Why don’t you just leave?
While trying to leave her abusive husband, Beth (not her real name) struggled with how her congregation might respond. “One thing that was advised to me was leaving the church. I actually ending up checking with (a clergy friend) and he agreed with the assessment” she told me as we commiserated over our shared experience of domestic violence. “Churches are sometimes too concerned with reconciliation to really handle these kinds of abuse situations well.”
In 2015, the ELCA completed its final version of a Social Message on Gender Based Violence, which includes the issue of domestic violence and abuse. The message talks about the church’s complicity in the victimization of women at the hands of their romantic partners, but it never says that those abusive partners are just as likely to be pastors as any other profession.
It also mentions reconciliation. In Beth’s case, the reconciliation she mentioned referred to churches who want to “fix” marriages by reconciling the relationship between spouses – even when one of them is an abuser. The social message, on the other hand, talks about being reconciled to God i.e., asking God for forgiveness for how the church has perpetuated violence and abuse towards women. Regardless of the distinction, I can’t help but remember my bishop asking me if there was “any chance of reconciliation” with my abuser, who is also an ordained pastor.
The church and those who represent it are in the business of forgiveness, so pushing the idea of reconciliation in relationships appears reasonable and dutiful. However, when one person in the relationship is abusive, the victim of that abuse is often forced to be reconciled to remaining a victim. The suggestion of reconciliation becomes an expectation that a victim has to stay in the abuse – constantly forgiving in order to be “reconciled.”
The other option/expectation granted to women who find themselves in abusive relationships is to leave. Asking women in abusive situations why they don’t leave may sound like a logical, reasonable question, but in reality it places full responsibility for the abuse on their shoulders alone. If a victim doesn’t leave then: it must not be that bad, the so-called victim must like it, or the victim must have made it all up. This option/expectation also assumes that victims have the resources to leave when, at best, their resources are usually limited and their choices are all scary.
Leaving isn’t impossible, but the consequences of doing so are manifold and have an impact on virtually every aspect of a victim’s life – emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, financially, and relationally. This isn’t just the case in married relationships. Imagine being a clergywoman who is being sexually harassed by a co-pastor in a new call. You’ve received little to no support from church authorities and the harassment is getting worse. You’ve only been at that congregation for a short time: more than 6 months, but less than 2 years. You have a spouse who has just found work in the same town and loves it. Your children have become acclimated to their new schools and are making friends. You’ve finally unpacked all the boxes. Now ask yourself, “why don’t I just leave?”
Despite the fact that Pastor W didn’t have another call to go to, she had made a choice to leave the congregation she had been serving for over 10 years. The congregation offered her a generous severance package equalling one week’s pay for each year she had served them. She spent her last days as their pastor attending her synod’s annual assembly, where pastors and representatives from each congregation gather to do church business.
One day away from her last official day of work, she found herself in a conversation with the man who had been her bishop (let’s call him Bishop A). Another bishop (Bishop B) had just been elected and Bishop A was about to retire. Their conversation had turned to the generous severance package her congregation had agreed to give her. Her excitement quickly turned to shock as Bishop A explained that he already knew their plans and had instructed them to take a “love” offering for her instead. He then added, “and W, you and your red hair have always made me hot.”
Pastor W had no choice but to accept the new severance package which only equaled a third of what she had been expecting. She kept quiet about what Bishop A had said and done with the exception of some family, a few close friends, and her new bishop. Time passed while she waited for word from Bishop B’s office of a potential new call. Instead, she heard through the grapevine, that as many as 6 different congregations had requested her by name, but were never given her paperwork. Needing an income, she eventually contracted work as a pastor of a church in another denomination.
It was during this time when she was contacted about joining in a lawsuit against Bishop A who had done the same things to associate pastors he had worked with prior to being elected bishop. Not being a litigious person, Pastor W didn’t want to add her name to the suit, but was subpoenaed and testified as a witness against the Bishop A. The plaintiffs won the court case against him, but 2 days later he was given a new commission by his national church. In other words, as Pastor W put it, “he can say that you’re hot, screw you out of money, and he still wins.”
Pastor W left her denomination and now serves as the senior pastor of a church where she is the first female pastor they have ever had. She’s had to develop techniques for dealing with the sexism she’s faced, ranging from subtle to overt, ever since. Coming to the realization that she’s not going to solve the misogyny problems of the congregation has given her a better sense of control. It’s also left her asking what she’s teaching her 15 year old daughter who has told her, “There are so many men that give you ‘manswers’ and so many men that allow it; I know it would be easier for you if you were a man.”
Some women choose to leave ministry altogether, but making that choice is not an easy one.
The question of the message we send our daughters factors into Pastor A’s story as well. An ordained Presbyterian minister, she has served congregations in 2 other denominations, worked as a hospital chaplain, and has experienced some form of misogyny in every setting. Currently struggling with deciding if she will remain in ministry she wonders what her choice will say to her 14 and 18 year old daughters. But, it’s not just the impact on her daughters she worries about. “What do I owe to other clergy women coming up behind me?” is just another of the many questions women in ministry wrestle with – especially when they have experienced sexual harassment by men in the church.
When clergywomen have to constantly focus on protecting themselves from sexual harassment and abuse it doesn’t just impact them; it affects their families, their congregations, and the overall public view of christianity. Thankfully, faith in God is not the same as trust in the church. “There are ordination vows Presbyterians take and one of them is submitting myself to the discipline of the church” Pastor A explains. “I am unwilling to do this because I no longer trust the Church as an institution. It feels like if I act as a pastor, by my clothing and title I’m communicating that the church is trustworthy.”
Leaving isn’t impossible, but the notion of allowing an abuser to stay should be inconceivable. Leaving isn’t impossible, but it should never be the only option left available to a victim. Leaving isn’t impossible, but when a victim chooses to leave it shouldn’t eradicate all the potential possibilities and opportunities she could have.
“Why don’t you just leave?” is the wrong question to be asking. Instead, the question should be, what is the church willing to do to regain the trust of women like Beth, Pastor W, Pastor A, myself, and other clergywomen who have been victims of clergy misconduct.
Part 1 A Sign of Opposition and a Sword
Part 2 The Church's Casting Couch