Reading about the abuse coming from Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, resulted in Matt Boedy writing a post about his own experience with church abuse. Matt dealt with a legal situation in Riverside Community Church an Evangelical Free Church of America and Acts 29 church in Columbia, South Carolina. This post is Matt’s reflection of dealing with spiritual abuse after it happened and how its effected his view on faith.
“We don’t develop courage by being happy every day. We develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.”
Beverly De Angelis
“Nobody is stronger, nobody is weaker than someone who came back. There is nothing you can do to such a person because whatever you could do is less than what has already been done to him. We have already paid the price.”
5 May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus. 6 Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Romans 15:5-6 NLT
New Orleans, Louisiana at night.
This blog’s primary focus is the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA). A few years back I told the story of Matt Boedy at Riverside Community Church in Columbia, South Carolina. Riverside is both an EFCA and Acts 29 church. James Walden violated legal counseling laws and the EFCA District Superintendent Glen Schrieber went against the counseling profession in siding with Acts 29. This story is a lesson on how you will be on your own if you run afoul of the system. You can read the story of Riverside in, “Disturbing Allegations of Spiritual Abuse at James Walden’s Acts 29 Riverside Community Church in Columbia, South Carolina” , “Matt Boedy on James Walden’s Alleged Ethical Violations: The Overall Perspective on the Evangelical Free Church of America” and “EFCA Southeast Director’s Response to James Walden’s Alleged Ethical Violations: Is Glen Schrieber a Tool of the Acts 29 Network?”
In this post Matt reflects on his life after dealing with spiritual abuse. It has been hard for Matt to read the stories coming out of James MacDonald’s Harvest Bible Chapel. Five years after Riverside Community Church. This post is about life after dealing with spiritual abuse and the challenges that one person faced.
The news about James MacDonald and the deeply troubling events at Harvest Bible Chapel are another powerful trigger for those of us who have suffered spiritual abuse. And so I have been forced like others to remember the trauma done to me as I hear about others.
I’ve written about my story before for this blog. I wrote that series of posts in the months following the ending of a lawsuit I filed against my former church.
Now as the calendar turns, I notice it is the fifth anniversary of my trauma. [Of course trauma can’t often be tied to a single event, but in my case, if you read my story, you will see how.]
The effect of this trauma is not without its productivity – it suffuses my life with compassion and grace toward those who are now feeling such trauma for the first time.
But it is also a sizeable burden to bear, something which I grieve. And the grieving does not stop, I am sorry to report. It has tempered but it will not go away.
I am angry less, but still I grit my teeth when I recall conversations that precipitated the trauma. I am highly distrustful of any religious leader, especially of ones who are young. And I find reading my Sunday New York Times at Panera is better for my soul than going to church.
When trauma happens to us, we often try to frame it within known patterns and philosophies. When I use grieve and grief, many might recall the “five stages of grief.” But those stages are best applied to grieving those we lost, in death.
There can be a sense of losing a person through spiritual trauma, even physical loss itself if indeed one is shunned by close friends. But spiritual abuse usually centers on trauma perpetuated by the spiritual leader (or leaders) in a church. And depending on one’s relationship with that person – whether you can say they were a friend, for one – can dictate how the stages of grief might apply.
Former elders at Harvest can probably rightly say they suffered spiritual abuse at the actions of the church, and lay that directly at the hands of MacDonald. But they also might not have considered the loss of that particular relationship with him a serious loss. But they grieve the loss of the church.
The one similarity I sense between grieving spiritual abuse and the loss of a loved one through death (and I have not experienced the latter in an intimate fashion, except for the sad but usual passing of older grandparents) is the unknown occurrence of such grief. It happens without your permission. It comes and goes on its accord, triggered by events you can’t predict beforehand.
Because spiritual abuse is tied intimately to our relationship to church – how we see its importance, its structures, its role – one of the first places grief seeps out is when we are in church. When perhaps we try to return to it.
Let me acknowledge that many victims of spiritual abuse have left the church altogether. And good for them.
But there are those who ‘stick it out.’ I have done both. Let me explain.
After my trauma, my duty or guilt drove me to attend church somewhere. Anywhere. And this guilt certainly was built up over time in a church environment where one’s missing church is used against a person in guilt.
I had to go, if for no other reason as that is what is required of me.
I deliberately sought out a different kind of church from the one that abused me, even told my story to the pastor in hopes of gaining his understanding. And he was. In many ways it was a good experience.
But let me say this: I should not forced myself to go back so soon. Different levels of trauma force different levels of responses and so you can judge for yourself when and how you return. Even if you do.
Take your time. If you are part of Harvest or any other church that implodes, there is no burden to go somewhere next Sunday just to go next Sunday. Healing from spiritual abuse often can’t happen in a church. For those of you devoted to the power of the local church, that doesn’t mean victims never go back, it just means their recovery can’t be done in a church. I was aided by professional counseling, books, and music.
When I moved to a new town for a new job after my trauma, I tried again to go to church. It was a disaster. I met with a local pastor, again to tell him my story. And he was as gracious as he could be, knowing the few details I gave him. He introduced me to a man in his congregation who seemed in a sense to be a disciple of sorts of men my age the church had anointed. He invited me to the men’s Bible study. And so I came.
It was in a classroom in the church. Cinder block walls, metal chairs, a long, white table or two. Leftover Sunday school lessons on the wall. You know the drill.
As I sat in that chair that first night my first reaction was to shake ever so slightly. It was traumatic to be back in a church building. You may ask why did this church building trigger me when the one I first went to didn’t? I suspect it was because that first one met in a rented warehouse space, often used for weddings and receptions. It did not have that church “feel.” In the discussion group, I didn’t speak for weeks, beyond the courteous hello.
I finished the semester-long study by sheer act of will (or guilt). I attended a final cookout night, even had lunch later with one of the older male leaders. And he too was gracious in hearing my story.
But I knew attending on a Sunday was out.
Next in that same church I tried a community group during the week. It met at a house, we ate dinner in gendered groups, and watch a sermon video series by RC Sproul. I didn’t have to talk much, the food was good, but I didn’t tell anyone my story. I was retracting, still overcome by my experience in the Bible study.
Then with my new fiancé, I attended here and there a church an hour away from me (but very close to her). It met in a recreation center, no formal church trappings. But soon it moved to another church’s building, meeting in the evening. That building was another trigger for me.
And trauma’s logic here is interesting.
The building resembled the church I went to in college in Florida. That church had sent the church planter who abused me to South Carolina where I was abused. And so the grieving came again. I married and my wife moved with me, back ironically, to the town she lived in as a child. We were married in November 2016 and we haven’t been regularly to a church since. For her it was finding the right one, but also grieving that we knew so many church-goers in our small town in a rural area in a very red part of a Southern state – we knew so many would have voted for Trump. And we haven’t been able to convince ourselves to go because of that.
We’ve been once or twice to that church an hour from me. But that was always not a long-term option. So we tried a local church plant once, six months ago. It was small and intimate and trying to figure out what it was. It was not for us. We attended the church she had been taken to as a child, for nostalgia.
But I haven’t been back for any event to that church which hosted the men’s Bible study.
This Sunday my wife and I have agreed to attend a church 20 minutes away because, well, it is the best we can find under the weight of all our baggage. I’ve listened to some of the sermons online and my wife has checked out social media. And it is no different that many churches closer to us. Perhaps it is the distance that beckons us. It is something to try out, something afar, something that can stay at arm’s length.
That is the best I can do at the moment. God is close. But alas, the church is not.
Five years on, this is where I am at.