I want to get into some of the details of what I experienced in my abusive marriage and how that played out in a complementarian church leadership setting at Faith Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Watkinsville, Georgia. I’ve struggled for some time to write this all down. Some of the things I’m going to recount are still almost physically sickening for me to think about sometimes. The last I heard, my ex was still contacting an elder at Faith whenever I said anything publicly surrounding abuse and domestic violence, threatening to take me to court or otherwise pressuring me to shut up. I’ve been rejected by church leaders and close friends as a consequence of engaging these issues widely, and Faith PCA tried to excommunicate me. The stated clerk of my presbytery at the time, Charles Garland, excoriated me at length when I reached out for help. I recorded it. He faced no consequences. So, talking about these things is costly. But I feel that my story needs to be told, because as outlandish and isolated as it still feels, even years later, and even with massive documentation that’s missing from a lot of cases, I’ve learned it’s shockingly representative of many women’s experiences in the PCA. Many others have reached out to me and shared their stories. I want to elucidate the abusive dynamics I encountered to help others, and to live my life freely with all of this out in the open.
There’s another reason: PCA General Assembly meets next week. I’ve been trying to get my case heard by Georgia Foothills Presbytery, or failing that, by General Assembly, for the last three years, with the powers that be using every administrative avenue they can muster to make it go away. There is a document authored in January 2018 by a committee of four PCA elders from Georgia Foothills including Dr. Roy Taylor, Stated Clerk of General Assembly, the highest officer in the Presbyterian Church in America, defending my presbytery’s repeated failure to hear my case on trivial administrative grounds. I attended Presbytery for the eighth time in three years this past January and was once again made to wait outside in the hall while a sanctuary full of male elders debated about me at length in raised voices and refused to let me participate or even listen. The document they passed has been accepted by this year’s Review of Presbytery Records Committee, and General Assembly will attempt to bundle it into an omnibus vote to have it passed without it being discussed or even mentioned on the floor, disposing of my case for good– that is unless one delegate who gives a meaningful rip about abused women in the PCA will move to take Georgia Foothills Presbytery out of the RPR omnibus and address it on the floor. If you are a delegate reading this, will you bring my case to the floor and speak up for women who have experienced abuse and have no voice in your denomination? Or will you look the other way and do nothing, participating in this egregious wrong?
I applied for a worship leading position at Faith PCA in the summer of 2008. They said they were looking for a candidate to design most aspects of the worship service including leading the music, which they wanted to be modern and contemporary. The church had created a long document entitled “Forward With Faith” detailing its future growth strategy, and stipulated that it wanted to hire a worship leader that would appeal to people in their twenties and thirties. I had a background leading modern worship in United Methodist, Anglican, and nondenominational young adult ministry settings all over the southeast and midwest, and had released two independent records and gone on tour a few times. The position seemed like an ideal fit.
I had been married a little over two years to J., who I had met in college several years prior. We had been involved in the same campus ministry. He was a preacher’s kid and had been a big man on campus, apparently respected and well liked. He had played in the worship band and recruited me to sing. He was divorced from his first wife, and the story he told was that she had had an affair with a recovering crack addict that he was mentoring, had refused his attempts at reconciliation, and was crazy. Most of that narrative turned out to be false, but J.’s family believed and supported it. Our mutual friends supported our relationship. J. was intelligent, romantic, and handsome, with all kinds of success stories about how great and well connected he was. He could play the charming, boyish, absent minded professor, and cry about Jesus and his mama. He played music for children and worked with adults with disabilities. He put me on a pedestal and said God had brought us together. We were engaged after a wonderful four month courtship and married four months after that.
I experienced things early on in the marriage that I didn’t recognize as abuse until much later. J. was still the wonderful guy I had dated; he certainly wasn’t punching me in the face or throwing me down flights of stairs. But right away, I began to learn that my own perceptions couldn’t be trusted– J. had to interpret reality for me. I was treated as socially inept: I was too clueless to recognize how much I had inadvertently offended someone, or how poorly a speech or business interaction of mine that I felt good about had actually been received. According to J., certain friends, family, and ministry associates were undermining me in various ways, but J. had my back. According to him, others continually perceived that I was inconsiderate and too demanding of him, materialistic and self important. He defended me whenever it came up, but didn’t they have a point? I always needed to do better and comply more with what he wanted, and any tension or conflict that arose from my failure to do that was my responsibility. I was selfish, naive, and unilateral, and didn’t understand how to be in a marriage. But he said he knew he was a prickly pear, and we were just helping each other become better, building each other up. This was a normal adjustment process that all newlyweds went through.
Sex was often coercive. I was a virgin, and the honeymoon involved continual criticism and pressure. At one point, he took me into a sex shop and had an intimate conversation about me with the salesman, who leered at me. For the rest of the marriage, if J. ever did anything for me, I owed him sex. If it was my day off work, I owed him sex. If I was exhausted at night and had to be up early and didn’t say yes, he would keep me awake and lecture me into the wee hours so that I’d be miserable and sleep deprived either way. This was also my problem and my fault.
J. said he had been financially ruined in his first divorce followed by losing everything else in a hurricane. He didn’t want me to open mail from creditors– he said he wanted to protect me from all of that. My credit was excellent, although I had several thousand dollars in debt that I was trying to pay down. Financial obligations that he had purportedly been meeting were progressively shifted onto me in ways that supposedly couldn’t be helped. I moved out of my less expensive apartment into his more expensive rental house, and he would lose a job or be out of money when rent was due, so I had to pay it. The electricity would get cut off, and he would call and yell at me for letting it happen until I charged what was owed on my credit cards– any available credit I had was free money, and woe to me if I suggested otherwise. I worked from home initially and he had an audio engineering job at first. He would come home and check up on my internet history. He would treat me like his full time assistant, then shame and blame me for my time management and say I “wasn’t working.” His paycheck paid mostly for his truck, entertainment, booze, and marijuana which he claimed to use for a serious chronic illness that he was later medically confirmed not to have. Unused prescription narcotics went missing from family members’ cabinets.
J’s illness and various manufactured crises were constant excuses for failing to meet responsibilities and sabotaging me. When my grandmother, with whom I had been very close, passed away, we traveled to Florida for the funeral and subsequent graveside service. As my family was walking out the door on the way to the cemetery, J. announced that he and I needed to stop on the way to the service and wire a payment for his truck. I told him he was on his own and rode with my parents instead. J. didn’t show up until after the service; if he had had his way, I would have been kept from my grandmother’s burial.
I had a car that I had paid off, and he had a new pickup truck with an exorbitant monthly cost. We could barely afford to keep one of them insured with a current tag at any given time, and his needs dictated who got to use it. I bought a Razor scooter so I could get to the bus stop a little faster. I walked to the grocery store. Or I spent my day shuttling him around.
One weekend, J. was out of town on a trip with his father, and I cleaned out his truck. Under the back seat, I found a letter from the ex girlfriend he dated before me. It said that he had taken or attempted to take significant money and property from her and her son with special needs, and contradicted many things that he had told me. I was horrified– it was the first concrete indicator that I might be married to a pathological liar, someone who was living a double life. It seemed unreal. I confronted him. He explained everything away and told his family it was all an attack from Satan. I wanted to believe his explanations. I burned the letter in his presence. He said that meant a lot to him. My trust meant a lot to him.
J. went through six jobs in two or three years, quitting because he thought people were doing him wrong, or getting fired for being chronically late, not meeting responsibilities, or inciting huge conflicts. I took on more and more work while my music took a back seat. I eventually convinced J. that we needed to move into a less expensive house and let the truck go– it was always months overdue for a payment. I bought a motor scooter so that I could get to my jobs and around town when J. needed the car. I rode in the rain, I rode in the cold. I rode without adequate safety gear, 20 miles to one of my jobs. We split household expenses like roommates for a while until he lost his last job, citing illness and an unjust employer. Things were happier between us in the new house at first, but I was privately coming to terms with the reality that J. didn’t hold down jobs and was bad with money. While he might get another job, we’d never have any stability unless I could cover everything and not count on anything at all from him. I said this to no one. I was absolutely committed to my marriage. Like many victims, I did not conceptualize what I was experiencing as “abuse” (although what I’ve described is textbook domestic violence– gaslighting, isolation, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse, and coercive control.) “Marriage isn’t 50-50; it’s 100-100,” I believed, and I would make it work. I needed a half time worship leading job for $20 an hour along with my other job at a nature preserve to do it. I prayed and looked for that specifically. It’s what Faith Presbyterian offered.
J. insisted on submitting his worship resume along with mine as a couple partnering in ministry. He attended the job interview with me. Faith PCA offered me the job and I started in the fall of 2008. Bob McAndrew, the senior pastor, said he had a very strong sense that God had brought me there. When I called my parents, excited to tell them I had gotten the job, J. stood over me and made me say “we” had gotten the job. (He habitually stood over me and told me what to say to others on the phone or on the computer. He would also answer my phone, then force me to take a call at a bad time, like handing me an important call from a major ministry supporter when I was asleep.)
Before I started leading worship, we attended Faith’s fall retreat and met a bunch of wonderful people our age who would go on to become my closest group of friends for the next six years. It was great, and such a relief to me– we hadn’t had many people our age at our previous church, and J. largely controlled our wider social life.
I was aware that the PCA did not ordain women but had never had any aspirations toward ordination and saw it as a secondary issue. Sincere Christians can disagree about aspects of their ecclesial structure and still worship together. However, as I met with leaders about getting started, I began to realize that the limitations they were placing on me as a woman went quite a bit further than that. The scope of my position went from designing and leading most of the worship service to basically just playing songs. With J. present, I was told, “There’s kind of a ‘thing’ about women in this church. Obviously you’ve been vetted and approved for the job, but it’s important not to overstep into anything that would be seen as more of a man’s role or an ‘Elder’ function.” I was not to pray out loud spontaneously while leading worship, or give teaching or direction on the subject of worship in between songs. Even just reading a passage of Scripture felt edgy and controversial.
Things started going well overall though. The church seemed happy with me other than a few curmudgeons. J. and I would lead Sunday morning worship and then go play music for the kids during Sunday School. I had great friends to hang out with and finally enough money to make ends meet and start getting out of debt.
The first month I was able to make a significant payment on my credit card balance, I discovered that J. had taken my Visa and run up an additional $1500 of purchases and cash advances. Now unemployed, it was as though J. made it his business to sabotage me. Everything slowly escalated. I think he had fun with it. He would go to a party while I tried to get some sleep before work, and then come home at 2:30, sneak around the back of the house, and yell and bang on the window next to my head to scare me awake. I would do hard physical outdoor work at the nature preserve all day and then ride my scooter home in a storm, asking him to be out of our one bathroom when I got home so that I could shower. I would come in and he would be taking a hot shower after being home all day while I had to wait, soaking wet, in the kitchen. Anything I wanted or needed that conflicted with him doing whatever he wanted to do was an apocalyptic transgression, and he would corner me and loom over me and yell and monologue at me for hours. He would wrestle my phone and my keys out of my hands and physically block or tackle and sit on me so that I could not get away from him or call anyone. He would stand over me and raise his hand like he was about to hit me, almost do it, but then bite his knuckle and glare at the last second as though his capacity for physical violence was barely contained. He would start a tirade when I was riding with him in the car and drive recklessly.
I tried to reason with him. I tried to overwhelm him with kindness and care. I pleaded with him to consider the impact of his behavior. I argued back furiously. I broke dishes and threw things at the wall in exasperation when he wouldn’t stop harassing me. Sometimes that made him stop, with a big show of being appalled at how crazy I was. Other times he would laugh and make fun of me and mockingly cheer me on– me being that upset was hilarious, gratifying, entertaining, and useful– just look how violent I was! I was abusing him! I insisted we get into marriage counseling and agreed to see J.’s former personal therapist. I took responsibility for “my side” of things ad nauseam. J. had abandonment issues and I needed to work on not doing things that made J. feel abandoned. But nothing I did changed anything– I was always being placed in a carefully crafted, lose-lose scenario; damned if I do, damned if I don’t.
One winter morning when it was 19 degrees outside, I left J. sitting in his underwear, drinking a beer, and watching a DVD, and went out to ride my scooter 20 miles to work at the nature preserve, because J. insisted on having my car to go see friends later. (It was my fault that he no longer had a pickup truck.) It was so cold that the scooter wouldn’t start. After several attempts, I went in and told him that I would either have to take the car to work, or he could put some clothes on and give me a ride. He said he’d do the latter. Fifteen minutes later, he hadn’t moved and I was late, so I approached him again. This set off an hours-long tirade on the subject of my selfishness. I did not make it to work that day. I went out and sat in the car and called my parents, sobbing. That was when they knew for sure something was seriously wrong, though not the extent of it– but they lived out of state, four hours away, and I was an adult. They were trying to be supportive however they could. And my truthful assertion was that J. never hit me.
J. got into harder drugs– a synthetic hallucinogen called DOC and more narcotics– and decided that instead of looking for a job, he would just sell weed. He got involved with a scary guy bringing stuff in from Latin America, not just casual hippies in the local scene. Once, he pushed me out of the bathroom and slammed the door on my leg, leaving a bruise that I photographed. Once, I recorded him on my phone during one of his tirades, during which he threatened me that if I ever went to the police about him, that I wouldn’t come home again and he wouldn’t know what had happened to me.
I thought about leaving. I threatened to. J. said that I didn’t have Biblical grounds for divorce and that the PCA church would never support me. I would lose my job and be excommunicated and ruined forever. He said that I was an unsubmissive wife and the church only hired me because it was a package deal along with him. He claimed he was having conversations with elders who said people preferred his worship leading to mine and that they might start taking my paycheck and issuing it to him instead. He said he would leverage all his family’s connections in the UMC and I’d never get a job there either. He said I was a violent, abusive alcoholic, and his family and my family and our therapist and all of our friends thought so. He had never hit me. He had not yet had an arrest. It was his word against mine– who would believe me?
One Sunday morning in the Spring of 2009, Pastor Bob asked me into his office to talk during the Sunday School hour between services. He said leaders had noticed a controlling dynamic in J.’s behavior toward me as well as toward other people on ministry teams in the church. Bob’s tone was empathetic. I had begun doing some reading about personality disorders and abuse, and was beginning to connect the dots. I was still, at that point, trying very hard to help my husband and save my marriage. Nobody had any idea what I was going through– I felt very isolated. So for a moment, sitting with the pastor, I had this hope that somebody older and wiser had some insight and was reaching out to help me. As Bob continued though, I realized this wasn’t a conversation about whether I might be in an unsafe situation or if there was anything church leaders could do to help– it was about my job performance and being critical of me for needing to do a better job of managing J.’s control. I asked why, in a complementarian context where women are supposed to submit to men, I was the one being approached and held accountable for J.’s behavior– why weren’t they confronting him about his own behavior? How was I supposed to simultaneously “submit to my husband” and control his control? Bob said, “well, we hired YOU, not J.” I was on my own to figure that out.
To be continued in Part 2.