Following the Breadcrumbs: how we escaped an abusive pastor and church -and a roadmap to escape for others

My heart is torn when I write on this topic.  There is a part of me that just wants to move on and attempt to forget that any of this ever happened to us.  Then reality hits me. These experiences helped make me who I am I.  –And honestly, I think I actually like who I am now…

I also feel an obligation to help those who might find themselves in the situation that my family and I were in.  Jesus had a few things to say about helping the weak… -And if you have found yourself mixed up in an abusive or unhealthy church, chances are you are beat up and in a emotionally weakened state.  So, for those that have found themselves in such a situation, I pray that God uses these words to give you strength, comfort and direction.  You CAN escape; just follow the breadcrumbs.

A common conversation had between my wife and I is in regards to our bewilderment at how people will remain in spiritually abusive churches, despite the abusive and deception that is so obviously taking place.  I thought it would be helpful to others if I took a few minutes to recollect the factors that eventually helped us escape our experience.  *Keep in mind, Amy and I had been “under this pastor’s wing” since I was eighteen and she was sixteen.  We were young, we were naive and we had grown extremely loyal. We were also surrounded by others who were loyal.  It was not until we were in our early thirties that we finally and completely broke away; our “escape” was a long and painful process.  Below is an incomplete list that helped form the breadcrumb trail which facilitated our escape:

  • By having our own personal relationships with God  -independent of the pastor or any other church leader.  It was through our own relationships with God that He began to show us that “something just wasn’t right.” Our relationships with God were deeper than what happened at our church on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights.  In addition, our pastor did not serve as the mediator between us and God.  Fortunately, we had realized that Someone else had already gotten that job.*I find that most people stuck in spiritually abusive situations do not have their own “independent” relationship with God.
  • By knowing basic Biblical teachings -for ourselves   The actions of the pastor and church began to conflict with basic Biblical teachings like: helping the poor, servant-hood (outside of the church structures,) authentic Christian love, etc. Again, “something just wasn’t right” in the church. These were not things we actively looked for; they just “stuck out” over time.  By the end of our time at the church, they became glaring red flags.
  • By constantly submitting to God’s Word -independent of the teachings of the pastor.  As my own relationship with God developed, I began to realize that there were times that my submission to God’s word and will conflicted with what my pastor had said God’s will for my life was.  What my pastor said I should do and what God was leading me to do were in conflict.  If I followed God’s leading, I was going against my pastor’s authority.  The saying in our church was not, “What would Jesus do?” but, “What would Pastor ‘Bob’ do?”  Once again, “something just wasn’t right.” I found myself in constant conflict.
  • By attempting to reconcile the “actions” of the pastor to God, His nature and His Word   Over time, I began to attempt to reconcile the actions of my pastor with God’s Word, specifically with the simple teachings of Jesus.  No one is perfect, but there were areas where I was very concerned.  At first I gave my pastor the benefit of the doubt; in the early years I was actually his strongest advocate who came to his defense.  But as time expired this position became more difficult. Almost everything he said from the pulpit sounded right and rooted in sound Biblical teaching, but his actions could not be reconciled with Truth.  As time progressed, I observed more and more secrecy in the church.  I had the reoccurring thought, “If we are not doing anything wrong, why are we  hiding it?”
  • By aspiring to have a healthy relationship with my spouse and children  My loyalty to the pastor and his church hindered my relationships with my wife and children.  He did not value my family time and he did not value my relationship with my wife.  There were various conversations we would have where he made it a point to tell me NOT to tell my wife.  It was like he wanted me to keep secrets from her. –I always saw this as a major red flag, again more secrecy. In addition, the time that my loyalty to the pastor and church required, greatly hindered quality family time.
  • By loving God and my family more than my position in ministry   As my eyes began to open, I knew I would have to give up my staff position in the church. Our church plant had grown to one of the largest and fastest growing churches in the area. I had to love God and my family more than my position. This was a simple but very fundamental realization for me.
  • By coming to the understanding that great worship music, entertaining preaching and a large crowd -alone, do not make a healthy church family   As a matter of fact, they can make for a very unhealthy twisted group if godly relational principles are broken. You can find great music, entertainment and crowds in lots of atmospheres; those characteristics alone do not make those venues healthy churches.
  • By beginning to ask very difficult questions and being willing to question everything I believed.  I learned that God can easily handle any tough question that I asked Him; He never got freaked out or offended by a single question! BUT, leaders in abusive churches cannot handle tough questions, they get offended and defensive very easily.  Those who ask questions are labeled as trouble makers very quickly.  I found that the process of asking tough questions, while painful at first, made me a much stronger person and ultimately increased my faith while bringing me closer to God.  Again, in a healthy spiritual and relational environment, we should not be afraid to ask any questions.
  • By beginning to listen to godly people that I crossed passed with, who were outside of the abusive church  God strategically placed precious godly people in my life that He used to facilitate my escape.  As I reflect, it is simply unbelievable how He caused me to cross paths with the perfect people at the perfect time. People who gave me wise counsel and offered a different perspective on the situation inside of my church.
  • By realizing that good people, who loved God, who I loved very much, could be easily deceived   It took me a long time to finally realize this but it is the truth.
  • By beginning to be honest with myself about what really happened to us   We had to lose our pride and admit that we had been led down a deceptive path.  –And we had to admit that “we” choose to walk that path for a season in our lives. We had helped build and served in leadership in an abusive church. There was a time where “we” were a part of the problem; we had to “admit that” to ourselves and repent of “our” sin before we could fully escape and begin to heal.
  • By being willing to face confrontation and lose relationships   For me, I think a big part of my emotional escape was due to the fact that I decided to confront and expose the abuser.  (I am speaking very transparently here.)  It was not that I was bitter; I knew if I was not careful bitterness would eat me up like an emotional cancer. It is like I needed to take my voice back, -like I am still in the process of taking my voice back.  And I needed to take my identity back; the abuser had stolen it.  The abuser had stolen my voice and identity with his counterfeit authority and bully pulpit.  I needed to confront him and tell him that what he did was wrong.  –And I felt the need to warn others about what was happening, -whether they listened or not.  That type of confrontation is tough.  I found that Jesus was not kidding when He talked about “losing your life” and “taking up your cross.” I lost relationships with people who are very dear to me; I still grieve the loss of those relationships.
  • By wanting something different   *I believe that the point that an individual realizes that they are in an abusive or unhealthy church is just “step 1” in the escape process.  “Step 2” is actually making the painful and difficult decision to leave.  “Step 2” is the more difficult step in the process.  I believe that many people realize that they are in abusive churches but simply are not strong enough to leave.   -Or they choose not to leave due to lost relationships, lost position, fear, etc. We got to the point where we wanted something different. We knew no church was perfect, but we wanted something closer to what the Bible describes as a healthy church family.
  • By wanting to be healthy and whole   Over time, we began to realize that we were not spiritually or emotionally healthy.  We were not “whole.”  I would not have used those exact words seven years ago, but deep in my heart I knew something was wrong.  As I began to wrap my head around and “unpack” that unpleasant truth, I realized that we needed to distance ourselves from unhealthy relationships and unhealthy people -especially those unhealthy people who thought they were healthy (those are the most dangerous.)   I wanted to be “whole,” I wanted my wife to be “whole” and I wanted my children to be “whole” -or at least give them every opportunity to grow up to be “whole.”  And “wholeness” was not being modeled in our abusive church.  Despite the state of the art facilities,  the appetizing children’s and youth programs, the produced worship experience, the very entertaining preaching and the large crowd that came to observe the Sunday event that we called “church,” I was left wanting something more, something that could not be found anywhere within those characteristics alone.  So, I led myself and my family down a new path to find it.

*If you would like to read some of my other thoughts on Spiritual Abuse, please follow this link: Eric’s Posts on Spiritual Abuse

7 thoughts on “Following the Breadcrumbs: how we escaped an abusive pastor and church -and a roadmap to escape for others

  1. I appreciate you sharing thia story. There are more like us out there than we realize. My wife and I too were part of a very similar story (almost too similar). God is good and brought us out and 5 years later we have a stronger more powerful relationship with God and each other! I ironically agree that I too like who I now am as a result of the horrible experiences. We currently have friends in that church that are not allowed to talk to us that are currently reaching out. I pray I can be sensitive enough to play whatever role God wants me to play to help them in doing so. Thank you for being real!

  2. I believe if we genuinely desire to follow God and pray that he gives us the desires of our heart – that He will make us want to do what He wants us to do – He will deliver us from evil. When I finally quit my teaching position in an abusive christian school/church I remember saying the words (when the pastor asked again if quitting is what I wanted to do) “yes, I think it is best.” However, I also distinctly remember a weird experience. My brain was telling me not to say those words (I LOVED teaching the kids) but my mouth would not stop. I truly believe the Holy Spirit was speaking through me to protect me. I don’t know why everyone is not protected in the same way but I pray everyday that God would use me where He wants me regardless of what I think I want.

  3. Diane
    I could not help but think about this text from James 4:
    “6b Therefore He says: ‘God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.’
    7 Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”

    I think God “protects” us when we allow Him to protect us. When we are listening, when we are yielding to Him, when we are submitted to Him, -He can protect us. (And obviously I do literally mean “HIM” equaling God, His Word, and His Holy Spirit; -not just some man behind a bully pulpit who says he is speaking for God. *I believe God was protecting you when you left that church/school, but you allowed Him to. I have had similar experiences.

    Although you know this, I feel compelled to write this next thought for other readers. There is nothing special about us. God does not love us any more than He loves anyone else. -Our willingness to submit, yield, and listen allowed God to work, protect and eject us from bad situations. (We also had to be willing to endure that journey as well. -lost relationships, etc.)

    Blessings

    Eric

  4. Love that last paragraph. Sometimes when I am angry and want to tell God “I quit” that is what I am thinking of – that if I don’t completely give myself to Him things can get worse. So sad for me – I should always be serving Him out of thankfulness, not fear!

  5. This is so helpful. I have only in the last three months come to realize that I am in a church which, despite starting well, has now become abusive. My wife and I, like you, were under our Pastors care ( and care/nurture, reassurance is what it was!) from our early twenties. We are now in our fifties! Spending so long in faithful ministry in this church makes any decision to leave heart-wrenching. If we do so, others in the congregation will be devastated. This is not an easy road – one step at a time at the moment!

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