Writing My Voice Back
Anyone who knows me knows that I have always loved being in church. I grew up in church, I longed to be old enough to help in the kids program, I loved worship, I loved summer camp, I loved being baptized. I loved it all.
A decade ago, my husband Josh and I Ieft our lives in Australia to set off across the world and help build Hillsong NYC. When we joined the team, I couldn’t have been more excited. My role wasn’t up-front nor on the platform. I was the nanny for the lead pastors. I served their family in that role for seven years before moving to Hillsong Boston, where I have served as a pastor alongside my husband.
Before we moved to Boston, I worked in the lead pastors’ home for seven years. I was responsible for cleaning their house, running their errands and ensuring that everything within the walls of their house was as perfect as possible. It was also my responsibility to take care of the pastors’ children, which, in order to protect their privacy, I won’t talk about.
While there were joyful moments during that time, no one knew that I also experienced a great deal of pain. During the years I spent serving them, I was subjected to manipulation, control, bullying, abuse of power, and sexual abuse. Having told almost no one before this, I am just now able to share what I experienced in their home as the result of intense therapy.
The first years that I was part of their home were exhilarating but also exhausting. The church was growing very quickly and I saw my role as my ministry- taking care of the family and house to release them to freely fill their roles as lead pastors. Everyone on our church staff had a “do whatever it takes” attitude and often sacrificed personal needs for what our lead pastors needed- or even just wanted.
I worked a lot. A whole lot. Josh and I were given different days off so it was very challenging to find time for each other. Josh had two jobs- one to earn income and another serving the lead pastors to build the church. In those early years, we didn’t have the opportunity to really connect and align our priorities as a family. We both served another family, our lead pastors’, and we were consumed by our responsibilities.
Working in a family’s home is very different from working in an office, so I started to feel like I was actually part of the lead pastors’ family, and they reinforced this idea by telling me that I was. The boundaries between personal and professional blurred early on, and an unhealthy bond and attachment was formed. I felt like they needed me to care for their family so they could focus on their hard life of being lead pastors, and I was determined not to fail them.
The abuse of power started small. Hours would increase beyond belief. Often I would work from 7 am to 11 pm. Schedules were switched last minute without even attempting to confirm my availability. Tasks kept getting added and added to my load. They made fun of me constantly, even calling me Cinderella, which they said was their way of loving me. My husband was frequently criticized as a group sport. Gossip was constant. If I didn’t join in or if I disagreed, I was the odd one out. Classic bullying.
The sexual abuse started small, too. My pastor would look at me and say, “Gurl, you’re looking good. You’ve been in the gym?” There was a lot of flirty teasing like this. I had been around long enough to know that’s just how he was with women. But after a while, the comments started to escalate. I remember being told, “after you have kids, we’ll buy you a boob job.” Looking back, I know I felt embarrassed, but I didn’t know it was wrong then. It hadn’t occurred to me that I had a right to not be spoken to like that, by my pastor or anyone else.
I didn’t speak up. I felt uncomfortable and I also felt guilty for feeling uncomfortable. I wondered if I was the problem, and I wasn’t sure anyone would believe me, anyway. Like many women in the workplace, I never dreamed I would have to guard myself from my boss. And, in my case, my boss was also my pastor.
I vividly remember the moment my pastor noticed my body in a way that felt predatory to me. I was outside in my bathing suit getting ready to swim with the kids. His wife was there. He looked me up and down, making comments about my body and how hard I’d worked to get in shape. His gaze was so intense that I wanted to say “ok, enough please,” but I just covered my belly with my arms and sat down to feel safely covered by the chair.
He would frequently say things like, you trust me, right? or I’ll always have your back or I’ll never let you down. I felt like he was testing my loyalty and it made it even more difficult for me to reconcile all that was happening. If I would bring up a small concern, I was made to feel ungrateful or, worse, disloyal.
After the intense glance that day, he started crossing more boundaries. Like, when I was sitting in the hot tub with the kids, he would get in, positioning himself close to me so his hands could graze my legs. He took my photo while I was laying out in the sun once. He then cropped out his wife, edited it with a black and white filter, and texted it to me, saying “sheesh girl looking good.”
Summer of 2015 is when things moved far beyond just flirty compliments and suggestive teasing. I was giving a foot rub to his wife, and he asked me to give him one too. He had never asked me this, and I didn’t feel like I could say “no.”
After that, he would ask me to rub his feet when he would come home or rub his tired muscles after playing basketball. Then the physical encounters escalated. While he never had intercourse with me and never kissed me, I was physically violated by his unwanted and repeated sexual touching of my intimate areas. I froze. Every time, I froze.
He offered to accompany me to the doctor with his sick son once and he touched me while I was driving, both hands on the wheel. Again, I froze.
He suggested accompanying me to a movie with the kids and sat next to me and touched me in the dark, even though we were surrounded by people. Again, I froze.
During this time, he was finishing his first book and being celebrated as he reached a new level of success. His elevated status made me feel like he had all the power, and I had no voice.
I would leave church on Sunday full of shame after hearing his sermon. I would think it was all my fault, only to get a flood of messages from him that afternoon. I didn’t know what to do.
He was my pastor, I was the problem. He was the boss, I was his employee.
In the midst of it, I’m not sure that I was able to admit to myself that I was a victim. I felt like what my pastor was doing was wrong, but I didn’t realize how wrong. I just knew that I didn’t want it, and I didn’t start it, and I tried to avoid it.
The inappropriate touching and suggestive text messages were addressed by both lead pastors on two occasions during my time serving in their home. The first time was in Summer of 2016. I was blamed and silenced. I was the problem. But, they kept me in my role, and I worked harder than ever after that.
I tried to escape by telling him I would find a new job outside of church. Even though my husband was on staff, too, I thought it would be the best solution. I will never forget my pastor standing over me with a stern look, asking me who would possibly hire me. Without a college degree, he asked, what kind of job did I think I could get in New York City?
I won’t forget how that made me feel, so alone, so worth absolutely nothing, so fearful of my future, so fearful for my husband’s future.
Summer of 2017 was the second time in the house when my pastor sat me down and said he took full responsibility for taking advantage of me and putting me in a situation that was so heavy for me. He told me that I should feel “free” from him and the shame I’d been carrying around. He said he’d thought about confessing to leadership, but after talking it through with his wife, they decided they didn’t have to because it wasn’t necessary, and we could just move on. I was told that if his reputation was ruined, my reputation would be, too. He said his wife would come and talk to me about the boundaries we would have moving forward.
When his wife sat me down, she told me that I should repent and dismissed me from all of my duties in the house. I’d been fired from their family, but not from their staff. I felt like it was my fault, leaving me full of shame. I wasn’t given another role, and thought we could resolve it, though I wasn’t sure how. I just knew we were all going to keep quiet.
It seemed to me like my pastor had ensured that there was great distance between him and any sort of accountability or communication with his oversight. So, I couldn’t even imagine reporting my experiences. We were growing so quickly that we didn’t really have the things that are supposed to protect against situations like this — Human Resources, whistleblower policies or any sort of “safe place” to share concerns.
I can’t forget how he took away my confidence. I can’t forget how he took away my voice. I can’t forget about the days I laid in bed that year believing that I didn’t deserve to be on this earth and entertaining ideas of how to end it all. Unfortunately, I can’t forget any of it.
Even though I can’t forget it, I believe I can use it to become stronger. Through intense therapy, I now recognize that it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t fail. Church didn’t fail me. God didn’t fail me. Man did.
I now know there is a huge difference between being faithful to God and being blindly loyal to an individual. Many of us lost sight of that truth as we were building something that was so powerful and so different. In those days, so many people were coming to church for the first time and learning more about God. Lives were authentically being transformed and improved. There were incredible stories every week about how people were flourishing. This gifted man was doing such incredible things. It was hard to recognize what was wrong when so much seemed right.
I believe Christian leaders should be self-led and self-fed, but there must still be accountability. In my opinion, our former lead pastor was an unhealthy leader who lacked accountability. It seems to me like he held himself accountable to no one and took too much power.
I think that’s why no one knew. Even though there were some signs and red flags, no one would have been able to guess the darkness of what was actually happening. Including my husband.
I have met others who identify as victims of sexual, spiritual, emotional and mental abuse. But the discussion of abuse within evangelical churches isn’t normalized. So, I hadn’t heard about many people’s actual experiences. It’s something that really isn’t talked about until someone finds “victory” over their shame.
We can do better. We can have these difficult conversations. It’s time.
Often an abuser is picked up, washed up and sent on their way while the victim is left to heal on their own and lose their community. There is often more shame placed on the victim than accountability for the abuser. No one needs to carry what I carried alone. Hurtful things happen in the darkness.
How can I think about advocating for others in the future if I haven’t advocated for myself? So, I’m breaking my silence and starting an important conversation.
I won’t ever forget how my husband believed me and grieved with me when I told him my story after I knew our pastor was leaving Hillsong Church- after I was safe. I won’t ever forget how it felt to start remembering little details that would pop up out of nowhere. I won’t ever forget the years that were stolen.
It has been a process for me to come forward and report my experiences to leadership. I have been met with compassion, particularly by Brian and Bobbie Houston. And, I have been welcomed into a journey of healing. In my darkest moments, I thought about leaving church. I have decided to stay because I still have the same heart toward church that I’ve always had. Even with all I’ve been through, I still love it. Hillsong is my church, and I will remain on staff, working toward a stronger future.
My days will get easier and brighter and what I can do is love the little girl I was at the beginning of this story who loved her church dearly. That girl is now a woman who still loves Jesus and still loves her church, just looking at life through a slightly different lens.
My story doesn’t end here, rather it’s the beginning of my future. A future that is anchored in Faith, Hope and Love. A future that is anchored in Jesus. A future that beckons me forward into the wide-open spaces of God’s glory and grace. A future I pray we all experience.