My Story of Spiritual Manipulation
and Frustrations with the Church
Well, here it is: a story — a small but important part of my journey — that I never really thought I would share so publicly, only because I didn’t think it was that significant at the time. As it turns out, I was very wrong, because what happened in this story ended up propelling me into the hardest season yet of my spiritual life. I have alluded to the fact that my last year in Nashville was challenging, but until the beginning of this year, I didn’t realize just how dark it really was Yes, you read that correctly: this year, or just a few weeks ago. I’ve danced around the facts in the past, mentioning here and there that it was a tough season that left me frustrated and disappointed, and that I couldn’t really let go of those feelings until I was in Ireland, all of which is true. But if I were to get a bit more granular with the details, something ugly happened in my last year of living in Nashville that ended up catapulting me into a place of questioning my faith and the Church.
Let’s rewind to the end of 2016: I was nearing the end of my debt payoff journey, which was very exciting but also meant a lot of things. It meant that I was steadily working 70+ hours a week — with one full-time job and multiple side gigs — and getting maybe 5 hours of sleep per night. I was putting more than 30% of my monthly income toward rent for a space I pretty much only ever saw when I was going to sleep. I was working at a great company with solid people but in a role that did not tap into my gifts or satisfy some of my passions — meaning I felt underutilized and purposeless — and I was losing steam quickly. I was struggling to find a church where I felt like I actually belonged (ironic, for a few reasons), and was slowly dreading the idea of attending a service solo as each Sunday rolled around. I was also finding it more and more challenging to stand by while conservative southern culture bled so deeply into Christian culture, adulterating it to the point that one could hardly tell one from another. Reading this list, I think we can all agree on one thing: at the end of 2016, ya girl was a mess.
Please note: for the remainder of this post, I am intentionally censoring all names and affiliations, first, because it's not necessary to share those details as it does not advance the story, and second, to protect and honor all involved. This is my story — not theirs — and while what happened was unfortunate, I have no ill feelings toward those people and wish them the best.
In February of 2017, I attended a meeting with a bunch of women whom I had been in a “small group” with to start planning a sequel to an event we had produced a few months prior. I went into it feeling a little hesitant — like something was ever so slightly off — yet in spite of my discernment usually being able to tell me what was up, I just couldn’t quite tell what was giving me weird vibes. Without going into all of the details (because they don’t matter that much), I left the meeting disheartened and feeling overlooked, unneeded, and wary. Some things were said that made me begin to rethink my involvement — and necessity — in the group, and I went home desiring peace as to whether I was supposed to remain a part of the team.
I have consistently said in the past that I wear my heart on my sleeve, but what that really means is that I am not good at hiding how I am feeling, no matter how positive or negative that emotion may be. Chalk it up to being a highly-sensitive, empathic, and intuitive enneagram four, but I cannot stand pretending. It seems that everything within me rebels against the inauthentic. And while I understand that sometimes it is necessary to put on a face for the benefit of those around you, I don’t think that I was able to do that as I left the meeting that evening. I was hurt and exhausted, and it showed.
The next day, as I was driving to my friend’s house in a rural suburb where I was watching their dog, my phone began to ring. It was one of the women from the group, a woman I would have — at the time — considered a mentor; I was pretty close with her and her husband, who were around my own parents’ age. I answered the phone and almost immediately had the feeling that our conversation was going to be shitshow. Spoiler alert: it was. I’ll skip some of the nitty gritty details, but here is the gist of what she said to me: first, I had hurt her in how I reacted during the meeting; second, I was a distraction during the meeting with my emotions and my facial expressions, and as a result everyone was focused on me and not her; third, she and the “leadership team” (a new term to this once ragamuffin group of women who gathered on a regular basis to study) had talked late the night before and decided it was for the best if I wasn’t a part of the team moving forward because: I “was a distraction,” I “didn’t trust [her] leadership,” and I “obviously had some root issues” that I “should probably go to counseling [in order to] work them out with God.”
This led to my first and — thus far — only panic attack. I’m not one who can express my thoughts or feelings eloquently on the spot, and I was crying as I attempted to understand where she was coming from. By the time she hung up, I dropped my phone — as I think about it now I can see it all so very clearly — and began hyperventilating. I crumpled onto the floor heaving, gasping for air and uttering between breaths and with tears rolling down my face, “what is happening?” Because, really, what was happening? I had never experienced anything like this, physically or emotionally. The resulting panic attack was one thing, but the phone conversation was another. All of a sudden, I found myself questioning nearly everything, namely my identity and ability to see myself correctly. So I prayed. I sought counsel from my friends. I spent more time in self-reflection than I ever had before . . . and I’m an enneagram 4, y’all — I pretty much live in a state of self-awareness and reflection.
But then a glimmer of light shone onto my situation. As things continued to unfold and I soon found that I had been blocked by that woman on every form of social media, I turned to some of my closest friends to ask for their insight: was there something in my life I wasn’t seeing? was I blind to something that obviously needed a counselor to speak into? was I this terrible person I had been made to feel I was? It was then that a friend confided in me: she shared her story of a similar experience that she had with the same woman, which was followed soon after by another friend, and another. I realized in this that — both fortunately and unfortunately — I was not the only one who had experienced spiritual manipulation from this woman . . . and that brought me peace. I knew that I could have handled things better the night of the meeting, and I was honest about that with others and myself, but it was a load off of my back to really know that this situation likely had much less to do with me than I was led to think. From where I stood, I could see that this seemed to be a kind of pattern in this woman’s life. I saw something toxic, and decided that it was a blessing to have been removed from that group and relationship when I was. The hardest part of this ordeal was knowing that some of my other friends were still involved. My justice-oriented nature wanted to warn and protect them, but in my gut I knew that it wasn’t my place to say anything against this woman because this was my story. So I just fervently hoped that things would play out in a way that my friends didn’t have to experience anything like what I did.
All was well in my soul, until it wasn’t. I worked with someone close to this woman, who — just a week or so after the phone call — started confronting a few of my friends in my workplace about “the lies I was probably spreading" about this woman. Please remember: my workplace was full of Christians, and we had a strict “no gossip” policy. I honestly could not believe what was happening as my friend sat me down to recount the conversation that person had initiated with her. This was the point at which I also stopped going to church. A resistance to organized religion had been growing in my heart for a while (see the first few paragraph of this post), but knowing that she and her husband were very close to the pastors of the church I had been attending, I called it: I was done. In my weariness, I told Jesus that He and I were cool — that I still loved Him and that I knew He loved me — but that I just couldn’t handle His people anymore. I had seen much hypocrisy, bigotry, privilege, and manipulation — much more than I could handle — and I politely took my exit. That was around March of 2017, and I wouldn’t willingly attend another church service for at least nine months.
In relationships with other humans, especially those who claim Jesus, I think that reconciliation is very important. So when that woman and I were both invited to the same holiday gathering and I decided I wasn’t going to succumb to a victim mentality, I took the instructions from Romans 12:18 to heart — to, as much as it depended on me, live at peace with others — and I reached out to her to grab coffee and work through the tension that lingered over our “relationship.” We talked through some things, and while we both apologized for the actions and thoughts on our ends, I left knowing that that space needed to be maintained. Something still felt off, so I resolved to keep distance and do my own thing, which at the time was continuing to save for my Europe trip and preparing to move back to California.
The Church of Celebrity
There’s something else you need to understand about this season of my life before we move on, and that is this: one of my main side hustles was babysitting, and in that, I found myself interacting consistently with a few well-known Christian families throughout Nashville. From megachurch staff to Christian authors, musicians, and the like, I was in their homes and hanging out with their kids on a fairly regular basis. And while they were all lovely people who I believe did really love Jesus, I had a weird feeling in their presence, as though I was thought of as less than or someone of no consequence . . .
I also struggled with something else I was witnessing in the Christian subculture: the increase of “famous Christianity” on social media, and the weird trend of people building their platforms as Christian “influencers.” Listen, what you are about to read is a very ugly and very petty personal opinion, but it is honest, and in the spirit of my real talk niche it bears to be said: I had grown disgusted with the idolization of Christian celebrity. In that last year in Nashville, I watched as people strategically cozied up to these well-known individuals in faith-based circles, name-dropped like it was their job, and propelled their own platforms forward “in the name of Jesus” or “for the glory of Jesus.” And I called bull. To be honest, I still do. With the multitude of famous Christians that flocked to Nashville — and to certain churches/gatherings — to normal folks like you and me being starstruck by the sight of a one (trust me, it is commonplace to see them all around Nashville, especially in downtown Franklin), I just couldn’t deal anymore. I wanted to scream from the rooftops, “just because someone has thousands of followers / a few bestselling books / a massive house / a thriving ministry / whatever . . . does not make them more important than anyone else.”
Go ahead, blame it on my justice complex, but that’s the truth. We are all God’s kids, no matter what we do or do not have in this life, and He loves each and every one of us. Worldly importance or recognition mean very little in the Kingdom, especially if we’re not really using it to glorify Him. If we are, then great, but I’ve realized that it’s a very fine line between using our platforms to glorify God and using God to propel our platforms. I didn’t and don’t want any part of that mess, thank you.
So now you have a picture of where I was — mentally, emotionally, and spiritually — as 2017 continued to wind down. I was beyond jaded by the church and by Christians with their false niceties and politics and toxic leadership. I was ready to get the hell out of dodge . . . or the conservative Christian south.
Yes, I realize there is some irony in sharing all of this on my blog: an online platform. Trust me, there is an ongoing and honest daily conversation between myself and Pops about all of this, and how very little I want it to matter to me. And I also hope you can hear the sadness in my voice in the paragraphs above. I do not think I was 100% right in any of my thoughts in that season, but it is all 100% how I was feeling at the time.
The Process of Healing
Then I moved. I returned to my home state, knowing I was ready to be back in a place where it wasn’t normal or cool to be a Christian, but not realizing just how beaten down or exhausted I truly was. If you don’t know much about the San Francisco Bay Area, especially compared to the greater Nashville area, allow me to educate you a bit.
The SF Bay Area is the second most religiously unaffiliated Metropolitan area in the US at 33% (info) — note that is all religions, not just Christianity.
Now, this information is neither here or there (though I am sure we all have some opinions), but I share it to help you understand a little bit more of my background. I grew up in one of the most religiously unaffiliated (and liberal) areas of the country, thus moving to one of the most Christian (and conservative) areas was like a weird form of culture shock . . . and it obviously did a number on me, which actually made healing from my experience a very slow and difficult process.
Arriving back to the Bay Area, I had zero motivation to do anything spiritual, which wasn’t necessarily a huge surprise seeing as how I didn’t do much spiritual stuff in Nashville prior to leaving. But this was different, and a lot harder, because I didn’t have the same kind of support system. Before I left Tennessee, I found myself part of a rag-tag group of other young ladies who were struggling with faith — again, not doubting God necessarily, but definitely questioning some things. We’d all seemed to have grown a bit jaded by the southern church culture for one reason or another, and so we got together each week to have honest, difficult, and heartbreaking conversations; to ask questions, expose wounds, and try to encourage one another to keep pressing in. We laughed a lot, we cried a lot, and we prayed sometimes. It was beautiful and hard, and to this day I count it as a real godsend in that season of my life.
But I quickly found myself without anything like that in the Bay. I didn’t have that accountability, nor that safe space to ask questions, namely because I hadn’t been totally open with my California people about what was going on with me spiritually. I had isolated that part of my life, and instead of leaning into a season of rest and “getting right with God,” I busied myself before leaving for Europe. Between babysitting gigs, a new job, and planning for my trip, I was walking around with a limp and acted like I had welcomed it to move in. It had become a part of me.
Then . . . Europe. I left for a trip that I knew was going to be life changing, but I couldn’t have imagined the way it would change me spiritually. If I am honest, I think that I knew in my gut that there was some major healing that needed to be done, namely around all that happened that last year in Nashville, but I did not want to lean in. Not one bit. So I didn’t. It was easy to avoid whilst galavanting around England, Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Croatia, etc. Even while God — in His immense grace — showed me lessons along the way (here, here, here, here), the thought of reopening those wounds in order to work through them and — hopefully — heal from them, sounded freaking terrible. So I avoided doing so like it was my job. Until Ireland. It’s a bit of a shame, really, because in retrospect I can see in that my last few cities before getting to Ireland, I was unpleasant. Apologies to my amazing friends in Amsterdam and anyone I met in Brussels or Dublin, but I know that I was a mess and I’m sorry. It was as if my soul knew something was coming — something hard and daunting and scary — and as a method of self-protection, I got weird. Again, until Ireland, because once I picked up my rental and drove north toward the coast of Northern Ireland, something shifted. As I began seeing so much raw, breathtaking beauty in the landscapes of that country, my heart sank. I cried coming around the coast and into the town of Annalong in County Down. I cried driving through the Mournes, I cried hiking at Spelga Dam, I cried sitting at the Cottage Cafe while I drank tea and watched the sheep graze in the pastures below. I cried a lot. But something had released in me. That second evening in Annalong, after joining my BNB hosts (a friend’s parents) for dinner at a new friend’s house, I went down to the harbor to watch the sunset, and it was there that everything changed.
That night — well after three months into my trip — I finally talked with the Lord about it all: my hurt, my heartbreak, my anger, my disgust, everything. There, sitting along the sea on the coast of Northern Ireland, I let it all flow out of me. I felt His presence in a new and eerily comforting way, as though He was sitting right next to me in complete understanding and compassion. And when I told Him, “I’m ready to work though this muck,” it was as if He whispered, “I’ve just been waiting for you to unclench those fists of yours and give it over to me.” See, I had been walking around for over a year carrying something I was never meant to carry. I was allowing myself to be weighed down — to walk with a limp — all because I didn’t understand that His burden is easy, and His yoke light. So I told him I was done with that, and that I was in. I was all in. And a physical weight lifted off of my shoulders; all of the hurt that I had experienced in Nashville, all of the disdain with church stuff and Christianity stuff started to relinquish. Yes, it was bananas. I left that wee town with a heavy heart, because I loved it so much and out of gratitude: for being the place where I finally leaned in: where I finally stopped wandering around in my mess, my anger, and my disappointments, and I turned back to see that He was always right there with me.
Coming back to the States, I felt like a new and much better version of myself. The best one yet, to be sure. I started in Nashville, which felt symbolic in a lot of ways: back to the place that harbored so much hurt and pain with a new and lighter frame. I saw the city with new eyes, and apologized to it for bearing the brunt of blame for my spiritual darkness. I apologized to friends for having been a shell of a human in that previous season, and thanked them for loving me through it. I began to make peace with Nashville and all that it held for me, and it felt good. Then I headed back to California just in time for my twenty-ninth birthday, which ended up being one of my most challenging. I don’t talk much about my family here, but the time around my birthday was especially difficult with them. To keep it brief, I realized that over the last decade (!!!), I have been doing almost everything in my power to protect my parents — to not anger them or hurt them — and in turn, have been doing allowing those things to happen to myself. Not intentionally, of course, but because in my appeasing — a twisted view of “honoring my parents” — I was enabling them to not change, and I was consistently being disappointed. And I finally hit the point where I needed to take an intentional break. I needed time and space and a fresh start, so I started traveling again . . . and I haven’t stopped.
That brings us to the end of 2018, at which point I realized I spent almost the entirety of 2017 — and much of 2018 as well — in spiritual darkness. I was in a constant state of wandering, and while I didn’t wander away, I sure as hell wandered around. I was the farthest from God that I have ever been as a believer, and I didn’t even realize it. That’s the scariest part. I thought, “yeah, Jesus and I are cool,” but I wasn’t committed to much other than the occasional thought of Him. No prayer, no leaning into community, and definitely no time spent in the Word. An avid journaler in the past, 2017 and 2018 brought forth ten entries. Almost two years of pain and heartbreak and anger, and I managed to write in my journal less than a dozen times, and even what was written was trite at best. Ultimately though, I think that in a weird way, I needed that season. I hadn’t yet walked through anything hard as a follower of Christ — as much of my testimony comes from my pre-Jesus days, which trust me, were a doozy — and those experiences with spiritual manipulation and church culture and idolization of famous Christian people (still though, wtf?) refined me and served as a major catalyst. It propelled me into this new season I find myself in, and wow is ever this the sweetest, most soul-satisfying space I’ve been in spiritually.
Refusing to be Jaded
A few weeks ago, my internet-friend Savannah Locke released a new song called Jaded, and in listening, all of my feelings about the church of celebrity and spiritual manipulation and whatnot came in like a flood. Tuning into her words caused me to start crying almost immediately, and these tears felt like healing ones. Savannah put tangibility to my feelings from that season with her lyrics, and I realized once again that I am not alone in my past (and sometimes current) struggles with the Church or with other Christians. Not in the slightest. We have all, to some degree or another, experienced toxic mentalities, means, and methods from people that we should have been able to trust. Many of us have been hurt in some way by those who claim to know Jesus, and some have even witnessed those who are meant to protect and/or lead dismiss or undermine very real issues. And it’s amazing to see just how easy it can be for resentment and even distrust to build up and harden our hearts toward God.
But they are not Him. In the end, we as humans are all a mess. We’re selfish and broken, and while I truly believe that most of us are trying our best to be like Jesus, we falter, we fail. and we hurt one another. It’s just part of what life here looks like, but God is not us. He is kind and loving, and full of grace and compassion and patience. We are not perfect — not even close — but He is. And He is the ultimate source of our healing from all hurt, especially within the church, and for that I am grateful.
As far as I know, the woman in my story no longer live in Nashville, which gives me some peace as I head back there for a few months. And here’s the thing: I ultimately do not believe that she meant to hurt me. I think she was living and leading out of a place of fear, which manifested into a kind of insecurity, and for a reason I can’t quite understand, I think I may have threatened her. I do not blame her for anything. Not the pain, not the panic attack, not the residual bitterness , , , because even though it sucked at the time, I am better because of it. I wandered, I learned, and I grew into a more compassionate and understanding human, and fell more in love with God and the redemptive process He is working together to restore everything back to Him.
This post doesn’t have a nice bow for me to wrap it up in. This isn’t a pretty package meant for consumption, or something meant to be gawked at. It’s simply my messy attempt to bring light into one of the darkest seasons of my life, and I hope that you can see that. I also hope that, whatever you may find yourself walking through, you may feel a little bit less alone. I don’t know what your experience has been like with church, or Christians, or God, but I know that He loves us and can handle our wandering. He can handle our questions and our doubts. In fact, I believe He invites us to wander when we really need to, because in our wandering we can press in. And I think that in the pressing can come new wine.