When I was in my 20s, I seriously considered becoming a counselor/therapist. But a counseling professor at a local seminary I visited changed my mind. I don’t remember much about our conversation, only that I told him how much I enjoyed ministry (i.e. teaching and discipling) and wanted to help people. His response went something like this — “That’s great! In counseling, though, you can’t assume that the people you’re working with are starting from a healthy mental framework.” Well, that sealed it for me. I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant, but I much preferred the idea of working with people I could assume had a healthy mental framework. So I went into church ministry.
Looking back, I’m appalled at my response. I made the right decision (I wasn’t called to be a counselor/therapist), but I made the grievous mistake of assuming that the vast majority of church members were overall fine, happy, and mentally healthy. As such, church ministry would look like encouragement and spiritual guidance and getting people plugged into the right programs, social functions, or Bible studies available. That’s not to say problems and sad things wouldn’t come up where people would need help in tangible ways, but those would be few and far between. Or so I thought.
I’m still not sure if I was just naive and arrogant, if my assumption about church members was generally accurate, or if “we’re a congregation of healthy people” was just how churches positioned themselves in public spaces when I was growing up. It was probably some of each. All I know is, after 30+ years in the PCA I’ve noticed that if you’re able to start from a healthy mental framework as a church member, you’ll typically do well in churches and be able to navigate relationships and leadership structures without major problems. But if you come into a church with a history of mental illness, abuse, or other types of trauma that have significantly altered who you trust and how you view the world, then it’s quite possible you’ll struggle depending on the church situation.
For people without trauma/mental illness, navigating church relationships and leadership structures can be like finding your way through a maze with a map. It can be challenging and lonely and you might make some mistakes here and there (and possibly a few enemies, too), but you’ve got resources (i.e. your map) and you’ll make it to the other side typically unscathed and with some good friends to boot.
But for those with life altering trauma and/or mental illness, particularly as it relates to abuse of authority, it can be like navigating a minefield in the dark. Distrust of others feels as if it’s embedded in your DNA. As such, you don’t know what types of mines there could be in any given situation (i.e. are there abusive people here? unhealthy power structures? manipulative teaching?), you don’t know where they are (i.e. are they church leaders? staff? socially powerful members?), and you don’t know what will happen to you if you accidentally set one off (i.e. will it blow up? will it be a dud? a false alarm? will it just knock me off my feet for a bit?). And even if you do have a map (i.e. resources), if you’re in the dark, it won’t help at all because you can’t see it.
Some of you may think I’m overstating what it can feel like as a trauma survivor in the church. For some trauma survivors, I’m sure I am. For others, I’m not stating it strongly enough. Different people have different experiences in different churches and undoubtedly some survivors are enfolded in a loving church community (from what I’ve heard, that’s especially true in church plants). Others, though, are not. Or perhaps you think many trauma survivors or people struggling with mental illness have unnecessary fears about churches in general. That may be true sometimes considering the broad spectrum of experiences and reactions people have. But considering the recent allegations against Southern Baptist churches alone, abuse of power is real, it’s in churches, it’s been around for a long time, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. In light of that, I wouldn’t discount their fears and experiences too quickly.
Now, let’s go back to our maze vs. minefield analogy. Let’s call the maze members “healthy sheep” and the minefield members “vulnerable sheep.” And let’s call the church members and leaders who enter churches to pursue power, prestige, and/or wealth and use and abuse other people to get it “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Who do you think these wolves are primarily going to feed on? Probably not the healthy sheep. Possibly because they can’t catch them as easily, but there might be an even subtler reason. It seems to me, that if trusted shepherds (i.e. pastors, elders, etc.) spend the majority of their time investing in systems and opportunities that guide and feed and favor the healthy sheep, then a wolf trying to feed primarily on healthy sheep will be much more noticeable in those spaces. So where does the wolf typically go? To the vulnerable, the weak, and the traumatized. In other words, he goes to the fringes of the herd where sheep are desperately attempting to navigate the minefield on their own, in the dark — easy prey. Because who’s going to hear a lone sheep, on the fringe, bleating feebly amidst the energy and excitement of a herd?
Now, from what I can tell, it’s not easy to spot a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They are remarkably devious — some are even devious to the point of being able to wear a healthy sheep’s skin OR a vulnerable sheep’s skin depending on which gets them closer to their intended prey. In other words, they can feign “vulnerability” (there might even be some truth to their vulnerability!) and use it not only to get close to actual vulnerable sheep but also to lure out healthy sheep who are trying to help them. On the outside, they appear vulnerable, but at their core they’re wolves with the intent to deceive, destroy, and devour.
Is all this making you uncomfortable? It should. It makes me uncomfortable as well. But, just so there’s no misunderstanding, I am very much pro healthy ministries for healthy people and am thankful for the many churches who continue to build trust with and minister to the vulnerable in our congregations. I’m also grateful for the pastors, elders, ministry leaders, and regular church members who have built on the wisdom of previous generations to spearhead current ministry movements. These men and women have shown incredible self-sacrifice and compassion that reflects the Good Shepherd who “. . . lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11). None of what I’ve written is meant to discount that and I rejoice with them for how the Lord has worked mightily in some of these areas.
And, just to be clear, I also don’t think ministry has to be an either/or situation in churches. Either we minister to the healthy people or we minister to the vulnerable. Why? Because it seems to me, that one of the main ways vulnerable people become less vulnerable is by healthy people intentionally bringing them into their safe communities — communities who build trust with them, come alongside them, listen to them, and watch out for them. Does that mean our church communities somehow “fix” them? No. But they play a vital role in helping to guard and support them. The question is, are our typical church communities safe places for vulnerable people?
In closing, these recent allegations against Southern Baptist churches (not to mention previous ones like Sovereign Grace Ministries) are very distressing to say the least. As you can tell, though, this post is not specifically about those allegations. Instead, I’m writing to remind us that there can be wolves in our churches whether we spot them or not. In light of that, vulnerable church members can be at risk whether they’re traumatized individuals, children, or mentally/physically challenged.
But I’m also writing to remind us (myself included) that Jesus sees the vulnerable in our congregations. He sees how we treat them, too. And he says, “. . . whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mark 9:42). Yes, there is still grace when we sin or make decisions that unintentionally exclude, ignore, or harm the vulnerable in our churches. Of course, Jesus’ blood can still cover this. But concern for the vulnerable should drive us to our knees before our heavenly Father for the wisdom, guidance, repentance, and love for others that only the perfect Lamb and one perfect Shepherd –Jesus himself — can give. Because, ultimately, we’re all actually vulnerable sheep, aren’t we?