced our spiritual disciplines, and talked with concerned friends. We read Anne Graham Lotz' Wounded by God's People, Ken Blue's Healing Spiritual Abuse, and Chuck DeGroat's When Narcissism Comes to Church. We found a lot of support from the Funderburk clan, who were all affected deeply.

Thomas Moore wrote, Come, ye disconsolate, where'er ye languish; Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel. Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish; Earth has no sorrows that heaven cannot heal.

And we slowly began to heal. 

Reading through Ruth Chou Simons' Pilgrim: 25 Ways God's Character Leads Us Onward, her words resonated with me:

"Several years ago, our family walked through a season of loss. We'd invested deeply in a community and an endeavor that we could no longer continue in. It wasn't cancer, but there was no cure to what was ailing us. It wasn't divorce, but the parting was painful. It wasn't death, but we said our goodbye [well, we weren't exactly allowed to]. Our family's journey with God had seen mountain and valleys, but nothing had stung like this particular season of sadness, confusion, and a sudden detour in the road we were so sure God had placed us on."

Slowly, we regained our breath - and slowly our song began to return.

We’ve also moved forward with new connections, opportunities, and ideas. Tracey enjoyed several months of nannying last summer for little children. She assumed the role of the music director at the church I pastor.  Once again, we have enjoyed going to church together – and serving at church together. And she has blessed many people this year as the Choral Director at our local high school, which is also her alma mater. They hired her on the spot at her first interview. Her choirs at school and church love her!

As previously mentioned, many years ago, my parents and their friends experienced an unwelcome change due to the unhealthy leadership of their senior pastor. Several hundred people eventually left the church. The pastor at the next church they joined, where my mother remains twenty-five years later, told them, "I don't know what happened at that church, but everyone who comes here from there comes hurting deeply."

That experience motivated me to spend years studying the subject of what is called spiritual abuse, when mistreatment occurs within the church under pastoral or lay leadership. I discovered a repertoire of authors and books on the subject. I completed my own doctoral research with a thesis entitled "Moving Forward: The Factors that Make People Resilient from Spiritual Abuse in Southern Baptist Churches."

Several years ago, I outlined a book based on my research - a book I called "Hurt by the Church, but Healed by Jesus." However, I filed it to let it "percolate." After taking a reprise, I’m finishing my book, Hurt by the Church, Healed by Jesus. Now with some fresh, personal illustrations, I hope it will be a help to other people groping through similar situations.

Oh, and we decided to make a family joke out of shooting the bird. We now say that when someone shoots the bird, it reminds us that Jesus said, “Aren't two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father's consent. But even the hairs of your head have all been counted. So don't be afraid therefore; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29–31, HCSB).

That’s taking lemons and making lemonade – and keeping our sense of humor!

When the church hurts you, please remember that there's a big difference in the Christians who hurt you - and the God who keeps you. Continue trusting in Him and growing. There is hope and healing in Jesus.

"They would have swallowed us alive . . . . The waters would have engulfed us; a torrent would have overwhelmed us. Yes, the raging waters of their fury would have overwhelmed our very lives. Praise the LORD, who did not let their teeth tear us apart! We escaped like a bird from a hunter's trap. . . . Our help is from the LORD, who made heaven and earth" (Psalm 124:3-8, NLT).


See my article, The Process of Healing from Spiritual Abuse.

See also, The Jealous King and Don't Touch God's Anointed.

The Wilson Five sing together the song, "Our God Will Go Before Us."

Images used courtesy of Pixabay.

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