The Challenge and Gift of Forgiveness in My #MeToo Stories

The Challenge and Gift of Forgiveness in My MeToo StoriesAfter reading my “#MeToo” story, a friend asked whether I had forgiven the colleagues and professors I had written about. As a spiritual and religious person, I am a little embarrassed to admit that I had not thought much about forgiveness in the context of my personal harassment. So as we welcomed and celebrated the Incarnation of God in the human being of Jesus, I pondered this question. I’ve come to realize that forgiveness for those who failed me in various ways when I was a young female pastor had been a part of developing spiritual and emotional maturity; it rarely came as an intentional decision.

I saw that I’d overlooked forgiving my harassers, in part, because my anger at them was conflated with my frustration with the institutional church, which failed to listen, to take me seriously, and to help me seek justice; it failed even to require appropriate behavior from its male leaders. Further, the church had failed to provide much-needed support as I tried to serve my first two congregations.

The first congregation had longstanding internal power struggles. It was an inappropriate post for a first-time pastor of either gender, yet my requests for help and guidance from colleagues and judicatory staff went unheeded. Eventually I resigned and embarked upon eight months of therapy to put myself back together, spiritually and psychically. My next call, in a different state, was from an inner-city church in need of an urban ministry strategy. I turned to that judicatory staff for help with developing a cooperative vision and a plan for resourcing and supporting it; again, I was met with inaction. Independently, for four years, I formed partnerships there with other congregations where feasible, as I pastored a congregation in frequent crisis.

But then, after almost a decade of being a female intern and novice pastor seeking help from my church leaders and finding none, I resigned from the ministry and answered another call – to become a full-time mom and to heal an exhausted mind, body, and spirit. During my extended leave, I focused on my family and self-care. Not on forgiveness.

Now, turning my attention to that left-behind matter, I find that something has changed, even without my awareness or intention. First, I found that I’ve often thought of forgiveness as something to offer when someone who has wronged me apologizes — forgiveness wipes the slate clean and erases a debt, giving the relationship a fresh start. Such reconciliation is essential in our close, on-going relationships with friends and family. I am grateful to have experienced this in one situation of harassment. The Bible, however, reminds me that I am called upon to forgive others simply because God has forgiven me (Ephesians 4:32). God’s forgiveness is free, unmerited, a gift of love and grace. God expects us to offer this same selfless mercy to others, whether or not it is requested, undeserved, or the hurt goes deep. This kind of forgiveness frees the other, but also frees us from bitterness, resentment, and the spiritual and physical illnesses that can result from hanging on to toxic emotions.

Still, forgiving does not mean continuing to put ourselves in harm’s way. Forgiving does not mean accepting or condoning a wrong-doer’s behavior. Forgiving does not mean that we do not pursue justice through administrative or legal channels. Forgiving does mean letting go of the desire for revenge. “Repay no one evil for evil … Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19). At its fullest, forgiveness frees us from giving those who have harmed us power over our emotions, choices, thoughts and self-identity; we stop giving them free rent in our heads and hearts. This can be done alongside an adjudication process, or without such a process. Each of us must wrestle with the healing path that is best for us.

Taking leave to raise my children was a first step in the forgiveness process — a decision to get myself out of harm’s way to heal. What I’ve learned over that time has helped me with other important aspects of forgiveness—forgiveness both for my perpetrators and the institutional church. That included looking at myself and confronting my own expectations. I needed to stop being surprised by sin and to stop expecting the church — or any human institution for that matter — to be free of sin and brokenness. Of course, the church and the people in it fail me and others on a regular basis — as do I, and all of us! My sin has been putting my faith and trust in something other than God incarnate in Jesus Christ (a wonderful reflection as we celebrate the Nativity).

It is freeing to understand that I am not to expect nor look to the church or anyone in it, to take care of me; that is my job through my relationship with God. I learned the distinction between asking someone to care for and about me in a healthy way versus asking them to take care of me and giving up my own personal power, volition, and responsibility. Without this shift, I would have been perpetually wounded and disappointed by the fact that the church and its leaders are all part of our fallen world. This realization opened me up to forgiving the church. This growing spiritual maturity has resulted in deeper emotional freedom. I have stopped giving my perpetrators power over my identity and confidence and, over time, I have stopped letting mistrust of male colleagues prevent me from exploring team ministry. The last step in this process has been to forgive myself, both for having unrealistic expectations and for hanging on to fear, even unconsciously. Reflecting on and writing about this has helped move me into this last step of self-forgiveness.

After nine years at home with my children and running a home business, in 2006 I returned to parish ministry. The ELCA (Evangelical Church in America) as an institution also had grown and changed over these years. For instance, there are more policies in place to make congregations safe for everyone, including children, and when pastors or other leaders commit boundary violations, there are procedures and ways to find help. In addition, it's thrilling to be part of a denomination that welcomes LGBTQ+ people into the full life of the church, its ministry, and its marriage rites! In fact, I can say that I love the ELCA now more than I ever have since my ordination in 1989. This reveals my own spiritual and emotional growth toward the freedom and fullness of forgiveness that includes my perpetrators, the institution, and myself.

This love leads me to care for the church – to help it be faithful when it fails, to seek the path of truth, reconciliation, justice, accountability, and forgiveness — but not to expect it to take care of me. I need to be okay at my core because of the salvation God freely gives in Jesus Christ, and that’s true both when the church and its leaders are faithful, and when we fail. For me, that’s the freedom of forgiveness that comes from a process of deepening my own spiritual life rooted in the love and mercy of God. Through God’s unmerited forgiveness of me, and love for me, I am freed to forgive others, and freed to love and serve as God calls me to today, regardless of what has happened in my past.

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Focus for 2018: Balancing Inner and Outer Wisdom

Focus for 2018Thank you for your patience--website is as good as new!

With the turn of the new year, gurus in every area of human accomplishment and fulfillment are promoting new on-line classes in everything from meditation and ministry to confidence-building and business-launching. When I peruse all the topics of learning, the number of podcasts that interest me, and add the fiction I would like to read or hear, it’s overwhelming. If all I do is stop to prioritize my learning and reading goals for this new year as a tool to pick and choose in what to invest my time and resources, I have missed the deeper spiritual yearning such desires awaken.

The constant glut of information and opportunities can tempt us away from seeking the wisdom that God has planted within us — our unique contributions, insights, and faith that come from the indwelling Spirit who enlightens our own particular incarnation in space and time. It’s easy to think that the answer to our struggles or unmet goals—whatever they might be—is “out there” somewhere, if we just find the right mentor, program or continuing education event.

The urging of the Spirit inside, however, calls me to set aside time to listen inwardly in contemplation before I look outside me for the direction or answers I seek. That’s not to say that I cannot be helped by others’ teachings; human development requires us to share our wisdom with those who come after us. But we rob ourselves and others, when we do not listen to the insight, hopes, plans, and dreams that bubble up from the God who makes a home in each of our hearts.

With this in mind, I have coined a phrase for my focus in 2018: “explorational balance.” I want to balance outward seeking with inward listening, reading with meditation, consumption with contemplation. I pursue a life that seeks new ideas, a deep growing spiritual life, faithful decisions, and a greater embodiment of love in and for the world — all of which can happen only when I moderate my search for learning from others with time to listen to the wisdom within.

We are each a one of kind embodiment of spirit and matter, energy and consciousness that has come into being after nearly 13.8 billion years of the evolution of Creation. What is the unique message the Spirit calls you to share in 2018? I invite you to join me in listening deeply with explorational balance!

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Mary, Joseph, and #MeToo

Mary Joseph and MeTooHave you ever wondered what enabled Mary, the mother of Jesus, to say “yes” to God? Her pregnancy outside of wedlock brought good news to us, but it was bad news for Mary. To conceive outside of marriage broke the religious and cultural laws of her time; the punishment was death by stoning. Joseph would be expected to break their engagement, as any self-respecting first century Palestinian Jew would. Her family would disown her; if they let her live, which was unlikely, she would be ostracized and alone. A virgin made pregnant by the Holy Spirit? No one would believe that. The visit of the angel Gabriel to this young teenage girl, already betrothed, must have felt like the kiss of death.

This Scripture story sounds different to me this Christmas, after a season of #MeToo stories coming out weekly in the news. Why have women waited so long in silence before telling their truth? Perhaps because telling their stories would have felt like the kiss of death; they could lose everything—their careers, their credibility, maybe even the support of their families. They could be ostracized and left alone.

It would be easy to spiritualize Mary’s response and believe she said “yes” because she had a deep faith and connection to God. I think this was true in part. But perhaps there was also a more practical, human, relational reason Mary was able to step into this precarious and dangerous role. What if Mary said “yes” to God because she trusted that no matter how unlikely her story sounded, Joseph, her fiancé, would believe her?

To believe her, Joseph would have to let go of his power and privilege and risk everything with Mary. He also would have to physically protect her. Joseph could have gone to Bethlehem alone to register for the census, but instead, Mary traveled with him in the ninth month of her pregnancy. Perhaps it was the only way Joseph could keep her alive.

Today, women don’t need men to protect them physically in the same way, but women do need Josephs who will believe their stories of harassment and abuse. Women need colleagues, friends and family members — male and female — to listen to the truth of their experiences, even and especially when it puts at risk their own power and privilege, even and especially when that story is radically different from the hearer’s own experience. We need men to hold each other accountable for appropriate behavior in all arenas of society. We need men who, recognizing their own past failings as they listen to #MeToo reports, make amends by shifting their behavior, and by advocating for necessary changes in cultural attitudes and in workplace policies and practice.

Of course, this is what all marginalized people need: to have the advocacy and support of those with greater access to power. People of color need Caucasians fighting racism; gay and lesbian people need straight people promoting equal treatment; transgendered people need cisgendered people creating equal access; poor people need wealthy people fighting for their economic opportunity; immigrants need citizens supporting DACA.

When we seek the good of the whole community, we enable more and more people to say “yes” with Mary, to all of whom God calls them to be.

Image: LDS Media Library

 

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My #MeToo Story

My MeToo StoryWith powerful men in diverse industries finally being held accountable for sexual assault and harassment, it should be no surprise that the ministry is another workplace where women are vulnerable. Here, too, we are subjected to unwanted, intimidating, and confusing sexually charged advances ranging from innuendo to outright assault. My experiences were not unique, but for a very young woman in a religious environment, they were unexpected, extremely upsetting, and for a long time, career-altering.

My first experience occurred in the early 1980s. As an undergraduate, I was meeting with a science professor to plan a campus ministry event when he abruptly said, “excuse me, Linda, I’m just going to kiss you.” With no other context or reason, he leaned forward and kissed me. Startled, I looked at him in shock and confusion, causing him to apologize. Our planning session ended, and I avoided campus ministry events where he was present.

In the late 1980s, as an intern pastor in my third year of seminary, I frequently served church members living in a local nursing home. On one such visit, I encountered a newly appointed chaplaincy supervisor, an older man whom I looked up to. His wife and children had not yet joined him in their new home, and so I offered him an evening meal. In my mind, he personified pastoral wisdom, and this was an opportunity to learn. I also harbored some idealistic assumptions about married clergymen. (I know, naive, right? Blind to the potential for trouble!) Thank God, the events of that evening were upsetting, but not tragic. I may have been confused and off-balance inside, but I found the words to decline his offer to smoke pot and, somewhat later, to haltingly direct this senior member of my profession to put his shirt back on and leave my apartment.

Not long after, at a time when female pastors were still a novelty, I was interviewed by phone for my first congregational call. Without warning, a male member of the interview committee asked me, “So when does the swimsuit competition begin?” I had no words; the silence was deafening. Eventually, another interviewer stepped in with the next question. The call was offered, and I accepted. Soon after I arrived, this same man came to the office to continue where he’d left off. Politely rebuffed, he responded, “You better be careful. My wife is a cop and she has a gun.” Perhaps a half-joking suggestion that I keep my mouth shut…? I wouldn’t have mentioned the incidents to my immediate superior, anyway. Shortly after I’d arrived, he had given me a ride to an event, and when we ran into a family from his children’s school, he introduced me as his “new wife.”

How did I respond to these incidents, and others? In the early ‘80s, as an undergrad, I took the encounter with the professor to my campus pastor, who asked why I wasn’t flattered by the professor’s attentions—end of story. In the late ‘80s, as an intern, I sought help from my supervisor, an ordained pastor; after he discussed the matter with my dinner guest’s supervisor, I was told that I had “misunderstood” the situation. End of story again—except that I couldn’t serve at the nursing home, for fear of running into that chaplain again.

In the years following, as a chaplain and a pastor I continued to face similarly uncomfortable encounters, but I didn’t reveal them to anyone in leadership. I did not want to be told again that I should be flattered or that I had “misunderstood.” I confronted one person face to face, and he ceased making suggestive remarks. I handled another with a letter detailing how uncomfortable he had made me with his explicit comments, as my term as an on-call hospital chaplain ended. I came to believe that male pastors, unprepared for and uncomfortable with their early experiences with female colleagues, were sexualizing the relationship to “put me in my place,” to assert their superiority, even to manipulate my behavior. I stopped trusting male leadership, including the Bishop and his staff.

And then I moved on—more or less, anyway. I have never before reflected on the possibility that the cumulative effect of those sexist, belittling encounters has been shaping my pastoral career. Now, listening to so many other voices telling their stories, I realize what a profound impact they have had. Most senior pastors are still male, and although I didn’t ever put this into words, I learned to deeply mistrust that I would be treated well in their company, and if I did experience harassment or worse again, that it would be dealt with appropriately. I have always joked that I like to be the one in charge, but recognize now that such comments masked my fear of laying myself open for more pain and humiliation. As a result, I’ve never pursued team ministry, thereby avoiding working closely with male colleagues. Until my recent interim call, I have sought only solo positions.

I recently concluded serving for 21 months as Interim Associate Pastor at a large congregation. It turns out that I enjoy and am good at team ministry, and I was blessed by the healing experience of serving with a gifted male senior pastor who, by the way, has great boundaries. As I write this, I feel such sadness at the role fear has played in limiting the ministries I have allowed myself to consider. My experiences repeatedly taught me that such fear can be justified, and I don’t judge my actions or decisions (or those of others), but sorrow remains. Now that I have named the fear, however, I can grow from it and beyond it.

Harassment and abuse still exist throughout society, and many still accept the silence of victims, the bullying of perpetrators, and the feigned ignorance and impotence of our institutions. The stories coming out daily in the news bring us another reality, however: Silence and avoidance create so much more pain for survivors and for those who become new victims of unchecked sexual predators.

Freedom lies in releasing fear, shame and pain, and in claiming the truth of our own experiences and how they have shaped our lives and choices. I’m older and wiser now. I increasingly trust myself and my strength. Thankfully, women pastors are more numerous; many male colleagues are more aware and appropriate, often welcoming us as equal partners in the mission field. The institutional church is becoming accountable. Telling our truth can be uncomfortable at best, and re-traumatizing at worst, but I believe that what Jesus says is true: “you shall know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).

And a few last words—please, if you are experiencing pain, shame, anger, hurt, guilt, or fear because of your own “me too” experiences, or you’re ready to share your truth with a safe person, please email me (@ soulstorywriter.net) so I can assist you in finding support near you.

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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.

 

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