Photo by Nextvoyage on Pexels.com

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.