Sarah McDugal talks about the how hard it is for women from many different churches and religions to come to terms with abusive situations, and the resources she is putting together to help them heal.
Question: You run an organization called Wilderness to WILD, focused on abuse and trauma recovery, where you offer coaching and courses for women in the faith community. When did you start WILD? How many women have you worked with?
Answer: I began working with women long before I launched WILD — first with teen and young adult girls, then with clergy spouses internationally. In 2016, I began focusing more on supporting those who were survivors of domestic violence and abuse in the faith community. Finally, in 2020, I founded WILD, specifically to serve this unique audience. I really don’t have exact numbers for how many women we have supported, but it is in the tens of thousands, and spreads across a wide swath of denominational backgrounds.
Why did you start WILD? Why did you feel an organization focused specifically on women in the faith community was needed?
After working with abused women for several years, I realized there is a woeful dearth of accessible resources for those who are seeking faith-based yet trauma-informed support groups, coaching, and online courses. The social isolation created by COVID over the past year-and-a-half has intensified many women’s abusive situations, while simultaneously cutting them off from in-person supports. This makes the need for online resources all the more crucial.
I founded WILD at the beginning of 2020 during a very difficult personal time. I had just started chemotherapy for bone cancer, and was in transition on every front. Despite those challenges, it still felt like the right time to move forward with a structured response to the needs of so many women.
Women in any abusive situation face tremendous practical, emotional, and psychological obstacles to survival and healing. These barriers to freedom can feel overwhelming. However, women in the faith community face additional obstacles as well — belief systems and theologies that tell them, “If you leave your husband, you are betraying God himself.” This is an egregious, yet pervasive, misrepresentation of God’s heart toward those suffering mistreatment and injustice.
I am so sorry to hear about the bone cancer! Are you still doing chemotherapy?
I finished chemo and radiation by the end of 2020 and I have had three consistently clean scans so far. At this point it all seems to be gone!
You have mentioned “spiritual abuse”? What is that? How would you define spiritual abuse?
Stereotypically, we tend to think of “abuse” in the narrow terms of physical assault. But the reality of domestic violence and abuse is far more encompassing. (See WILD’s free Systems of Abuse Chart here.) At the heart of all abuse is the misuse of power and influence over others. This expresses itself in many ways, not only physical. It can include child abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, and other forms too.
Spiritual abuse is the misuse of theology, scripture, church position, or spiritual influence to control, cause harm to, exploit, or reduce the personhood of another. At its core, spiritual abuse is any action that breaks the third commandment — where someone takes the name of God and then misrepresents his character using his name. This can include actions such as:
- - twisting scripture to avoid accountability
- - using beliefs to gain advantage
- - leveraging spiritual leaders against you
- - silencing you with Bible verses
- - making you believe that you need them to teach you about God
- - acting as the Holy Spirit on your behalf
- - excusing any destructive pattern in the name of God
- - other soul-destroying behaviors
Spiritual abuse can cause more lasting damage than physical abuse because it affects not only our body and mind but our entire worldview and our picture of God himself.
How would you characterize the prevalence of abuse within churches? Is it less than in the wider community? (I really hope it isn't greater?)
Sadly, there is no evidence to suggest that abuse rates are lower inside the church. In fact, the more closed and isolated a community is, the more abuse is able to thrive unchecked. This is the natural result of selfish human beings holding power over others without truly having the Fruit of the Spirit and the character of God in their hearts.
When you have a tight-knit subculture, the tendency is to resolve things internally rather than report to civil authorities. It’s also common to for those in power to close ranks around each other and protect each other rather than seeking the safety of the vulnerable. Throw in beliefs that entitle husbands to control over their wives and children rather than humbly serving their families like Jesus, and add an epidemic of pornography addiction and secret sexual sin tied in with toxic shame — and the church has a recipe for relational disaster.
First, the idea that husbands are given divine power and control over their wives, and the corollary teaching that women are primarily (or fully) responsible for managing the emotional and sexual temperature of the relationship, results in women being conditioned to accept mistreatment as their due, obligated to give sex in order to keep their husband from straying, and hesitant to seek safety because “it is holy to suffer in the name of Christ.” In addition, it creates a dynamic where husbands experience an incredible weight of being told they must carry the entire load of thinking, decision-making, and spiritual responsibility alone.
Second, when victims do approach clergy, it is all too common for them to be told they must forgive, overlook abuse, and chase reconciliation at all costs rather than being directed to trauma-informed sources of safety and accountability.
Is the level of abuse within the Adventist church the same as in other denominations?
It’s hard to tell, since the majority of abuse is underreported. Also, most denominations do not track accurate data on the cases of domestic violence, sexual abuse, or clergy abuse that actually are reported — the Adventist church included. I have never seen statistics that accurately compare abuse rates between denominations (and I’m not sure they exist), but based on my interaction with survivors over the past six years, it would be my personal opinion that the rates of abuse within the Adventist church are no lower than what has been exposed in the Catholic Church or the Southern Baptist Convention.
In other words, Adventists still have at least one in three women and one in six men experiencing sexual assault, and up to a third of women who experience domestic violence.
Is most of your work within the Adventist church, or outside it? Do you work with the Adventist Church's enditnow campaign?
Yes. I’ve served as a task force member for the North American Division's enditnow campaign since 2018. Enditnow has done incredible work to provide resources and education for pastors and lay leaders, equipping them to stand in the gap and protect the vulnerable.
At least 85% of WILD’s audience comes from a broad cross-section of backgrounds, ranging from Amish to Pentecostal to Independent Fundamental Baptist to Catholic to mainstream evangelical.
The common thread is less about sharing a common denominational background and more about a shared passion for post-traumatic growth through the lens of the gospel. I’ve found that those who are drawn to WILD’s resources tend to be individuals who love God and are passionate about truth and justice, who are determined to grow beyond their trauma and willing to do the hard work, and who are ready to deconstruct toxic belief systems yet still cling to faith in Jesus Christ.
Another common factor among WILD’s tribe is a strong tendency toward neurodivergence. As an autistic and neurodivergent adult woman raising autistic children, my life lens is of course heavily influenced by my family’s reality. Sensory overwhelm, logical processing, and data-driven patterns are all part of my day-to-day existence. This has naturally impacted the way I communicate, create, and design resources — and over time, I’ve discovered that other neurodivergents tend to be strongly drawn to these aspects, even if they have never realized they are not neurotypical.
Why is the issue of abuse such a passion of yours? I believe that you were previously married to an Adventist pastor? Can you tell us a little bit about your own story?
I think I was born with a strong justice gene. It also runs in the blood of those on the autism spectrum, I’ve discovered. As a survivor of childhood sexual assault by a prominent church leader, and then domestic violence as a clergy spouse, my personal journey sparked a passion for bringing healing and freedom to those who are trapped, not only by their abusers, but also by a mindset that prevents them from freely seeking safety.
A decade ago, nobody talked about this in the church. Nobody told young wives where to find help for domestic violence. Nobody discussed trauma, or the devastating impact of psychological terrorism by an intimate partner. Nobody defined the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation, nor did anyone talk about how to make an exit plan, much less outlining the path to emotional and mental wholeness after your personhood has been disassembled piece by piece.
Along the way, I quit raging at God for allowing certain things to happen to me, and I realized that it was precisely because of those shattering experiences that I could relate to other suffering women. Gradually, I realized a purpose in the aftermath of the pain, and chose to set aside my sense of embarrassment at openly talking about uncomfortable topics in exchange for pursuing truth and justice.
It’s my desire to make sure other women have the resources and information for safety that weren’t available when I first needed them, both for survival and post-trauma healing. That’s why WILD not only has resources on how to recognize abuse, but also how to rewire your brain and develop new habits once you’re free to rebuild.
You have mentioned that you grew up in an ultra-conservative Adventist home and community. How do you feel about that upbringing now? How has it impacted your career and what you are doing now?
You know, there were so many wonderful and priceless things about my conservative childhood. My parents loved each other and loved Jesus deeply. Even though we were ultra-conservative, I could tell a difference even in childhood between their kindness and the rigid judgmentalism of so many people who lived a similar conservative lifestyle around us. I never doubted that my parents sought to represent Christ, even when they made mistakes. In contrast to the misogyny of many in our circles, my parents taught me that I was a prayed-for child who could do anything I wanted in life as long as I followed my conscience.
We had a very simple life compared to the technology and frenetic pace of now. I was a missionary kid who grew up mostly out in the country. A lot of quiet and slow pace. My justice gene was honed on a steady diet of classic mission biographies and history tales of those who fought for right against all odds.
It wasn’t until my mid-30s that I fully realized just how much that quiet sensory haven probably saved me from intense childhood anxiety, since no one had a clue about how to spot gifted autistic little girls back then. So, there are a lot of things I’m deeply grateful for in my gentle, nature-oriented, homeschooled background. I try to replicate a lot of the same positive environments for my kids in this generation too.
Spending my teen years doing literature evangelism and summer Bible work programs taught me a tremendous amount about meeting people, reading people, and recognizing people’s needs. On the other hand, I had to deconstruct a lot of conditioning about perfectionism, hard-sell evangelism instead of living out the love of Jesus, and the whole idea that if you don’t convince someone to buy this book right now they might die without salvation tonight and it will be your fault.
In addition, the materials available to conservative Adventist kids at the time were primarily published by mainstream evangelical patriarchy. Purity culture teachings were in full swing, complete with wholesale blame on girls for all male sexual temptation and lust. It took a tremendous amount of deep study and surrender to the Holy Spirit to rewire the damage that did on my picture of God and how God relates to both men and women.
What do you wish women in abusive relationships knew?
I wish they knew that God’s love does not endorse their mistreatment, especially not mistreatment perpetrated in his name.
I wish they knew how much empowerment and care for women is woven throughout scripture, and how Jesus wants to give them strength and safety.
I wish they knew without a doubt that they are equally endowed with the Holy Spirit, capable of understanding scripture, and imbued with gifts for God’s glory.
I wish they comprehended just how precious and loved they are as daughters of God, and how protective he is about their safety, even when those who represent the church don’t reflect this mindset in action.
I wish they were confident in who they are, created in the image of God, beautiful and priceless and valued beyond measure — regardless of what any human says or does.
What can the Adventist church (as a global entity, and as a local congregation) do better to stop abuse in our denomination?
First of all, we have to face our own reality. We are not exempt from sexual, emotional, or physical violence. Our pastors, while they may have good intentions, are generally untrained in domestic violence response and their familiar resources for discerning the patterns and tools of abusers are few to none. This isn’t because most pastors don’t have abuse cases in their congregations, but simply because the existence and impact of abuse has not been considered a priority.
A May 21, 2019 article in Christianity Today reported that 1 in 10 Protestants under 35 “have left a church because they felt sexual misconduct was not taken seriously.” This means that we are wrong to assume that abuse response is somehow unrelated to evangelism. Trauma recovery and justice work is absolutely an evangelism issue. Mishandling these cases is a shockingly effective way to drive people out of the church, and misrepresent God’s heart for the wounded.
When we shelter the wolves instead of defending the sheep, we create unnecessary legal risk because repeat offenders remain free to access new victims. The very best way to respond to abuse and avoid future legal fallout is to act decisively to remove predators from leadership, access, and influence — the first time their abusive behavior comes to light.
Abuse cases are almost always complex and nuanced. It can be difficult for clergy and leaders to figure out the truth. It’s important to recognize that if someone says they have been harmed, there’s a statistical 90%+ chance that they are telling the truth, even if the abuser seems like a spiritual and popular person. Leaders need a healthy sense of self-doubt as to their own ability to discern who is the abuser, because the very nature of abuse requires masterful deceit and persuasive charm.
Adventists do have an edge on over congregationalist models in the potential to organizationally put a stop to abusive clergy. Given the worldwide infrastructure and communication capacity of the denomination, Adventists could lead the faith community in tracking known abusers, removing them from leadership, and preventing their rehiring elsewhere — if the church chose to do so. The fact that we have not leveraged our structural system to ensure safety of the most vulnerable instead of transferring problematic leaders from place to place is downright shameful.
You have done so many other things in your career before WILD! How many books have you written? And you have worked extensively in radio and television, both in the US and the UK, within the church and outside the church. What jobs have you done that have prepared you best for the work you are doing now? What jobs have you most enjoyed?
It’s a little weird to put it all on paper, and in writing it out here it struck me that most of my most incredible experiences have also been mixed with my most painful ones.
For example, I went on my first international mission trip when I was 12, which incidentally was also when my first sexual assault took place. Back then I had no reference point for what had happened to me, so I didn’t really have the tools to process it until adulthood.
I started working in television at the age of 13, hosting a teen Christian TV show about church history. Random, right? But after getting past my initial lens-fright and forgetting how to speak my own name the first time they counted me in, I loved it. As an introvert, I don’t mind talking to a glass lens instead of a crowd of people. Starting media work so young gave me a chance to polish the communication skills I’ve found invaluable as an adult.
In my early teens, my family moved to Russia for mission work. We sold everything we owned and trimmed our belongings down to two large plastic Tupperware containers each. It was a thrilling adventure, but it was also devastating. My mother’s health took a massive hit, and the situation on the ground was nothing like we had been told before going. We came back to America in time for my last two years of academy, and the reverse culture shock hit hard.
Then, my first year of college I apprenticed in a printing press to help pay my tuition. At first, they were wary of hiring me because they didn’t think I could carry the stacks of heavy paper and run the presses. I enjoyed the challenge of proving them wrong! It wasn’t the traditional female office or cafeteria job, but I didn’t mind. And I learned about print, design, publishing — it’s been useful in so many ways. The day my long hair got sucked into the press rollers and I had to be cut out of the machine wasn’t so fun, though.
After graduate school I worked for an international non-profit in the UK. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to create media and write! But I also gleaned my first lessons in toxic workplace abuse, and what I later discovered was called malignant narcissism during those years. I can’t say I regret it, because that experience laid a foundation for helping others through the confusion of workplace abuse later.
Right now, I’ve got seven books outside my head and at least four others either with an editor or percolating inside my head. One Face was my first book, about my journey to realizing that I would never again protect public image over truthfulness. Safe Churches and Myths We Believe focus on solutions for the faith community, and practical ways to protect the most vulnerable ones in church.
I’m excited about my next two books, one on forgiveness and another on empathy. It’s my hope that they will bring healing to those who have been harmed by twisted interpretations of what God expects of us after abuse.
You said your family went to Russia as missionaries. Did you also live in other countries with your family?
We did a lot of ministry work, but Russia was the only place we lived overseas. However, between my nonprofit work and other short-term trips, I have been to about 45 countries — and experienced some pretty adventurous scrapes! I nearly got arrested after being overheard speaking English in Red Square. I was stuck overnight on an Italian train platform watching an old drunk guy and a three-legged dog snore on the other bench, while too terrified to sleep a wink. I was body searched by female guards carrying machine guns in a remote province of northern India. I sipped tea with a Peshmerga rear guard unit just 12 kms from ISIS-held Mosul in no-man's-land in Kurdistan (the same location as ancient Nineveh!).
Already you have experienced more than the average person would in about three lifetimes, I think! What are you working on next? You seem like a person with unlimited energy, who always has new ideas! What other projects do you have in the pipeline?
I laughed out loud at this. Girl, I’m tired! At the end of 2019 when I was diagnosed with bone cancer, I was shocked. As a lifetime clean-living, health-oriented vegetarian, cancer wasn’t even on my radar —even though I’d been battling intense pain for over a year and a half. A massive tumor covered half my right femur, and suddenly my difficulty walking and sleeping made so much sense! I spent most of 2020 in and out of chemotherapy and radiation, just trying to survive the nausea and hot flashes and brain fog, and still be there for my kids. This year has been so much better, though! And battling cancer opened my eyes to just how many trauma survivors also deal with crippling health issues — autoimmunity, fibromyalgia, unexplainable infections, cancers, etc. According to Dr. Barbara Steffens, founder of The Association of Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists, a woman’s greatest risk of development a life-threatening health issue is while she is going through betrayal trauma (the trauma of discovering that your partner has a sex/porn addiction or has been unfaithful in other ways) and divorce. WILD has a growing series of wellness courses to meet this need, and help women manage post-trauma life with a stronger mindset and more wholeness. You’re right though, I have a ten-mile list of projects in the pipeline. The two projects coming out next are decode | the podcast, and deconstruct | the studies.
decode is a monthly podcast all about deciphering the impact of trauma and discussing ways to heal. I’m thrilled about the expert guests I have lined up for fall 2021!
deconstruct is a series of weekly devotional studies that take a trauma-informed look at scripture and God’s heart for justice. Both of these projects will be available at www.wildernesstoWILD.com, and of course, those who subscribe for updates will get first access.
What types of resources does WILD provide?
WILD seeks to meet the needs of women at a variety of places in the healing process. Since the majority of abused women tend to be financially impoverished, we also work hard to provide cost-effective and free resources so that no one is unable to access support due to need.
We have a number of free private peer support groups in various niches, including women who are escaping abuse, mamas raising children after the trauma of domestic violence, adult women who experienced abusive childhoods, grandmothers who are supporting their abused adult daughters and grandchildren, and those training to be advocates (we call these WILD warriors). We also have a library of giveaways and curated resource lists, for both survivors and church leaders.
WILD also trains and certifies trauma-informed abuse recovery coaches. WILD Coaching Institute’s professional certification program opens in the fall, and provides not only coaching best practices but also an extensive toolbox for working with clients, business development, personal development, coach self-care, and more.
WILD also has a new line of snarky but inspirational tees, tanks, and more — for those who enjoy starting a conversation.
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Thank you for sharing so honestly about your life and experiences and work, although I still feel that this is only barely scratching the surface of your fascinating and complicated story! Is there anything you would like to add here?
Trauma response work is a difficult field. It’s definitely not the job any kid typically shouts out in third grade when someone asks, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But abuse recovery isn’t just challenging because of the situations of the survivors. I’d say the even more difficult aspect is the resistance of those in power, and the skepticism of the masses.
Working to educate the faith community about trauma requires having very hard conversations. It requires uncovering the raw, wounded spots. It insists on exposing our vulnerabilities as individuals and our embarrassing failures as a collective entity.
It’s easy for people to conclude that people who talk about abuse all the time simply hate the church, want to tear down all good pastors, or have some bitter axe to grind. Otherwise, why would we keep harping on topics that make everyone squirm?
Maybe some people out there fit that description … probably some do.
But the majority of those I know and work with — across all denominational lines — the ones who refuse to be silenced and reject the pressure to stop calling out the toxic things that defy God’s heart, are not people who hate the church or who have abandoned faith. Instead, it is our fierce love of God’s children that drives us to keep diving back into the dregs when it would be so much easier to just go do some “normal” job. We call out abuse precisely because we want the vulnerable ones, the little ones, the micros of Matthew 18:5-6 to be protected and safe. We cannot turn our backs on those suffering abuse because we have been there, and we know both how it feels to be abandoned and how much support is needed.
Would it be less complicated to do other work? Yes.
Less exhausting? Yes.
Less discouraging? Definitely yes.
But then, how would I live with myself? The answer is, I couldn’t.
Sarah McDugal is an author, speaker, abuse recovery coach, and founder of Wilderness to WILD. She works exclusively with women wounded by toxic relationships in the faith community. An alumnus of Southern Adventist University, she also received her master's degree from Andrews University.
Links to Sarah McDugal's work:
Alita Byrd is the interviews editor for Spectrum.
Photo courtesy of Sarah McDugal.
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