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What I wish I would have told the church (where I pastored for 10 years) to help other women

The life that I had known for all of my existence came to a screeching halt in the same year.  It was the year that I resigned from my position as a pastor at a local church, while simultaneously ending my marriage of fifteen years.  I didn’t tell anyone about my marriage (with the exception of a few close friends and my family).  I feared that sharing the demise of my marriage would just lead to more pain and scrutiny so I focused on what I could– the good that came out of serving the church.  But more pointedly, I chose not to share about my marriage because it was in keeping with what I had been shown and told while growing up in the church and then even more so while I was a minister—to keep the broken to myself.  There is a model of ‘keeping secrets’ that the church has become effective in teaching through strategies of shaming and an over reliance on church leadership.

I wish I’d had the courage and the vehicle to have told people about my marriage.  If I could go back I would— if for no other reason than for the sake of other women who hold their own shame & secrets of domestic violence to themselves.

In the second year of serving the church, the lead pastor learned of the circumstances of my marriage.  He sat us down for a talk to confront us on the matter.  I was choked with fear and then with shame.  I remember feeling the need to not only preserve my marriage but also to preserve my job at the church and so I swallowed my shame and I promised that my marriage would not come before my role at the church.

After that conversation, the relationship with the lead pastor never was the same.  We (my family) were never regarded in the same manner.  The relationship between myself and the lead pastor became more and more distant over time.  I learned from these cues to not bother him with my worries or concerns and maintained this status quo.

Shame became such a familiar cloud.  I learned how to be available for others while also hiding my own pain and my own face.  I became incredibly adept at this skill.  My availability was completely sincere, but my insides were melting.

One night things got out of hand at home.  I remember so little of the circumstances other than the fear and shock.  What I do remember is that I grabbed my two and half year-old daughter and with no shoes ran out of our apartment to a friend’s apartment.  My friend took my daughter and I to a hotel for the night.  The next day we returned to her studio apartment and I took refuge in her bed for a week while she helped look after my child.  When Sunday rolled around I emotionally, mentally, & physically dusted myself off—returned home to the huge hole in the wall and showed up to my pastoral duties at church that morning.

 

No one ever knew about that week with the exception of that one friend.

 

The roller coasters of instability would continue throughout my marriage and I would do what I learned to do keep it to myself, show up for others and never complain.  I was wracked not only with incredible waves of shame, but isolation.

My story is not really all that special or unique.  It is an unfortunate thing to realize that between 25-33% of women (in the U.S.) are dealing with domestic abuse in all forms of physical aggression, financial deprivation, emotional battering and psychological warfare.  Think about it church and church leaders—that means that every 3rd or 4th female and every 10th male is dealing with some form of domestic violence while showing up to church every Sunday and maybe never telling a soul of the pain that they are in.

There are certain aspects of pain that the church is willing to do deal with that involve: biological illness and disease or a loss of a loved one through death, but the more sticky areas of pain having to do with mental illness or domestic abuse are overlooked—never to be spoken of.  In part, I believe it’s because the church doesn’t know how to respond.  They get so mired in the awkwardness and discomfort that it becomes easier to distant oneself from it then learn about appropriate ways to respond to not only the survivor, but the entire family system.  And so whether they mean to or not their distance communicates to the survivor and the entire family that something is fundamentally wrong with them and that they are not worthy of engagement.

For many survivors, who already have frail and shattered identities, they take that message to mean this is the best that they are gonna get—so they take it.  Community is incredibly important to survivors—a sense of being connected—even if it is not authentic is important and meaningful and gives even the smallest sliver of hope.

But you know what?  This-is-not-okay.  It is not okay for the church to slough off the awkwardness of domestic pain—maybe with the hope that someone else (a social worker, family member or government program) will intervene.  It’s not acceptable for the church not to learn culturally sensitive ways to interact, support and engage survivors who are experiencing DV.  It is not okay for the church to think that there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach that will be adequate for how it supports partnerships and families.

And so church leaders, you have some work cut out for you and one place you can start is by telling people that you believe them and that the circumstances do not change how you love them, embrace them or continue connection with them.

And then go get some training on domestic violence as well as a multi-cultural/inclusive approach to family systems.

New Beginnings is offering community-wide trainings and something they call courageous conversations: http://www.newbegin.org/courageous

The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCDV) offers trainings and online courses: http://wscadv.org

Most importantly, Dear Survivor: you are not alone.  Your story, your experience… well it is real and valid and true.  You may question whether or not there is anyone that could understand or accept your experience.  You may even blame yourself.  You may be in a community or in a family where the norm is to keep secrets and you don’t think anyone would believe you if you came out and shared.  You may feel all kinds of love and confusion about the relationship and unsure of what the choices or options are.  You may be hearing all kinds of voices of judgement about why you stay or why you don’t leave or that it is immoral for you to end a marriage.  You may be feeling scared for your children and their futures.  You may be fearful about where you would live or how you could financially sustain.  You may be struggling with the belief that this is the norm in relationships.  You may be scared to your very core.  You are right there are no easy answers.  One blog entry and a few words are not going to be a balm for all you’re feeling and experiencing.  But I want you to know that I believe you.  I believe all of it and I know that there are others out there that do, too.  You are worth working through the hesitation to reach out.  Here are some safe places where you can do that:

New Beginnings: http://www.newbegin.org // 24-hour helpline 206.522.9472

DAWN: http://dawnrising.org // 24-hour helpline 425.656.7867

Lifewire: https://www.lifewire.org // 24-hour helpline 800.827.8840

 

 

 

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Authentic community, yes please, but where?

I took down this post a day after posting it.  I thought I’d make some edits and look it over.  And deep down inside I thought, “maybe this is a little much”.  See, even now, I am figuring out what authentic living is for me.  Several days after taking the post down I had several people contact me and say that the post was a breath of fresh air.  Unbeknownst to me others have been struggling with similar things related to suffering and the church.  I decided after hearing that this was a source of hope to others I would go ahead and repost it.  After all, that has always been my hope that my story and sharing would be a source of something for others…  If this post or other stuff I share is a source of helping you know that you are not alone well then I think it’s freaking worth putting my stuff out there.

****

I’ve been feeling like an orphan lately. A spiritual orphan of sorts. After 37 (ish) years in church and ministry I left. It was a culmination of things that led to isolation, depletion and burn-out, which eventually made me realize I needed to go for my own heart’s sake and health.

And now I find myself frequently asking myself questions of belonging:

to whom do I belong?

how do I belong?

is belonging possible?

It seems since leaving the church I have been left with all kinds of yearnings to continue some connection with faith, but how?– when most of what I was taught was that faith is connected to church community. And how could I possibly go back to church community when I am still recovering from so many wounds from the previous community I was a part of? And sometimes when I’m at this crisis juncture I resign myself to never finding another spiritual community again.

And then I came across this today by the dearest Anne Lamott:

My brand new sister-in-law died yesterday, as has been expected for weeks. We are heartbroken, relieved, amazed by Grace. My brothers and I are all accidentally devout believers, so we feel that death is a major change of address: that death is the end of dying, but not of life.

Or Life. Whatever you want to call it.

Life or life: This strange situation we find ourselves in, with no clear answers or meaning–well, you know, I mean besides love, or Love; taking care of the poor; and being amazed by beauty.

With Connie, who entered our lives eighteen months ago, with stage 4 cancer, we all just surrendered to the reality that my older brother John had fallen truly, madly, deeply in love.

I would not have picked a wife for him who had aggressive cancer in her liver and lungs, but that’s just me. She was everything he had ever hoped and dreamed of, as he was for her. We fell in love with her, too. This didn’t work for me at all, as Jax’s baby heart–and, who am I kidding, mine–were now guaranteed to break, big time, in the very foreseeable future.

I read this and I began to feel those yearnings hit the surface, again. She always has a way of writing with sheer, raw, heartbreakingly, open, truth-telling that I can’t help but not want to give up on the idea that on this earth– community just might exist where we are accepted just as we are: broken, imperfect, awkward, real, authentic

Maybe, just maybe there is a spiritual community that exists with a bunch of scarred-up and flawed-up people seeking to seek together and love together and suffer with and for one another…

Maybe

As much as all the various things that built up over time (endless budget meetings, being the first one in and the last one out, full-time work for part-time pay) left me feeling depleted and used up– what slowly began to eat away at my heart was the reality that I couldn’t be authentic or real about the suffering that I was experiencing.

I learned this lesson early on when my husband’s bipolar was brought to the attention of the lead pastor, our friend and he responded by stating that in this country we over diagnose and we over medicate. He was clearly uncomfortable and didn’t understand the disorder so he went on to say we needed to get help and then shortly thereafter began distancing himself.

Later I shared with the pastor’s wife my struggles with the bipolar and the depression I was experiencing as a result and she stopped talking to me and soon there-after we were no longer invited to family gatherings or events.

We continued to feel this distancing from community and staff, which led me to internalize that this must be our problem and ours alone.

I learned early on that these were not topics that were supposed to be discussed and I stopped sharing. I kept showing up for all the strategic meetings and all the work parties and to minister to others. Meanwhile, in my own life I continued to melt away.

When things would escalate to the point of violence– like the time my husband went into a rage and I needed to grab my daughter and physically run without shoes to a friend’s house– I knew that I would need to keep this to myself. A few days later I showed up to work… engaged in ministry… put on a smile… didn’t let on that anything was wrong at home…

For ten years I kept all these secrets.

I fulfilled my duties as pastor, but could not disclose my sufferings even within the circle of staff and leadership.

Yet, this church preached boldly and passionately about the need to be authentic in community. And it took some time to learn that authentic in this community meant: real minus the icky, awful, uncomfortable stuff like mental illness.

As all communities, this community had exceptions to what would be accepted as authentic.  There were all these rules and guidelines and norms about what could be shared, who could share and what was socially acceptable to publicly grieve. This was a culture that cultivated an environment of silence.

After my grandfather collapsed at his home he was rushed to a hospital ER and later that day he was diagnosed with leukemia. The shock of these events rattled me and when I shared this with my pastor he expressed no condolences or words– he just simply walked away toward his office. My grandfather died two days later and no one said a word to me about it. At my place of worship, my place of spiritual community I silently grieved alone.

You can imagine my confusion.

For a long time I thought it was me.

The past three years I’ve been in recovery. In terms of spiritual community, I often feel confused more than ever.

But I know now that this wasn’t right. I know that it wasn’t all me. I’m not perfect– I don’t claim to have my shit together, but authentic community doesn’t require polished, perfected, shit-don’t- stink, kinds of people.

I learned this, too.

I learned this when on several occasions when I was especially down and out, feeling a specialized kind of crazy in this recovery process I called out to a bunch of ladies– this ragamuffin, hard core group of women friends and they got it. I was a blubbering, sobbing, mascara-stained mess and the leader of our army said, “You’re not alone, DeAnza– we got you”.

“No requirements– we got you”.
“You don’t have to be perfect– we got you”.
“You are lovely as you are– we got you”.

I’m still confused about formal church and community.  At some point, I imagine I’ll find a spiritual community or at least hope to…

Silence is no way to live. Silence breeds shame and it is a disservice to people– it compounds suffering.

This is also what I know: this example is what community should be like– however you define it– whoever is in your community– wherever your community resides– it should be like this: a refuge place where you can bare your soul and know that you won’t be respected any less for doing so.