my story (private link)
Every survivor has a story. Even if they’ve blocked out the details, and even if it’s never spoken aloud, their story will manifest itself in their lives one way or another. Often, abused people are abused again and again because they unknowingly or subconsciously put themselves into situations that are destined to repeat the narrative they’ve always known and lived.
And that is my story.
I was raised by a mother with narcissistic borderline personality disorder, the firstborn and only daughter in our small family. From the beginning, I was her competition and the object of her wrath, even though I was pretty much a model child. When I was 12, my parents divorced, and I lost the daily presence of the only stable parent I had. My dad was so devastated at losing his family, he started drinking heavily and would often forget to come and get me and my brother when it was his weekend for visitation. My mom so messed with his mind and life–even after divorce–that he moved out of state two years later, and essentially became a once-a-year father to me at Christmas.
Around the time my parents divorced, I wanted so badly to be close to God, I went to church by myself every week, and was eventually molested and raped by my uncle (through marriage), who was the pastor of my church. I was molested again by the husband of my mom’s closest friend right around that same time. I told no one, because, like so many others, I thought it was my fault and that I would be blamed by everyone for what had happened.
I stuffed it all down and worked like crazy to be a perfect student; first in high school, then in college, but my pain and my issues–depression, anxiety, anorexia, emotional instability–all began to leak out, little by little. Every time the cracks would widen, and I could hold less and less back.
I don’t exactly remember what set me off that night, but one spring evening when I was 25 years old (this is in 1994), I drove away from my house like a madwoman, crying hysterically and seriously thinking about killing myself. I ended up in the parking lot of the little church we (me, my husband, and our 6 month old son) had recently started attending. In those days, the church office closed at 5pm on weekdays, and the lot was empty and dark. I challenged God to send someone to help me out of my misery, and after an hour or so of waiting with no results, I headed to the parking lot exit with really bad intentions.
Hindsight being 20/20, what happened next was pivotal to the rest of the story I’m about to tell:
As I was turning out of the parking lot, the pastor of the church was taking out his garbage at the parsonage next door. He flagged me down, and when he saw the shape I was in, told me to meet me at the church door and he would bring the key, and then we would talk.
He prayed for me and was very, very kind. He was considerably older than me–not quite enough to be a father, but almost. And from that moment on, that man became my hero.
At 25, I was married and a mother, but in so many ways, still a hurting child. I was kind and hardworking and loved to serve the Lord, but I know many were aware of my shortcomings. I was plagued by emotional instability, insecurity, and immaturity. I was aware of it, too, and frequently felt ashamed. I was a willing, active participant in counseling for years, and fought hard to get better. This attracted the attention and admiration of my pastor.
He was an awkward, introverted man who was well-respected, spiritually and otherwise, in our small state (Connecticut), and certainly within our congregation. Pretty much everyone longed for his approval and attention, but he was very reserved and stingy with both. Except for me. He (in his formal, awkward way) fawned over my every achievement, and frequently expressed his admiration for the fighter I was over the many years I knew him and attended that church. People would often say to me that I was his favorite.
Somehow, instinctively, I knew I had to keep up a pretty high wall with him, and not let him become too important to me. I treasured his words and kept all the little cards he sent me over the years. All of them were innocuous (I thought), but so incredibly meaningful to me.
In the interest of brevity, I will only briefly refer to Ingrid. She and her husband moved from Holland to Connecticut to become our youth pastors in 2001, and she became the best friend I’ve ever had. She saw through the mess and into the treasure God made me to be. She helped me discover who I was as a woman, as a wife, and as a mother. She believed in me and, besides my husband, is probably the only person in the world who has ever loved me unconditionally.
Ingrid died in 2014, and to this day, I can only let out the grief in little bits at a time, for fear it will consume me.
It was around that time that the pastor began to use words in conversation with me that I could not resist:
We’ve adopted four children, and two of those children we adopted in late 2012, as older children from Uganda. It was probably the most challenging thing we’ve ever done. We were right smack in the middle of trying (unsuccessfully) to bond with these children, when my pastor started using adoption language with me. How he had loved me for years as a daughter, and now wanted to step into the role of a father in my life.
It was like I hit the emotional and spiritually lottery. No exaggeration there. The man I most respected and revered loved me like his own daughter!
I thank God I was in such a secure, loving marriage. As a wife, I lacked for nothing, and I knew it. I never had a thought of looking elsewhere for what a husband could give me. What I wanted was a father and that was a whole different temptation. Even my husband wanted that for me. He believed, like I did, that the love of a father could heal me. And it wasn’t entirely off-base.
I, for one, believed I would never be able to receive the Father’s love directly. I had sought an experience of it for years. I loved God passionately, and though I’ve had many experiences of being overcome by His presence and my love for Him, I can’t say I had ever felt His love for me. So, I honestly believed He chose my pastor to show the love He had for me. I look back now and wonder how I could have been so stupid, so naive.
The pastor began by commenting on my Facebook posts…most of them, in fact. Then began the private messages. He started sending me little heart emojis, and I felt a warning in my spirit. I promptly shut that down. He loved me. I won the lottery. I was the one that was worth his time. I finally felt valuable, worthy, and good about myself.
Those messages became more lengthy and frequent, and I was happy to respond. They were either just regular conversation or notes about what he thought was special about me. I (thank God) had the good sense to show every message to my husband and allow him to read my responses. He was happy for me, and would often chime in on those messages, developing a personal friendship with the pastor himself.
One of the alluring aspects of that relationship was that I never had to ask for anything. The pastor initiated probably 95% of all our interactions, and it was he that drove the agendas and topics of conversation. He started dropping by our house to hang out and watch sports with my husband. They went to a few games together, one of them with our oldest daughter. He told one of my kids, “Your mom is like my little girl,” as he sat on our couch one night with his arm around me.
He asked me to come to his office every week (he scheduled it in his book) so that he could get to know me better as a daughter. Nearly every visit, this otherwise dry, stoic man would sit in front of me, holding my hands, with huge tears rolling down his face. He told me that my love felt like God’s love, and that God was using me to love him and heal his broken places. His whole demeanor softened across the board, and because other people in church were noticing it and claiming it “a miracle,” it just confirmed to me and my husband that God indeed was in this.
On my end, as I said, my husband was included 100% in all interactions, and I gave him a thorough “report” on my office visits with him. I was journaling regularly then, and wrote about all these parallels I saw between The Father and my new adoptive father. I often shared these with the pastor and he raved about my integrity and the purity of my heart. He, on the other hand, shared none of this with his wife, and their marriage was about as cold and lifeless as one could be–and everyone knew this. Even their adult children would talk about this being the case.
Little by little, the pastor’s interactions with me were growing increasingly romantic in nature. He bought me flowers, he gave me little gifts. Wrote me notes and mailed them to my house, left them in my car. I was beginning to worry, but my husband said it was all harmless and we should trust our 20+ year history with him. I brought it up to the pastor and asked that he include his wife, and he said he would try, but that they didn’t have “that kind of relationship.” He followed up all his quasi-romantic overtures by comparing them to the relationship he had with his only daughter, whom he treasured. I wanted so badly to believe him; to believe that this kind of love was Godly and pure. I never really thought about how I’d feel if my actual father was talking to me all day every day, saying this stuff. I don’t know why I didn’t, except that I was so fundamentally messed up.
Physically, things stayed just “fatherly” enough for me to dismiss my discomfort. He asked for hugs, kisses on the cheek. He kissed my forehead on more than one occasion. One time, he pulled me in for a hug (while we were both seated) and I ended up on his lap. He messaged me later saying how incredible it was that I trusted him and didn’t recoil.
He sent me home with his favorite theology book one time, to read up on the meaning of ‘hesed’…and from then on, used that term to describe his love for me. He wrote me a lengthy adoption letter, promising to fill the role of a father and love me unconditionally, forever. He told me I should read it every day as often as possible, and he routinely asked me afterwards how many times I’d read it that day.
One day he called me into his office to tell me something he said only two other people knew (one of them is the other pastor at the church, the other is a highly respected leader who left our church). He told me several years back, he had gotten himself into a relationship with a woman, and when he tried to get out of it, “she went crazy.” I asked why he was telling me this, and he replied, “because you’re safe. And I’m going to ask that you not share this with your husband.” I told him I would make no such promise–that I didn’t keep secrets from my husband. He subsequently called him in to tell him the story himself, and while he was there, asked my husband to pray a blessing over his (the pastor’s) relationship with me.
The following week, the pastor went away on a private spiritual retreat, and he called and texted me every day he was there. He asked me to promise him that someday we’d walk on the beach together, holding hands. I honestly question whether he had been drinking when he said that because it was so outrageous, even with everything that had come before it. I couldn’t deny anymore that this was wrong. My husband and I didn’t know how to handle it, because, knowing the pastor like we did, we knew that confronting him about this would be a complete end to our relationship–and neither of us wanted that. My whole identity was tied to this man and the church, and we both knew what would happen to me if we lost them both.
But he continued to text every day over the next couple of weeks, even while my husband and I were on vacation in Italy. While we were on that trip, however, someone else confronted him about his relationship with me, and everything crashed down on me the day we returned.
Much happened that I don’t want to take the time and space to recount, but the result was this: I was banned from leading a women’s conference at our church the day before it began, and our pastor fled out to Elijah House in Idaho for healing. When he returned, the other pastor and lead elder emailed and told us not to come back to church. No one else in leadership asked us what happened; no one would speak to us at all.
I lost almost every friend I had in the 23 years we attended that church. I lost the ministries I led, the church I called home and the people I called family. We begged for communication and for forgiveness, but we were given neither. After Elijah House, the pastor went on a year-long sabbatical. It was a paid sabbatical, and he makes a six-figure salary. We heard he showed up regularly at church, weeping profusely, lying on the floor. People were told he was severely burned out, so they sent cards and even money to him over the year he was gone from his role.
My life at home was spinning out of control. I was suicidal and made a fairly serious attempt. This all was the epitome of rejection, abandonment, and shame for me. For months afterward, I still loved the pastor fiercely and believed he was a good man, and prayed he would come to his senses. We spent that first year in almost total isolation.
After his sabbatical ended, the pastor returned to work and I heard he and the elders planned a “family meeting” to announce the real reason for his sabbatical. I wrote him a lengthy letter, genuinely apologizing for my part in what happened, in an almost line-item sort of way. I wanted to be sure I owned everything I needed to. I asked him to be honest when he addressed the congregation; I gave him permission to use my name and reminded him of my husband’s involvement in the relationship. I asked for his forgiveness and for restoration.
I received an angry letter back saying he would tell the congregation whatever he wanted to, and that he wanted nothing to do with me or restoration in any way.
Worried about what he would say at the upcoming meeting, my husband and I met with three of the elders (we had to threaten a lawsuit in order to get that meeting!) I shared with them everything I’ve written here and more. They were (or acted) astonished, and assured us he would be dealt with accordingly.
They suspended him shortly after that meeting, and people were outraged. There were rumors, of course, of an affair. But I was the temptress in that scenario. I corrupted him, I was out to destroy the church. The pastor’s suspension “package” included a 30% pay cut for 3 months, financial provision for individual therapy and marriage counseling, a team of a dozen local pastors as a support system, and safe-haven in a church they could attend in the interim.
11 months after he was suspended, they took him back. He still preaches, he counsels people, and he leads a statewide “apostolic” ministry. People are still shockingly loyal to him as a leader.
I’ve spent a good part of the last four years in therapy–including a residential treatment center. I have received (and worked hard for) deep healing. I am definitely healthier than I have ever been, enough to admit that God really did work this out for my good. I’m glad I’m no longer at that church, finding my identity in the pastor and fellowship there.
I still love Jesus–wholeheartedly–and finally know, understand, and feel the Father’s love for me.
We haven’t been able to stay anywhere we’ve tried. It’s too painful, too empty, and there’s still too much bitterness in me, even though I’ve tried so hard not to be bitter. I don’t blame God at all, but I am so angry at Christians–even though I am one! What I routinely read on the news and social media only fortifies those feelings.
On top of that, we live in a very small state. Connecticut has only 3 million people and we aren’t exactly the Bible belt around here. It isn’t too much of an exaggeration to say that in church circles, everybody knows everybody. Particularly because the pastor was given a team of a dozen other pastors, and those guys only know his side of the story. And his side of the story is that I’m a woman with a history of mental illness and a Jezebel spirit, and this is all part of a spiritual attack against him and the church. I even had one person say that it’s sad what happened to me, but as with all battles, there is always collateral damage.
I was actually referred to as collateral damage.
He’s back on social media now, sharing his sarcastic comments and prophetic wisdom. I certainly don’t follow him and I have never even looked at his page since he returned, but I’ve decided not to block him in order to desensitize myself a little. It’s actually working.
I no longer care what he thinks about me. But I live in fear of running into him accidentally. He still haunts my dreams regularly. And worst of all, I have friends (even ones who have been loyal and supportive to us) that still choose to go to that church, talk to him, even include them on their prayer team emails (that I am also on!)
I don’t think I need more therapy. I’ve worked through all the nuances, forgave and forgave and forgave, and learned how and why this happened, and how I can ensure it will never happen again. But I need more healing. I know only God can heal, and He isn’t limited by anything. Still, I don’t want to be afraid of (or even worse, hate) the church for the rest of my life.
Like it or not, and no matter what state it happens to be in, the church is still the Bride of Christ. I know this. I need to make peace. I need to regain trust. I need to experience redemption, restoration, and reconciliation once again.
I just have no idea how.
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