Deconstruction: Recovery

One of the aspects of being a pastor like me is that you become a story collector or a story depository. Over the last 35 years I’ve absorbed the stories as they have been told to me, shared with me, sometimes through tears and sometimes through sobs, that have shaped people, left their mark on people, and defined, for many, their view of God. We are story people and as a pastor I count these moments as sacred confessions of the narratives that have a hold on people.

Sometimes this has involved the sacred act of listening to someone’s fifth step in recovery. More often it has involved people sitting in my office, calling me on the phone or meeting me somewhere for coffee or a walk and talking together long enough or in a time of crisis in which their soul-shaping stories emerge. I never ask for these or look for them, but I welcome them as a gift of trust and as a holy moment.

Deconstruction is full of stories. Deconstruction is full of the reinterpretation or reframing of stories. And some of the stories, the most painful stories, are those shared with me by survivors of abuse. I’ve come to believe that for many of these friends of mine, deconstruction is another name for recovery. Often the abuse that has happened to them is so deeply embedded in the context of faith, God and the Church that for them to find healing, their faith has to be deconstructed so all the enmeshing that has taken place can be undone (as much as it possibly can be).

The number of stories of abuse in the Church that I’ve heard about leads me to believe that it’s an epidemic that has claimed far more casualties than we like to admit. I don’t mean that all the dead from this epidemic have left the Church, far from it, but they exist like numb, sleepwalkers or as happy clappy “overcomers” who have learned to live with masks firmly fixed in place. “If it’s so bad, why wouldn’t they leave?” is a question that lacks understanding asked of abused spouses and of people abused by pastors, Church leaders and the Church system.

Deconstruction, in this context, is the untangling of trauma, identity, faith, relationships with those in their community of faith, their own family system, their own relationship with God or to God and their relationship to the person or persons who abused them. It’s a multi-layered entanglement that is not easily unraveled. Mentally, they are often made to feel guilty about what’s been done to them, feel guilty about how they feel about what’s been done to them, feel guilty and ashamed if they tell anyone what’s been done to them, feel responsible for what’s been done to them, feel isolated by what’s been done to them…you get the idea. Deconstruction is the path to healing because deconstructing faith, for them, means getting free from all the things that were used against them to control them and take advantage of them and that includes their faith in God.

Women have told me stories about how they were sexually abused or interfered with inside a church building. Some inside a pastor’s office.

I’ve heard the stories of young women made to feel shame by the Church because other women in Church chastised them for the way they dressed because they were provoking their husbands to lust.

It’s important here to note that Jesus never centered the lust story on the person being lusted after but on the one doing the lusting.

I’ve sat and listened as women have shared their stories and their guilt over having an “affair” with their pastor or Christian counselor. People in power who have sex with people under their care are abusing people. No matter how consensual it feels, it is their vocation to protect you – from themselves if necessary.

I’ve heard the stories of countless churches covering up sexual abuse by pastors and church leaders “for the sake of the good God is doing” through the church or the accused. This is compounding evil with evil.

I’ve heard women and children blamed by the Church for what men in power did to them.

And as much as I think deconstruction is the path to recovery for those abused in and by the Church, I have been around long enough to know the “official” answer. Forgive. Just forgive. That’s what Jesus wants you to do. Forgive.

Let’s fact check for a minute. What else did Jesus say on this topic?
“…if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. What sorrow awaits the world, because it tempts people to sin. Temptations are inevitable, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting.” So let’s be “biblical” about this. Forgiveness makes way for healing. But Jesus was just as serious about the state of those who mess with the vulnerable and do them harm. You don’t get a “forgiveness pass” you get a millstone.

The New Testament says there are wolves in our story. Sheep eaters. Leaders and shepherds who roast lamb and slap each other on the back and make up rules to protect each other while they pick their teeth around the campfire. Deconstruction is often the work of survivors of abuse coming to terms with the mess this has made in their lives, their sense of self, their relationships with others, their feelings about faith, God and the Church, and it doesn’t help them when pastors like me scold them for not coming to Church or for “backsliding.” It’s especially not helpful when we tell them they just need to forgive.

Stop it. I’m pleading with you. Telling survivors of abuse to just forgive their abuser sounds just like, “get over it.” Don’t compound the abuse by telling them to do something that is literally impossible for them to do until you’ve followed Jesus’ prescription for those who did the abuse.

And even then.

But this is not the only kind of abuse I hear about.

I’ve listened as church staff members have told me about senior pastors pushing them to work 60+ hour work weeks. To neglect their own families to “be there” for the Church. I’ve heard of people who have been physically choked by their pastor in an altercation over a difference of opinions, who felt compelled to keep it on the downlow “for the sake of the Church.” I have talked to people who told me how a confrontation with their pastor about the way they were being treated by their pastor led to them being ostracized by the whole church as he spun the story. I know staff pastors who have been fired for sharing their opinion that was in conflict with the senior pastor’s opinion.

A man who was a senior pastor who was in charge of a network of churches who was confronted by one of the senior pastors of a church in his network. It was a David/Nathan moment as the network pastor shared a concern he had about the relationship he was observing between the leader of the network and his personal assistant. Once he left the office, the leader of the network used his power and influence to have the man confronting him quietly removed as the senior pastor and relocated to another church in the network that was smaller and more remote to diminish his voice.

A few years ago, Christianity Today ran an experiment where they mailed churches inquiring about membership. They used a basic form letter but when signing they used “ethnic sounding names.” Often the responses of predominantly white churches encouraged those with “ethnic sounding names” that would probably be happier somewhere else. A person of color was spotted on a security camera in a side room off a church sanctuary during a service where he wasn’t expected to be and wasn’t recognized which led to an awkward confrontation that felt to him very much related to the color of his skin – he had been asked to be there by another staff pastor and security jumped to a conclusion.

One of the most common abuses is the opportunity of the senior pastor/leader to spin the story. I’ve heard countless stories of senior pastors who took pulpit time to tell “what really happened” and “what was really in the heart” of people who had noticeably left a church. They were able to tell the story without any time or space for rebuttal from the people they were talking about. We use words like “rebellious” and “gossip” and “wannabe leaders” to discredit and cast doubt on anything people might say about us.

This is abuse of power and it’s wrong.

Abuse in the Church takes many forms and wears many faces. I’m barely scratching the surface of the stories I’ve heard, first hand from survivors and from perpetrators. My point about talking about it in this context is that we have to reckon with the reality that people haven’t left the Church or deconstructed their faith because they were running from God, it’s because they are running from us. They are questioning or leaving unhealthy systems. Their deconstruction is about recovery from harm done to them that has been so enmeshed with all their personal relationships, their sense of self, their faith and spirituality, that they could not heal in the context in which they have been harmed.

They need space. They need time. They need to heal.

And for them, deconstruction is just another word for recovery.

Published by APastor'sStory

Trying to squeeze this life for all the juice I can get out of it.

One thought on “Deconstruction: Recovery

  1. Thanks for these words, kindness, and wisdom which are like a balm to my soul. It will take time but the recovery will happen.


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