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:
Genevan Commons and Qualification for Church Office
Missing the Plot: An Update on the Presbytery of the Southeast
A Plea for Reform: Observations from the Trial in the PSE
An Open Letter to the OPC on Abuse
One Year After Publishing Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood
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!
27 thoughts on “Reflections on the OP General Assembly, Part 2: Trauma-Informed Ministry and a Traumatizing Process”
O Lord, great and mighty One who knows the hearts of all men, take note of these words. Let the God of Moses arise and do unto the divisive malefactors as He did to Korah and sons. Defend your Church O Lord against pernicious souls who cause division and tear at the fabric of her unity.
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Mrs. Byrd – As an ordained minister in the OPC, I share your disappointment at the action of the OPC General Assembly regarding GRACE. I have said this in numerous forums and I will continue to say this. Back in the not-too-distant-past, I TWICE team-taught a course with Harvie Conn on “Women, Culture, and the Bible” and the tapes of those two courses might still be available through Westminster Theological Seminary. If you (or anyone else) were to listen to those tapes, you would see that both Harvie and I share your fundamental convictions about the Bible’s full-orbed teaching about the incredibly important place of women in God’s Kingdom. At the same time, I would urge you to consider OCCASIONALLY highlighting some of the GOOD things that folks in the OPC are doing. That might give your critiques more credibility and it would certainly encourage those of us who are doing what we can to support the perspective which you present so powerfully. You might, for example, provide descriptions of some of the missions efforts of the OPC in places like Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Korea, Suriname, and Uganda and you might highlight that, in those places, the preaching of the gospel is accompanied by BIBLICALLY-SHAPED medical (and other) ministries of mercy.
Hi Sam (hope it’s okay to still call you Sam). Thanks for your comment. But I do want to point out the difficulty it is to write about personal abuse in the OPC by its ministers and process and to read a response that it I need to point out the good things the OPC does for it to be credible. This is something that those who come forward struggle with hearing quite often. I have always tried to be fair and discerning on how I report about these meetings and this process—not lumping everyone together, showing gratefulness to those who have been involved in this. But it is actually the many good things that those harmed in the church don’t want to walk away from and then continue to suffer and pay the cost for the abuse. We have so much invested. It really is an opportunity for Christians and the church to evaluate our witness. We become what we tolerate.
OF COURSE, call me “Sam” (or anything else except late to dinner!). I have a bit of a problem with your comment that “We become what we tolerate.” My first problem has to do with my inability to reconcile that sentiment with John 17: 20 – 22. Sometimes it seems to me that “tolerating what we believe is wrong” is actually an application of “the unity of Christ’s body.” I am an OPC minister and there are LOTS of things about the OPC that I “tolerate” and I don’t think that causes me to become ALL of those things (partly because some of those things are self-contradictory). And PLEASE REMEMBER that I did not say that you should not speak about the abuse of women at all. Of course you should speak about your perceptions of the abuse of women in the OPC (and in numerous other “evangelical” organizations). I was just suggesting that if your comments about that issue were accompanied by OCCASIONAL specific praise of SOME things that the OPC is doing, your critical comments would have much more power. I am currently working with a group of others to protest the vicious attacks on Tim Keller posted on a website sponsored by a PCA congregation in Florida. They have NOTHING good to say about Tim and that clearly weakens the case that they are making. But in my/our protests against that congregation, we can and do say positive things about that church’s (and their presbytery’s) concern for the teachings of Scripture. I/we see this both as affirmations that 1) no church is perfect and that tolerating the “imperfections” that we see does NOT cause us to embody those all if those imperfections and 2) Christ’s prayer for the unity of the church does not involve or require a demand for perfection in that church before unity is realized and expressed. Finally, I do hope that you will listen to at least some of the tapes of the class that Harvie and I TWICE taught at Westminster. Specifically, I would urge you to listed to the classes that Harvie, AN OPC MINISTER, taught. Quoting (and perhaps even praising) him would both strengthen your position and demonstrate that you are not JUST anti-OPC.
Maybe you are right that I am overstating with “We become what we tolerate,” Sam. I do think we become complicit in what we tolerate. And that will only grow in how it affects others. I’m kind of surprised to read that you classify my writing as anti-OPC. Over the years, I have written, spoken, and podcasted on many of the benefits of our denomination. Far more than my handful of publications accounting my spiritual abuse in it. Maybe you’ve only read these handful of posts, but even in them I am pleading with my own denomination, attempting to be helpful. I would love nothing more than to see true repentance, restoration, and for our denomination to take the steps needed to listen to, defend, and implement more ways to help the vulnerable in it. But I still don’t think that we should ask those coming forward speaking of their abuse to name the good things for their account to be credible. We wouldn’t do that to wives speaking about their husband’s abuse. It’s actually part of the abuse. It’s those “good things” that make it so hard to speak up, so hard to be believed, so hard to be valued, and so hard to make sense of it all.
“And his censure was an admonition.”
I thought you might like to correct this…his censure was a two-year suspension.
To clarify – Rev. Spangler’s censor of
2-years was not related directly to calling Aimee & Rachel “ruthless wolves.” That was a different charge and conviction. He pleaded guilty to that charge. He got the least censor for calling these women – basically unbelievers. That was wrong and he should have had a stronger sentencing.
Castration perhaps? Would that satisfy these folks?
The two year suspension was for conviction of a different charge. For calling Aimee a ruthless wolf, he got an admonition.
He called her a ruthless wolf? Shock, horror. Why the guy deserves castration!
St. Paul suggested castration for some. Have you given it a shot?
Cynthia, that was a very abusive thing to say. I am feeling traumatized. I think I get it now.
Sadly, Graham, you seem to miss the point of the struggle. It’s not that Aimee is a whiner or snowflake or whatever name you appear to want to call her. The point is that leaders, shepherds, pastors in the denomination are failing to live up to the calling of leading, guiding, nurturing, teaching and yes, even disciplining those in the church. Instead, they used their power to belittle, insult, abuse those same folks. It’s crushing not only Aimee but anyone who stands in their way. And we have to wait a whole year before anyone else can possibly investigate it. They are free to continue in the way they think is allowable with no consequences to their actions. May Christ have mercy on their souls and convict them of their sin.
Owww! Beth, I’m getting traumatized by your mean words and opposition. When will you stop the abuse!
The following arrived a bit earlier in my email today. Diane Langberg will be speaking. The conference will be both live and streamed:
Subject: Save the Date – Presbytery of Philadelphia Conference on Abuse, October 8–9, 2021 at Trinity OPC, Hatboro, PA
Attached please find the initial announcement for our fall conference, in both jpeg and pdf format, on the timely topic of Abuse in the Church, to be held at Trinity OPC, Hatboro, PA on October 8–9, 2021. Live streaming will be available for those who wish to attend remotely. We would appreciate it if you would forward this to the churches in your respective presbyteries. Please let me, or Larry Westerveld, the Pastor of the host church, know if you have any questions/comments. Thank you!
Yours in Christ,
Stated Clerk, The Presbytery of Philadelphia
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Thanks for posting. I hope many will attend and implement what they learn from Diane Langberg.
All this complaining. All this strife. All this tearing asunder and replaying past offenses. Doesn’t anyone believe in overcoming anymore?
…forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
To him that overcometh will I grant….
I was heartened to finally see an attempt at a definition (“anything where you use your power to do/take from another what is not rightfully yours”), even if it is missing a preposition. However, by this definition, how could the banter on Geneva Commons possibly be construed as abuse of you? Whatever “power” they have does not touch you. If the CEO of a corporation across the continent from me makes a snide comment about me, that is quite different than if the CEO of the corporation I work for does so, especially if the latter uses it to coerce something from me that is not my job or is “rightfully mine.” But only the latter fits this definition of abuse.
Honest question from one who once upon a time enjoyed listening to Aimee, Carl, and Todd banter on the MOS podcast. Why is it that Michael Spangler receives a two year suspension (which is then judged not harsh enough) when he publicly calls member-in-good-standing Aimee a “wolf,” but Aimee is allowed to publicly call minister-in-good-standing Bennie Castle a “racist” and “misogynist”? Who is valued in the OPC (to borrow a question)?
I said it about his writing, not him as a person.
Mrs. Byrd – Sam Logan here (again!). I would be very interested to see your response to this article which was recently posted on the website of the World Evangelical Alliance. The title of the article is “How Can Christian Men and Women Work Together Effectively for the Kingdom of God?” I continue to believe that the more we can provide POSITIVE suggestions along these lines from Bible-believing-and-Bible-honoring-Christians, the more likely it will be that we will actually see positive changes in the evangelical church, including the OPC. I have sent a similar email to my and my wife’s good friend and frequent pew-mate, Diane Langberg. Thanks!
Sam, I’m all for positive suggestions. I became a writer to do exactly this. Unfortunately, I was labeled the general of the feminist army, Jezebel, raging wolf, dangerous, foolish, stupid, brute, among many others things. By officers in my denomination. When I am invited to churches to give positive talks, officers in my denomination have called ahead, causing all kinds of trouble, casting suspicion, warning church leaders that they need to guard their families from me. One book which I tried to positively contribute to the promoting of holiness between men and women as brothers and sisters was defaced and passed around the internet to read “Why Can’t We Be Naked?” I would love to be able to have my positive suggestions received as a contribution and open to fruitful dialogue. There needs to actually be an environment where this can even happen. So we also have to be able to name the bad teaching that is impeding that in the church and the horrible treatment of the people who come forward. If numerous people are being spiritually abused by the leaders of a denomination and by the very process in trying to address it, positive suggestions get them nowhere.
Aimee Byrd’s writings are very wolf-like, and feminist. Her writings express a slippery use of the English language that mislead and deceive. I am saying this about her writings, not her as a person.
Thanks for your response. While there may be a nominal difference between a reviling accusation leveled at Castle’s person versus his writings, the latter is no less harmful to his reputation than the former, and therefore just as much a potential ninth commandment violation. There’s actually no real difference since the implication wrt his person is unavoidable (given that paper and ink are in themselves devoid of moral culpability). Also, I’m sure you realize that if Spangler discerns the lupine nature of someone’s teaching (or thinks he does), he’s obligated by our Lord Himself to infer accordingly concerning their person (if not, please see Matthew 7:16-18). So, you’ll forgive me if I wait for a more convincing answer to my question….
Thank you, Aimee. More than one of these comments are just proving your point yet again, that the church must be trauma-informed, but it’s still horrible every time to witness the gaslighting, the condescension, the minimisation that inevitably takes place when someone who has been harmed talks about that harm.
One resource I’ve come across from Calgary Women’s Shelter seems appropriate to share here. One of the principles they put forward is this:
“When the victim is talking about her experiences of abuse, it is important to acknowledge the reality of the violence and abuse she has experienced … when Raina reached out for help from her friend, she tried to communicate to her friend how dangerous Joe was by showing her where he had punched holes in the walls. Instead of acknowledging how violent her husband had been, her friend suggested she should just “forgive and forget”, let things go, and be positive. Raina felt that her friend did not understand at all what it was like for her …”
Keep writing, Aimee. Keep speaking. – I know so many who read your words and think, finally, someone understands. Someone sees what I am going through and understands how serious it is. Someone cares.
Click to access SocialResponses_Handbook.pdf
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