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How to Rebuild Faith After Church Hurt: Lessons I Learned from Fallen Pastors


June 24th, 2024

The Christian community has witnessed the rise and fall of many prominent pastors, including Ravi Zacharias, Bob Coy, Carl Lentz, Mark Driscoll, and, most heartbreakingly for me, Tony Evans. Their stories of moral failures, ethical breaches, and spiritual abuse have left many believers questioning their faith and the integrity of their spiritual leaders. This phenomenon is not just a distant news headline; it resonates deeply with personal experiences of spiritual abuse, including my own.


In 1995, I joined an evangelical church community after marrying my husband, who had been raised in that environment. Unlike him, I was not familiar with the evangelical church. In 1997, I became the assistant director of the preschool on the church campus and encountered a new worship pastor who seemed charismatic and gifted but was, in reality, a wolf in sheep's clothing. My cPTSD heightened my intuition, and I sensed immediately that something was off about him. His inappropriate behavior towards me, including unwelcome physical contact and derogatory remarks, was alarming. Despite my attempts to raise the alarm, I was gaslit and dismissed by others who were entranced by his charm and talent. It wasn't until one day when he made advances, unaware that another person was in the room, that his true nature was exposed. Within a few weeks, he was dismissed from his duties. This is just one of many events that I have personally witnessed in churches over the decades I have been attending.


Growing up without positive male figures and not being raised in the church, I initially thought such behavior was typical of men. This painful experience, which occurred before I became a therapist and a Christian, opened my eyes to the pervasive issue of spiritual abuse and the danger of placing undue trust in flawed human leaders. It highlighted the critical need for accountability and vigilance within spiritual communities.


Many of my clients come to me with heartbreaking stories of church hurt and spiritual, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. It's a painful reality that so many rely on their pastors or spiritual leaders as infallible guides, forgetting that they are, ultimately, fallible human beings. This is not to blame the victims; any church leader guilty of molesting children, narcissistic abuse, or other heinous acts must face due process and severe consequences, including the loss of their prominent positions. A recent example is the case of megachurch pastor Robert Morris, whose transgressions came to light decades after the fact. The case of Mica Miller (John Paul Miller pastor of Solid Rock Ministries) is another sad event I have been following. These cases bring back the anger I felt when I was ignored and not taken seriously after exposing the pervert. I already had trust issues with men, but to see those who claim the name of Jesus know how to use the Bible to tickle ears and manipulate the masses is infuriating. This is why it is so important that Christians understand the Bible in context and maintain a balanced view of spiritual leaders. I found a video on YouTube from the Check My Church playlist on spotting wolves informative. Check it out and let me know your thoughts in the comments below.


This misplaced trust often leads to disillusionment and a crisis of faith when these leaders fall from grace. We must ask ourselves: Do we truly believe that some individuals are closer to God than others, or that we can't have our own personal relationship with Jesus?

In our culture, there is a tendency to elevate church leaders to a god-like status, which can be dangerous. It’s crucial to remember that our faith should be centered on Christ, not on any human leader. By keeping our focus on Jesus, we can navigate the complexities of faith and avoid the pitfalls of placing too much trust in fallible individuals.


The Problem with Pastoral Celebrity Culture

The rise of pastoral celebrity culture has significantly contributed to these issues. This phenomenon creates a rift not only within the Christian community but also among non-Christians who become disillusioned with the faith. Unfortunately, the actions of a few high-profile leaders can cast a shadow over the entire religion, causing skepticism and distrust.

When pastors like Ravi Zacharias, Bob Coy, Carl Lentz, Mark Driscoll, and now Tony Evans gain immense popularity and influence, they often become insulated from accountability. Their charismatic personalities and successful ministries can lead congregations to place them on pedestals, viewing them as spiritual gurus who can do no wrong. This lack of accountability can result in ethical breaches and moral failings, leaving believers to wrestle with the fallout.


For example, Mark Driscoll's fall from grace was a result of his authoritarian leadership style and allegations of bullying and abusive behavior. His case, like many others, highlights the dangers of unchecked power within the church. Similarly, Carl Lentz's moral failings exposed the vulnerabilities that come with a lack of transparency and accountability.

The recent moral failure of Tony Evans, a pastor who was deeply respected and admired, is a profound heartbreak for many, including myself. His decision to step down after 48 years of ministry has left a void and a sense of betrayal. Tony Evans was a beacon of biblical teaching and servant leadership, making his fall even more devastating. His case underscores the painful reality that no leader, no matter how revered, is immune to moral failings.


The Impact of Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse can have a profound impact on an individual's faith and mental health. When trust in spiritual leaders is shattered, it can lead to feelings of betrayal, confusion, and a deep sense of loss. For those who have experienced such trauma, reconciling their faith with the actions of those they once trusted can be an arduous journey. The spiritual dissonance caused by such abuse often results in a crisis of faith, where victims struggle to differentiate between the teachings of their faith and the harmful behaviors of their leaders. This internal conflict can erode one's spiritual foundation, leading to a sense of isolation and abandonment.


The psychological impact of spiritual abuse is equally significant. Victims may experience symptoms akin to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including anxiety, depression, and hypervigilance. The betrayal by a trusted spiritual leader can disrupt an individual's ability to trust others, not only within their faith community but in broader interpersonal relationships as well. Additionally, the community's response to the abuse—whether supportive or dismissive—can greatly influence the healing process. A dismissive or invalidating response can exacerbate feelings of alienation, while a supportive and empathetic community can provide a crucial foundation for recovery and rebuilding faith.


Understanding the Role of Pastors According to the Bible

To understand the role of pastors, it is crucial to look at what the Bible actually says. The book of Acts provides a blueprint for church leadership, emphasizing servant leadership, community, and accountability among believers. Pastors are called to shepherd their flock, not for personal gain or power, but to serve and guide with humility and integrity.


The Apostle Paul, in his letters to Timothy and Titus, outlines the qualifications for church leaders, highlighting the importance of character, humility, and a servant's heart. These biblical principles stand in stark contrast to the behaviors that have led to the downfall of many modern pastors.


  1. Servant Leadership: Pastors are called to serve their congregations selflessly. Jesus set the ultimate example of servant leadership by washing His disciples' feet (John 13:1-17). This act of humility and service should be the cornerstone of pastoral ministry.

  2. Character and Integrity: Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus emphasize that a pastor must be "above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money" (1 Timothy 3:2-3). These qualities ensure that a leader’s life reflects the values they preach.

  3. Humility: A true pastor recognizes their own fallibility and the need for God’s guidance. Peter reminds pastors to "be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:2-3). This humility fosters trust and respect within the church community.

  4. Accountability: Healthy pastoral leadership involves being accountable to others. In Acts, we see the early church leaders working together, supporting, and correcting each other (Acts 15). This collective accountability helps prevent moral and ethical failures.

  5. Teaching and Discipleship: Paul instructed Timothy to "preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Timothy 4:2). A pastor’s role includes teaching sound doctrine and guiding believers in their spiritual growth.


For congregants, it is essential to understand these biblical principles to identify healthy leadership in their churches. Look for leaders who embody servant leadership, integrity, humility, accountability, and a commitment to teaching and discipleship. Such leaders are more likely to foster a healthy, vibrant, and spiritually nurturing church community.


Why Are So Many Leaving the Evangelical Church?

Disillusionment with pastoral leadership and the evangelical church as a whole has led many to leave. The commercialization of the church, where ministry often resembles a business, has strayed far from the early church's model. When the focus shifts from serving the community to building personal empires, the spiritual health of the congregation suffers.

Many believers have grown weary of the church's emphasis on numbers, fame, and financial gain. They witness their leaders falling into moral failings, and their trust is shattered. This can cause a crisis of faith, as they struggle to reconcile the actions of their leaders with the teachings of Jesus. Furthermore, the lack of genuine community and accountability within these churches can leave members feeling isolated and unsupported.

Additionally, the evangelical church has often been criticized for its handling of social issues, which can alienate members who feel their concerns are not addressed or are dismissed outright. This can create a sense of disconnect between the church's teachings and the real-life issues that members face.


Ultimately, many are leaving the evangelical church in search of a more authentic, accountable, and community-focused expression of their faith. They seek a place where the teachings of Jesus are lived out in practical, tangible ways, and where leaders are held to a high standard of integrity and humility. Some are even deconstructing their faith altogether and identifying as #exvangelicals.


Since I have reconstructed my faith due to significant church hurts and spiritual abuses, which I discuss in other blog posts and on my podcast, I realize that I am not an exvangelical because I never was an evangelical. However, I did have to disentangle what was cultural from what the Bible actually teaches.


Tips for Those Disentangling Faith

If you are wrestling with tough thoughts and feelings, questioning your faith, know that this is a completely normal part of disentangling your beliefs. Here are some tips for maintaining your mental health during this challenging time:

  1. Open the Bible and Learn It in Context: Read the scriptures with a fresh perspective, seeking to understand the context and the intended message. This can help you differentiate between true biblical teachings and misinterpretations used for personal gain.

  2. Pray: Prayer is a powerful tool for finding peace and guidance. Spend time in prayer, seeking clarity and comfort from God.

  3. Practice Self-Care: Take care of your physical, emotional, and mental health. Engage in activities that bring you joy and relaxation, such as exercise, meditation, or hobbies.

  4. Find Like-Minded Believers: Connect with others who share your journey and can offer support and understanding. This can be through small groups, online communities, or trusted friends.

  5. Seek Professional Help: If the pain of spiritual abuse is overwhelming, consider seeking the help of a therapist who understands these issues. A Christian mental health professional can provide a safe space to process your feelings and work towards healing.

  6. Engage in Reflective Practices: Journaling or reflecting on your experiences and emotions can help you process your thoughts and gain clarity.

  7. Educate Yourself on Spiritual Abuse: Understanding the dynamics of spiritual abuse can empower you to recognize and address it. There are many resources available that can provide insight and support.


Conclusion

The rise and fall of pastors, the misuse of power, and the resultant spiritual abuse have left many believers questioning their faith and their place within the church. However, it is important to remember that the actions of flawed human leaders do not define your personal relationship with God. By seeking understanding, practicing self-care, and finding supportive communities, you can navigate this challenging journey and emerge with a stronger, more resilient faith.


Remember, you are not alone in this journey. Many have walked this path and found peace and restoration. It's okay to question, to feel hurt, and to seek truth. Your faith can emerge stronger and more resilient as you navigate through these challenges.



Bible Verse:

"Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."— Hebrews 12:2 (NIV)


Prayer:

Dear Heavenly Father,

We come before You with humble hearts, seeking to center our lives on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. Help us to fix our eyes on Him, rather than on any human leader, recognizing that only Jesus is perfect and worthy of our complete trust and devotion.

Grant us wisdom and discernment as we study Your Word. Open our hearts and minds to understand the scriptures in their true context, and guide us to apply their teachings to our lives in a way that honors You. Protect us from the temptation to idolize those in positions of spiritual authority, and remind us that all humans are fallible and in need of Your grace.

Lord, we ask for the strength to forgive those who have misled or hurt us and the courage to stand firm in our faith. Surround us with a community of believers who seek to live out Your truth and support one another in love and accountability.

Help us to grow deeper in our relationship with You, trusting that You alone are our shepherd and guide. May we always seek Your presence and rely on Your Holy Spirit to lead us in all truth.

In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.


In Service, Faith Hope and Love,

Diana


P.S. If you haven't yet come listen to The Holistic Counselor Podcast



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Jen T
Jen T
Jun 24

"Those who lead with ego and fear in order to gain power might deliver short-term results, but over time their gap [lack of integrity], separation, and incongruency will lead to their demise." The One Truth Jon Gordon

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