“I get to decide where I’m safe.
No amount of guilt or shame will ever change that.”
-Michelle Pendergrass, speaking about toxic people
I sat in the church classroom, completely paralyzed. For ten years I’d loved these kids and others like them, watching each heart and each trial and each suicidal tendency… only to see these fragile stems become torn and beaten down by spiritual pressure.
The leaders, the ones I’d grown to love… didn’t see their admonishments as verbal abuse. They saw it as verbal encouragement to do the right thing.
Looking back, I realize that the “encouragement” of those days was a result of fear.
Fear that these kids would fail.
Fear of the tough questions.
Fear that they would make the same mistakes we did.
Fear that they would get hurt.
Fear that they would leave the church.
My youth leader friends had good hearts. They may have been in the right place, but the pressure they placed week after week on the kids to perform — to ignore the tough questions — to serve wholeheartedly when they were hurting — all of this pressure left everyone disappointed because it didn’t work.
At some point we have to stop caring more about results than people.
There were attempted suicides. Broken relationships. Agnosticism. Anger. And on that day, in that classroom where I could no longer bear to see so much heartbreak, I walked away from what I saw.
Because on that day, I began to realize that I could make a bigger difference in these kids’ lives if they did not associate me with this church and the “God” who had no grace or room for brokenness.
(My relationships with the group deepened immensely when I walked away. They gathered in my house (with leaders’ permission), shared in my life, walked and talked and cared deep. We cried together. We laughed together. I moved on to serve in another church simultaneously.)
I left on good terms. I sat down with leadership, and we talked.
But it felt like I was speaking a foreign language… like when I used the words “spiritual abuse”, I was a hypochondriac diagnosing all of us with an imaginary disease.
Looking back, I wish I would have thought through it more. Explained my heart, explained the damage I saw, explained what I wanted to see happen for these kids.
Because here’s what I find again and again now that I’m older: people who are being spiritually abusive, or spiritually abused, don’t often recognize it until it’s too late.
And it will be too late. Because spiritual pressure–a focus on what Christianity looks like, rather than caring like Christ no matter the results–doesn’t work. It might yield the desired results for a time, but eventually people who buck up and conform without grace fail. I see it here and I see it here again.
Pressure doesn’t work. Loving people does. We were never designed to be the Holy Spirit in anyone else’s life.
This is the beginning of a series on Spiritual abuse and the damage it can create.
Your thoughts? Please share in the comments.
You can read part 2 here.
Bekah Hamrick Martin is a national speaker and the author of The Bare Naked Truth: Dating, Waiting & God’s Purity Plan (Zondervan).