the Hope of Survivors

Do Churches Have a License to Do Whatever They Want?—Linda Beldin-Korter, LCSW

Church(From the July 2014 edition of HopeSpeak)

On January 9, 2014, I first read in The Hope Of Survivors Newsletter, the article "Why Does Having a Title Give Pastors the License to Do Whatever They Want?", written by Douglas Goodman. This article rang true to my heart and experience as both a Licensed Counselor and as an individual who is also a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. In the process of my own healing and of then participating in the healing of others, I have become very aware that this article applies to far more in the church than moral issues such as clergy sexual abuse to children or to vulnerable adult church members. I would like to propose, based upon observation of both myself and others, that the article embraces a far more pervasive problem than clergy sexual abuse, and that understanding this problem is important for many survivors in connecting or staying connected to a church congregation. When survivors of clergy sexual abuse see these problems within a church setting, there is a risk in that this experience will remind them of many aspects of how they were unsafe. This heightened awareness for survivors can also result in an increased sensitivity around safety for the body of believers around similar issues that impact the wellbeing of the church.

In spite of these obstacles, over time I was able to find sources of healing from my own experience as a victim of clergy sexual abuse. It took work, but I was able to embrace healing and become stronger so that the very weaknesses I once had as a result of being a victim of clergy sexual abuse, now became even greater strengths. It is my purpose to draw from those strengths in sharing my observations about these larger problems for both church leadership and their congregations.

Some of the areas I have observed for this larger problem include:

1. The church environment may have problems with codependency in covering up active alcohol or drug use for those in leadership, or contrariwise they may react to substance use with a harshness that is unwarranted. For example, perhaps someone shows up from one worship service to another with a hangover from the night before, that same person then continues to take a main leadership role up front with the congregation. This person may even casually or flippantly "mention" to others (some of whom may also be in a position of leadership) that they know they have a hangover—yet this may be ignored time and time again without a clear process to address any concerns about this.

2. Without a clear and open Biblical discussion, someone in a position of church leadership may subtly direct the church body to do activities that have previously been considered a violation of the tenets of faith of that church, and thereby may, over a period of time, introduce something that is in some way against how that particular church or denomination views the gospel or values taught in the Bible. There are many practices around church worship or social life for which this may occur. Once this happens, it may be overlooked time and time again, with the result that there are church members either continue to attend (and participate in these activities) or there may also be a other members who respond by relocating to a different church. Thoughts and feelings about church members around this may be unspoken, while this pattern of behavior continues to affect many aspects of church life and spirituality.

3. Sometimes a church environment or culture has embraced the need to be "politically correct" or “contemporary” in an effort to increase outreach and membership. This may occur in a manner such that those who speak truth about these or other important issues are now labeled as “unsafe” or “abusive” just by virtue of their honesty. This is not the same problem as concern for people who truly are spiritually abusive in how they speak and treat others in the fellowship of the church.  Instead this becomes a problem because, in the name of being "politically correct" and "winning more souls to Christ" or "church membership", there is now a church culture that embraces more unsafe secrets around "truth."

4. Church culture becomes unsafe when pastors and others in position of leadership are allowed to gossip and break confidentiality about parishioners. It seems easy for this to happen when cliques form around them as they lead out in various church activities, and then those with stronger leadership may “gossip” or “break confidentiality” for what they themselves think are “worthy” or “Christian” motives.  (One common example might be when a weekly prayer meeting or home Bible study group disguises gossip as “prayer requests.”) Hidden motives may exist around this problem when it comes to a desire to guard or protect ones position or “territory” within church leadership or activity.

5. Churches seem to have a higher risk of taking sides when couples break up, and often do this with a lack of full knowledge of what has occurred as a couple are in the process of a breakup (i.e. domestic violence, substance use, sexual addictions, etc.) It is sometimes easier for there to be a church atmosphere created that excuses "sin" for one person in a "breakup" and harshly condemns "sin" for the other. Often this problem has the potential to increase the risk of violence and stalking for couples who are already having problems that place them at higher risk for domestic violence.

6. There are times when the church culture may itself seem to twist scripture to justify these and other behaviors. This problem can occur for “conservative”, “liberal”, “traditional”, or “contemporary” congregations. It can be most difficult to attempt to get individual church members, or leadership to acknowledge that they "own" this part of the problem. It may be even harder to effectively work toward change in about it.

As I have considered these issues, I wonder if it would be helpful to have more articles written to include all of these aspects with correct Biblical teachings about these problems. I wonder if this would be helpful to Survivors when attempting to connect with a church body, as they could then use those Biblical teachings as a foundation of knowledge to reinforce what they already need in their own healing and recovery from clergy sexual abuse. These articles might not change the church body (at least not entirely) but if Survivors were better equipped with accurate information about this it might reduce the risk of increased problems for survivors of clergy abuse who are beginning to seek healing within a church setting after their own experience of being unsafe within a church.

In conclusion, I would like to share my own "Progressive Steps To Healing" that I found personally helpful to me as a I healed from clergy sexual abuse. It is my hope that these steps will help other survivors; I also hope these “steps” will help those who have not been victims to understand some of the many complex areas for survivors to face as they heal and recover. It is my hope that this knowledge can be used as a strength to address other problems churches face in an imperfect and often broken world.

The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18