“I’ll always be your pastor”
When I left my parents’ church to move to a progressive town a few hours away, one of the pastors met up with me to give me some ‘parting wisdom’. Apparently this meant including a 10 minute lecture on how I, as a woman, should not be taking the “theology and pastoral classes” I had briefly mentioned in a group setting a few days prior. That was bad enough, but as we were wrapping up he said “No matter where you go or what you do, I’ll always be your pastor”.
My heartbeat quickened, I bit my lip and glanced at the floor…
His announcement might sound sweet to some, but for me it was a jarring reminder that escaping would be much more difficult than merely moving away. No matter what I believed or how I changed, this man would always view himself as having spiritual authority over me. How I felt about it wasn’t relevant.
One of the most basic human rights is the ability to choose who governs us. This is the foundational principle of democracy. But this man was stripping that right away from me. It didn’t matter if I wanted him to be my pastor or if I wanted a pastor at all. He was declaring himself my pastor and he would insert himself into that role in my life any chance he got.
This communication pattern extends beyond human-to-human relationships:
“God will always love you and pursue you to the ends of the earth. God will never give up on you even when you give up on Him. God will always find you, even in the darkest corner or the deepest pit.”
At first this popular sentiment sounds encouraging; a reminder of faithfulness and loyalty, someone you can count on. But not only does it register low-key stalker vibes, it shouts out blatant disregard for an individual’s personal feelings about their own spirituality. What if I don’t identity as religious anymore? What If I don’t want your God chasing me down?
As a hipster youth pastor might put it: “You can’t block God’s number. He’ll call you on the weekend, he’ll call you in the middle of the night, and he’ll keep ringing until you pick up! Will you answer God’s call?”
This huge emphasis on an omnipotent, omnipresent, morally-demanding God wires our brains to feel vulnerable to divine advances. The idea of God as a force that cannot be stopped means that God can follow us to places people cannot. God can invade our thoughts and feelings any time of day. God can read our minds. God is always watching, always listening, always at work, even inside our own bodies. There is no privacy, no secrets, no actual autonomy. It’s like being haunted, stalked, devoured by a hungry parasite.
One must admit, it’s a brilliant tactic for discouraging people from leaving the church’s control: “Why leave? There’s no point. You can’t ever REALLY leave, anyway. No one can snatch you out of the Father’s hands, not even yourself. Besides, leaving will make you miserable so why not just stay?”
It’s a grand scheme motivating church members to self-police and turn themselves in; all under the guise of confession and following your conscience. The more congregants self-police (and police each other) the easier the leaders’ jobs are in maintaining control.
These manipulation tactics don’t apply only to authority figures and their subjects. It infiltrates peer relationships as well.
A painful memory seared in my mind goes like this:
“Because I’m a true friend and I love you, I promise I will always speak the truth to you, even when it’s hard, or not what you want to hear.”
At first glance, it seems a loyal friend is pledging their allegiance; expressing commitment to their friend’s well-being over their own personal comfort.
However, Evangelicals have been trained to be quite comfortable saying “uncomfortable things”.
The lived-out practical meaning of these words, however, is much more damaging.
In my case, this phrase from my (now former) best friend of 10 years was followed by a 13 page email attacking my core identity and claiming that the “most authentic form of [myself] is full of sin and brokenness”. It’s clear that the following would be a more accurate way of explaining what it means to “speak the truth in love”.
“I will keep voicing my disapproval of your life and your identity over and over, no matter how much pain it causes you. I won’t be quiet even if you ask me to. I will not respect your boundaries. Because I’m claiming love, I can excuse my continued harassment of you as my Christian duty. Since I’ve determined your moral stance is inferior to mine, I will expect you to listen to me while I refuse to listen to you. I’ve decided you could lead me astray so I ignore your perspective all the while pointing to you as the hardhearted one. The only way we can ever have a reciprocal friendship again is if you conform to everything I think and believe.”
Twisting the definition of love as in this example, conditions us to expect overbearing and disrespectful behavior from those who claim to love us. As a result, there’s a huge overlap between those with church backgrounds and those who experience abusive relationships. Calling this spiritual harassment “love” is gaslighting and an attempt at convincing us the unpleasant feelings we experience come from our own guilty consciences instead of unfair treatment.
Perhaps the most surprising “Christian threat” is also the most common.
“I’ll pray for you.”
What could be wrong with that? They just want to help, right?
The motives behind this phrase – as with any of the phrases I’ve mentioned – could be benevolent. But that doesn’t negate the sense of violation and danger many will experience hearing it.
Unsolicited prayer is an attempt to make something happen to someone without the consent of that person it would be happening to.
To many of us, instead of “I’ll pray for you” we hear:
“I will use my buddy-buddy closeness with God – a deity who has been used to terrify and control you – to make things happen to you that you would never ask for yourself. You can’t stop me from making these requests on your behalf, so you’d better stay on my good side. I might pray against the things that make you the most happy. I might pray for God to change the ways your body seems unacceptable to me. I might pray for terrible things to happen to you, but only to break you down to the point that you accept my religion.”
It’s no wonder religious trauma survivors struggle with feeling safe even years after stepping in church for the last time.
Religious abuse uses spirituality – which can’t be contained by the laws of time and space and has no real definition or limit – to harass, shame and terrify.
Once a victim is conditioned to believe that anything is possible and nothing can stop “God’s Will” (which conveniently always matches the abuser’s will) it’s very difficult to ever feel separate from that threat and truly safe.
A good beginning step toward safety and healing, though, is:
“No, you are not my pastor.”
“I’ll always be your pastor”