I did not expect to wake up this angry today, but grief is a weird companion and where trauma rears its head can rarely be anticipated. Yesterday morning, I received an email from a friend who is still employed by my previous organization, PIONEERS (though not for much longer). She wanted to know if I had seen this article yet. “Sounds similar to your situation,” she said. She had recently found the author, Breanna, through a podcast and suspected it was a former PI member, and when Breanna posted this article complete with the names of leaders in the organization, it was confirmed.
I read the story. My heart raced, and a familiar knot formed in my stomach. I knew how this felt. I knew exactly how this felt. The crazymaking and gaslighting. The impact of the message that harming you and your family is a price to pay for peacekeeping. The unquestioning support of an abusive leader. The reminder that being a woman means submitting to men and any show of emotion is just proof that you are unreasonable.
I read Breanna’s concluding paragraph, and I wanted to cheer.
Abuse in Christian settings — and the habit of silencing those who speak up — is a symptom of a bigger problem: it is a symptom of an addiction to power and status. To ignore an addiction to power is to approve of it. To ignore such abuse is to nourish it.
I immediately contacted Breanna and shared my story with her, and we’ve since had a conversation about it. I felt euphoric for the rest of the day that only someone who has experienced a “me too” moment with another victim of a similar trauma can understand.
This morning the euphoria is gone, and I feel like I am coming out of my skin. I want to scream for what is. I want to shake people awake. Breanna’s story pre-dated mine by several years. She spoke up. She pointed out what happened. She named Alvin Hull and she named John Fain and she named Deb Donelson who all received the email documentation of her abuse… and protected her abuser (who is still serving in PIONEERS). Because they didn’t listen to her, my family’s story happened a few years later and those who were protected are still there. Because the leaders (namely Chip Hill, Mike Jochum, and Steve & Amy Lewis) did not listen to me, there is another family going through a similar trauma now.
And it wasn’t just the two of us. As I’ve gone public with what happened to my family, several other current and former PIONEERS missionaries have told me their own stories of unbelievably toxic leadership that was protected at the expense of truth, justice, and the well-being of missionaries lower down in the hierarchy. Like Breanna wrote, there is a symptom of addiction to power and status in PIONEERS, and either you are a victim of it, a perpetrator of it, or a silent complicit supporter of it. There is no other option.
I know through friends who are still in PIONEERS that the head leadership knows about these stories. I know that some of them have vocalized “regret and sorrow” over what happened to us, but felt that “there was nothing they could do” so they wouldn’t speak up. Many of these people I once knew and respected. Eric Peters, the International Director, and Steve Richardson, the Director of the US sending base, know what happened to Breanna and they know what happened to us, and I have no doubt that they know what happened to the many more of us that were abused by PIONEERS. They may not be direct perpetrators of the abuse, but they are supporters of it through their silence.
In the book When Narcissism Comes to Church, the author explains that while narcissists do often find their way into ministry leadership, sometimes the system itself becomes narcissistic. It becomes a system that prioritizes its own effectiveness and longevity at the expense of the individuals in it. “The system comes to the rescue of the leader at the expense of his victims. The lack of feedback, fear of disloyalty, and victim complex make it hard to engage, let alone change, this system… Those who ascend tend to collude with the system. Those who ultimately refuse to idealize the leader(s) are chewed up and spit out. But because the mission is a seemingly spiritual one, the system goes unchallenged” (22-24).
I suspect that most of these leaders are not consciously malicious. They simply believe that the mission of PIONEERS is so important that they can justify the destruction of people for the sake of the mission. This is why they can say honestly that they “feel bad” about what happened, but instead of using their positions of power to protect people, they wring their hands and turn their backs in order to protect the system. When you’ve been in a narcissistic system long enough, this becomes a near automatic response as much as how victims of a narcissist are trained to ignore the narcissist’s abusive and cruel behavior.
It has been over two years since we left PIONEERS, and in many ways I am grateful that I am out of the system. But my thirst for justice has only increased. Not only do I want acknowledgement, I want CHANGE. I still want the organization to hold people accountable that should have been stripped of power years ago. I still want the “member care” department to have policies like confidentiality in place so that missionaries can get support without being tattled on to their leaders. I still want decisions to be made by ministry personnel who prioritize doing what is right rather than by lawyers who are only focused on liability (don’t admit fault!). I still want people to matter more than any system.
Jesus did not exist for the sake of any system or mission. He existed for human beings, and a Christian organization that allows their mission to become more important than the people they serve or the people who make up the organization has no right to align itself with Jesus Christ.
Today, my rage is rising with each minute, and verses from a Bible that I haven’t had the stomach to read in over two years won’t stop ringing in ears. In solidarity with the prophets, including Jesus, who saw the injustice of the religious and condemned it, I will add my voice in lament.
For all those in PIONEERS to see and do nothing:
Woe to you, white-washed tombs, who are clean on the outside but inside are putrid and full of rot. Drinking from your cup destroys the drinker whether by death or by immunity to what is evil.
You give and you teach and you spin stories of your own worthiness even while mimicking humility and love. Your pride and hypocrisy are clear to all who see, and God is not fooled by your shallow displays of piety. Your kind tone is no cover for the destructiveness of your words.
You call yourselves “servant leaders,” but rather than serving those you lead, you require dependency, fidelity, and compliance. Your leadership has failed, and your mission is ashes for you sacrificed the souls of those in your care for a place of power around a table of false righteousness.
The love of God is not in you, for the love of God is patient, kind, and humble. To bear the name of Jesus requires you to love others as you love yourselves, yet you have made no efforts to protect, honor, and prioritize others while you protect, honor, and prioritize yourselves.
This is what the Lord requires of you: Seek justice now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. Lay down your addiction to power and the notoriety that has destroyed your own souls as you have destroyed others, and repair what you have broken.