Get a Second Opinion on that Spiritual Abuse

It was one of those intensely awkward nights. Where we were all lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, and trying to pretend like we weren't a gaggle of teenage girls giggling that the lights were out. But we were only a bunch of teenage boys on a youth group retreat so let's be honest: there wasn't much of a difference. Finally, I broke the juvenile din of manic snickering and fake fart sounds.

"Guys. I've been thinking about killing myself."

I had just learned only months earlier that my parents were splitting up. That's pretty common these days, but just 13 years ago, it wasn't nearly as much. And like the stockbroker who had invested his life savings in Enron, I felt like I had lost everything. So I confided to my friends in the room that I had been spending a lot of time in front of the medicine cabinet--wondering how many Tylenol it would take.

What would you do if a lifelong friend told you that?

Well, one of my friends was more than a little concerned. So much so that he told our pastor what I had shared in confidence. He was genuinely scared for me. And most pastors probably would've approached someone in my situation privately, in a safe environment, and carefully raised the concern.

That's not what happened.

I'll never forget the night I was sitting in the back of our church gymnasium during a members' quarterly meeting where internal prayer matters were often addressed. That's when I heard my name.

"We should also be praying for Alex Bersin. He's been having some suicidal thoughts lately, no doubt due to everything that's been going on with his family."

I was embarrassed. My life was on display enough as it was, seeing that my father was the church worship pastor and my mother the choir pianist. But my friend was also embarrassed. His concern for me had been cheapened into a daytime soap opera of betrayal. Dear friend, if you're reading this, please know that I feel nothing but affection for what you did in love. You may have very well saved my life.

Because my sadness and depression quickly dissolved into anger and indignation. It took me three weeks to get over it. Meaning I stopped attending church for three weeks. Big deal, right? It was for me.

photo credit: sxyblkmn via photopin cc
Do you relate to that? Have you also been vexed by the church? Trust me, you're not alone. You should hear some of the stories I've heard. There are folks out there who have truly been abused spiritually by people who were supposed to have been their spiritual caretakers. That's just not what happened to me.

What I experienced is what I like to simply call: life. A very fallen and broken life filled with even more broken people. But the temptation is to hear another's tale of religious woe and start making comparisons. Pretty soon we're projecting that person's story onto our own situation and drawing unrealistic conclusions of wrongdoing and abuse. And this is not only unfair and lacking in grace, it's disrespectful to our spiritual leaders.

Remember what the Scriptures say, our leaders are responsible for our spiritual well-being (Heb 13:17). Their task is not without severity, which is why Paul said, "The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses" (1 Tim 5:17, 19). In other words, if you're suspicious that your pastor is being abusive, get a second opinion.

My pastor made a mistake. And if he's reading this, I hope he knows that I forgive him and harbor no hard feelings. Because I would never want to unduly defame a brother, let alone one worthy of double honor.

Besides, "abuse" and "cult" should never be words we throw around lightly.


Not long after I published this, the pastor I referenced heard about it and was heartbroken. It had been so long ago and I imagine he was under so much stress that he didn't remember this had happened. Nevertheless, he contacted me promptly and invited me out for coffee to ask for my forgiveness. I continue to count him a brother and a significant spiritual influence in my life.