How do you know when you’ve reached the end of the road? In an abusive/ seductive relationship with your minister, what is the moment of truth that gives you the strength to leave? Four years ago this week, that moment came for me.
In January of 2008, after three years of skillful grooming, “Pastor Kevin” expressed his sexual intent to me. When my head cleared nine days later, I ended our pastoral counseling relationship and began the long journey of trying to make sense of what had happened. But for the first two years of that journey, I was so close to Kevin that I couldn’t see clearly. He kept me close with offers that he knew I couldn’t refuse. In April of 2008, he invited me to write a book with him. (I’ll share that failed project in another post). In December of that year, he created an unpaid staff job for me, leading the congregation’s social justice efforts. Under my pastor’s constant influence, I could not see clearly what he was doing to my soul. I became convinced that our connection was God-ordained.
I began my job in January of 2009, and I loved everything about it. I was thrilled to have such a prominent role in such a widely respected church. I reported not to Kevin, but to our associate pastor, Eileen. She had insisted on this, because by then I had told her confidentially what he had done. In April of 2009, I attended sexual ethics training with new staff members from several congregations. The film “Not In My Church,” in which a fictitious pastor seduces a seminarian, the church secretary, and a vulnerable young immigrant, finally opened my eyes. In tears, I was forced to claim the dreaded name “victim.” I was forced to give Kevin an even more dreadful name: “predator.” For the first time, I began asking myself whether I should report him. It boiled down to one question: was I his only victim? If there were others, I couldn’t stay silent. I prayed to God: “I need a clear sign.”
Whether or not God sent signs, I saw far more than I expected: Kevin and “Veronica” exchanging an oddly intimate gesture in front of me. “Emily” coming out of Kevin’s office in tears, dressed to the nines, gushing how much she loved him. Kevin acting nervous when “Debbie” came to the church office. The normally sensible “Natalie” giggling girlishly as she approached his door. Kevin going to pretty “Julie’s” new home to bless it in person. Kevin inviting “Jill” to visit his office to discuss her husband’s work woes. Kevin calling “Kay” at home to console her for her husband’s work woes. The lovesick look on “Lisa’s” face as she approached the communion rail. And there was more… I still feel sick when I think of all I saw.
In October of 2009, I visited my daughter at college. On the long flight to New York, I journaled my frustrations with the job, and my fears about my emotional well-being. While I was there, I made a decision. On the flight home, I wrote a letter of resignation, giving two months’ notice. On Monday morning, I handed Eileen a copy of the letter. Later in the day, Kevin walked into my office. I handed him the letter. He didn’t have his glasses, so he grabbed mine off my desk and put them on — always without boundaries! I had to read the letter to him. My decision clearly took him by surprise.
I never regretted the decision. That day, I began to clear out my office, taking one or two things home every day. But as the weeks passed, I began wondering if I could avoid the constant exposure to Kevin and still continue to do this important work. In November, I stopped into his office with a work-related question. He answered it. I was struck by the injustice: he seemed to be doing fine, but I felt more impaired than ever. On my way out of his office, I paused, turned, and spoke. “It’s great that you’ve been able to move on,” I told him. “But two years later I’m still not whole, and I have no idea how I’m going to get there.” His eyes opened wide. “Two years!” he exclaimed. He repeated an earlier promise: “But you don’t have to worry about me repeating that behavior.”
“I know you won’t repeat it with me,” I said. “But it’s not me I’m worried about now.” I told him what I had seen over the past year while I worked there: a constant stream of women visiting him in his office, including two who lived at least an hour away. He protested, “But I’m not attracted to any of them!” I had named “Debbie’s” hometown, so he grabbed onto that story. He had counseled her through her divorce, but he had never asked her to stop visiting even after she got back on her feet. “I don’t find her attractive at all!” he spluttered. He then told me that when he had last visited her town, she had champagne sent to his hotel room. “Who am I?” he asked in all seriousness. “James Bond?” He didn’t explain how she knew where to send the champagne.
On the first of December, 2009, I asked Kevin and Eileen for a meeting. We scheduled it for Wednesday of the following week. Over the next several days, I turned my guest bedroom into an idea lab. With a pad of giant post-it charts and a handful of colored markers, I brainstormed lists of problems, needs, opportunities, values, ideas, obstacles, and options. I drew circles and arrows and lists and diagrams. For four days, I was a caffeine-fueled one-woman consulting firm, trying to redesign a job I never should have taken in the first place. I came up with an action plan and a set of goals, which I put on three neat charts.
Wednesday arrived. I rolled up my charts and drove to work. At three in the afternoon, I walked into Kevin’s office. He and Eileen sat in the soft beige armchairs; I took the corner of the matching couch — the counseling couch. I posted my charts on his office walls and I walked them through my thought process. Here is how we can make it work, I said. Here is how I can continue to serve our church and still get the separation I need.
If I had met with Kevin alone, he would have been sweet and seductive. If I had met with Eileen alone, she would have acknowledged how her boss had harmed me. But in the room together, they had to keep their masks on. Kevin had to feign detachment and annoyance; Eileen had to feign total support for her boss. In front of the other, neither could afford to show sympathy toward me. Every idea I put forward was dismissed out of hand.
I walked back to my office and packed up the last of my belongings. In the gathering dusk, I made my way home. Michael was in the kitchen, getting dinner started. He looked inquiringly at me; I gave him a brief recap of the meeting. In frustration, I asked, “How many times am I going to let these people make me feel this bad?”
He said to me, “You know…,”
And I said, “I know.”
In that moment, Hope took her last breath.
I set the table; our boys joined us for dinner; I cleaned up afterwards alone. I stayed up most of the night putting up the Christmas tree in a futile attempt to escape the pain. I don’t remember ever feeling so sad in my life. I was sad not only because I was leaving a church that was everything I’d ever dreamed a church could be, but because I knew what was coming next. As long as I stayed at that church, I could never report my pastor’s offense. I had too much to lose. By leaving, I had cleared away the last barrier.