May 5, 2014

Even when the truth comes out about a spiritual leader’s secret life, the kinds of lawyered-up semi-confessions that they and their team use to respond to their victims, congregants and the general public seem to be missing a key element: true regret. Leaders like Doug Phillips or Bill Gothard engineer almost-apologies. As I’ve followed these cases over the last year or so, it strikes me that those apologies are loaded with exit-clause “buts” as a way to leave wiggle room for their defense if they know they’re going to end up in court. Others like C.J. Mahaney or Mark Driscoll have exhibited long-standing patterns of denial, deflection and repeated attempts from their current positions of power to diminish or destroy their accusers.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, led the way a few years ago in giving a voice to the voiceless by creating a place for those who experienced sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church. The internet’s redemptive side is best shown via the online connections at various ministry-specific websites that have been used to bring overlong-delayed justice to those who’ve experienced abuse at the hands of a pastor, church leader or teacher. Bloggers like Warren Throckmorton, Wenatchee the Hatchet,  and sites such as The Wartburg Watch or Recovering Grace have served a prophetic role in exposing the sin of toxic leaders. Some of their guests may veer into bitter territory, their words particularly difficult to hear. But hear them we must if these hurting people are to be able to move toward healing, and the rest of us in the body of Christ are to move toward true maturity. What these leaders have done in the darkness has been brought to the glaring light of a computer screen. Though the method is modern, the message in the exposure is as old as Genesis: getting caught in your sin can be a means of restoration and grace for these leaders.

I am a survivor of pastoral abuse, and I know what it is like to be on the receiving end of an almost-apology from a leader. My husband and I had a series of Matthew 18:15-18-themed meetings with the leader, then his team, in an attempt to process what had been done to us. Though the leader was in the wrong, the closest version of an apology we received from him was a lame explanation for his abysmal behavior along with the clear sense that the only thing for which he was really sorry was that he’d been caught. A remorseless “I’m sorry that you feel that way,” is not an expression of true repentance.*

The lack of true regret expressed by these leaders – famous, infamous, or just the spiritually-bloated bossman of a mid-sized independent church – is a sign of stunning immaturity. If I could tell one thing to these leaders, it would be that that the pain they’re working so hard to avoid has divided their hearts into a bunch of disconnected little compartments full of rotting secrets. The pain of regret makes us aware of the consequences of our actions, and every time we take a step toward owning those actions, the kingdom of God breaks in and those disconnected compartments are transformed toward wholeness. When Jesus asked, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36) he queried his followers because he wanted so much more for them – for us! – than our divided hearts could ever hope to contain. Regret demands we pay attention to this question. There are far worse things than feeling true regret and acting on it. Do you believe this is true, leaders? I am praying you do.

I take heart in the courage of people like Chuck Colson who was caught red-handed. Though he first engaged in the stall, deflect, avoid, diminish tactics used by some of today’s high-profile characters, he eventually stared down the barrel of his regret in a prison cell. He allowed regret to do its redemptive work in him, and it continues to bear eternal fruit even after his death.

His legacy can be yours, leaders – even if you spend the rest of your lives in obscurity, seeking out your victims one by one and doing what you can to make things right by them. This is how regret can be redeemed, and it is good news if you have the ears to hear it.


*It took far too many years, and a metaphorical pileup of bodies who’d been wounded by this man, before the real reason behind his history of spiritual abuse – his hidden sexual sin – was finally revealed.  

May 30, 2013

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?  

May 27, 2013

A few weeks ago, I wondered if it was just me having the same conversation with multiple friends who’d confessed to rethinking their relationship with their local church – or if there were others over 40 years of age floating  on the same little pontoon. I put together a little online survey, and quickly discovered that this wasn’t a little pontoon, but great big ship.

The ship is so big, in fact, that I recognize my survey is a tiny first step in both measuring the tip of the iceberg and in recalibrating the ship’s coordinates. (Metaphor mixing intended.)

To read through the series of posts I’ve written about the results of the survey, click here. 

Today, a few final thoughts about where I’d hope this conversation might go from here:

First, further study on the topic is desperately needed. This study needs to be done by someone with some serious academic/research chops, and the results of that study belong in the conversation about spiritual formation at the seminary level and as part of the conference/ongoing training in which “on-the-job” church leaders partake. I’m encouraged by the fact that I’ve heard from a couple of academics interested in the results of my survey. Though my results aren’t scientific, the volume and nature of the responses I’ve received offers a helpful direction if someone out there could find the funding the do further work in this area. Pollster George Barna’s survey captured the trend of “Over 40’s” downshifting or ceasing congregational involvement. My questions were a starting place to find out why this is happening.

Next, church leaders must do some serious thinking about their models for spiritual health, growth and church “success”. Yes, I know there are hundreds of people speaking and writing about how and why to do this, all promoting their specific fix for the problems of our churches (Be missional! Be multi-site! Formal liturgy/modern worship/yada yada yada! Reformed theology! Reach families/youth!). The focus many leaders have had on endlessly building and tinkering with church forms and structures has burned (and burned out) a sizeable number of older members. Many of my survey’s respondents willingly participated in earlier versions of the same old carnival ride when they were younger and wisely recognize that it is insanity to keep repeating the same cycle of church life and expect different results.

Third, church leaders need to reconsider how they speak of and nurture spiritual maturity in their congregations. The fact that almost half of those over 40 who took my survey are less involved in their congregations today than they were ten years ago is, in many cases, a marker of their spiritual maturity, though precious few church leaders would likely assess it in that way. Many older people are limited from church involvement because they’re caregivers for frail parents, ill spouses or their grandkids. Others have “aged out” of their church’s family-centered programming, and have found other ways in their community to connect, serve, mentor and learn. Filling a slot on a church org chart may be a sign of a member’s church commitment, but it is not a measure of his or her spiritual maturity. Churches that understand themselves as launch pads rather than destinations appear to be poised to best equip those over 40 to flourish when those in their second adulthood are bearing their fruit outside the four walls of a local church. These congregations that embrace and celebrate these people will have the additional benefit of continuing to access these members’ gifts, experience and presence.

Fourth, those over 40 must recognize we are very susceptible to our culture’s temptation to individualize and isolate. These are not small temptations, but they are familiar ones to most of us. Quite a few of my survey’s respondents had explained that they weren’t pursuing any sort of spiritual community at all these days. Others had hair-raising stories of spiritual abuse, and admitted they were currently hanging on to church by just a thread. We may be able to protect ourselves from further wounding by isolating ourselves from other Christians, but we won’t be able to grow past the hurt, which is God’s loving intention for us. Prayer, a book or Bible study with one or two others can create healing community.

I’ve done a fair share of online writing on personal spiritual formation-type midlife topics, and plan to continue doing so. However, I find myself prayerfully considering if there might be something more than online posts (like a book) that would help both church leaders and those over 40 recognize and honor the ways God is at work in our lives and in our ministries within the body of Christ as we age. Please contact me if you have any additional thoughts on this topic.

I’ve been honored by each response I’ve received to my survey. I’ve read each one, and have worked hard to ensure that I’ve represented you fairly. Respondents, I am with you, and you are in my prayers.

Finally, I will leave the survey live for just a few more days if you want to add your thoughts. (Alas, I can’t afford to leave it up indefinitely or I would.)  

November 3, 2012

“I want to leave my church, but I feel as though I’ve committed to them for life,” my friend K. said to me recently.

She went on to explain that her congregational leaders taught that membership was a covenant between the member and the church. There was no exit clause unless a person moved out of the area. “That isn’t to say that people don’t leave the church anyway. But when they do, everyone acts as though there’s been a bad divorce in the family.”

When a church invokes words like covenant in order to define the relationship of members to itself, leavers find themselves schlepping some brand-new baggage with them to their next destination. Before you whip out a harmonica and start singing The Church Shoppers Blues about the lack of commitment of these leavers, I point to a survey describing the career trajectory of pastors. Admittedly, its a few years old now, but the numbers in the survey should give you a sense that pastors don’t always stay in one place until death do them part. Leaders leave their churches, sometimes in response to God’s calling, health or family issues – and sometimes, fleeing for their lives from a runaway case of ugly church politics.

But no matter how many leaders become leavers, there are always many more of us congregants on the move. I recognize that a formal process by which believers have been brought into the family of the church has existed from nearly the very beginning. Since the movement of leavers also known as The Reformation caught on five hundred or so years ago, exiting one’s mother church is usually never pretty. For the sake of the entire body of Christ, I believe this needs to change.

My husband and I have been official members of two different congregations. The first used covenant-type language for membership language. In exchange for our affirmation of the church’s doctrinal positions, our agreement to tithe, our commitment to participate fully in the life of the church (be a regular attender of a small group, pray for – and in fine print, “Don’t question” – the leadership team, serve), we were considered members. I am not sure if I have a block, but I honestly can’t remember what the leaders promised to do for us, if anything. But we loved the church, so we signed, so to speak, on their dotted line. Seven years later, we left the church after being on the blunt end of a regular pattern of spiritual abuse. Though we later learned the leadership’s pattern of abuse served as a very distracting smokescreen camouflaging the pastor’s adultery and porn addiction, all I knew at the time we departed was that we’d just been through a bad, sad breakup. It took a very long time to work through the loss. I believe that the added layer of the vow we’d broken in order to leave the church added another facet of failure to the whole mess, a failure that lingered spiritually in our lives like a swarm of flies around a trash can in the mid-August. Then there was the cursing of us done by the leaders, in the form of gossip. Though the gossip was a mark of their dysfunction, it smeared our bad baggage with excrement, thus attracting more flies.

Nearly a decade later, we took the plunge into membership again. We did so after our earlier experience only because membership was a one-year commitment, renewable annually**, and Bill and I were moving into leadership roles. There was a little more grace in this arrangement, as well as an opportunity to reevaluate our level of involvement. There were some congregants attending this church who, for various reasons, had once been members and had chosen to downshift to non-member status. Non-members couldn’t vote, and they were prohibited from serving in a leadership role, but otherwise, non-members could freely participate in the life of the church. Our relationship with this congregation ended when we relocated.

In my conversation with K., it occurred to me that most churches don’t know what to do with leavers. I’m not talking about the leavers who nail a list of grievances to the front door or the ones who fade away. I’m talking about the ones who may have a sense of calling to a new congregation, or disagree with the teaching or direction of the church and believe it would be best to move on rather than stay and be labeled a Problem.

What would it look like for church leaders to offer prayer or even (*gasp*) a blessing for those who let their church leadership know they’re leaving? I understand these situations can be awkward and weighted with the sense of failure or rejection, perhaps on the part of both parties, but I believe that this act of submission to the Head may be a life-giving act that brings health and healing to a local church as well as the entire body of Christ.

What has your experience been when you’ve left a church after being a member? Have you been cursed or blessed? Church leaders, I know a few of you read this blog – how do you handle leavers?   


**My husband and I are not members of the church we’ve attended for nearly 3 years, and have no plans to change that status. 

June 19, 2009

I’ve been a Christ-follower since my mid-teens. About half of that time has been spent in Charismatic churches. I’ve seen signs, wonders, deliverances, fakers, spiritual abusers and epic moral flame-outs, sometimes all at the same church service. I’ve lived through the second wave and the third. In the West, the recent years have been characterized by some headline-grabbing Charismatic charlatans whose claim to 15-minute fame usually came because they misused or manufactured power gifts, gave their followers dramatic ecstatic experiences and promised prosperity.

Though there are some of these same abuses in the church across the global South and East, charismatic practice and belief are integrated into the explosive growth happening there, rather than being a separate, controversial “Movement” as it usually has been here. Isn’t this how its supposed to work? When it does, there is nothing more breath-taking and life-giving.

Though there are theology and tradition reasons a-plenty why charismatic believers formed their own congregations and conferences (and why non-charismatic believers thought this was a dandy idea), in the end “ghetto-ization” has hurt all of us. In our mutual shared fear of coming down with the Swine Flu of religion, heresy, and either John MacArthur or Benny Hinn, we started our chainsaws and amputated one another. Memo to Bride: I don’t think this was what Jesus was asking us to do when He said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Mt. 5:29).

J. Lee Grady, the editor of Charisma magazine, recently penned a sort of epitath for the Charismatic movement here in the West. Grady’s words are not without hope, but need to be read in the context of the rising tide of statisticians and prophets alike from across the ecclesiological spectrum in the Body of Christ telling us, quite simply, that a lot of us have wandered just beyond earshot of our Shepherd’s Voice. Clogged ears are an equal-opportunity employer.

If there is a “third day” church being resurrected from the receding or dying areas of the Body (and I believe there is), Paul’s prescriptive description in 1 Cor. 12 will absolutely characterize this beautiful Bride. I am praying that resurrection begins with our shared sense of hearing.

February 20, 2009

A couple of years ago, I was contracted to write a book which would be a part of a series targeted at skeptics. My subject matter was the church; the book’s title is The Church For Skeptics: A Conversation For Thinking People. The publishing biz is going through the same painful contractions the rest of the economy is experiencing. As a result, this book has had quite a journey on its way to being born.

The wait continues as the book’s story has taken a new, promising turn in recent weeks.

The book is not an apologetic (or worse, a diatribe) for the church. It affirms questions and struggle, because the truth is that all of us are skeptics of one stripe or another. Below is a brief excerpt from the book’s introduction that explains what I mean:

There are lots of us who are skeptical about the church, for lots of different reasons. Some of us have huge questions about the odd, toxic habits practiced by the churches to which we’ve belonged, attended or have seen in the media. Others among us need to investigate some things…or everything. We doubt. We have questions, and some of those questions may not have comfortable answers. Or easy ones. When it comes to the subject of the church, there are several main categories of skeptics:

  • The “You’re not from `round these parts, cowboy” skeptic

At first glance, skepticism among the hard-core faithful – the people who seem to be at church every time the doors are open – would seem to be an oxymoron. But if you look a little closer, you’ll discover that some in this tribe nurture deep mistrust that is a perfect breeding ground for skeptic’s questions. They aim their rhetorical guns at those outside of the Christian faith as well as those from neighboring Christian faith communities who are…choose as many answers as apply) …more liberal than us …more conservative than us …don’t look like us …worship differently than us …aren’t us

  • The burn unit skeptic

There are people who are skeptics because they’ve had their trust damaged or destroyed by someone (or a posse of someones) who has represented the church while engaging in slander, gossip, erroneous teaching, financial misconduct, hypocrisy, legalism, or through emotional, sexual or spiritual abuse. These skeptics ask questions like “How do they get away with it?” and “What’s the point of an institution that causes so much pain?”

  • The Pepto Bismol skeptic

Some of us are skeptics because we have ingested a regular diet of bad news and worse images about the church from media and popular culture. The scandals, the criminal behavior, the tacky televangelists, the militant involvement in public politics and morality alike have left a lot of us with permanent indigestion. We have little interest in sampling anything the church offers from its all-you-can-eat toxic buffet. Pepto Bismol skeptics say things like “The church is a huge joke” or “Religious people are sleazebags, chuckleheads or nut cases.”

  • The debate team skeptic

Unlike those whose skepticism toward the church has been formed primarily by negative media images, there are also thoughtful people who have spent time researching…and perhaps even once believing…Christianity’s claims. Their scientific, philosophical, archaeological and/or historical investigations have led them to the conclusion that the faith (and, perhaps, any faith) is devoid of truth or value. These skeptics ask, maybe with an indifferent shrug of their shoulders, maybe with open hostility in their eyes, why anyone would even bother with the church when all it does is perpetuate a Giant Lie. Though there’s a small percentage of skeptics who are rabidly committed to their own cynicism, most of us simply want to engage in some thoughtful conversation about our doubts, questions and observations about the church. We don’t want to be sold…or told. We want to be able to ask our questions without being judged because we’ve dared to ask them. We want our experiences and observations affirmed. We want to be respected. We absolutely don’t want to get fooled…again or ever. (All rights reserved, Michelle Van Loon)

Do these categories resonate with you? What would you add or change?

August 27, 2016

FullSizeRender (1)Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life. — Mark Twain

Even as I’ve been in book release mode these last weeks, excited to launch my own book into the world, I’ve been savoring the words of others. During the last few weeks, I’ve been spending time with the books pictured at right, as well as a couple of more works of fiction not in the shot. Here’s a quick review of each:

Saints: A Year in Faith and Art by Rosa Giorgi (Abrams 2005) – This gorgeous volume offers a thumbnail sketch of a Catholic saint whose life is commemorated on each day of the year, along with a beautiful reproduction of a piece of artwork featuring the saint. The images and stories are part history lesson and part school of discipleship. Though these are all human beings, the best of what their lives are have put a beautifully-human face on some of whom might be in that great cloud of witnesses to which Hebrews 12:1 refers.

Soul Bare: Stories of Redemption, edited by Cara Sexton (IVP 2016) – This book of essays penned by 31 thoughtful authors who remind us that victory in the Christian life relies more on telling the truth than it does about buffing up a false image of success. These essays tackle abuse, disability, mental illness, loss, shame, and more in consistently relatable and inviting writing. The diverse voices blend together in this volume to create beautiful harmony that reminds readers that the true, authentic you is the one God knows, loves, and is in the process of redeeming.

Being Well When We’re Ill: Wholeness and Hope In Spite Of Infirmity by Marva Dawn (Augsburg Fortress 2008) – I really don’t want to be reading a book like this (who does?), but as I’ve dealt with ongoing pain and expensive medical testing en route to beginning intrusive treatment I’ll need for the rest of my life, I found myself in search of platitude-free wisdom from someone who has been there. Theologian Marva Dawn lives “there”, and has penned a series of helpful reflections for those dealing with chronic, life-altering illness. Topics include side effects, depression, isolation, meaninglessness, loss of certainty, and dying. Her experience adds both authority and compassion to her wise words.

Attributes of God: A Journey Into The Father’s Heart (Vol. 1) and Attributes of God: Deeper Into The Father’s Heart (Vol. 2) by A.W. Tozer, study guide by David Fessenden (Moody/Wingspread, 2007 and 2015, respectively) – The Tuesday morning Bible study I attend will be using these books as a resource this fall as we study the attributes of God. Tozer’s gift of preaching and uncompromising affection for the Word of God have kept his words in print for a couple of generations after his death in 1963. These books were originally simply reprints of his messages, but a recent repackaging includes a very helpful study guide that helps readers dig deeper into the Scriptures to which Tozer referred. I’m looking forward to spending time this fall simply contemplating the nature of God as I study and learn with this group.

The Complete Jewish Study Bible: Illuminating The Jewishness of God’s Word (Hendrickson, 2016) – I received a review copy of this gorgeous volume from the publisher, but the cost I paid does not reflect my opinion about this volume. The translation (CJB) has been in circulation for a number of years. It contains both Old and New Testaments, rendered in a way that reflects the Jewishness of the entire canon of Scripture. What is new here is the study materials with which it is now packaged: study notes, articles, introductions to each book, explanations about Hebrew words and concepts, listing of readings for Shabbat and holy days, and much, much more. The contributors read like a who’s who of scholars from the mainstream and Messianic Jewish community. Though I am not a fan of most study Bibles – mostly because I find myself always-tempted to go to the notes and references without contemplating the text for myself – this particular study Bible is an exception to my own rule. I believe this would be a great addition to the library of anyone interested in doing some serious study that will help them understand more about the Jewishness of the Bible and their faith.

Besides the books in the stack, I also had the opportunity to read a couple of works of fiction this summer. I’m not a big fiction reader, but there are some times when a work of fiction is just what the doctor ordered, such as during plane trips and long, lazy afternoons in lawn chairs:

Two Steps Forward: A Story Of Persevering in Hope by Sharon Garlough Brown (IVP 2015) – I read and enjoyed Brown’s first book in the series, Sensible Shoes, and was not disappointed by its sequel. She was able to write a compelling, realistic story about the lives of four women who have recognized God’s invitation to them as they’ve each found themselves at a crossroads while at the same time highlighting various spiritual disciplines that contain his invitation to each one of us. In Brown’s capable hands, this seemingly-impossible hybrid of novel and introductory handbook, becomes not only possible, but a rich, grounded read. I’m looking forward to book number three in the series, slated for release later this year.

Evensong by Gail Godwin (Ballatine 2000) – An Anglican minister in a North Carolina mountain town? Is it Father Tim, from Jan Karon’s beloved Mitford series? (No, Father Tim is Episcopal, for one thing.) Author Gail Godwin situates her protagonist, rector Margaret Bonner, in the same general vicinity and contemporary time frame as Karon, but Godwin’s characters are darker and more complex than those in Karon’s world. I’ve loved Karon’s books, but about two chapters in to Evensong, I laid the comparisons aside and let Godwin’s frank writing about the struggle to find faith in the midst of personal, relational, and community brokenness lead me into Bonner’s world.

What’s in your stack? What are you reading right now? 

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