Confessions of an "Intimidating" Woman at Church

Do you ever get so bombarded with the events and responsibilities of your own life, a really important experience slips through the cracks of your attention? You may not even realize the impact it's having on you until after the dust settles from everything else first. Then you see it, plain as day. That thing a person said or did that remains unmoved, a monument to the hurt in the whirlwind.

For me, it was a conversation I had with a woman from church who invited me to lunch with her. She had recently entered a leadership position, and I assumed I was on her radar because I've chosen to reduce my church attendance. I was upfront with her about this, expressing to her honestly how many responsibilities I had in my life at that time. I was so overwhelmed, I told her I was completely emotionally unavailable. I didn't want assignments. I didn't want callings. I needed time and space to exist in church without anyone wanting or needing anything from me. I made the choice to trust her with that admission of truth, thinking it would save her (and myself) a lot of time with pretenses.

I'm a big believer in honesty, situational awareness, and open communication. Leaders cannot address problems they don't know about. I had too much respect for this woman, her calling, and her responsibilities to lie to her, or string her along by pretending to be something I'm not. So, I told her the truth that was in my heart: that I don't feel like I have a place in the Church anymore. Not one I can comfortably occupy once a week, anyway. I wasn't feeling like an equal there, like my contributions had no value. And if being heard and valued was going to be this much of a struggle, I confessed, I would rather just stay home. It was a relationship of diminishing returns, and I didn't know how to fix it. Part of why I even told her about it was the misplaced hope she would have some ideas.

Instead, I was given a new label I still struggle to affix to myself. "Intimidating." That's what she told me I was. The way I participate in classes. The comments I make. How well-read and well-versed I am in church history and scripture. People have told her that I intimidate them.

You could've knocked me over with a feather in that moment. Me, intimidating? My 5'2" body frame and high-pitched, Minnie Mouse voice? You'll forgive me for being confused, but I still don't see how anyone who has seen me in person could possibly be intimidated by me.

I know I'm not the only one walking around with this label on me, so I thought I would deconstruct it for a while. Doing so will help me, and I hope it will be helpful to others who also find themselves wearing it. Maybe even those who give it to others, not realizing fully what it means.

The "Intimidation" is YoursNot Mine

Intimidation takes two forms: first, when a person causes fear through force, threats, or manipulation. Second, the state of being afraid or overawed because of someone else's abilities and accomplishments. At the foundation of both is fear; either because someone is making you afraid, or because you are choosing to be afraid of them. So, when you call someone intimidating there are only two ways to play it: as an accusation or a confession. Either that person is an aggressive bully who uses their resources to torment and traumatize people, or you're admitting you're afraid of them.

Sharing the experiences I've had as a convert to the Church is not a threat. Drawing upon my knowledge to fully participate in a lesson or conversation about the Church is nothing to be scared of. What I have to offer isn't some mythical power. They're perspectives and talents I've gained through hard work and study I've done over many years. They are the fruits of conscious choices to engage with and listen to all kinds of people. My scriptural literacy, my abilities to distill what I think into clear speech and polished writingI've dedicated my life to those pursuits. Those skills were paramount during my conversion, and have carried me through every subsequent trial I've had since then. I have only done what any person would do if their faith in God and their survival depended on it.

I am unique only in that I am insatiably curious. It is the curiosity of a child who never grew tired of trying to understand the world around me. I care enough to seek, to read, to listen, and to learn. That's it. That's my secret. Anyone who can read and wants to learn can achieve their own version and vision of what I have. I'm not any more special than a person who learns woodcarving, home repair, or gardening. Why should the reaction to the God-given talents I've chosen to cultivate be fear and intimidation?

Why do I have to do less of what I loveto be less of who I ambefore others will see me as a person? Why am I being held responsible for other people's feelings? For their fear?

I just want to be myself. I refuse to be less of who I am because other people choose to be afraid of me for no good reason. The solution here is not for me to hide my talents under a bushel to make others feel better. What is required is for those who pass judgment like this to reflect on their choices. Why do you choose to be afraid of people you don't even know? Is there a better choice you could be making?

If there's harmful manipulation at play here, it's in this: when accomplished, educated, or outspoken women are only acceptable when they are silent, passive, and submissive. When love and acceptance are conditional upon false pretenses, and all friendship and associations turn away from them when they refuse to comply. That is manipulation. That is intimidation.

I am submissive to no one but God. In all my relationships, my associations are absolutely conditional. I am only interested in maintaining relationships that are based in love, tolerance, and respect. I expect to be treated like an equal because that's how I strive to treat others. I expect to receive in return the time and consideration I give. I want relationships that are based in honesty and openness. This is who I am because a lifetime of struggle has taught me this is what I value.

If I can't have those kinds of relationships with people in my ward without them calling me "intimidating," what does that say about the quality of the relationships to be had there? Why are we surprised that people who are treated like this leave us? Why are we confused when they struggle to come back to church, even when they desperately want to?

Overcoming Intimidation

So much of our culture encourages us to invest in others before ourselves. No matter how strong we are, that pattern of total self-sacrifice is unsustainable. We will all make the startling realization that while God is perfect, we are not. His wells never run dry, but ours do. Endless giving without being restored means we all come up empty eventually, having nothing else to give. Emptiness, the sense of internal lacking, produces many emotional responses. In some, the longing for renewed connection and belonging. In others, fear and rejection of the new and unfamiliar.

If you find yourself burdened by feelings of inadequacy and intimidation from others, that is not going to change by expecting them to change for you. They are not the reason your feel that way. No change they will ever make will help you feel more content within yourself. Only recognizing your value, your strengths, and the power of your contributions can do that.

If your association with someone else has made you aware of a lack within your own abilities, why blame that on them? They are giving you the opportunity to fill that emptiness with the perspective they've offered you. So fill your own emptiness! Drink from the well they have chosen to share with you. If you need more, ask them for more. Why are we so afraid of not being perfect, of being vulnerable in our weakness and accepting others who are different, we're willing to let ourselves and other perish from thirst instead?

You wanted a confession from an "intimidating" woman at church, and here it is: I don't want to be feared. I want to belong. I want to be loved, heard, and appreciated just like anyone else. I am a person with needs and feelings, and being labeled inaccurately and unkindly isn't one of them.

So if I may, let me suggest a replacement. Instead of calling me (and others like me) "intimidating," how about embracing me for the intensity of love and devotion I feel for God and those around me? I can appreciate if what I have to offer is too strong or intense for some people. But being recognized for what I have to offer, even if it's not for you, is drastically different from being openly criticized for what I lack.

The consequence of coexisting with every living member of our species on the same planet, all at the same time, means inevitably bumping into ideas that will contradict and challenge how we think and live. This is no threat. It's an opportunity to learn. And imagine how much more we would learn in the Church if we thanked God for our differences, instead of asking him to remove them so we all can be the same. Let's stop giving up that opportunity to the temptation to engage in small-minded behavior like name-calling. Surely as the restored church of Jesus Christ, we have more to offer this world than that.

Why Sexual Violence Should Disqualify Anyone from Missionary Service

Is it a hot take to say that committed sins of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment should disqualify someone from full-time missionary service?

I am a survivor of sexual trauma. I've lived with this burden all my life. I was so young the first time I was abused, I have no recollection of ever being anything other than a survivor. It is all I have ever known.

I've had a lifetime to ask God about sexual trauma. From the earliest "why is this happening to me?" to now. I've spent years trying to understand what God's forgiveness looks like for the people who did this to me, and what that means for me as a survivor.

Here's what I know.

Restitution is Everything 

It is not enough for someone who is guilty of traumatizing someone with sexual abuse to confess what they've done to a bishop, a stake president, or even to the prophet himself. That confession is meaningless on its own.

Repentance for sin does NOT belong to church leadership. It is not theirs to bestow. It belongs to Jesus Christ alone. His is the standard for repentance and forgiveness, which is to confess and forsake sin. (See D&C 58:42-43)

What does it mean to "forsake" sin?

In the case of sexual trauma, it's not just a private rejection of the behavior. It's not just a personal conviction to never repeat it. It also means making restitution to the victim, their families, and everyone else affected by the abuse.

The effects of sexual trauma are lifelong. It's a burden many survivors live with every day of their lives. For as long as that suffering continues, there is more restitution to be paid. And until the utmost farthing has been paid, the perpetrator doesn't qualify for forgiveness.

Let me be clear about this for the church leaders in the back. You have no right to declare someone forgiven for sexually traumatizing someone who has done absolutely nothing to make restitution. You may give them institutional forgiveness, but it means nothing to God.

God gives justice to victims of sexual violence

Every tear, every pain, every heartbreak victims experience is seen by God. Weighed against the abuser's restitution. Measured. Remembered. Every victim of sexual trauma will receive justice. Otherwise, "God would cease to be God." (See Alma 42:13)

Individuals who have already sexually traumatized someone before mission age have much more important things to worry about than serving a mission. Their souls are at stake. The most important thing they need to do is begin the lifelong process of achieving their own repentance.

Some people mistakenly believe that serving a mission will help people in this situation achieve forgiveness—that giving up this time is a necessary sacrifice for that ongoing repentance. 
Here's why that's an unacceptable approach.

You Want Reasons? Here's Six of Them.

  1. Perpetrators of sexual violence are already at a serious deficit when it comes to forgiveness and repentance. They have no legitimate moral authority to speak on behalf of Christ about forgiveness to anyone.
  2. Male perpetrators especially have no business wearing a missionary name badge because they could hold leadership positions, in their missions and in branches throughout the world. They could oversee and administer to female missionaries, many of whom are survivors of abuse.
  3. As someone who was openly and repeatedly denigrated by elders where I served, I know what being abused by elders is like. I know how easily they can get away with, as well as the retaliation that follows when it no longer remains a secret. They don't learn the right lessons from these situations. They don't know how to make the situation right again. They only learn how to improve their abilities of getting away with it.
  4. It sends the wrong message to the perpetrator about what they've done and their abilities to handle it on their own.
  5. It sends the wrong message to the one they've traumatized. How many of them are sitting in pews, listening to a missionary mom read their abuser's letters over the pulpit in sacrament meeting? Why should that missionary get to live a lie before the whole world, while that person has to sit with what they know in silence?
  6. Being a returned missionary opens church members, especially men, to holding more leadership positions in the future. No person in this church should have to deal with the spiritual crisis of finding out their abuser is in a bishopric or a presidency.

I'm not saying abusers should live in public disgrace in our congregations. But there are opportunities they should relinquish as a consequence of their decision-making. Missionary service as a young person should be one of those opportunities. If that deprivation seems harsh, if that loss seems severe—good! Loss of opportunity is something victims of sexual trauma know a lot about. It'll be a chance for them to understand what it's like to have something you treasure forcibly taken from you.

It doesn't begin to compare, but it's a start.

Any consequence at all is a start.

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