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Learn About Coercive Control and Psychological Abuse

Interview with a woman who was bullied and scapegoated in churches

– Posted in: Belief in a Just World Social Institutions & Abuse

The following is an interview I conducted with Margaret Jones PhD, who has written a book about her experiences titled: Not of my making: Bullying, scapegoating and misconduct in Churches.

The nub of one-sided psychological abuse and coercive control is that it occurs across all social institutions. In fact the trigger that helped Margaret realise what was happening to her was a television show explaining school bullying.

Whilst the abuse Margaret experienced occurred within the context of churches, her story resembles those told by survivors of workplace bullying. Her coping strategies also resemble those of women who experience psychological abuse by their male partners.

Church of good shepherd

Clare: What were the tactics of bullying, scapegoating, misconduct and psychological abuse that you experienced as the target of those tactics?

Margaret: My adversaries refused to talk directly to me about their complaints. Instead they gossiped with each other about me. They shunned me during social events such as coffee hour but made a big show of coming over to me during church services to hug me even when I told them I didn’t want them touching me. They also carried stories to the minister who then chastised me. Eventually they initiated church discipline procedures against me and ousted me from church.

Clare: At what point did you actually define what was happening as psychological abuse?

Margaret: The abuse began in 1993 and went on for 10 years. I was slow to figure it out. Somewhere near the end of that time, Stossel (a TV magazine reporter) had a television shot on school bullying. That was when I realised not only that I was being bullied, but that it wasn’t my fault.

Clare: I was interested to read in your book at the point where you were really starting to understand what had been happening to you over those years, that in order to forgive, survivors of abuse first need to blame their perpetrators and not themselves. But, like survivors of domestic violence, it can take years to understand the dynamics of the behaviours from people you love and trust. How did you respond in the immediate moment back before you really understood you were being abused?

Margaret: I kept trying to find out what was wrong so I could fix it. I tried to get the people involved to talk to me about it.

Clare: How did you cope in the days/weeks after the abuse?

Margaret: Not well at first. I was anxious, suicidal and fought strong urges to self-harm. I sought counselling and began journaling. I also began reading everything I could find on church conflict and bullying. I corresponded with some of the authors of those books. I also joined some online support groups for survivors. Once I realised I was being bullied and it wasn’t my fault I fought back more effectively. Since my adversaries wouldn’t leave me alone I filed a professional liability claim against them. Fighting back really helped. Writing “Not of My Making” also helped me to figure things out and heal.

An online support group Margaret recommends as helpful: http://christiansurvivors.com/.

Clare: What type of people in the churches psychologically abused you?

Margaret: People bully in churches for the same reasons they bully everywhere. I think if you are more concerned with maintaining appearances and don’t believe in expressing anger directly you are more likely to use back room type of tactics. Also, if you are prone to jealousy and aren’t willing to admit you have “negative emotions” or that you sin like everyone else you are more likely to bully. Often people who bully are trying to protect or gain status and power. One way to achieve power is to defeat someone who is perceived as competent or having status. I think my adversaries were trying to promote their own agendas. By attacking me at Murray church they avoided discussing my concerns. At FXUU church my interest in Christianity was a direct threat to those who wanted to promote neo-paganism. At Immanuel I think there was a lot of jealousy. Pastor Karen whose own marriage was failing resented my successful marriage to Lyndon. Others resented my affluence and professional status. There was also a lot of prejudice about women and race (Margaret is married to a Black Trinidadian man). I think they succeeded in consolidating their power and status while strengthening the cohesiveness of their clique. That is why they had no need to talk to me and negotiate.

Clare: In what ways do you think (a) being a woman, (b) a woman with a PhD, and (c) a white woman married to a black man related to being abused?

Margaret: Because they made me different. And there’s a lot of social psychology research into how people treat minorities and women. If a minority or a woman matches their stereotype, and their behaviour matches that stereotype, they will be liked. But if their behaviour doesn’t match the stereotype they will be disliked.

Clare: What kind of support mechanisms existed that made it easy for the bullies to bully in the first place, and made it easy for them to continue their campaign of psychologically abusing you?

Margaret: The church leadership both within the congregation and in the denomination supported the bullies. The leadership was assumed to be right and good by virtue of their position. They were able to hide what was going on and/or distort information. There was no policy and procedure to bring a complaint or to ask for mediation by a disinterested party.

Martinborough Church

Clare: What kind of help from family, friends or professionals did you find most helpful?

Margaret: Therapy was essential – it was different from other experiences – because Steve (my therapist) lived through it while I was living it. Being believed was essential. My husband, during the FXUU church thing, was very supportive. He read me a poem about a wife who’s been abused and what it’s like at midnight. He was vigilant at night about where I was at emotionally and what I was doing – also during the day when he was concerned I was suicidal.

Clare: What kind of help from family, friends or professionals did you find detrimental?

Margaret: Comments such as, “You should just get over it and move on”. Refusal to talk about it. Psychologists are not well trained about this issue, or they approach it totally wrong. They don’t know their social psychology enough to understand the interactions. Psychologists think the client is misperceiving it. But I was right about my intuitions.

People still say, “What part of this was your fault?’ and I answer, “That I trusted the wrong people”. Psychologists say both parties are at fault. Mutuality is the belief in a “Just World” – that belief blinds people to evil. It may be person “a’s” fault, or person “b’s” fault or it may be both. In each case you have to investigate the reality – but that requires work – so people just walk away. They think, “If I can say it’s both their faults I can just walk away from both of them.”

Clare: Why do you think the bullies chose you as a target, and not others?

Margaret: Same reason they did in the schoolyard. I was short, introverted, competent and intelligent. I also didn’t know how to fight back. I was too nice and not aggressive enough. I think bullies test the waters and see how far they can go. For instance in the early grades school bullies choose targets randomly. By middle school they have figured out who won’t defend themselves well and who lacks allies. Bullying is a way to knock out the competition. My professional status and willingness to share my beliefs and opinions also made me visible. They perceived me as a threat to their own agendas.

By fighting back and aggressiveness I mean that, if criticised, I would think, “They must be right”, “What can I do to fix it?”– rather than a more appropriate response, “You’re wrong.” So I mean assertiveness.

Clare: Looking back, what would you now say are the warning signs that someone should look out for so they could define what is happening to them as psychological abuse – and not blame themselves?

Margaret: I am finding this one hard to answer. I think you need to pay attention to how people talk or don’t talk to you. Do they make comments that leave you feeling inadequate? Do they criticise or put you down especially in front of others? Do they give unsolicited advice? Do they continue to do things that make you uncomfortable even when you have asked them to stop?

Clare: Given everything you’ve learned from your experience of psychological abuse, how do you deal with it differently now?

Tauranga Historic ChurchMargaret: First there is a change in mindset. I no longer worry about whether someone likes me or not. I ask myself if I like them and pay more attention to whether they reciprocate offers of friendship. I stay away from people who don’t think it is okay to express anger or who confused feeling anger with behaviour. I am also more willing to be aggressive if I think it necessary. I will push back in some way. I won’t let put downs go by without responding to them. I talk to others about it and seek allies. It is important to have allies. You can see this in the way I have handled some negative reviews of my book. I have written blog posts about it. I also am more observant of other people’s behaviour in group settings.

For instance, in my current church, power is handled very differently. Initiative from church members is encouraged. Things are not so top down. I also read the church constitution before I joined and noted that the constitution included a structure for dealing with complaints. The minister at the church where I am now has the view that any complaints should be made openly to that person, that you should have the nerve to say it to them, or not say it at all. Whereas in one of the churches where I experienced abuse, Pastor Karen had all sorts of reasons why it was okay for people to go behind my back to her.

Clare: What advice do you have for others about the most effective strategies they could use to cope if they find themselves embroiled in a pattern of being psychologically abused?

Margaret: Assert yourself when unfairly criticised. Learn verbal self-defence tactics. Find allies and don’t be silenced. Talk to as many people that will listen about what is happening. There is a risk if you stay. If your adversary is very powerful they will find a way to silence or run you out. If the leadership condones gossip and bullying – for your own sake, you need to leave. I should have left earlier and found a healthier church. Nothing I did was going to change things. I didn’t have enough power.

. . . . .Knox Church Dunedin

Although this is the end of my interview with Margaret, I am half way through reading her book Not My Making and intend posting a review of it in October. It is a very personal story of what happened to her and how she made sense of the insidious, often subtle, sometimes obvious psychological abuse across time. Meantime it is available from Pluck Press or at Amazon here: Not My Making

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  • Mary 27 June 2015, 9:15 pm

    Dear Margaret Jones,
    I want to thank you for this opportunity to read the similar experiences of people in church groups, I can honestly say it helped me so much to come across it. Just now though while I’ve been working in the garden I have to say I was not looking too at the great time of joy I also felt within this church which lead to what I hope is a greater commitment to Christ, and at many times a wonderful happiness and fulfilment and so although I suffered and these things are very serious (Eckhart Tolle said for anyone to be put outside by the group, it can even cause death for that person, and I too, also felt suicidal, it seems such an indictment by numbers of our characters or personalities). But thinking hard about it, two things come to mind; I think these flashes of hatred from others must be simply smothered in a loving heart if we can manage to do it; (St. Augustine said this I think) and that a saying which came from a first race North American Spiritual leader is that ‘We come into the world as uncut diamonds as little children, but with each ‘cut’ we receive we can shine with many bright facets of light.

    So maybe we should be more grateful for our suffering, perhaps it’s the refining, cleansing and purifying we need.
    It was when in my really strong ‘honeymoon’ beginnings at the church when I realised when I was praying peace and love for those who had hurt me over my lifetime, that for the first time I was feeling that there wasn’t that much wrong with my mind…… and I felt truly on The Way. So as we are told not to judge lest we are judged (and this must surely be when we leave a kind of base camp and climb higher), I tend to feel the Spirit reminding me that I also may be guilty of aspects of what I criticise in others, after all He said ‘Forgive them Father because they don’t know what they’re doing’, and that was also me once, if not now.

    So if it would seem to you better to replace the first email I wrote with this one, then it may be more helpful perhaps for our sisters and brothers in hurt. And I wish you every happiness, and success after your ordeal too.
    Love, in Christ, Mary

  • Mary Barratt 24 June 2015, 5:17 am

    I think although these emotional attacks are as old as the hills, modern psychiatry can interplay with definitions of what is happening. I read a very good article by Rowan Williams years ago called ‘We live in a Society of Blame, but there is Another Way’; he looked at the dynamics of all kinds of groups which basically created competitive energy and it seems perhaps this energy needs to kind of ‘earth’ itself almost like a lightening conductor works, by finding a release agent (a victim – a scapegoat by any other name).

    So it took me years to work out that the sin-guilt which I perceived to be sexual in nature needed to find a victim who often had the least amount of anger in the groups and to expiate this energy onto them in the form of like a ‘ whipping of an unblemished lamb’. I found in church groups I was being targeted with admonishments for thinking things which I wasn’t even thinking! And so what modern psychiatry would call projection and denial was working in people of little insight to allow them freedom from getting rid of conflicting feelings, thoughts and emotions which they evidently couldn’t work through any other way than to try to put a scapegoat outside the city gates, so that they felt better!! They will receive a great condemnation, particularly if they are members of the church authorities. They are doing to more innocent church members exactly what they did to Christ.

  • kaya 22 March 2014, 9:50 pm

    Hello Lori, I had never revisited this site until now. Thank you so much for responding, no one has ever understood before. I think you are right, I need to stop trying to find a group, but how do you make friends? Women are so catty, I thought I found a good sincere friend, but when she gets around others she treats me like a second class citizen, so she is just another user. I have a little more insight. Most women in my town do not work, they do not have much going on outside of their spiritual groups, they need to feel important and they seek to control others because their lives are out of control. Still, I cannot help but feel if I were different I would not be targeted. Thank you again for your reply. I have 2 lovely dogs, thank God for them.

  • Sheila 19 April 2013, 4:40 pm

    It is sad that a church that should be showing brotherly love allows people to behave in this manner. My recent experience with church members and the pastor is that it doesn’t matter what you are trying to do or how you are trying to do something when they finally go for the throat they will get it done. Lies, deception and backbiting. I have been attending this church for 4 years and I have seen 20 some people leave this church during this time frame. I couldn’t understand why so many people were leaving. Then I started getting phone calls from the bullies, they were so nice at first then as time went on I found out that they were calling other church members and were talking about me, sowing seeds of discontent. But what they didn’t realize was that I had become very close friends with the majority of the remaining congregation. After a few months of their actions I stopped talking to them unless it was absolutely necessary. After I had taken all that I could from these women I called our pastor and asked for his guidance on how I should handle this matter. He stated that we would have a meeting with them and get it straightened out. Well the night of the meeting it ended with the pastor in a verbal argument with the deacon and there was no progress made. The woman who has been talking about me now is playing the victim. I took a 5 wk absence from the church due to health reasons and when I returned this woman would not look at me or talk to me. I have been told by members that I shouldn’t let her run me off, but what has everyone else done over the years when she behaves in this manner? They ignore her and that has just allowed her to continue her behavior. When I spoke with the pastor again about her actions toward me, he put the blame on me. When I told him I was leaving the church he said that there are no perfect churches and there would be people like her at the next church. I asked why. Why should all churches be like this? If the leaders and pastor was doing their job and teaching the correct way for Christians to behave then maybe there wouldn’t be problems, or sending the trouble makers out the door as it says to do. So, I have found that within this church there isn’t any way to remedy problems, they have no by-laws or church constitution. Everything is done as it has always been done and they allow the deacons to dictate how things will be done. So, my family will be looking for a new church and if we can’t find one that teaches right form wrong then we will follow God’s plan from our home.

  • Lori8069 13 October 2012, 8:33 am

    Oh, Kaya – you sound just like me – except I’m not a professor, like you. There’s nothing wrong with you – it’s just that once someone has successfully ruined you (like what you said your step-mother did to you), you’re “marked” for life, now. This is what I’ve finally realized, at 53 years old, that whatever damage I incurred as a child from being bullied by an insanely jealous older sister, I apparently can’t hide this damage no matter what I do. The bullies zone right in on me wherever I go. Please, for your own mental health, stay completely away from groups of people. Get yourself a good friend or two (my two good friends were also bullied, too, and tend to be targets), and for the love of God, you’ve simply got to realize that you’re not doing anything wrong.

  • kaya 29 March 2012, 7:11 am

    Hello, Thank you so much for sharing your story. I so relate to Margret, I am a professor, quiet, shy, intelligent, and often bullied. I have tried so many spiritual groups. It is always the same, run by the most dysfunctional, catty woman who soon goes after me. It seems too often groups are led by control freaks and good ideas are often lost because everyone just has to go along with the control freak, the backstabbing gossip who is oh so spiritual. Those women seem to hate me. I have spent my whole life reading about social skills trying to be sure I am always nice and supporitve. I tend to think I must need to change something in me so women will quit bullying me, I find myself analyzing every word that comes out of my mouth, rehearsing over and over what I did wrong. In the end I cannot find any place where I was rude or discourteous. I must threaten these catty women. I am a very authentic person with deep conviction to my spiritual path. I have prayed and prayed that whatever is wrong with me be changed, trying to take responsibility for myself. For decades I have prayed, nothing has come to me but I have learned about bullying. When I make friends, often the bully in the group goes and befriends them and I lose the friend because it is never okay to be my friend. I have prayed so often to not wake up, so alone, I keep reliving my childhood abuse that began when my dad married, you guessed it, a good christian woman. She immediately began gossiping about me and eventually turned the whole family against me, aunts uncles cousins neices nephews all despise me and piss on me basically. It was either leave the family or kill myself, my mom chose the latter. I believed that I could change my life for the better, find healthier solutions but I am always bullied. Now I pray that God take me but wonder if I will just be bullied on the other side by all the same relatives who snickered and sneered at me here.

  • Katie 5 February 2012, 5:24 am

    I can relate. Are you on facebook Sarah?

  • darren 17 July 2011, 4:58 pm

    Hi I have bullying exp in all the churches i attended, i am an easy target just like Margaret discribed introverted and easily intimidated. Just like Margaret says, a lot of people out there don’t investigate facts first before coming to conclusions, they’ll just say things like, “oh, well, if you get bullied everywhere you go, it must be all be your problem”. Well, I admit, some of it is, and I am willing to take responsibility for my part. But 80% of the time it is not.

    In fact, a lot of the time I did not stand up for myself as I should, that’s why the abuse continues. In fact, one of the things my ex-pastor and pastor’s wife used to shift blame was the whole idea “Christians are not perfect, it is thru learning to tolerate one another, we learn to grow together”. While that is true, and I agree with it wholeheartedly, I think when you try to use this concept and apply to every situation, then you are abusing the scripture through taking passages out of context. Because in the end of the day, there is a clear difference between imperfect vs abuse. I don’t mind people yelling at me once because they had a bad day, as long they apologise later, however, I won’t classify consistent physical intimidation, attempt to turn the entire church against me through misconstrued facts etc etc as merely imperfection. Those behaviours are bullying, full stop. And yes, acknowledge some of them may have issues and should be given all the help and support they can get, however, this should not be by going up to the victim and telling them to behave like a doormat as a solution. If a person has anger issues, they should be given counselling and prayer etc etc to help them, but if they continue to intimidate others, then maybe it might be a good idea for them to not come to church for a while until they have their problem fairly under control. And in event where people aren’t even acknonledging their attitude as sinful eg rude and disrespecful attitude towards others, they should be dealt with immediately so no one else would get hurt.

  • Susan 11 July 2011, 6:50 am

    I have been bullied for over one year now. Rumors and lies follow me at church but I will not leave. I believe God put me there for a reason and despite everything, I love my church. I know who is behind the bullying and yes, it hurts. It is painful and leaves its own kind of scars, but I am strong. The bullying consists of sending out emails that are filthy…spoofing my address so that church members actually believe I did this. My friends are being targeted and I am being isolated. It is okay. I serve a God who sees and hears. I trust He will use this for good.

  • Deb 2 March 2011, 10:45 am

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    I dealt with being bullied from late elementary school all the way through high school, and even a bit in college (although that was nothing like it was in high school), so you would think I would have recognized what was happening in my church. I began attending my husband’s church just before we were married, and for 10 years I struggled to fit in and to be allowed to serve in the teaching ministry. I jumped through all the hoops–attended all the required classes and leadership trainings, became a member and got re-baptized–yet was still unable to “break in.” Every year when the church held their Ministry Fair, I signed my name to be an adult Sunday school teacher. Sometimes I heard from leadership; sometimes I did not.

    Finally, I thought I’d have a chance when a friend and teacher in the Women’s Bible Study suggested me for a teaching position. The leader of the Bible Study was glad to give me the curriculum list and decide what I’d like to teach. When I contacted her with my selection, she apologized profusely and said that the Women’s Pastor had blown a gasket and said that *SHE* made the decision who would teach and said I had to talk to HER. Yet when I tried to set a meeting with her, she either never responded or was unavailable.

    To make a long story short, when I finally did get a teaching position, I was suddenly asked to step down from any and all ministry at that church because of questions I was dealing with and because the Women’s Pastor didn’t approve of a TV show I watched. She said my questions would lead others astray, so I could not minister to anyone till I got those questions answered (obviously in a way that agrees with the church).

    I kept wondering what was wrong with me. I finally realized that I’m not the one with the problem–I’m not perfect, but I do not deserve the treatment I have received. I have never felt accepted at this church. I always felt I had to put on a mask, to pretend to fit in with everyone else, or I would be shunned. It took a while for me to accept that this was bullying, the same kind of garbage I had to put up with at school.

  • Patricia 6 January 2011, 3:52 am

    Christ has a strong warning for those who beat their fellow servants before His return (Matt.24:49). This speaks of active abuse of those who are “different”, which doesn’t necessarily mean more sinful! It says Jesus will lay heavy stripes upon them and appoint them their portion with hypocrites. The fastest way to hell is to ride roughshod on someone else who can’t fight back. I’ve got no use, either, for snobby people who won’t even speak to you in church though you look nice and do your best to be friendly. Those stinking hypocrites know where they can go, I wouldn’t give you two cents for such people!

  • Steve 11 December 2010, 9:30 am

    Hi there, I would like to say I can relate to the above as my (pastor) took the side of my psychologicaly bullying Christian manager in the charity I work for. When I said to my pastor that I am being bullied by my Christian manager at work, my pastor said to me “well he has a tough job looking after people like you”. I said that does not give him a right to abuse me does it? My paster just shrugged and said to me “well what did my manager say?” I then said it’s on tape. Then my pastor said it’s wrong to have it on tap. Yet I said it’s only on tape as I recorded it myself so my manager could not say I said something else. It was just my proof. Yet my pastor said “it’s wrong for you to have it you have to wipe the tape”. “Why?” I said it’s my proof of the (truth) yet my pastor did not want me to prove the (truth) as he backed the bullying Christian manager who also goes to my church and who is supported by others like him. Also there is a couple who were in my church who were bullied out of the church by the pastor who backed a bully in the church, so much so the couple endured alot of pain. Even their son and daughter at school were bullied by the bully’s sons and daughters from the church. Yet as soon as the couple who was being bullied at church told the pastor, they were told to carry on forgiving and praying for the bully. Yet it kept going on until the couple could take no more and thay left the church and don’t want to ever be part of any church after being (falsely accused by the bully). Also the couple are intelligent people. (YET) as soon as the bully started on the pastor he would not have any of it. He told the bullying family to leave the church, yet he did not practice what he preached did he. He caused a great couple to leave the church they had been in for years. Yet I say god help them and everyone on this website happy Christmas to you all.

  • Michele 27 September 2010, 12:13 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story. Group dynamics can be brutal. It is so important to know how to identify what is going on, and how to speak up for yourself.

  • Sarah 13 December 2009, 2:51 pm

    I have always been a target of bullies whenever I find myself in social situations or in a group, from school onwards.

    I am quiet by nature and hate confrontation.

    I don’t think I can change my personality, so I just avoid social settings as much as possible now.

    I prefer my own company.

  • michele 11 August 2009, 9:36 am

    I too am also in the middle of reading Not of my Making. I am grateful that Margaret has opened her experiences to us to learn from and share. I eagerly read a few pages each night after the little ones are in bed and can’t wait to pick it up again. Thanks @mawjones~your friend @michele07

  • lifespacings 10 August 2009, 9:29 pm

    thankyou for telling us our journey is not alone

  • Adelaide 10 August 2009, 8:21 pm

    ‘I didn’t have [enough] power’. That is so sad.

    Even more sad is the things that people do to get and retain power.

    But it need not always be this way, as Margaret Jones shows us. We can have power and we can use it.

    The power that her current church uses has several important elements like structure and initiative. And probably the paramount one: speaking openly and directly.

    ‘Speaking truth to power’.