Not of my Making….

Not of My Making: Bullying, Scapegoating and Misconduct in Churches is an account of Dr. Margaret W. Jones’ abusive church experiences. I was sent a copy of the book and invited to take part in Dr. Jones’ virtual book tour. I am glad I read it.

In brief, Not of My Making is about the author’s background of childhood abuse, and how she was subsequently mistreated in several denominational churches. Dr. Jones’ story brings into focus the fact that when a church operates on the basis of what it perceives to be the best interests of itself as an institution, rather than focusing on the best interests of the individual members, it can do great harm, especially to those who are particularly vulnerable.

Growing up, Maggie Jones was the youngest of five children in an alcoholic family. Her father was verbally abusive. Her uncle molested her. Her alcoholic mother neglected her care and sent her to school unwashed and unkempt in tattered hand-me-downs. Classmates excluded her because she was “different” and she “smelled”. Having not been properly nurtured or socialized, she could not find a way to successfully fit in with classmates. She was desperately anxious and depressed. In her freshman year in college she began burning and cutting herself. She attempted suicide several times, and was hospitalized for six weeks on one occasion.

She eventually found an excellent, caring therapist, and after two years the suicidal thoughts and self-harming stopped. She felt that Dr. Howard had saved her life. She graduated from college, married a fellow psychology student from Trinidad, had two children, went on to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in psychology, and became a successful psychologist.

During her last year of graduate school Maggie became aware of a spiritual emptiness that had been previously masked by the depression. She began attending a Unitarian church. Over the next twenty years of active membership in three different churches, she experienced bullying, scapegoating, betrayal and mistreatment, with devastating personal consequences.

In the first of these churches, she was silenced and ostracized because she felt there should be open discussion about the homosexual orientation of a ministerial candidate prior to voting. The election was done by show of hands. Afterward, she was ostracized for her negative vote, and eventually advised to resign her church membership. She writes:

Resigning my church membership was very painful. I lost another family. I hadn’t realized how conditional my acceptance at Murray had been. I became frightened of voicing my doubts and concerns, not only on the issue of homosexuality but also on other issues where I might be viewed as politically incorrect. I internalized other people’s negative judgment of my character. Even though I had done nothing to harm anyone else, and rationally, I knew I had only voiced some doubts and tried to initiate a conversation about them, I fought feelings of shame…I believed that the problems I encountered were typical to all organizations. So I stopped actively searching for another congregation and remained unchurched for a couple of years…Leaving Murray left me feeling empty. I yearned for the connection with others that was denied me when I was a child.”

Several years later, Dr. Jones decided to visit another Unitarian church. It was a Sunday when new members were being welcomed into the tiny congregation. She writes: “During the service when the new members were called to the front of the sanctuary, my eyes started to tear. The more I tried to stop, the more I cried. The tears just needed to come…I had hoped the passage of time would heal my grief over the loss of my church. It hadn’t.”

She joined this church and became active in leadership roles. Another leader in the church used her to promote his agenda for church growth, and once again, Dr. Jones ran into trouble. She was scapegoated and viewed as a troublemaker. It turned out that some people in this church knew of her experience in the previous Unitarian church. Confidences were betrayed. Her anxiety escalated and she realized she needed to return to therapy. With the therapist’s help and after much heart-wrenching soul searching, she decided she needed to leave the church. The pastor sent her an email: “When we understood from Don that you had decided to leave the church, everyone I spoke with was relieved. You are not welcomed as a member. I have made it clear to the board that if you return, I will resign as minister….”

Maggie’s anxiety intensified to such a pitch that it triggered the old mechanism of self-harm, the desire to inflict physical pain to override the emotional torment. She writes, “I needed to believe God valued me and didn’t want any harm to come to me. But where was God?” She tried to control the anxiety by keeping busy. She got involved with classes sponsored by the National Council of Churches, where she met a caring Lutheran pastor. She tried visiting another church, but found herself bursting into tears. This pastor noticed, and took her aside to talk. But she found she was no longer able to trust anyone enough to talk about church issues. She didn’t know who might misuse personal information. She describes this time:

For the past few months I had been teetering on the edge of a cliff, about to fall off. There were people offering their hands, but I didn’t know which ones, if any, could be trusted not to let me go. Who is to say they wouldn’t eventually betray me?”

The Lutheran pastor continued to reach out to her, and she eventually joined the Lutheran church. The urge to self-harm decreased. She terminated therapy. She remained conflicted about getting involved with other people, however. She felt uncertain about how much of herself to share, for fear they would eventually reject her if she sought their help.

Then, in response to a plea from Lutheran Social Services for foster parents for Sudanese teens who had survived the civil war, she and her husband welcomed James into their family. But James, charming and handsome, lied, stole, used people, and exhibited no qualms of conscience. The Jones’ took steps to return him to LSS. James, however, had ingratiated himself into the lives of other church members who did not see the problem. He was viewed as an innocent child. Dr. Jones was once again cast as a trouble maker and rejected. Disciplinary action was initiated against her. She left the church. She writes:

During the months following my dechurching from Immanuel, my mood swung between rage and inconsolable grief….I needed to talk the way someone who has almost drowned gulps for air….
Judith Herman’s “Trauma and Recovery” makes clear that survivors’ emotional distress and rage has more to do with their perpetrators’ betrayal and very little to do with the survivor’s personality. If someone had struck my knee with a baseball bat, no one would be surprised that the blow had shattered my kneecap. No-one would whisper that the injury was due to my defective character. If enough stress is applied, all of us would eventually break.

Not of My Making is a book Dr. Jones needed to write. She needed to tell her story and receive a hearing from others who have had similar experiences. She needs to receive confirmation from online communities of folks who know exactly what she is talking about. It is a book that speaks for those abused by churches everywhere. It will help other survivors recognize that they were not the problem – the abusive system was the problem. Hopefully this book will encourage others to speak up.

Maggie Jones’ story underscores how far from the love of Jesus was the treatment she received in these churches. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He binds up the wounded, he carries the lambs, he runs after the straying. He sees to it that all his sheep are tended and included in the fold. In Dr. Jones’ experience, the churches re-injured her wounds, gossiped about her, spread rumors, bullied her, edged her out and shunned her. Not of My Making gives insight into just how damaging such unloving treatment can be, especially to survivors of previous abuse.

Leaders in the Geftakys Assembly in any kind of position of authority – Leading brothers, heads of training homes, Head Stewards, outreach leaders, Children’s Hour teachers, camp counselors, teachers and aids at Cornerstone, parents, etc.- were actually trained to bully and mistreat people, in the name of “tough love”. This book shows in painful detail how damaging such treatment is.

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Margaret Irons and her husband Steve and three children were in the Fullerton Geftakys Assembly for twenty years. We left in March, 1990. We are still recovering and learning in Orange County, CA.

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