If you haven’t already, please read the original post, before reading this update on how the blog post was received and reacted to. And if you’re a survivor of spiritual abuse, please speak up and reach out. You’re not alone.
My life has changed since August 5th, when I posted a raw and revealing story of being spiritual abused at the large and influential church in Manitoba, Canada called Southland.
I will share in the next few paragraphs the way that the church and the leaders, pastors, and victims involved in my story have reacted in the 5 months since I posted #churchtoo. But first I wanted you, the reader, whoever you may be, to understand more fully why I posted the story to begin with. What was I looking for? What was the point in sharing, after all these years? Did I want to ruin someones life? Did I want to hurt the other people involved? Did I want to see a vibrant and powerful church brought to it’s knees? What was the goal?
I also want you to understand what other women go through when they share any form of abuse, publicly or privately, and the backlash they face. I have learnt a tremendous amount from this experience, and hearing from others who have also experienced spiritual abuse in varying forms. I think it’s important to share about how we speak out, why we speak out, what to expect from bystanders and perpetrators, and how to move forward. Here we go.
Within several days of posting #churchtoo, friends and family, and staff from Southland, reached out. I hadn’t told almost anyone the story, other than my husband, so it came as a shock to those closest to me, and those who had heard been told (by the youth pastor) a very different version of the story after I left the church. I had, perhaps naively, not expected so many readers to deduce which church and which pastor I was referring to. But, I also had not anticipated just how many people had also been very deeply hurt and abused by the leaders at this church at the same time as I had. There was a resounding “ME TOO” from many readers.
I had never intended to name the pastor, the church, or the couple who were involved. (And I won’t name them here, either.) I especially felt the most apprehensive about any pain my story would cause other’s. What would I feel if someone lost their job, if marriages were thrown into chaos again, if people left their church, or their pastor was fired? I didn’t know how I would live with those consequences at the time, but I did know that the consequences of not believing my own narrative for 10 years were also becoming insurmountable. My therapist encouraged me to priority my healing, finally.
So with fear and resolution, I shared my story.
The response surprised me. As I said in the original post, the response of the bystanders is almost more important to the victim of abuse and trauma then the actions of the oppressor. People who stand by and do nothing cause as much or more harm as the individual inflicting the pain. I knew that not being believed, again, would be extremely painful. So having so, so, so many people reach out to support, comfort, and apologize to me was. . . incredible.
Those first two weeks were very emotionally difficult, as others who had been deeply scarred by the youth pastor’s leadership and Southland’s lack of accountability came forward and shared their pain with me. Some of those stories will never be told publicly, and they wrecked me. Telling and retelling my story to family and friends who needed to hear it directly from me was freeing, but also very painful.
Even though I left that community almost 10 years ago, the decade of suppressing what had truly happened cost me more than I think I’ll ever know. In speaking on the phone and emailing with friends and acquaintances from Southland, I very much felt as if the abuse had just happened. I was 19 all over again and felt very powerless and small. I didn’t have to engage with anyone about my story, as supportive friends reminded me many times, but I knew that 19 year old Brittany deserved to be heard, finally.*
My mantra during this time was to remind myself that I had already survived the abuse and nothing, NOTHING, could be more painful then those moments 10n years prior where my pastor and my church told me I was to blame. If I could survive that, and years of keeping that much pain to myself in isolation, then I could survive this.
And I did.
I met with the head pastor of Southland, a month or two after the post when up, I corresponded with him and his team as they tried to grapple with the aftershock of my blogpost, and I waded through the trauma of having friends and family members who still attend that church and needed to reconcile my painful experience with their own, positive, experiences. There were many emails between myself and Southland’s lead pastor, other survivors who went forward to the leadership of the church looking for answers, people angry about my blog or angry about the way the church handled the original abuse towards me and others, board meetings to decide if or how to publicly respond to my blog post, and eventually there will even be a sermon at Southland about the general affects of church’s with a culture of control. From my perspective, having not anticipated any concrete response from the church at all, these are incredible signs of the power of story and a change in how leadership looks post #metoo. We have to have these conversations. We have to listen to survivors. We have to bring things into the light, and change how power operates and who has power.
My meeting and correspondence with Southland’s pastor has given me a lot of hope. While there hasn’t been an official public response from the church, which I was told their would be and believe there should have been, I have incredible respect for the lead pastor’s personal response, and the response from his leadership team, after reading my post. Ultimately, the lead pastor’s acknowledgment of the church’s blind spots and willingness to take responsibility for a toxic church culture at that time is what gives me the greatest hope that my story won’t be recreated at their church. I think it’s incredibly important that we, all of us, not pretend that any organization or institution is infallible. Churches are not exempt from power imbalances and abusive leaders. All those years I spent keeping my story to myself, I hadn’t realized that so many other felt equally fearful at what was going on in ministry at Southland during that time. So many of us experienced a deeply abusive church culture and were so confused by how the church treated us. The emails I received after posting my story reminded me that the way we create change is by bringing those stories into the light. Burying them accomplishes nothing, except to perpetuate the pain for others down the line, and impede our own healing.
For so many who can’t speak their truth, though, or who are not yet able to recognize that they’ve been abused, or who were abused so long ago that they don’t want to revisit that pain, I know you were hoping for more of a tangible outcome. Someone to lose a job, a public response on Southland’s website, something. Honestly, after the whole process these last five months, I wish I had something to offer you, and so many others like you who never emailed me to share their own stories because they couldn’t find the words. While the lead pastor did share the post with his leaders, the board, and key volunteers, the public response did not ultimately happen. I know so many of you reading need to know that my story (and by proxy, your story) was acknowledged by that church. It was; just not in the way we may have wanted.
I was clear in the original post, that I was not looking for anything from Southland, and that is still true. How, why, and when we speak out is important. I was beyond shocked when the lead pastor at Southland reached out to me a week after the post went up. Ultimately, I’m grateful for his response, and for the process that unfolded because of it – but I was in no way anticipating any of that would happen. If I knew back in August all that would unfold because of my blog post, I’m not sure how I would proceed. It’s been a difficult and taxing 5 months. Would I put myself through that again? I hope so, but only because I have learnt so much about what true reconciliation and restorative justice looks like, and what survivors need in the process.
The thing that ultimately brought about my healing, and continues to bring healing, is simply telling my story. I certainly could’ve done that without putting it in a public blog post, but sharing my pain with those who have experienced something similar and felt alone or unsure if their experience was real, has also brought tremendous peace and clarity to my heart. That is the power of #me too, #churchtoo, and sharing our stories. We can, together, acknowledge that what happened was wrong. That churches hurting people and pushing people out is not ok. We can hold leaders accountable. We can make sure our faith looks like Jesus, and be a part of peoples’ healing, not their hurting. Ultimately, that’s what the church is there to do.
I did not anticipated just how many people had also been very deeply hurt and abused by the leaders at this church at the same time as I had, and still were so confused about their experience. I’m so sorry we shared this experience, but I’m grateful that we can all collectively make sense of our experiences together.
No matter how the church responded, what made the post worth writing for me is that we have seen each other, dear reader, and I am eternally grateful for that.
“and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive”
Merry Christmas, Happy New year, and thanks for reading in 2019.
*This was the greatest teacher to me in understanding what women go through when they speak up: it costs them so much. And yet, our first response as a society when we hear a woman cry "Rape!" or accuse her boss, father, coworker of violating her, is to think she is lying. This experience has shown me how incredibly difficult it is for those women to speak up in the first place, and also why so many women do not speak up. It's hard. It's painful. And when those voices of accusation come at you saying you're lying, saying you're wrong, saying you're making it up, it takes an incredible amount of fortitude to stand against them. I wouldn't have been able to do this without truly incredible friends and family, who held me up and loved me through a very hard season. You know who you are, and I have so much gratitude for the way you listened, felt my sadness and rage with me, and most importantly, that you let me be the captain of the ship in this process. Thank you.