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Why I Stayed in the Cycle of Shame

It is so easy to second-guess my response to the heat I’ve taken from church leaders over my blog and social media activity. Sometimes I want to tell the me from three years ago to grow a pair and walk out. But then I remember the person I was at the time.

I was, in a word, vulnerable.

vulnerable girl

We began attending that church in 2009, after an agonizing year. My husband and I buried our oldest daughter in October of 2008. One month later, things began falling apart at the church we had co-led for 5 years. It died a grinding death over the ensuing months, finally closing its doors for good in June, 2009. I was battling depression, though I didn’t recognize it yet. I was angry that my daughter had died, that so many relationships had been destroyed, and that my faith couldn’t bear up under my anger and my questions. My husband was terrified that I was going to walk away from God, the church, and perhaps by extension, from him as well. We were desperate, depleted, seeking spiritual and emotional intensive care.

When we visited this new church, it was new, young, filled with energy and hope. It was refreshing to be somewhere so alive after so much death. They heard our story and showed us so much support. We wanted it to work so badly that we ignored the warning signs. Both my husband and I thought we could work out the issues surrounding my blog.

I didn’t know exactly what to do because while I personally didn’t believe women are required to submit to men any more than man are required to submit to women, I had joined a church that taught otherwise. So I got their point to a certain limited extent: I had voluntarily placed myself under their authority. The question was, how far did that authority extend? What if they were right, at least partially? I never want to blow off a poorly-expressed opinion simply because of the form in which it came.

I did know two things. I knew that pastors and church elders are NOT infallible (I had been married to one and I knew too much of what happens behind the scenes to think a pastor can never make a mistake). I also knew that it was wrong for me to pretend to be someone I wasn’t.

While I was considering this question of jurisdiction (did the church have authority over my personal blog and Facebook? They clearly believed they did.) and trying to find my way through my doubt and depression, I wanted to avoid more confrontation. It had left me shaken and full of self-doubt. At first, I tried to lower my profile, go undercover, and “be good.” I hid my questions, covered up my feminism, and tried to keep peace so we could rest. I didn’t want to cause trouble.

That approach failed miserably. I discovered that I could only keep the lid on for a few months before I’d boil over. I couldn’t keep it inside. It was physically impossible. I needed conversation and in my gut I knew that I wasn’t alone. The church at large needs this conversation. We need to come alongside doubters and make a safe place for them. We need to engage grief and lament and give people tools to walk through the darkness, the pain, and the tragedy that we cannot escape. And I couldn’t shake the conviction that I had found at least one of the purposes of all that I had been and was going through. I am supposed to help start this conversation.

But it happened like clockwork. Within a week of writing or sharing something “out of line” (as defined by them, though I learned quickly what set off their radar), I’d receive another summons to the pastor’s office.

At first, I didn’t understand why they didn’t just pick up the phone and ask me about what I’d written. I suspect the answer is twofold. First, they had deemed it improper somehow for a man to phone a woman. Second, it was a power play. One simply cannot intimidate as effectively over the phone. They needed to haul me before them to work their biblical authority and force my biblical submission. Their tactics failed miserably. I only grew more and more convinced that I had a message that I needed to share. Meanwhile, as time passed I grew stronger. I learned how to treat my depression. I learned how to grieve. And I began to see that these men were more concerned about their image than they were about my wellbeing.

We repeated this cycle twice (that’s right – I had two more meetings with the pastor about my blog posts) before I got fed up. About twelve months later, I finally rejected the shame they piled on me in an effort to censor me. I finally quit playing their game.

To be continued.

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  1. Wow. Thanks for providing more context, Joy. I experienced some similar “censoring” through interrogation techniques, poor “church discipline,” and other related silencing tactics because my social justice activism (I didn’t even call it “feminism” then) seemed out of the ordinary among less activist evangelical types.

    • Ugh. I’m so sorry. I’m still not completely sure I understand why advocating for the oppressed is so threatening. I suppose it’s because such messages make our ultra-comfortable Western “Christians” uncomfortable.

  2. What “biblical” justification do people give for censoring? How worried do we NEED to be about it? What types of things would be a red flag?

    • These are good questions, Emily. I’ll try to answer them in a future post — there’s too much to try to put into a comment!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your story and for having the courage to start and continue these conversations!

  4. If they believe women are under the authority of their husbands, why did they even bother talking to you? Why not tell your husband to control his wife?

  5. Brian Jonson says:

    Thank you, Joy. As you know, my wife attended a meeting with the same pastor and his treatment of her was so heartless and disrespectful that I could barely believe it. As you said, it was all about the intimidation and power.

    We got an apology but only because I called him out rather directly.

    Rejoice that you are no longer there!

  6. First, I want you to know that I have heard and I am now a witness to your pain from your life and from the church, you are not alone. My heart breaks everyday as I am enlightened to the pain others carry. I agree with you and your excellent words regarding the “Church” and how she needs to “engage grief and lament and give people tools to walk through the darkness, the pain, and the tragedy that we cannot escape.” I can tell you that it has taken me many years to find such a church and now since I have I am experiencing your very words. I not only attend this church but I lead their grief recovery groups and it brings me great joy to engage grief head on to affirm others that they are “normal” in their pain. Joy, thank you for being vulnerable. You will be in my prayers as you journey to find a place that you can grieve, be yourself, and not be alone. Thank you for your blog!

    • Tom, thank you so much for that affirmation. I LOVE that you are working in grief recovery now. What a journey it must have been from those early years as a youth group leader to where you are today. I have such fond memories of that time, and I’m so glad to be back in touch with you now.

  7. YES. We went round and round for SIX meetings. We had 10 years invested, and extended family intertwined in that church and that (albeit small) denomination. Walking away wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction. That IS part of the power play – they also know how difficult it is to walk away with your family like a pack of homeless people, in search for a safer home.

    Thanks for sharing this, Joy. I know it’s been at great cost to you to be authentic in your blog space, but I, for one, am deeply grateful that you did not let your voice be silenced.

    • “Walking away wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction. That IS part of the power play – they also know how difficult it is to walk away with your family like a pack of homeless people, in search for a safer home.” EXACTLY. It might appear to be the easy choice to an outsider, but these are relationships that, because of the theology that gets all tangled up in this (warped or not), get damaged or destroyed if/when you leave.

      Thank you Genevieve. I know you know the challenge of writing truth too.

  8. There you were, caught in a huge double-bind: needing the ‘life’ you saw on the surface of things, but done in by the ‘death’ behind closed doors. Wow. SO glad you got out. This is oppression, plain and simple. It is a form of mind-control and has nothing to do with ‘church discipline.’ If you are not confident enough in what you believe and why you believe it to handle some disagreement among family members, then you need to get out of leadership, most especially pastoral leadership. A woman writing on a blog is the cause of such a threat? A threat to what? The implications of this are terrifying to think about – especially when some commenters see nothing wrong with this behavior. Expressing doubt or a difference of opinion does not require a sledge hammer. It calls for listening, conversation, prayer and support. Stunning, Joy. Thanks so much for writing about this.

    • “If you are not confident enough in what you believe and why you believe it to handle some disagreement among family members, then you need to get out of leadership, most especially pastoral leadership.” <--- YES. This is it EXACTLY. They said all the right things about loving people where they are at and accepting different views, but no one knew what happened behind closed doors to those who dared to express such different views. Double-bind? That's the first time anyone described it that way, but you nailed it. That's exactly where we were. We didn't have it in us to leave, though it was poisoning me to stay. Diana, thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement, even on the rare occasion when we've disagreed about things. That means SO MUCH to me.

  9. This takes guts, Joy. You’re my fearless patronus.

  10. My heart breaks for you, just reading this account. Wow, loss of a child, depression, and then the squeeze from the church; each one is HUGE in itself, but combined…. That is a lot! I rejoice that God brought both you and Scott through this whole time of turmoil. May the God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-7) continue to comfort, strengthen, and encourage you in your walk of faith.

    • Thank you Rich. It was overwhelming. We hardly knew which way was up, which is one reason I try to be kind to myself when I think about that time. We are both so thankful to have most of it behind us.

      • Joy, I think I emailed you several months ago about the need for recovery and how long it takes. That is true physically and spiritually. Most people don’t realize how much it takes out of a person. After my breakdown (and all that went with it), it took me more than six years to even begin to approach a sense of spiritual stability and the sense that life would not compress and destroy.

  11. Jo Inglis (@Piano_Jo) says:

    I have read this over again also in tandem with ‘Unmasking the Secret Pain of Pastor’s Wives’. My husband came out of 20 years of church-based ministry 2 years ago & we’ve since been filtering with God’s heart lens through some of the crap we’ve absorbed on the way – oppression does come from the pews too, for we are all fallen.
    To you Joy with real tears, I just want to say – Thank. You. For. Writing. About. These. Things.

    • Jo, you are SO RIGHT. We were in church leadership before we found ourselves in this situation. We don’t have nearly as much time in ministry as you and your husband have had, but I have tasted that unique oppression that comes from the pews as well.

  12. “Sometimes I want to tell the me from three years ago to grow a pair and walk out. But then I remember the person I was at the time.”

    Yep. I’ve actually had daydreams about this, that I tell everyone off and walk out in a huff, instead of crawling away after I had been nearly wrecked, as I did. But the truth is, I didn’t really get the scope of how abusive my church was until I was out a few months and had some perspective.

  13. Oh how I understand. I called myself a feminist as a Christian school teacher and got thrown under the bus. Same thing for a teacher friend who voted Democrat. The church needs to have a frank, open discussion about difference. So grateful to call you friend!

  14. Hi Joy. First, I’ve got to say that I am so glad I came across your blog. It’s so full of life. I love that you are so honest and I appreciate that through the tough times, your journey has brought you to a place of surety/knowing who you are in God and in the process unwrapping your purpose here on earth. The only person that has authority over you is God, and I have learned in my 3 years 🙂 of being a born again christian that it is so so important to know God for yourself else you feel condemned all day every day. Kudos on all that you do, your strength is commendable, and can only be from God. The Bible instructs wives to submit to their husbands, but I find that the word ‘submit’ is often taken out of context. Marriage is a partnership, the wife is in a supportive role, walking hand-in-hand with her husband to fulfill an aligned vision. It is not a top-down/master-slave/boss-employee relationship. Might I also add that the Bible says NOTHING about a woman submitting to all men. May God continue to light your path.


  15. This is good stuff! I’ve got chills!

  16. Joy, I admire your courage dear friend and I understand. Keep speaking up. Your message is important.

  17. Thanks for sharing Joy!

  18. God is using you in a mighty way because you are willing to listen to Him above all others. I have some understanding of your church struggles. My husband was influenced by his Promise Keepers to believe that I should be under his spiritual authority. Our twenty-five year marriage had been difficult for at least half of it. When I finally left, I was told God would not protect me. What makes me angriest, is that this kind of thinking gives the Lord Almighty a bad reputation from the very people who are supposed to embody His love. I’m working on a memoir about my experience: Should This Christian Marriage Be Saved? I expect there will be condemnation from certain Christians, but I feel obligated to show that God is bigger than these people.

    • Linda, thank you for your input, I can’t wait to read your book!
      I’ve just heard about ‘promise keepers’ and I’ve found very different views. Their website says nothing of women’s roles except that we are all equal in Christ. But I’ve also read somethings which scream “patriarchy”. As my husband and I are (both Biblical Feminists) working on a christian blog to address cultural issues today, I’d love to hear yours, or any lady whom reads this and has personal anecdotes to share on this. Or if you are simply interested in writing! by all means shoot me an email, we are looking for contributors to voice their (often unpopular) opinions in a loving manner! (yanina_angelini@yahoo (dot)com)
      Joy, thank you so much for what you are doing here! It really uplifts my heart to read this blog.

    • Linda, I love your mission to show that God is bigger than these people. Bravo!

  19. I have so many thoughts on the themes of these posts, but all I’ll say is this: I am very sorry that anyone ever treated you this way.


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