Amber, a young adult, was committed to church. She loved the fellowship and teaching.
Then something happened.
Her friend, Kayla, noticed it in her church attire at first. One Sunday she wore a prom dress. The next, Amber wore jeans to church. Kayla said it was strange.
“I knew something was wrong.”
Kayla was hired by the church when an old friend became the pastor. It was a rough start when she sought to engage a small group of women led by an older, very wealthy matriarch.
Kayla was not welcome. They misinterpreted her reaction to them when they had tried to hide their alcoholic drinks from her, telling others Kayla was judging them (she wasn’t).
When the matriarch was “slandering” her, Kayla asked permission to attend their small group get together to clear the air. She was rebuffed.
So, she went to her pastor and boss, Brandon. Despite having stuck up for the music minister facing a similar situation, the pastor told Kayla to just get over it. “It’s just part of ministry,” he explained. “It’s time to put on your big girl pants.”
The New Elder
Kevin was in training to become a new elder at the church. They were nearing the time that the church would “ordain” him in the new leadership position. But Kayla had heard stories about Kevin that were concerning.
Kayla attempted to warn Pastor Brandon that Kevin had a reputation as possibly an adulterer; she had heard that he had a sexual relationship with a woman, not his wife. The pastor brushed it off and said, “I know Kevin. Of course, he wouldn’t do such a thing.”
The ordination went forward.
Reporting the Abuse
Meanwhile, Kayla sought out Amber, asking her if something was wrong. At first, Amber said nothing was wrong, but a few months later, when Kayla again approached her, Amber poured out her heart.
Amber had been sexually assaulted by Elder Kevin.
Thus began a long road of incredible hurt for Amber, Kayla, and her husband, Zachary. And failure on the part of church leadership.
Kayla convinced Amber to speak with her husband, Kayla’s husband Zachary (a professional Christian counselor), and Pastor Brandon. The first meeting with Zachary and Amber’s husband went well. The men were understanding, attentive, and supportive.
However, if Kayla had it to do over again, she said she would not have pushed Amber to talk to the pastor. Kayla assured Amber the pastor would “hold Elder Kevin accountable” for the assault.
That evening they went to the pastor’s house and Amber bravely shared her story. The first thing Pastor Brandon asked her was, “Were you drunk?”
From that point on it was a battle. Was Pastor Brandon blinded by Kevin’s wealth? Or some kind of loyalty? After all, Kevin had chaired the pulpit committee that had hired Pastor Brandon. Or was it something else?
Standing For Oppression
As Kayla sought to bring accountability to Kevin before the other elders, she faced one roadblock after another.
- The elders didn’t believe Amber. She had been drinking so somehow it was her fault. Amber had denied ever being drunk, but they didn’t believe that either.
- Amber’s story has been slowly coming out just as those who are traumatized slowly piece things together according to experts. But Pastor Brandon has maintained that she must be lying because her story had changed. However, according to Kayla, Amber has been simply adding to the story as she has processed it over time, as can be expected.
- Brandon said when he met with Kevin, “He sobbed like a baby.” Brandon said he had never seen a man so broken.
Shortly after reporting the assault to the church leader, Kevin contacted Amber asking her if he had “penetrated” her. (According to state law, there must be penetration to be classified as rape). In so doing, he admitted the assault, but obviously wanted to stay out of jail.
The elders in the end asked Kevin to leave the church but did not explain to the congregation what was happening and have never taken care of Amber aside from offering to pay for counseling.
There has been no real public accounting for the credible accusations against Kevin.
Kicking a Dead Horse
As Kayla and Zachary pressed on, their livelihoods, spiritual, and emotional health have been profoundly damaged.
In seeking the accountability of these leaders, it has felt like kicking a dead horse. Except, this dead horse kicks back.
In a meeting with Pastor Brandon, he asked Kayla, “What if I said Amber has changed her story?” Kayla explained that it is a known fact that memories change in those who have been traumatized.
Kayla then tried to explain to Pastor Brandon the power differential between Amber and Kevin because of Kevin’s spiritual authority as an elder. In response, Pastor Brandon said “That’s CRT” (Critical Race Theory). Kayla, knowing that the leadership view those who hold any CRT views as “heretics” said, “I’m not a heretic.”
She described to me,
“He moved to the door with his arms folded. I couldn’t leave. Then he moved on to another case I was working on – a case of domestic abuse. He said disbelievingly about the accusation of abuse, ‘There are two sides to every story.’ So, I said, ‘But she works for me.’ He retorted that he had talked to husband for six hours, but I said, ‘I work with her for 20 hours a week!’
Brandon left the office but then came back to her. He said, “I want you to know you have a voice in this. Get it out and at some point we are done talking about this.” Kayla asked, “When?” She said he got angry and threatened, “I will do a nationwide search and replace you.”
He went on, “Though I disagree with 99 percent of Mark Driscoll, I would say he got one thing right: get on the bus or get run over.”
How We Always Talk
Kayla’s husband, Zachary was there for this heated exchange.
He was shocked by the outburst and when Brandon left, Zachary asked Kayla if he normally talked to her that way. He explained that Brandon was yelling at her. He described it as a “narcissistic kind of rage,” especially Brandon’s tirade, “I will not be accused here! I will not be put on trial!” in response to Kayla calmly reminding Brandon of something he said which he adamantly denied saying.
In response to Zachary, Kayla said, “That is the only way we talk.” Zachary went on, “He was obsessed with never being corrected.” Mimicking Brandon, he said, “This is how you have to talk to me.”
Kayla said Brandon’s solution to their conflict “was that we would meet once a week where he could correct me if I ‘misinterpreted’ anything he said.” Brandon basically demanded the right to reinterpret Kayla’s experience as it suited his agenda of control.
This was not the only form of gaslighting Kayla experienced. At her first and only performance evaluation, Brandon provided positive feedback but zeroed in on one carefully chosen criticism: “Overly bearing the burdens of those under your ministry has the possibility of clouding your judgment.” This was said with clear reference to her relationship to Amber, and the message was subtle but clear: Brandon saw things clearly, but Kayla’s judgment could not be trusted.
Kayla, burned out and depressed, finally asked for a leave of absence for a couple months. Pastor Brandon encouraged her to resign instead. She pushed back and made clear that her request was for a paid leave, not a resignation.
Kayla explained, “A couple, who met with Pastor Brandon, said he told them that I came to him on Tuesday and resigned and then came in Wednesday and changed my mind.” Kayla thinks it likely that is the same story the pastor told the elders.
At no point did she suggest that she was resigning.
The elders in the end approved Kayla’s leave.
Pastor Brandon then announced to the church staff that she was going to resign. She had to again push back and say loud and clear that she never resigned, she just asked for extended leave.
However, during her leave the elders asked her to resign and sign a “Non-Disclosure Agreement.”
They would provide a severance package if she would sign it and resign. It would effectively silence her. She would be legally bound to keep her mouth shut about the failures of the church leadership . . . in particular, Pastor Brandon’s abusive leadership.
However, Kayla and Zachary would not be bought off, as they described it. Despite Kayla’s salary being their family’s primary source of funds, they were agreed that in good conscience they could not take a vow of silence.
Kayla refused the NDA.
The church leadership must have realized they were in trouble as they went ahead with a severance package (but only gave a portion of severance offered with NDA), and at the end of Kayla’s leave, fired her without any explanation or justification.
The Peace and Purity of the Church
After months of silence following the sexual assault, the elders called a congregational meeting to address the firing of Kayla as well as Kevin’s sexual assault.
The pastor began with a statement regarding Kayla’s termination. He explained,
“Let us be clear that there is no sin or character issue that has led us to this decision. Kayla is a remarkably gifted woman of God who has contributed greatly to our church and her ministries.”
The reason she was fired was that she continued to challenge the pastor and elders for their failure to take the kind of action that responding to a sexual predator in the church requires. Pastor Brandon in his statement denied this and did not express remorse for the horrible damage done by the sexual abuse of an elder, of whom they had been warned prior to installing in a leadership position.
Despite being encouraged by a respected abuse specialist in their denomination to seek a third-party investigation, they did not.
They did not make it public to provide a safe place for reports of other victims of Kevin’s abuse (though there were others reported to Kayla). During the congregational meeting questions were asked about the church’s investigation and the elders refused to answer them.
They had not brought in experts, neither law enforcement nor abuse consultants, to investigate.
Pastor Brandon confessed in the meeting that they should have come to the congregation with the information sooner, yet did not and have not asked Kayla’s or the survivor’s forgiveness for failing in this way to support them as they should.
In fact, the pastor noted defensively it was in their “rights” to not report to others there was a sexual offender among them.
When a question-and-answer time was coming to a close, one church member spoke passionately in Kayla’s defense:
“This is an extremely serious issue where, by all appearances, a wonderful person, who had impacted many of our lives very positively, was unfairly fired because she advocated for a victim and because she wouldn’t stop advocating for a victim.”
Bringing the meeting to a close, Pastor Brandon, in exasperation made a last-ditch effort to force submission to the church leadership and silence whistleblowers:
“If you still have issues, come to the elders, talk to them. But go directly to the parties that are offending you, and please, for the sake of the peace of the church, be careful how you talk to one another, or talk to other people, go directly to the source, and get these questions answered.”
Pastor Brandon went on:
And when we have disagreements, take them the session, and, you know, express your concerns and your grievances. But if it is a matter of a judgment call, God has ordained them, and you have elected them, to make those decisions on your behalf. And for the peace of the church, we need to leave it there. And then walk away and love each other.
His plea was to keep their failure to do what was right and failure to confess and seek forgiveness for their failures from destroying the church. Where admitting the wrong and seeking restitution would have healed many wounds that continue to this day, instead he recommended keeping things as private as possible.
As if that would serve “the peace and purity of the church.”
Following the meeting, a church family wrote to the elders,
“Abusers need to know that their predation will be met with consequences. Victims need to know that they have a place to turn where someone will listen. And the world needs to see that the church is serious about protecting the vulnerable.”
They went on,
“By your own words you make the case that Kayla’s firing was a retaliatory measure, designed to silence her from bringing Kevin’s sin into the light.”
But rather than seek real accountability for Kevin, the elders sent him to another church to continue his abuse.
Submission to [Bad] Authority
In a recent sermon, Pastor Brandon was speaking on submission to authority. As is common to church leadership abuse, it is not unusual for a pastor to double down on the submission topic when he is being challenged. He said in the sermon, “Never ever confuse authority and biblical leadership with arrogance or a power grab.”
Brandon proclaimed the innocence of the elders’ motives in their decisions. One of the elders argued that their decisions to keep Kevin’s felonies private were simply “judgment calls.” He said, “But when the decision is made, unless it’s something so sinful, you know, or so greatly unbiblical, then, we are called to submit for the peace of the church.”
Sounds very biblical and wise.
But, regarding such horrible treatment of victims and those who advocate for them as simply judgment calls is anathema to the Lord.
As one individual who has experienced leadership abuse said, “It seems that where there is leadership abuse in the church, you will always find spiritual abuse.”
It is when submission is taught from pulpits and in responses to questions about the ways authority is exercised in the church that the Scripture is used to control and manipulate. References in Scripture like Hebrews 13:17 and 1 Peter 2:13f are taken out of context and absolutized to suggest that no matter what the authority does, the subordinate is required to obey and submit.
It is poor exegesis and deeply damaging to God’s people. [see here]
Turned Upside Down
Kayla, Zachary, and Amber’s lives have been turned upside down by the leadership of their church. Rather than responding in silence, deception, justification, and anger, their leaders should have heard their cries. They should have taken decisive action to hold the abuser accountable. They should have sought the healing of those who suffered under Kevin’s sexual assaults.
And they should have seen how this crisis revealed Pastor Brandon’s abusive leadership.
If they haven’t, they should pack their bags. They do not belong in leadership.
NOTE: I recommend the below website. It provides excellent resources for survivors of clergy sexual abuse. God’s shepherds must be held accountable for oppressive behavior as the Lord held His shepherds accountable during the prophet Ezekiel’s time – Ezekiel 34.
Clergy Sexual Misconduct – We provide info & resources to those affected by clergy sexual misconduct (CSM) & ministries desiring to be a safe place.
2 thoughts on “Silencing Victims in the Church: Kayla and Amber’s Story”
This story makes me sick to my stomach. But it’s not surprising. It follows the usual playbook and is predictable. It’s remarkable that people stay in the church even with story after story. I guess we believe our church must be different, our leaders will do the right thing, until a situation like this tears down the facade and we are shocked to learn that our church is not different and our leaders will not do the right thing. As one who has left the church over abuse, I can say that life is so much better on the outside, including life with God!
Thank you, Verity for your comments. I am terribly sorry that you have seen this in your life. You are absolutely right that it is not uncommon. I am thankful for the church of which I am a member where they seek to actually minister to those who have been abused. But that doesn’t make up for all those who fail to be trained and end up causing even more hurt. I was in fact one of those. I am also thankful that you continue to trust in the Lord despite how His people have failed you.