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When Pastors Are Sexual Abuse Survivors

Childhood trauma can sabotage ministry in sinister ways.
When Pastors Are Sexual Abuse Survivors
Image: Caiaimage/Martin Barraud / Getty

It took me 20 years to acknowledge I’d been molested in sixth grade.

I’d always had a memory of the molestation, but it was fuzzy, distant, and I had no category to place it in. Thank God it wasn’t worse, I thought, or that could have really messed me up.

Eleven years into ministry, I emotionally imploded. My newborn son wasn’t sleeping or breastfeeding. My wife had postpartum anxiety, and we fought constantly. My home felt like a scary, overwhelming place, where more was demanded of me than I could provide. I distanced myself from a wife who only wanted a husband who would say, “It’ll all be okay.” That’s typical of sexual abuse survivors: we’re terrified of emotional threats, and we hide from feelings that overwhelm us. How could I tell her everything would be okay when I was barely keeping the panic in my heart at bay?

Things were no better in the ministry I led, where attendance was down and I was receiving confusing messages from my supervisor intimating that the church’s pastoral management team wasn’t happy with me. I became defensive and combative, subconsciously afraid everyone would realize what I already knew: I was a failure. There was something wrong with me. Something shameful.

I didn’t cheat on my wife—thank God—but I got closer than I thought myself capable, and while my marriage survived this near-miss, my job did not. I was fired when my wife was six months pregnant. I experienced daily panic attacks and drastic weight loss, and I was told by a recruiter that my resume now had Scarlet A that would keep me out of ministry for years.

For the first time I began to wonder if—underneath my sin, unwise choices, arrogance, and ignorance—that strange memory from sixth grade had something to do with this.

Abuse in the Pastorate

One in four women and one in nine men have experienced some form of sexual abuse according to a 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Several experts I’ve talked to in the past year believe those numbers are underreported. While research on sexual abuse within evangelicalism is scarce, what does exist suggests the problem is just as bad within church walls as without. This data and my own experience prompted a question in my mind: How many pastors are, themselves, victims of abuse?

According to a recent study by LifeWay Research, one in five Protestant senior pastors say they “personally have experienced domestic or sexual violence.”

“Pastors have been extremely hurt by the myth that sexual predators have most likely been abused themselves,” said Jimmy Hinton, a full-time minister in Pennsylvania and a certification specialist with GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). “That has no bearing in reality. But because people believe it, pastors who were abused as children are terrified to let their congregations know. They’re afraid church members will think they will become abusers.”

Pastors who were abused as children are terrified to let their congregations know. They’re afraid church members will think they will become abusers.

While I never experienced this sort of stigma, I did find that others tended to minimize my sexual abuse. When I first told people what happened to me in sixth grade, they didn’t know how to respond. One person I trusted told me, “It’s too bad you didn’t say something then, because your abuser could have been caught.” Another pastor friend implied that connecting my near-affair with past abuse was refusing to accept responsibility for my actions. That wasn’t true—my decisions were my own, and I’m dealing with the consequences of my actions. Yet this pastor’s response made me afraid to share about my abuse with others for fear of them thinking I was using it as an excuse. Both of these people meant well but unknowingly reinforced a decades-old lie rooted deep in my heart: It wasn’t a big deal. No one cares. Just ignore it and move on.

Andrew Schmutzer, professor of biblical studies at Moody Bible Institute, says male pastors hear responses like this in part because the church lacks the capacity to deal with sexual trauma involving men. “If abuse is mentioned at all, it’s not going to be about male victims. This leads to a disenfranchised grief. It is not socially acknowledged, publicly mourned, or homiletically addressed.”

Pastoring at DEFCON 1

Brian (not his real name) was three years into his role as a college pastor when the woman who sexually abused him called to confess and ask for forgiveness. The abuse had taken place when Brian was around six years old, but with the exception of some brief, confusing flashbacks, he had repressed all memory of it. His abuser’s confession was shocking, but Brian filed the moment away in his mind and moved on. After all, he and his wife were doing well, and his ministry was thriving.

A few years later, trauma began to surface. Brian resented his wife’s emotional needs, wishing she would “go deal with them on her own.” He responded explosively to any of his wife’s criticisms, no matter how constructive or kind. And at work Brian was an anxious, conflict-avoidant wreck.

“At work I had a lot of anxiety and fear in completely normal meetings,” Brian told me as we sat in a coffee shop near his church. Brian is a longtime friend and mentor of mine, and he was the first pastor I ever heard share about his own sexual abuse. I’ve always known Brian as kind, quick to listen, gentle, and concerned for the marginalized. It surprised me to hear that, in the years I worked closely with him, chaos brewed beneath his calm exterior.

“I was terrified I might be viewed as incompetent,” Brian said. “I was always at DEFCON 1; nuclear war could break out at any moment. Looking back, I just didn’t feel safe. I was always afraid someone might hurt me. I was a scared kid, pretending to be a grown up.”

Brian’s anxiety accelerated to the point where many days he’d come home from work and feel like he might throw up. His years-long battle with pornography and masturbation grew worse. And then Brian’s oldest son turned six, the age of Brian’s abuse.

“I began having flashbacks, mental pictures representing abuse where I was sucked into a dark basement with no lights. I had this nightmare where I was stapling my door closed, screaming so no one could get in. Now I think that was a picture of me in relationships, a scared kid blocking out everyone who’d want to love me. That’s the sadistic nature of abuse—it keeps you from the healing you need.”

Abuse can also trigger workaholism borne from a belief that no one can be trusted. Scott (not his real name) was raised in an unstable home that forced him to functionally parent his own mother and father. Scott was molested by a relative as a child, starting before he remembers and ending when he was five. The formative experience many of us take as a given—knowing there’s at least one trustworthy adult we can depend on—was never a given to Scott. He learned from an early age that others can’t be trusted, and that vulnerability only increases chaos.

“As a pastor, my constant initial impulse is to say, ‘If something important needs doing, I’m the one who needs to do it.’ Trusting others with vision, ideas, or execution—letting myself depend on someone else—is an emotional risk. Why would I ever want to do that? I feel a workaholic drive that doesn’t stem from ‘I can do it better’ but from ‘I can never trust anyone.’”

When I told Scott this sounds lonely, he referenced the BBC show Sherlock, based on the famous detective, in which Sherlock’s emotionally stunted brother, Mycroft Holmes, says, “I’m not lonely,” and Sherlock responds, “How would you know?” For Scott, vulnerability with his wife is a daily struggle, a skill he’s learning for the very first time. Scott says he is probably lonely, but he can’t really tell. Isolation is all he’s ever known.

Ministry as Self-Medication

“The average age of abuse is 10,” Diane Langberg told me over a recent phone conversation. Langberg is a practicing psychologist with 45 years of experience working with victims of abuse. She specializes in working with clergy.

“There’s a reason God is the God of the millstone,” Langberg said. “The damage done to children through sexual abuse is so great you’d be better off dead than damaging them. Boys who have been abused grow up to have more addictive personalities, their alcohol and drug abuse rates are 25-to-50 percent higher than average, and they are 12 times more likely to commit suicide and three times more likely to be depressed.”

Abused people raised in a Christian culture often look for validation of their self-worth in ministry. When their God-given gifts intermingle with untreated trauma, it can create a ticking time bomb. Abuse survivors learn that relationships aren’t safe, so many abused pastors struggle in their marriages, in building close friendships, or in relating well to their staff. Reflecting back on my own failure, I remember devoting myself to the pastoral care of others, believing that helping them would heal me as well.

Underneath all of this is the core motivation that “being a pastor will make me feel better about myself.”

“When you are a child, you are the center of the universe,” Langberg said, “and when children are abused they believe, Something must be wrong with me. Why would the abuser pick me? Fear and shame set in because they believe they’re flawed, and they set out to prove that’s not true. But ministry is—well—ministry not a good place for that, because people chew you up and spit you out. Which only pushes you to find more power, more affirmation, more adoration—and when that doesn’t work—more self-medication.”

From Hiding to Healing

Many sexual abuse survivors don’t identify or seek healing from their abuse until they’re well into adulthood. Because the pain, shame, and emotional complexity of abuse runs deep, dealing with the abuse while pastoring a church is extremely difficult. Schmutzer believes this is why Christian colleges and seminaries must help students press into these areas before entering full-time ministry. Schmutzer, a sexual abuse survivor who recently wrote the book Naming Our Abuse: God's Pathways to Healing for Male Sexual Abuse Survivors, says he now pushes students to explore their pasts while attending his class.

“I want them to know that, if they need help, that’s okay,” said Schmutzer. “You’re not a loser because you slow down to process what was done to you and what you have done. Our Christian education systems are so focused elsewhere that we haven’t addressed the formation of a pastor’s soul, and any abuse survivor who hasn’t dealt with their brokenness is a landmine waiting to go off.”

For a generation of pastors, this advice may have come too late. Sexual abuse is a topic few had words to describe. The best gift they can receive is a supportive elder board or supervisor willing to lean into their journey. Brian was blessed to be at just such a church. As Brian’s marriage neared crisis mode, his leadership gave him an extended sabbatical to take a break from his pastoral role, and he and his wife connected with a counselor in the area. What he experienced in that setting was not what he had expected.

My life is proof that child sexual abuse isn’t final or fatal.

“When I first told my story to our counselor, she got up, sat down on the couch with us, and started weeping with us,” Brian said. “She told us she loved us, that she was with us. She didn’t label me a porn addict; she told me I was a survivor who wanted to be healed and whole. She spoke a new identity into my life, one that gave me hope.”

Langberg believes moments like that are vital for any pastor who has been abused. For many, simply acknowledging past abuse is an enormous step. From there, pastors will have to face the wounds and lies prompted by abuse. But pastors shouldn’t undertake this process on their own because the abuse has made their minds and hearts unreliable narrators. Many pastors who experienced abuse have been living in self-deception for decades. The path to freedom lies along a long road of therapy, where God can speak into the wounded areas of their souls.

That said, not all counseling is created equal, and pastors choosing to open up for the first time should seriously explore finding a qualified professional. How, I asked Langberg, can pastors find safe, competent therapists? According to Langberg, a pastor should ask potential therapists the following questions:

1. Are you licensed?

2. How long have you been in practice?

3. How long have you worked with clergy and their spouses?

4. Do you work with abuse and trauma survivors?

5. How long have you worked specifically with abuse and trauma victims?

6. What kinds of trauma have you worked with? For how long? What trainings have you attended?

There’s no one right answer to the last two questions, but as with pastoring, there’s a world of difference between being trained to do something and having experience doing it. Pastors should find a therapist who is seasoned in this specific area. When I told Langberg that these questions were more detailed than I expected, she quickly responded, “Of course they are! It’s your most vulnerable place. It would be foolish not to make sure you’re trusting a competent person with this area.”

This advice extends beyond a relationship with a therapist. Schmutzer credits a sexual abuse survivors support group with being the single greatest healing tool in his life. Hearing the stories of other survivors, even those with radically different stories, gave him language for his own experiences.

For some pastors, seeking healing may mean telling their spouses about their abuse for the first time or opening up to a trusted, emotionally-safe friend. The unconscious, insidious message sexual abuse survivors believe is that there is something shameful, twisted, and broken about them. The healing process must include hearing others say, “I’m sorry,” and, “It wasn’t your fault.” When I first began processing my sexual abuse, discussing it with my wife was nearly impossible. Now I’m writing an article about it for other pastors to read.

Shame, in other words, doesn’t get the final word on our abuse.

Abuse Isn’t the Final Word

When I asked Scott how, considering his damaged childhood home life, he became a pastor, he became deeply emotional. Scott may have been trapped in a living hell at home, but his church, he said, was always there for him. The church was the only place Scott could imagine that, just maybe, he was okay. It was there for him when his parents got divorced, twice helping him and his mom move. An older church member took Scott out for lunch once a month for no other reason than to just hang out. In the most tangible of ways, the church started his healing. As Scott began processing his abuse in college, he realized he wanted to extend that sort of healing to others.

“For a long time, church was a place where I could disassociate from my abuse,” Scott told me. “That’s how I saw God for a long time, as a good person separate from my abuse. But I began realizing God wasn’t separate—he was there the whole time. He never left me, and neither did his church. So many churches turn away from people’s pain or lob simple theological answers at them, which is the intellectual equivalent of turning away. But realizing God never turns away became a generative source of compassion, justice, and courage for me. I wanted to meet people in their suffering. I wanted them to know God never turns away.”

Brian still marvels at the night-and-day difference between the way he pastored before his sabbatical and now. He’s no longer leveled for days by someone’s disappointment in him. Things that used to send his anger to a “10” now register as a “3.” He can make mistakes in his role, feel disappointed or embarrassed, but not feel like a failure. And he’s able to share the story of his abuse with others.

“When I speak publicly, I’m able to talk about my journey without fear,” Brian said. “I’m at peace with who I am, and there’s a vulnerability I have that gives others permission to be vulnerable too. That’s the real joy: in sharing my brokenness I create a safe place for others who are broken.”

For many pastors, the key is admitting this isn’t a wound that can stay hidden. The pressure pastors face makes repression second nature—just stay busy and power through—but I often wonder how many of the public moral failures I’ve seen through the years started with an abused child, turned seminarian, turned pastor, who needed to be told, “You’re okay. It’s going to be okay.”

“It’s a deep mystery,” Brian said, “how God can take all this crap that was done to us and make something awesome. Yet God invites abused pastors to trust him, to allow him to heal that part of them, to meet them in that vulnerable place. My life is proof that child sexual abuse isn’t final or fatal. I look at my life, and the deep pain has done a deep work. It’s now a blessing to my family and the people I pastor.”

I would say the same.

Joshua Pease, a freelance writer living in Colorado, was an evangelical pastor for 11 years.

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