“In abusive spiritual systems, power is postured and authority is legislated. Therefore, these systems are preoccupied with the performance of their members.”
– David Johnson & Jeff Van Vonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse
It’s difficult to write about abuse of any kind, not only because it requires engaging with painful memories, but also because it’s hard to capture its complexity. For years now, I’ve wondered how to tell a story in which fruitful transformation and painful betrayal are deeply intertwined, and where the heroes and the villains are the same people. I haven’t known how to tell a story in which I was not only a victim of an abusive spiritual system but also, at different points, an active participant, a resister, a deserter, a survivor, and increasingly, an overcomer. I suppose that’s why it’s taken me six years to make sense of my time at Renovation Church, my family’s church home in Atlanta from June 2012-June 2014.
In the years since our departure, I’ve cycled through feelings of powerlessness, pain, grief, and anger. These emotions have been difficult burdens to bear, especially as a survivor of childhood trauma. Much of my 28-year journey toward maturity in Christ (I surrendered my life to Christ when I was 19) has involved growing in the capacity to be ruled by the love of Christ instead of by incurable wounds. A central aspect of that has been learning to pray through strong emotions like hatred and anger as thoroughly as possible when someone sins against me. So that’s what I’ve done.
Until now, I haven’t considered the possibility that there was anything else I could do. I had even convinced myself I was at peace with it. My body, however, tells me something different. Every fall, around the anniversary of the most traumatic events, I’ve experienced an immune-related illness that lasts for weeks to months. Two years in a row now, the illness has rendered me homebound for a month. In 2018, I ended up in the emergency room. I’ve come to believe that my health problems reflect something Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk wrote, “As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself.” (Van Der Kolk, 2014, p. 233)
In my capacity as a writer, I spend a great deal of time and energy reading, thinking about, and writing about justice, injustice, the plight of the weak and vulnerable, and the responsibility of the strong. This work is an expression of how God has wired and gifted me. And continuing to maintain my silence about what happened to my husband and me at Renovation Church is now untenable.
Why Go Public?
Breaking silence on abuse doesn’t necessarily mean going public about it. It can mean something as discrete as confiding in a single trusted friend. In many cases, it’s not even advisable for survivors to publish their stories in this manner. What, then, is the rationale for going public?
In my case, the decision to go public about the spiritual abuse I experienced at Renovation Church is based on five things:
- It involves a public figure. People who are public figures have public personas from which they derive power, favor, and status. When they exercise power in abusive, idolatrous, or unjust ways from important spiritual positions, then the status, favor, and power afforded them via their public personas end up being used in service of that abuse. (Crouch, 2012) The result is that the power of the abusers’ victims shrinks in proportion to the degree that the public’s emotional investment in the abuser’s public persona increases. The primary way available to “the little people” to offset this power dynamic is to bring to bear – in the public sphere – credible testimony about the actual person and about things that take place beyond the public gaze.
- The importance of credible testimony. On-the-record testimonies carry weight that anonymous and non-specific testimonies cannot. Plus, the latter can play into abusive spiritual systems’ claims that negative statements about them or their leaders are merely “satanic attacks.” Credible testimony is all the more important in this case because the public figure I will be writing about has created a public persona around social justice, reconciliation, church planting, and making disciples, and his words are often quoted by people engaged in the work of justice, mercy, and discipleship.
- I’m telling my story so that other survivors can find the words to tell their own stories and begin their own healing process. “Finding words where words were absent before, and, as a result, being able to share your deepest pain and deepest feelings with another human being… is one of the most profound experiences we can have. Such resonance, in which hitherto unspoken words can be discovered, uttered, and received, is fundamental to healing the isolation of trauma – especially if other people in our lives have ignored or silenced us. Communicating fully is the opposite of being traumatized.” (Van Der Kolk, 2014, p. 235)
- I would like to see the abuser repent. Repentance would include his vacating all positions of spiritual authority, submitting himself to a season (at least one year) of professional counseling, finding non-ministerial employment, growing in self-awareness, and making things right with the people he has wronged.
- I made reasonable attempts to seek repentance and reconciliation privately, but these attempts resulted in additional trauma. Between December 6-20, 2014, I attempted to reconcile privately with the abusive person in both a 90-minute one-on-one phone conversation as well as in a series of electronic message exchanges that followed. It was in the context of these good-faith attempts that the most egregious deception and manipulation occurred, creating additional trauma that was even more hurtful than the original. He has had six years to repent and make things right, but he has chosen not to. Meanwhile, the spiritual and emotional well-being of others has continued to be seriously undermined.
Defining Spiritual Abuse and the Scope of This Essay
For purposes of clarification, let me explain what I mean by spiritual abuse. I consider it spiritual malpractice. It’s not a criminal or legal violation but is nevertheless a devastating and ethical one, and it can be perpetrated by both individuals and systems/institutions. Generally, it can be defined broadly as “the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support, or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.” (Johnson and Van Vonderen, 1991, p.20) It can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control another person and when spirituality is used to bolster the position or needs of a leader over and above the one who comes to them in need. (Johnson and Van Vonderen, 1991, pp.20-21) Common elements include gaslighting (causing people to question their perception of reality, or redefining their reality for them); silencing people through enforced hierarchy or claims of spiritual authority; dogmatism over particular expressions of doctrine and practice; and the use of shaming, shunning, or legalistic moralizing to enforce codes of behavior or morality. (Degroat, 2020, pp. 118-127)
Now, here are a few caveats before I get into my story. It’s neither a tell-all nor a spiteful take-down. It’s a limited memoir of an extraordinarily painful set of events that took place in my life over a period of 2.5 years. Because of the sensitive and subjective nature of this task, I’ve chosen to limit what I share primarily to things for which I have documentation and in a way that doesn’t get into the specifics of other people’s personal stories, which don’t belong to me and therefore shouldn’t be shared by me.
Finally, because I esteem the title “Pastor” and reserve its use for people who do the loving and sacred work of spiritual shepherding, I will refrain from using it as a title for anyone at Renovation Church who was involved in abusive behavior. I will refer to them by first name, since that most accurately captures the relational familiarity that existed when these events took place. When I do use the word, it will merely be as a reference to that person’s official position at Renovation Church.
In the Beginning: Excitement
When my husband, Peter, and I first arrived at Renovation Church in June of 2012, I was weary of the persistent sense of marginalization and invisibility I had felt in predominantly white churches in Atlanta. The racial and ethnic diversity at Renovation felt like a dream. The novelty of the experience alone was intoxicating. I was enthralled by everything about the place: the preaching, the worship, the energy, the vision, the leaders, the people. Even as I look back through all the pain I later experienced, I can still say that our time there bore good, long-lasting fruit and changed my life in ways for which I’ll be forever grateful. It was there, under Black leadership and in community with diverse Black people, that I got in touch with and began deconstructing my latent anti-black prejudice and white supermacist lens. It was there, in community with people struggling with poverty, that I began examining and repenting of my class privilege and bias. And it was there that I saw up close how an event like the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, could expose the underlying racial divisions in what on the surface appeared to be a harmonious multiracial congregation. Witnessing the raw pain and the seemingly unbridgeable divide between people we deeply cared about ignited in me a passion for gospel peacemaking that continues to this day.
We became members of Renovation Church in July 2012. Actually, we became “covenant missionaries.” The leaders wanted everyone who joined the church to understand membership as a serious commitment – a covenant. Joining involved signing a document that stipulated specific terms: to be baptized, to agree to what the leaders considered “close-handed issues of doctrine and theology”; to submit to and support the church leadership; to refrain from gossip, slander and false testimony in situations of conflict; to make a pledge at the beginning of each fiscal year specifying the amount they believe God has called and enabled them to give; to serve in and through the church’s ministries; and to seek the counsel of church leadership before leaving the church.
In hindsight, this document didn’t represent a two-way covenant; it was a one-sided contract. It mentioned briefly that members could expect to receive pastoral care and accountability for the leaders’ oversight of the church, but it did not specify any ethical standards or ministerial commitments that the leaders owed to its members. Also, only the members were required to sign it. There was no signature line for the clergy. These details are significant because this one-sided contract, we would discover later, gave the leaders a means to control or punish its members (even former members) at their own whim. The 8-page contract can be found here.
[NOTE: In 2017, the church dropped the term “covenant missionary” and adopted the term “investor” in its place. The original 8-page document was expanded into a 34-page booklet that ends with an Investor Covenant very similar to the one we signed in 2012. That document is here. However, the organizational structure of the church was significantly changed in 2019. Click on the hyperlinks to access the text of the new bylaws and the external Apostolic Overseer model that were adopted last year. In the bylaws document, “Senior Pastor/CEO” appears 8 times.]
From Excitement to Concern
Peter and I jumped right into serving the church. Before long, we were hosting a city group (community-based small group), and I was discipling several young women. Near the end of 2012, the lead pastor, Léonce Crump, asked us to oversee the Northeast Missional Community, which consisted of three Renovation city groups that represented about one hundred people at the time. We accepted. In January-February 2013, we took a four-week-long deacon training course. During those four weeks, I read A Quiet Revolution: The Christian Response to Human Need… A Strategy for Today by John Perkins. Perkins’ book was incredibly formative in terms of helping me understand how Christian discipleship overlaps with meeting both spiritual and tangible human needs among people experiencing poverty, oppression, and injustice.
In a face-to-face conversation I had with Léonce and then-assistant pastor, Ethan Seifried, at some point during deacon training, I asked Léonce about the organizational structure of the church and whether it was conducive to his discipling young men in the church, particularly young Black men, because that was a group that neither my husband nor I could minister to as effectively as he could. We had already begun to recognize our embodied limitations as a white male and Asian female in our multiethnic community. He explained that he, as lead pastor, was in charge of discipling the elders, the elders were in charge of discipling the city group leaders, and the city group leaders were in charge of discipling the people in their groups. I remarked that it sounded like a business model with Christian labels. “What about doing what John Perkins did, the way he talked about in The Quiet Revolution? He spent years pouring into men in his community who had no formal theological education and trained them up into spiritual leaders. I mean, the elders don’t need you to disciple them, but people like _______ do.”
He replied, “Well, if you look at the church side of Perkins’ ministry, it never really took off in terms of numbers.”
From Concern to Burnout
As lay leaders of a large missional community, we had frequent interactions via emails, phone calls, and text messages with Léonce and Ethan to discuss ministry concerns. The bulk of those interactions were between them and me, since Peter had a busy corporate job, and I was far more available for ministry during the week. Leadership meetings focused on both the business of running the groups from week to week and “the business” of managing the behavior of people under our care. The practice of behavioral management tended to be more pronounced when Léonce was directly involved. It’s reflected in emails in which he said things like, “I’m gonna let you handle this with her before I have to step in and deal with it” or “I nailed his butt to the wall… he cried” or “He needs an overhaul.” But Léonce was also winsome, hilarious, and disarming. Everyone liked and respected him and wanted his vision of community to work – so much so that very few of us thought to object to his heavy-handed approach to people. At the time, most of us probably just thought of it as strong and assertive leadership.
In the course of doing the slow, difficult, and unpredictable work of making disciples and caring for people, however, I began to recognize such heavy-handed and gossipy approaches as problematic. I began to push back on it. One time, I responded to a group email about one of the women under my care: “I will no longer be participating in any behind-the-scenes management of this situation. Please exclude me from any future emails except what pertains to logistics. My primary role is to disciple/mentor ____ and support her through the process. I will no longer write any updates or share any sensitive information without [her] knowledge, but I will do so if she asks me to, and only as a messenger. I think this situation is too sensitive and volatile, and whatever trust being built too fragile, to use email as a means of communication anyway.” No one responded.
In June of that year, I had an uncomfortable interaction with Léonce and Ethan over the way they handled a situation with a woman at the church. I sent an email on June 18, 2013 to express the ways I felt like they had failed to treat her with respect and dignity. They responded with a lot of defensive justification. After that, Léonce became more distant, and our interactions became more sporadic. He also started traveling more to speak at conferences and other events and was simply less available.
Meanwhile, Peter and I were still in the middle of an intense ministry season doing the work of pastoral care. For the better part of 2013, we walked alongside people experiencing relational turmoil, mental illness, housing insecurity, financial difficulty, porn addiction, divorce, domestic violence, sexual assault, and more. We hosted one young man in need of temporary housing for three weeks, and then we hosted a family in crisis for five months (April-September 2013). The more we were immersed in human need and brokenness, the more we got in touch with our own and the more we saw how foolish it was to try to insult people into conformity or threaten them out of their sinful patterns or shame them into better performance.
We didn’t receive much in the way of soul care or even logistical support from anyone at the church, despite providing the leaders with frequent updates. By September of 2013, I was in a state of complete burnout, and our marriage was suffering under the enormous strain of doing so much crisis management. During that same month, I also discovered some devastating information about one of my family members, which compounded all the grief I was already feeling. And as if all that weren’t enough, my experience with the worship team had become another source of pain and disillusionment.
[A Brief Detour to Discuss “Transcultural Worship”]
I’m also a musician and songwriter. By the middle of 2013, it was apparent that I was at odds philosophically with the church’s forced and awkward approach to “transcultural” worship, which was a closely managed mashup of Anglo-European and Black Gospel styles by an appointed gate keeper, Sam. In my estimation, the “transcultural” worship at Renovation was an artificially engineered product rather than a genuine and organic result of equitable inter-cultural sharing and exchange within a multicultural reality. But Léonce rejected the idea of multicultural worship: “We don’t do multicultural worship at Renovation; we do transcultural™ worship.” The problem was that all the songs were being modified or arranged by Sam to include recognizable elements of Anglo-European and Black Gospel music or hip-hop. Picture Hillsong, Passion City, or Elevation songs arranged to incorporate maj7/min7/dim chords and 2-5-1 chord progressions, or classic hymns like “Great is Thy Faithfulness” with someone rapping in-between verses, or Sam’s many original songs with these elements mixed together.
Look, I’m a third-culture kid, and based on my understanding and experience of how cultures intersect, actual transcultural music is birthed out of circumstances in which diverse people groups come together and have the freedom to express themselves and tell their stories through their own art. It captures the histories and cultural identities of the unique people groups involved. It’s not artificially imposed or cooked up in one designated person’s creative laboratory
Take Afro-Columbian hip-hop, for example. It’s a paradox that captures an important story about the effects of globalization. While globalization makes it possible for geographically distant cultures to intermingle, it’s also the force behind the exacerbation of the economic inequality that keeps the poverty rate high in the Afro-Columbian population. Afro-Columbian hip-hop emerged as a form of resistance to this economic oppression, sharing an ethos with American hip-hop, which originated in the Bronx in the 1970s during a time of economic collapse, white flight, urban despair, poverty, and gang violence. Afro-Columbian hip-hop as a transcultural phenomenon captures these complex cultural histories. No one person can create, own, or trademark it.
Outside of the Renovation worship music scene, I was actively exploring why there was such a vacuum of recognizable, definitive worship styles and forms among American-born Asians and their churches. I had concluded that this vacuum reflected a long history of assimilation in this country. I wondered what it would sound like for diverse artists of Asian ancestry to create their own bodies of work. I started to experiment lyrically and musically to this end. I also began networking with other Asian-American Christian musicians around the country.
Unfortunately, there was no room for cooperative and equitable exploration of these things with the Renovation worship team. Sam primarily wanted ideas that he could personally incorporate into his own songwriting, not so much other people’s contributions. He determined where, when, and how certain cultural expressions got used, and he co-opted other people groups’ cultural expressions for his own creations. It was a fabricated transculturalism, or cultural appropriation with a touch of tokenism.
I became increasingly marginalized and without a voice on the worship team. At some point in the summer of 2013, I realized that Breanna Crump (worship director/co-leader and Léonce’s wife) had stopped sending me worship team scheduling emails, and I fell off the rotation altogether. I eventually had a face-to-face conversation about all this with Breanna on November 26, 2013 and then exchanged a series of detailed emails with Sam between December 8-9, 2013. Those interactions were cordial but ultimately proved to be unproductive. The content of those emails can be accessed here.
As I Was Saying… Burnout
It was all too much for me to bear at the time. On September 11, 2013, I sent an email to Breanna and Sam to inform them that I was taking a sabbatical from the music ministry. This was really a formality, since on a practical level, I was no longer being scheduled for services anyway and therefore had not been part of rehearsals for many weeks. I sent a separate email to the women’s ministry director, Pamela, to let her know that I was taking a sabbatical from the women’s advisory board. When I spoke to Pamela over the phone the next day, we discussed my state of burnout and depression as well as my family crisis. At least five times, she vacillated between empathetic understanding and wondering out loud whether she should force me to honor my commitments to the church and to God. It was a roller-coaster of a conversation, but it was clear that it reflected a conflict between her desire to be caring and the pressure she and everyone else felt to conform to a church culture oriented around performance of duties and fulfillment of function.
I had hoped that my withdrawal from various ministries and the reasons I had cited for my withdrawal would trigger some sort of shepherding response from the pastoral staff, but there was none. All I saw was this tweet from Léonce, coincidentally about thirty minutes after I got off the phone with Pamela.
I wasn’t encouraged.
In December 2013, after months of nursing feelings of neglect and abandonment, I initiated a phone call to Ethan. We had a 90-minute conversation during which I expressed the many ways that I had felt spiritually neglected and unsupported, despite being one of their most influential lay leaders. I said, “I feel like we’re just a cog in a wheel that fulfills a function at Renovation, and if we can’t fulfill that function, then we have no value. No one bothers to call and check in.” I think I cried through most of that conversation. Ethan listened and apologized that I had been made to feel like that, but then he referenced two other couples at the church who, like us, were also lay leaders and above the median age of the congregation, saying, “They knew when they joined the church that they would not receive as much as they gave in a young church like this. They knew they were making a sacrifice in service to God.” Then he pivoted to telling me that my next step was to talk to Léonce about my “grievances” toward him. I told him I wasn’t comfortable doing that because I didn’t feel like Léonce was an emotionally safe person, especially if it involved telling him that I disapproved of his running the church like a corporate CEO instead of a pastor. Ethan replied, “I don’t see how it’s possible for you to see Léonce as anything but a safe person. You’ll be violating Matthew 18 if you don’t talk to him.” I said to him, “You’re a white male in a position of authority, and you do whatever he asks of you. Do you really think Léonce relates to every other kind of person the way he relates to you?” I told him he was welcome to relay anything and everything I had said to him to Léonce. I had nothing to hide.
There was still no call from Léonce. Six weeks later, however, Ethan sent me a text message out of the blue: “Hey, are you going to talk to Pastor Leonce?” I replied, “No, because again, I don’t think Matthew 18 applies to this situation.” He responded, “If you can talk to me about Pastor Leonce, then you can talk to Pastor Leonce about Pastor Leonce.” I fired back, “What you’re asking me to do is like asking a poor Black janitor to confront a powerful white CEO about the way he runs his company.” Then he said, “I would like to meet with you ASAP to discuss this.” I stared at my phone, heart pounding, stomach churning, hands shaking, and cold sweating. The communication felt demanding and was all about what I owed Léonce and Ethan. (Remember that one-sided contract?) I felt so traumatized, I couldn’t respond. I just knew I didn’t want to be bullied into meeting on such lopsided terms. Peter informed Ethan in person at the next Northeast missional community leaders’ meeting that I would not be meeting with him or Léonce, who hadn’t even bothered to reach out to us in 3 months, despite being told about the state we were in. He also informed him that we were stepping down from our role as missional community leaders. All communication between the pastors and us ceased for four months after that.
But we remained at the church.
From Burnout to Despair to Departure
Spring of 2014 was hard. A fog of depression engulfed me, and our marriage was in a difficult place. I even entered what would become a prolonged season of temptation. We continued to worship at Renovation every Sunday, but getting through the “transcultural” worship sets and listening to sermons there week after week about topics like justice, service, outreach, community life, and reconciliation created so much dissonance for me that it was like ingesting low doses of arsenic. I felt my soul get sicker every Sunday. Peter and I started a discernment process about whether to stay or leave the church. We re-read the “Healthy Parting” section in our covenant agreement, which said, “If at some point I (we) are called to serve in another missionary field or with another local expression of the church, I (we) commit to making this decision in the midst of community by seeking counsel and discussing the matter with church leadership.” At that point, there was such a sense of distance between us and Léonce and Ethan that we decided to seek the counsel of the elder over the northeast missional community, Eric Ulm. We began meeting with Eric and his wife, Chana. We were open and vulnerable with them as we discussed everything on our hearts. They listened well and were wonderful, empathetic, and kind.
On Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, Léonce approached Peter and me after the church service, greeted and hugged us. It wasn’t accompanied by a self-aware apology for avoiding us for seven months, but I recognized it as a conciliatory gesture, and it was the first time he had initiated any kind of contact with us since September of 2013. He and I exchanged several brief emails after that. (Click to here see the screenshot and here for Alt text.)
These emails show that a person who engages in abusive behavior isn’t abusive all the time and can’t simply be painted one-dimensionally as a villain. But these sorts of gestures are often given exaggerated importance in order to cover up the seriousness of – and severe damage caused by – ministerial sins. That’s what makes these situations so difficult to navigate. That gesture, while conciliatory on the surface and most likely sincere to a degree, was like trying to salvage a gangrenous foot with a soft pillow.
We met with Eric and Chana one more time in late May. By then, it had become abundantly clear to us that there were multiple irreconcilable differences in not only our ministry philosophy/approach and Renovation’s/Léonce’s but also in our respective ethical convictions and practices. June 1, 2014 ended up being our last Sunday at Renovation. Peter called Eric after church that afternoon to let him know of our decision to leave the church. Eric asked us if we wanted to talk to Léonce before we left. We said that we needed to go ahead and leave in order to heal, but that we would circle back to him when we were ready. Eric expressed his own sadness over our departure, but he wished us well.
An Unexpected and Prolonged Period of Crisis
On June 29, 2014, my mother became critically ill. I flew to Houston the next day to see her. Here’s a series of updates I posted to Facebook when she was admitted to the hospital. (Click here for Alt text.) Ethan saw my updates and commented on one of them that he was praying for us. We continued the conversation in private messages. (Click here for Alt text.) Basically, he offered support; I told him that Peter and I would reach out to him and Léonce after the dust settled from our current crisis; and he indicated that he had passed along the message to Léonce.
Léonce never reached out to us.
Little did I know how long our crisis would last and how it would be compounded by other crises in the ensuing five months. My mother ended up being in the ICU and on a ventilator for two months. My brother (David), Peter, and I took turns keeping vigil at her bedside so that at least one of us was with her around the clock and available to help her communicate her needs to the nursing staff. To complicate matters, her prolonged illness had resulted in a secondary family system crisis. She had been the primary caretaker for my dad, who suffered from a serious condition for which he required close supervision. We suddenly had to figure out how to meet his needs too. Peter and I ended up bringing my Dad to Atlanta to live with us for a while so that my brother could focus on our mom.
On August 16, my dad and I were sitting in the plane on the runway in Houston waiting for takeoff, and I started scrolling through Facebook. It was exactly a week after Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, and I saw one of Léonce’s posts about it. He was very upset, and it showed in the way he was responding to people in the comments. I commented, “This is tragic.” He responded, “I know you’re fighting a battle of your own right now, but I hope you’ll join this battle too.” That indicated to me that he had seen my posts about my mom and the all-consuming trial my family was going through but had chosen not to reach out, even in the simplest of ways. Yet he felt no compunction about trying to recruit me as an activist – in a Facebook comment.
The next few months were an overwhelming blur. Having my dad live with us was an intense experience. In addition, those months between September and December of 2014 included two emergency operations and three hospitalizations for my mother-in-law and a middle-of-the night ambulance ride to the hospital for Peter.
Emerging from the Crisis: Superficial Reconciliation, an Unexpected Discovery, and More Trauma
On December 6, 2014, I made good on my promise to Ethan from July 5th to reach out to Léonce about our departure from the church “after the dust settled from this crisis.” We reconnected through Facebook Messaging. I won’t share the whole exchange, as the messages were very long and contain tons of sensitive information. They also contain views that I no longer hold. But I provided him with a very detailed explanation for our departure and concluded with, “I hope this provides some understanding about where our heads and hearts have been for the last year. We have departed, but there is no enmity here. I expect that we can remain friends and believe that transparent dialogue will be more possible in the future without such long delays.”
He called me after receiving that message, and we ended up having a 90-minute phone conversation. He validated a lot of what I felt and apologized for many things. He followed it up right afterward with a lengthy written response in Facebook Messenger. He affirmed my role in the church community: “You were a mother to the Northeast, and most of the time a damn good one. The need then, as it is now, is almost suffocating. I was sure that you were firing on all cylinders at all times, and we ‘had nothing to worry about up there in the Northeast.’ I said that many times, to many people.” It also contained several “please forgive me” statements and what seemed like sincere apologies. When I read it back now, I also see that after the list of apologies, he transitioned to laying blame on me and Peter, even suggesting that we were equally at fault, summarizing by saying, “But neither of us did what we should have done, and it’s cost us months now, and a painful disruption to what was a great and growing relationship.”
I didn’t recognize these statements as problematic at the time because to be honest, I had just had an utterly exhausting two-year stretch and wanted things between us to be resolved. Plus, I was very affected by this section he wrote: “When you all left there were indeed many questions. I was saddened, and deeply hurt. I was saddened that you all were leaving, and we had not even had a conversation about it. I was hurt because of all of the language and rumors surrounding your departure, especially those that were directed toward and about me… I think you can imagine what this did to my heart, mind, and soul. I felt raw, naked, and wounded. Mainly because these things were being said (at least as it came to me) by someone who I’d spent more time with than almost anyone. There’ve been very few times in my life I’d felt lower.”
I was so impacted by those words that the next day, I responded to his message with one in which I accepted too much responsibility, exaggerated my faults, and overemphasized the way that problems in my marriage had contributed to our departure. I didn’t understand then why I did that, but I do now. The way he expressed his pain triggered an automatic empathetic response in me. In my own family of origin, I had always been a caretaker. From a very young age, I had been conditioned to respond to other people’s pain, even if it meant dismissing or invalidating my own. Plus, Peter and I had just spent the previous two years in crisis caretaking mode – taking care of hurting people in the Renovation community, my critically ill mom, my dad, and my mother-in-law. So, when Léonce expressed pain, it made me want to ease it. I was still in a burnout state, and I wanted so badly for the reconciliation process to be easy. My guard was way down.
Two weeks later, on December 20, Léonce sent a short response: “Disappeared in the midst of craziness. Back to business soon. Thank you for sharing your heart with me. I’ll hit you back on all this ^^^^^^ but please, let’s keep building.” After I saw his message, I forwarded several email messages to him and replied, “Cool. In the meantime, I’ve forwarded you an email thread that took place between Sam and me last year about music ministry stuff. It will provide you with another piece of the puzzle.”
To this day, I have not heard from him. What I did hear on December 23, 2014, however, was that Ethan and Léonce had sent a defamatory email about Peter and me to one of our former city groups on the morning of November 19, 2014 – yes, 17 days before Léonce and I began the conciliatory process. Some friends of ours forwarded it to us. Here it is (click here for Alt text):
That’s when I realized, to my horror, how pathologically compartmentalized that entire conciliatory phone conversation and subsequent electronic messaging correspondence with Léonce had been. However real it had all seemed at the time, it was now revealed to have been an empty and performative exercise. I was stunned that he was capable of going through all the motions and emotions of a conciliatory process when just seventeen days prior to that, he and Ethan had referred to us as unrepentant sinners and covenant breakers, suggesting that we somehow had a direct connection with complaints that people in the city group had about the church “not support[ing] women adequately.” And yet he had not thought it worth mentioning. Peter captured how out of left field this email was when he said, “Well that’s interesting. That’s the first I’ve heard of us being considered to have sinned against them, broken covenant, and been under discipline. I guess the paperwork must be lost in the mail.” He also said, “They’re dead to me.”
I was enraged. Words can’t adequately convey the degree of violation, betrayal, and humiliation I felt. I realized I had been manipulated into kowtowing to Léonce’s victim narrative when, unbeknownst to us, he had recently publicly smeared our name and reputation and made baseless accusations. I found out on Christmas Day that a friend who was part of that city group at the time had sent an email to Léonce and Ethan right after they sent that email to express concern about the way we were talked about in it. He asked them to explain. According to our friend, they claimed that I had been sowing discontent among women in the church and that I had encouraged multiple women to either resist their authority or leave the church. To this day, I have NO IDEA where this accusation came from. I had spent the entire 5 months after we left the church trying to survive moderate-severe depression, followed by one crisis after another. It never even occurred to me to sow discontent among the women in the church or to talk anyone into leaving.
Besides, if Léonce had ever had any actual evidence that I had been doing things to undermine his authority, then all those conversations we had over that two-week period would have been the appropriate time for him to have said something to me about it directly. It would have been a vital part of the conciliatory process. The issue, of course, is that I was innocent of what he and Ethan had accused me of. There was nothing to confront me about. So, he left his and Ethan’s act of slander/libel out of the conversation. It was the opposite of walking in the light (1 John 1:7).
To say that I profoundly regretted my vulnerability and over-acceptance of responsibility is an understatement. The most painful part to reckon with, for me, was feeling like I had betrayed myself in order to assuage Léonce’s articulated pain. I felt like I had participated in a form of self-immolation. When I re-read that message exchange recently for the first time in 5.5 years, it triggered a wave of excruciating pain. I exclaimed out loud, “I threw myself under the bus! He gaslit me, and then I threw lighter fluid on myself!” For much of that day, I sobbed off and on, getting in touch with and releasing waves of shame, grief, and remorse, saying (at times shouting) to myself, “I’m so sorry I did that to you! Please forgive me for being such an idiot!” Even after all these years, my initial tendency was to blame myself for falling victim to deception and gaslighting, to view myself as a culprit in my own spiritual abuse, to resent the way my own weakness and vulnerability contributed to my own victimization.
Fortunately, I didn’t remain stuck in that place. I have friends and family – and a loving Heavenly Father – who work to keep me from succumbing to that kind of destructive self-flagellation. I also think the fact that I’ve walked alongside so many hurting souls eventually enabled me to reframe things and find compassion for myself. My friend Tim often says that he thinks of the church as a hospital more than anything else. People come to hospitals not when they’re well but when they’re sick, injured, and in need of care and healing. It’s absurd to think we would ever begrudge patients the care they need because they’re weak, unproductive, or dysfunctional. The metaphor resonates with me because I spent 7 years as a physician assistant taking care of cancer patients. It was my responsibility to do right by my patients. I can’t imagine that any patient injured by medical malpractice would ever be blamed for having cancer in the first place, or for daring to entrust himself/herself to the care of a surgeon or other physician. It’s precisely the act of entrusting their weakened bodies to expert care givers that enables them to receive needed treatment.
Similarly, in spiritual settings, it is precisely the willingness of people to vulnerably entrust their souls to spiritual shepherds that creates the opportunity for growth, healing, and transformation. In that sense, it’s a sacred trust unlike any other.
An Unexpected Surprise: Genuine Repentance and Reconciliation
In all this awfulness, there was one development that was very healing for Peter and me. On March 18, 2019, we received a text message from Ethan Seifried requesting an opportunity to meet. It was the first time we had heard from him since November 15, 2014, when we ran into him at the reception of a mutual friend’s wedding (he officiated). When we saw him at the wedding, he had hugged us and said, “It’s good to see you guys.” It had been a very friendly interaction, and there had been no indication that he believed we were “lacking in repentance” toward him or the church – certainly not of the sort that would produce the email he sent on behalf of him and Léonce just four days after that encounter. We were interested to see what he had to say.
Ethan came over to our home on Saturday, March 23, 2019. He surprised us with the news that he was no longer at Renovation. He said that he was sorry for any and all the ways that he had sinned against us during his time at Renovation, sorry for perpetuating a toxic culture there, and sorry it had taken him so long to apologize. We talked about the email he and Léonce sent on November 19, 2014 to the city group and how it made us feel. He said, “I’m so sorry.” We asked him what had prompted it. He said he honestly didn’t remember, only that he and Léonce had written it together after something had made Léonce angry, and Ethan apologized for that too – how easy it had been to make damaging public accusations about us and yet not be able to recollect what had even prompted it. We also talked about other incidences, which he summarized as, “We were a**holes. It was a lot of the strong crushing the weak. It just took me a while to recognize it.”
Peter said, “Hey, we knew that most of the time you were carrying out orders from the boss. We had seen enough to know that.” Ethan said, “I’d love to be able to say that it wasn’t me. And part of me thinks, ‘That wasn’t me. That’s not me.’ But the fact is, whatever the reason was, I did do those things, and I hurt people. I was spiritually abusive.” We forgave him.
Spiritual shepherds are entrusted not primarily with accomplishing great things or starting world-changing movements or planting churches in the spirit of American entrepreneurialism, but with caring for the souls of God’s people. We wouldn’t necessarily know this by looking at a religious landscape so dominated by megachurches, mega-networks, faith-based movements, brand-name ministries, acclaimed conferences, and celebrity pastor-author-speakers. In his memoir, the late pastor and author Eugene Peterson wrote, “The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans.” (Peterson, 2011, p.4) Ambitious people tend to be dangerous, and spiritually ambitious people are spiritually dangerous. When pastors violate their primary trust – when they exploit, betray, bully, and try to control the very people entrusted to their care – they create incredible stumbling blocks for people in their journey of faith. Spiritual abuse associates God, the Word of God, worship music, faith-based community, and prayer with trauma. Wounded people often scatter and become hardened, which makes them vulnerable to all kinds of ideas and influences that choke out faith. That’s why God has always had severe things to say to spiritual shepherds who abuse their positions of power.
From Ezekiel 34:2-10:
“Man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy, and say to them, to the shepherds, Thus said the Master, the LORD: Woe, shepherds of Israel who were shepherding them. Will not the shepherds shepherd the flock? You eat the suet and wear the wool, slaughter the fat one. The flock you do not shepherd. You did not strengthen the weak ones, and the sick ones you did not heal nor bind up the one with a broken limb nor bring back the one that had wandered nor did seek out the one that was lost. And by force you held sway over them with crushing labor. And they scattered without a shepherd and became food for all the beasts of the field [and they were scattered]. My flock has strayed through all the mountains and on every high hill, and over the face of the earth has my flock scattered, and none searches and none seeks for them. Therefore, listen, O shepherds to the word of the LORD. As I live, said the Master, the LORD: My flock has surely become plunder, and My flock has become food for all the beasts of the field without a shepherd, and My shepherds have not sought out My flock, and the shepherds herded themselves, but My flock they did not herd. Therefore, O shepherds, listen to the word of the LORD: Here I am against the shepherds, and I will demand my flock from their hand and stop them from herding the flock, and the shepherds shall not herd themselves anymore, and I will save my flock from their mouths, and they shall not be food for them.” (The Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter translation)
From Jeremiah 25:34-37:
“Wail, you shepherds, and scream,
wallow, you lords of the flock.
For your time to be slaughtered has come,
and I will smash you like a precious vessel, and you shall fall.
And flight shall be lost for the shepherds,
and escape for the lords of the flock.
Hark, the scream of the shepherds
and the howling of the lords of the flock,
for the Lord is ravaging their pasture.
And the peaceful meadows shall be silent
before the burning wrath of the Lord.”
(The Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter translation)
And finally, from Jesus in Matthew 18:6:
“If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
My daughter asked me recently, “Mommy, why do you still go to church after what those people did to you?” I answered, “Because I refuse to let Jesus’ church or my relationship to it be determined by people who do those things.” The church is an institution, but it’s not an institution in the way of the world (even though many church leaders attempt to run their churches in the way of the world – like businesses or empires). The church is a profound mystery, and the heart of that mystery resides in Jesus himself, not in what we can see and measure. In 2005, a journalist said to Eugene Peterson, “Many Christians would look at this church and say it’s dead, merely an institutional expression of the faith.” In response, Peterson said:
“What other church is there besides institutional? There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church, because there’s sin in the church. But there’s no other place to be a Christian except the church… Frederick von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree. There’s no life in the bark. It’s dead wood. But it protects the life of the tree within. And the tree grows and grows and grows and grows. If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death. So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism. In my writing, I hope to recover a sense of the reality of congregation—what it is. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. Why are we always idealizing what the Holy Spirit doesn’t idealize? There’s no idealization of the church in the Bible—none.”
Yes, I’ve been abused, slandered, betrayed, neglected, manipulated, marginalized, and deceived by people in the church – especially by wolves in sheep’s clothing – but I still love the church because I love Jesus. I know that he resides in her, adores her, and fights for her. So, I work alongside him, doing the work of justice, mercy, and truth-telling, and exposing abuses of power and hypocrisy in order to make her more worthy of the calling she has received (Ephesians 4:1, 2 Thessalonians 1:11) and more worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God (Philippians 1:27, Colossians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 2:12, 2 Thessalonians 1:5).
“For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God.” -1 Peter 4:17
Judy wrote this, as she’s the writer (I’m more of a numbers guy), and she definitely experienced the greatest harm, but it’s a spot-on representation of our joint experience, and I endorse every word.
 Van Der Kolk, M.D., Bessel. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking.
 Crouch, Andy (2013). Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 Johnson, David and Van Vonderen, Jeff. (1991). The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing & Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers.
 Degroat, Chuck. (2020). When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. Pages 118-127
 Peterson, Eugene. (2011). The Pastor: A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins.