This weekend, the hashtag #YesAllWomen was used more than 1 million times as women across the world shared their experiences with misogyny, rape, harassment, and fear of sexual assault as an act of solidarity with the women who were the target of last week’s mass shooting. The point was to show that while not all men are violent or hostile, nearly all women have been touched, in some way, by the pervasive problem of abuse against women in our culture.
The movement spurred our guest poster today— Teresa K. Pecinovsky—to share her experience with a broader audience in hopes that it might help others who experiencing abuse at the hands of a pastor. Teresa has an MEd from the University of Houston and is a second year MDiv student at Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is married to her best friend, John Siemssen. Teresa is interested in pastoral theology, religion and the arts, and finding the best latte in town.
When you grow up in a small denomination, the whole church feels like your extended family. This was especially true for me after attending a denominational college and working overseas with missionaries from my church tradition. Mentors, professors, ministers, fellow missionaries—they were all part of a web of family ties that eventually connected with each other. So it was no surprise to me that one of my mentors at college, a well-respected professor and minister, responded to one of my missions e-mails. He was encouraging and warm and I appreciated hearing from him, being so far away from home and having just graduated from college. I was 23 years old, ready for the adventure of adulthood and ministry.
What I didn’t expect was how his relationship with me changed over the next few months. He started e-mailing me from his personal e-mail address early on. I didn’t have a computer at the time so I’d send and receive messages with him through my cell phone. What was once a mentorship quickly turned into a friendship, discussing our lives, interests, music, and so forth. I was lonely, and because he was a leader in our church I trusted him fully. When he started to confide in me that his marriage was in bad shape I convinced myself that it was appropriate for him to share because I was now an adult. As the messages turned into dozens a day and became more intense I still held on to the belief that it was alright, because he was a minister. He wouldn’t do anything to hurt me, right?
I still remember one of the last e-mails he sent me. It was very sexually explicit, it involved me, and reading it made me want to throw up. I texted him back and told him to get help for him, his marriage, and to not contact me anymore.
After that I sat with shame for a long time. Since I was an adult, I had to have done something to make him act so inappropriately wrong. Maybe I was responsible for his failed marriage too. I got used to waking up at 3 in the morning when he would send his first e-mail. When the messages stopped I still woke up at 3 am and sobbed until the sun came up or I could fall asleep.
I told several other mentors some of what happened, but nothing changed. I eventually went to an administrator of the school, and, while that person did provide a spiritual director and therapist for both me and the professor, he was seeking self and institutional preservation, at the cost of my own well-being. At one point he demanded a list of the names of people who I had told about what happened, so he could make sure they wouldn’t tell anyone else.
The professor moved to have his PhD paid for by the university. Even though he was over a thousand miles away, the administrator "strongly advised me" to not apply for seminary there when I returned from overseas.
What I have described is my story, but it’s the story of so many other women (and men) who have been manipulated and abused by those we trusted most—ministers of God. It took me a long time to realize that sexual abuse was truly the correct term for what happened.
According to the FaithTrust Institute, “Sexual contact or sexualized behavior within the ministerial relationship is a violation of professional ethics. There is a difference in power between a person in a ministerial role and a member of his or her congregation or a counselee. Because of this difference in power, you cannot give meaningful consent to the sexual relationship.”
I was abused by a minister and professor, and I will not be silent anymore.
I decided to share my story here because as I told friends and family members I heard more and more stories of clergy abuse and how churches and schools protected abusers and silenced victims. The more research I did, the more I realized that clergy abuse is a rampant plague within our churches. And too often, victims do not have the vocabulary to accurately describe what happened to them. When a minister has a sexual relationship with a member of the church, it’s not an affair—it’s abuse. When a professor takes advantage of a student and sends sexually suggestive messages, it’s not a gray area in academia—it’s abuse. If you are reading this and have been abused, you are not alone. You are not at fault. You are loved by God.
Through years of hard, hard work, spiritual mentors, friends, family, therapists, and my wonderful husband, I have found redemption in the darkest season of my life, and freedom in my call to ministry. Following that call meant finding a new church family, and navigating that new relationship is difficult but worth it. I have discovered forgiveness for those who perpetuated so much soul-crushing damage. I have chosen to pursue healing and forgiveness—it is always the way forward.
Thanks to Teresa for being brave and sharing her story. For excellent resources on education, prevention, and consultation about clergy abuse and sexual and domestic violence, see http://www.faithtrustinstitute.org
You can also learn more from our series, "Into the Light: A Series on Abuse & The Church"