By P.J. Bierma
At first we couldn’t believe what we were hearing, and seeing. And then we struggled to decide how to cope with an ongoing pattern that threatened to undo us. A true story. All names and places have been changed.
“Well, ladies, the big conference is next week.”
Trudy, head of the women’s ministry was talking to my wife, Annie, and another volunteer helping plan the annual women’s conference.
“Since there will be a lot of women coming in from out of town,” Trudy continued, “it would be nice to have someone who could greet all the newcomers. Of course we’d need her to be friendly, and it would be great if she was knowledgeable about our church, in case people have questions.”
And So It Began
“Perfect!” Annie exclaimed. “How about Amelia? She’s been here for years, loves people, and came to the women’s conference last year!”
Without missing a beat, Trudy shot back, “Hmm, no, she’s too fat.”
Annie and the other volunteer paused, stunned, reeling from the utter shock of what they’d just heard. The comment didn’t come from a volunteer or a random person. It came from Trudy, the leader of the women’s ministry . . . the one place at Hope Community Church specifically designed to empower women.
And So It Continued
Trudy is married to Kurt, senior pastor of HCC, an independent Christian church that draws about 550 people each week. Kurt’s strong personality is like a chiseled marble statue: definite and unshakeable. Between Kurt’s lawyer-like ability to make a case for his beliefs and his knack for citing Bible verses at will, folks tend to walk away from his gusto-filled sermons with a deep sense of certainty.
Kurt’s sermons are punctuated with moments of direct interaction with the audience through call-and-response questions like, “Are you with me?” and “Amen?” and he often waits for a response before moving on.
As someone to whom confidence doesn’t come naturally, I was particularly drawn to this quality when considering a position at HCC, and I did indeed sign on as children’s ministry director. However, I quickly grew concerned about this quality at one of our weekly staff meetings.
Per usual, each of the 10 staffers seated around the table shared departmental updates. Trudy, a true master of tasks and an idea machine, often had daily to-do lists that ran from 6 a.m. to midnight, and she brought in a full page of new ideas for churchwide initiatives. This served as a counterpoint to Kurt’s hopes to focus more on our church’s core strengths . . . narrower, rather than wider.
Trudy started, “We should really get new name tags for every volunteer. I saw this great idea at a church I visited over the weekend that had picture ID’s and plastic casing with those alligator cli—”
Kurt, noticeably clenching his jaw, interrupted with a firm, “NEXT.”
Trudy immediately went to the next one, “Have we thought about doing a school bus ministry? It would be nice to be able to offer that for kids who can’t get to church.”
“We absolutely won’t be doing that,” Kurt responded firmly. “It’s a serious liability to drive children all over town. And then there are logistics . . . who will drive the buses? Are we training them? And how on earth are we going to afford buses? No way.”
Trudy tried again, “But don’t you think it would be good to provide a way for—”
“Babe, we just can’t do that right now,” he replied.
Trudy insisted, “I just think that we should—”
Kurt barked loudly this time, “NO!”
I was so uncomfortable that my hands actually started shaking under the table, so I clenched them together “prayer style” to stop the quivering.
What was happening? Was this normal behavior? And why wasn’t anyone else saying anything?
This behavior was new to me. Something seemed way off. I scheduled a meeting with Kurt to try and understand what had happened.
We met the following day in his office, and I opened by saying, “I wanted to chat about what happened yesterday between you and Trudy.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked, which I had to assume was an honest question, though it only concerned me further.
“I noticed at the staff meeting it seemed like Trudy brought in a flurry of new ideas, and things escalated pretty quickly after tha—”
I was not expecting what came next.
Kurt interrupted, “Peter, I’m concerned you aren’t on board with the church’s vision.”
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked, feeling thrown off balance.
“I don’t want to have to ask for all of my staff members’ approval before making a decision. I expect you to already be on board.”
I had no idea what he meant, as I’d altered a fair amount of children’s ministry practices to conform to his wishes and theology. For example, we offered Communion in our large-group “kids church” to mirror adult services. I pored over our curriculum to conform it to Kurt’s theology. When he asked me to research a new digital wall clock for the sanctuary, I found one at a great price within the hour, and he even took me aside to thank me for being a “go-to guy.” I exclaimed a fair share of “amens!” during his sermons, and complimented him often and publicly.
My alignment with his vision clearly wasn’t the issue! This was, as I came to call it after many, many more meetings of this type, “derail and devour.” Derail the conversation, and devour by way of deflecting, countering, and conquering.
I softened my tone, wondering if I’d miscommunicated something, and clarified, “Oh, no, I want to be a team player! You have a great vision here. I was talking about what happened at the staff meeting yesterday. Can you help me understa—”
He raised his voice and shouted defensively, “YOU DON’T HAVE TO UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING!”
At this point, I didn’t know what to do with myself, as I didn’t yet have language for what was happening—the best I could articulate was, “Yikes, this is bad!”
And Continued Further
Then there was the staff meeting before I’d even arrived at HCC where Kurt and Trudy spoke at some length about the need to secretly videotape visitors before each Sunday morning service. That way, they said, we could watch the tapes at staff meeting, review the visitors’ names, and greet them the following week, which struck me as well-intentioned but . . . creepy.
My good friend and colleague Brennan recapped the experience during one of our weekly morning prayer walks.
Apparently, Brennan remarked snidely during the videotape discussion, “How about we take their credit card information, too?” Granted, not the best way to address the underlying problem of privacy concerns that unknowing visitors may have.
If a boss in this position is offended, I could envision him or her mentioning something to the employee (in private) about curbing the sarcasm and just speaking directly about the problem. Especially with a conscientious guy like Brennan, a “quick and easy” approach would go a long way.
Instead, Kurt raised his voice, stared directly at Brennan, and yelled, “OK, everyone but Brennan, GET OUT!”
Everyone left. Kurt leaned in and said with a staunch intensity, “If you ever disrespect me in front of everyone again, I’ll fire you on the spot. Do you understand me? You will be fired.”
And then there was the conversation I had with a volunteer after decorating the church for Christmas. This is a huge project every year, with all 10 staffers and a select group of volunteers working for two solid days. (It did look great by the end!) The volunteers Trudy recruited included Brooklyn, who had helped with many major decorating projects. That year, Brooklyn set up a gorgeous display onstage in the sanctuary: six beautifully lit Christmas trees with an array of shiny, wrapped presents under each one. After Brooklyn left for the day, I happened to be walking by the sanctuary and spotted Trudy rearranging Brooklyn’s display.
I assumed Trudy and Brooklyn talked this over and came up with a different plan, until Brooklyn vented to me the next day, “You know, I used to help out with a lot more around here, but I only help with Christmas now. It happens every year . . . I set things up, come in the next day, and find that Trudy’s rearranged everything behind my back.”
I replied, “That sounds rough . . . have you considered talking to her about it?”
Brooklyn looked at me with amazement, “You’re joking, right? Do you know how many times I’ve talked with her about this? She doesn’t listen.”
There were other incidents, such as several screaming matches in Kurt’s office, for which no other staffer knew the reasons. Or the time Kurt delivered a sermon on the evils of homosexuality the very same night an LGBT woman happened to be visiting.
Then there was the time Kurt went to Romania—one of many trips there—for a missions project. When we filed into the staff meeting that week, Trudy asked, “Has anyone seen Kurt?”
Another person chimed in, “He’s in Romania this week.”
Believe me, I understand there can be miscommunications in a marriage, but it concerned me deeply that Kurt’s wife didn’t know he was halfway across the planet. Perhaps this reflected the larger unhealthy communication dynamics present in the office.
And So It Ended
I can’t stress enough that these stories were just the tip of the iceberg. The stories I’ve mentioned covered, perhaps, a week of actual time, so three or four years would easily fill a book!
I did eventually leave, but unfortunately, not before emotional damage had been done. These types of hurtful behaviors—week in and week out—didn’t just cause stress; they caused confusion, depression, and eventually, hopelessness. Remember, this is the pastor and his wife, who were both spiritual leaders and bosses. Those two simultaneous roles of “pastor” and “boss” greatly elevated the stakes of the situation.
What was supposed to be the greatest job in the world working with children on a journey of spiritual discovery somehow turned out to be an emotionally and spiritually harmful experience with the leaders of HCC.
I later shared the many stories with a wonderful counselor named Eve, and she immediately pointed me to a book called The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. Eve said it was the definitive book on the subject (and I would concur).
“Verbally abusive”—I had to let that one sink in a bit, as I wasn’t initially convinced my experiences deserved such a title.
And yet, the behavior displayed by Kurt and his wife—power plays, dominance, control, countering, deflecting (and the list goes on)—not only fit Evans’s description perfectly, but they did indeed impact me the same way an emotional beating leaves one feeling utterly defeated.
That said, I’m far from alone. With behind-the-scenes controversies arising from more notable Christian figures like Mark Driscoll and Dave Ramsey, there are church members and staffers across the country facing a common question: What do we do in this situation?
I most often hear Christians identify similar problems in their churches when they say, “Something seems off. The minister seems . . . I don’t know . . . angry? Something just doesn’t feel right.” It’s an intuitive sort of grasping that, in my experience, may well point to a bigger behind-the-scenes problem.
It might seem the easy solution would be to leave, right? But three key factors kept me in place.
1. The first is my wife, Annie. We moved cross-country for this opportunity. We left everything, namely our friends, church home, and jobs. Annie had a separate career of her own, and she sacrificed it for me so I could work at HCC.
2. I loved the work! Nothing brought more satisfaction and happiness than to realize Devon understood a Bible story, or hear Emma say she made a new friend, or see a crowd of kids cheering on the underdog, James, during a team game at summer camp! Dozens of other stories like these kept me going.
3. Verbal abuse throws us off balance. We question our perception and reality, since we often trust the abuser. So the abuse itself, at least for me, was difficult to identify. Are they crazy, or am I?
I can’t recommend Evans’s book highly enough, as she points out when the line has been crossed—that is, when verbal abuse is occurring. “This criterion is the intention of the communicator to inform or nurture the other versus the intention not to inform or nurture the other. If the words or attitude disempower, disrespect, or devalue the other, then they are abusive. . . . Words that attack or injure, that cause one to believe the false, or that speak falsely of one. Verbal abuse constitutes psychological violence.”
I’m helped by Evans’s distinction between overt and covert abuse. Overt might refer more to explosive screaming, scathing insults, etc., but there’s an entirely different set of quiet behaviors that may sneak by the senses until damage has been done. Passive aggression. Avoidance. Manipulation. Deflection.
Kurt tended toward the overt, and Trudy tended toward the covert.
Both are harmful in their own way, but the under-the-table kind of abuse can be particularly confusing, since the abuser doesn’t acknowledge the reality of the situation. Instead, it’s denied, minimized, or avoided.
And Here’s My Advice
So, once again, what does one do when confronted with verbal abuse? Here are three things that helped me tremendously.
Realize you aren’t the problem—The abusive pastor will abuse for his or her own reasons, regardless of how aligned or enthusiastic we might be.
Run, don’t walk, to a good counselor—My first counselor was not a good fit for me, but Eve was a godsend. She listened and reflected back to me often to ensure she understood. She offered empathy, and occasionally a tip or an action point when the moment felt right. She wasn’t perfect (God knows I’m not either), but she helped me greatly. Most importantly, she gave me language for what was happening at HCC.
I cannot overstate the power of a good counselor!
Consider leaving—Abuse is a deal breaker. It shatters trust. The abuser needs help that’s more intensive than anything the victim can offer. In my case, after serving several years with Kurt and Trudy, and zero change in behavior on their parts, I had to get out. I realized I couldn’t change them. If anything, I enabled them to continue the abuse by staying in the room with them.
Interestingly, leaving HCC turned out to be one of the best decisions I could have made. I’m now working as a radio DJ in one of the most supportive, high-performing radio groups in my area; our four stations regularly rank in the top five stations in the area. Where other radio groups are facing tremendous difficulty in the United States, our company has actually grown year over year.
Whereas my voice was once belittled, now, by the grace of God, my voice quite literally reaches thousands of listeners every day.
So, there is hope.
The writer, a former children’s ministry director, is an author and radio production director. His book on verbal abuse is to release in 2015.