13 Comments

When Your Abusive Pastor Dies

When you hear that your abusive former pastor is dead, the news will not bring you peace and it is unlikely to bring you joy.

I am unhappy to say this but it’s true nevertheless and so there it is. What was broken in life cannot be mended by death. Death has no power to heal, to restore, to resurrect. You cannot unbend your twisted life on another person’s casket. A gravestone is no anvil.

I could take you to the exact spot where I learned that my former pastor was dying. Out walking at a local park, halfway between the pitcher’s mound and home plate, with brick dust rising in slow clouds around my feet and August sun pressing down hot and hard. I flicked through my Facebook newsfeed and there it was: the man was about to die. His son asked for prayers as he made the long journey to the hospital bed in another state, not knowing what he’d find except confusion and pain. His father had remained unrepentant to the end.

I stopped and read the paragraph over and over and then I put my phone in my pocket and looked up at the trees and felt the sun and then looked down and shuffled my feet in the dust.

Four years had passed since my church fell apart and my former pastor was removed from his tarnished office. I’d done a lot of healing in those years. I’d sent a letter of forgiveness to the man and received an unapologetic voicemail in reply. So I set up boundaries to avoid more hurt. I married. I started a blog about spiritual abuse. Had a son. But I was wrong to think that my pastor’s death would bring me peace.

Another’s death will not bring you peace because only one man’s death can bring peace and he died already long, long ago. No other death has that currency or that power and God will not make an exception for the person you most hate or the person who most harmed you. Peace and joy come only through one death. And though your abusive pastor thought he was a type of Messiah he was not, and so his death cannot save you. To think it could only gives him undue power over you and repeats the lies that he taught.

Does that make sense?

I was saddened to learn this with brick dust rising in slow clouds around my sneakers. I had cherished a secret notion that when the man who had abused me for 25 years was dead it would feel like a party and a burden would be lifted and I would put on a dance anthem and buy an ice cream and then push a quarter century of trauma into the nearest 50-gallon trash can.

It was unlike that. Moreover, good people who’d gone through much worse had already told me it couldn’t be like that, but you know we all have to figure these things out for ourselves.

No, your abusive former pastor’s death cannot give you peace and joy. But here’s what it can do for you: it can make you sad with a sincere sadness that wishes no harm on its tormenter.

It can also make you grateful that you were the one wronged and not the wronger.

And it can bring life if you let it. If you have the courage to remember. If you have the courage to die a little bit in order to forgive. Because when you say, “I forgive you” and commit yourself to him who judges justly, you take into yourself a small piece of the death of the One who said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

It’s crazy and it’s not safe. You have only to look at Jesus to see how much it can hurt.

But by partaking in that death, you also participate in a life that mocks the grave. That bares its unflinching flesh to an eternity without sting. That considers every trauma a travel stain on a journey that ends in heaven.

I’d like to say that I had this all worked out in the brick dust on that ball field. But I’m not that good and anyway, I like nursing my grudges as much as anyone. About all I came to that August afternoon was an awkward prayer that someday I’d see my former pastor in heaven and not in hell.

It’s not that much, I know. But then again, maybe it is.

13 comments on “When Your Abusive Pastor Dies

  1. Nice post. While I would not wish to rejoice in another’s demise, the thought does cross my mind that at least this man will not be abusing any more people.

  2. “And it can bring life if you let it. If you have the courage to remember. If you have the courage to die a little bit in order to forgive. Because when you say, “I forgive you” and commit yourself to him who judges justly, you take into yourself a small piece of the death of the One who said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

    Thank you, thank you for this post. It brought such peace to my heart that I needed so much. I’m going to share your blog on mine. It’s so very good.

    As I was reading this a memory came to my mind of the day many years back when God shed light on some major deception in my life, so much so that I put my face on the floor and begged for forgiveness. I was so afraid.

    But then I looked at my hands. God impressed on my heart so strongly how He’d suffered and died for me. He overwhelmed me with the knowledge that He loved me and forgave me.

    That day it didn’t make sense to me, but I knew He was calling me to a life where I was going to suffer, too.

    A few years later I met my own abusive pastor.

    Now I know what God meant that day and I know He’s calling me to continue to remember, feel the pain and forgive.

    Because that’s what He did.

    So thanks again. This was so powerful!

    I’m so sorry for your pain. I agree with the other person who commented on this post, I’m glad the pastor can’t abuse any longer, but like you I realize the death of those who bring harm doesn’t bring relief, but a deep sadness. I felt it in your writing.

    It caused me to pray for the pastor who abused me, who according to his wife refused to read my letter saying I forgave…

    I don’t want him in my life any longer, but I do pray that he and his family are healed.

  3. Reblogged this on Our Unseen Hope and commented:
    This is one of the most powerful posts I’ve read…

    “And it can bring life if you let it. If you have the courage to remember. If you have the courage to die a little bit in order to forgive. Because when you say, “I forgive you” and commit yourself to him who judges justly, you take into yourself a small piece of the death of the One who said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

    Here is my comment on the post:

    “Thank you, thank you for this post. It brought such peace to my heart that I needed so much. I’m going to share your blog on mine. It’s so very good.

    As I was reading this a memory came to my mind of the day many years back when God shed light on some major deception in my life, so much so that I put my face on the floor and begged for forgiveness. I was so afraid.

    But then I looked at my hands. God impressed on my heart so strongly how He’d suffered and died for me. He overwhelmed me with the knowledge that He loved me and forgave me.

    That day it didn’t make sense to me, but I knew He was calling me to a life where I was going to suffer, too.

    A few years later I met my own abusive pastor.

    Now I know what God meant that day and I know He’s calling me to continue to remember, feel the pain and forgive.

    Because that’s what He did.

    So thanks again. This was so powerful!

    I’m so sorry for your pain. I agree with the other person who commented on this post, I’m glad the pastor can’t abuse any longer, but like you I realize the death of those who bring harm doesn’t bring relief, but a deep sadness. I felt it in your writing.

    It caused me to pray for the pastor who abused me, who according to his wife refused to read my letter saying I forgave…

    I don’t want him in my life any longer, but I do pray that he and his family are healed.”

  4. Stephen, thank you for sharing this step on your personal journey. In human death there is only “unfinished business.” Could I have done more? Should I have tried harder to reach out? Why do I still dislike this man even after the human self of him is turned back into the ground? So it is with all of us who are imbued with care and love for all of humanity and to not feel thus is to be less than healthy in our being.

    I enjoy reading and sharing your writings with others and feel you have something to share of worth with all persons trying live as fulfilled humans, be they ‘religious’ to any degree or to none at all. We know in our being that it is counterproductive to move backward and to not move forward in our lives is to not move at all and languish in place.

    I hesitate to add that I consider myself a wholly spiritual man but cannot deny my intrinsic agnosticism; the two are not mutually exclusive by any means. I will continue to read and enjoy your story and message of hope for mankind and know that Christianity is a strong and worthy means (when not abused), to fulfillment to many who seek completion in their existential quest. You are credible and well-spoken in sharing a message of good just as the historical Jesus is recorded as having done. We can use more like you.

    Thank you and continue to share your healing insight.

  5. The topic is a somber one, but I still have to admit that it is nice to see you writing on your blog again.

    A few months ago I got news that the pastor that I had less than great feelings for (I won’t go so far as to call him abusive, but misguided) had moved on to a new opportunity outside of pastoral ministry. Part of me was still a little bitter because it was a good opportunity, and one that would likely feed an already unhealthy ego, but I was still relieved that he would no longer be in a position to influence so many people that I cared for.It isn’t the same, but maybe it is a little.

    Hope that your healing continues.

    Hope to see more great work as well.

  6. Thanks for your encouragement. It’s good that your pastor is moving out of church ministry. I think a lot of these abusive/misguided church leaders are in the wrong environment and their gifts could be used elsewhere in areas where they wouldn’t hurt people or hold positions of trust. A few, however, would be destructive no matter where they were. These are the cult leaders. So there’s a spectrum.

  7. Welcome back to blogging Steve. Hope your book writing went well! Thanks for your gracious and realistic thoughts about grief, healing, and death. I have heard it say that grief feels a lot like fear (C.S. Lewis Grief Observed)– with so many emotions coming back into play and an overwhelming sense of dread. I imagine that because you all loved your pastor (despite all the hurt he caused so many) it is impossible to have true relief from his death, as I imagine the disappointment and regret that in the end he did not turn to repent and reconcile to his family and former church, which might have brought a form of healing to many and himself. Blessings to you all and to the family as they grief this loss and in many ways the loss of a father/pastor they wish they had.

  8. Sometimes I feel guilty for the freedom tha came about in my life after our pastor died suddenly following a short illness. I know that his death made exiting our toxic church situation a thousand times easier, but I could never describe myself as glad that he is gone. I only feel sad. The very poorly handled leadership transition that followed is what afforded us the perfect chance to leave a very unhealthy, authoritarian climate which we had wanted to do for many months but feared the reprisal of our pastor as we were considered loyal members of his inner circle.

    • I am so sorry to hear about the pain you have suffered. You don’t need to feel guilty for freedom–it is for freedom that Christ has set you free. He frees captives. But I understand your sadness. When I think of my own pastor’s death, the words that come to mind are “pitiful” and “pathetic” and “heartbreaking.”

  9. Oh wow… This really hits home on a personal level and adds some fresh perspective on the issue of forgiveness. You got an email I can reach you at?

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