Aimee Byrd

Inside the word. Outside the box.

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Before I was targeted by a number of its leaders, I liked my denomination. I like that it is confessional, and I trusted in the presbyterian government. I have a great community in my local church, and I had confidence in the books of church order. I believed they provided exactly that: an ordered process to protect the vulnerable by using due process of its laws. I never expected to be in the category of the vulnerable.

When I first started experiencing the organized reviling and vicious behavior from officers in my denomination, I trusted that other church officers would confront them and call them to repentance. And if it still continued, I trusted that faithful under-shepherds would use due process to stop the abuse and rectify the damage. But I knew, as I’ve said before, that formal charges should be a last resort because we first want to informally address these heart issues, hoping for change. Hoping for repentance. Hoping for reconciliation. That’s what we really want. Firstly, restoration to Christ. Secondly, to his people.

And in a case when spiritual abuse is involved, the repentant person in spiritual authority should see that they need shepherding at this point and not to have this kind of authority over God’s people. They have so violated trust with God’s people that a sincere apology would include action that is sensitive to this. Voluntarily stepping down would be an action that shows the weight of their responsibility to God as an office bearer as well as putting boundaries in place out of respect for the victims of their abuse. Because they are valued.

That is what we would expect in Christ’s church. And what I’ve learned is that those under spiritual abuse are not protected well by the process, as abusers manipulate it to protect their own power. Even when there are faithful under-shepherds working for righteousness.

As I’ve already shared, by the time charges are filed it means hearts are hardened at destructive levels. But the victims of this destruction must continue at this point to move through the destruction to pursue justice. The “i’s” that must be dotted and the “t’s” that must be crossed in the formal process are but symbols and reminders of how their value has been trampled upon. The informal process to get this far can often be traumatic for the victims, as they put themselves out there with the truth only to be gaslit by the perpetrators, watch them manipulate others that should be helping the victim, and sabotaging the process as much as possible, likely trying to reverse the order of the victim and the offender. So, while charges may be a necessary part of the process, the process itself hurts the very people it is set up to protect. This is something that needs more discussion in our churches. This is where the leadership in the churches should consult the people in the margins, as those who are leading the process can gain perspective to better care for the sheep. So, charges, even if filed, even if victorious, and even if they supply a small amount of justice, are executed while the wounds of the hurting are still very open, exposed, and vulnerable.

The OPC had their annual General Assembly meeting July 7-14th. There were several rulings in relation to a few of the church officers involved in the behavior in Genevan Commons, as well as a motion introduced to hire GRACE. This whole process of over a year of seeking help from my denomination from abusive behavior of some of its leaders has been revealing. GA was supposed to offer some sort of closure, as the highest ecclesial body. Again, more is revealed. It’s been weighing on me heavily. The most important matter for me was the motion to hire GRACE. This would offer real, timely help for those suffering under abuse, as well as help for our leaders to become trauma-informed and learn how they can amend the process to better care for the vulnerable. I am going to address this vote today and post another article later regarding the complaints that were filed related to my case.

Earlier, I wrote a plea to the OPC to take this important step of leadership, asking them to commission this professional third party to work with the marginalized so that the leadership can gain understanding about how a victim is impacted by the decisions and process of the system and how justice is even perceived. As my own personal case has opened my eyes to the present condition of our system of government and how it is used, many who have been through far worse than me have reached out to me with their own stories of seeking help from their church leaders and coming out much worse for it. It’s been overwhelming to hear these painful stories and how church leaders harmed them at their most vulnerable rather than providing care and protection. It isn’t a few bad apples. Or even one corrupt presbytery. It is systemic. There is a real problem of spiritual abuse in the OPC, the system that enables it, the theology behind it, and the men who can do something about it. The church needs reform in preventing, recognizing, and dealing with abuse. Leaders need to be trained in this.

So, I was thrilled about this motion going forward. And so thankful that a minister proposed it. The motion went to an advisory committee who gave a recommendation to approve. Praise the Lord, there are leaders in our denomination who want to ask about how women, and men, have been treated by the shepherds. Who want to hear if there has been abuse. Who want an assessment on how they can better care for the vulnerable in their process. But it was ultimately voted against. It was considered “new business,” and needed a 2/3 vote to add it to the docket. Almost half the Assembly voted in favor, but it failed. Sounds like the consensus was that it needed to come through “proper channels” as an overture from a presbytery.

Proper channels.

It’s not that it couldn’t have properly been voted on the docket. This incident is symbolic of what victims hear all the time when seeking help. Their channels are never proper enough. Sure, this motion to hire GRACE can now go the other route—the one that will take at least another year to hopefully bring it through a presbytery as an overture back to General Assembly for another chance at a vote. But notice how the excuse itself shows the problem—the process can always be used as an excuse and the real people are not cared for. In the meantime, pastors are not trauma informed. Amendments not made to care for the people. Stories buried…

This is about the name of Christ and the love for his bride. Are the leaders paying attention to the vulnerable? Do they want to know how much spiritual abuse is in their denomination? Do they want to gain an education on how to better care for the hurting sheep? With all the abuse exposed in all the denominations around us and out of our own, doesn’t love and wisdom say, How can we get ahead of this? How can we learn to be agents of love and care? Instead they’ve basically said, Let’s push this back and see if any presbytery will do something about it or not for next year.

Ultimately, this vote was about the future of our denomination and how we care for people. And sadly, the decision echoed what I’ve seen all year in my own case —process over people. It’s what I am hearing over and over again from women who have suffered much worse than me and tried to seek help and care in the OPC.

There are many who do not have the luxury of using these “proper channels.” For one example, if they go to their elders for help with an abusive husband and they get sent back for not being submissive enough. Or they hear, Hey, he’s sorry now—repentant—you need to give yourself to him. It’s you now, not him. The proper channel available would then be to file a formal complaint against their session of elders to their presbytery. Only, no one teaches you how to do this in membership class. You don’t know the lingo. You don’t know the book of church order with all its ‘line 5b, according to stipulation y.’ So, if you don’t cross all your “t’s” and dot all your “i’s,” it doesn’t matter what’s actually happening to you…proper channels. You should have said it this way, not that way. And it turns out that the i’s and t’s are so parsed that they miss the context. Even if you were to invest time that you don’t have to make it just so, those proper channels can be manipulated. And yet, this is still a luxury. How is a woman being abused by her husband going to be able to leave her responsibilities for an entire Saturday and drive the likely couple of hours to the presbytery meeting where she may or may not be heard? She may be treated the same way her session already has, mustering all her courage, only to be victim-blamed again. Meanwhile, who is going to watch her kids? Her abusive husband? How is it going to go if she returns home to this man after speaking up for herself? Proper channels though.

This isn’t hypothetical. It really happens. To real people.

You see, a major way GRACE can actually help in talking with survivors and leaders is that they are trauma informed. They consider all these factors. They will spell out the basics. When I think of another year to possibly even try again to hire their help (and who knows if a presbytery will take the lead to propose and vote on this) I just know how late it is and what it costs. It is the OPC’s responsibility here to act in a way that is worthy of trust. Roberts Rules and the BCO are worthless if the vulnerable are not cared for. All the talk about proper channels is cruel if the process is being used to neglect the people and somehow feel pious about it. We’ve missed the purpose of church order. And we’ve missed Christ.

I am very grieved that the majority of the representatives in GA voted against the recommendation to put this vote to hire GRACE on the docket. It was an opportunity to care for the vulnerable, an opportunity to invite their voices and give them agency. It was an opportunity to build relationships with them, to learn and grow, and to help us care for one another better. It was an opportunity to be more like Christ, who descends to give power to. It was an opportunity to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God together. I think those are the proper channels.

*Oh, and by the way, this is how it was documented in the GA Report, written by a member of the Presbytery of the Southeast: A motion was made to amend the docket to allow for a new item of business. After some debate, the motion to amend the docket failed.

**Some officers requested that their affirmative votes to have GRACE put on the docket. I hear this is somewhat unusual on a defeated motion. Normally minutes do not record defeated motions, but a request to record an affirmative vote keeps a record of it in the minutes. I want to include the names of these men who wanted their names recorded that they did want to discuss “ministering to victims of abuse” at this GA. Here is the wording of the motion as it will appear in the OPC minutes, which is different than the online report. Although, it is possible that the article number may change:

213.    AFFIRMATIVE VOTES RECORDED. On a defeated motion to add a docket item between 38 and 39, “Ministering to victims of abuse,” at their requests the affirmative votes of Messrs. Brewer, Cavanaugh, Cottenden, Dronenburg, R. Ellis, Hutchison, Kisler, Michael M., J. Mahaffy, Patterson, Shields, Siggins, Sterrett, Strom, Van Meerbeke, and Westerveld were recorded.

20 thoughts on “Reflections On the OPC GA Meeting: Part One, The Purpose of Church Order and the Vote on G.R.A.C.E.

  1. That asterisked comment tells a story. We are sorry to hear this decision. When powerful male leaders are, in effect, asked to investigate themselves the investigation becomes a sham.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Sam Logan says:

    Of course, I, as an ordained OPC minister, wish that our GA had voted to hire GRACE. I know and greatly respect that organization and its leader. We need not, however, read this decision as a lack of concern for those who are marginalized and/or oppressed. The OPC traditionally is slow to move in new directions and this has served us well in maintaining historic Reformed orthodoxy. It has also hindered us in developing new strategies for effectively applying the timeless truths of Scripture to our ever-changing world. I worked closely wth OPC minister Harvie Conn who was often frustrated by the slow pace of appropriate BIBLICAL change in the OPC. But he kept at it and the Kingdom results bring honor to Jesus. My conclusion? Let’s not give up now. Let’s do the hard work in our presbyteries so that, at the 2022 General Assembly, the vote to hire GRACE will be overwhelmingly positive!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cynthia W. says:

      “I worked closely wth OPC minister Harvie Conn who was often frustrated by the slow pace of appropriate BIBLICAL change in the OPC. But he kept at it and the Kingdom results bring honor to Jesus.”

      Mr. Logan, can you share specific examples of the appropriate BIBLICAL change and the Kingdom results that slowly eventuated?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Christine says:

      Would you be willing to spearhead the proper channels to bring GRACE back to the docket? Praying.

      Like

  3. Kim Cosgrove says:

    I’m so sorry, Aimee. Your reflections are spot on and your persistence is admirable. You said so many good things. “Roberts Rules and the BCO are worthless if the vulnerable are not cared for. All the talk about proper channels is cruel if the process is being used to neglect the people and somehow feel pious about it. We’ve missed the purpose of church order. And we’ve missed Christ.” Yes.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. John Smythe says:

    What this article lacks is context. Since you weren’t present, and since the record only shows a motion to amend being voted down, do you really know why it was voted down? If not, you are assigning motives where they are not known. The fact is, the assembly normally has 8 weeks to read, study, and prayerfully consider the material that is before it. This, coming as a de novo motion, doesn’t allow for that. Asking the assembly to approve of an organization to audit the whole denomination that most of the men are totally unfamiliar with was at the heart of the matter. It coming last minute didn’t allow for that sort of thoughtful investigation.

    It would be like someone saying it’s telling that this was the issue you chose to pick first when the assembly overwhelmingly sided with the oppressed on all the other issues. It doesn’t seem like you can see any good, even when your own Pastor, elders and others in the OPC have fought for you. Even when over 100 signed a letter of rebuke after 4 or so spoke horribly about you. What story does this tell?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aimee Byrd says:

      Hi John. I would think that if the ministers in the denomination were following all of the stories of abuse they would have done some research on their own and be very familiar with G.R.A.C.E.’s expertise. And the representatives did not overwhelmingly side with the oppressed on every vote. They voted not to sustain the complaint about the charges being dropped for another pastor who was just as involved as Michael Spangler in the openly misogynistic behavior on Genevan Commons and continued on his own blog with openly neo-confederate posts. But the sheer number of abuse cases that came before GA this year should reveal that there are many more. I’m sorry you don’t think I can see any good. And that I am unsatisfiable to you. I merely want people in our denomination not to be abused by the under-shepherds of Christ’s gospel. I want church to be safe. Signing a letter is great. Action to care for the hurting is even better. Our lives actually ARE the context.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. John Smythe says:

        Your assumption that most OPC ministers follow Twitter etc, is a poor assumption. And as such, your demand is an unreasonable one. Believe it or not, some prioritize their local situation over the ones getting traction online. But empathy only runs one way I suppose.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Lynne Byrd says:

    Good work Aimee. You expressed yourself beautifully. I am proud of you.

    Lynne

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

  6. John Smythe says:

    What you mean by “you don’t want people abused” and “the church to be safe” is simply, “I want them to agree with me, because I know I’m safe and good”. Modernism 101.

    Is there any room in your world for the idea that wisdom doesn’t begin and end at your blog? Just curious. Especially since you weren’t even there, maybe a smidge of humility would be in order. Just saying “oppressed” doesn’t end all debate.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Stephen Goldsworth says:

    I’m sorry but not surprised by the denomination’s actions. It’s been my observation that those in charge of an institution, will act to protect said institution.

    Like

  8. John Smythe says:

    Or to put it bluntly, what could the church tell you (that you would hear), that you don’t already agree with?

    And this is for one of your supporters…consider that.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. hawk4grace says:

    I once heard a pastor boast about the Presbyterian court system by saying it has its roots in the Sanhedrin…..

    Well, we know what they did.

    The greater and relevant point you make is that the system is centered on intellectual theological orthodoxy and rigorous process with many procedural rules that will strain out a gnat but leave the camel intact.

    I was trained at a GRACE seminar and it revealed how blind I was to many things that are needed to protect the weak and to processes I had enthroned that were inappropriate amidst of allegations of abuse. I could not recommend their work more heartily, and as one who served in the OPC 14 years, and the PCA 18 years, both denominations would be greatly helped by what GRACE offers them.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Dave Sarafolean says:

    Aimee,

    I had to leave GA early due to a death in our family, so I missed this debate.

    Your amended article with the names of affirmative votes is helpful. Though unusual, it happens from time to time. I have seen it most commonly in the case of a negative vote (e.g. someone feeling so strongly about a matter that they want their negative vote listed as a matter of public record).

    As I look at the list of names, I see wide geographic representation in the OPC. My guess is that there were more commissioners who voted affirmatively but chose not to have their name added to the minutes. All this is to say that it is my sense that a pretty wide swath of the OPC is turned off by the way you have been treated. While it may not be all that you want, it ought to be a source of encouragement. I also sense that this is a teachable moment for our denomination and a lot of people are listening.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Paul K says:

    I think church leaders have ecclesiastical authority, but not spiritual authority. Church leaders police the boundaries of the church, but they don’t rule over out innermost being. But, because the fear of isolation is one of our deepest fears, it almost feels like church leaders have ultimate authority over us. We don’t want to lose the community and the relationships we’ve grown accustomed to whether that comes through being disfellowshipped or the leaders making life in the group so unbearable we have to leave.

    I think the truth is, even in the midst of the most anxiety-producing religious abuse, we’re ultimately free in Christ. We may feel as if we’re at the mercy of our ecclesiastical superiors, and it really can feel terrible, but we’re really at the mercy of Christ, which is a great place to be. To our own master we stand and fall, and he is able to make us stand.

    Like

    1. Cynthia W. says:

      Good comments, Paul K. My pastor is in charge of my parish, and if he said, “Cynthia, no more rumbas and cumbias, you just can’t polka during Mass!” I would tone down the Spanish music program. However, I don’t see him as having “spiritual authority” over me personally. I could ask his opinion – and I have – either in Confession or just wandering into his office, and I would certainly take his advice seriously, because I think he’s a serious academic and has a lot of common sense and is a really decent man.

      However, I am ultimately the subject of my conscience and my relationship with God.

      Like

      1. Sounds very Protestant Cynthia.

        Like

      2. Cynthia W. says:

        Labels often don’t add information. Across the whole spectrum of religious organizations and experiences, there are a wide variety of structures, interactions, and uses or abuses of authority.

        If I disagreed with my pastor about rumba, and he told me that disagreeing with his viewpoint showed I was influenced by Satan, or “a law unto myself,” or other buzzwords of dictatorial authority, that would be spiritual abuse.

        On the other hand, if I did not follow a clear instruction, it would be entirely legitimate for him to say I was no longer Spanish music director.

        This is independent of the specific content of the hypothetical disagreement.

        Like

  12. Tim H. says:

    If there were a sense that abuse is a wide-spread problem, the Assembly’s next step would be to debate what the remedy is, and if the remedy decided on were to get some third-party organization to come in, to research the options before settling on one. The fact that a specific group “GRACE” was part of the motion smells like an agenda to me. And it is entirely unfair that they should be expected to light on that organization without any prep.

    To illustrate, if a last-minute motion was made to buy a truck for the denomination, that would be bad enough; but if it included, “a Ford F350,” that would smell an awful lot like the fix was in.

    BTW, I don’t believe “neo-Confederate views” have been identified by the OPC as contrary to the law of God as expounded in its standards.

    Like

  13. Mark Schaefer says:

    “Especially since you weren’t even there, maybe a smidge of humility would be in order.”

    I hear this a lot from pompous people like yourself. The same sorts of people who would get up in front of a congregation week after week and proclaim what our government should and shouldn’t be doing, what our parents and teachers should and shouldn’t be doing. Which people in high places are representing God faithfully and which are not.

    But, when the shoe is on the other foot, and you see your own assembly’s actions questioned and scrutinized somehow it is a lack of humility?

    If anyone’s words here demonstrate a lack of humility, it would be your own.

    Like

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