I am a minister, and I can be hurt like anyone else
A Baptist minister highlights bullying and spiritual abuse
Whilst participating in an online retreat style conference recently, the other participants and I were encouraged to think back through 2020, a year like no other, and identify the things that had caused us pain and hurt as individuals. The purpose of doing this was to allow us to see, if through sensing the presence of the love of God, we could find ways of letting go of that pain and see a positive way forward for 2021, a noble aspiration if nothing else.
As I reflected on my year past it struck me that some of the actions and words of a few people within my particular church were akin to attempted spiritual abuse and bullying. They behaved as if they could say anything they liked about me, and to me and because I am a minister it would have no emotional effect on me.
When lockdown began in March 2020, we, as a church, took a short period to pause to get a sense of what we believed God was saying to us about the needs of our community. (As far as I was concerned, we were and are a group of followers of Jesus who are focused on the marginalised, isolated, and vulnerable in our community). At the beginning of the pandemic, we had a key member of our team contract COVID-19; after they recovered more or less (long COVID is still an issue for them, sadly), we moved to formulate a practical response to the needs of the ‘least of the these’.
From the beginning I and others in our leadership had felt that we should utilise our social media platforms to speak to our community and so I started to broadcast on social media an open accessible type of message a couple of times a week, rather than simply moving Sunday morning to a virtual environment for those who were already ‘on the inside’. We wanted to talk to the widest spectrum of the community as possible, discussing the issues we all as human beings faced living through a global pandemic, whilst looking to introduce a strand of Christian spirituality through that. And the community responded in a very positive way with many personal and private conversations with people, who in all honesty would never set foot inside a church building, however they felt they could talk about this ‘big stuff’. I also recorded some sermons and shared them with our congregation for those who wanted to delve a bit deeper.
Beyond that we moved to instigate a number of very practical initiatives to bring the practical care of Jesus to those in our community who were most at risk from this virus. Over the period since the pandemic began, we, like many other churches have prepared thousands of meals, provided food parcels. We have supplied essentials to some of the most vulnerable in our community and we have befriended those in our community who are suffering from the effects of isolation, which has meant new friendships have grown and existing relationships with other local community organisations have strengthened and developed. We signposted an early intervention with someone which meant the attempt they made on their life was unsuccessful.
As I reflect on the activities of 2020, I cannot help but feel a sense of pride in our volunteer team, and that we have been so open to what clearly felt like a move of God to be the literal hands of Jesus as we sought to bring His love to a community. Surely any group of the followers of Jesus would be proud to be part of such a move and expression of the Kingdom of God.
When you read through the life of Jesus you read many statements, like the one I alluded to earlier, in Matthew 25:40:
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 
In this passage, alongside multiple other passages, we encounter Jesus employing us as his followers to care for those who are marginalised, isolated, and vulnerable. I cannot help but think, “ … surely these are the sorts of things that His church should be engaged at a time like this?”.
As the year went on a small but loud voice arose from within the church saying that I as the minister was not doing my ‘job’. What felt like an orchestrated campaign began through emails and messages to me and other church leaders. One particularly nasty email levelled the accusation that my actions were tantamount to neglecting the spiritual life of the church. I tried very hard to brush these statements off. I tried to keep focused on the positive impact we have bringing the love of Jesus to our community, and yet… I feel bullied, abused, and devalued.
When I can occasionally, look at these events in a detached way I can semi-rationally see that these individuals are operating from a place of fear; that everything they thought they understood is changing. And whilst that may be true, I find it difficult to accept this as an excuse for spiritual abuse and bullying.
Sadly, in my opinion, these people, by their behaviour, are implying that their needs, wants, and privileges are more important than the people who are most in physical need in our community.
If we are following Jesus then we have to love as he did, and if we actually read about His life, He loved by sacrificing for others, including us. For us as His church now, we must surely be prepared to sacrifice our lives for others; is that not the point of church, is that not the heart of following Jesus to show others they are loved, whilst loving within our own ‘tribe’ as well?
The behaviour of these people has brought me to a place where not only have I questioned myself and how I believe God has been leading both me and His church in this community, but they have also caused me to doubt His call on my life to serve. I have considered myself a failure as a minister and as a person of faith. This has impacted on my mental health as well as the wellbeing and happiness of my spouse.
This has inevitably brought me to a place of considering not only leaving this church, but actually potentially walking away from ministry altogether. And whilst internally I did have and do have the support of the vast majority of the leadership, for which I will be forever grateful, as well as those whose opinions I seek when I need advice, still the doubt was there.
I do not say any of this to get a sympathetic response, rather to show the depth of the pain this has caused, and also to say that I know for a fact that I am not the only minister who has had this level of abuse from our churches.
So that brings me to a place where I have to ask: surely we can do better?
Can we be prepared to embrace the challenge which keeps being quoted in our Baptist family from many people and places, found in the words of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 43 verses 18 & 19:
‘Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’
If we genuinely believe that God is doing a new thing and we are prepared to face the likelihood that whatever church is in a post COVID world it will probably not look like it did in January 2020, then we have to as a Baptist family be open to support those who serve in ministry to our communities. It is not good enough to pour venom out to your minister, carefully prefacing it with an “I believe God is saying …” type statement. It is not good enough to plot and plan with others to generate a campaign of sorts. It is not good enough to treat them in a way that you would not wish to be treated.
Is this how Jesus behaved?
As I said, I do not write for a sympathetic response, I write as a challenge for us as His church to do better and I write personally as a form of therapy.
I truly believe that if we are not prepared to make some big, bold, and significant changes then sadly my experience will not be the last and we will inevitably lose some really gifted ministers.
As I look forward for me and our church, I am hopeful of a brighter future. Those who sought to abuse, and bully have mostly chosen to leave, and yes this has an impact on us as a church. There is sadness that we could not find a path forward together. In the many attempts to find a resolution we offered to have an independently mediated conversation to seek a common way forward; sadly this along with all attempts was declined.
However I think we also have to be open to the possibly that the path forward is different for different people. For me, personally I will continue to push further to the edges of our community and help us to embody the words we find in the letter to the Galatians in chapter 5 and verse 6, which tells us:
‘…the only thing that counts is faith working through love.’
My hope and prayer is that as we all look to the ‘new thing’ ready to be discovered in a post-COVID world, we will be able to focus on being His church which seeks to be about faith expressing itself as love.
 All bible quotes taken from New Revised Standard Version
Photo | Jeremy Yap | Unsplash
The author of this piece is a Baptist minister who has asked to remain anonymous
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