the Hope of Survivors

Musical Misconduct by Sheila

Musical MisconductTo borrow a phrase from Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. And right now, it was the worst. Straining to hear my voice amid drums, guitar, bass and distorted speakers on stage, I could feel the panic rising up in my chest. It was only my second time singing in front of our 500-member congregation, and to say I was out of my element was putting it mildly. Frankly, I was terrified. Somehow I managed to get through the set without passing out, and with a sigh of relief, I exited the stage with the rest of the team. "Sheila, you did fine," Don assured me, as I glanced in his direction. It was comforting for me to know that as the leader, he had such an innate sense of my insecurities, and could offer me the encouragement I needed at just the right moment. The hammering of my heart slowed and my nerves began to calm down. “I can do this,” I told myself. With God’s help, I would overcome the paralyzing fear that had kept me from singing publicly up till now.

Despite the anxiety I faced, even while just singing during practices, being a part of the worship team was extremely fulfilling to me. My close friend Diane sang on the team, and had encouraged me to try out also. Her presence helped ease my fears. In fact everyone on the team was so friendly and supportive, I felt like I’d “come home” so to speak, and now had a group of friends who loved music as much as I did. 

While Diane had given me the initial “push”to try out for the team, no less a source of support was the worship leader, Don. A tall, balding man, in his late 50s with a bit of a paunch, Don was a long time musician who’d had a top 40 hit in the early 60s. Although I was very intimidated by him, this was somewhat offset by his ability to demonstrate how much he believed in his team, including me. Knowing he had faith in me made it much easier to take the scary step of singing in front of people.

As much as I loved being on the team, I was a bit uncertain of how to relate to the others, particularly the guys. For 15 years prior to this, I’d been a homeschooling mom of four, and had very little interaction with men during that time. There was a sense of familiarity among the group members that I was not used to. During one practice, I was taken aback when two female vocalists began giving shoulder massages to a couple of the male band members. I was shocked but said nothing. When I later talked with some of the women on the team, questioning whether it was appropriate for me to practice alone with Don, I felt embarrassed when one of them gently mocked my conservative views, saying there was nothing wrong with two members practicing together. I began to think that perhaps my ideas of what was appropriate between the men and women were a bit too legalistic. 

As the months went on, my attachment to the group deepened, and our Thursday night practices soon became the highlight of my week. My husband, Mike, began to act as our sound technician, so we could do music ministry together. In the early days it was easy to keep my distance from Don, especially since he seemed to treat Diane as his “favorite”, which was fine by me. I was surprised when she mentioned how often he called her at home, and that they sometimes they talked for an hour or more.

After about ten months, Diane had to leave the team when she and her family moved out of state. It was at this point that Don's attitude toward me took a dramatic shift, as if I’d been suddenly “zeroed in on”. He began to give me extravagant compliments about my singing ability, and fawned over me, making it sound like I had great potential as a vocalist. With Pamela, the other lead vocalist, he seemed cool and distant, almost cruel at times in some of the comments he made to her. In contrast, he gave me extra attention, telling me how much talent I had, and how he wanted to help me develop my special musical gift. Although I felt badly for her, I loved the feeling that someone I looked up to and cared about saw my potential. A friend of mine remarked at the time, “You are the apple of his eye these days”, and I couldn’t deny that it seemed to be true. My dad had been a singer, even appearing on the Ed Sullivan show in the 50s. He’d died when I was four, and the way Don encouraged and admired my singing made me think of how my dad might have taken pride in me had he lived.

As I began to trust Don more and more, I let down my defenses. It initially made me feel uncomfortable when he called me at home, but over time I got used to it. He always had some “important” reason to call, but the calls became longer and more frequent, and often times the subject matter seemed a bit too personal. Mike and I discussed how “eccentric” Don seemed, but we just chalked it up as part of his unique personality. At times I’d drop by his office to check in on him, or to ask about his weekly plans for our worship team, but I always felt a bit uneasy about this. One time in particular, when I stopped by to pick up a demo of a new song we’d been working on, it took him forever to find it. In the middle of searching for it, he stopped and began an impromptu practice session with me that lasted over an hour and a half. The Senior Pastor finally stopped by and said, “What is this, a practice and no one else showed up?” I was mortified, but Don just grinned. Later on, when I asked the Senior Pastor if my being there had been inappropriate, he just brushed aside my concerns and said it was nothing to worry about.

As the months went by, I relished my role as a musical daughter/student of Don's, pushing aside the feeling that it really wasn’t right for me to have a special role that the other women on the team didn’t have. But once again and out of the blue, Don’s demeanor towards me changed dramatically. He became almost indifferent towards me and now started to show more favoritism towards Pamela. As he huddled with her, talking excitedly about when she might be available for a one on one practice, I noticed him glance over in my direction. It was at that point when I began to realize that flattery and manipulation were the tools Don used to get what he wanted musically out of the lead vocalists. A few weeks later, during a meeting with Don and another team member, I confronted Don about his use of excessive flattery, and asked that he be more temperate in his compliments and more impartial with the women on the team. He acted befuddled as to why I would question his behavior, saying that in his mind, flattery was the process of making something flat or smooth” so it was easy for someone to do. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by this, but since confronting our worship leader was so stressful and scary for me, I responded by breaking down in tears.

After our meeting, Don did temporarily tone down his flattery and favoritism, and I became even more committed to the ministry. He had a vision of our team making a CD and becoming prominent in the Christian music scene, and I excitedly began to share his dream. To help move us towards this goal, I eagerly practiced and followed his coaching, as I knew I still had far to go in honing my vocal skills to a professional level. In the process I became more dependent on him than ever, and as time went on he once again began making me the object of his favoritism. I was so confused at this point, and didn't know if his attention was of a fatherly nature, or whether I was being pursued romantically, as he seemed to switch between both types of affection. But by now I was aware of how capricious his behavior was, and I didn't want to do anything  to jeopardize our relationship again. Consequently, when Don began to request things of me that made no sense, I usually cooperated without much question.

One such time happened after I’d told him I wanted to take voice lessons to help me gain more confidence in singing, sensing my dependence on him as my musical mentor was becoming unhealthy. He usually discouraged my attempts at pulling away from him, but on this occasion he said, in somewhat of a mysterious tone, “I want to ask you to do something, but I don't want you to ask me why I am asking you”. He continued with, “If you do take voice lessons, will you promise me to not take them from a man?” I responded by saying that Mike would probably prefer I take them from a woman anyway. This odd request was typical of Don’s behvior toward me, and although I didn’t say it, deep down I felt that Don had no right to ask that of me. When we were with the rest of the team, he’d act completely normal, but privately, I felt he was cultivating a completely different relationship with me. 

It was at some point not long after his question about not having a man give me voice lessons that he began confiding secrets to me. Some of his secrets seemed bizarre, for example he shared with me that he took notes after each practice as to what kind of social interactions had happened among team members. He relayed private details of past church drama involving leadership, and it was always understood that I would share these stories with no one, not even Mike. I felt honored and flattered that he would confide in me, but also uneasy about the direction our relationship seemed to be going. I rationalized this by reasoning that musicians were just passionate people who felt strongly about things, a line Don had repeated to me many times.

Musical MisconductDon’s fatherly encouragement toward me also began to change, which I especially became aware of this after our worship team performed at another church in the area. He told me I had done a great job on a particularly difficult song, and as we hugged good-bye, he whispered in my ear, “I love you”. I deliberately interpreted it as a brotherly kind of love, and responded with, “I love you,too, Don”. And I did love him—I was so grateful for his help and support, but as I walked away, I wasn’t sure what he’d meant toward me. Later, while we were alone in his office, he revisited the subject by saying, “You know, what I said the other night...that was ok to say, don't you think?”

Although we used to have full band practices every Thursday night, over time Don changed it so the practices were vocals only. This meant that not only the band members could skip the practice, but my husband could as well, as there was no need for a sound tech. One night during practice, Don asked if I could stay behind for a bit, as he wanted to discuss a new vocalist position that he would be filling soon. I agreed, though I felt uneasy knowing we’d be the only people at the church. During our private meeting, he rambled on and on about being a poet at heart before finally getting to the subject at hand 25 minutes later. From that point on I would occasionally stay after the other vocalists left, and even though I felt extremely uncomfortable in doing so, I seemed unable to draw a line with him or deny him anything he requested of me. Finally, on one of those nights, another singer, Joan, returned to the church and pointedly said that it was not right for us to be at the church alone. I agreed and had her walk me out to my car. The next week Don called me and mocked her words, “I mean, it’s not like we were meeting up later for a rendezvous or anything”.

Unbeknownst to me, that night Joan had returned to Don's office to tell him that I was very vulnerable and that he should be careful with me. Don relayed her conversation to me later and said he had told her that it was good that I was under a worship leader who would not take advantage of that vulnerability. After he finished telling me about the conversation, he then said quietly, “It’s not that I didn’t want to. I did. I just had to 'take it to the cross.’” He wouldn't look at me as he spoke, and I was too stunned to even think of how to respond. So in what had become my typical passive way with him, I said nothing, and we just moved on to another topic of conversation. He revisited the subject a week or so later by telling me that he’d been thinking about me for months and that he “shouldn’t have done that”.

Shortly after that, Don acknowledged that his behavior had been inappropriate and asked my forgiveness, and for a time things improved. I desperately hoped we’d be able to move on, and in his words, “have a relationship that was honoring to our spouses and to the Lord”. But within a few months, he was back to the old behavior.

One Sunday Don was distraught, as usual, over the sound quality of the worship music. I felt so pulled over this ongoing issue because of my husband’s role as sound tech., so I gave him an encouraging hug and told him to discuss the situation with Mike. The next time we were alone, he made a comment about how I “sure gave good hugs”, and continued to bring up this point over the next several days. Uneasy about what he seemed to be implying, I finally mustered up the courage to ask him directly what he meant by saying this. He responded accusingly with, “you caressed me! He then softened his tone and added that it was a good thing we hadn’t been alone at the previous week’s practice: “if we’d been alone, I was going to take it to the next level...and caress you.” I felt almost too stunned to know how to respond when he’d say things like this to me, as though I was living in some sort of a strange dream. But I did manage to tell him that we should just agree to not hug anymore.

By this time I was completely confused and unable to think straight. To someone outside the situation, I’m sure it would have been clear that I needed to leave the worship team.  But I had been on the team for over two years, and it had become the most important thing in my life, aside from my family. To leave the team would mean leaving the dream of singing that I had finally begun to fulfill. And to be honest, after being at home for so many years, it was exciting to be out singing and doing a few gigs at other churches, and hear people tell me how much they loved the worship at our own church. How would I ever explain to my friends, family, or the church staff, why I was leaving?

In an effort to manage a situation that was growing more stressful by the week, I did talk with Don once more, telling him that things would have to change or I would need to leave the team. After that talk, he seemed to become even more brazen and deliberately  inappropriate with his comments, even in front of others—as if daring me to take a stand—which I did not. It felt like I was standing on train tracks, watching the speeding train approach, and waiting for someone to intervene.

Then miraculously, that is exactly what happened. Other team members began to voice their concern and the issue was eventually brought to the attention of the church leadership. As the matter began to be investigated, Don talked with me about his notes, implying that he had kept records of everything, and hinted that he might have to show them to the pastor, which I took as a subtle threat. He also asked me point blank who knew about us. When I named a few friends I had confided in, he looked me straight in the eye and said as if he were warning me, “But only two people know the whole story.”  Despite these intimidation tactics,within a month, Don was forced to resign and left the church. I felt deeply responsible and blamed myself for his having to leave. But at the same time, I felt a huge sense of relief that this situation, having spun wildly out of control, had finally been dealt with.

The senior pastor met with Mike and I after Don left, and acknowledged to us his awareness about Don’s aggressive type of seduction toward me. To this day, I am grateful that he recognized the truth of the situation. At that time I defended Don as not meaning any harm, and the pastor brought up Stockholm Syndrome, the term used to describe a phenomenon where hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors and defend them.This made no sense to me then, but I have since come to realize that this is exactly what happened. Somehow, I’d been emotionally and spiritually held hostage by Don, as he manipulated and attempted to seduce me.

To my puzzlement, the pastor did not want to hear from me what had happened. The decision to fire Don was made without any input from me whatsoever. This has left me to wonder if Don had done this previously, and just what else was known of about his behavior before he came into contact with me. I was almost immediately placed on a new worship team, and told to get back on the horse. It was also implied that I was not to discuss this as they were concerned for my reputation. However, to this I could not comply, as I could not simply bury this in my mind and move on, so I stepped down from the new team and eventually left the church.

There is so much about my experience with Don, and his power over me, that can’t easily be put into words. It was almost like I was in a cult consisting only of him and me; the control he had over me is unbelievable, as I look back on it now. Don never took public responsibility for his behavior, and I was left to sort through it on my own. I went to professional counseling and learned that what had occurred had a name—pastoral sexual misconduct. Still I found it difficult to move on. I minimized what had happened because there had been no physical contact between Don and me, and I continued to be subtly pressured by my new church to not ever bring up what had happened. Searching online, I learned about The Hope of Survivors and when I found out they were doing a conference in my area I made plans to attend. Attending the conference was an important first step in healing, although it was not easy. While attending and listening to other victims relate their experiences, at times it was all I could do not to run out of the room—the reality of what Don had done finally began to sink in. But attending the conference was key for me in breaking my silence and in acknowledging the victimization I had experienced. And the support of Samantha, Steve, and the other participants gave me hope that there were people out there who understood. I have since had further counseling and am now at a church where there is not pressure to put up a “front” of perfection.

Through it all, I can truly say that God has used this for good in my life as well. I used to be an extremely “black and white” person, being very judgmental at times. Now I have a new sense of compassion toward others that I never had before. And I’ve also realized that my “submissive” attitude towards church leaders was really a passivity, and that is part of what allowed me to be an easy target for predatory men such as Don. I’ve also learned to recognize that I am responsible for the choices I make in life, and I no longer wait for someone else to make decisions for me, or allow them to pressure me into changing my views.

As it says in the book of Romans, we all fall short of the glory of God—and that applies to me as well as Don. Although he misused his position of authority with me, I have a feeling that if I knew his past completely, the way God does, I would have a great deal of compassion for him and might even understand how he felt unable to resist the temptation he faced. Even though I still struggle at times, with anger and grief over my experience, I can now honestly say I want God's best for him, and that I have forgiven him for the harm he caused me.

It's my prayer and hope that through telling my story, other women will be protected from being victimized, and that church leaders become aware of the damage pastoral abuse can cause and will take the necessary steps to protect their congregations.


If you are a survivor of pastoral abuse, we would love to hear your story and possibly make it available on this web site for others to read and renew their hope. You can use a pseudonym if you choose and rest assured that all personal information will be kept private and strictly confidential. Please contact us.

Please note: We do not necessarily agree with or endorse all the information contained in the survivor’s stories. We do, however, feel they have some valuable information that could be useful to you in your recovery. It helps to know you’re not alone, that others have shared your pain and have healed, by the grace of God, in their own time and way.

The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18