Five years ago, I met my now-husband at church. Four years ago, we decided to share an apartment. At the time, I was active volunteer with the middle and high school youth.
Because we live in a small town, senior leadership found out quickly about my new living arrangement. I was not banned from working with the youth, but I was told not to tell them about my living situation. I was told I was setting a “bad example” for them. I was told my Love and I could not both be chaperones for a youth trip, even if we slept in separate rooms because we were in a relationship but not married. I was discouraged from engaging in discussions about sexuality and relationships with these youth, even while leadership sent me to trainings about the importance of surrounding youth with supportive adults in the church. I was a “bad example,” even as I modeled the social norm of moving in with my Love before marriage, even as I bucked the trend of meeting my now-spouse at church. I finished out my volunteer service for the year, but chose not to continue because I felt silenced and shamed.
And here’s the twist: we weren’t having sex. Even if I had said this to leadership, I’m sure we wouldn’t have been believed. But here’s the stickiest part: I don’t want everyone to know that I am a sexual abuse survivor, and I don’t think many people really want to know either. As a culture, we don’t want to acknowledge that this abuse happens. As a church culture—when we don’t speak of sex—we especially don’t want to acknowledge that it can be used as cruelty. Every experience is different, but for me, there were some physical and emotional complications from my history of non-consensual, non-equal relationships that made sex impossible until I had extensive treatment. I don’t choose to share any of those details often, because it’s personal, painful, and I’ve been told I’m “making it up” or that all of it is “my fault” more often than not.
When leadership jumped to conclusions that I was sexually active outside of marriage, they invalidated my relationship, my life, my voice. They silenced me and blamed me for my decision to “live in sin,” just as abuse survivors are silenced and blamed in nearly every life domain. They ignored the gifts that I brought to the youth program, including (and perhaps especially) the opportunity to see a model of someone near their age in a healthy, Christian relationship that started in their congregation. Given that one in seven children are sexually abused before they are eighteen, the elders ignored a resource for these youth who would “get” it, believe them, and know how to respond appropriately.
I would be angry and sad about the judgment of living together, even without the added complexity of my history. I recognize that I have inherent privilege in this situation that give me even more advantages: I’m cisgender, heterosexual, and monogamous. I am not—nor do I feel called to be—rostered or paid staff of the ELCA.
I believe that there is hope for pleasure in sex and richness in consensual relationships, even for those who have been hurt in any number of ways—including by the silencing and shaming within communities of faith. As a lay member of the ELCA, I hope for leaders who will uplift sexuality and diversity in relationships as gifts from God. I support a decrease in the emphasis on “chastity” before marriage and on heterosexual monogamous marriage as the only acceptable relational structure between two adults who are able to consent. I pray for church leaders who can model and guide this kind of inclusive future for the ELCA. By current procedural guidelines, I would have been “unfit for ministry” at the ordained and consecrated levels. By typical church practices, I was shamed for my healthy relationship and discouraged from being an active volunteer in realms where I felt called to serve.