The Cost of Control

Photo by Becca Schultz on Unsplash

Hi church,

I know it’s been a while since we last spoke. Well, until last year when I came out of the blue and wrote you that letter. Here’s the thing, I wrote that it had been so long since I had considered you. But thats not entirely true. Although I haven’t considered you as a viable option for me recently, it is as though I cannot go a day without you pressing on my mind. You are always with me. The strangest things still trigger the religious trauma I’m yet to evade.

I know, I know. “It wasn’t all the church”, and of course it wasn’t. Maybe I’ll add a sequel open letter to the Christian Organisation I worked for and the Christians I knew and the Christian I was. But all the same, it’s time. It’s time we continued this conversation.

It’s time we talked about control.

Especially, control in religious spaces. Especially, the control I have seen in the church spaces I was a part of.

I want to bring to light the way you control people, the way you evade dissent, discourage questions, and not just erase our individual identities but seek to control what’s left of them, too. It’s about the pressure you put on us to fit and exist inside a particular box, no-matter-the-cost.

The cost is us.
The cost is our lives.
The cost is our friendships.
The cost is human wholeness and genuine connection.
The cost is too much.

It’s time we continued the conversation.

It’s time I wrote to you again.
It’s time I brought some things to light.
It’s time I asked you to do better.

It’s well past the time for you to do better, church.

I remember when I was seventeen I made friends with a girl a few years older. She inspired me to be the best version of myself, inspired me to be kind, and inspired me to branch out of my friend circles. I remember when the church told me she was toxic, and needed to be cut out of my life. I’ll never forget that I listened. I’ll never stop regretting that I listened.

On what planet is separating genuine relationships and community the goal of the church?

I remember I had a beautiful friend group. We were cliquey as hell but god, we loved each other like family and isn’t that what community is all about? We adored the ground each other’s feet walked on. Until the people who were my leaders told me that the only way I could progress was to cut off that group. I’ll never forget the devastation on my best friends face when I told him I couldn’t hangout with them anymore. I’ll never forget the way I listened without question.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it — we’re taught to listen without question. We’re taught to hear one way of being, and accept it as absolutely and irrevocably true. All the while our hearts are exploding in our chests, begging us to hear them, begging us to listen to the intuition and wisdom in our own bodies. Instead, we ignore them, to learn this “one way” from somebody who is usually like 3 years older than us with a superiority complex the church has encouraged.

There’s an undeniable culture of supremacism in leadership, and especially in the leadership I have encountered. An undeniable belief that if someone comes to you with a question, as a leader, you have the best answer. It’s not like the advice I’ve come to love and cherish from friends and colleagues and family outside of that environment. Outside the church we know we don’t have all the answers, and we often have the space to humbly and graciously recognise that, if we ever do give advice. But, in the church, there is such an absolutism of “you must do this” or “this is my advice you must take it”.

Now church before you get all “oh but that’s your experience” just remember, I was the girl with the superiority complex telling people who to be, too. You told me how to be, and I told them. It’s a fucking spiral. It needs to stop.

I remember being at a conference. I was twenty-one. The pastor promised a miracle offering, said that if we gave God would answer our prayers… It was as though the act of putting our credit card details on an envelope and then walking that envelope to a box down the front of the room would be enough to somehow produce something we were hoping for? I didn’t stop to think because god knows you don’t stop to think and question. Not here. You don’t get taught objective critical thinking. You just get told to lay it all on the fucking line, on the altar, no matter what. I gave a thousand dollars that day.

The illusion really popped for me when my pastor told me not to write “FML” on my instagram. Her words were along the lines of, “this can give the wrong idea of you, of the church, and of the sort of community we are”. She said “FML” had a negative spirit, and I needed to take the post down. What was the post, you ask? I’d just discovered I got motion-sick on trains. I had to ride a train for an hour. I couldn’t read for that hour. That’s a big FML moment if I’ve ever heard one. Yet, this woman told me I was being negative, I was portraying the church badly, all for a commonly used, popular culture reference? Yikes.

Church, you need to do better.

The culture that you have set around control and leadership is damaging. The closed doors, the “follow without question” culture, the way that you force people into boxes they don’t fit within — it hurts people.

And, always, leaders are protected, especially when they’re high enough up. I hear so many stories of traumatic experiences within church spaces, and so many of these stories stem from manipulation and control.

  • Absolutist advice is given without regard for culture, sexuality, socio-economic means, and all the other nuances in our being, despite no training given for any pastor or leader around how to communicate, relate to people, or how to engage in the wider community.
  • This absolutist advice is rarely freely given advice — it is expected to be followed. It is expected to be listened too.
  • Leaders are given control over other people’s lives to an unhealthy degree. Leaders are often young, more often than not, untrained, and rarely have any qualifying attributes for their positions of power.
  • Leaders who have sensitive conversations with an individual will often give advice, or take on the persons situation, without regard for any of the above factors. They have so much power over people’s decisions. If they report back to the pastor about something perceived as negative (again, without regard for culture, sexuality, socio-economic status, etc) this will negatively effect the person in question.

To disagree, to question, to be critical — these are labelled as “attitudes” and those with attitudes are exiled. Maybe not from the whole community straight away, but absolutely from leadership. Whenever I disagreed, I’d face this exile, because of the rigid and unmoving position of the leaders I spoke to. (I mean, never mind I actually studied theology and they were just crossing their fingers at the time, hoping they got it right… Sigh)

I’m not even close to finished on all the words I need to say. I’ll end on this, until next time. I’m done with being controlled. Many people are. We are reclaiming our freedom, our sense of self, our own decisions. We are reclaiming things that have always belonged to us — we have just been taught for too long to ignore them.

It’s time you did better.

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Jasmine Johnston

Jasmine Johnston

I write about love, being human, and deconstruction. Advocate for self-love & embodiment. Hype gal for creatives. @existingwithjasmine on the gram.