the Hope of Survivors

Breaking Free from Abuse by Heather Snyder

It has taken me a long time to really write this out, either I wasn’t ready or it just didn’t sound like I wanted it to. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t make this about him. I didn’t want telling my story to be about my abuser and what he has done, but rather what God has done through me and with my story. I wanted it to be about Jesus and about how I overcame the abuse done to me.

My abuser, who I will name “Michael” was my youth pastor. I wasn’t in the youth at this point, but I was a leader for him. Michael was, my now husband, Dustin’s mentor, because he wanted to pursue a career in Youth Ministry. Michael and his wife, who I will name, “Bella” invited both of us into their lives and their home with open arms. Within months, Dustin and Michael began discipleship together and Bella and I had become close friends, and we all spent the majority of our time together. Dustin came from some personal struggles, so the invitation was extended for him to live with them, which he graciously accepted.

I was in my second year of college with a full course load and working part-time while also spending all of my spare time between the church volunteering with the youth group and fixing up the house that Michael and Bella intended to sell us when we got married the next year. My time to see Dustin was limited, so they welcomed me into their home as well. I had my separate space from him because of house rules and Dustin and my desire to wait until we were married to have a sex. It was a lot like playing house. Michael and Bella both took care of us and looked after us, although Dustin and I both had fantastic families, we both had a void from our childhood that was undealt with, and I think they had voids as well and it became a perfect storm of issues and enmeshment.

Looking back, I can pinpoint precise moments that he was grooming me. I can see exactly how things he would say would prepare me for the physical things that were going to come next. Everyone close to the situation and who knew him, normalized a lot of the things that Dustin and I thought to be odd. He normalized it too, so I got to a point where even in the middle of the abuse, I didn’t believe it was abuse. I knew what was happening was weird, and shouldn’t happen, but I would never have labeled it abuse.

Over the course of six months, in plain sight as well as behind closed doors, my abuse continued. Although I didn’t look at it as abuse, I felt that I needed to keep up a façade of some kind. I needed everyone to think that my life was this picture perfect beautiful sight and that my Christian walk was better than ever because I was being invested in so closely by a pastor. I knew that my life was starting to not look normal, that Dustin and I were isolated from our families and friends, and soon Michael and Bella became our world.

I often wondered if Bella had any idea that was going on just feet or floors away from her most of the time. I wondered how Michael was able to abuse me through the week and then on the weekend stand in front of youth students and talk about Jesus and his redeeming power and the importance of repenting from your sin. Because I was so isolated, I didn’t know how to make it stop. I had too much to lose and I thought very little to gain.

When I was confronted about the abuse, I denied so much that I wasn’t even able to keep my lies straight. I wanted to protect him, and I didn’t want him to get in trouble. He had become a huge staple in my life and provided me and Dustin with so many opportunities and support. It was confusing. I also don’t think that the world understands how much an abuse victim loves their abuser. I did love Michael, I didn’t love what he did. I didn’t love what was happening. I didn’t love his comments. I loved the side of him that taught me a lot about Jesus and the side that taught me truth and helped Dustin and I prepare for our future life together. I loved the person that didn’t abuse me, but that person didn’t exist anymore.

Through the process of my lying for him and Dustin lying for him, the church was able to make the decision to fire him. He was fired three weeks before our wedding that he was to officiate. The church showed us so much love through the process that I was way too blind to recognize until years later. They didn’t need me to know what was going on, and I’m forever grateful that God gave the staff the insight to know that something was right.

Dustin and I were so angry at the church for their decision and ultimately ended up leaving and not returning to a church for almost 2 years. We were extremely manipulated into believing that somehow Michael was fired unreasonably, and we did believe that and express that, but deep down, I think we were both relieved about the church’s decision. 

We remained very close to Michael and Bella over the course of the next two years. Dustin and I got married and had our own space and were able to have time to start our new life, but we were still very much so isolated from our family and friends.

There was really a God-crazy chain of events that eventually led me to the breaking point of truth. With the help of a very special counselor, my abuse was uncovered and called what it was. I allowed myself to really fall into God’s loving hands and I realized very quickly that he was calling me to live a life of truth, and shine the light on my abuse. I started to realize in those first couple months, that God wanted all of me. God wanted the freedom only He could offer for me and I couldn’t do that as long as I was still bound by the lies I told and the lies that I believed. He wanted me to have the freedom to move past my abuse, and as long as Michael and Bella were still a part of my life that could never be a reality.

When I made the decision to walk in truth, I felt God calling me to go to every single person that I lied to and tell the truth. Deacons, pastors, parents, friends, and even a few older youth students, and God humbled me in a way He never has before. He blessed my steps and gave me unimaginable strength to have the hard conversations, and I was met with complete grace. The genuine concern was for me. I was met with such grace and understanding that I knew it could only have been from God.

Once Michael and Bella found out some of the people we told, they cut us out of their lives. That was one of the hardest moments in my entire life. They were people that I was so enmeshed with, so loyal too, so connected with that I felt like I was losing a part of myself. However, that was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.

I came forward in the truth 3 years ago, and I have watched God use my story over and over. I have watched him transform my life and my husbands and bring us back to the ministry we love and place me in a job where I get to help victims of sexual assault every day. It has turned me into an advocate passionate to help other people regain their lives after abuse. It is possible to heal. It is possible to move forward with your life.

I want people to know that the person that abused them, was not God. That person does not represent God. That person doesn’t demonstrate God and who he really is. Know there is so much love and support and that you are not alone. Healing is possible.                                                                                    

 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28 

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If you are a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, we would love to hear your story and possibly make it available on this web site for others to read and renew their hope. You can use a pseudonym if you choose and rest assured that all personal information will be kept private and strictly confidential. Please contact us.

Please note: We do not necessarily agree with or endorse all the information contained in the survivor’s stories. We do, however, feel they have some valuable information that could be useful to you in your recovery. It helps to know you’re not alone, that others have shared your pain and have healed, by the grace of God, in their own time and way.

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