One elder said he and his colleagues were at their “wit’s end,” stuck in a “he-said/she-said situation.” He said he knew the husband as a “kind person with a servant’s heart” and T as a faithful women’s ministry leader for years. The church’s family pastor said the elders were “trying to separate the weeds of so many years of counseling from the sudden abuse claims. It’s like different-colored Play-Doh that’s been mushed together. You can’t separate them.”
T says it took her a long time to use the language of “abuse” because she didn’t know what it was. In 2014 she started reading books about domestic abuse: She says the stories of depressed and distressed women sounded like her own story. Then during a counseling session in Missouri, the counselor suddenly sent her husband out of the room and told her what she had just described was sexual abuse. She burst into tears and couldn’t stop crying. She then sent the email to the elders accusing her husband of abuse. She was hoping the elders would support her.
Soon after she sent that email, two pastors and a pastor’s wife met with T. One pastor (no longer at the church) who had counseled T and her husband said he didn’t believe her because the man he knew wasn’t the man she described. After the meeting, T continued sending emails to the leaders asking for help but received no response. Today the elders say they could have responded to her faster, but they say it wasn’t due to a lack of care. Rather, they felt stymied and unsure how to move forward.
Then T took several actions that alarmed the elders. She moved out of her house and filed for a legal separation without seeking their counsel. She said that was a way to keep her husband financially accountable for all his secret bank accounts, but the elders saw it as sidestepping their pastoral leadership and moving toward divorce—a violation of their church covenant.
During a counseling session … the counselor suddenly sent T’s husband out of the room and told her what she had just described was sexual abuse. She burst into tears.
The elders asked both husband and wife to take a domestic violence inventory test, a self-reporting tool used to assess accusations of domestic abuse. The husband took it but T refused, an action the elders saw as further noncompliance. They met with the couple a second time and conferred with T’s marriage counselor, who told them he didn’t think she was in any danger.
T saw the elders as not following through—other than two meetings, she didn’t see or hear much from the elders, and she didn’t see any change in her husband. She was alone in a new apartment, struggling to make ends meet, still sending the elders updates about her situation but not hearing back or seeing any action. Feeling abandoned and defeated, she stopped attending church. Again, the elders read that as a lack of submission to them: “It became clear that she was just going to go her own way.”
When the elders heard that T had been meeting with other church members to tell her story of disappointment with them, they accused T of causing division within the church body. In March 2016—14 months after she charged abuse—the elders sent her a 10-page letter saying they did not believe her accusations. If there was any indication of capital-A abuse taking place in the couple’s household, they wrote, it was from her.
The elders asked her to repent, threatening to remove her from church membership. T refused to withdraw her accusations of abuse. Two months later, the elders excommunicated her and sent a letter about that to the entire church. Today, T’s ex-husband is still a member of the church, while T has moved to Minnesota, feeling the church had spiked a scarlet letter to her chest.
Meanwhile, the elders stand by their judgment. They said they had “poured heart and soul” into the couple, but ultimately, T chose to “stretch out [claims of abuse] to justify her way out of a really tough marriage.”
Today, almost two years after the excommunication, T’s story is still stirring confusion, division, and hurt in the church. Congregants took sides. Several church members confronted the elders asking for answers: One couple left the church because they disagreed with the elders’ decisions. Another couple, part of the church for 14 years, circulated a letter calling the elders to repent.