TRIGGER ALERT – SEXUAL ABUSE. (Also, if you’re sensitive to criticism of the Australian Christian Churches movement, or church on general, or else generally in denial about how many victims and perpetrators are in the church and haven’t been made “all better now”, you might find this triggering also.)
Recently, a friend of mine shared with me how the evening bible study group she regularly attended decided one night when she wasn’t present to change the agenda of their group meetings. They would no longer be doing a bible study together, but would instead take it in turns to tell their “testimony” – their conversion story, or a report of some miracle or transformation God did in their lives. My friend was mortified. Not only was she averse to telling her “story” to the group, but felt if she did, several members would probably be traumatised or offended by it. She knew the group structure was ill-equipped to deal with the subject matter. You see, my friend was sexually abused as a young child. This has impacted her life dramatically. She knows from thirty years of experience most people in the church context are not only unprepared to hear her story, but unprepared to deal with it in any meaningful way. It baffles and confuses them; emotionally, spiritually and theologically.
Knowing the people in the group as she did, and understanding the purpose of the exercise was not to help each other deal with life events but to “glorify God” and have a fun time getting to know each other better, my friend was presented with three choices.
1) Confront the group about the decision to change the agenda, pointing out how the group was structurally unprepared to deal with any issues which could come up, initiating a discussion around how this decision could force group members to “censor” their story, be dishonest about their truth in order to “fit the script” of how a “testimony” is meant to roll out, and could leave members open to rejection, abuse or judgment.
2) Say nothing about the abuse and censor her story leaving out the uncomfortable bits.
3) Make excuses and leave the group.
What do you think she chose to do?
Don’t you feel sometimes like we set each other up to fail?
Many of my concerns about this particular situation regard the assumptions apparently made by the members of the group about:
1) The clean, neat way God always brings about a happy ending – NOT.
2) The misguided confidence often held by church folks about their capacity to handle sensitive and life-impacting issues and situations.
In my experience, at almost every turn, particularly in the more charismatic denominations, members are encouraged to over share, bear their deepest vulnerabilities and express their emotions. Yet, as the complexity and intensity of the issues society brings the church increases, the expertise and complexity of skill the church is bringing to bear in dealing with them is largely not keeping up.
Not long ago, I attended a church orientation course where, after just a few hours together, the ministry team responsible for handling counselling in the church staged a mock counselling session for the benefit of the group, to show what was likely to happen should someone come to them for counselling. As they went through the motions, it became clear the particular topic used for the demonstration was actually triggering one of the counsellors doing the staging. She choked up and began to weep. My alarm bells immediately went off. My experience and training indicated to me the demonstration needed to terminate and the person needed to be taken aside to be supported, and the group needed to be debriefed about what just happened. But this did not occur. The counsellor, now clearly distressed, insisted the mock up continue. I was horrified.
This situation ought never have been allowed to continue. In my opinion, as a trained group facilitator and supportive care provider, this modelled unsafe emotional practices. It demonstrated to the (new) church members present a couple of things –
1) Normalisation of emotional triggering – it happens here, sometimes in public, so get used to it.
2) When triggering happens to you, you’re expected to self manage it.
3) When triggering happens to someone in front of you, your role is as a spectator or observer, so ignore any responses you have. Don’t get involved, this is just a “show”.
The whole situation was handed very poorly. I called the pastoral supervisor the next day to voice my concerns but it was clear they didn’t think it was a problem. “Oh, she gets emotional all the time, she’ll be okay.” Of course she will. She’s an experienced counsellor. But what about the people present who saw this middle aged, normally very composed person break down into tears, effectively while she was doing her job? And what does this say about how the church culturally and professionally handles people, their issues and their emotions?
See, the thing is, just because Christianity as a spiritual and social entity has traditonally acted as a kind of catch-all for vulnerable people, doesn’t mean Christianity as an institution and culture is at this time well-equipped to cope with what’s being brought to it. Or what the church itself and the people in it are inflicting upon people inside it. Some come to church having been horrifically abused, and the church was the only safe place they knew. However, we now know the church isn’t any safer than the society surrounding it, and to tell people otherwise is to deliberately and horrifically deceive them.
The church – particularly the more contemporary, charismatic denominations – must make a conscious decision to be more self-aware concerning it’s own capacity to cause harm and damage to people – advertently and inadvertently – and to equip itself to cope adequately with the complexity of issues people come with. And not just come with. A great many people get some of their biggest messed-up-ed-ness while they are in the church.
The current situation with Hillsong and the ACC response to abuse and pastoral care of victims and perpetrators must be not merely a sad monologue of historical events, but a an inclusive conversation about the future. We need to decide how to better be the body of Christ. We can no longer pretend these things don’t happen in our churches. Mark my words – if you feel squirmy hearing about the Houston’s and the current enquiry, better prepare yourself. There will be more of this to come.
And mark these words. IT IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW.
In the past, we’ve been wont as Christians to hand people the script from which they may read to us the story of their Christian experience. You were bad, messed up, dirty and sinful. You were out, excluded, imprisoned and broken. But now, now you’re one of us. And we here are not those bad, nasty things any more. Tell us the story of us, be our trophy of grace, we said. We want our heroes of redemption and all-fixed-upped-ness. But a great many of us are not all fixed up. We are not only not sure we are forgiven for what we did, we are not sure we can forgive it.
Let’s face it. The church has within it victims of paedophiles, and some of them are not okay. It also has within those who are the pedophiles, and we are seriously misguided if we think they are any more okay and all-fixed-up-now than the victims are.
Our churches are filled with the abused; healing people who, unlike the ones who cannot understand their suffering, do not equate silence about what was done to them with forgiveness or with it being over. Many are told they’ll know when they are healed because they can tell their story and it won’t make them cry. Many have never had the opportunity to actually tell that story, and when they did, the abject inability of the ones who demanded they share it to cope with the content was soul destroying, and another kind of silencing.
You want our stories, but often not because you wanted to help us heal them. You wanted our stories because you wanted to use them to promote your capacity to love us despite them. You wanted our stories because you wanted us on your resume. You wanted us to be your trophies of grace. You wanted us to show how your God can fix anything and anyone. But we do not yet know that to be true, because not only are we, the abused, still wandering in the wilderness of our pain, but the abusers are wandering through your flocks, unhealed and unfixed and lost in their own wilderness of pain.
And even though, church, you say you want us, you are not ready to hear and accept our stories. You are still trying to muffle, to edit, to censor and to manipulate them. You think you know what a healed story looks like. A rescued child. A redeemed whore. A welcomed prodigal. A restored pariah. Those are the characters we have written into our church story of grace. But what happens when the soul before us cannot read the script we’ve handed them?
Church, get ready. You think this is messy? It’s about to get messier. The ones we thought we could trust are about to be tested. What was committed in and to the dark is about to come into the light. And we are going to be horrified when we learn about it. But we are going to have to learn to deal with it. Because it’s coming.