A friend of Jada’s first used the word “oppression” to describe abuse in 2021. It just blew her mind. Jada said, “God has much to say to survivors of abuse about oppression in the Bible.”
“Although God talks about oppression throughout scripture, in all churches I’ve attended, leaders only refer to oppression as spiritual oppression or the slavery Israelites endured under Pharaoh. How many survivors of abuse would benefit from knowing that God directly addresses what they have been through in the Bible when he condemns oppression in scripture?”
It is such a great word to describe what she experienced. Jada said she “felt like a prisoner set free” when she left her abusive pastor.
The Power He Wielded
Jada was in college when she came to know and love Jesus Christ. She was on fire for the Lord and got connected to a small house church.
As a new Christian, she described herself as “completely open to the things of God and eager to be taught. Hungry for personal discipleship.” She was the type of convert every evangelist seeks to make.
Pastor Martin, the leader of the house church, was at first very helpful. He became like a father figure to her. Her family had rejected her when she became a Christian, and he gave her extensive spiritual counsel.
He told her how special she was. Pastor Martin said she was submissive and dedicated. He described these attributes as critical markers of spiritual growth and true conversion. She was different from the other church members who left. Those people he described as “prideful.” In his eyes, they weren’t genuine Christians, and he frequently disparaged them.
Pastor Martin said he had a gift of discernment. According to him, “He could hear from God and discern hearts,” she recalled. Jada felt blessed to have someone like that protecting her at the time. “He could, with one look, know someone’s spiritual state.” So Jada felt encouraged when he looked upon her with favor and singled her out from the small crowd.
On the other hand, there was a power he wielded that was concerning.
“Everyone was given a label with a secret sin . . . and we would often hear lengthy messages about these dangerous sins from the pulpit,”
Jada explained that in such a small church when he spoke of a specific sin from the pulpit, everyone knew to whom he was referring.
“I would sit nervously in my chair while he preached on and on, hoping he wouldn’t share from the pulpit the sins I had confessed to him privately earlier that week.”
In addition, Pastor Martin would question her often about her romantic relationships, telling her to “dump a boyfriend and not to date anyone.” He would ask her intrusive questions about how she may have sinned sexually with her past boyfriends.
“I was scared to not divulge everything because, according to him, he could read me like a book. Using discretion about my past sins was treated like immaturity. He would say that mature Christians could handle a topic about sexual sin.”
So Jada thought of it as helping her grow in spiritual maturity. She felt she needed a lot of godly guidance. Jada wanted to date and get married, but he taught her it was wrong to have those desires. He equated those desires to the sin of lust and being unfocused on the things of God.
After a couple years of this, she said she was molded into the type of follower her pastor wanted her to be. She was submissive to him and conditioned not to challenge his directions.
Pastor Martin was independent of any ecclesiastical authority . . . there was no denominational headquarters or church hierarchy above him.
In fact, there was a clear impression that he gave that if you followed him, you followed God. Of course, the opposite was true as well – if you didn’t follow him and left the church, you followed Satan.
As people left the church they didn’t coherently explain why they were going. Pastor Martin, however, considered them dangerous. Maybe, he explained, they practiced witchcraft or were “religious.” “Religious” to the Pastor was negatively applied to those with strong convictions. He called them “demonic.” They were missing what good God had planned for them.
Jada explained why she avoided communicating with those who left.
“I was warned not to talk and spend time with those who left. I could risk getting infected with whatever spiritual stronghold they had. Engaging with those who left was scary. I didn’t want to follow the enemy.”
And engaging with the quitters would make Pastor Martin very upset with her. He effectively isolated her.
In His Employ
Then he employed her with his personal business.
It provided a source of financial stability. However, Jada didn’t feel like it was an actual choice. “The job was presented as something God was giving me so I was expected to take it.” She explained to me she wouldn’t have taken the job if actually been offered it.
But she was compliant.
He was “increasingly controlling, demanding, demeaning, volatile and generally unpredictable.”
Jada said, “One minute, he would be domineering, large, and in charge, especially in public. But in private, he would become kind to me, but inappropriate and without professional boundaries as well.” He told Jada she was his “best friend” and the only person he could confide in.
Except he was married.
Pastor Martin’s temper was unpredictable. Jada was under the impression that she was often the cause of his upset mood, which was a massive weight on her. Surely God didn’t want her upsetting her so-called “spiritual covering.”
Any kind of error at work or if she had a theological difference or friendship he didn’t approve of could bring about an inquisition.
In disagreement, he called Jada “mentally unstable.” But as long as they agreed, she was considered sane, even intelligent, and especially “spiritual.”
Over the years Pastor Martin broke down boundary after boundary.
He arranged to carpool alone with her. He came to her apartment any time he wanted. Over time, he borrowed thousands of dollars for business deals he convinced her God gave him. Jada always agreed with great reluctance and fear of upsetting him.
She put on a happy face, but she dreaded him telling her she had to give away yet another piece of the little independence she had left. To her dismay, he continued to enmesh himself in her daily life.
“My whole world revolved around ministry, my pastor’s business, and attempting to control his temper toward me. He enmeshed himself in my life. Then, my pastor began flirting with me. I didn’t know how to react. Maybe I’m misinterpreting his behavior. I must’ve imagined that.”
Flirting or Just Being Friendly?
Even though the pastor’s flirtations were confusing and uncomfortable, compared to his hot temper and insults, his strange flirtatious behavior felt like a relief.
She had been taught that he was supposed to be her “spiritual covering of safety.” But, the intrusive sexual questions and flirtations toward her intensified. The pastor often discussed his marital problems with her. Then he explained to her that he had discerned they were in love and shouldn’t fight their “destiny.”
She felt dizzy.
That same day, she tried to avoid being alone with him, but couldn’t shake him and he followed her into her apartment. She didn’t want to be impolite.
He then sexually assaulted her.
Her response was typical for trauma victims. Many will fight, some will flee, and some will appease. Jada did what she always did when his behaviors were inappropriate – she didn’t question, didn’t talk back, she submitted. She went along in order to be safe.
Once the overt sexual abuse began, she was in a daze. She was confused. Was it a generational curse because of her family background? Was she lusting?
Pastor Martin’s claims about being in love seemed believable because of her apparent loyalty to him over the years.
His sexual contact with her didn’t make sense but he had a way of spiritually explaining away the behavior. He implied that she didn’t leave like the others because she was in love with him and God put them together.
One of the most disgusting lies he told her was that she “was a whore” and the only way to keep her supposed lustful tendencies in control and not affect other men was to comply with his sexual behavior.
She said, “It’s many years since the abuse happened and even now, when I am in the presence of a man, I am scared that I might tempt him to want me sexually because this is what the pastor said I always did to him.”
Bringing it to Light
“I felt like I actually was going crazy. Pastor Martin’s manipulation was so effective. I felt I couldn’t trust my thoughts. I felt caged. This was my lot in life. He said God was in control of this. If I told, he said people wouldn’t understand. I would be called a Jezebel.”
And besides, how could she accuse a man who had poured so much into her life? She asked herself, “Isn’t rebuking an elder wrong?”
She felt that the Gospel ministry would be ruined if she spoke up. “My silence meant that the gospel work would continue.”
Jada discovered a painful reality. If a victim of “grooming” speaks out before there is sexual contact with a church leader, they are often accused of reading into his actions.
But, if she speaks up after sexual assault has happened then she is accused of being complicit.
As Jada recalled the experience she said,
“I’ve watched this happen to other survivors. They speak up about concerning behavior and the pastor accuses them of slander. People often believe the narrative of the abuser. Others speak up after the sexual abuse occurs and they get called a seductress. Survivors are often vilified no matter how they respond. No one wants to believe the pastor is actually a predator. The victim is deemed expendable because they think the reputation of the ministry and pastor is not.”
Pastor Martin further entangled himself into Jada’s life. He convinced Jada to give him spare car keys and a house key to keep business files in her apartment.
Jada eventually developed agoraphobia. When she would leave her home, she would feel dizzy and have panic attacks. Perhaps someone would recognize her from being with the pastor and could discern what was happening. She said it lasted for years after the abuse and only subsided when she had safety in a good and godly marriage.
Jada explained, “It breaks my heart reflecting on the pastor’s incredible abuse of power in teaching me to forgo marriage and children for so long while he abused me. It’s horrendously evil.”
There were other effects of the abuse that Jada experiences even today.
Recurring nightmares have been a continual thorn in the flesh for Jada. Those nightmares, a common symptom of PTSD, have been about “trying to escape the abuse again or the abuser coming back” to get her.
When Jada was working with the pastor, she portrayed a persona to cope. She explained, “It was like an alter ego and outsiders came to know me as this person. I was a person who was strong and decisive though inside I felt like I was dying.” When she broke free of his oppression, like other abuse survivors, she felt she was unable to make a decision for herself.
“In reality, I never learned how to make my own decisions. Every choice I made was filtered through the question, ‘Will my pastor agree or will this make him upset?’”
When Jada was finally able to disclose the abuse to a pastor from another church, he helped her to understand that she was free from having her decisions made for her. Jada said she was awakened to the idea that “everyone else in my age group had become adults in charge of their own lives and here I was like a child who never grew up because I lived under oppression for so long.”
After she disclosed the abuse and the pastor decided to leave the ministry, Jada was finally able to be herself. A friend told her she had changed in that she was actually “fun.” Prior to that, she didn’t really have friends. She only had coworkers in ministry. Jada explained,
“I could never truly get close with anyone without the pastor eventually telling me that person was spiritually dangerous and I shouldn’t be around them.'”
It grieves her that she lost those years of emotional and spiritual growth.
All the Abuse
Jada described the various abuses she suffered. She said,
“Spiritual abuse and clergy sexual abuse go hand in hand. Much of what I experienced I read about later in literature about cults who twist Scripture to justify abusive behavior and demonize those who dissent.”
Pastor Martin told her she was “destined by God to be by his side” and that God showed him that she was “in love with him.”
She experienced gaslighting where he manipulated her to the point she questioned her own sanity. Jada felt she couldn’t rely on her own memory. She had to rely on him.
There was emotional abuse. Pastor Martin would blow up at unpredictable times, keeping her always hypervigilant. He humiliated her publicly and then privately call her “delusional and a ‘whore.'” A couple times, he tapped her face “with an open hand like he was slapping” her, and told her to shut up.
“Adult clergy sexual abuse isn’t merely about the spiritual leader sinning sexually and violating the victim’s body. The wound that is inflicted upon the victim is a deep spiritual wound to their personhood.”
The damage all this abuse does to a person is not only emotional and spiritual. The physical effects of abuse are well documented even when a hand is not laid upon the victim. In essence, all abuse is physical. It causes trauma.
There is “actual damage to the brain. It’s traumatic.”
And yet, “many people expect survivors of adult clergy sexual abuse to simply move on, because they wrongly classify the abuse as a consensual act of sexual immorality.”
In those cases, such as adultery or fornication, confession and forgiveness can be given and received through Jesus’s work on the cross. However, clergy sexual abuse, causes trauma . . . while sexual immorality does not. Sexual abuse, particularly from one with spiritual “authority” is deeply damaging and not the fault of the victim.
It is for this reason that many states have enacted laws making it illegal for spiritual authorities to have sexual contact with those under their care. [see this website for a list]
The spiritual effects of this kind of abuse are deeply distressing. Jada explained,
“When you’ve been so deeply and repeatedly harmed by the church, it’s natural to conclude, ‘I was abused by a pastor, therefore all pastors are bad and none can be trusted’ or ‘my church was bad therefore all churches are bad.’”
I have spoken with multiple victims of spiritual and sexual abuse who have either refused to attend church or given up entirely on Christianity. The church has become an unsafe and triggering place for these victims.
Unfortunately, many congregant members fail to understand the underlying causes and are impatient with survivors. They fail to see the many cries of the Psalmists as they struggled with their faith in the midst of abuse (Psalm 10, 88).
When I asked Jada about the need for vindication, she said,
“Realistically, it never fully happens. Even in situations where there is a third-party investigation and it is made clear to the public that the pastor committed adult clergy sexual abuse, some people will still deny the claims. They choose to go along with the abuser’s narrative – that it was consensual and that he should return to ministry. Survivors who think healing will come from being vindicated often discover that the path to healing can happen with or without vindication. That’s good because so often, vindication isn’t fully attainable.”
I have written of the helpfulness of vindication elsewhere. However, Jada provided a helpful balance.
She noted that if looking to receive vindication from others, it is not only disappointing when they do not come alongside, it can also be retraumatizing when they don’t.
“When heard and affirmed, it is so healing.” But, when she was victim shamed she felt like she was facing a Salem witch trial. She continued, “It truly hurt worse than the abuse.”
Jada is free, but the healing takes time.
Jada described a life that has been changed. She has seen healing that’s slow but continually taking place. She said,
“The life I have now was unfathomable to me during the abuse. During the abuse, I could not picture myself as an adult in charge of my own life. Now I am.”
Part of her healing process included dealing with unwanted flashbacks of the victim shaming.
Things were going great in her life and she couldn’t understand why she would be still experiencing the shame in flashbacks. At the advice of a Christian counselor, she spent significant time journaling and seeking the Lord.
Eventually, she found relief from the flashbacks after coming to terms with the fact that she would never be able to convince those who shamed her that what happened was abuse. She came to terms with this reality and was able to move on. Thankfully, the flashbacks of victim shaming are no longer an issue.
Jada emphasized to me that the way to healing for every survivor is different and encourages survivors to seek help in healing in a variety of ways, including professional therapy.
Healing is a process, especially because trauma shows up in bodily reactions. If someone says something triggering or insensitive about abuse survivors, she can experience stomach cramping and other illnesses, sometimes for days. It can also result in vomitting.
One of the great difficulties of healing from abuse trauma is facing the losses that were experienced under the abuse. One woman has told me how much she grieves the loss of her self-esteem and the skills she had before being entrapped in an abusive marriage. Jada said, “I see how it stripped me of my identity – both who I was as a person (what I liked, what I didn’t like), and who God made me to be in Christ.”
Jada explained that when she converted, her identity in Christ was not encouraged.
“The focus was more on becoming like the leader, the pastor, rather than becoming like the Christ of the Bible. I felt like the identity I was given was ‘young, single, Christian woman, [and a] threat to men’s spirituality.’”
Part of her healing has been to truly believe that these things were not her fundamental identity, She was not a “threat to men’s spirituality” and she actually “deserved to be treated with authentic Christ-like pastoral care.” The idea that she was not inherently lustful and did not deserve to be exploited was “revolutionary” to her.
It is Not an Affair . . . or a Relationship
When asked what truths in God’s Word have been most helpful to her healing, she shared,
“The pastor who abused me told me that I had a permanent lust problem that was inherited generationally and this is why the sexual contact was occurring. But this was a twisted lie. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.’ I have been made new! I’m not cursed with some lust problem that could only be curbed by sexual contact with this man.
The pastor would constantly condemn me by using my confessions of past sin to say that this is who I inherently was. But Romans 8 teaches that I am free from condemnation (Rom. 8:1-2) and free from any condemning charges against me (Rom. 8:31-34). I wasn’t condemned to a life of satisfying this man’s sinful desires. Ephesians 2:10 says, ‘For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’ I was created to do good works, not do good works while living with a secret that was killing me. Now I can finally live the life I wanted to back then – a life of freedom to serve God without oppression.”
Jada refuses to lose hope that church leaders will become educated about clergy sexual abuse of adults. She said they should listen to the stories of those who have experienced it and read the research.
As the title of this blog says, clergy sexual abuse is not an “affair.” It is not a relationship. It is a person with significant power overcoming one who is under their care.
It is rape.
When a person looks back on a consensual relationship that was broken, Jada said,
“They don’t look back on the relationship in horror. If there is no abuse, they won’t suffer with recurring nightmares and other PTSD symptoms. This is why adult clergy sexual abuse isn’t an illicit affair. It’s nonconsensual and it’s abuse. It causes trauma.”
Many people do not understand the power that someone with spiritual authority has. That authority removes consensuality from the equation. Consent can’t be given in cases where someone is “over the other” in a spiritual way. In those cases, “there is a dynamic that they can’t freely say no.”
The ability of a pastor to gaslight and manipulate through scripture is particularly heinous – using God’s Word, that was intended for shalom and well-being, to tear down the image of God and agency in another.
Jada said that those who treat victims of clergy sexual abuse as adulterers
“may find themselves inadvertently repeating the same messages that the abuser planted in the survivor’s mind – that she was complicit and that it was her sensuality that caused him to sin. When people victim shame and blame, they reinforce the same weapon of lies that the abuser used.”
If you wish to help a survivor, you need to be careful with your words. Well-meaning helpers make comments that shame and blame:
- “Well, you shouldn’t have been alone with the pastor. You should know that he would be tempted by you.”
- “Yeah, she has a past, so hearing about her and the pastor doesn’t surprise me.”
Because shame affects people emotionally and physically, and therefore creates pain and discomfort, Jada said many survivors will hide. They will use anonymous names on social media so they won’t be targeted and retraumatized by victim shamers.
Survivors often choose to keep a part of their life hidden from others for fear of being shamed. They are not able to fully live “in the freedom Christ has given them.”
Survivors need safe people who will hear their story. The telling of the story is an important first, second, and third step to healing. Trauma does not go away without intentional disclosure. But trauma can also be intensified when the story is dismissed or met with disbelief.Tweet
Once during therapy, Jada’s therapist said, “You are so brave.” Jada noted that some survivors of abuse don’t like that.
However, it was empowering to her.
“In most of my dreams now, I actually tell the abuser that I’m not captive by him anymore. So, those dreams aren’t scary. Even in my dreams, I’m stronger. I’ve grown. I’m a different person now.”
Visit the Clergy Sexual Misconduct for more information about clergy adult sexual abuse.
I so appreciated Jada (not her real name) sharing her story. She helped me extensively in the writing of it. Jada is a gracious and godly woman who deserved so much more than what the church gave her. Yet, she continues to serve God’s people. Thank you for sharing, Jada.