Rachel’s Story: Tenacious Pursuit of Justice

When Rachel Black was struggling to make sense of her abusive pastor, there was no Christianity Today Mars Hill podcasts and seemingly no books on how an employee in a church is to respond to such disregard.

All she knew was the “hairs on her arms stood up” as she sought to understand her boss.

Rachel was the Administrative Manager of the church, acting as a “Chief Operating Officer” in the secular world’s terminology. Her duties included nearly everything that made ministry possible for the nearly 500 member church. She supervised eight staff members and oversaw facilities, technology, purchasing, and human resources.

It began with a simple lack of acknowledgement that struck her as “off”. The slight seemed unusual for a pastor and a boss. Rachel dismissed her concern and told herself, “Who did I think I was needing recognition?”

But it ended up just being a “signal” of what was to come.

The newly hired pastor seemed to make it a point to ignore her in staff meetings, never asking her input, though the men on staff were given great consideration. It took nearly 30 weeks (staff meetings happening every week) before Rachel was acknowledged by the new pastor.

Yet, Rachel was expected to be on call seemingly 24/7, often being asked to respond to fabricated emergencies during inopportune times like the dinner hour. On the other hand male leaders such as the Associate Pastor were explicitly given agency to ignore work matters if desired and not to expect work communications while they were off the clock.  

Happy Place

Prior to Pastor Jack’s hiring as Senior Pastor, the former pastor and Rachel joked about the church being run by Team Raul and Team Black. No longer. Rachel said it became Pyramid Jack, noting the ministry was “him at top . . . everyone else in positions under his thumb.”

Prior to the Pastor Jack’s tenure, Rachal considered her church her “happy place.” 

“I was there six days a week . . . then I wondered why it wasn’t my happy place anymore.”

Then news of Ravi Zacharias’ toxic leadership came out. As Rachel read the reports she was struck by the similarities to her experiences under Pastor Jack.

She explained, “I did more research. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions.” She began asking, “What is bullying?” all the while seeing “the patterns of power on which it turned.”

Are Women a Problem?

Rachel told me of an experience of going to bat for a woman volunteer who had been writing the bible studies for a paid Youth Leader.

The Youth Leader had been using the studies and making public claims that they were his own work. 

Knowing that the matter hadn’t been dealt with by the Associate Pastor, she met privately with Pastor Jack to tell him what was going on. The dismissiveness gave Rachel the sense that if you “advocate for a woman, you were in trouble.”

No Complaints

There had been no complaints about Rachel’s work, yet after about 30 days, tasks for which she had normally been responsible for were being “siphoned off” by Pastor Jack. 

One particular project suddenly was halted and so Rachel went to talk to one of the elders in the church who had experience in HR. She was confused and stressed out and wanted to understand what was happening in her relationship to Pastor Jack.

The elder listened to Rachel but ultimately she said, 

“He pushed back in ways that if I was more savvy I would have realized that he was not going to support me, but run interference with his beloved pastor.”

The elder went straight to Pastor Jack.

Another elder did much the same thing. Rachel trusted these men to whom the pastor should have been accountable for his horrific treatment of an employee. Rachel was concerned about “gossiping.” She said, “I told [these two elders] first before anyone else . . . I know gossip is not a good thing.” 

She explained she told the “bare number” of people, only seeking out those who may have had the ability to help bring reconciliation.

Last Legs

The elders met with the pastor a few days afterwards and shared her concerns. Coming out of that meeting the elders suddenly changed their position, feeling that she should have brought her issues to the pastor directly because they believed it was important to model Matthew 18.

Two days later, she received a morning email from Pastor Jack ordering Rachel to come to his office for a private meeting at 9:15 AM. 

Rachel’s meeting with Pastor Jack was “45 minutes of him railing” on her. “I have never seen such an emotional person in distress . . . he was seething. Not yelling. He spoke slowly . . . could barely form words.” 

According to Rachel, Pastor Jack said, “Do you know what damage you have done? How it makes me look to the elders. I can’t believe a staff member of mine could do this.”

Rachel said when she told Pastor Jack that she was intimidated by things he did, he said, “‘No you weren’t.’ He was remaking my reality.”

Rachel described the conversation as going “round and round.” Finally the pastor said, “Have you told anyone else about this?” She recalled, “There was no correct answer. No, I don’t believe gossip is helpful to reconciliation.”

But she then realized with trepidation he knew that the Rachel problem “could just go away since no one else knew.”

Rachel recalls how deeply traumatic the experience was in both what he said and how he said it.

Ending in Isolation

Two days later, while taking her kids to school, she was once again summoned to his office. Her employment had been ended and an elder was there to tell her the next steps. She was presented with a severance agreement that included a statement on confidentiality, an NDA, and waiver of legal claims. 

She said to the elder, “I need to bring it home.” He said, “Yes, you should have your husband read it over.” 

Having packed up all her personal things, the elder led her out the front door and walked Rachel to her car. It was just a taste of the coming isolation Rachel would feel.

Dr. Judith Harmon says, 

The response of the community has a powerful influence on the ultimate resolution of the trauma. Restoration of the breach between the traumatized person and the community depends, first, upon public acknowledgment of the traumatic event and, second, upon some form of community action. Once it is publicly recognized that a person has been harmed, the community must take action to assign responsibility for the harm and to repair the injury.

Judith Herman MD – Trauma and Recovery (p. 104)

In Rachel’s case, the forces of the workplace were mustered against her. Pastor Jack told the staff and elders not to speak to Rachel following her firing.

Rachel sorrowfully said, “There are people who won’t look me in the eye. I haven’t done anything to them. How did they get so brain washed?”

Rachel told me, “I want a lobotomy so I can start over with people in the church.” She loves the people, but following her firing, only a couple reached out to her. The “response of the community” indeed has a powerful influence and she has been deeply hurt by their apparent complicity in the attacks by Pastor Jack.

Some Encouragement

There have been very small pockets of encouragement. She explained that one elder was supportive. One other elder gave Pastor Jack pushback saying it was crazy that an elder couldn’t talk to her. 

The elder ended up being booted from the church elder board. According to Rachel, what this elder experienced was even worse than what she had experienced. The treatment of this elder was quite public and he had been at the church for many years. 

Another staff member reached out to her saying, “I feel like I’m disobeying Pastor Jack but need to hear your voice.” Again, Rachel explained that this woman and another who texted her were “iced out” by the pastor following their apparent disobedience of him.

The Abuse Ramps Up

Rachel said it “seemed so wrong that they let him get away with the retaliatory actions.” She explained, “I don’t need my job back, but somebody needs to fix this guy.”

So, she called the Clerk of the Elder board, but he wouldn’t call back.

Being apparently “iced out,” Rachel’s next step was to seek accountability at both the church and state levels. It was clear to her the pastor had both broken labor laws and biblical church leadership principles. Her attempts to involve the local denominational leadership resulted in further betrayal as they probed her for details related to the case and secretly shared the information with the pastor so he could control the emerging narrative. What she found was that the regional board protects its own.

Each member with whom she spoke went immediately to Pastor Jack and the board ended up siding with the pastor. She said, “They were way more willing to betray her trust than hurt Pastor Jack.”

After hiring a lawyer, church records including emails and her personnel file were attained. She was deeply grieved that Pastor Jack had all along been “trashing her work or her subordinates.” Emails that were sent back and forth between Pastor Jack and an elder were “very negative and critical.”

She had never heard a thing.

It also became apparent to Rachel that Pastor Jack had never suggested to the elders that she be fired until she had made her complaints about his behavior. The Personnel Committee testified they had never been informed by the pastor that he wanted to take steps to fire her until after she complained.

Rachel sent formal “charges” to the regional board that included 40 witnesses. The board interviewed several “witnesses,” none of whom were on Rachel’s list. 

The charges made their way to the denomination’s “supreme court” where a verdict by a three-man sub-committee determined the case “is a human resources matter, and as such, according to the [denomination’s] Constitution, belongs in the civil courts.” 

In their ruling conspicuously absent are the mentions of either the pastor’s name or God’s. 

Reading it, I had to scratch my head. I even asked a couple individuals if they thought it appropriate for church boards to consider a pastor’s immoral treatment of a staff member a “civil” matter.

Of course, everyone I asked was astounded.

The Fallout

It isn’t over with but civil authorities have found evidence of labor impropriety. The church boards on the other hand have refused to recognize their apparent corruption. 

The Clerk of the church board has left the church. 

All of the worship team has left.

The people in Rachel’s old Bible Study group have left the church.

One of her sons has switched denominations in disappointment and anger.

Rachel continues to suffer from nightmares. She fears seeing the pastor on the street or in the store. She has been isolated from her community, a community she grew up in and has served for years. 

Yet, Rachel has seen “God’s hand from beginning to end.”

She hopes that her pursuing justice tenaciously will provide flags for others in the future. Pastor Jack may not be held accountable now, but she hopes that as leaders look back and see the litter of broken relationships behind the pastor, there will be accountability in the future.

When church leadership fails to act with integrity and justice, there will always be fallout that harms the Name of Christ. Over and over we see God’s people and their children leaving the church. 

Depression. Anger. Bitterness. 

This is not the way it is supposed to be. And it need not be. 

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