Leaving Unhealthy Church Communities Behind (By Rev. Tega Swann)

women

“But to you who fear My name
The Sun of Righteousness shall arise
With healing in His wings;
And you shall go out
And grow fat like stall-fed calves.”(Malachi 4:2)

Not every woman in ministry has experienced abuse at the hands of the church. Those who haven’t, find it difficult to understand or even listen to the experiences of those who have. The accounts seem so far fetched and many wonder “How could you have allowed something like that/this to happen to you?”

The truth is, one hardly recognizes abuse when it’s occurring, because the victim is usually operating from a place of trust. It takes the breakdown of that trust to occur before he or she recognizes what has happened.

The membranes of boundaries are broken and people intrude into and violate the sacred places of trust, compassion, love, respect, etc., that are embedded into every human being (let me quickly add that abuse takes all forms – spiritual, mental, emotional, intellectual, etc.).

Today, I want to talk about the abuse that happens to women in the church because of gender inequality. The breaking down of the membranes of the sacred areas of worthiness and a sense of well-being and confidence that every Christian (woman) has because of the true, unimpeachable work of Christ.

Gender inequality in the church destroys the very personhood of women who are discriminated against. It’s not obvious to them at first, but by the time it is, the damage has been done, and one finds that after years of walking alongside our male brothers (and other patriarchal minded women) in the church, you have a somewhat lesser view of one’s self than before you started that journey.

This is a view that causes you to question your worth, abilities and worthiness before God, and therefore before man; a view that’s caused many to become insecure, anxiety-ridden, doubtful, fearful, and even sometimes, angry individuals.

What’s devastating about this experience is that the Spirit of God within you never validates the condemnation, rejection and diminution such women experience. So there’s an ongoing, internal conflict; deep within, the Holy Spirit constantly refutes all the abusive church heaps on a woman.

It becomes what I call a schizophrenic walk, as you wake up and drop to your knees with the Father’s love gently washing over and affirming you, only to step out into the company of hate and rejection from His family.

It is even worse when such women have no supportive community to share their experiences. Finding a supportive community is difficult for women in church leadership, because of the far-reaching influences of and the pervasive nature of patriarchal views and systems.

Therefore, most leading women or women with leadership gifts, are likely to have more opposition than support in their lives, and over time, this can take its toll on a person emotionally, mentally, spiritually and even physically.

One begins to wonder where is God in all of this? Where is He while women are being torn apart and incur losses of all kinds just to answer the call only to be greeted with hate and rejection from the very church for which she’s yielded everything as Christ asked her to?

If you’re a woman in ministry who has endured and suffered such unChrist-like attitudes and behaviors, I’m here to tell you, God is with you and He has with Him healing on His wings. If you know a woman in ministry who is suffering, then you need to get alongside of her and be loving and supportive.

God is not ignorant of human behavior (within and without the Church) and He has never permitted that human desires and will, override what He ordains (just ask Joseph, Prince of Egypt). He also does not send us out into the world (that includes the church in the world) without remaining responsible for us.

So He makes the promise of Malachi 4:2. God’s promises are true and He is faithful to heal church-abused women because He called, ordained and sent them into the field (church and world).

Healing comes in various forms, but will always start with the recognition that one is abused. This recognition is healthy, as it causes one to pull back from the abusers. However, it’s not pretty either, because one is already wounded, so pulling back creates additional pain of loneliness and separation, rather than comfort in a loving and supporting community.

However, you are not really alone. God is with you and He will raise new supportive communities for you. The promise of Matthew 19:29 extends to wherever we make the sacrifice that allows us be who and do what God’s called us to be and do.

What is sad is that the church often mislabels and further abuses those who are recovering from church abuse. Rather than empathize with and rectify the damage, people place more burdens on the abused to ‘conform’ to the abusers. This leads only to more unhealthiness and destruction of the abused.

What an abused person needs is a place and community to find and redefine herself, and not a place to conform to her abusers’ demands or community; hence, the very real need to break-off from abusive communities.

Finding and redefining oneself is healthy and bears marks of rebuilding those health-marking boundary membranes that were broken down by abuse. You find you’re not afraid to say ‘no’ to abusive behavior, establish boundaries and terminate toxic (and potential) toxic relationships.

This new ‘no taking crap’ attitude is not arrogance, but is a sign of healthy emotional, mental and spiritual health, as it shows your system is reconstructing the boundaries necessary for healthy interaction.

Sadly, as you do this, abusive and oppressive Christian communities, as well as those who don’t understand the destructive nature of abuse and what is required to heal from it, won’t like you when you start rebuilding those membranes. Yet, we must remember that the goal is to heal and become wholly functional in the capacity God’s given you.

The goal for healing is not necessarily to re-establish relationship with the abusive communities (that will come if they choose to repent as Joseph’s brothers did). Yet, because we only function properly in community, we do still need community. And so, as the Good Shepherd, God leads us to new, loving communities. This is a very important part of our healing process and what this means for abuse victims is that we must be willing to embrace change; even the change of worshiping communities.

Oftentimes, we dig in our heels and refuse to leave abusive, oppressive, and unhealthy church communities, either out of love for them or out of the mistaken notion that they will change, but this damages us more. The goal is to be whole, and so we must take whatever the Great Physician offers as treatment, even if that treatment means leaving and cleaving to a new faithful, loving church or Christian community. So, prayerfully allow God bring you to new people of faith who will love and accept you for you; people who will reflect to you, your own worthiness.

As you totter towards healing, God knows your doubts about whether you’ll ever recover and trust church folks again. He already has a plan for this – He will turn your negative experience to good purpose (Gen. 50:20; Rom.8:28), so that it will no longer have the power to haunt and immobilize you. You will become healer of broken walls in the lives of others.

You will become those who recognize and stop abuse before it gains ground. You will become those who know how to celebrate and enjoy freedom (yours and others) because you almost lost yours. You will become a person with a heightened sense of appreciation for all God’s gifts, because of the ways you’ve seen Him demonstrate His faithful love and commitment to affirm your gifts during your ordeal.

Abuse happens, but God never lets the story end with abuse. God is bringing you healing on His wings.

Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them. Psalm 126:5-6

swann-tega

Rev. Tega Swann is a church planter and the senior pastor of Refreshing Springs Ministry, Aliquippa & Ambridge, Pennsylvania. She holds a BS in human anatomy and a MA of religion in church ministry and missiology. She is also mother to one gorgeous child, Jacqueline-Pearl.

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8 Comments

  • thank you for this well written prophetic word. It speaks directly into my situation. Even had a friend email me that I had to read this. God’s blessings to you. Mahalo Nui Loa 🙂

    • So true.. I also have just been through leaving a toxic church and naming it as abuse is so helpful, thank you for naming it and speaking truth!

  • “It becomes what I call a schizophrenic walk, as you wake up and drop to your knees with the Father’s love gently washing over and affirming you, only to step out into the company of hate and rejection from His family.”

    The worst of it is that the “hate and rejection” you experience is clothed in pseudo-love and so it does your head in even more. These people are saying how much they care for and affirm you, while doing everything in their power to belittle and reject you. Crazy making stuff!

  • I am not called to be a woman pastor. I pray for women pastors, though. I hope that somehow my sisters in the pulpit can tell that they are being prayed for.

    When I first began to realize the errors in assigning women to a lower position, I was interested in what it says about me. Then I became more interested in what it does to other women. Finally, I had to look at what kind of division this male dominance shows about God. It has taken a lot of time. It isn’t “just about us,” it’s about HIM as well.

  • This is such a true window into what is underneath the “why” women don’t recognize abuse and stay in that place. Thank you for unpacking this and also for sharing the truth of God’s mind and heart for all. I hope that both women and men read this to gain understanding of how so much of the Church relates. We need so much healing, not just individually, but corporately.

  • This speaks to me. Unfortunately, I exited ministry and will never be back. Not only did I experience spiritual abuse, but was blamed for my own abuse as well!

    There’s nothing like trying to explain why you are hurting to a (male) pastor, and have him blame you for your own hurt! My favorite: “You need to be in this ministry for God, not because you are looking for affirmation from man.” Put another way, “you cannot have any issues with our treatment or limitations we place on you, because if you do, your focus is wrong.” WOW.

    I actually have left church (8 months ago) and will probably never be back. It’s so sad that someone who is a strong female leader, loves God, is on fire to lead and do work for the Kingdom, can be burned out, run out of town, and blamed for her own pain.

    I love God, but the church has lost me. Probably forever.

  • Excellent, excellent article, insightful and so very true…I believe every man, (and woman who upholds Complementarianism, etc., needs to take this to heart. I have experienced all this, also, without being a female leader at all… You are so right that, “What is sad is that the church often mislabels and further abuses those who are recovering from church abuse.”

    What is also sad is that the church has no idea that it is destroying so many people. I am now free from all churches and living very comfortable without church fellowship, because there never was much fellowship anyway…just lots of people with their backs to on another, listening to one person, then leaving. I had more fellowship with Christians outside the services and even today, I still retain my Christian friends and continue to have exactly the same amount of fellowship…The warning to churches is that they are making themselves obsolete, and rushing it. If they only care about the leadership and power, then it will come to nought and the human owned churches will die out, leaving the true church that is still flourishing outside the camp.

  • I am a man and I’ve seen this first hand as an elder in a church. After I left the unhealthy place, I looked back and realized all the pain and misjudging that took seed in the board meetings. Both men and women who did not bow before the all-knowing pastor was spoken of in rumorous ways. Only later would I hear the whole story untainted by a one sided view. I made my peace by calling those, who I was a part of leadership decisions, that I had a role in. Never again will I allow a pastor to speak of someone behind closed doors without their presence.

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