May 15, 2023

Take Courage: You’re Not a Sole Survivor

The news coming out of the UK evangelical movement associated with the Anglican Church, Soul Survivor, is depressing. Depressing because it’s bad. And depressing because it’s all too familiar.

Not that everything about the youth-focussed ministry led by Mike Pilavachi was depressing. Or familiar. Sure we’d heard about the massaging of young interns that occurred under Jonathan Fletcher’s ministry, but hey, now we add in massage oil. And I’ve heard the stories about Alpha male Christian leaders wanting to wrestle – nay – demanding to wrestle the young men who looked up to them and were in their inner circle. It’s all very primal – and to be honest, primate. Silverbacks gonna be silverbacks after all.

In commenting on the article this past weekend in The Times by a former Soul Survivor “insider” – David Gate (read: young man with potential in ministry), there was something eerily familiar about the ring of these words:

A pattern of hurt emerged early on when it came to the young men who Mike would single out. It was not a secret. Young men were being picked up then discarded year after year. Like me, they would leave feeling like it was them who had messed up. Mike had the power to break your career. I felt like I was permanently in a state of being on The X Factor. I was constantly being judged by a Simon Cowell type-figure about whether or not I was able to progress. The only doors that would open for you were the ones that he opened for you to go through. For a teenager, it was emotionally devastating.

My own experience in The Crowded House was watching the same thing happen. Only with slightly older men. Slightly older, slightly more conservative (very conversative) Reformed men who were generally married, but who – and I’ll include myself in it at that point – had a certain insecurity that leaders like Mike seem to radar into.

Of course with Mike, this seems to have gone somewhat sexual. A young ministry friend of mine, commenting on my FB link to that article, wrote this, in light of his several meetings with Mike during his visits to Australia.

Strange fellow, often spoke of how he never married because he would sin against his wife in all the travels he does. The last time I heard him speak in Perth he joked about oral sex in his sermon to youth.

Why a man in his forties or fifties would say that privately to young men, or mention that publicly in a sermon to young people, is worrying. But also enlightening. Because if he’d said it to a room full of forty year olds he’d probably be called in for an intervention at some stage.There’s something about the collective silence of younger, less forceful and less secure, men that allows such things to fester. After all if the young bloke next to you didn’t say anything about that, then maybe you’re the one with the problem right?

See how it works?

Here’s what a power differential looks like in a setting without any formal denominational structures. Once again David Gate nails it:

There seemed to be no one who Mike was accountable to. The realm of power he had over my life was huge. He was the pastor of my church. He was the head of the festivals and the events. He was the gatekeeper of my music publisher: Survivor Records. Every element of my life had Mike’s hand on it. I felt trapped.

Ever spoken to a woman who’s escaped a DV situation? Just change the paragraph above to read this way:

There seemed to be no one who FILL IN THE BLANK was accountable to. The realm of power he had over my life was huge. He was the controller of our finances. He was in charge of my diary and phone calls. He was the gatekeeper of my friendship group. Every element of my life had FILL IN THE BLANK’s hand on it. I felt trapped.

The rest of the article in The Times is a litany of all of the experiences that many people I know also experienced. One of those experiences is the double-abuse of, first, being abused spiritually, then secondly, not being believed by others about the spiritual abuse. And of course, there’s the sense of aloneness that swamps you in an almost suffocating way when you do flee. This was driven home painfully again in the Facebook comments on my post, by a friend who had been forced out of The Crowded House also:

Seen it, lived it, got the T-shirt. I think the most painful thing about going through this type of abusive scenario is actually the rejection and distancing by people you had previously known as friends. Sometimes, as it was in our case when we left, it is deliberately orchestrated by the leader and their acolytes. Sometime it is just that people do not know what to think or who is in the wrong and it is easier to keep quiet and not get involved. Sometimes, it is just that people want to keep a low profile, and not attract any of the abusive behaviour towards themselves. Whatever the reasoning behind the lack of contact with those who have to leave, that disruption to relationships is one of the hardest and most painful things that happens in these situations. For us, more than ten years have passed since that time. However, the pain and hurt caused can be as raw today as it was then.

That’s it, right? It’s the feeling that you have sunk below the waves and they have closed over you and there is no trace of you left. It was only when I started to make some noise about this issue that there was a trickle – growing to a veritable flood – of people contacting me. People who were broken and lonely. People who had been kicked to the kerb. People who had been so deeply involved in a community they loved that when they were ejected from it, felt totally bereft.

And perhaps it’s because things are so mixed that you feel devastated when the door closes behind you on the way out. Reading Dave’s report, and if you’ve read my series of blog posts also, you’ll realise that there’s a lot of gold among that dross. There’s a lot of hugs that are missed amidst all those massages that give you the shudders.

One of things that is often said to me, and to others who have had similar experiences, is that the caution publicly offered to the leader makes this worse. There’s a reflexive presumption – especially among more conservative types when it’s a conservative leader who is under the microscope – that it may be disaffected ex-leaders or ex-followers (exevangelicals?) who are causing the furphy for their own unpublicised reasons. That’s why this observation, made by a fellow-traveller with me in Sheffield – made for painful reading:

In my personal experience individuals in a church are ostracised and condemned as guilty without anything close to a fair or reasonable chance to ‘prove’ themselves innocent. I suppose what I’m saying is (without trying to sound all #metoo about it!) is that it’s perhaps time we gave more credence to the multiple stories of abuse and coercive control when they come out of churches, so that it can be dealt with appropriately. The pattern here is that abusive leaders get away with it for far too long because they’re given the benefit of the doubt over years and even decades. That’s become a big problem, in my opinion.

Please note, it takes ten to fifteen years for that kind of post to be made public. To have the courage to make it public. Because for so, so long, people feel like they are the sole survivor. They have no way of joining the dots, or knowing who else may have left, or what their experiences may have been. It’s just a deep aloneness that gets into your bones. Even with Jesus. Even with Jesus. I’m sorry to say that, but you can’t speak up the church as being absolutely vital to the spiritual health of a Christian, then tell them that when it breaks down, that they can lean on Jesus. Of course they can. And the King Jesus they can lean on has told his church to bear one another’s burdens.

So sole survivor, you do have Jesus. But you do have a growing body of people who are speaking out on this, and probably a bunch from the group that you left. You didn’t imagine this stuff up. It happened. And speaking up about it is no more betrayal of the church you have left, or its self-proclaimed ministry, than speaking up about DV in a marriage relationship is. Sunlight is the disinfectant that will cleanse this. And for the likes of the abusive leader, the sunlight of this age is an act of God’s mercy. The Son Light of the age to come may have less margin for the likes of Mike.

But rest assured, you are not alone. You do not have to be a sole survivor.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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