Harassment at Church

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Reader’s Question

I’m really struggling with some issues arising from a church where my husband works and where we attend. I suffered harassment and public verbal abuse from a person with considerable power and position in the church. When I tried to let others know what this person was like, I handled it badly and it all got turned back around on me. The person in power basically threw me under the bus to protect himself. People I considered friends have abandoned me. I tried to continue attending services, but left in tears every time. Finally I gave up and started attending another church, even though my husband is employed at the first church. Only one person has contacted me personally to see how I was doing, even though the active congregation is around 350. I’ve been hurt, but I want to move past it and try to re-establish friendships with these people. Am I only setting myself up for further hurt? And how do I move past the anger and bitterness I feel over the injustice of it all?

Psychologist’s Reply

The first thing to realize is that the harassment and verbal abuse were not your fault. Regardless of whatever rationale was given, there is no excuse for such hurtful and demeaning behavior, particularly from someone who should be a role model. Although we all would like to believe the best of people, especially those in charge of our spiritual lives, it is not surprising that someone who is abusive blamed you in order to escape the consequences of his reprehensible behavior. I hope you are no longer waiting for him to accept responsibility for his actions because I doubt this will happen. People who abuse others usually do it because of the heady sense of power it brings. They don’t tend to care about fairness or justice as it applies to them.

The second thing to understand is that many members of the congregation may no longer be your friends. When confronted with such a conflict, a lot of people prefer to side with the person in the higher position. There are many reasons for this, including the fear of reprisal if they are on “your side,” the desire to stay a member of the church, belief in the invincibility of those in power or a misunderstanding of the situation. Whatever their reasons, it sounds like a lot of them have not been kind to you. Consequently, I suggest not trying to remain friends with those who have not demonstrated friendly behavior. With friends like those, who needs enemies? They sound like ‘fair weather friends’ at best, and if you re-establish ties with them, it’s highly probable that you will get hurt again in the future. Real friends are people who are there for you when no one else is. Thus, if you want to keep any friendships from that particular church, I suggest you start with the person who cared enough to check on your wellbeing when no one else did.

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Moving past the anger and bitterness will take time and effort. One recommendation I have is for you to journal about your experience. In order to move forward, you need to get all of your feelings out — but it must be done privately. Write in a journal that no one but you will ever read. This will allow you to not hold back when you are writing. It may take a while to get everything out, but eventually it will help you feel better. Another thing you could do is to contact people higher in the church hierarchy and make a formal complaint. This could be a tricky situation because your husband works at the church, but it’s still something to consider. Many churches take such complaints seriously because the chances are good that if he did it to you, he either has done or will do it to someone else. Even if you decide not to pursue official charges, simply giving yourself the power to exercise that option may feel good because it gives you back some control. I also encourage you to continue going to another church. Staying at the one that holds such bad memories may keep the wound open. Give yourself the opportunity to make new friends and have positive experiences. As George Herbert said, “Living well is the best revenge.”

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