“How are you doing?” There’s a lot of different ways in which those words can be voiced ranging from a casual aside with no desire for an answer to the way the pastor of the church we’d attended for a year and a half asked it of me. It sounded as though he really wanted to know because he really cared about the state of my soul.
I hesitated for a moment. Could I trust him? I’d worked hard with the help of the Holy Spirit using the gfits and training of an excellent counselor to unpack some of the baggage I’d been carrying from a couple of toxic churches. The bags weren’t gone, but they were significantly lighter in weight than they’d been in years. Me with overstuffed baggage would have kept my mouth shut in response to this question. But the current me, the one now toting this lighter-weight baggage, took a measured risk. I trusted him. I told him a little bit about the challenges I was facing at work. He listened with great empathy, and I was grateful for his quiet assurance that he’d keep me in prayer.
A couple of weeks later, I ran into one of his young adult children as I was on my way to grab a bite to eat in the middle of my workday. A couple of coworkers were within earshot as this young woman called out to me from the bottom of a crowded staircase, “Hey, Michelle! How are you doing? My dad said you were having a hard time with things around here.”
The challenge of icky workplace politics was nothing compared to the realization that the trust I’d been working so hard to regain had just been violated. Again.
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In my first post in this series, I took a look at some of the kinds of baggage people carry with them from involvement in toxic church cultures. My second post talked about the kinds of patient, prayerful questions that might help a trust-damaged person begin to unpack those suitcases they’re lugging with them.
Today, I’d like to talk a bit about what rebuilding trust might look like. Obviously, it doesn’t look like the way in which this pastor took the information I shared with him in confidence and dished about it with his clan around the proverbial dinner table. He’d been a pastor a long time. He (and his adult child!) should have known better. When I later confronted him about his lack of discretion, he apologized. I forgave him. But I couldn’t trust him after that. It would have been foolish – and would have set me up for possible abuse in his church – to have done so.
The whole incident read like a test. What was I to do with another violation of trust by someone who had the title of spiritual authority?
Earlier abuse of the trust I gave to those claiming to be my spiritual authorities had loaded me down with baggage. I’d carried it with me, even though it wasso.
Though that baggage was full of hurt and pain, I carried it until I found a place of relative safety in which I could begin to unpack it at last. When I did, I learned that broken trust never quite heals into innocence. In the best cases, those shards re-form into a wiser relationship with a new church. Getting reengaged in ministry in a new church will look different because a person wounded by a bad previous church experience is now sporting a fresh set of B.S. sensors. The person isn’t vulnerable to the kind of manipulation or abuse that gave them the baggage in the first place. He or she is able to risk offering themselves and their gifts in freedom.
Because it is a risk. There is a very real temptation for me toward self-protection, of bunkering behind baggage so as not to get hurt by another preditory or foolish church leader ever, ever again. Damaged trust is not the same as unforgiveness, though I daresay there are times when one kind of baggage might function like the other. Damaged trust is the mark of a broken heart, not a hardened one. The way forward after the spiritual abuse I experienced two decades ago has been to be very intentional about ignoring or minimizing in my mind the positional authority granted by title on an organizational chart to another fallen human being. The more a person in leadership makes sure the rest of us in a church know s/he is the one with the gifts, power and/or importance, the less likely I am to trust him or her. If they tell me from afar what they want me to do to
for them for the church (for my own spiritual good, of course) without taking the time to get to know me or hear my story, I am not all that inclined to say yes unless the Holy Spirit specifically urges me to step forward for his purposes. I can report that obedience to his ask is sweet and healing.
I will risk trust in the context of relationship. Even when the risk doesn’t pay off, as in the case of the gossipy pastor, my relationship with the larger body of Christ takes a smaller hit (less or no new baggage) when I view the pastor or leader as a peer, not as my capital “A” Authority.
What do you think? Leaders reading this, does my intentionally flattened approach to church hierarchy sound like potential sedition? Those who’ve survived a lousy church situation and found a home in a new church, how have you learned to trust in new ways?