After reading my “#MeToo” story, a friend asked whether I had forgiven the colleagues and professors I had written about. As a spiritual and religious person, I am a little embarrassed to admit that I had not thought much about forgiveness in the context of my personal harassment. So as we welcomed and celebrated the Incarnation of God in the human being of Jesus, I pondered this question. I’ve come to realize that forgiveness for those who failed me in various ways when I was a young female pastor had been a part of developing spiritual and emotional maturity; it rarely came as an intentional decision.
I saw that I’d overlooked forgiving my harassers, in part, because my anger at them was conflated with my frustration with the institutional church, which failed to listen, to take me seriously, and to help me seek justice; it failed even to require appropriate behavior from its male leaders. Further, the church had failed to provide much-needed support as I tried to serve my first two congregations.
The first congregation had longstanding internal power struggles. It was an inappropriate post for a first-time pastor of either gender, yet my requests for help and guidance from colleagues and judicatory staff went unheeded. Eventually I resigned and embarked upon eight months of therapy to put myself back together, spiritually and psychically. My next call, in a different state, was from an inner-city church in need of an urban ministry strategy. I turned to that judicatory staff for help with developing a cooperative vision and a plan for resourcing and supporting it; again, I was met with inaction. Independently, for four years, I formed partnerships there with other congregations where feasible, as I pastored a congregation in frequent crisis.
But then, after almost a decade of being a female intern and novice pastor seeking help from my church leaders and finding none, I resigned from the ministry and answered another call – to become a full-time mom and to heal an exhausted mind, body, and spirit. During my extended leave, I focused on my family and self-care. Not on forgiveness.
Now, turning my attention to that left-behind matter, I find that something has changed, even without my awareness or intention. First, I found that I’ve often thought of forgiveness as something to offer when someone who has wronged me apologizes — forgiveness wipes the slate clean and erases a debt, giving the relationship a fresh start. Such reconciliation is essential in our close, on-going relationships with friends and family. I am grateful to have experienced this in one situation of harassment. The Bible, however, reminds me that I am called upon to forgive others simply because God has forgiven me (Ephesians 4:32). God’s forgiveness is free, unmerited, a gift of love and grace. God expects us to offer this same selfless mercy to others, whether or not it is requested, undeserved, or the hurt goes deep. This kind of forgiveness frees the other, but also frees us from bitterness, resentment, and the spiritual and physical illnesses that can result from hanging on to toxic emotions.
Still, forgiving does not mean continuing to put ourselves in harm’s way. Forgiving does not mean accepting or condoning a wrong-doer’s behavior. Forgiving does not mean that we do not pursue justice through administrative or legal channels. Forgiving does mean letting go of the desire for revenge. “Repay no one evil for evil … Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19). At its fullest, forgiveness frees us from giving those who have harmed us power over our emotions, choices, thoughts and self-identity; we stop giving them free rent in our heads and hearts. This can be done alongside an adjudication process, or without such a process. Each of us must wrestle with the healing path that is best for us.
Taking leave to raise my children was a first step in the forgiveness process — a decision to get myself out of harm’s way to heal. What I’ve learned over that time has helped me with other important aspects of forgiveness—forgiveness both for my perpetrators and the institutional church. That included looking at myself and confronting my own expectations. I needed to stop being surprised by sin and to stop expecting the church — or any human institution for that matter — to be free of sin and brokenness. Of course, the church and the people in it fail me and others on a regular basis — as do I, and all of us! My sin has been putting my faith and trust in something other than God incarnate in Jesus Christ (a wonderful reflection as we celebrate the Nativity).
It is freeing to understand that I am not to expect nor look to the church or anyone in it, to take care of me; that is my job through my relationship with God. I learned the distinction between asking someone to care for and about me in a healthy way versus asking them to take care of me and giving up my own personal power, volition, and responsibility. Without this shift, I would have been perpetually wounded and disappointed by the fact that the church and its leaders are all part of our fallen world. This realization opened me up to forgiving the church. This growing spiritual maturity has resulted in deeper emotional freedom. I have stopped giving my perpetrators power over my identity and confidence and, over time, I have stopped letting mistrust of male colleagues prevent me from exploring team ministry. The last step in this process has been to forgive myself, both for having unrealistic expectations and for hanging on to fear, even unconsciously. Reflecting on and writing about this has helped move me into this last step of self-forgiveness.
After nine years at home with my children and running a home business, in 2006 I returned to parish ministry. The ELCA (Evangelical Church in America) as an institution also had grown and changed over these years. For instance, there are more policies in place to make congregations safe for everyone, including children, and when pastors or other leaders commit boundary violations, there are procedures and ways to find help. In addition, it's thrilling to be part of a denomination that welcomes LGBTQ+ people into the full life of the church, its ministry, and its marriage rites! In fact, I can say that I love the ELCA now more than I ever have since my ordination in 1989. This reveals my own spiritual and emotional growth toward the freedom and fullness of forgiveness that includes my perpetrators, the institution, and myself.
This love leads me to care for the church – to help it be faithful when it fails, to seek the path of truth, reconciliation, justice, accountability, and forgiveness — but not to expect it to take care of me. I need to be okay at my core because of the salvation God freely gives in Jesus Christ, and that’s true both when the church and its leaders are faithful, and when we fail. For me, that’s the freedom of forgiveness that comes from a process of deepening my own spiritual life rooted in the love and mercy of God. Through God’s unmerited forgiveness of me, and love for me, I am freed to forgive others, and freed to love and serve as God calls me to today, regardless of what has happened in my past.
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