Toxic environment


At times on the recovery journey things happen or days occur when our hearts are heavy, things seem out of sorts, or circumstances lead to difficult steps. How we choose to handle those times makes a big difference in where we go and how we move forward in the bigger picture. They may seem like small things but they do affect the bigger picture of where we are trying to go.

One thing I have been learning about is perception. Someone who is in the midst of the last stages of marriage expressed deep sorrow to me when they shared their spouse has a perception of injustices that were done in the past that they can not move past. This person has set their mind on a certain belief and even though others don’t agree with it they continue to stand firm in their convictions. Due to that the other spouse has found there is no further room for communication, compromise, reconciliation, or restoration.

If you have experienced relational struggle, abuse, injustice, rejection, or abandonment then what is your perception? Do you believe the others were completely in the wrong? Have you taken responsibility for your part? Are you willing to accept that your perceptions may in some ways be incorrect? Can you see ways others are holding incorrect perceptions? Could the perceptions you have be the cause of the problems in the first place? How do you respond when others have incorrect perceptions about you?

The elders and pastor of my last church hold a perception of me that is incorrect. I have tried to correct it but they continue to believe that I desire to hurt the pastor and the church. It actually is the exact opposite of my heart. I have protected them and spoken highly of them so many times. I love the pastor very, very deeply. They are Christians who are part of the family of God and as such there is no need for division, hostility, brokenness, or separation, and I do not have any intention or heart to divide or disunify God’s family. I keep trying to see the situation through their eyes, through their perception, but so far I can’t find that point. I want to take responsibility for my parts, to repent of all sin, and to rectify things. Recently I was told that the elders still are open to see my repentance and to reconciliation but the pastor will no longer be involved in any communication with me. There are perceptions held on both sides that keep us from finding common ground. I wish it was different. I wish our hearts were not hardened against God’s ways, and that we could choose love, forgiveness, grace, healing, and unity. I miss my friends and “family” that I am separated from at that church, and I am really concerned about the future impacts of this brokenness on the Christian community in Portland. May God continue to redeem this and bring repentance, truth, and life where other things exist.

Have you reached a point where you desire to stop thinking about your past story? Have you struggled to stop thinking about it, resolve it, and get it out of your head? Have you reached a point of acceptance that your story is your story with all the good, bad, and even the unresolved parts?

Here are some steps you might think and work through to take a new step forward.

1. Disconnect from your story – How do you identify with your story? Do you think it defines you, or is it just one aspect of who you are that can be seen from different perspectives? If you think the abuse/trauma/situation you went through or find yourself in is ‘who you are’ then you are giving it control. You are making it the source of direction, power, and focus in your life. Can you adjust your attitude and viewpoint so that you can regain control and perspective keeping any “victim” through patterns at bay?

Some of us like our stories, they give us something to connect with and identify with. For some of us the story gives us a history, uniqueness, distinction, and it can actually become a point that feeds our ego, or gives us a level of control both in situations and even over other people. Only you can decide if you are ready to disconnect from your story and take the next step.

2. Decide if you want to be free – Sometimes sub-consciously we are choosing not to disconnect from our problems and our past, after-all, they are our story. You have to decide whether you want to be free.  Do you want your ongoing mind activity, mixed up feelings, stress, sleeplessness, depression, etc. to end, or you are holding on to it because it is giving you an ego boost, a level of control, or an excuse to stay set in our ways.

Take time to connect deep inside to your core thoughts and feelings. Be honest with yourself and find out if you really are at a point to move on, both forgetting and forgiving. Until you are ready you will not be able to be free. Your problems may be giving you something to do in life, or they may be keeping you from pushing for something different. Are you allowing them to hold you back, or are you choosing to believe your story can actually enable and empower you to be used for something greater?

3. Let go – When we are ready to let go we reach a point of resolve in our heart and our mind to no longer let our story, other people, or circumstances control and dictate our lives. It isn’t just about reaching a point of letting go and being left with empty hands, but it also is reaching a point of taking hold of a new future, a new direction, and a different ongoing story.  Letting go is about leaving what was and embracing to move forward to what will become. It is the first major step in creating a new and different story.

4. Accept your story and your current life – Acceptance means you no longer resist the situation (either the past or the present/current). It doesn’t mean you don’t try to grow, change, and learn from it, but you stop fighting, denying, and avoiding what has already happened and you don’t blame or manipulate the situation. Accepting allows us to let those things that occupy our minds and battle within our souls come to a rest. You won’t have to battle yourself, others, or your past any longer, because instead you allow the memories, thoughts, feelings, and facts to become real, have a place to fit in the painting and fabric of your life, and as they blend in and become part of the bigger picture they lose their prominence as something that stands out, becoming blurred and incorporated into a large and beautiful piece of art.

No matter your faith stance or religious beliefs these steps can help you move past the power and control of your past so you no longer walk with a victim mindset and live in powerlessness. I personally believe that if you incorporate Christ into each of these steps allowing him to have control, to provide freedom, to be what you grab onto when you let go, and give you the strength and surrender to accept your story and life …. Well then you will see a new life, a life that is truly different and transformed. No matter how you walk that journey I hope and pray your life will grow better and you will find beauty, promise, hope, and transformation for a hope-filled and incredible future.

21 Erroneous Beliefs That can Fuel Toxic Faith (These occur in various forms and degrees within Christianity. Just one can poison our relationship with God.)
1. Security and significance with God depend on my behavior
2. When tragedy strikes, true believers should have a real peace about it
3. If you had real faith, God would heal you or the one you are praying for
4. All ministers are men and women of God and can be trusted
5. Material blessings are a sign of spiritual strength
6. The more money you give to God, the more money he will give to you
7. I can work my way to heaven
8. Problems in your life result from some particular sin
9. I must not stop meeting others’ needs
10. I must always submit to authority
11. God only uses spiritual giants
12. Having true faith means waiting for God to help me and doing nothing until he does
13. If it’s not in the Bible, it isn’t relevant (all truth is in the Bible)
14. God will find me a perfect mate
15. Everything that happens to me is good
16. A strong faith will protect me from problems and pain
17. God hates sinners, is angry with me, and wants to punish me
18. Christ was merely a great teacher
19. God is too big to care about me
20. More than anything else, God wants me to be happy (free from pain)
21. You can become God

10 Rules of a Toxic Faith System
1. The leader must be in control of every aspect at all times
2. When problems arise, find a guilty party to blame immediately
3. Don’t make mistakes
4. Never point out the reality of a situation
5. Never express your feelings unless they are positive
6. Don’t ask questions, especially if they are tough ones
7. Don’t do anything outside your role
8. Don’t trust anyone
9. Nothing is more important than giving money to the organization
10. At all costs, keep up the image of the organization or the family
 
Characteristics of Healthy Faith
1. Focusing on a personal relationship with God in Christ, not religion
2. Looking to God to meet the needs for security and significance
3. Growing in faith as evidenced by walking into pain
4. Respect for the personhood of others
5. Serving others for their sake
6. Being vulnerable
7. A trusting atmosphere
8. Celebrating uniqueness by recognizing people’s spiritual gifts
9. Relationships being the heart of everything
10. People being taught to think
11. Balanced thinking rather than extremes in black and white
12. Non defensive
13. Non judgmental
14. Reality based
15. Able to embrace our emotions
16. Able to embrace our humanity as evidenced in the ability to allow for mistakes
17. The ability to laugh

(From Toxic Faith by Stephen Arterburn & Jack Felton)

I am struggling today to understand submission to God, and then how that plays out in submission to our leaders.

I believe that submission is first of all accepting the place God has in authority over us. Submission is a matter of our heart, not our mind or intellect. It is not simply having the right attitude but is a product of the heart. As we change our heart and submit ourselves to the Lord we make him bigger than any of our desires and we “magnify” and “glorify” Him. We turn away from evil and false ways and move toward love and obedience. No other condition of our heart can make us acceptable to God. We need to have the heart attitude of “not my will, but thy will”. We submit to the commands and directives that are given.

Scripture also tells us to obey and submit to our leaders (Hebrews 13:17). In that we are to please our leaders and honor them. We are to obey their directives and not question or defy their leadership. We are to cooperate with them and make their job a joy.

So how far does submission go? Is it okay to ask questions? Can we ask for clarity, and if so are their correct and incorrect places to do that (e.g. Can we ask for clarity in front of others or does it need to happen only in private?). Are we supposed to submit without question? Are we supposed to submit in the face of abusive leadership? When does submission to leaders end?

My leaders said I was not submissive and I am still trying to identify what was incorrect in my behavior. I would say I did not meet with them when they asked and I spoke to someone about my miscommunication with the pastor (in an effort to resolve it not to gossip). Now I have been told that communication to express my repentance and desire to pay restitution and find reconciliation which was emailed to a few members of the church body was unsubmissive because the elders told me that I was “no longer welcome to associate with anyone involved” at the church. I didn’t recognize this was sinful and unsubmissive. I have now been told “we are telling you to not contact anyone in our community, in any capacity” and yet I have not been given any avenue for repentance, reconciliation, healing, or restoration. I want to know what God’s view of submission is and don’t know if I am just being unteachable but their reaction seems extreme especially since there was no joy over my repentance, growth, change, and healing. Was I unsubmissive, or are they holding a strong and almost toxic line?

One of the dangers that comes from spiritual abuse and broken trust with spiritual leaders is a distortion of our ability to discern what is safe, true, and healthy.

For example, God’s word tells us to “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”(Hebrews 13:17). However authors Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton in their book Toxic Faith advise people of several beliefs that might be toxic. “Toxic belief #4: All ministers are men and women of god and can be trusted.” “Authority figures can provide tremendous relief to person’s needing counsel and advice. A single person living alone may feel secure in trusting a pastor. Looking to that person for authority is okay as long as there remains a high degree of discernment about what that person demands or how he or she directs.”

How are  we to know who is safe, where to turn, or what to believe?

First and foremost I think we have to choose what our source of truth is: God or man. If you believe that God is your source of truth and you believe that the Bible is his Word to us and it contains no errors then we can trust it for direction for our lives. The process of learning to understand it and apply it to our lives will take time and work but knowing you can trust it brings peace, hope, and confidence. It can build our faith.

We also need to fully know and understand the full gospel message. If we only believe or understand portions of it we will not have the wisdom to discern what is truth and what comes from God.

“The contemporary church has the idea that salvation is only the granting of eternal life, not necessarily the liberation of the center from the bondage of his iniquity.  We tell people the God loves them and as a wonderful plan for their lives, but that is only half the truth.  God also hates sin and will punish unrepentant sinners with eternal torment.  No gospel presentation is complete if it avoids or conceals those facts.  Any message that fails to define and confront the severity of personal sin is a deficient gospel.” (The Gospel According to Jesus by John F. MacArthur)

” The most important thing I can teach him is that, even though he’s being raised in a Christian family and is leading a moral life, he’s a sinner who desperately needs the substitutionary death of Christ for God’s forgiveness. And so for years I’ve been teaching him the gospel, day by day. I tell him that he’s a sinner just like his dad, and that sin is his most serious problem. I put it in words that his young mind can understand, but I don’t ignore or minimize the seriousness of sin. Through his actions and attitudes he has rebelled against his Maker. And this great God is perfectly holy and must respond with fierce opposition to sin. He must punish it. Some might find it surprising that I would teach a young boy about God’s wrath toward sin. But I find it surprising that any loving person would withhold his truth from another person they love. Because only when we understand God’s wrath toward sin can we realize that we need to be saved from it. Only when we hear the bad news that God, through His Son, has provided salvation and full, continuing forgiveness of our sins. Only those who are aware of God’s wrath are amazed at God’s grace.”

It is my hope that you are coming to know God, and know his full truth so that you can be aware of not only your need for him, but his amazing grace. As we know that we can trust in him and then you will find the discernment you need.

Don’t depend on your own knowledge and wisdom or the wisdom of man. Turn to God and let him bring you the discernment you need to know where to walk and who/how to truth. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:7)

The information below is from a book called Broken Hearts Shattered Trust: Workplace Abuse of Staff in the Church by Dr. John K. Setser. Although it is written about church staff it also applies to volunteers who serve in toxic environments, and even to those who are just attending a church that is toxic. There are many wonderful churches out there, but if you are a part of a toxic church the effects can be far reaching and deeply impactful. Please take care of yourself but maintain perspective that when you are hurt, stressed, and in pain it is easy to lash out and feel things are worse off than they are. Turn to others for support and perspective.

Staff associates who work in toxic church environments can implement six survival skills that will help them avoid trouble.
1. Do not accept abusive treatment as normal. Resist cruelty, coercion, threat, inequity, constraint, and completion.
2. Recognize wounding agents for who they are. They are self-centered bullies who use sexual, physical, verbal, or psychological strategies to get what they want.
3. Be alert to being “set up.” Do not let senior pastors indoctrinate or psychologically coerce you into compliance.
4. Seek out lateral support system. If you are being mistreated, chances are you are not alone. Ignore the “don’t talk” rule and share your experiences with others. Wounding senior pastors can sometimes be stopped if they are confronted by a unified group.
5. Watch your heart. Do not give into self-pity, rage, or a judgmental attitude. Jesus calls us to pray and look to Him. He works all things for good.
6. Don’t stay too long. It is never God’s will for you to remain in a wounding church. Exit as soon as possible and tell people why you are leaving.