Comforting My Church With the Comfort They Gave – by Julie Cleaveland
[September 16, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]
Julie Cleaveland was married to a very wicked man. When she sought help from her church, she got the usual bad treatments. She published this letter to her former church leaders to highlight the bias in their thinking.
Dear Former Church Leaders,
I was surprised to hear that your head pastor and you parted ways suddenly. I daresay that one might use the term that you are now “separated.” I understand that he left you suddenly. I am sorry.
I also understand that he was a “difficult” person. Just hearing one of his earlier sermons about a call for unity in the church led me to understand that all might not be well behind the doors of this church.
After all, this shepherd of the flock explained from the pulpit that each attendee must agree with him, must not question him, and must not cause him any trouble, (oh….him and the Elders he added). Or else, he (and the Elders) would see to it that that person’s reputation would be ruined. He very carefully explained the ancient system of “credit” — back in the ancient marketplace, a person had a tile with his name on it. Shopkeepers would break off corners of the tile, the pastor explained, as purchases were made. However, if those debts were not paid, the shopkeepers would break that person’s tile. So, the pastor explained, if anyone caused him (oh, and the Elders) trouble creating “disunity,” he would make sure that a person’s “tile” was broken. He would make sure that person’s “credit” — his credibility, his reputation — was ruined within the church community.
Hmmm….a person who threatens….
Also, I understand that a dearth of staff, church employees, and even several pastors suddenly felt the need to take early retirement or to find other employment since he arrived and dug in.
Hmmm….a person who intimidates others….
Also, I understand that upon his arrival, he took assessment of the church, and proceeded to rearrange staff, to change the church website, to change the church’s logo — essentially to compel the church into “rebranding” and remake itself to fit his tastes, his ideas, his “vision.”
Hmmm….a person who is controlling….
Hmmm….a person who pressures, threatens, and forces others to fit and fill his tastes, his whims, his ideas….
Sounds so much like the type of person I came to you about when I asked for help with my abusive then-husband….
Well….I am sorry to hear that you had to deal with that.
I would like to return to you the words of comfort that you offered me when I took my children and ran from my abuser. Like II Corinthians 1:4 [NASB1995] says, “….we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted….”
Here are your words of comfort returned to you….
First, you must NOT separate! I know he left suddenly, but you must seek him out! After all, he is the leader of your “home (church).” He may not have been the pastor you thought you were getting, but he is the head pastor you have now. You chose him. You should have seen any “red flags” before you signed on the dotted line. After all, you “candi’dated’” him for a while. So now that you have a contract / covenant with him, that makes him God’s man for you, whether you like it or not. (Sorry that you didn’t understand that people like him do something called “lovebombing.” You should look it up. In a secular expert’s book.)
If the head pastor is willing to give a hearing to your earnest pleadings for reconciliation — for you must seek reconciliation earnestly — you must offer to submit to him quietly, reverently (re: I Peter 3:1, 4). Apparently, (and unfortunately for you) he is and has been behaving in ways “disobedient to the word,” and therefore, you — as members of the body, sub-shepherds, under the head pastor — must be submissive, “so that (he) may be won without a word by the behavior of (his supportive Elders) as (he) observe(s) your chaste and respectful behavior.” You must strive — no….bend over backward, no….give your all — to be winsome! After all, as you comforted me with these words, “you must be winsome to win some!”
It doesn’t matter what he has done. Don’t bring up any of his actions. His actions are not relevant here. His long-standing patterns of behavior and treatment of you are not relevant. His actions are his actions, and he must deal with them before God. You must do the right thing! And that means submitting to the head (pastor) that God has put over you! Joyfully! Without grumbling! After all, “You must not touch the Lord’s anointed!”
As a matter of fact, I was disappointed to hear of all those pastors and staff leaving recently! They must be recalled. All of you must be put into a room with him with a counselor, and it is essential that we talk this thing out! That is what needs to happen! You all just need to be put together in a room with him, locking the door if necessary, and you just need to talk this all out. After all, I’m sure this was all just a big misunderstanding. This whole thing has to simply be a collection of small issues that you did not deal with or talk through properly, and that grew out of proportion. He, and you, are essentially just having a tantrum. So, the solution is, we must put you all in a room together, and you need to talk it out! Instead of “couple’s counseling,” we’ll call it “church leaders’ counseling!”
You say he threatened you? You say he made sure you lost your jobs? You say he removed your income and left you without money? You say he’s ruined your references so that it’s hard to find a job anywhere else? You say he’s damaged your reputation? Left you with almost nothing?
Oh sirs….let me sit next to you as I say this. Let me rub your back as I say this. Let me tell you I love you as a sibling in Christ as I say this….
You most likely took all of his words, his “jokes,” his behaviors wrong. You must have been holding grudges him against a long time for you to see him now the way you do. He’s hurting. That’s probably why he does what he does! Hurting people hurt people! Right? He probably had a bad childhood. He most likely was not treated well along the way. He probably had problems in former churches, with former Elder boards. He needs love and support now more than ever. After all, he‘s without a job right now, without a church home! He needs friends and kindness right now. I will pray….for him.
After all, one of the titles of a book you made me read was, How to Act Right When Your Spouse (or head pastor, I guess) Acts Wrong. So you need to start acting right! Even if you think he’s acting wrongly. Submit joyfully to the authority God gave you! After all, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4 [NASB1995])
This brings me to another huge point. You must look to your own sin. Obviously, both parties are at fault. It takes two (parties) to tango, right? That’s what you told me. It always takes two to tango. Damage in relationships could never be one-sided, right? Never caused by the actions of one party while the other tries desperately to heal, love, reach out, forgive and forget, right? Please don’t tell me of his behavior. Please don’t tell me anything of his offenses. That only demonstrates to me that you are unwilling — unwilling! — to look at yourselves, to look at your own role in things going wrong. You must look deep into your own hearts, and the collective heart of the church’s leadership, and find the sin deep within. If you can only think that he caused the damage, and that you really tried to be kind and patient and loving, then you obviously have some secret sin blinding you. You must repent of this secret sin you are not even aware of. If you continue to insist that he was the one who hurt you, and that you tried so hard to make things better, then you are more sinful and selfish than even you can know. “The heart is evil above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Throw yourself before the mercy of God! Confess! Confess! In tears of repentance. There must be tears! I’ll sit with you and rub your back while you start crying and confessing now. Right now. Do it now! I must see your tears, your weeping of repentance…. I’ll wait….
What was happening behind the closed doors of your offices? Did he threaten you? So, what was your sin? What did you do to make him do that? Were you harsh in your words? Did you approach him at the wrong time of day? Did you make sure he had a nice meal on his desk for lunch in the office?
And did his threats make you feel afraid? Then your fear obviously shows you are sinning by not trusting or depending on the Lord enough.
Did he cut off some people from their livelihood? Did that make you angry? Did the injustice of it all upset you? Did your feelings of helplessness overwhelm you? Then you have sinful feelings of bitterness. Confess! Don’t let that root of bitterness take hold!
Was he controlling? Did he yell angrily? What did you do to deserve this? Did he tear you down consistently? Maybe what he said was true after all, and you really need to humbly look at yourselves. Did he shame you? Maybe you needed some more humility? Did he laugh at you? Did you need to learn to laugh at yourselves better? Did he undermine you? Maybe you were holding your ideas and opinions too tightly and you need to agree with him? Did he play mindgames with you? Maybe you needed to let him win? Did he move the goalposts constantly as you tried to placate him? Did you try harder? Did he make you feel small? Maybe your opinion of yourselves was too big anyway? Did he make you feel that you’re no good? Maybe your ego needed knocking down a peg or two?
Did he make you feel worthless? Then obviously, you just need to center yourself on Christ! Center yourself on Christ and His opinion of you. Regardless of what he does or whatever happens to you, center yourself on Christ. Then you will feel, and be, all better: no matter what tricks he plays, no matter how much he yells at you, no matter how much he gets others to laugh at you, no matter if he holds you up for ridicule, no matter if he makes cruel sarcastic jokes at your expense, no matter how he tricks you, or lies to you, or shames you relentlessly. Just center yourself on Christ! (I’m still not sure what that means fully, or how that works, but it’s what you repeated to me, so it must be good for you, too.) I’ll give you some verses to memorize. Luckily for you, I’ve still got the list you made me memorize and you quizzed me over week after week. Oh, and pray! Write out those prayers, and someone will be around to collect them and evaluate them and point out the wrongly-motivated, selfish things you’re praying for. Lose your job because of him? It’s okay, because now you’re centered on Christ! You’ve got some verses memorized and you prayed! So, ignore what’s happening to your livelihood right before your eyes! He threatens you? Ignore what your ears are hearing! Has he carried through on some of those threats just to show you he means business? Just remember to say (or sing if you want) over and over to yourselves….“Jesus loves me!” You’ll be fine!
If your stomach knotted whenever he came to the office, if you tried to hide from him as much as possible, if you tried to speak to him about the pain he was causing you, and it always blew up in your face, and you somehow ended up being shamed into being the bad guy (even though he hurt you!); your behavior and feelings demonstrates a lack of trust. This creates a huge problem on your part. You see, you must be “available” (you know what I mean, wink wink) to him at all times! He is your head (pastor). If he stops you in a corner of a hallway and wants to have a conversation with you (even if it feels like he’s just using you — grilling you for details that he’s going to use later against you or someone you care about), you must make yourself “available.” If he comes into your office to pry into your life and digs in for personal details — blowing through your boundaries of levels of distance and social intimacy — you must be open to him! Again, be winsome! You must be “available” for whatever level of conversational or social intimacy he desires to approach you for. If you are withholding, then you, sirs, are the problem! You are closed off to his advances. No wonder he is looking into other offices, searching out other sources of social or conversational intimacy! No wonder he left you! If he blesses you by coming back because of your begging, and he demands outrageous things that make you very uncomfortable, creep you out, or even hurt you(r wallet, your schedule, your private family time), you must make yourselves “available.” Again, he is your head (pastor). As you taught me all my life, you are under his umbrella of protection and leadership, as he is under Christ. You will only be blessed as you bless him.
You say he is not showing Christ-like qualities? You say you wonder if he even really is a Christian, even though he leads in the church? (Like I repeatedly brought up to you about my guy?) His spiritual standing is not for you to decide. True-Christian or not, you need to keep reaching out to him. If he comes back to be your head pastor again, God commands that you submit to his authority, surrender your will, ignore your doubts, your fears, and most importantly, squelch and confess your gut feelings that he may just be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Another point….if he is not showing Christ-like qualities — if he’s no longer acting like a Christian — then your office, your relationships with him, have just become your mission field. And as you know, you must show yourself approved within your field of mission. And how do we show ourselves approved? By suffering! Long-term suffering! Patiently bearing up under the heavy, heavy load that his behavior has laid upon you. That is how you will demonstrate that you belong to Christ. Christ’s way is the way of the cross. We are called to suffer along with him. After all, a Good Father disciplines his children, and suffering is part of this discipline. And like you reminded me, Hebrews 12:11 [NASB1995] says, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” So stand under this discipline because you will yield peaceful fruit or righteousness….if you remain. And remain you must. Because, as you have taught me all my life….“God is not interested in our happiness. He is interested in our holiness.” So stand in there. Stand in the gap! Pray for him who spitefully uses you! Each one must bear his own load. And this, sirs, is your load. You must prove yourselves worthy of the calling by which you have been called! By following in His sufferings! And therefore, again I say, for all those who climbed down off the altar of sufferings, and took early retirement or another job, I say that you as leaders must recall them. Have them return to the altar. You must all prove yourselves by enduring his shaming you, taking up your crosses, suffering for Christ, loving at all costs (including the cost of your mental and physical health like you told me….(just trust God, don’t protect yourself or your health)). Prove yourself by loving your enemies unconditionally, submitting to the authority God has placed in your life, never giving any cause for the minister to grieve because of you, forgiving seventy times seven, loving patiently, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things! LOVE NEVER FAILS! HALLELUJAH!
Remember….anything less, and we as your congregants will label you as bitter. You must be joyful at all times — especially in his presence, should he deign to come back to you. Don’t let bitterness take root “in your hearts” (you always added that when counseling me, even though that phrase and meaning is not in the verse of Hebrews 12:15). Forgive everything, even if he never asks for forgiveness or repents or shows any signs of lasting change. (That’s not in the Bible either, but you used it on me, so I’ll comfort you with the same.) Make every, and I mean every effort to reconcile. Go back to him! Reach out! Woo him back!
As to legal matters, like contracts or covenants, as you told me, you must keep reaching out to him, trying quietly, reverently, respectfully to win him over. Do not accept his resignation letter. Do not seek or file any termination of his employment. Keep reaching, praying. Find yourself a closet to pray in every day. Make this as ritualistic as possible to earn God’s favor. Write the prayers down so we can check that you’re doing that. Make sure if he threatens you in any way, that you take absolutely no legal steps to protect yourself — you must not protect yourself physically, financially, legally, socially. Be open. Trust God.
If you do take steps to protect yourselves, we as the congregation will bring you up for a disciplinary hearing. Then if you insist on trying to protect yourselves or your families, then we will put you under church discipline, and we will order your instant resignation from office, indeed from any form of service within the church that has been a huge part of your lives all these years. And we will make sure that all concerned are notified that you are under discipline, and that they are to shun you. And what’s more, we will make sure all of the aforementioned proceedings are kept secret, so that no one who would support you, who would stand with you, or who would be kind to you will know what’s going on and what we’ve done to you.
If you are good enough to refrain from trying to protect yourselves legally and in any other way, and if you refrain from moving forward with any legal termination of the employment contract / covenant, then, we as the voting members of the congregation who put you into office, we will look over your efforts. But you must give the whole process time. You must be in prayer. At some point, we will go to him in a group of two, like Matthew 18 says. Then we’ll wait. And pray. For a long time. Then, we will bring it before the (“select committee that we will keep secret.” Listen, I know the verse says to bring it to the church, but as you have shown me, that passage really means a secret committee that you are not allowed to know about, may not appeal to, may not make your case to, or may not make any defense to. Right?) Again, you may not sign or accept any legal documents until we have reviewed the situation. Even though we were never in your offices, never in your halls when he did the things he did to you, never really witnessed any problems (other than those odd, threatening, dark, controlling pulpit statements every once in a while….) we still know what’s best for you. We must give the process time. We must give God time to work. In two to three years we will review everything. Then we will let you know if you may start legal proceedings to accept his resignation.
In closing, I will return to you the words in the letter that you delivered to me as a team of two — a pastor and an Elder (along with a church transcriptionist) — the letter that you blindsided me with on that horrible day that you put me under church discipline. Here is the “comfort” (church discipline) that you handed me when I came to you begging you for help to escape our abuse. I have simply reversed the references. [Brackets in the following letter are from the original post. Editors.]
Dear [Church Leaders],
As [a member] of __________ Church, we desire that all [church leader relationships] found in our church body be strong, healthy, affirming and God-honoring. For the [members] of __________ Church, we expect their [church leader relationships] to be models for others in the church to both witness and imitate.
We are aware that you and [former head pastor] are separated and that, at least at the present time, you are not making progress toward reconciliation as a [Christian brotherhood]. Therefore, it is the decision of [this member] of ______ Church to remove you [“I only have the power to suggest that “you should remove yourselves””] from your leadership position as [Elders, pastoral staff] with our prayerful encouragement that you and [head pastor] work aggressively on the reconciliation of your [Christian brotherly working] relationship.
We stand ready to assist you and [head pastor] in whatever ways we can. We would strongly encourage the [group] of you to seek counsel together from one counselor, to remove any and all obstacles to reconciliation that have been put into place in recent months (hint…they meant my taking out the protection / restraining order to protect myself and my kids….), and to humbly seek God’s direction and healing for your life together as [pastor and leaders].
It is important that you know that we care deeply for you and for your famil[ies] and that we are praying for restoration of your [Christian relationships]. It would be our great delight to hear that you and [head pastor] are actively working together to reconcile your [working] relationship and, therefore, [this member would] be able restore you to your leadership role.
Julie Cleaveland recently started her own blog. Read her original post here. Thanks very much Julie for allowing us to reblog it!
[September 16, 2022: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to September 16, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to September 16, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to September 16, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (September 16, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]