I have learned so much through the last couple years of confronting abuse from officers in my denomination. There are some things that most of us just cannot be aware of or see clearly unless we, or someone we love, find ourselves in a more vulnerable position. Since I’m using the word abuse, I want to define what that is. In consulting with an expert on the topic, I learned that spiritual abuse is anything where you use your power to do/take from another what is not rightfully yours. That was a helpful definition. I began listing the things that were taken from me. Protection was a big category that I needed to break down: protection of my reputation, physical protection as jokes were made about a possible meet up where I was speaking, vocational security as calls were made warning people who booked me to speak and my writing is being misrepresented, protection in my denomination, and protection of my dignity and personhood. Another thing taken from me was agency and power: power to be notified, power to defend myself, power to seek justice, and power for restoration. Wade Mullen gives another helpful definition:
When someone treats you as an object they are willing to harm for their own benefit, abuse has occurred, and that person has become an abuser. Some of the worst forms of abuse are psychological.
Abuse is all about gaining and retaining power at the expense of another. And it’s a pattern. I also resonate with what Mullen says one needs in order to begin to free yourself from the power of abuse over you:
Freedom comes first by understanding, and understanding means having the language to identify and talk about your situation.
And so I have documented the more public steps of trying to address the officers in Genevan Commons and the undershepherds and process of doing this over the last year:
Another word that needs defining is trauma. Peter Levine makes a distinction here:
“Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of empathetic witness.”
Before I went through spiritual abuse—in the direct, organized reviling and actions against me by church officers, knowing that one of my own elders was in this group approving of it by his silence and activity in it (talk about absence of empathetic witness), and also in the documented ways above that unfolded as I tried to confront it all—I didn’t understand trauma. I also didn’t realize how traumatizing spiritual abuse was. It’s an extreme betrayal and violation of trust when those accountable before God to love and care for the sheep leave you exposed to abuse and then use the process of church order to keep you under it.
As I’ve shared before, when I first encountered spiritual abuse, abuse from those in spiritual authority, I didn’t understand why it was so incredibly painful. I thought myself tougher than that. Logically, I knew it was wrong. I’m a fighter. A truth-seeker. Why was I so weak? Why couldn’t I get over it? Why was it affecting me so physiologically? My body was weary, anxious, sick-feeling, depressed. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t read, my brain was foggy, I was barely paying attention to what my own kids were talking to me about. It consumed me. And each time I endure another step of the process, the waves of trauma come back for me. GA too.
The OPC had their annual General Assembly meeting July 7-14th. I’ve written Part One, reflecting on the purpose of church order and the vote against putting a motion to hire G.R.A.C.E. on the docket to discuss “ministering to victims of abuse.” In this post, I want to talk about trauma-informed care, something G.R.A.C.E. specializes in, and how traumatizing it is for the vulnerable trying to seek justice, righteousness, care, and prevent further abuse from happening to others.
There are 6 key principles to trauma-informed care:
- Safety—social support
- Trustworthiness and transparency—recognizing that it is their responsibility to act in a way that is worthy of trust
- Peer support—equipping people to care for each other, not building more power structures.
- Collaboration and mutuality—reciprocity
- Empowerment, voice, and choice—restore what was taken
- Recognize and respond to cultural, historical, and gender factors related to this trauma
It was emotional just to see this teaching so widely in print, as when I originally came forward, I received little of this. Eventually, as concerned church officers learned more about this care, and as other concerned officers came forward, I began receiving some of this care at a more personal level.
I could write a chapter on each one of these principles and juxtapose it to my own experience. But for brevity’s sake I hope to be helpful by saying two things: pastors and elders desperately need training in trauma-informed care and to be held accountable to implement it. Second, the process—proper channels—needs reform to do the same.
My own case for over the last year has been revealing to this need. From the beginning, it all seemed so basic to me. The kind of vile behavior on and extending from Genevan Commons is not in line with the qualifications for an elder outlined in God’s word. We don’t need to even be Christians to know that it is abusive. And yet, motions and cases from it have been brought up in multiple presbyteries, where the sympathies lie with the offenders. Every time. They are legitimized and I am vilified. How has this become of the church? To sum up my case, of all the vicious things said about me and others by church officers for years now, it all got parsed down to one man being found guilty for calling me and Rachel Miller raging wolves. That’s the one thing that was deemed crossing the line. And his censure was an admonition. Maybe if that were all it was, that’s all that needed to happen. But the whole context and ongoing abuse was not acknowledged. Throughout this process, all the key principles of trauma-informed care are neglected—in fact violated.
I will say that I continued to follow this through because at a personal level I was getting support from officers in my own church, as well as across the denomination, who were giving care, listening, and trying to work for righteousness and change. I was encouraged by those who wanted justice who said that this was a presbytery trial and there is still GA. That’s the final ruling and where things can change.
So there were three complaints filed in regard to some of the ways the Presbytery of the Southeast (PSE) ruled in this case of some of its ministers in Genevan Commons. One of the three complaints related to me was that the charges against pastor Bennie Castle were dropped by his presbytery (PSE) and never went to trial. This complaint was not sustained at GA. I heard there was a passionate speech given by someone who is working with Castle. In the last couple months leading up to GA, Castle erased his blog, with his neo-confederate posts and series of articles against the OPC’s Report on Women in Church Office. The consensus was that maybe he is making a change.
Of course the question is, should he get a pass for the way he, as a minister in the OPC, has publicly written about women and minorities? How he literally went on Facebook, posting my pastor’s name and picture with our church’s contact information, rallying for people to call my elders to discipline me? For the intimidation tactics he tried when others tried to correct him? For his aggressive participation as an administrator in Genevan Commons? Not his problem anymore. My problem.
If Bennie Castle really was changing, would he merely silently erase his writing and have someone speak on his behalf at GA? Wouldn’t the first thing he would do be to seek out those he reviled against, in sorrow? Isn’t this the great honor and responsibility of the Christian? Wouldn’t, in a desire for restoration and righteousness, he confess his sin at the same public level to which he harmed us? Wouldn’t he want those who read his writing to hear him say how wrong he was? I believe our faith demands that of us. Especially from our pastors. Yes, if he were changing his ways, he would publicize how wrong his neo-confederate, racist, and misogynistic writing is. But instead, he quietly removed it when it became convenient to do so to maintain his power. And yet all of us so-called horrible feminists ruining the church have to eat it still. That isn’t right at all. One man can give a speech about how he’s helping Bennie Castle, but we have no voice. No safety. No support. No collaboration. No voice in it. No restoration of what was taken from us, including our dignity and personhood. No recognition of the increased violence due to the power differential at play. This is exactly why GRACE is needed. To point out these basics of care.
It is not my responsibility to point this out. It is the offender’s responsibility to act in a way that is worthy of trust. If he fails to do this, it is the responsibility of his brother undershepherds to hold him accountable. But there isn’t trust and transparency in the process here.
The other two complaints against the Presbytery of the Southeast’s actions at the trial for Michael Spangler were sustained, concluding:
- That the Presbytery of the Southeast acknowledge its error in allowing Mr. Spangler to use reviling language in his trial, damaging the good names of Aimee Byrd and Rachel Miller, record this in its minutes, communicate this to Aimee Byrd and Rachel Miller, and offer to both, in writing and in person, if possible, whatever expression of regret it deems appropriate.
- That the Presbytery of the Southeast acknowledge its error in proposing the censure of admonition, which was too lenient, and communicate this to Michael Spangler, Aimee Byrd and Rachel Miller.
I am grateful for those who worked to bring these complaints forward and for the votes acknowledging the wrong. It’s a lot to process though. The original charges themselves have so minimized the spiritual abuse done by these leaders in my denomination. And they only went for two of the men in a whole group. The charges only mention Rachel Miller and me, not the many others targeted in GC—and particularly by these two men. Valerie Hobbs is the third woman mentioned as the “generals in the feminist army” they wrote and posted in their series of articles.
But it isn’t merely these two men. The whole process—proper channels and all—was terribly retraumatizing. What do we make of the personal cost for trying to stop abuse? Reading the language above is so reductive. It’s so strange to read because the victims aren’t even consulted in this process. Aren’t we the ones who should be asked about proper steps for reconciliation before a ruling is made? Instead, it’s left to the offenders to somehow to do what they “deem appropriate” —the PSE, who have injured us in whom they put on their committees (a GC member), what they’ve said in their reports, and how we were treated in the trial. And what an expert described to me as “gross spiritual abuse” in all this has been reduced to “error.” There’s no need for repentance and restoration if sin language isn’t even used. These messages from the GA are heavy weights that I carry around.
And yet I know that there was a lot of work that led to writing these complaints, getting them to GA, and a successful vote. I am grateful to a number of leaders who have stepped up to try to right this. But I’m just looking at all these words and thinking about real restitution that is fruitful for other cases as well. It’s so strange to be talked about like this without ever being in the room or consulted at a formal level. Leaders have consulted me personally. I am so thankful there. I was treated like a real person. But it is not able to be part of the formal process—proper channels—and so this is the best end we can get. Is this really the best end we can get? Something’s not right! And it’s far worse than “error.” It’s systemic.
After going through all this, in the end, all we have is a ruling that a presbytery should not have allowed their pastor to use reviling language about me and Rachel Miller during the trial, and their censure should have been stronger than an admonition. Nothing has changed. Hearts certainly haven’t changed. Just an error. There’s no action to address the theology behind it all. That’s how I got clobbered in the first place. There are no steps to prevent this from happening to others, to reflect on the heart of the matter of how those who seek help are further harmed in the process.
I knew GA wouldn’t solve everything. I’m processing all this. I wish more women could have even the small piece of justice that I have here. And yet I also feel like each judicatory action takes weeks for me to recover from, as they reduce my personhood. This one too. GA too. Is it really justice at all? Is it Christian? How does it care for the sheep and point us to Christ? I have multiple women on my mind in all this. When I think of another year to possibly even try again for GRACE (and who knows if a presbytery will take the lead to propose and vote on this) I just know how late it is, what it costs, and wonder if I can continue to be a member in it.
There are wonderful people in the OPC. And many are in leadership. Sadly, the majority votes and the whole process reveal that the basics of trauma-informed care are lacking, abusive leaders don’t have accountability, troubling theology about men and women is multiplying, and the victims of it continue to pick up the tab. With all the treasures the OPC has in their Reformed confessions and liturgy, it reminds me of something I’ve recently heard a pastor say about common grace. He used an illustration of when you go to a gathering at a friend’s house and people are eating and drinking and having a good time enjoying everything. And then your friend comes up to you and says, “If you think this is nice, let me take you to the back room where I keep the good stuff.” He said that is what it is like for a person who repents. We may think that we have the blessings now, but the Lord has much more to show and to give us. It is the fruit of sorrow over sin and repentance before God and one another. Oh, the joy that we are missing out on, where we all love one another with the love of Christ! He wants to give us the good stuff!