the Hope of Survivors

Environment of Healing by Rebecca Peters*

Maine LighthouseI ended the relationship with the pastor in December 2006 because I couldn’t take it anymore. I had no idea what I had been involved in; I just knew for some time—a year or two, in fact—it was not right. Something about it—even beyond the sexual impropriety—was very wrong. But, I couldn’t find my way out, which I will try to explain a bit later on. When I told my husband Greg the whole truth in early February about the pastor and me, he blurted out, “this has been hostage taking.” Even to this day, he will tell you he had no idea why he said that, given his long involvement as a “friend” of the pastor’s. But, at some level of his psyche, we would soon learn he was exactly right on. After I disclosed in February, the pastor continued to blame and shame me for leaving him, as evidenced in emails to Greg (we still have) where he describes in great detail his love for his relationship with me, asking literally, “How could she abandon me after all I did for her?”

I drew close to the pastor over the three-and-one-half years he spent incorporating me into his life as minister of the church. When we first met, I was in a position of leadership there and was contemplating seminary or some kind of “spiritual vocation.” He knew early on I felt I was called to ministry all my life. I was also going through a dry and arid time in my marital state. Over time, he sensed my desire to grow further spiritually, and so the relationship was coined a “spiritual friendship.” For all intents and purposes, it felt and acted as such. I was introduced to many readings and writings, books, journals. This felt like a “gift from God” to me, and the pastor affirmed this thinking with Scriptural references of the Spirit moving, etc. It was a very large affirmation I had been seeking for many years. I liked/appreciated the attention and the sort of “notoriety” that came with having a spiritual mentor. Many of my women friends were lightheartedly envious that I had a male I could relate to, as most of us were experiencing similar midlife crises issues in our lives that involved our seemingly nonresponsive husbands, etc.

The pastor learned early on I was raised with a “God’s going to punish you” kind of theology and, over time, he introduced me to a God who was all about love (and only later would justify becoming sexual as a means to experience such love). I had grown up with strict parents who endorsed a rather punitive view of God all the while we were a very active, churchgoing family. There was physical abuse in the house and, therefore, obedience to certain kinds of authority was apparent. The pastor spent a lot of time getting to know the dynamics between me and my mother and father and the struggles that were present, especially around my tendency to speak up and out on matters and being punished physically when I used it to question authority, i.e., my father had no problem using the strap on me when I disobeyed.

Likewise, the pastor learned more and more about my arid marital/home life at the time and found ways to make himself a good listener and attentive person—the exact complaints I had about Greg during this period. He also knew, by getting to know Greg that Greg struggled with some self-esteem issues at that time. The pastor picked up the slack in this regard and was highly attentive to new clothes I bought, creative ways I was tending to the youth group, supporting me in my return to college, and counseling me on some possible career changes. He copied part of my journal once, something that upset me greatly at the time, but again, I dismissed it/forgave him for it after he minimized his actions and said he thought it would be helpful for him in trying to help me become well.

The pastor’s support for me at the church also garnered much credibility from the parents of the youth I was leading at the time. The pastor became included in many of the gatherings we had as families outside the church. He was popular, engaging, and charming. The girls in the youth group bonded with him well, thus, so did their parents. Who wouldn’t want their kids to be part of a successful church youth group? And I, as leader, was receiving positive strokes all over the place from the pastor and others. As the pastor and I became more public, more known to others as spiritual companions, the attachment deepened within the “familial confines” of a faith community.

His befriending of Greg, appointing him Chair of Trustees, inviting him to go fishing; all of this tightened the web of trust and love. He would learn more and more about me, even more than mentioned above.

The pastor waited for the time when we were to attend a conference away together when he made his first sexual move. He even gave me a butterfly pin after it happened, and connected it to its resurrection symbolism. The next morning, I woke up in my own room bewildered, frightened, yet still with deep feelings for him. When I confronted him, he suggested we read Psalm 139 and pray together. I hoped things wouldn’t happen anymore. Two weeks later, when I confronted the behavior and said I would have no more of it, the pastor told me that when I get him, I get all of him. And so, out of fear and shame, I stayed longer than I ever should have. Eventually, I had enough and disclosed to my husband and to my current pastor, as the abusive pastor had retired by then.

The Church had a response team but it provided very little in terms of helping me understand exactly what happened to me and to us as a couple. I felt desperate! I turned to the Internet to see if I could find something that would help us grasp this horrible nightmare. A Google search led me to The Hope of Survivors website. I couldn’t believe what I had found!

I remember staying up very late absorbing and printing off everything they had for resources. I also reached out via email to Samantha. In retrospect, it became a vital link to our survival. The commonality of husband involvement helped Greg out tremendously, and I think was one of the saving graces of our marriage. We purchased their DVD set which was really a godsend to help us find our own language as to what happened to us. Most of all, it was Samantha’s continuous empathic and professional support that helped us through tumultuous times as we sought justice through the Church amidst a contentious predatory perpetrator. Although her words are her words, Samantha’s words would help me find my words when I could not on my own due to the trauma. This was extremely helpful in the healing.

It has been two years since I “emerged.” In looking back, one of the most difficult aspects of clergy abuse is that it uses the tactics of the abuse of theology as well as abusive theology. I am most grateful that Samantha’s email exchanges contained appropriate and sensitive use of Scripture to support us without reminding us of these actions by our perpetrator. I also recall some difficult processes with the Church governing body that I felt were questionable, but had no one to turn to locally who would be able to relate. When I reached out to The Hope of Survivors, their advice and counsel proved to be accurate and validating of our intuition, which was tremendously uplifting and helped us move forward with our case.

I believe the United Methodist Church could learn much on how to support victims/survivors by seeing The Hope of Survivors in action. The Hope of Survivors created a healing environment where Greg and I could thrive. I give thanks for their tremendous empathy, respect, and genuineness, as well as their groundedness in the faith, that helped us survive, and now thrive!

* All names have been changed to protect their privacy.

[END OF STORY]

If you are a survivor of pastoral 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