My last church experience was a mixed bag. It started off strong; my husband and I were brought on as leaders. The pastor was ecstatic about our experience in ministry and told us we were going to be “juggernauts” in the church. I became the office manager, I gathered a group of women together to relaunch the women’s ministry, and I was discipling and baptizing new believers. The pastor was an intense personality—charming, engaging, magnetic even. Except in private when he became harsh, short-tempered, and forceful.

A conflict reared during a leadership meeting and I felt his response to the situation was out of proportion. I got defensive and the pastor called me belligerent and angry, triggering a memory of being diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder when I was 13. I really wasn’t all that defiant at 13. In fact, I should have been a whole lot more defiant than I was. I should have been more defensive than I was. I should have stuck up for myself way more than I did. And I should have had more people in my corner than there were. He reminded me of all the leaders, teachers, pastors, and parents who formulated a snap judgment of me and didn’t listen or ask me any questions.

The ironic thing is this—a few months before this same person (with exceptional insight) suggested I see a counselor due to my lack of emotional responsiveness after my foster mother’s death. I had been accused of some things by a few women I had invested in at the church. One even left a “prayer request” about my leadership abilities in the box, knowing that I was the one who collected, read, shared, and responded to them. When I showed it to the leadership team during a meeting, they were surprised that I wasn’t registering hurt or anger, which would have been an appropriate response. They saw I was shutting down. My pastor recommended a counselor. The church even paid for it, and I went.

Linda had been so good for me, and she echoed my pastor’s opinion that I was not nearly angry enough about the things that have happened in my life. I’d become resigned, which took less energy and hurt less. I was living out the deeply damaging lie that I was not worth protecting.

I was trapped between needing to feel the hurt I experienced and the fear that anything I’d say in disagreement would be seen as defensive or disrespectful. I’m realizing that is one of the cardinal sins of the Church—defensiveness. You throw the word “defensive” at someone and there’s no coming back from that. There’s nothing you can say on your behalf that won’t be considered defensive.

So I took it. And I swallowed it. And it seemed the more I swallowed it, the smaller I became. And the smaller I was, the quieter I’d get. And the quieter I got, the more deceived I was. Deceived into thinking that my opinions didn’t matter, my feelings were irrelevant, and that speaking up on my own behalf was equated with sin.

My counselor, Linda, started picking up a pattern in my pastor’s behavior. She revealed to me how his idea of pastoral care wasn’t care at all. It was manipulation. His words and actions undermined my sense of self and left me feeling like I was always the one at fault. I discovered that he gave people one chance to confront or question him, after that came exile. I was removed from the women’s leadership team because the office manager and the pastor thought I needed some time to recover from my depression. I wasn’t asked, I was told.

During one session with Linda she shared with me that she had another client whose story was similar to mine. The woman also experienced conflict with her pastor and felt like she was being punished for her own concerns and questions, and manipulated into believing she was the one at fault. Linda called her before our next session and when I saw her she told me what she had learned. That woman’s pastor was the same person. Mine wasn’t an isolated event. It wasn’t all in my head.

Linda looked at me and said, “I rarely tell someone not to seek reconciliation, but in this situation, you need to just get out. You will never win with this person, and the rest of his team will treat you the same or worse. They will chew you up and spit you out.” I took her advice. We left the church shortly after and we’ve had no contact since then.

He addressed the women’s leadership team and shared with them his version of what happened. One of my friends asked him if he had pursued reconciliation. He told them no, but he was going to. He never did.

That day, in that leadership meeting, I got angry. I tried to stand up for myself, and I was labeled belligerent. Here’s the Webster’s definition: “inclined to or exhibiting assertiveness, hostility, or combativeness.” It comes from the Latin word meaning “to wage war.” Yes, I was assertive. Maybe even hostile and combative. I may have been waging a war. There are wars you enter into as a means of “defending” your own borders. I may be wrong, and I probably am, but I was belligerent for a cause—the wholeness of my spirit.

I’ve counseled many women over the years and something I’ve come to learn is the process of healing makes you say, do, and think things you normally wouldn’t (or have been trained not to) and that’s not always a bad thing. The pendulum has to swing both ways before it finds its balance in the middle. Sometimes a little anger is good for the soul.

There will always be conflicts but I’m learning to stay present, not shut down, and engage in a way that honors the heart and voice I’ve been given. Maybe I am belligerent at times, but even so, I’m still worth defending.

Tammy Perlmutter
Tammy Perlmutter writes about unabridged life, fragmented faith, and investing in the mess of it all and is the founder and curator of the collaborative blog The Mudroom. She co-founded Deeply Rooted, a local Chicago biannual worship event for women. She writes about her daughter and autism in her blog series Life Along the Spectrum. Tammy lives in intentional community with Jesus People USA (and 250 people!) in Chicago. She has an essay in the Soul Bare anthology coming out with Inter Varsity Press in August.

14 Comments

Post Comment
  1. Tammy! Thank you so much for writing this. My husband was the counseling pastor, and I ran the Women’s ministry at a church we dearly loved and planned on being at for the rest of our lives. Then, well, then we experienced something very similar. It was time to get out. It was heartbreaking, but now we are almost a year out, at a new church, and ready for what God has next. I so appreciate you sharing your experience, and am glad that Jesus’ church has your voice.

    1. You are so right. I have a visceral aversion to nice. I find it highly suspect. I don’t think nice is one of the fruits of the Spirit. Kindness is completely different, there can be kindness with hard truth in it. Nice circumvents the truth to protect reputation and avoid confrontation.

  2. Thank you for your vulnerability. Too many of us have experienced abusive leaders and worse when it is a pastor and there is no way to have healthy conflict resolution. It’s not just you my friend and so glad that you are walking through to that healthy place and willing to share your story so that others, who have experienced something similar can see, it wasn’t all them either. Blessings.

  3. Thank you, Karen!! It helps to know I’m not alone. I posted a similar piece 5 years ago after it happened and my closest friend rebuked me for 45 minutes about how I shouldn’t correct men in leadership because God put them there and I cannot say otherwise. Needless to say, that was the last time we spoke.

  4. I went through a similar experience, Tammy, only it was my husband not my pastor.

    “Yes, I was assertive. Maybe even hostile and combative. I may have been waging a war. There are wars you enter into as a means of “defending” your own borders. I may be wrong, and I probably am, but I was belligerent for a cause—the wholeness of my spirit.”

    Your words ring true! I left him 10 years ago not only for the sake or my borders, but for the sake of my children as well.

  5. Hi Tammy… we worked together at HarvestUSA a few years ago 🙂 thanks for writing your story, it sort of reminds me a bit of mine when I worked on staff as a deacon. Would it be ok to email you privately and chat about it?
    thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *