Disclaimer: This article does not touch on any physical or sexual hurt. If that is your experience, it is imperative to take it to the authorities (whether it’s the higher-up leadership in the church or even the police).
Six years ago, I had just arrived in a new city as a missionary and immediately set out to find a church to join. A local friend introduced me to their church, and on my initial visit, I quickly sensed a genuine, brotherly love among the congregation and saw how the gospel seemed to be the centre of everything they did. So I decided to call it my new home church and ended up staying there for the next three years.
As I became more familiar with the church, I began volunteering in different areas, like office work and on the worship team. I loved the family I felt I had gained and was serious about my commitment to serve there.
I had a wonderful relationship with the leadership team as well. They were mission-minded, focused on discipleship, and seemed to sincerely care for their members. Their servant-like attitude really drew me in and made me want to learn from their example.
I became particularly close with one of the younger pastors and developed a friendship with him and his wife. I had felt safe enough to open up to them when I was struggling with mental health issues and found much generosity, kindness, and love in their guidance. I eventually requested to be mentored by this pastor and went on to become an intern at the church, working under him.
When things turned sour
It was around the same time that I met a guy who was also serving in the church. We soon started dating and entered into a serious relationship (we are now married).
However, the pastor thought that we weren’t a good match due to our cultural (him being Asian and myself Latina) and personality differences, and he openly voiced his disapproval. He didn’t explain how or why these differences would be detrimental, only that he believed the relationship was bound to fail.
While my then-boyfriend and I were quite different, we were united by our hearts for Christ and mission work, and no spiritual or moral reason was ever mentioned to disapprove of our relationship. Even so, the pastor continued to express his disapproval at every turn, to the point that I had to confront him and ask him to not discuss my personal life with other people.
Shortly after that encounter, which I thought had ended amicably, the pastor called me in for a meeting to say that he had reported me as “rebellious and inadequate for ministry” to the leadership. I was dropped from the internship program for not being a “submissive” volunteer and for slacking in responsibilities—both issues of which I had never been spoken to about in all the time I had served.
He also pushed for my total removal from all ministries in church. He claimed I was not an example for the congregation to look up to, and that even my friendships within the church were formed with the intention to take advantage of people for my personal gain—unfounded accusations my friends and I simply couldn’t understand.
To say I was in shock would be an understatement. In the weeks and months that followed, I felt myself spiralling down a dark hole of despair and confusion.
Picking up the pieces
In the aftermath, it felt like none of the other leaders cared much about the fallout. The only responses I received were, “It’s just politics”, or “Sorry, but what would you expect us to do about it?”. Although their views of me were different than the pastor’s, they were unable to keep me on as an intern as there was no one else who could oversee me at that time.
I was devastated. The pastor’s opinions also made me seriously doubt my calling to ministry. I wondered if maybe he was right, since he was a church leader and must know better.
But when I spoke to my pastor back in my home country and with some leaders from the ministry I worked at, they exhorted me to take what was said with a grain of salt. They encouraged me to press on so that I could continue receiving everything God had in store for me and fulfill the mission He’d given me for that season. Still, it took some time before I could come to terms with what had happened.
I knew I could not go around talking about this incident as it could cause harm, but I did seriously consider leaving church. I felt unsafe since the leader’s behaviour remained unchecked. However, I decided to stay on because I still valued the senior pastor’s teachings. Another reason why I decided to stay on was because I found strength in the friendships I had there, which were lifesaving and helpful in manoeuvring that turbulent time.
I wanted so badly to make sense of the pain and confusion, to know why this had to happen, so I could put it to rest and move on. So, I spent a great deal of time reflecting on my own heart and identifying what needed to be surrendered to the Lord and corrected.
I saw that part of my struggle was because I had subconsciously placed more emphasis on pleasing man than God. Therefore, I asked the Lord to make right whatever was wrong in me, and for Him to be at the centre of who I am.
It took some time, but I was eventually able to fully forgive that leader and the others in the church who had let me down.
Getting a closer look at God’s heart
Since then, my husband and I have moved to a different country as missionaries and have worked alongside other churches. Through those experiences, I have gained a deeper understanding of God and the Church at large.
These are some of the things God has spoken to my heart:
- He alone is my true home and safe haven, always (Psalm 90:1).
- As Someone who experienced all kinds of criticism and attacks from people, Jesus understands our pain, and He gave it all up to the Father and trusted Him for deliverance (1 Peter 2:23). It was also Jesus Himself who taught us forgiveness (Matthew 6:12, 14-15).
- God designed us to live in community. Being part of a church enables us to not only encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24-25), but also grow in forgiveness (which reflects His heart—Psalm 86:5) and persist in caring for one another (Acts 2:42-47). All of this glorifies God (Romans 15:5-6).
- Christians, including leaders, are still human and, sadly, discord is going to be common in the Church. That said, not all churches or leaders will act the same way, and God does use many for blessing and growth.
- A leader is called to a life of humility, integrity, and servanthood (1 Peter 5:3, 2 Timothy 2:24, James 3:1, Titus 1:7-9). It is important to pay attention to the fruit of a leader’s life as we discern whose authority we’re submitting to (i.e., holding the title of “church leader” does not give a leader the right to be controlling or arrogant, and this should not be overlooked).
In many cases, we tend to abide by cultural norms more than Scripture, which can mean overemphasising values like (unquestioning) respect for authority, shame and honour—this translates to problems like fear of being ostracised (shamed) if you speak up, especially against someone of a “higher” position. When this is what’s valued in church, character issues will end up overlooked instead of confronted.
While the Bible does command us to respect our authorities, it does not neglect to mention what’s expected of the Church, including the need to confront sin and wrongdoing.
Moving forward in grace
What can one do upon experiencing hurt in the church?
God is gracious and kind, and healing comes from Him. It’ll sting for a while, and that is a process we must not suppress. God can work in us to bring healing when we let Him in and give everything up to Him (Psalm 107:20-21), even if it takes a thousand prayers over months or years. In His tender love He will bring us to restoration and justice (Psalm 147:3, Jeremiah 9:24).
Where we are able, we can seek out wise people who can provide guidance and support, so that we can pursue mediation with the person whom we have experienced conflict. Every church will have its flaws, but where there is willingness to communicate and exhort, there is space for harmony (2 Corinthians 13:11).
There may be situations in which moving on to a different church may be necessary to have fellowship in a safe and God-centred environment. It is important to pray for discernment, seek counsel, and trust that God will pave the way for us to connect to the right church. Even as we’re still learning to forgive, we don’t close ourselves off to ways God wants to love us through other churches (Hebrews 10:25).
Since moving to Taiwan for missions, my husband and I have received the privilege of working alongside a few churches that have come to feel like home to us, where God is drawing us nearer to Himself and teaching us how to minister to others. The leadership we are now under has provided us with a healthy environment for spiritual growth. Through their quiet example we’ve come to see what effective ministry in and out of the church can look like, and it all stems from the humble commitment to follow Christ.