This is part two of the transcript of an interview with JJ, a survivor of domestic violence, and Pastor M, a pastor, mentor, and friend who walked with JJ during her marriage and divorce.
Tabitha: Let’s recap a bit. JJ and her spouse are in ministry. It then comes to light that their marriage difficulties are more serious than previously thought-–she is actually being abused by her husband. The church tries to rally around them both by providing support for her and accountability for him. What went wrong?
JJ: My understanding was they didn’t really know what to do.
Pastor M: After the initial support the church offered, things were not getting better. He was continuing to spiral. And because JJ’s support team was committed to the restoration of the marriage, they couldn’t accept how damaging his behavior was. It compromised their personal convictions. Their hope was in the marriage, it wasn’t in God. It wasn’t in what God could do regardless of whether or not the marriage survived.
JJ: Where do we put our hope? Is God big enough to work when everything we’ve known, everything we believe to be biblical, doesn’t work anymore?
I think another thing that went wrong is that my support system took all of his statements at face value. He said he was sorry, so he must be sorry. He said he would change, so he was going to change. Eventually I came to the realization that there was a cycle of good, then bad, good, then bad, good, then bad, and that cycle was escalating. And after twelve years of living it, I knew that cycle wasn’t going to change.
So I decided I didn’t want to live that way anymore, and I didn’t want my children living it and thinking that it was okay. But my support system couldn’t accept that. Even as I walked into divorce mediation, they were texting me to “just give him more time.” “Don’t finalize today.” And meanwhile, he was telling everyone, “There’s something wrong with her, I don’t know why she’s doing this, I love her so much, I can’t understand why she wants to end us, etc.”
By the end, the only person I really felt was in my corner was Pastor M.
One of the things that made it so hard as my support system fell apart, was that my whole world was the church. I didn’t have any friends outside of the church, and I wasn’t close to my family. I knew if I went through with the divorce he would probably lose his job and I would probably lose my whole community. I knew it would affect my kids.
Tabitha: What I am hearing in this part of your story is a high level of exhaustion. You had been trying so hard for so long to save your relationship. And when that became untenable, the people who were supposed to support you added a new level of exhaustion. Pastor M, I imagine this was true for you too.
Pastor M: Yes, it was exhausting. I remember one week I spent around 30 hours just meeting, emailing, and responding to the people involved–not just JJ or her spouse but all the members of the congregation that he was influencing. The church is a family system, so the violence, abuse, and manipulation that one family is experiencing radiates out towards the rest of the congregation.
JJ: I am just now realizing how exhausted I was back then. It was like the carpet had been pulled out from under me, and I was lying flat on my back at the bottom of a pit, staring at the ground above, thinking, “I’m supposed to be up there. That’s a hundred feet above me and I’m on the cold, wet, damp, awful pit floor. What do I do now?”
But I had three kids, a full-time job, a living situation to take care of, legal obligations. I was exhausted, but I couldn’t rest.
Tabitha: In the cycle of abuse, the abuser tends to draw everyone into their orbit. Anyone who gets a glimpse of what’s really happening can get sucked in. It’s disorientating, because the abuser is constantly trying to draw attention away from their pattern of behavior, away from the truth, by making you second guess every conversation or experience. It sounds like your church, while well intentioned, got caught in that destructive orbit.
Pastor M: Yes, we did. No matter how hard we tried to create a supportive environment that held him accountable, he was just throwing hand grenades in at every step of the way. So the support we offered JJ started to unravel, and there was no way to reign in the chaos.
Tabitha: And in that unraveling, what happened to JJ?
JJ: I was asked to leave the church–or at least it felt like that, from my perspective. At the time, the church was my only support system. Even though it was crumbling, it was what I had. And in my worldview, to be a good Christian meant never giving up. Though I came to a place where I was letting my marriage go, I wasn’t yet able to think of leaving the church. I thought I would stay and heal and see them heal, too.
What I actually needed was to get the heck out of there, but I never would have done that. Now I’d describe it as the last straw from my tower of Babel. It had to be ripped down so I could go build on a firm foundation, which I did.
I found another church that was an excellent place for me to grow, in ways I couldn’t have done at the previous church. But being asked to leave was devastating, at the time.
Pastor M: There was so much confusion and triangulation going on. Asking her to leave, for me, was not a punishment, but for her survival and well being. I knew it wasn’t a good place for her anymore, but if she got out she could land on her feet.
Her ex had been asked to leave a month or two earlier, and I just knew we didn’t have the capacity to care for her the way she needed at the time anymore. Looking back, now, I wouldn’t make the same choice, because in some ways it made her a scapegoat.
JJ: Finding a new church was the right choice for me, but it still really hurt at the time. We didn’t speak directly much after I left. I needed space to heal. It wasn’t until a few years later that I reached out, letting him know how hurt I had felt by being asked to leave, but also that leaving had been the best thing for me. And he graciously responded and acknowledged my pain.
Tabitha: What I’m hearing, Pastor M, is your humility in saying, “I failed, because I didn’t have the capacity at the time to give you what you needed.” You are acknowledging your good intent and the impact of your choices, not brushing it aside because JJ managed to build a new life in spite of everything.
Pastor M: I just didn’t have anything left to give. And neither did the leadership team at the time. That wasn’t JJ’s fault. I mourn that we couldn’t give more. But I’m learning that being human is okay. And I’m proud of her resilience and the amazing person that she is.
JJ: I think that’s one of the lessons to take from this. At the end of my marriage, I was so needy. My foundation was shaken, I felt like I was drowning and there was nothing to grab on to. No one person, no three people can support that level of need, especially if they don’t have an accurate understanding of how abuse works. They need to understand what gaslighting and manipulation look like. As I move forward, my goal is to help the church create systems that adequately support victims so that they can come out of this well.
Tabitha: Judith Herman, an expert on domestic violence, wrote, “All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing.” That’s all they ask. But the victim is crying out for justice, for assistance, for a lifeline. But it’s so much easier to do nothing, especially if you find yourself caught in the abuser’s orbit–their narrative of distorting the truth.That’s why so many people on the sidelines give up or look away. But if we want to stand in the gap for survivors of abuse, we need to understand what is happening.
JJ: The most dangerous thing bystanders can do in an abusive situation is give the abuser the benefit of the doubt.
Tabitha: As we wrap up our time together, I have one final question for both of you. Do you have hope for the church? Do you think she can become a safe place for survivors?
JJ: If people are willing to open their eyes and let the truth set them free… if they are willing to become champions instead of bystanders, the church will change, and will become safe for everyone. It can become a refuge, and a place where people can thrive. Just like in our story, there may be vulnerability and neediness and sometimes, a mess; but there will also be resilience. I have hope.
Pastor M: “Church” is a big word. I’ve seen a lot of people be more committed to the beast of structures than people. But I believe that Jesus Christ is the one who is building his church and he loves it. She may be a messy bride, but that’s okay. But I would say that my hope for the church is that Jesus will be the one to orchestrate change. When I hear how JJ has found a refuge in her current church, that gives me hope. That’s beautiful.
JJ: Sometimes ambivalence comes when I think of how little leaders know about abusive relationships and systems.
Pastor M: Tabitha, are you hopeful?
Tabitha: I am hopeful for pockets of communities. I am not hopeful for the Christian machine. I think it needs to die. What I mean by the “Christian machine” are the institutions that are more committed to establishing their own power than they are to, as Jesus would say, “the least of these.”
I think of that verse, “Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it cannot bear fruit.” We have spent a lot of time polishing our idols, building towers of Babel, thinking they are worth saving when Jesus was just interested in people. Especially people who had the least amount of power.
Do I have hope for our institutions? Not really. But I do have hope in the remnant. The kingdom of heaven is always a remnant.