I closed the book and turned out the light, but as I settled down next to my husband, I suddenly felt a tightening in my chest and struggled to breathe. I sat up and somewhere in the outback of my heart, an unmarked dam of emotion burst.
“Honey, you’re scaring me … what can I do?” Phil whispered as sob after sob rolled out of my heart.
Chest heaving, I struggled to say the words that surprised even me: “I’m sorry” I gasped, “but I think it has something to do with the Institute.”
I had just read the first two chapters of “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, and suddenly I was a 22-year old girl again standing in the lobby of a “training center,” surrounded by red carpet. It was the Fall of 1993 and my sister and I had just driven across the country to pay for the “privilege” of serving here for a few months. She had been invited to help start a ministry for young unwed mothers. I was just along for the ride but figured surely they could put my recently earned degree in elementary education to good use.
But first, the car keys. With his hand outstretched, the man behind the desk explained that all volunteers were expected to turn over their keys and that this shouldn’t be a problem since we were not allowed to leave unless it was a pre-approved outing to a pre-approved place with a pre-approved group. I hesitated, surprised, but since I didn’t want to be considered rebellious, I handed them over and went off to my room.
For twenty years the emotions of that moment have been burned into my brain. For a long time I didn’t know why my mind often went back there, but now I know: that’s where the seed of confusion first landed in my soul.
For about two weeks, I worked in the laundry room, folding sheets and towels along with a gaggle of teenage girls. I quickly discovered that a college degree from a 4-year accredited university wasn’t viewed as an asset here. In fact, none of the skills and abilities I brought with me seemed to stir an interest in those calling the shots.
“It’s okay,” I would tell myself. “Humility is good for you. A humble person will cheerfully do whatever she’s asked to do.” There’s value in every kind of work, but it was confusing to be relegated to menial tasks when I had the skills and training to meet other areas of evident need. I had been a leader all my life. So the seed of confusion sprouted.
Finally, when one of the inexperienced teenagers teaching a class of students in the program’s “new approach” to education for inner-city youth had to leave unexpectedly, someone decided to offer me the chance to teach. I accepted with delight and quickly fell in love with the students.
That experience lasted a few weeks until the ministry’s leader came for a visit and subsequently invited me to travel back to the Headquarters with his entourage. I jumped at the chance, especially when he asked me to write up plans for a discipleship ministry with young women. He had asked me what was in my heart to do for the Lord and seemed interested in the ideas I shared. But, when I arrived, no one knew I was coming or what to do with me.
I was allowed to stay in the room of another staffer who was away for a few weeks. With no orientation, no explanation of the guidelines, and no means of personal transportation, my sprouting roots began to take hold. I had no way to get food regularly, other than the one meal provided for everyone at mid-day and what other girls in the house kindly offered to share. I didn’t know the schedule, other than to be in the president’s office at “O dark thirty” each morning so I could sit across the room and be available if he thought of something he wanted me to do.
A few weeks of this routine wore me out. Yes, I made new friends and there were some pleasant, even happy, moments. But, with multiple trips, no routine other than long days in the office or on the road, little food, and little explanation of what my purpose was supposed to be, my motivation plummeted and my perspective soured. All my life I had been raised to respect this man and his ministry. Yet reality on the inside was quite different from outward appearances.
As time allowed, I worked at crafting a discipleship program for young women and I eventually presented it to the leader. “Thank you!” he said with a smile as he added my plans to a stack of things on his desk. And that was the last we spoke of it.
(While I did go on to participate in the development and implementation of a girls’/young women’s discipleship program in this ministry, this was a different concept, one loosely based on a small group program I helped design as a spiritual leader on my college campus. I had the opportunity, years later, to implement parts of this plan, but it was under much different circumstances that had nothing to do with the leader’s consent or approval.)
In the meantime, my sister hurt her back and was on bed rest back at the center where we started out together. As it turned out, the program she was supposed to help start was postponed. Only no one told us that before we got there, so they let her work in the laundry room too. After all, we had expected to be there for three months anyway. Only, I got a break and was able to do something else; my sister had to stand on a concrete floor for 8+ hours a day and the toll it took on her back was excruciating.
At one point, the leaders there decided that what would most help my sister was an experimental treatment for her back. It was painful but supposedly revolutionary. She and I traveled to another city for her to undergo the procedure, but all it did was cause her more pain. She remained on bed rest off and on until time for us to return home for the Christmas holidays. I felt helpless as I traveled in and out, unable to help and not even knowing how.
When we got home, I went straight to bed and stayed there, more or less, for three weeks. The bronchitis I contracted somewhere along the way caused deep, wracking coughs that eventually bruised my ribs. They were still sore when I went back to the training center in January. With each breath I was reminded that my reality was turning out far differently than I had hoped.
During the fall, the president and I discussed what I would do when I returned. We talked about a variety of options and I shared that I was willing to do just about anything except for one particular job assignment that I knew just wasn’t the right fit for me. “Anything but this,” I told him before we parted ways.
No one quite knew what to do with me when I arrived and since the president was tucked away at a retreat center up North for his annual month of prayer and fasting, it seemed I just had to wait. It soon became clear that, like before, he had made no provision for me or even discussed our plans with anyone there. In the end, I was asked to do “the one thing” I had told him was beyond my capability.
That was another turning point as the roots of confusion reached new depths. I thought the leader saw potential in me, wanted me working with him to “change the world.” With considerable misgivings, I reluctantly agreed to give the new assignment my best. But it was a disaster from the start. Before long, I could barely make it through a day without dissolving into tears.
At some point during the few weeks of waiting I discovered the ministry plan I had put together with such high hopes filed under a big stack of papers in the leader’s office. So much for the importance of the project for which he’d pulled me out of the classroom.
It didn’t take long for everyone to see that the new assignment was not a good fit. So, when my father came to visit for my birthday in February, I bid new friends goodbye and went home with him, perplexed about what went wrong but grateful to be out of a confusing and troubling situation. It would be years before we learned that the leaders at the training center had no idea they had set me up for what felt like a personal failure by giving me the one task from which I’d already asked to be spared.
To Be Concluded in Part Two Tomorrow
This song is one that has been particularly meaningful to me as I’ve processed the things that have felt so painful about my years of involvement with the Institute: