The Unmaking of Me | Part 1 Spiritual Abuse & My Complex PTSD

There are moments in our lives that begin ordinary and end extraordinary. Sometimes, they are moments of indescribable joy, and others of immense suffering. This post is about the latter, and takes place, like may of these life-altering moments do, under the most mundane circumstances: a food truck rally with friends.

Food trucks will forever make me think of church (the food truck craze struck hard there) and that night was no different. What started off as a simple trip down memory lane, turned sinister before I knew what was happening.

My memories were hijacked. I couldn’t control them as they darted through a series of horrible events that led to the end of my call. I started thinking about shielding a staff member from an unhinged congregant… then getting hit in the face…about being called to a meeting where I was encircled by ordained leaders who had decided that somehow I was the problem that needed to be dealt with…and about being pushed out of a community I loved and served faithfully and being denied the chance to say goodbye to them.

Though I was sitting on a park bench on a beautiful fall Florida night while our kids played, I wasn’t really there. I was in another place in another time. 

Eventually, I snapped back into place in Florida. My heart was pounding. My palms damp with sweat. The kids were talking to me, but I couldn’t make sense of their words, and I was struggling to talk to them, even to convey the simplest of things. The others returned, and I sat largely in silence for the rest of the night. I didn’t know what had just happened, but I knew it wasn’t good. 

These weren’t just memories, they were relived experiences, and then I remembered the saying, “You have a memory, but trauma has you.” Now, several months later, a handful of trauma inventories, visits with a psychiatrist, and a trauma counselor, I have a better grip on what was, and still is, happening to me. 

I have been diagnosed with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (CPTSD) caused by ongoing spiritual abuse visited upon me by leadership in the church. 

It is my choice to share this, and to share it widely, first and foremost because having CPTSD is the most isolating thing I’ve ever experienced. It feels like a curse. And though time may prove me wrong about this, I believe naming and confronting the trauma is part of breaking it. Also, I hope that my story will keep this curse from being visited upon others. And finally, I refuse to let abusive churches live in the blissful ignorance their power affords them. If they choose to look away, that’s on them. But, I’m showing them here what their abuse creates. 

I’ll be sharing this story in three parts of the course of the week. Here in Part One, I share the story of the spiritual abuse I endured over the course of years – episodes that continue to be the subject of intrusive thoughts and nightmares to this day. In Part Two, I share some of my more acute symptoms of my CPTSD. And in Part Three, I describe what it’s like for me – a Christian who spent 40 years in the church – to live out my faith now. So, here goes.

The Years of Spiritual Abuse

Like most spiritual abuse, mine began seemingly harmless enough. Life as a pastor is often about juggling competing priorities, and I was forced to skip a church officer training due to a tragic death and miscommunication with the grieving family. My supervisor told me that prioritizing the funeral over the training meant that I was not a “good colleague” because it had pushed extra work onto them (I’ll be referring to my supervisor as they/them throughout). I just figured my supervisor was having a bad day; everyone gets to have one of those. So, I just said I understood, wanting to put it behind us.  I didn’t realize it, but in that moment the groundwork had been laid for my supervisor to find ways to diminish me with unkind and unreasonable assertions about my character when I made a decision or did anything of which they did not approve.

Just weeks later a national newspaper published an interview with a prominent Christian figure who tried to biblically justify President Trump’s right to act immorally. I submitted an op-ed response to a large newspaper challenging this inane idea. The editor wanted to run it in their Sunday paper, and had attached my church credentials to a proof. I sent it to my supervisor asking if they would prefer I publish without those credentials. They were “speechless” and angry that I would even consider publishing the piece. They asked me if I knew how many angry conservatives would be outside their office door the day after it ran. They went on to say that not only could I not use my church credentials (which I understood) but that having my name attached to it would damage the church. People could just google me and find out I worked there. I said I didn’t want that, and asked them to be clear with me: did they want me to retract it? They said they did not want it to run. Trying to placate their anger, I retracted it, and that day, the line was established. 

I had no right to disrupt the calm in the system. 

I didn’t even have the right to use my own name. 

I started noticing that other people and structures in the system were reinforcing this toxic mindset. Only my supervisor had access to the church’s personnel committee; no one on the church staff could ever tell me who was on it or who we could go to if we needed help. Further, the staff was repeatedly told by senior staff that it was our job to support my supervisor’s decisions. Period. I can’t count the number of people I saw crumble – emotionally, professionally, spiritually – under the weight of these expectations.

Weeks went by, and though I tried to repair the breakdown in trust, our relationship continued to degrade. I was told yet again that I was a bad colleague, and my decision-making went under the microscope. I had said publicly that I was most proud of the church when our leadership publicly took a stance endorsing LGBTQ equality. In a one-on-one meeting, out of nowhere, my supervisor told me, “You know, you’re the only one around here who feels that way.” There were other things of which I was supposed to be proud. My discretion was so off in my supervisor’s mind that I couldn’t even be proud of the right things

Then came time for my performance evaluation, which was supposed to take place in one meeting. Mine, however took spanned three long, exhaustive meetings. Despite a clear increase in membership and giving, I was told I wasn’t succeeding. I was told I needed to hold more programming, events and classes, so I added half a dozen of them over the next few months, only to be told later these were not the right kinds of programming, events and classes. I was putting a lot of energy into fixing a problem that didn’t exist.

I sought out the advice of experts to help me “succeed.” I met with a pastor who was part of a church vitality task force for my whole presbytery, and then I had the good fortune with nationally-recognized church leaders who had successfully made the kinds of changes for which my supervisor was asking. But whenever I shared what I had learned form those conversations, I was told not to trust them. For some reason their experiences and advice couldn’t help me, or maybe wasn’t allowed to help me. There was only one person whose opinion mattered, and they were sitting across from me. My only option was to implement my supervisor’s ideas and solutions. It was the most isolating time of my ministry.

And then come the words that would break me. I was told things would be more successful if I could just “be happy” and worked more than “four and a half days a week.” I was told I had failed “to show any leadership or drive,” and that was why I wasn’t succeeding. In my supervisor’s eyes things were bad, and I was the cause. I will never forget those words. They were spoken behind closed doors, as I struggled to breathe through a second bout of pneumonia in 3 months and wincing from a rib I cracked coughing weeks earlier. My body bore the scars of the truth; I was sacrificing all I had, working nonstop, and still it wasn’t enough. I felt like I was failing the church. I felt like I was failing my calling to ministry. I felt like I was failing God. And all because I…was…me.

I cared about the wrong things. 

I did the wrong things. 

I didn’t work hard. 

I didn’t have the skills or drive to succeed. 

Even if these things weren’t true, I was trapped; to stay with a congregation I loved, I would have to endure this unending punishment. 

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did…mightily. I was struck by a congregant after I got between them and a staff member they were charging towards. I can’t explain the feeling of having someone you’ve cared for, whose family you’ve cared for, attack you in a fit of rage. But, that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst part was getting on the phone with my supervisor, sharing what had just happened, and pleading strong boundaries be put in place to keep the congregant away and seeking help, only to be told that we needed to manage “the story.” 

After the attack, I asked repeatedly for my supervisor to send a letter to the congregant outlining our commitments to them and our expectations of them, but they refused. My requests, I was told, were borne out of my misguided need to “feel in control” of the situation, and therefore would not be honored. And I realized I couldn’t navigate the impossible position of being a victim and having to plead with my supervisor to care for me, my staff, and my congregation. So, I let all the powers that be know I was stepping aside until they took the appropriate action. 

The action they took, weeks later, was to call me to a meeting with my supervisor, another pastor, two members of our personnel committee, and a Ruling Elder. We sat in a circle on metal folding chairs, and though it was the first time all of us had sat down together, the focus of the evening was not on the violent incident that set all this into motion, but on my efforts at the church since my arrival. 

  1. I was told my stepping away was unprofessional and without warning (though correspondences show otherwise). 
  2. I was told I had failed to meet the challenges of the moment. This was said while sitting beside our food pantry, set up to meet an unprecedented economic need in our area, and on the day and time that our campus held the only in-person, outdoor worship in the entire church.  
  3. I was told that the church was not growing fast enough – though it was never shared what enough could or would look like. 
  4. The only question about the incident that led to me being struck in the face was if I had baited the congregant into hitting me so I could get rid of them. 

Instead of supporting me, they tried to diminish me. They distorted what was happening quite literally right in front of their faces. They cast me as a villain in the story, and the only way to redeem myself was to repair the relationship with a supervisor who had used their spiritual authority to drive me into the ground every chance they could. That was how the church’s leadership responded to me placing boundaries to protect myself, my staff, and my congregation. 

They would not support my request for safe boundaries, and I was given a week to decide if I could continue to work there. Just days later, my supervisor summoned me to their office with another who sat in that circle asking to “help” me make my decision. I demurred, and asked if I could leave. Then my supervisor said the words that made my decision for me: “When you come back, things are going to be different.” I cannot pretend to know their intent behind those words, but they felt ominous, given the tension of that meeting and everything that had come before. In that moment I knew that everything that had come before would pale in comparison to what was to come.

Four days later I handed my supervisor my resignation, requesting 6 weeks to help the congregation transition and come to terms with my leaving. But, the very next day, I got a call from someone else who sat in that circle of metal chairs. Their message was clear and cutting: “You resigned. You don’t work here anymore.” Other than to pack my belongings, I was banned from my church, effective immediately. I was never allowed to say goodbye to the people I had served for almost three years. My wife lost her friends and support network. My kids would never go to Sunday School, play with their friends, or help me lock up after worship again. My abuser and their enablers considered it an “HR matter,” but it was a death to me and my family that continues to grieve us to this day.

Then in a congregational meeting set for Thanksgiving weekend (I believe that it was very intentionally set for that weekend to keep many from being able to attend) I watched my supervisor tell everyone in attendance that a quorum was present (though, it was at least 80% short) and that this was a confidential HR matter that could not be discussed with any detail (in my denomination, all pastor compensation, including severance, must be approved by the congregation).

In the years leading up to this day, I had heard the senior leadership say repeatedly that the polity, i.e., the rules and governance, of our denomination didn’t really apply to “churches of our size,” but I never thought I’d see them so brazenly violate it. The vote was called and passed. I protested with my presbytery, but was told that they wouldn’t “‘do it right’ for the sake of the process.” I could not show that the outcome was “unjust” or “incorrect.” And yet, I still carry the neurological and spiritual wounds of the unjust abuse doled out by my supervisor and enabled by a toxic system to this very day.

For two years, I was manipulated, shamed, belittled, gaslit, isolated. I forfeited the right to my name and the ability to keep my staff, congregants, and myself safe by virtue of being trapped in a toxic system. I was spiritually abused by the people who took vows to support and care for me and my family.

I will never forget sitting with my family at our dinner table, and having to tell my six year old we couldn’t ever go back to church, seeing his tears, and hearing his questions and protests about fairness. And if I’m honest, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to forgive that either.

In Parts Two and Three, I’ll share more about the aftermath of my time there, but for now, I will simply leave you with one hard, learned truth: up until that day, I had devoted my life to serving God, but the industrial church does not care who or what you are if you do not keep the gears spinning. It will grind up whoever gets too close in order to keep the conveyor belt of cheap religious goods spinning. Be careful you’re not serving that church or funding that church, and please be aware of where you stand, lest you are the next to get caught in the churn of the machinery.

Thank you for reading my story.

15 thoughts on “The Unmaking of Me | Part 1 Spiritual Abuse & My Complex PTSD

  1. Thank you for sharing your story, and I’m sorry for what was done to you. I know far too many pastors driven away from their call by toxicity in the church and by the apathy or fear of disruption that silently allows such toxicity to persist. You included. Me included. I hope sharing your story brings some measure of healing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I had no idea this was going on. I am very sorry. I had a similar situation but in a county government setting. I will watch for the next segments of this series.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brandon this is amazing. I’ve never seen anyone truly speak on topics such as this one. I am terribly sorry for you and your family. Things will get better over time. Remember baby steps add up to huge leaps n bounds in the end. You have my prayers. Keep posting and keep pushing forward…YOU WILL SUCCEED. I HAVE FAITH.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My heart breaks reading this. Thinking of all members of the Frick family. You are amazing and a role model for more than you know. Best wishes for healing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Brandon my heart aches for you and all you and the family have gone through. It is not what God would ever want. You dealt with a malicious, abusive, sadistic supervisor which you had to bear the brunt of his inferiority and jealousy. He put money and politics over the care and love of the congregation and you became the scapegoat. It makes me so angry and so empathetic for all you have endured. As having lived with some one who had severe depression and I believe he had some PTSD. I feel for you. I have prayed for you and the family and I love you. Love always wins. Although this has become a horrible time for all of you my hope abs belief is you will use it the good of yourself, your family and the restore of the humane human beings!


  6. Thank you for the courage it takes to share your story and to be vulnerable. A lot of us can relate and take great comfort in knowing we are not alone.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh Brandon!! My heart just breaks!! You didn’t deserve this treatment at all, no one does. It is truly not the love of God they are preaching. I’m ashamed to call myself Presbyterian! Truly! This is so, so not right on many many levels. You are a good man, father, husband, friend and minister. This is so awful for, Aryon and the boys. I come from a long line of Presbyterian ministers. My father’s father and his brothers were ministers. I can’t believe they would be approve of this behavior at all. I have my own reasons for not seeing eye to eye with the church, but my relatives would never treat someone like this!!! You do whatever it takes to heal yourself, believe in yourself and rid yourself of this trauma. You WILL survive and be much better for it. But, to me you were always the best and kindest person. The church screwed up!!! Sarah Jordan

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Brandon, I am sending you so much love today!
    You are in the valley of the shadow of death. I do not say this lightly, as you know. I have learned through my own suffering that nothing that happens to us or is done to us is beyond God’s power to redeem. You are beloved. Just as you are. You are being held. Do not give any attention to false narratives.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh, Brandon, oh Brandon, I just want to hug you. I will pray deeply for your recovery and healing. You were abused by humans in a toxic environment. God and all of us who love you will slowly help you find your path. Sending love.


  10. My family and I are in the aftermath of something similar and you have put language to our deep grief – cannot thank you enough for sharing this. I hate that this type of behavior seems to be more and more common, but am grateful for your vulnerability to share.

    This right here is exactly what we have experienced: “My abuser and their enablers considered it an “HR matter,” but it was a death to me and my family that continues to grieve us to this day.”

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is so familiar to me. I’m still angry at my old church. They chose to believe our ex-pastor’s lies, and we were kicked to the curve after having been part of the church for over a decade. I don’t know if I will ever recover, my faith is still healing. I’m grateful for the people who believe me and support me and my friends who endured the same treatment. I believe you, and I hope and pray that you heal.


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