"No system, no matter how godly its goal sounds, that carries within it oppression, silencing, de-humanizing violence, arrogance, abuse and corruption is healthy – spiritually or humanly." - Diane Langberg
Two years ago I was offered a job. I already had a job as a pastor, but it was a temporary job (as an outside contractor) and an easy job: filing. Putting papers in the right folder. I had a whole list of podcasts lined up, prepared to spend a few hours a day for a couple weeks doing some mindless office work. The pay? Ten dollars an hour. On my first day, I expected to be handed a stack of papers and a stack of folders. I was, but I was also given instructions I wasn't expecting: Can you analyze the contents of these files, use your past experience working in this office to determine what's relevant, and purge irrelevant documents while reorganizing what's left? I quickly realized my podcast list was out the window. I took a few "sample" files to identify common documents and began to make a master list with categories to help organize the content of every file. Then I began the work of studying every document in every file to determine its content, date of origin, and relevance. Suddenly, that ten dollars an hour wasn't sounding like very much. So I shared with the person who had contracted the work to me my thoughts on the project and asked for a raise. She agreed but thought she would run it by her supervisor first. That's when things started to go sideways. Over the weekend, I was surprised when my phone notified me of an email from the CFO. I didn't even know him. I'd met him once at a party a few years earlier, but other than that, we had never spoken. I wasn't an employee of his organization; I was working as an independent contractor. What could he have to say to me? Well, A LOT, as it turned out. He told me that a request for a change of pay was unethical. He said I was going back on my word. He told me that I must have no idea how organizations like that were run because if everyone was like me it would lead to bankruptcy. He told me that I had manipulated him into a lose-lose situation. He told me how difficult I was making things for him. In the end, he felt he had no choice but to offer me a two dollar raise. I felt embarrassed, selfish, and ashamed. I responded carefully. I said that I believed that asking for a change in pay was a common practice in most organizations and did not merit a response like his. He responded back and said that if that was the practice in the past, that's too bad, but as long as he was in charge, it would not be a practice anymore. Again, I felt small. I felt embarrassed. Clearly I had misread the company culture. And then I got angry because I realized that's how I was supposed to feel. I was supposed to apologize for asking for a raise and never, ever dream of doing anything like that again. I knew that I was supposed to feel that way because I had read the files! I'd seen his correspondence regarding other employees, the way his derision came through even in print. I also have Facebook. I'd read the stories of other employees whose character he had attacked. I knew that former employees had struggled to defend not only their work performance but their character. And now it was happening to me. I worked there for three days before he decided he knew enough about me, without even having met me, to make judgments about my character, my integrity, and my intelligence. Judgments which he didn't hesitate to share with me in an email that could end up in his file. Except, of course, he didn't have a file. I didn't know what to do. I called the president. We had known each other for years. I thought he would be horrified to know that someone who worked for him would act so unprofessionally and inappropriately. His response, however, was careful, "I don't think I need to get involved here." I realized I was on my own. I took some time to think about my response to the CFO. I finally settled on two points of contention. First, it was extremely unprofessional for him to contact me at all. He sent me email on my personal email, which I'm not even sure how he got. I was not an employee but an outside contractor. The CFO doesn't go out and lecture the HVAC repairman on his character. If he did, you can bet that guy wouldn't be back!
Second, I realized that his response to me was not an anomaly. It was his default response to anyone who questioned anything: control, manipulate, silence. The second point in my response was a carefully considered accusation of abuse. I don't use that word lightly. I researched what I was experiencing to see if it was truly abuse, and I came across the term "gaslighting." Gaslighting is a form of abuse that makes victims "question their sanity, their perception of reality, or their memories, which can result in the victim feeling confused anxious and unable to trust themselves." (medicalnewstoday.com/articles/gaslighting) I had asked myself those kinds of questions. Did I misunderstand the situation? Had I inadvertently put him in an impossible situation? Was I manipulating him? Was I unethical for wanting to change the terms of my agreement? Was I acting selfishly in a way that would undermine the financial viability of the institution? It's worth noting that this is especially common in the church because people like me have spent years going to the altar to confess our sins and we're all highly attuned to any hint of wrongdoing so we can quickly repent and "get right with God." I sent my email and waited for a response. The CFO sent me back a terse email. He didn't appreciate my tone and the conversation was over. I submitted my resignation. It was a temp job for terrible pay! Not really hard to walk away from... But what I didn't know was that the organization had a very strict policy against abuse. And the CFO was obligated to report my accusation, whether he found it baseless or not. I learned this because before the CFO did anything else, he went TO MY HUSBAND. He said, "Did your wife really mean what she wrote to me?" My husband responded wisely and said, "My wife always means what she says." And then the CFO said, "Per our policy, I am obligated to report this to the president, but I would be willing not to if you think it may endanger your relationship with him." I don't know exactly what happened after that because I never heard ANYTHING. No form letter like, "We take accusations of abuse very seriously and will follow up with you if we have further questions regarding your experience." No phone call. Nothing. However, I do know that at some point, the president, the CFO, and the CFO's lawyer had a conversation because they copied in my husband on the follow up email! What?? Over the next year, in casual conversations with the president, he said to me more than once, "You know, as Christians we need to be careful of the words we use to describe people." So apparently, the only follow-up of a very serious accusation was a gentle chastisement of my un-Christlike spirit. I only worked there for one week. I finished the reorganization of the first half of the files and left the other half behind. I walked away heartbroken. This was my alma mater. The president was my friend. For a while, I continued to use the library as a resource. I would go sit in the café and study. And people would talk to me. I heard other stories. Stories of insults, sexism, even racist policies implemented in business relationships with primarily black community partners. I saw people leave, defeated by their experience there. I saw people leave, head held high, knowing that they took the high ground even when their character was ruthlessly attacked again and again. Gradually my husband and I both realized we had to leave. He has his own story, which I won't tell here.
We left everything behind.
I will probably never again talk to the president who I once considered a friend. I will probably never return to my alma mater. The CFO works for multiple organizations in my denomination. I have slowly begun to realize that his behavior is widely known and seemingly accepted. The president is a beloved and widely-respected leader in the denomination. I see the path of broken lives he leaves behind as he moves ever onward and upward, and I really don't even know how to make sense of it. He speaks so well. He prays so well. He sings so well. It has taken a long time for me to realize that speaking, praying, and singing are different from doing. The fallout of this feels like a death to me. It all started over an insignificant request for an insignificant pay raise. But in the process, I saw men in powerful positions taking a considered accusation of abuse, discussing it among themselves, casually dismissing it, and then sending a representative to chastise me for my words. I know that people have horrific stories. I know that people have suffered much, much more than I have at the hands of church leaders. Unfortunately that seems to be a common feature of the world we live in. But I am writing this today because it's January. And somehow my body knows it was January when this all happened. I woke up in the middle of the night, my mind churning. I had dreams of people fighting. Maybe next January when my memories rush back again, they won't be quite as strong or quite as painful. Maybe broken relationships will have faded from memory. My hope is that telling my story will be one more step towards healing, one more step towards truly believing that I did nothing wrong and need not feel ashamed. My hope in sharing is that others will know that abuse comes in many forms, and it doesn't take death for you to feel loss. We all have our stories. We all carry our stories in our minds, hearts, and bodies. They go with us. They make us hesitant to trust again. They make us guarded when someone looks or acts the same as someone from the past. They make us think that we need to be mean first because the mean is sure to come at us sooner or later. It's hard to stay kind and compassionate when it feels like kindness and compassion are weak and easily taken advantage of. It's hard to stay open when it feels like openness is an invitation to betrayal. It's hard to let go of anger when it feels like anger is the only weapon you have left at your disposal. I don't know what the future holds for us. I only know what's behind. But I do know that we have found slow, but sure healing. We have found a life out from under the shadow of abusive behavior. We don't know what's ahead, but we do know we will never go back.