Elephant In The Room: Trauma At Willow Creek Community Church

The Unspoken Known

The Unspoken Known is a reference to the process, sometimes unconscious, whereby something is understood to be present in ones’ experience, but not articulated. The idea of the “elephant in the room” is a similar concept, where something is shared by a number of people, but not acknowledged and discussed. As an example, a family may have experienced the traumatic sexual abuse of a child, but no one wants to talk about its’ impact on the family and its’ members. It is known but remains unspoken.

The Unspoken Known can have huge implications for a group. An example, written about by a family systems author, John Bradshaw, can serve to explain the consequences of what happens when a group shares an experience that is then, not discussed. Unspoken, it gets deposited as a family or group secret that shapes the historical narrative of that body of people.

Bradshaw shares the story of Jane Fonda. When she was just 13, she experienced the death of her mother, Francis Fonda. The death was explained to Jane as caused by a heart attack, and its’ emotional impact on each family member was ignored. Jane and her brother Peter received no comfort from their father, Henry, who was severely stunted in his capacity for empathy. Henry, an actor, just went on with his life. He attended a private funeral for his wife, and then went back to acting that night. Jane and Peter, lost in a powerful tsunami of grief and fear, were left to cope on their own. The mother was not talked about, but instead, was systematically deleted from the children’s experience. Henry expected his children to model coping after his own, showing little emotion, and pushing forward with life.

The children, meanwhile, had intense feelings and questions, but acquiesced to the unconscious pressure to deny emotions and suppress questions. The loss of the mother created a pale of darkness over the household, but the known sense of grief was never discussed. Jane Fonda shared that this felt sense of grief with little acknowledgement shaped her coping for years. She, in fact, felt some childish guilt for the loss of her mother, as if she had not done enough to keep her alive. The interior sense of loneliness and fear and shame was a powerful factor in the formation of her sense of dependency upon absent men to define her value as a women.

Jane’s mother, it turns out, had bi-polar disorder, and, probably triggered by an impending divorce from Henry, killed herself. Henry, hobbled by his emotional immaturity, could not reveal the dynamics of the mother’s death, so that the children could be freed from their sense of false guilt and shame.

And this is what happens when a powerful and traumatic event occurs among people, but is not acknowledged and emotionally processed. Individuals who share a traumatic experience are forever bound in a sense of knowing something that is not processed. The results are often debilitating emotional consequences that can bind the group to its’ secrets.

Organizational Heritages

Churches are just bigger families, with similar systemic components. Churches have histories, with both painful and positive experiences, that collectively represent its’ story. Often its’ positive experiences are celebrated and well spoken about, while its’ pain is avoided and denied. The painful experiences shape the culture of a church, creating a history against which the church learns to cope. A split in the church, for instance, can generate a narrative of how vulnerable the church can be, and may create a coping style that intensifies its’ attempt to control against future splits. These unconscious experiences and the consequences they generate are often not discussed, but rather coped with in a secretive fashion.

Every group that identifies itself as bonded by something in common, is subject to creating an institutional heritage, represented by the events of the past, the residual pain they may have generated, and the coping methods that developed to deal with the problems. These are not articulated, but reside in the “collective unconscious” of the organization. They have a powerful impact on the formation of group dynamics.

Secrets

For example, the family as an organization, collects its’ experiences as a narrative history, and can pass it on from generation to generation. If a family experiences the unfaithfulness of one parent towards the other, the whole emotional climate of the family is altered. The family may go from one of being playful, joyful, open, expressive, and generally happy, to one of being cold, shut down, silent, closed, and generally sad. All of this can happen without the parents sharing the cause of this dramatic alteration of the family experience. In closed families, the individuals are left to try to figure out what caused the change. They are left confused, fearful, and angry. They have to experience an environment that moves from one that was basically nurturing, to one of gloom. The younger the child, the more likely the child is to take ownership for the change.

The above is the essence of what are called “family secrets”. They are catastrophic experiences that each member of the family endures, but are not acknowledged. As a result, each person is left to cope in the best way that they can. There may be a subtle shift in the behavior of parents, whereby the offended parent may start to drop comments about the un-trustworthiness of the other parent. What enters the family heritage (some call this the “collective unconscious”) of emotions and beliefs can be fear and lack of trust in close relationships. These accumulated feelings and beliefs can be passed from generation to generation. The consensus belief can be “do not trust men/women because they will betray you”. Known, but never spoken about so they can be processed in a less toxic way.

Willow Creek Community Church-The Unspoken Known

In the last seven months, Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) has experienced a traumatic rupture in its’ family. Trauma occurs when something happens that greatly alters the predictable patterns of people’s need for trust and security. WCCC, for many, much like a family, was the cocoon into which members entered to feel fed, encouraged, safe, understood, and protected against the storms of life. The Unspoken Known was that here is a place that is led by this father-figure, Bill Hybels, who reassured everyone that they were loved and treasured by a heavenly Father who is quick to offer grace as the antidote for failure and sin.

It was so reassuring to trust that this father-like figure was up in front giving us an example of someone who walked and talked with God, and encouraged everyone to do the same. Attenders looked at the beauty and organization of the church and felt awed by its’ ability to reflect such a wonderful image of success. Everyone could trust WCCC and its’ leadership. Right? Attenders could trust the message of God’s grace and could rely on the leaders, because they were seeking to steer the church towards a faithful representation of God’s Kingdom. It was such a well-oiled machine, that attenders had to believe that whatever was behind all of this had to be good, moral, virtuous,and God-led.

Earthquake

Into this somewhat peaceful and comforting church family came the quaking of a foundational rupture. The quiet peace and sense of pride, that many felt by association with this organization, was suddenly fractured profoundly. At first, as in any shocking event, the implications could not be fully understood or embraced. The need to believe that it was not true was great. The desire to maintain the status quo, was powerful, causing even elders and leaders we trusted, to go into overdrive to deny its’ truth and devastation. Thus began a long, and arduous process, of slowly, with great resistance, peeling back the layers of deceit, and finally, grudgingly, acknowledging that this trusted father-figure had betrayed his church. He had done what no one wanted to acknowledge. He had betrayed women, violated their rights and respect, and took, selfishly, what was not his to take. The man who was so closely identified with everything that is WCCC had betrayed the sacred trust of the people.

Collateral Damage

The true collateral damage to WCCC is the faithful flock of parishioners. They responded to every challenge Bill gave to give, both financially and in terms of volunteer time. He painted such a compelling picture of what the church was supposed to look like. His charismatic enthusiasm swept parishioners along in this grand notion that the church was hope of the world. The man who had claimed the gift of leadership, had led them down a path of self-sacrifice, while he, in fact, was self indulgent. These people, initially, so wanted to believe that this all was not true, and that the false narrative floated by this man was correct. His self-protective story was that a cabal of women were out to get him, to ruin his reputation. We so want our heroes to stay true and virtuous.

The collateral damage in all of this are the thousands of people at WCCC who suddenly, like Jane Fonda, had to experience the loss of the one upon whom they placed their trust. And, as the inner core of WCCC was slowly revealed, many leaders under the spell of this narcissistic leader stayed loyal to their mentor. Many of the underling leaders in the church knew the aggressiveness of this man. They knew that he ruled by force, and lacked the core competency of every real Christian leader, humility and compassion. They knew that he was setting up repressive ways to sanitize the church, to make it look perfect, in the image that he sought to personally portray. This was another element of the unspoken known. They knew, but could not confront it in any meaningful way.

The Spoken Known

As the carnage of WCCC unfolds, it strikes me that the solution that is being offered is to work as quickly as possible to put a tourniquet on the bleeding. The problem is that the ones seeking to solve the problems have been bred in the solution-oriented values of their fallen leader.

It is so obvious that WCCC does not want to process this great cataclysmic trauma in an emotionally healthy way. They, in some way, are using the Henry Fonda approach. Talk as little as possible about the pain inflicted and move forward. This approach is what led Jane Fonda to a lifetime of eating disorders and suicidal thoughts. WCCC needs to process what has happened, not just in an informational or update oriented way. People need to sit and speak about what they know. Their trust is shattered. They have a right to question the decisions of leaders who are still at WCCC and were groomed by a man who has proved to be deceptive.

Every traumatic event in our culture is followed by generating counseling resources to process the emotional components of the experience. It is well known that when people cannot share the emotional aspects of a traumatic event they tend to develop unhealthy patterns of coping. When I did crisis intervention in New York City after the towers fell, the first responders who processed the extreme emotional pain of the event were the ones that got healthy. The ones that did not had high levels of destructive coping. If the secular culture understands the absolute importance of letting people process the emotions of a trauma, why does WCCC not set up resources for people to gather and process the pain of this experience?

Rather than letting this life changing trauma be acknowledged and spoken about collectively, the leaders that remain seem to be bent on only staying in the realm of information. Updates about who is doing what, who is choosing elders, who is doing the investigation. The real issues, which are going to create lasting consequences to the church, are being ignored. People are leaving because they do not feel heard, or conclude that the church is not interested in the pain that has been inflicted. The church is focusing on strategic interventions, but not the emotional healing that is necessary to a long term mending of broken souls.

Solution-oriented people look at emotions as impediments to progress. They do not want to wallow in the pain. But God does want us to sit in our pain. He does want us to fully embrace the level of hurt that occurs when people do not follow His ways. The leadership of WCCC needs to embrace the level of pain that exists, because pain teaches a profound lesson. Do not do what you have done in the past that creates the destructive level of this pain! God wants us to fully sit with the pain to get how serious it is when leaders act in ways that are inconsistent with His will. Check out the prophets of old who sat in sack cloth and ashes. Sitting too little in pain dulls the reality of how we created it in the first place, and how deeply important it is to learn the lessons that help to prevent it in the future.

If the institutional pain is not properly processed, by sitting with people who are encouraged to speak and share the impact that this trauma has had on their lives, both emotionally and spiritually, I fear that the patch sown on a leaky life raft will eventually be torn away. The truth is that the leader of WCCC, BH, had very poor emotional and social intelligence. That is why the leaders who were groomed by him, are not focusing on the emotional and spiritual carnage of this trauma. They, like him, are solution focused. They look out there and not in here. They look to strategy and not to processing. Damaged souls at WCCC must have a forum to process and heal. To speak what they know. To be given validity to the anger, hurt, sadness, distrust, fear, loss, and betrayal that they have experienced. It is interesting but I (and many others) as a systems oriented Christian psychologist who specializes in the emotional impact of trauma, have not been sought out or consulted. Our culture, which does not have a spiritual orientation, looks to people who deal with trauma to help people heal. WCCC, it seems, looks to strategic experts.

Everything that I am observing by current leaders is just a continuation of the “trust us” deceptive model of communication that has existed at WCCC for all of its existence. Do the present leaders really not understand the tendency to distrust leadership at WCCC? The relevant question is how, when these groomed leaders seek to create a new governance model, can anyone trust that they know what they are doing? They tend to go to experts and try to get the attenders to trust that just because they have engaged experts we should trust them. But how do we know that they have the competence to even select experts? Their lack of addressing The Unspoken Known elements of the emotional trauma that exists in the membership of the church speaks to a possible lack of expertise in truly solving the problems that this trauma has created.

Do the current WCCC leaders really grasp the problems of the church that has led to this current debacle? How do we know that they have gotten it, when they refuse to really sit with the people and process the level of pain that has been inflicted on so many?

Personally, I am not impressed with all the experts that are being called in to fix the church. It seems clear to me that the pain that exists has never been fully listened to and acknowledged. You cannot treat a disease that is not properly diagnosed. And the disease at WCCC is the un-dealt with emotional pain and trauma that exists as a result of the betrayal of trust by Bill Hybels. Only when the extent of the pain is explored can a diagnosis and solution be formulated in the context of truth. There has been scant talk about Bill’s behavior and its destructive impact on the church. Everyone knows it but no one wants to speak to its’ traumatic consequences. Placing a bandage over a festering, uncleaned sore will never allow healing.

WCCC leaders, do what is right! Acknowledge the level of unspoken pain and trauma that this has created. Make the Known Spoken! In failing to truly process the emotional impact of this crisis on the church, you are denying the fact that God has created us all with feelings that need to be acknowledged and affirmed. We need an emotionally healthy church. Leaders who do not understand the vital impact of feelings cannot lead the church to spiritual and emotional health. WCCC leaders, focus light on the secrets! Light heals and reveals. Let there be light! Sadly, if this is not done, the light of God’s blessing on WCCC may go out.

Sexual Abuse In The Church

As a Christian psychologist, I can say, that if sexual abuse were suddenly eliminated from our culture, eventually, a great number of people would not be in need of my services. The tentacles of sexual abuse reach into every pore of a victim’s life, and wounds profoundly. Abusers, particularly pastor/leaders in the church, sadly, crush the sense of trust that their positions afford them. The damage to relationships, and often even to one’s sense of God can be profoundly harmed. That is why, as scripture says, “to whom much is given much is required” (Luke 12:48). Leaders, and truly anyone in a place of authority, must be held to the highest standard, because they have the greatest potential for harm.

Women Are The Weaker Sex

Starting with this provocative statement, taken from 1 Peter 3:7, where it reads “Husbands, in the same way, be considerate as you live with your wives, treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.”, let’s unpack this from the perspective of sexual abuse in the church. This concept has been distorted in the church to support a bias towards male superiority.

First of all, the concept of weakness is true only in a very narrow sense of the definition of strength. Every research conclusion on the differences between males and females establishes that men are, on the average, physically stronger than women, both in muscle mass and the capacity to lift heavy objects. It is true that some women are physically stronger than some men, so the statement does not hold true in every situation. But taken as a general rule, men are stronger physically than women.

In truth, women can be considered stronger in a number of areas reported by research. They generally live longer, have superior relational abilities, may have stronger immune systems, and have lower levels of dependency on substances for emotional coping. There are other indices of women’s relative superior strength to men but these are sufficient to establish the point. The point is that men and women are equal in value with relative strengths and weaknesses.

There is another critical difference between men and women that reflects an aspect of women being weaker, and that is in their sexual physiology. Actually, it is not helpful to call this a weakness, but rather a dependency. What is meant by this? The female body has a complex set of conditions that must be met in order for the sexual experience to be pleasurable and satisfying. Women are dependent upon a relational sense of safety to be present, in order for the process of arousal and preparation for sex to occur.

Think about this. The whole sexual experience is perceived as critically different for a man versus a women. A man, fueled by testosterone and a more aggressive drive sexually, can perform (at least when they are younger and in the early stages of a relationship), no matter the emotional climate of the couples togetherness. Men are more aggressive. They penetrate. They can have sex even when angry.

Women are more vulnerable. They receive the physical process sexually from the man. So in this complex respect, women are more dependent on conditions being met than are men. Women are dependent upon a sense of safety to allow their body to prepare itself for the receiving of the man, and for sexual pleasure to occur.

Over time, if a man does not respect and respond to the conditions necessary for a woman to experience sex in a pleasurable way, the result is that the woman’s capacity to respond shuts down. Instead of pleasure, they experience discomfort and even pain. Distorted notions of scripture that focus on a woman’s obligation to satisfy their husband, have resulted in years of unpleasant sex for women, and that eventually diminishes their desire for physical intimacy. In a less understood sense, this is a form of sexual abuse. Women’s bodies must have the preconditions met for pleasure to be experienced. This is a reality that every man must understand or he will sabotage his own sex life. This is why the common relationship complaint follows the pattern that women want emotional intimacy while men push for physical intimacy.

Men often feel like they are being held hostage when their wives pull back from sexual involvement because they are asking for more emotional intimacy. Men do not realize that women are not doing this to manipulate men, but rather because this is just the way that God designed the complimentary physical complexity of sexuality. Emotional intimacy or connection assures the women that they are safe, needed, valued, and in a relationship with a man who deeply respects and values their unique physical reality. Only then does the woman’s body naturally relax and go through the necessary physiologic process that prepares them for pleasurable sex. Here is an analogy. Would anyone want a person to come into their house if that person is angry and demanding? Of course not. But a woman’s body is that house.

It is with these above considerations that the aforementioned I Peter 3:7 text must be understood. Weaker has nothing to do with equality. It is clear that both the men and women are joint heirs to the life of the Kingdom. The admonition to men is that, because of these clear differences in strength and physical dependency, they must respectfully adjust (submit) their aggressive tendencies to the unique physical reality that women experience. It seems clear that Ephesians 5:28, which challenges men to love their wives as their own bodies, emphasizes that if a man loves his wife in a sacrificial way he, in effect, loves himself. This is certainly true in the sexual arena, because if a man aggressively seeks to force his wife to submit to his sexual demands, over time, he is sabotaging his own ability to have a satisfying sexual life.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse occurs whenever there is a disparity of power between any two parties. It happens when one party, who demands sexual gratification, uses his or her power to intrusively force their sexual needs onto the party with less power. Sexual abuse occurs on a spectrum, from most aggressive to least aggressive. It is always a violation of the dignity and right to safety that all human beings possess as made in the image of God.

Rape is at the farthest extreme of aggressive sexual abuse, in that it completely exploits the physical disparity of power to force the second party to submit to painful penetration. This is mostly a phenomenon that women experience, although men can get raped in prison, or as boys with bigger men, or even by older women. But it is by far experienced more frequently by women than men. And the rape of a women combines the two levels of weakness described above, physical dominance and dependence for sexual pleasure. When a man rapes a women, he is overpowering her physically and totally disregarding her physiology. The rapist forces a woman to receive penetration when she is unprepared and frozen in fear. This results in deep and pervasive pain, which has life- long consequences.

At the other end of the spectrum are the less violent forms of sexual abuse. Any unwanted touch, being forced to watch something sexual in an extremely uncomfortable way, rubbing body parts, and having to listen to sexual words directed at the victims, are all abusive because they are unwelcomed. The common denominator in all of this is the abuse of power by one person over another. Between these two extremes are a whole array of intrusive sexual behaviors that force the giving in of the victim to the aggressive demands of the perpetrator.

A woman that says “no !” is signally that any sexual behavior is a violation of her sacred right to safety and self-protection. When abuse of power invades a woman’s world, their interior experience goes from one of trust, to one of vulnerability. The story of countless victims of sexual abuse is that of a fundamental shift in perception of the world. They go from joy and openness to risk, to fear and self-protection. Abusers essentially steal the life from a victim simply to satisfy their selfish desires. The candle of life often dies and a sense of darkness takes over. Life in all of its’ fullness gets extinguished.

There is, of course, another way that abuse of power manifests itself in a sexual way, and that is when an aggressive man (or women, though much less frequent) uses their position of power or authority to force a sexual abuse victim to comply with sexual demands due to a threat of dire consequences, such as being fired.

The Church And Sexual Abuse

The church, in a sense, creates the perfect storm of abuse potential. It has, over much of its’ history, elevated the value of men over women. The vast majority of its’ leaders have been men. It has perpetuated a biblical myth that women must submit to men, not only in terms of decision-making, but in sex. So many Christian women have been immersed in this culture of male privilege, that, at some deep, probably unconscious level, leaves them operating with a sense of false guilt around the idea of giving in to a man.

Leadership is often the arena in which abuse of power exists. Why does the church focus so much on leaders? Why is there so little focus on the followers? Even though the church ostensibly holds to the plurality of gifts, none of which are more important than another, the leadership gifts seem to be treated as if they have an elite status and worthy of endless conferences. There appears to be a spiritual caste system in the church, placing leaders above and everyone else beneath. And leaders in the church are disproportionately male.

Elitism Unchecked

Research indicates that the people who gravitate to leadership are often those with inherent narcissistic characteristics. One study showed that almost 40% of ministers show high levels of narcissistic traits. Here is a critical question for the church. Do we want narcissistic and entitled people to be our leaders? Narcissists both push themselves forward and are affirmed in the leadership arena. But the core of narcissism is entitlement, which is the essential component operating in the abuse of power leading to sexual abuse. It has become painfully clear, in looking at Willow Creek and Bill Hybels ,that this leadership elitism has gone on unchecked, and the church is paying the price for its’ existence.

Privilege And Entitlement

So, when there is a coalescence of physical power, positional power, and vulnerability on the part of a multitude of people, abuse potential is high. Male privilege has been discussed recently, due to the #MeToo movement . Male privilege is the notion that, because a man may have superior strength or position, they are entitled to exercise this imbalance in a self-gratifying way. Men in general, and particularly in the church, need to do a self-examination on their underlying sense of privilege. Every man who demands that his wife respond to his sexual needs, no matter the wounding impact on the women, is operating with a sense of male privilege.

It is important to recognize that Jesus, though He was God, divested Himself of His privileges, and became a servant (read Philippians 2) . It seems clear that the true vetting of leadership qualifications in the church, must be done around the characteristic of humility. Men generally chafe against this quality, because they have been socialized around competition and aggressive achievement. Truly strong men are characterized by confident humility, whereby they have enough self-worth to set aside their privilege (modeled after Christ) in the interest of loving their partner. Humility is the foundation of how every man, operating with a sense of male privilege, must bring his body under submission to his sexual aggressiveness. That is how he can live with his wife in a manner worthy of their being joint heirs of the Kingdom of God. Might does not make right in God’s Kingdom.

In sum, the church and a distorted Christian understanding of male domination and leadership, has created the fertile ground for sexual abuse of women.

The Epidemic of Sexual Abuse

This time in our civilization has been characterized as the most sexually preoccupied generation. Sex permeates every pore of our existence, from marketing, to internet pornography. The general cultural presumption is one of entitlement. Everyone believes that they are entitled to feel good and to not have to respect limits. The combination of this hyper-sexual focus, with a power imbalance in favor of men, has led to a proliferation of sexual abuse. The church itself is riddled with both sexual abuse and sexual addiction. Pornography, which fuels this hyper-sexual focus, is rampant among men in the church. Studies have shown that many male pastors are secretly indulging in pornography, while trying to maintain a public persona of righteousness. The Catholic church has now clearly been shown to harbor and protect priests who sexually abuse vulnerable boys and girls. When abuse occurs from someone who we place trust in, the foundations of one’s sense of confidence becomes eroded. It cannot be over-emphasized that abusers trade their short term gratification for the life long pain and suffering that victims must endure.

The church is a prime hunting ground for abusers. Women, who often put their trust in male leadership, are vulnerable to the advances of a male leader. It is so clear that this dynamic of vulnerability, coupled with power and privilege, makes the church a hot bed for abuse. The stories that have come out about the victims of Bill Hybels have followed this vulnerability differential. He was elevated as this god-like leader, who was imbued with power and privilege. He had a number of female employees who should have been able to operate with a sense of trust and safety and, instead, experienced the intrusion of his sexual advances. This experience leaves a vulnerable person exposed to an often life-long sense of fear.

The Interior World of The Sexual Abuse Survivor

So what is the big deal? Sexual abuse is one of the most devastating traumas that an individual can experience. To fully understand sexual abuse one must have endured its’ ordeal. Over the years, while having listened to countless stories of sexual abuse, I have been able to distill the common themes and symptoms. To keep it less complex, the female experience will be focused on. The interior world of a women (or girl) experiencing sexual abuse is dark and murky and filled with tremendous terror. Trauma theory explains the basic dynamics of the abused victim.

The abuser, who holds all the power, confronts the victim with demands for sexual gratification. Again, understanding female sexuality, her body is unprepared to respond in any pleasurable way. Instead, since this is an unsolicited and unwelcome intrusion into the world of the female, her body reacts in a classic “fight or flight” pattern. She experiences an internal sense of terror, but, because of the power differential, she is a captive prisoner of the abuser. Her body goes into a freeze pattern, where she is stuck in terror without a means of escape.

For many abuse victims, the only way of exiting the trauma of the situation is to disassociate one’s mind from awareness of the terrifying pain. The brain, in a sense, protects the woman from the immediate intensity of the experience by detaching and floating away. But the brain registers this whole experience as a terror-based memory, with all the frozen coping behaviors associated with survival. Trauma experts call this an incomplete resolution to the “fight or flight” response.

The belief that gets implanted, coupled with the physical terror, is that escape is impossible. Normally, when people can respond to a traumatic event by doing something, such as running away, the impact of the trauma is lessened. But with sexual abuse, the terror is linked to a sense of powerlessness and helplessness and gets frozen and imprinted in the brain as a pattern.

This core belief in helplessness is why so many victims experience multiple episodes of sexual abuse. They are stuck with the notion that they cannot stop the aggressive intrusion of an abbuser.

The Cost Of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse trauma changes a woman who, before abuse, may have been trusting, and optimistic, to a person who feels a general sense of vulnerability. The victim may have felt confident and competent, but after abuse, the residual experience is one of vigilant oversensitivity to the possibility of further abuse.

Men in general may become triggers to trauma. Women who marry often experience physical intimacy as a re-creation of the components of the original trauma. This is because the normal sexual experience contains components that remind the victim of aspects of the original abuse event. Things like a man’s body being on top of a woman can replicate elements of the sense of being overpowered or suffocated, which occured in the original abuse. This triggers the original “fight or flight” coping pattern, even though this current man is not abusive.

Husbands often react by getting angry and personalizing the trauma-based reactions of their wives as rejection. Men tend to understand sexual abuse from a male sexuality perspective, and minimize abuse as something that should not be that difficult to move beyond. But a pervasive sense of powerlessness and helplessness form the internal world of victims, who may be more susceptible to further abuse because of a sense of their own inability to form boundaries around intrusive abusers. From the perspective of the victim, they are regressing to an experience of terror and desperately seeking escape.

Every woman is unique and has different coping abilities. There is no absolute prediction of outcome to abuse. The younger the person abused, the more pervasive the damage of abuse. Children are far more vulnerable and powerless to stop perpetrators. They form a more generalized and rigid sense of their own vulnerability to harm. They often live in a protective world where they must try to stay safe. These experiences form the core of a life-long pattern of depression, eating disorders, chronic anxiety, and substance abuse, a hyper-focus on control, among a whole host of other symptoms. They often have a life-long pattern of either developing the extremes of hypersexuality or a complete lack of desire for sex. Symptoms can be relatively mild to debilitating.

The Toxicity Of Sexual Abuse In The Church

Most people who sit under the teaching of the church listen to the scriptures and hear consistent teaching about love and respectful treatment of each other, modelled after Christ. They, therefore, form a presumption that the world of Christianity, and the church specifically, should be a safe sanctuary from the threat of abuse. This high expectation and idealization make it particularly damaging and traumatic when a person of authority, such as a pastor, acts contradictory to the assumptions about love and respect. When this kind of person suddenly, invasively, pushes for sexual gratification, the whole world of trust is disrupted, and catastrophic fear and distrust occupy the minds of the victim.

This had to be the experience of every female victim of Bill Hybels in the Willow Creek situation. This man, this leader, this authority figure, this teacher of the ways of Christ, suddenly ruptured the veil, intruded in a way that was so disorienting and violating, and left them in the wake of his self-gratification demands. Then, coupled with a myriad of influences, they may have felt confused, and fearful of sharing their experience.

Abusers often are what we call “crazy makers”, who, by their behaviors, get victims to question themselves. “Did I act in a flirtatious way, did I just distort reality and misinterpret the intent of the perpetrator, did this really happen?”. This is because, at some level, they do not want to believe that this revered person could have done such a thing. Perpetrators, like BH, try to get victims to question their reality, and can explain away any challenge to their behavior by implicating the motivation of the victim. He might say “ they felt scorned by me and so needed to lie about what I did, or they actually came onto me and are now turning it around, or I did not give them the promotion that they wanted and so they are retaliating, etc.”. And since perpetrators have a lot of narcissistic traits, they may well compartmentalize and believe their own lies. Blame the victims.

Sexual abusers keep their victims captive to silence, and the crushing sense of shame that this creates. The victim is told that exposing the abuse will result in horrible consequences. They are told that no one would believe them and they will be humiliated. All strategies to silence the voice of a victim result in an often life long pattern of shame and fear and deep isolation. It is only when the truth comes out, and the comfort and acceptance of others is experienced), that the trance is broken, and the victim can begin to heal. Children, particularly, tend to blame themselves, and this intensifies their tendency to suffer in silence.

The cost to survivors is hard to calculate. The way that their world is shifted from that of trust and carefree feelings to angst, anger, and depression is beyond destructive. Sexual abuse perpetrators inflict pain and then insulate themselves from the devastation that their behavior inflicts on victims. It is like they drive a motor boat through a series of swimmers, leave them in their wake, flailing in pain, and then speed off (sail off) and minimize their awareness of the pain they have inflicted. It fundamentally takes a pathological lack of empathy to abuse someone. People of conscience, who know of the life-long devastation that sexual abuse inflicts on a victim, could not do such a horrific thing. But narcissists and sociopaths can, because they rationalize that their needs are more important than the needs of a victim.

The Church’s Responsibility To The Victims

When an abuser operates within the confines of the church, and that abuser has clear characteristics that are in line with how an abuser acts (narcissistic entitlement), and when that church does not confront that leader/abuser, out of fear of his power, the church itself becomes an enabler to that abuse, and should both confess its’ guilt and should compensate the victims. We see this in the Catholic Church, as multiple millions of dollars have been paid out to victims. Priests were moved and hidden, sent to new hunting grounds for abuse. The church enabled the predatory behaviors of priests.

The church should compensate victims, because sexual abuse victims almost invariably need intense professional help to move out of their trauma-influenced struggles, and into healing. Should a victim have to pay for the help they get? No! The church should accept that the pain that they allowed to be inflicted is costly, and the victim should not have to bear the burden of getting help. When the church does this it is seriously taking ownership for its’ culpability in the genesis of pain suffered by the victims. In the legal field, payments can be ordered to compensate for pain and suffering.

Why Has Sexual Abuse Become So Rampant, Even In The Church?

This moves me to my conclusions and to my pet peeve. The church has followed the disintegration of the culture, in moving to isolation and lack of true healing connections. For multiple generations men, going back to ancient times, were mentored by older men who taught them the ways of healthy manhood. Included in this were rituals that taught boys to bring their aggression and sexual intensity under control. The elders of the community knew, that if younger male sexuality went unchecked, the village would be unsafe.

Men were taught that women were sacred and worthy of being honored and treated with deep respect and protection. Boys or young men who acted inappropriately were held to account by men in the community. Elder men knew that boys and young men who were free to roam and pillage sexually would destroy the community of trust. Boys and young men were taught to learn to endure suffering, bring their bodies under subjection to self-control, and to focus on the greater good of the community. All expressions of entitlement were quickly confronted and stopped, so that trust could be experienced by all. There was a formal and understandable process by which men moved from boyhood to manhood. It was call the initiation process.

In the current culture, all of these containment structures have collapsed. When I developed a program at Willow Creek called “Passage To Manhood”, which attempted to restore the process of wisdom transmission, it was not supported because it was a “low incidence program”. In other words, it did not have the appeal necessary to push it forward and have it championed. It is my contention, that the church’s lack of focus on this vital need of men, is a contributing factor in the out of control sexual abuse of women.

I believe that boys, young men, and elder men, need to cross fertilize information about what a healthy and wise man looks like. The church has followed the pattern of separation and isolation and has disconnected adolescents from their elder men. If we do not learn to reintegrate men from every generational level, we will not contain them, and so will not reduce the potential for ongoing abuse.

As Christians, we believe that nature reflects elements of truth that God seeks to teach us. We call it natural theology. The heavens, for instance, declare the glory of God (Psalms 19:1). An interesting phenomenon in nature, that supports the absolute importance of the integration of young with older men, is a story from Africa. A nature preserve had only young male elephants who went into what is called musth, which can be conceived as similar to an adolescent male going through puberty. Their sexual hormones were raging. These young male elephants were pillaging, killing, and raping the other animals on the preserve. They had intense sexual energy, but no containment, and no older male elephants as role models. The solution was to place bull elephants with these young males. These older males contained the sexual energy of the younger elephants and created a safe environment for the female elephants and other animals. Here is a clip that shows this phenomenon. www.youtube.com/watch?v=-B5W4lq_LmU

In the church, if we do not integrate sexually healthy men with younger men, we are leaving our women in an environment that is unsafe. Pastors can be predators. Youth pastors are often the most susceptible because of their close association with young females. Often these leaders have not been initiated into the ways of healthy, sexually controlled, manhood. They often live in isolation with their sexual struggles. We idealize them and isolate them, which is the fertile soil for sexual acting out. Men in general have not been brought into the fold of manhood, where their sexual struggles can come under the accountability of wise men. Until men of faith return to the ways that God ordained, living in a community of transparency and accountability, the horror and lasting impact of sexual abuse will continue.