Category: Women in the church

Why “Meet Me Where I Am”?

Some of the best pastoral care I’ve had over the years has been within my church small group. I love everything about small groups – a group of women, meeting weekly, digging into the Bible together, praying for each other, eating an inordinate amount of snacks together, crying, laughing, learning and growing. Within a group of women like this, we truly do life together. We get each other. We can sympathise and minister to each other with all the raw honesty that is needed and without any “Sunday church politeness”.

The most troubling pastoral care I’ve had is when people have tried to meet me where they are, not meet me where I am. What do I mean by this? When someone comes to us with a pastoral issue, we can sometimes instinctively do any of the following:

  • Try and solve the problem without listening to the full extent of the issue;
  • Question the viewpoint (Did that really happen? Isn’t that over-reacting? I wouldn’t have taken it like that. That doesn’t seem to me to be that big of a deal. I know the other party and they probably didn’t mean it. Is the problem that your husband is away for work? Is the real problem that you’ve forgotten to take your antidepressants? Aren’t you being overly emotional?);
  • Jump straight to a Bible passage to try and make the person feel better.

All of these, as well meaning or as accidental as they can be, actually meet the person where we are. What do I think about this situation? If I would react in X way, but the person is responding in a Y way, I’m going to pastor as though you should be responding in X way, because that’s the way I understand the correctness of this situation.

This is problematic. And it can contribute to a feeling that churches are disconnected from reality. Great theology, but lacking in understanding and grace. Meeting people where you are inhibits trust (and actively promotes distrust). It makes people feel misunderstood and at worst, not cared for. It can build a picture that there is a disconnect between the pulpit and the pew – which is a sad assumption that the general populace have of the church anyway, without us accidentally contributing to it.

It can also become self-perpetuating. This kind of pastoring creates barriers. It stops open communication. It makes people feel they can’t be honest in revealing themselves. So they hide. They hide behind their polite-Sunday-face. And the issue gets hidden. Down deep. Where it festers and spreads like a cancer in the soul. And all the while, growing a resentment towards the church because you feel like they don’t get you and don’t hear you.

Women need to feel heard. And they need to feel valued. Good pastoral care is not reactive when a crisis has happened. Good pastoral care is walking through life with them on the good days, and sitting with them in the darkness on the bad days.

Great pastoral care is knowing people enough to know what to pray for them – on the good days and the bad.

Jesus didn’t meet people where he was – and if anyone had the right to do that, it was him. Jesus met people where they were. In Mark 5, Jesus went to find the demon possessed man. He didn’t judge the mans situation and how he got there and he didn’t question if things were really that bad. He met him where he was.

When, in Matthew 9, the woman who had been bleeding for years approached him secretly for healing, he didn’t judge her condition even though, in Jewish culture, it should have been personally distasteful to him. He met her where she was.

When in Luke 7 a woman come and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, Jesus does not judge her or question her or solve her problem with a vague scriptural platitude. He meets her where she is.

The reason I called this blog “Meet Me Where I Am” is because that’s my plea. And it’s my prayer for every woman. Real women have real problems. We have mental health issues. We struggle with our faith. We struggle with our confidence. Sometimes we snort when we laugh. Many of us have kids and now avoid jumping up and down. We struggle with our weight. We can’t wait to take our bras off at the end of the night. We love Jesus. We love the Bible. Sometimes we cry in the shower for no reason. We want to feel valued. We want to have a voice.

We love our churches. We have wonderful ministers and pastors and Christian sisters. But we want to be met where we are. We don’t want our pain to be questioned or a quick solution presented. We need pastoral care to be as important as the pulpit. We need theology and humanity.

And let’s not forget – women make up over half of our churches. If we support and nourish our women, we support and nourish the whole family. On top of that, women are seed sowers. We talk to everyone. We connect with people far beyond our immediate landscape. If we make our women feel valued, they will feel confident. If they feel confident, who knows how many seeds they will sow?

I have had the benefit of being around some wonderful ministers and I’ve been around some others with a few blind spots – nobody’s perfect. This is a general plea and prayer for all though. Meet me where I am. Meet all of us where we are. Let your growth in Christ-likeness include putting the self to one side when pastoring a woman. Resist the urge to solve or question. Just let us be heard. Be real with us. And let us be our real selves with you. The church will be enormously enriched by it.

Dissecting emotional abuse and why it’s so easy to let it happen

Some things sound like a cop-out or an excuse. Emotional abuse is one of those. Physical abuse we can see. Psychological abuse we can understand. But emotional abuse seems a bit wish-washy. Doesn’t everyone say mean things from time to time? Does that make everyone an abuser? It feels like a blanket “men are mean” accusation, a large net that scoops up everyone and devalues real abuse,

This is why I feel moved to dissect this. Because it is real abuse. And there are people around us suffering from this right now, or suffering with post-trauma. If we can understand it, we can help them. So let’s get into it.

It’s hard for people to understand emotional abuse. First, much of the abuse is unseen so when abuse is declared, people can only judge by the behaviours they have seen and what they are hearing doesn’t seem to match what they’ve witnessed.

Second, people judge the behaviour by how they would feel, and if they wouldn’t feel abused by it, the behaviour is not judged to be inappropriate. The feelings of the victim are judged in comparison to the feelings of someone who is not in that situation.

Third, it’s hard to explain. A popular perception is that emotional abuse is just saying mean things or calling names. It can be those things, but it is so much more. It is the gradual compression of the spirit (more on this below).

Fourth, the victim is subject to the behaviour for years and so it is their “normal”. I’ve written before about the surprising number of women who don’t realise they are in an abusive situation (you can read it here). Think the mythical frog in a pot of boiling water. If you drop a frog into boiling water, it will jump straight out. If you put the frog in cold water, it will keep swimming while it gradually heats up. It grows accustomed to the increasing temperature – until it’s too late.

It is a subtle but tectonic shift over many years. But there is a process. Which means there are red flags you can look out for – flags by which you can protect yourself, or, flags to help you can recognise if someone you know is in a situation like this. I’ve summarised it in the diagram below and then talked through what those steps mean.

“Abuse” is a strong word. Not many people think they are “an abuser”. That’s because people tend to judge themselves by their intentions and other people by their actual behaviour. The majority of abusers intentions are not to abuse. But their behaviour is abusive. Let’s look at the process.

At the beginning of an abusive relationship, there may be some bullish behaviour and subtle control and manipulation. But two things blind the victim to their presence:

  1. The victim’s own confidence, self-esteem, coping mechanisms and support network are sufficient to override any disquiet or cope confidently with any shortcomings in the spirit of compromise within a new relationship; and
  2. Lovebombing” is a real technical team that describes an abusers modus operandi. Here are the main red flags – they will hook up quickly after the last relationship; they will isolate their new partner, shut out friends and so on and place all attention and affection on the partner (and themselves) so they are deeply and exclusively connected. Even if the victim has a large social network, there is an emotional interdependence created, an exclusive bubble; they will likely engage in repeated romantic gestures, extravagant attention and usually will co-habit and/or propose quickly. The reason this is so effective is that the victim is the subject of a Hollywood style level of affection. This behaviour covers over a multitude of subtle manipulation, coercion and power playing.

The next step occurs after some time of diminishing. The victim’s confidence gradually diminishes, their support networks might diminish as they are isolated, or their feeling of being able to talk to those networks diminishes. At the same time, the grand romance diminishes.

Over time, the victim has become more and more vulnerable to bullying, manipulation, control and coercion. But, in the style of the frog in the water, the victim might not know they are in boiling water. They might not know that their partner’s behaviour is not acceptable. It has become their normal.

The victim at this point may be soldiering on in their public life but inside feeling gradually crushed. At some point, as the capacity to cope dips below the level of adverse behaviour experienced, the wheels will fall off. If you’re interested, I’ve written before about the relationship between coping and trauma here.

This can be where the point of recognition occurs – the recognition of being in boiling water.

When the point of recognition occurs, the victim’s responses to the abuser will change as they realise what is happening to them. This is a critical juncture. Because as the victim’s behaviour changes, so does the abuser’s. The bullying and control and manipulation will begin to escalate. Volatility will become greater and more frequent, as will mood swings and the unpredictability as the abuser senses loss of control. Usually this is where gaslighting also escalates – an abusers process of making the victim believe it is their fault, or not happening, or even that they themselves are the abuser (read more here).

Then comes another downward spiral. Self-doubt in the victim leads to hopelessness and despair. This is on top of the emotionally abusive tactics (which are varied, diverse and insidious) which can generate real and deep fear and high levels of anxiety. The volatility of the abuser means that anger explosions don’t even need to happen for the abuse to occur – the fear is enough. Think of it this way: I have a new dog. At first when I was training her, I’d use words and tone of voice and even actions. Now, a mere 3 months later, my dog only has to see the look on my face to feel sure she is about to be shut outside and she’ll dart under the couch to hide from me. Victims have been trained and conditioned to know when to feel fear.

At this point, several possible outcomes are possible. The victim may reach breaking point and leave. Or, the abuse may escalate to physical violence as well.

This is not an outcome that can be tolerated by our community. But it need not reach this point for it to become not tolerable. Emotional abuse ought not to be tolerated by our community either. It is emotional violence. It is damaging and scarring.

When we understand emotional abuse (and this short blog by no means explains all the nuances!) we can become more aware to behaviour that is not ok. It may not be behaviour that is abusive yet – but yet is the key word. If we can see where behaviour is heading in that direction, if we can see some red flags, we can help and support the people around us who may be experiencing this emotional violence and damage.

Just don’t be a jerk

Here’s a shocking thing.

A recent study of 122,000 women found that over a third had been in abusive relationships. But of those 65% of remaining women who said they hadn’t been in an abusive relationship, almost two thirds had experienced problematic, harsh and potentially abusive treatment from a partner.* We tend to think of “abuse” as something visible that those other horrible people do. What this kind of study shows is that many are well into the grey-area of abusive behavior in their relationships – and may not even know it.

A study as far back as 1997 found that over a third of married women had been sexually coerced by their husbands. The reason this is important is that this is not just rape. This is not just coercing particular sexual acts that a partner is not comfortable with.  This can be actions that people don’t even realise are abusive. “Coercion” can include exploiting a woman’s sense of duty, expecting sex after spending money, bullying, repeated pressure or humiliating women into unwanted sex.** This can be particularly difficult to gauge because men and women are created so differently. There is the old joke that men are toasters and women are slow cookers. Women need some encouragement whereas (generally), men need far less encouragement. But when does “encouragement” become “coercion”?

How do we know? How can we tell? And then, how do we approach it better?

The Sydney Diocese drafted in 2017 (and formally accepted at synod in 2018) a document called “Responding to Domestic Abuse: Policy and Good Practice Guideline.”*** It is a great piece of work. At one point, it quotes a clinical psychologist and clergy wife:

“When you haven’t personally experienced abuse, it’s easy to listen with an attitude of
assessing whether what is being reported is really abuse. ‘Would I find that abusive?
Doesn’t everyone argue sometimes?’”

This is the trap that we (and those with their toes in the abusive end of the swimming pool) can fall into. Those listening to the victim’s story may mentally evaluate whether they would find that behavior abusive and judge the story on their own response. The question that has to be asked is not “Would I find that behavior intimidating?”. This is not about you. This is about how the victim perceives the behavior and emotionally responds. The question to the victim must be “Did you feel safe in that confrontation?”

You may not have found that behavior unacceptable. But you’re not the person living that life. When a person has been repeatedly subject to bullying and abuse over a long period of time, their capacity to deal with any situation is far less than someone who has a normal threat response.

Even worse, people can judge their own behavior as acceptable because they themselves would not find it intimidating, scary or abusive, or, have enough cognitive dissonance to not believe that of themselves when called out on it. I have heard a well-educated middle class male state, regarding an incident in which the police were called, say afterwards that the incident couldn’t be counted as part of his behavior pattern because he was upset. Here’s the newsflash. Hardly any abusive person thinks they are abusive – they think they are justified. Saying “You can’t count that, I was upset” is about as cliched as it gets unfortunately.

We hear about domestic abuse on the news a lot and yet things don’t seem to change. Is this partially because we are not yet having a conversation about worrying or inappropriate behavior before it becomes a news story? Do we need to talk more about the kind of behavior that dabbles in that gray-area? Do we need to look more closely at just basic appropriate behavior within our relationships?

This issue requires great humility and honesty and repentance from us all if we are to change this. The first place to start is God’s word:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23

Gentleness and self-control. The cause of much pain and conflict is pride and power. How much might be avoided if our interactions with our partners were marked not by pride and power, but by gentleness and self-control. This would mean regulating our natural negative emotions and processing them through our discipleship growth.

Anyone can do a marriage course (and they should!) but we can fall into the trap of making our discipleship a personal goal which is compartmentalised from outward interactions. The fruit of our journey in Christ-likeness must be shown in our interactions – and particularly our conflicts – with others.

What we need is for our churches and ministers to have discussion groups and seminars and courses on appropriate behavior in marriage. What does it look like? I mean, really look like? Get down and dirty with the truth. Are there some basic things that could come across as intimidating just because of physical differences? Are there things that we personally do that could come across the wrong way? When we get angry (which is natural), how do we process and regulate it so we can respond with gentleness? Or do we let it come out, un-filtered, in our words, tone, pitch, vocal register, our physicality, facial expression and stance. Are there things that your partner finds intimidating but doesn’t say? We need to find opportunities to talk about these things outside of conflict.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) This doesn’t say “Attack is the best form of defence.” This doesn’t say “You must prove yourself right.” This definitely does not say “If they don’t agree with you, they are by nature wrong.” What this boils down to is gentleness and self-control.

What this can also boil down to is just don’t be a jerk. This does not just go for men. This is also women. Women can be jerks too. Our discipleship growth is not the only answer, but it sure starts laying a good foundation for some long-term cultural shifts. We need to not respond to these harsh truths with hurt pride, but with humility and willingness to work together – and work hard.

What this also needs is a conversation. Because there is some pretty awful behavior happening that ends up in very bad places. It also ends up with people in our churches crumbling on the inside and needing things to change and needing someone to love and protect them.

Just because we are grown up doesn’t mean that we know everything. There may well be some behavior that needs to be repented of. At the very least there should be conversations within relationships and groups about what this might mean. And if you’re going well (which most are!), be a support to a brother or sister. Help them to understand and help them to course-correct.

There should be a commitment to learning and growing together – which is exactly what the Bible exhorts us to do anyway. We will not be finished until the last day, so in the Spirit, let us lift each other up, not pull each other down. But please, just don’t be a jerk.

 

* https://www.businessinsider.com.au/two-thirds-of-women-dont-realise-they-experience-abusive-behaviour-2018-5?r=US&IR=T

** https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12477095

and

https://truthout.org/articles/its-time-to-confront-sexual-harassment-within-marriage/

*** https://safeministry.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Responding-to-Domestic-Abuse-Policy-Guidelines-and-Resources.pdf

 

 

Do we still need International Women’s Day?

Until recently I didn’t know whether I was a feminist or not. Mostly because I don’t really know what it means these days. I mean, back in the 1910s it was about identity and political recognition – the vote (and so much more!). Back in the 1960s it was personal freedom and social and cultural recognition (and so much more!). But I don’t really know what it means today. Surely we’re doing OK? Do we really need a day if we’re all basically doing alright?

The women’s movement that I see on the telly and social media seems angry, bitter, screechy and just downright unpleasant sometimes. It can even seem like its not about equality any more but superiority. And I’m not down with any of that. BUT we still seem to be in a cultural mess when it comes to attitudes to women. (This includes how “the screechy feminists” are reported on in the media and portrayed in opposition on social media as it turns out).

Time to spend too much money at Book Depository and read up about women and decide once and for all if I am a feminist, I thought.

The good news is, Goal #1 (Spend too much money at Book Depository) was achieved v v quickly. Goal #2 (Decide if am a feminist) has taken a few months of reading and thinking.

It turns out I am one. Just not one of the angry screechy ones.

Walk through my thinking with me because this involves the guys too.

I read quite a bit about the history of the women’s movement and was reminded just how “new” the women’s movement really is. We’ve had the vote for only 100 years. It became illegal to sack us for getting pregnant only 40 years ago. It took 20 years in the US to ensure marital rape was a crime in 50 states – it was achieved in only 1993, just one year after marital rape became a crime in all States in Australia. That’s right. A husband could rape his wife less than 30 years ago, and it was not a crime.

In terms of large scale movements, this is a fledgling one. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that we still have a long way to go. This feels weird to write because comparatively, I’m doing fine. I went to university, I have risen gradually through my profession, I work now in a firm that has excellent attitudes to gender equity.

I have also seen men defend, support and protect women. I’ve seen them go into bat for them, put them forward, lift them up. I’ve seen women not have to fight the fight on their own. I’ve seen it work as a team effort. And it is amazing.

But I have personally experienced attitudes that range from casual sexism to downright misogyny. Unfortunately this goes for inside the church as well as in the world. I’ve seen women hurt and damaged, I’ve seen them held back and put down. I’ve seen attitudes to women that are old fashioned, unhelpful and just plain damaging. I’ve even seen these attitudes smuggled in under the guise of biblical male headship. (For anyone struggling with this, I alluded to the “inferior-and-different” attitude in a previous blog. You can read it here. Just know there’ll be future pieces exploring and re-dressing the equal-and-different paradigm that is cleansed of those damaging elements.)

I also know that in our broken world, there are nearly 25 million slaves today and 71% of them are women and girls. In fact, sex trafficking is one of the fastest growing “trades” in the world. There are also an estimated 15 million women and girls forced into marriage every year. There are still countries where a woman, if she is raped, will be flogged or executed for adultery.

So yes. I am fine. And the Bible tells me who I am in God’s eyes and it is beautiful. But we also live in this awful broken world and so if one woman is held back, hurt, enslaved or executed on the basis of her gender then I am NOT fine.

Yes, I am fine. But that means that I must speak up and become mobilised. Its the price for being alive and OK both at the same time. I have been blessed by God in my situation and my home and my finances. It is incumbent on me then, to use them in support of others who’s blessings have been removed from them.

Yes, I am fine, but we still need International Women’s Day to shine a light on inequality of respect – even casual sexism feeds a culture that is numb to rubbish attitudes to women. We need International Women’s Day to help people understand that at current rates, women will achieve parity in the workplace in 202 years. We still need International Women’s Day to come together to look at how we can use our “fine-ness” to support other women.

When it works best though, is when the men get involved too. “Male feminist” is not an oxymoron or a joke. I know many of them. They are secure in themselves as men and as Christian men. They are confident enough to stand up for women without being jerks or being patronising or hypocritical. They are just good guys with good attitudes and who feel compelled to call out crap when they see it.

There is so much more to be said about a lot of this, but for now, let’s keep the spotlight on why we need days like International Women’s Day, on using our “fine-ness” in support of others, in fighting – shoulder to shoulder with men – against basic terrible attitudes to women that provide fertile ground for even more terrible behaviour.

 

We need you, Christian men!

OK, normally I don’t like to shout but this made me bloody angry. A game called “Rape Day” (I kid you not) was set to be released on video game platform Steam run by Valve. In the last couple of days, a change.org petition got up and in the last 12 hours, Valve decided not to sell the game on Steam.

Here’s the facts you need to know: The game is set during the zombie apocolypse and “described by developer Desk Lamp as a visual novel, players can verbally harass, kill and rape women as they progress through the story.“*

This is not made up. Someone actually thought up and developed this game and one of the largest gaming platforms nearly distributed it.

Valve said that “After significant fact-finding and discussion, we think Rape Day poses unknown costs and risks and therefore won’t be on Steam. We respect developers’ desire to express themselves, and the purpose of Steam is to help developers find an audience, but this developer has chosen content matter and a way of representing it that makes it very difficult for us to help them do that.

You know what they should have said? “We, as humans, are OUTRAGED that someone could even THINK that something like this is OK, and we are not going to have anything to do with it. Further, we’ve referred the developers to the authorities as we think this game publicizes, celebrates, endorses and condones violent behavior towards other humans which could be ILLEGAL.”

THAT’S what they should have said.

Desk Lamp (the developer) wrote “The game is marked as adult. It’s for a niche audience; If it’s not your type of game you definitely don’t need to play it but as other’s have said I tried to make a game that I would enjoy playing, and there are other people like me. 4% of the general population are sociopaths and the type of people that would be entertained by a story like this is not even limited to pure sociopaths.

You know what this means? That there are people who are so entirely lacking in humanity that they think its alright to feed the dangerous fetishes of sociopaths and mainstream them for entertainment. And we are allowing it, because we aren’t fighting this tsunami of rubbish.

So let’s break down all the element’s of the developer’s rationale above.

  • “It’s a game for adults.” Oh. That’s OK then. Because if it’s for grown ups, acting out rape is totally alright.
  • “It’s for a niche audience. If you don’t want to play it, then don’t.” Of course, you’re right! I don’t know about you girls (and guys!) but the next time someone is trying to rape us, we should acknowledge that this is just their particular fetish and that’s OK.
  • “It’s not just for sociopaths.” Great! What used to be the just for insane people can now be done by any anyone and everyone!
  • “They will be entertained by it.” That’s RIGHT! Because rape is ENTERTAINING. Frankly, WHAT THE EFF.

This is why domestic violence is one of the biggest problems of our era. This is why there are over 20 million sex slaves in the world today – a quarter of which are children.

Why are people not outraged by this? Have we become so culturally numb that we have allowed this to just become part of the backdrop of our world?

Well, here’s what we need. We need our Christian guys to get outraged. Women have been saying for millennia that guys should stop raping people and nobody has listened. And now its a game.

So now we need our men to get so thoroughly heart sick of this that you become mobilised to speak and to act, to protect and to fight for us. Christian men – real men – exemplify this:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Galatians 5:22-23

Please, let’s start a conversation about what Christian men can do and how we can fight this fight together because if we don’t, we are looking at so many more millennia of this inhumanity – and who knows where it will end up if we don’t?

 

* https://au.ign.com/articles/2019/03/06/controversial-game-rape-day-wont-be-allowed-on-steam