Recently, I shared the story of a friend of mine who has suffered from complex PTSD after surviving abuse by her pastor and being disbelieved and silenced by her church. There was a huge response to her story, and many abuse survivors have reached out to me to thank me for highlighting this issue. As a result, I asked my friend if she would write something about what to do when escaping church abuse. This was her response. She wishes to remain anonymous.
I honestly wish writing a list of “seven things you need to know when escaping church abuse” was a waste of my time. I wish all churches were safe spaces and all church leaders were people who embody what it means to be a loving servant of Christ. Sadly, I know this is not the case. Not only have I had my world fall apart after being intimidated and indecently assaulted by my pastor, but I since my abuse, I keep finding other survivors of church abuse, many of them as wounded as I. Then after Michael shared my story recently, I wept reading the comments from women identifying themselves as survivors also. And I mean messy, face leaking all over the place wept. There are lots of us. And for every woman identifying themselves as a survivor in the comments, I knew there were many more, including many men who felt unsafe identifying themselves publicly as survivors.
When Michael asked me to write a follow up detailing what you need to know when escaping church abuse, I didn’t want to, but I knew it was needed. After I escaped church abuse, I felt lost in the wilderness without a guide. I trawled the internet for stories from survivors, that might guide me. But I came up with naught. So now, with the gift of hindsight, I write the 7 things I wish I knew when I escaped church abuse. In many ways, this is the blog post I wish I found in those early days.
1. Trust your gut
If your gut is telling you something isn’t right, then something isn’t right. If a church leader is consistently behaving in ways that undermines you, controls you, criticises you, crosses your boundaries or just make you feel unsafe, then this isn’t okay. A good test is if when you describe the behaviour to a friend and they are horrified or tell you this is wrong, then clearly, something isn’t right. Sadly, survivors of church abuse struggle trusting their perception of reality. This is because most abusers use strategies that will confuse you, cause you to doubt yourself and will undermine your sense of what is real. Often, they will have the most powerful people within the church convinced they are the most wonderful person alive which will only add to your self-doubt. When I was being intimidated by my minister, I felt that there was something seriously wrong, but I had trouble believing it because everyone else thought he was wonderful. I wondered if maybe the problem was me. Even after he indecently assaulted me, I initially disbelieved it happened. Worse still, I thought maybe I was the cause, that there was something in me that made him act the way he did. Sadly, this is a common yet excruciating experience. This is what the abuser wants and has worked hard to achieve. As hard as it may be, don’t doubt yourself, believe your perception of what happened, and trust your instincts that it was bad
2. Get out ASAP
As soon as you realise you are being abused, get as far away from that church as possible. Don’t hang around thinking it will get better, because usually it will just escalate. Simultaneously, do what you need to do to prevent contact with your abuser. Block their phone number, social media, and their email. You will likely feel like you can trust the elders, deacons, and any person of influence in that church, and if the church is healthy this should be true. However, tread very carefully. Abusive leaders don’t get into their position of power unless they have enchanted the major power brokers of their church. Unfortunately, this means that elders, deacons, and people you love and trust may not behave in the way you hope and expect. Sadly, they may struggle to believe you. In the worst-case scenario, they may turn on you and protect your abuser.
3. Document and collate evidence
Write down all that happened as early as you can. Start by writing simple dot points, then go back and pad these out with details including dates, times, locations, specific things said and done and how you felt. Make sure you also collate any communication you have had with your abuser and with the church, no matter how irrelevant you might think it is. If you are in a messenger group chat with your abuser, take as many screenshots from that as you can before you get booted from the group. You won’t know what you might need later.
I am sorry to say that this will be a painful process, but it is essential. Before you start, plan what you will need to look after yourself during and after this process. Create a safe comforting environment to write in. Have nice sensory things around you such as something beautiful, a calming scent, soft music and maybe something to hug when you feel vulnerable like a toy, a pet, or a pillow. Plan something nice for the end of the day such as a movie, a favourite meal, or a chat with a loved one. Take regular breaks and stop if you feel too distressed. If you do feel too distressed, a neat trick I picked up in therapy is to get cold. Jump in a freezing shower, hold ice to your face, or even just hold your head under cold water. I know this sounds strange, but this triggers a deep dive reflex that will rapidly help calm your distress.
4. Build your team
You cannot do this alone. Essential members of your team will include:
- A small circle of carefully selected confidants. Choose people who have been there for you before, who you know to be trustworthy, wise, and mature. Include a diverse range of people in this circle who will be able to meet the different needs you may have. Avoid including people who have a relationship with the abuser because they will have a conflict of interest. They might not be able or willing to give you the support you need.
- Your doctor. As soon as you can, book a long appointment with your medical practitioner. Detail to them what happened to you and how it is impacting you emotionally. This serves two purposes. Firstly, your doctor can help you access mental health support early. Secondly, it creates a legal record that you may need for any number of reasons later.
- A qualified therapist who has experience in trauma. You may also need to find a psychiatrist.
5. It is okay to take a break from church
Because of the harm done to you, church may not feel safe for a time, so it’s healthy to take a break for a while. But in doing this, maintain some connection to a Christian community. It may be through a prayer or bible study group, a regular catch up with a spiritual mentor or a prayer partner. If you find your previous spiritual practices feel unsafe, experiment with very different ways of connecting to God than you are used to. For a time, I found things like prayerful meditation, and even attending Latin Mass at a Catholic Cathedral, healing – and this is a big deal for a life-long evangelical.
You may also find that well-meaning Christians will offer you care that is unhelpful. They might pray for healing, ask you to immediately forgive your abuser, and tell you that God will use this experience for your good. Sadly, this can minimise the trauma of your experience. The trauma of the abuse was not of God, was evil and is meaningless. Moreover, forgiveness is very complex, and is something that you may wrestle with for a time. This is okay.
Finally, you may enter a season of doubt. This is because church abuse will undermine your trust in God, Scripture, and the church. Doubt is a natural response to being betrayed by a community or person who is supposed to live out the love of God. But remember, God was not the source of the betrayal and trauma. Rather, God was betrayed alongside you. It is okay to explore your doubt. In fact, this will be an important part of your healing. As you do, you may discover you held beliefs about God that were wrong and hurt you. You may discover that God to be even greater and more wonderful than you ever knew. Whatever you do, don’t run from your doubt, but lean into it with the support of wise, mature Christians.
6. Invest in private health insurance
I learnt the hard way that church abuse has a nasty tendency to produce complex post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that may appear weeks, months, or years after the abuse. I have also sadly discovered that for a lot of people, this can become so severe that they need an admission to a psychiatric unit like I did. If you have the financial means, invest in private health insurance now, even if you are feeling fine and think this is overkill. The difference in quality between public and private psychiatric hospitals is immense.
Now, here is a little secret I discovered about health insurance in Australia. I’m not sure if this relates to other countries. Here, when you take out your health insurance, you don’t need to take out the premium cover that includes private psychiatric admissions. Just make sure it provisionally covers admission to public psychiatric units. This is because once you have served your waiting period on the lower-level cover, you can increase your cover to include private psychiatric admissions and immediately waive the waiting period. However, you can only do this once in your lifetime. This is a nice little protection the Australian Government put in place a few years ago. (Please check this is still the case when you take out your health insurance, since this may have changed since publication).
7. Consider reporting it
Reporting the abuse is a personal decision you need to weigh carefully. There are several reasons why reporting is important. It can be cathartic and empowering. It can mean the abuser is held accountable and future abuse is prevented (although, admittedly this doesn’t always happen). In Australia, if you were an employee, reporting will allow you access to worker’s compensation if you become unwell. If the act was a criminal assault, reporting will allow you access to Victim’s Services which will pay for counselling, immediate financial needs, and a recognition payment.
There are however downsides to reporting. The process can be traumatic, you may not get the outcome you desire, and you might end up worse off. Only you can weigh this up. If you do choose to report, here are the steps I recommend:
- Seek legal advice. You can use free legal services if finances are an issue. This might feel like overkill, but unfortunately because churches have a terrible track record of dealing with allegations of abuse, it is important you have legal back up.
- If the abuse was criminal, consider going to the police first. I know this sounds intimidating. However, you are more likely to have a positive outcome if you report to police early. There is also a time limit for reporting some crimes (sexual crimes are generally excluded). If you choose to do this, bring a support person.
- Once you have reported to police, go to the relevant Victims Services website for your state. In Australia, you can fill out an application for counselling (you can be granted 22 hours under the scheme), a recognition payment, and financial assistance for immediate needs such as medical costs and loss of earnings. You have two years from the date of violence to do this.
- If it wasn’t criminal, you have two options; asking for it to be investigated at the church level, or at the denominational level. However, because local churches are often inexperienced at investigating abuse, and may have a conflict of interest due to their relationship with the abuser, I generally think it is better to escalate your complaint up the denomination’s hierarchy. Again, seek advice before you do this.
- If you were an employee, and you are experiencing mental ill health due to the abuse, apply for worker’s compensation as early as you can. Typically, you have six months from injury to make a claim. However, if your PTSD or mental ill health emerges later than that, you can engage free legal services to help you access worker’s compensation beyond this time limit. It is important to do this because worker’s compensation will pay for psychiatric treatment and provide you with weekly payments if you need time off work.
Finally, go gently with yourself. Escaping church abuse is a painfully traumatic experience. I pray you will find healing, justice, and peace.
My heart to yours,
A fellow church abuse survivor
In Australia, if you need immediate assistance, please reach out to any of the following telephone counselling services:
- Life Line: 13 11 14
- Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
- 1800 RESPECT: 1800 737 732
If your life is at risk, dial 000 (Australia only)