When I was very young, I almost drowned. We were at a friend’s house whose parents owned a swimming pool. If I remember correctly, I was the only girl there — the rest of the kids were older boys. I didn’t know how to swim at the time, so I was instructed to stay in the shallow end where I could stand with my head above water. But then the boys started “rough housing” near me. That was fine, I could just watch. Not. I was in their way and about to get hurt, so I began to unintentionally back up toward the deep end. I didn’t realize I was so close to the edge until it was too late: I lost my footing and slid backward. The water closed over my head and I panicked, desperately flailing to surface again, but continuing to sink. Finally, my feet touched the floor, so I pushed up to grab one breath before flailing, taking in water, and sinking again. And what did I see each time I surfaced? Adults chatting normally at the edge of the pool and the other kids having a blast playing together. I remember feeling so alone and helpless — I couldn’t cry for help and no one seemed to notice that their action (and inaction) had put me in significant danger. I thought I was going to die. The irony was, I felt like it was my fault. I hadn’t followed the instructions. Unfortunately, the instructions didn’t include a “get out if you’re not safe” option. And I was taught to always follow the instructions.
Fast forward a few decades and my memory of almost drowning consistently comes to mind as an analogy of my time in different churches both as a child and as an adult. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this — the pool is the church, the adults are the leaders, and the other kids are the socially/mentally/physically/spiritually equipped church members. You get the picture — cue trauma survivors being invited into these communities, finding themselves overwhelmed, and in a self preservation attempt, backing deeper and deeper into dangerous spiritual/mental/emotional and sometimes physical depths. I know this is not a popular viewpoint, but sadly, it’s one that I am now fully convinced of — churches can be dangerous places for trauma survivors.
Let’s rewind here, though. As many of you know, I am a child of the covenant who is also a sexual abuse survivor. Until last year, I lived my whole life in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). I believed the denomination’s biblical claims, held those claims dear and, in general, still agree with them. But only in rare instances have I seen those claims in any way guide how the denomination cares for and nurtures sexually abused individuals, particularly children of the covenant abused by their own leaders. Instead, after experiencing lifelong devastation at the hands of a church leader when I was a child, I went on to experience spiritual bullying, manipulation, sexually abhorrent language used, and a truly staggering amount of spiritual patronization in churches. Ironically, these later behaviors had nothing to do with my abuse as a child — these attitudes were just an “unfortunate” result of leaders conducting church business as usual.
Regardless, I grew up focusing on the eloquent speeches and lofty prayers of leaders — their worship, dedication, and commitment to theology. So much of what they said was so beautiful. I would not be who I am today without such robust and eloquent teaching. But to this day, I don’t understand how leaders could speak such beautiful things about the heart of Christ and then ignore abuse victims, joke about suicide, spiritually demoralize and humiliate those who disagree with them, and reduce vulnerable women (or anyone!) to mere objects through their words. God help us.
But it’s not just the abusive words/behaviors of leaders that I’ve seen that concern me — it’s the inadvertent harm as well. For example, I attended a talk a few years ago and the ministry leader said something to the effect that sex in marriage is never wrong. If I remember correctly, the context was that married sex is a gift to be enjoyed, etc. I get that. But suppose there was a married woman in the audience who lived in a domestic violence situation where her husband sexually assaulted her on a regular basis? Hearing a phrase like “Sex in marriage is never wrong” would not only validate what her husband was doing to her, it might also make her think that what was happening to her was normal and even good despite how much it hurt her. They’re married, right? And sex in marriage is never wrong, right? Church leaders obviously think so based on what this leader was saying, she might think. Considering our analogy above, can you see how this would push her closer and closer to the deep end of hopelessness in her situation? Now, am I saying that the speaker was intentionally trying to harm vulnerable women in the audience? No. But by focusing only on individuals in safe situations, he inadvertently put others at risk. If you don’t have the tools to discern what is applicable or not applicable in your particular situation (i.e. know how to swim), then there is a real threat of being pushed to the point of drowning in despair.
“But that’s not everywhere!” you may say. “Your experiences do not represent the whole.” That is very true. They do not. Hence the analogy — there were plenty of kids in that pool having a blast. That was kind of the problem, though. All the adults were focused on them because their voices could be heard and responded to and even enjoyed. They were yelling in fun! But I certainly wasn’t. When you’re at risk of drowning, you can’t breathe much less yell. Your body shuts down your voice to focus on survival. The same can be true in churches — simply trying to breathe replaces your ability to speak. And unless others are spiritually/mentally/emotionally aware of the signs, no one knows that you’re alone and drowning in plain sight.
I don’t know how long I was left in the deep end of that pool, but it felt like an eternity. Suddenly, through the water, I saw a blurry figure leap up and start running toward me at full speed. With one arm, my dad reached down and pulled me out of the pool and into safety. I’m alive now because he took stock of the situation, saw the danger, and acted immediately. Thank God for that. And thank God for church leaders and members who are committed to helping traumatized individuals and those struggling to find their voices. The very heart of Christ is with them in their work.