From Rebecca: In November of 2018, I wrote a post about pastor James MacDonald setting his vision for Harvest Bible Chapel in the Chicago area. When his vision was boiled down to its essence with the Christian language removed, it looked to me just like a model for business growth, with MacDonald as CEO.
It also became all too evident that the inner workings of this church were, in the words of many of those on the inside, toxic.
To be clear, this friend is not writing about Harvest Bible Chapel, but a different church altogether. But the parallels felt so similar that I chose to grace this post with photos from that same MacDonald sermon.
In the world of spiritual abuse, image is necessary. Every abuser has a carefully cultivated image that serves as a cloaking device of sorts.
In the Bible, the term “image” is used when addressing worship of false gods. This terminology was very intentional from a God who understood that one day we would have a culture where people would be less likely to worship a god made of material things, but very eager to worship those who claim to bear the name of Jesus and portray a certain image for all to see.
Many don’t get to see behind the scenes, and with a trusting heart they believe what they’re being told and shown from the pulpit.
This is why I’m writing this today.
My husband and I were both in leadership in a church with a carefully cultivated image. Yet the story behind the scenes was and is vastly different. There were–and still are–high levels of abuse, control, manipulation, and deception.
I hope that sharing a small part of our story will help others who may be struggling with what they think they see but who end up questioning their own discernment.
We’ve been warned about wolves in sheep’s clothing and about the enemy coming as an angel of light. We’re told to test the spirits, warned about “doctrines of demons,” and told not to follow signs and wonders.
But the things that can be the greatest detriment to us will not be from without, but from within the church. That’s why discernment is needed. Not everybody who attaches the name of Jesus to something they are doing, saying, preaching, etc is operating through His spirit.
That’s what the image is so good at hiding.
I attended our former church for approximately 15 years. My husband attended for about 18 years and was an assistant pastor and fulltime staff member for approximately 15+. He worked in close proximity to the lead pastor on a daily basis.
When I shared with my husband that I felt I was supposed to write this after Rebecca’s request, he was immediately supportive and said he would also be willing to share his own experiences.
The personal stories here are things that I and/or my husband have personally experienced and/or witnessed firsthand, behind the closed doors of meetings, in family gatherings, during my husband’s workdays, etc. Most, if not all, of this was done with some sort of Bible verse or “biblical principle” twisted to make the lead pastor and his agenda seem “right” or even “godly.”
Especially toward the end of our time in this high-control, abusive, manipulative, toxic church, I often said, “If people knew what was said about them behind closed doors, they would leave this place in droves.” Nobody was safe from being talked about, gossiped about, judged, and belittled.
A business-model church
In this church, the pastor operated as a CEO, and meetings were always run like business meetings. There was rarely prayer and definitely not a posture of seeking the Lord’s guidance. Ideas were shot down unless it could be portrayed as the pastor’s idea. Any questions, suggestions, or otherwise were met with fierce opposition.
Everything that was done had some sort of agenda behind it… usually to try to bring people into the church. Not to point people to Jesus, but to point people to the church. The “success” of outreaches and ministries was measured by numbers. Numbers were the focus because that was the “proof of growth.” If an activity or ministry was not deemed “successful” very quickly, it was shut down.
People as commodities
Church members were commodities, just warm bodies to fill spots, always expendable for the bottom line. It was portrayed as though that bottom line was the kingdom of God, but it was truly the pastor’s own kingdom, his own business empire.
When they were all used up (burned out), the volunteers were simply replaced. My husband witnessed firsthand the pastor saying, “You need to get all you can out of somebody in the first three years because after that they’re no good anymore.”
People were blacklisted if they didn’t agree with the pastor or operated differently than he thought they should. I cannot tell you how many people I personally heard called something along the lines of “a flake, spiritually out there, rebellious,” etc. Anybody who questioned the pastor was shut down and viewed as rebellious.
The way the pastor treated his wife was deplorable. I look back and grieve never speaking up, but at the time it was all “normal” for me. We were with their family often, and I would venture to say that most, if not every, time we were together, he made some sort of disparaging remark, talked down to her, openly mocked her (while saying he was “joking”), barked orders, and treated her like she was stupid and less than.
Both my husband and I had come out of very unhealthy dynamics in our own homes. As a young married couple, this was the “godly” example set for us.
Manipulating church ministries
The church started a food pantry “to help the community.” Sounds good on the surface, but there was always an agenda behind things. Eventually the church started another non-profit and opened a thrift store. From the pulpit and posted on signs throughout the store were claims that “100% of the proceeds from sales in the thrift store go toward the food pantry.”
Except they never did.
My husband even witnessed the pastor’s wife asking the pastor if they should put some of the money from the thrift store toward the pantry, with the response from him immediately refusing and shutting down the idea.
Our area was hit by a hurricane that devastated some of the nearby shore towns. The pastor received donations, including some very large sums, to start a relief center. That never happened, but the donations were never returned.
There was also a building fund campaign that went on for an extended period, with elaborate plans for the church building. Congregation members, including my husband and me, committed to contribute monthly. Even though the contributions from the congregation reached over $100,000, the changes and updates never happened.
Nothing was said about what happened to the money, where it went, or why we never went forward with all the updates. The campaign and plans just all disappeared and nothing more was ever said.
Because of the culture of treating people as commodities, when it was deemed that my husband and I were no longer useful, the pastor began to treat us with disregard and as dispensable. It was a method he often used to push people out of the church so he wouldn’t look like the “bad guy” by telling them to leave – or in our case, firing my husband.
My last service at that church, I walked in to find that another couple was sitting in our seats.
After all my deconstructing, reconstructing, and healing, I can see this as ridiculous, but at the time I cannot describe the pain I felt in my heart to see someone else in “our” designated leadership seats (up by the pastor so everybody would know who the leaders were). This would have happened only by personal invitation from the pastor.
It was one thing to be rejected, but a different thing to be replaced, especially with zero communication from the pastor.
I sat toward the back, but when the pastor began to speak on “relationships,” it wasn’t long before I got up and walked out. I could not sit and listen to the hypocrisy another moment.
Looking behind the scenes
Having lived in that culture for so long, my husband and I understand how carefully cultivated that public image is. We know that many will not personally witness the hidden actions and agendas that go on behind the scenes. But there are many similar patterns in abusive dynamics. And sharing our stories may help to open others’ eyes to see the reality of how their church/pastor(s)/leader(s) may be operating.
If you do see, hear, or experience something that causes you to feel unsettled, take that conduct and measure it up to Jesus. If it does not align with His love, compassion, and care as our Good Shepherd, then we encourage you to ask questions.
Ask your pastor/leader(s) about whatever it is you’re feeling unsettled about. If those questions are met with pushback, indirect answers, justification of poor behavior, projecting (turning the situation around on you), and/or hostility, you are likely in an unhealthy church.
And you may very well be dealing with a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Looking to Jesus
Jesus is not in any of this, no matter how much His name is attached. Lying, manipulating, controlling, and abusing is not the heart of our loving Father.
After being taught about Jesus by an abusive pastor who tried to make Jesus into his own image to justify his actions, reading the Gospels through a different perspective, and seeing Jesus as a loving and good, gentle Shepherd helped to heal my heart and spirit.
Seeing Jesus for who He truly is and knowing that everything He did, and does, is from a place of love healed places I wasn’t even aware needed healing.
My prayer is always for open eyes, softened hearts, sensitive spirits, and ears that hear their Father’s voice.
I also pray that those who have experienced abuse with the name of Jesus attached will receive revelation of His deep, deep love toward them. I pray that they will be able to know, believe, and taste and see that the Lord is so very good.
I also pray that as we heal, we will bring our stories and healing and realities to others so that they will know they are not alone.
In John 10:11,14 Jesus says,
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. . . . I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.”
I want to encourage you from a place of deep love and care for the sheep, for those who know their Shepherd’s voice: even if we have been mistreated by a church pastor, spouse, family member, or church member, we can always find rest and healing in the goodness, love, and compassion of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.