On completing the book I had several questions for Margaret. Read our Q&A below:
In the chapter Apologies, you describe a conversation between yourself and Rev. Karen in which she alternately accuses and then abruptly agrees with you about an article you sent to several people as well as about a conversation between yourself and a woman named Jessica.
I see in Rev. Karen shades of the toxic pastor of the cult I was in: always controlling the conversation between parishioners in a disagreement. The offended party was required to 'counsel' with her. She would then go and speak to the 'offensive' party alone. There was never a conciliatory meeting with everyone present. In that way she 'controlled' the disagreement for her own purposes: to keep tension and discontent seething in parishioner's relationships.
"Rev. Karen was in the middle, controlling and directing communication. We were never going to resolve things this way."
If someone finds themselves in a 'controlled' disagreement (where an authority leader is manipulating the circumstances to gain power by the situation), how should they try to proceed with reconciliation?
There is little you can do unless the person who has gone to the pastor is willing to speak to you directly. I tried to get people to meet with me but my efforts were thwarted probably by Rev. Karen. In my family of origin almost all communication between my older siblings and I went through my parents. We are not encouraged to communicate directly with each other. When my eldest sister and I realized this we decided we would begin calling each other directly. This decreased my parent’s power and improved my relationship with my sister. The key here, however, it was a mutual decision between my sister and me. As adults we also had sufficient power and freedom to take action. In the more closed, controlled environment of Immanuel there was nothing more I could do. I regret not walking away sooner.
In my experience and the accounts I have read of others' spiritual abuse, a sure sign of a toxic/abusive church environment is when 'bad behaviors' (i.e. gossiping, back-stabbing, demeaning words and actions) are encouraged by the church leaders. The 'bad behavior' subjected you to emotional and mental torture and eventually bullied you out of that church. If a parishioner finds himself the target of such behaviors, what advice would you offer?
Without the support of the church leadership there is very little you can do. It is analogous to bullying in schools. While there are things the victim can say and do to defend themselves more effectively than I did, without leadership support it is like trying to climb Mt. Everest without a base camp. The painful reality is that you most likely should leave and find a church that not only preaches the gospel but also strives to walk the talk.
If you choose to stay and try to resolve things, don’t go to church alone. Make sure you have an ally with you. Bullies are less likely to attack if they think you have a supporter. If people say things to you directly, that gives you a chance to defend yourself. Learn what to say. Own your beliefs, use humor if possible, ask questions of your attacker. On Bullies2Buddies.com there is a manual for kids that are being bullied. It is useful for adults too. Also on a CD he sells there is a track called Izzy’s Game. It is worth listening to. You can also try to speak directly to the person gossiping about you. Finally, read your church’s constitution and figure out what your rights are.
Many 'churched' people are uncomfortable when someone shares their tale of spiritual abuse. Do you think it might be that they feel it gives God "bad press"?
No, I think they are worried it gives their church and themselves bad press. It is also a case of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. They have certain beliefs about being churched and here comes this person talking about how poorly they were treated. It doesn’t fit their beliefs about church so they reject the messenger. That way they don’t have to modify their behavior or beliefs. There is a good discussion of this in Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church. In the chapter on spiritual healing, Bishop Robinson writes:
'Within a church community … The abuser will invariably be a person of power and will have a far stronger position in the community than the victim. This means that the abuser will be far more important to the meaning-making of the members of the community than the victim is. Making meaning of life is a long and arduous process and people do not like to see it upset. All too frequently their non-verbal, and even verbal, message to the victim will be, ‘We were content before you spoke out. You are a threat to our very system of meaning-making. Go away, leave this community and lest us go back to our former certainties.’
This really isn’t any different than what the victim goes through. The victim must reassess beliefs about the world, friendship, God etc. The difference is that the victim cannot resolve the dissonance by saying he or she lied because they know the truth of what happened to them. Bystanders can dismiss the victim as a liar or as someone who mentally deranged and unstable. A luxury the victim does not have.
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