by Ellen cross posted from her blog When Church Hurts
I recently received a message on the Facebook page for When Church Hurts in which the writer asked if they should leave a church if no one cares whether or not they come back because they are seen as not contributing enough. The writer didn’t define what they meant by “contribute,” but it could mean any number of things – not enough money, time, energy, attendance, spiritual depth, etc.
The question got me thinking about when I went to counseling a few years ago. I only attended counseling a handful of times because as soon as I finished telling the counselor about my abusive church experiences, she asked me, “Why do you want to be at a church where no one cares about you?” This was a shocking question. After all, this was CHURCH – where people are obligated to care! Yet, as I thought about it, I quickly realized that the counselor was correct. I had described absolutely nothing as I told my story that indicated that I was cared for at all by anyone in the church.
(This question was followed almost immediately by another: “Why do you want a relationship with someone who doesn’t respect you?” This question was in regard to the senior pastor whom I had described to the counselor as someone who allowed me to be abused, never responded to my pleas for help, and never answered my questions regarding why I was being ostracized.”)
Oh, sure, I had people who would chat with me, occasionally have lunch or coffee with me, but usually there was an ulterior motive behind their interactions. They wanted my help, my support, my intellect, my skills, my musical abilities. But never was I invited to spend time with someone just because they cared about me and wanted to share life.
My husband and I would talk occasionally about how on Sunday morning when we were working in the coffee bar, we would hear about the other volunteers and/or the staff woman who managed the coffee bar, getting together for parties or dinner the night before. We were never included. Volunteers, lay people, and staff were often sent to conferences and seminars around the country to develop them as “leaders,” but even though my husband and I held a variety of “leadership” roles, we were never invited or included. And once my husband took a break from volunteering in the coffee bar in order to prepare for our sons’ wedding, the manager would turn her back and walk away whenever she would see us.
When my husband, over a period of three years, was hospitalized three times for various reasons, no one came to visit him. And even when we lost close family members (parents), no one expressed sympathy and the only visit we received was from a pair of women who were “assigned” to us. We had no personal relationship with these women and they didn’t even approach us about visiting until nearly a month after my mother passed away.
So, the counselor’s question helped me to take a hard look at reality. No matter how badly we wanted to develop friendships with people in the church, no matter how much we showed up, no matter how many times we sent cards, made visits and phone calls, invited people to our home or coffee or dinner, brought people treats, etc., there was always an excuse that they couldn’t do it or make it. And never an offer of “How about next week?”
Aside from how the pastor and leadership had treated me with ostracism, judgment, and persecution, the counselor also helped me to see that the attitude of the people “at the top” was inherent throughout the church. “Can you see, Ellen, that this is a leadership problem?” she said to me.
She helped me to grasp that if the people in my “circle” were truly friends and truly supportive, they would have spoken up long before when I was first treated poorly. They would have informed the leadership that what was happening was wrong and would not be tolerated. Instead, a couple of people had told me over the years that they were afraid to speak up. Afraid that if they did, they would risk the same happening to them or that they might jeopardize the position of someone in their family who was on staff.
When people allow leadership to denigrate others and leadership allows people to do the same, they are all sending the message that respect, love, care, and concern do not exist. “Why do you want to stay in a church where no one cares about you, Ellen?”
Yet I did stay – for several more months. Because I still thought that if I could just be long-suffering enough, if I could love them enough, if I could give enough time, money, resources, etc., the day would come when I would finally win their respect, love, and care. After all, to have a friend, you need to be a friend, right? We did our best to be friends. To no avail.
It wasn’t until I had enough respect for myself to say, “Apologize for what you have done to me or we will leave the church” (a message my husband conveyed to the leadership), and they took us up on the offer – telling us to go – that I began to move toward healing. For a while, I still longed for those people whom I wanted to claim as “friends” to take a stand on my behalf. I waited for them to reach out to me and to defend me – to demand that the leadership do the right thing and apologize, make amends, and bring the whole affair to a God-honoring conclusion.
As the days turned to weeks and the weeks to months, I realized that the counselor had been right. These people were not my friends and had never been my friends. Why would I want to continue to be with them? Quickly, my self-respect grew and my longing to be with people who cared not a whit for me or my family diminished until I no longer had any desire to have a relationship with any of them.I have often indicated that were anyone from the church to approach me and apologize, seeking forgiveness, I would welcome them. I still believe that God can bring reconciliation if they ever experience a softening of their hearts (though I’m not holding my breath).
My advice to the person who messaged me on Facebook was similar to what my counselor said to me. I wish that I had walked away sooner, that I had listened to my counselor and not kept trying to change other people’s minds. All of that was just an indication of how unhealthy I was at the time and it wasn’t until I walked away and fully realized my own value and self-worth that I experienced healing.
I no longer have any desire to win over anyone. I spend my time with friends and family who, for years, demonstrated their love and commitment to me. My life is filled with love and acceptance, friendship and delight. And I know now that if you have to try to win people, you will lose.
To anyone who is reading this and is in the same position: trying to win friends in a church where there is no care or love or respect for you, please walk away. You won’t change anyone’s mind. And you don’t have to. Go love the people who already love you. Be friends with the people who are already your friends. These are the people who value you and will stand up for you when others are trying to tear you down. No matter how badly you want it to be different in the church, the place that has all of the things you are looking for is already there for you in those who already love you. They are ready and waiting to show you. Give them a chance.
More about Ellen: