My experiences of reaching a place of being able to forgive abusive and dishonest church leaders

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From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 14 – How to forgive people in practical terms – some advice on what to do and how to go about it

After the futile experience of trying to address issues within the first church, both my wife and I were traumatized, and far more so than we realised at the time.  Moreover, the sense of violation and trauma lasted for at least three years, and probably more.  This emotional reaction came from several factors which we experienced:

a) other church members avoiding us and disapproving of us, without ever asking us any questions, or checking anything with us.  They simply believed everything that the leaders told them, as I had previously done myself, when other people had left the church.

b) being undermined and lied about by the elders, so as to harm our reputation and prevent people listening to us.

c) being deliberately obstructed by other leaders within our own church, so as to prevent the Matthew 18 procedure from being used effectively.

d) being betrayed and abused by Rick, the senior leader, and also other leaders within that church.

e) being let down by the external leaders from other churches in the town.  They had supposedly been brought in to investigate matters, but never had any genuine intention of actually doing so.  Their real aim was only to smooth things over, not to grasp any nettle or confront any person or issue.  They saw me and my wife as dispensable and viewed our departure as preferable to allowing a scandal to come to light.  Therefore they did nothing at all to defend us. They sought only to defend the leader’s career, and to preserve only his reputation, not ours.

f) being effectively driven out of our own church, where we had been for seven years, and had many genuine friendships, simply for having tried to address our (valid) concerns in a biblical way.

g) being lied about by the senior leader

It was all very painful and we took far longer to get over it than I ever expected.  Our initial reaction was to want to speak at length to anybody who would listen and to show how justified we were and how we had been wronged.  But it did no good.  It was a futile waste of time and energy.  People just weren’t interested. 

At any rate, they didn’t want to get involved or to rock the boat, especially after seeing what had happened to us for speaking out.  The other members of the church basically didn’t seem to mind whether the leadership was corrupt or not, provided they could have a quiet life. 

Of course, the problem was hugely compounded by the fact that we were operating outside of the church structure and leadership framework envisaged by Jesus when He gave the command set out in Matthew 18.  So, all of our speaking about it was unproductive.  It achieved nothing other than us letting off steam.

That said, it may actually have created more trauma for us when we realised that the people to whom we thought we could turn weren’t interested.  They had no wish to help us.  What I found most hurtful of all was the willingness of so many people to believe any lie told about us.  They never questioned any of it, or checked any of it with us. 

I suppose that was partly because the lies were coming directly from the mouth of the leader.  They assumed that what he was saying must, therefore, be true.  Even so, it wounded us badly and we felt violated.  It took us about three years for our emotions to calm down.  That isn’t unusual. I have noticed from speaking to others that that’s how long such things usually seem to take, especially when there is no proper biblical structure in place. 

What made it worse was that once we left the first church, which we’d been in for seven years, we found it impossible to find any other good church to go to.  That was partly because our own eyes had been opened.  We therefore went from one extreme to the other.  Having been absurdly naive and trusting, we then became extremely wary of other church leaders, even the better ones.

Sadly, that wariness was not solely based on our imaginations.  Indeed, on the whole, it was actually well-founded.   Once God had opened our eyes to this problem within the churches, we saw falseness, ambition, pride, domination, control and manipulation almost everywhere we went.  It seems that such features are now widespread among most of the leadership of churches in Great Britain. 

That is partly due to the carnal condition of the churches and their leaders, but also the institutional and hierarchical nature of church structure.  For many men, church leadership has become a career rather than a ministry.  That is why so many of them are hirelings rather than shepherds.  

All in all, it meant we couldn’t settle in any local church for some years, until we had calmed down from the emotional trauma of the experience.  When the second crisis came and we left another church for similar reasons, we suffered much less hurt.  But that was only because while we were in that church we had remained at a distance, due to our wariness.   We didn’t allow the leaders of that second church to get close enough to us to do much harm. 

As it turned out, that was a wise and fully justified policy.  Three other couples we knew did get badly hurt, as we had been earlier, because they made a futile, and very naïve, attempt to tackle the issues.  But we avoided it the second time.  We just left quietly, without trying to deal with any of it.  We knew that those three couples would be unsuccessful, and that the leader would not listen to them, or feel any remorse.  Sadly, that proved to be the case.

As for dealing with the need for forgiveness from both these episodes, we just had to work it all out by ourselves. Time gradually helped to deal with the wounds.  We also learned how to hand the whole dispute over to God for Him to deal with it all.  Thus, we no longer felt the need to talk about it or to prove our innocence to everybody.

We also learned how to pray for all the leaders concerned.   We genuinely prayed for God to bless, restore and rebuild the ministries of the leaders who had lied about us. We also asked Him to forgive them, rather than judge them, and to hold nothing against them on our account.  It helped us to pray in those ways and it may, perhaps, have helped them too.

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