What Whistle-Blowing Might Cost You

A few days ago, an old friend suggested that it may be incumbent on some of those in dysfunctional churches to advocate for change, suggesting that a confrontation or three may slow the growth of evil in these cancer-ridden organizations. (My paraphrase, not his words.)

I pushed back. “Those who’ve been victimized by corrupt leaders may not have the strength (or calling) to [challenge corrupt leaders] – particularly when they’ve been ‘warned’ by the example of shunning and gossip that have surrounded others who’ve previously tried to challenge.”

In light of recent developments pertaining to the SGM abuse lawsuit mess, a number of bloggers have offered words of compassion to the victims, and heaped burning coals onto the heads of perpetrators and onto the sick system these leaders created to protect themselves. More words (hopefully, some from a judge and jury) will be forthcoming as appeals and civil cases are filed. For every victim listed in the suit, dozens – perhaps hundreds – have been damaged by the bully culture that developed to protect the abusers.

I’ve never been sexually abused by a church leader. I have, however, been thrust into the role of whistleblower, trying to effect change in a toxic church culture. I learned that this thankless task comes with a high personal price tag, and there was no way to count the cost before placing the whistle to my lips and stepping into the role.

For seven years, my family and I were members of a congregation led by controlling leaders with ties to the Shepherding Movement. I stumbled across the invisible trip wire of their mostly-unwritten rules when I inadvertently violated about 9 of those rules with something I wrote. My words flung themselves like a single moth fluttering against the side of a fortress, that fortress being the shared commitment of the leaders to hide the ongoing sexual sins of one of them. A single flyswatter might have shooed the moth away and no one would have been the wiser, but these leaders had a fortress to protect. They brought out the heavy artillery. And I found myself with a whistle at my lips as a result.

My husband and I experienced all of the classic self-protective and controlling behavior from these men that typically follows in these kinds of cases: shaming, berating, being the subject of gossip, becoming a negative sermon illustration, manipulation, threats and social isolation. The experience blindsided me – I had no context for what they were doing to us, and we’d trusted them and flourished in their system for years prior to the incident.

We left the congregation about a year after I first tried blowing the whistle. If I could send a message in a bottle back in time to the me about to blow the whistle, here’s what I’d say:

You will never be able to trust leaders in the same way again after what you’re about to experience. This is not a bad thing, but you’re going to acquire this new filter of wisdom in your life at the cost of your innocence. (Some might call it naïveté, but your childlike belief in the character of these men was not a frivolous and foolish thing.) 

You will not be able to fully trust yourself for years after this experience. Though a decade and a half will pass before the truth about what these men were hiding after you and a string of others first tried to expose it, you will find yourself unsteadied and off-balance for longer than you ever would have imagined when you first began asking questions. After all, you missed the signs and clues for 6 of the years you were with this group, quietly warning you away from full fealty to these leaders. 

Your faith will take a beating. At first, it will be the men themselves doing the hurting. Then, once they and many of your former church “family” shun you and your family after you’re asked to leave, you will experience a beating from the enemy of your soul. He will attempt to put the experience on “repeat” in your mind until forgiveness becomes a fairy tale to you. It would have served you well in those early days to get some counseling from someone well-acquainted with spiritual abuse. However, God himself will bring healing into your life as you discover that he doesn’t feel about you the way those men felt about you. He loves you and is for you. 

You will not be able to shield your kids from what happens, or from the fallout in your life. They will lose their church friends and their sense of stability because you’ve lost those things, too. They will live through your confusion and hurt. They will sense you’re distracted. And when they ask you questions about God, they will see you cry.  

I would tell myself all those things, and then I would beg my younger self to drop the whistle, gather my family around me and head for the exit doors.


If you’ve ever been in an unhealthy church situation, what additional advice would you add to my list?  

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  • Tim

    We have a church in my town that practices shunning and ostracizing for those who step out of line. That letter you’ve written to your younger self should be standard reading for anyone thinking of joining that congregation, Michelle. But I don’t think it means anything to someone who has nt experienced it themselves or witnessed it repeatedly.

    The interesting thing about the local church here is its doctrinal mix. It is heavily Reformed yet charismatic, and the rule of the Elders is exceeded only by the rule of the Senior Pastor. What they say goes, and it goes into all areas of a congregant’s life. Going to college? Talk to your Elder-Shepherd. Join the military? Talk to your Elder-Shepherd. Having kids? Talk to your Elder-Shepherd. Selling your house? Talk to your Elder-Shepherd. And so on.

    I have a lot of friends who have come out of that church, each of them hurt to one degree or another, and the continuum of degrees goes all the way up to 11. Not one person I know has been able to leave that church unhurt. The leadership aparently won’t let you, because leaving means you have broken their Covenant (a real covenant agreement) and in their view that means you are rejecting not just them but God. They let you know that quite clearly when you leave.

    It’s a sad statement on the Body of Christ. I am so glad that God has strengthened you and brought you through this, Michelle. Your perseverance (Romans 5:3-4) is a wonderful testimony to what God does in his people’s lives.
    Cheers and blessings,

    • Michelle Van Loon

      That’s how it was with our former church – no one leaves without getting an emotional and spiritual beatdown that bears an eerie resemblance to what someone trying to leave a gang might experience on a physical level. Love that “continuum of degrees (that) goes all the way up to 11” – and imagine that most of the leavers would rank their score at a 6 or 7, minimum.

      Thanks for the kind words, Tim. (And love your interview at your blog with Jen Grant today, who is an 11 of an entirely different kind!)

      • Tim

        Thanks, Michelle. Jen and KWK both suggested I turn this into an irregular series with writers writing about writing, and now I’m looking for contributors. In fact, now I’m looking right at you! Interested?

        • Michelle Van Loon

          Is it helpful to know that my first response to your question was “He needs to talk to book authors – not me!”?

          If you think your readers would like to hear from me, you can fire me some questions. (Thanks for asking!)

  • Kim

    It may take quite a while to reach the point where you can forgive those who said and did hurtful things to you, but stay in the healing process and seek that goal. It took several years before I could envision the elder board and involved church staff seated around a table and honestly say to God, “I forgive him” and be able to pray for the individual with a soft heart.

    It may not seem likely or even possible, but continue to pray that reconciliation may occur. It’s rare to experience reconciliation in a spiritual abuse situation, particularly after one has left a church, but it can and does happen. I have experienced it.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      You’re absolutely right, Kim. Staying in the healing process is key, even though its excruciatingly difficult.

      I’m glad to hear reconciliation occurred with those who hurt you. That must have been a remarkable experience.

  • Don

    Interesting story that sounds vaguely familiar. When we left our former church, it was because my wife and I were returning to the Catholic Church – so the idea that we could address our doctrinal discoveries were out-of-the-question, we already knew the response would be simply we were wrong. We did feel it necessary to explain the move to the pastoral couple were were closest to for over 20 years and the response was much more bitter than we anticipate – accusing us of forcing our children to worship Mary, stories of Catholic relatives of theirs who lived dysfunctional and ungodly lives and ending with a curse that all my younger children would all walk away from God. We wanted to transition over a couple of months, because we knew our children were leaving behind all of the friends they ever had. We had hope we would still remain connected with our former church “family”, but we immediately became “invisible”. After our “coming out of the closet”, we attended a going-away party for some church friends who were moving 1,000 miles away (apparently one of the few legitimate reasons for leaving that church) and that couple were the only ones who spoke to my wife and I during the two hours we were there. We again returned to the church for my sister-in-law’s memorial service after she had passed away – not one pastor approached us to offer condolences or even mention how nice the weather was that day. We have remained connected to a few close friends, although just the change in place of worship just naturally distanced even those close relationships. Bear in mind, we volunteered for everything there … we were one of the 10% who did 90% of the work … leading small groups for over a decade … starting the church newsletter … playing on the worship team … not so much as a “we’re going to miss you” or “we wish you the best”. We didn’t want to leave on bad terms, but sadly leaving was the bad term … especially the reason we were leaving … to join a 2,000 year old “cult”. In spite of (or perhaps because of) that experience, my new views of “stick with it” are now as a Catholic – a church that has been reaping the consequences of dysfunction and internally power struggles and I believe being truly reformed through the struggle. I know of many Catholics who have left the church for the wrong reasons (myself included 25 years ago) without confronting a priest, without seeking recourse with the Bishop, without having dialogue about what the Church truly teaches about our faith. I grieve over those who were abused by priests, and the subsequent cover ups – I am not minimizing the seriousness of those situations that have caused some to leave – or even lose their faith altogether. However, in the current “culture” of the Catholic church – and locally in our Rockford Diocese, especially with our new Bishop, there have been “bad” priests removed for legitimate reasons, and “good” priests that are regularly moved on average every six years (in my opinion) to help keep the internal politics of a local parish from warping into a dysfunctional morass of priest-worship and favored-families. So I say … leave your dysfunctional church and join mine! We’ve got 2,000 years experience with creating and surviving dysfunction …

    • Michelle Van Loon

      The story probably does sound familiar to you, Don – for good reason. That reason would be because it was the same church.

      Re: the Catholic Church. We nearly made it over there during our Anglican years, and as you know, I have great affection and respect for Catholicism. I never say never, but at this stage of my life, I don’t know if I can go there. (But I’m very glad you and your family are there!)

      • Don

        I know it was the same church, but I didn’t know all the details until your post. rings lots of bells. I’m glad you are glad for us … that honestly is very nice to hear sometimes. And in very real ways (albeit partial) you are already joined to the Catholic Church, so feel free to stop by for a visit anytime :o)

  • Caron Strong

    I would share with someone considering blowing the whistle to know with certainty that they will be labeled a gossip, divisive, a grumbler and so forth. Go ahead a digest this now. Know you aren’t alone. Not only do you have a great cloud of witnesses, you have church family here on earth, even though you may not be face to face with them yet. Stay away from distracting blogs that fuel unhealthy fires in your mind. Guard your heart, go where the love is. Fix your eyes on Jesus, the Author and Finisher of your faith. Its lonely at first. There will be a lot of soul searching, but it will all be worth it. God will use it. He’s still faithful. Most of all, remember, Jesus died not only for our sins, but for the ones who have sinned against us. Reread Galatians, Colossians, Romans 7 and 8 and 14. Bask in the sunlight of His love and know He’s in control….

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Caron – I love your advice. Though there’s almost no way to prepare for the pain that often goes along with being a whistle-blower, learning to drink from the well of Living Water in order to sustain faith is what will carry you when most of your friends have abandoned you. Great Scripture recommendations, too.

      • Caron Strong

        Thanks, Michelle. Great article!