Natalie Hoffman spent more than 10 years at Bethlehem Baptist Church—the church where John Piper pastored for over 30 years. During that time, she says she was stuck in an abusive marriage. Yet rather than helping her, she says Bethlehem blamed and shamed her, and left her suicidal.
On this edition of The Roys Report, Natalie Hoffman joins Julie to tell her story—an account that’s extremely relevant, given current events at Bethlehem.
Recently, three pastors resigned from the church—including Jason Meyer, successor to John Piper—and about 10-percent of the church’s members have left. While the upheaval at Bethlehem Baptist has many factors, one issue consistently mentioned is a toxic culture that perpetuates and enables abuse.
Natalie’s story speaks powerfully to this alleged culture of abuse. Natalie tells of repeatedly pleading with elders and pastors to confront her husband for his pattern of abuse. Instead, church leaders urged Natalie to become a better wife, so her husband would change. And Natalie says she was reproved for sharing the abuse and told not to “gossip” about her husband.
But Natalie’s story doesn’t just expose Bethlehem Baptist, a church with worldwide influence. It also shows women in similar situations how to break free, something Natalie has been doing for years as founder of Flying Free—a ministry for abuse survivors.
Natalie Hoffman is an author, podcaster, and professional certified coach for women of faith in destructive relationships. She offers educational courses and group mentoring through her online programs, Flying Free and Flying Higher. You can learn more from Natalie each week by tuning into the Flying Free podcast. Get the first chapter of her book and companion workbook free on her website, flyingfreenow.com
JULIE ROYS, NATALIE HOFFMAN
JULIE ROYS 00:00
Natalie Hoffman spent more than 10 years at Bethlehem Baptist Church, the church where John Piper pastored for over 30 years. During that time, she said she was also stuck in an abusive marriage. Yet rather than helping her, she says Bethlehem blamed and shamed her and left her suicidal. Welcome to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And today Natalie Hoffman joins me to tell her story, a story that’s extremely relevant given what’s happening at Bethlehem right now. As you may know, three pastors have resigned from the church including Jason Meyer, the successor to John Piper, about 10% of the church membership have left as well. And while the issues surrounding the exodus and upheaval at Bethlehem are complex, one issue is consistently mentioned above the rest, a toxic culture that perpetuates and enables abuse. The current abuse complaints surround a prominent professor at Bethlehem College and Seminary, and an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Andy Naselli. If you’ve read my articles, you’re aware that rather than commission an independent investigation into the allegations of spiritual abuse concerning Andy, Bethlehem College and Seminary conducted an internal investigation, and not surprisingly, they found Andy innocent of the charges. A similar scenario played out at Bethlehem Baptist Church. And now those who say they’ve been wounded and abused at Bethlehem are crying foul. And that’s why I think Natalie’s story is so eye opening. It spans many years and reveals a truly shocking pattern of behavior involving pastors, elders, and counselors at Bethlehem. And this isn’t just any church. This is a church and seminary that trains pastors and influences churches worldwide. So, I think this is a very important podcast and I’m very much looking forward to my conversation with Natalie. Also, according to Natalie, one out of three married women sitting in an average conservative Christian Church is in a confusing and painful marriage, and they’re often not getting the help that they need. So, I think Natalie’s story of surviving an emotionally abusive marriage is going to be extremely helpful to an awful lot of women and the people who love them. But before diving in, I’d like to thank the sponsors of this podcast, Judson University, and Marquardt of Barrington. Judson has been an incredible partner and supporter of this ministry and I’m truly grateful for the school’s commitment to truth and to The Roys Report. If you’re looking for a top ranked Christian university, providing a caring community and an excellent college experience, please consider Judson. For more information, just go to Judsonu.edu. Also, if you’re looking for a quality new or used car, I highly recommend my friends at Marquardt of Barrington. Marquardt is a Buick GMC dealership where you can expect honesty, integrity, and transparency. That’s because the owners there, Dan and Kurt Marquardt, are men of character. To check them out, go to buyacar123.com. Well again, joining me today is Natalie Hoffman. Natalie is a survivor of an emotionally abusive marriage. She’s also the mother of nine children and the founder of Flying Free, a ministry for abuse survivors. She also is the author of Is it Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marraige: A Christian Woman’s Guide to Hidden Emotional and Spiritual Abuse. So, Natalie, welcome, and thanks so much for joining me.
NATALIE HOFFMAN 03:28
Thank you so much for having me. I am honored. And I’m super excited to be here.
JULIE ROYS 03:33
Well, I’m super glad to have you. And I know your story is hard to read in some ways because of what you endured. But I think it’s going to be so so instructive for people. So, before we dive in, I should mention that we’re making your book Is It Me? available to anyone who gives a gift of $25 or more to The Roys Report during the entire month of September. It’s a great book, and I’m so excited to offer it. And I want to just remind folks that your gifts are crucially important to this ministry. So, if you’re interested in getting a copy of that book, just go to JulieRoys.com/giveaway. So, Natalie, your story is one that I think sadly is really, common to a lot of women in sort of a conservative Christian context. And we’re going to get into the details of your marriage. But first, I just want to dive into something that you say in one of your articles. You say Bethlehem is an unsafe environment for abuse victims, even though the church does address some of these most serious forms of domestic abuse, like physical abuse or sexual abuse. But you still say it’s unsafe. Would you explain why you say that?
NATALIE HOFFMAN 04:47
I don’t think the church understands all the different types of abuse and I don’t think they take certain types of abuse seriously. My statements more that they’re unsafe for victims of emotional and spiritual abuse. Number one, some of these churches are spiritually abusive themselves. So, of course, they’re not going to recognize it when the husband is using God or the Bible to try to control his wife. The church is using God in the Bible to try to control their parishioners as well. So, they’re going to kind of be on the side of the abuser that way. But emotional abuse is a hidden kind of abuse. It’s not something that you can see on the outside. That’s the main problem. It’s very, very difficult to prove what emotional abuse is. So, people who have never experienced that kind of insidious abuse and control, they’re not going to understand when the woman comes forward and says these are the kinds of things my husband is doing. They’re going to be able to explain all of those things away. And the thing is, is that people in marriages, we do have, you know, there are going to be disagreements, and there are going to be times when we don’t understand each other, that’s normal. But when you have a pattern of behavior that’s going on week after week, month after month, year after year, where one of the partners is not able to take responsibility for any of their behaviors or words or thoughts or actions. That’s abusive.
JULIE ROYS 06:12
Hmm. And this is where I think this is so relevant to what we’re seeing happening just currently at the church, because there are so many allegations of there being a toxic culture there, of it being a spiritually abusive culture or where people who are spiritually abusive are given free rein, and when it is called out. It’s not able to be named by the leaders there. They’re not admitting that certain things that some people say, including experts like Brian Pickering, who was the pastor of counseling is saying this is spiritually abusive, and others are saying no, it’s not. So again, just so many, I think crossovers between your story, and what’s currently playing out at Bethlehem. I want to just quickly talk about something that’s called the DART initiative at Bethlehem. I believe that stands for Domestic Abuse Response Team. You say that this DART program gets it wrong, just completely right out of the gate. Would you explain why you feel that way?
NATALIE HOFFMAN 07:12
They’re very into counseling and giving all kinds of help and support for the abuser and not for the victim. The victim is just kind of left alone. Here’s some numbers of some people who can counsel you. Go get help for yourself, so you can heal so that you’re all ready to be an amazing wife when your husband is all fixed. We’re gonna make sure we fix them. How we’re going to help you is by fixing your abuser. That’s what’s wrong. That’s not what how we help a victim.
JULIE ROYS 07:45
Well, let’s talk about your specific situation. As I understand you were married in 1993. And for 10 years before you came to Bethlehem Baptist Church, you were in another conservative church, and you realized from the get-go, you were in a problem marriage. You went to them and tried to get some help. What kind of help did you get in that church prior to coming to Bethlehem?
NATALIE HOFFMAN 08:09
it was the same kind of thing. It was just a couple of years into the marriage and my journals were already full of just agony. And I went and sat down with a pastor and then an elder in that church. And I shared with them what was going on. And actually, my husband came with me. And they just basically said, you know. They believed me. And they told my husband, here’s the things that you need to do. But then they also told me on the back end, you know, it’s now just up to him. He doesn’t have to do those things; he doesn’t have to change. And then you’re just gonna have to, basically, you’re just gonna have to buck up and learn how to be a godly wife in a very difficult marriage. And that’s just kind of what some people have to do.
JULIE ROYS 08:58
Hmm. Can you describe more, I mean, specifics for someone who has never been in an emotionally abusive marriage? I mean, what does that look like in a day-to-day kind of way? And how do you know if you’re in an emotionally abusive marriage or if you’re just in a difficult marriage that you know is hard to be in?
NATALIE HOFFMAN 09:19
some of the behaviors that you’ll see are you might see they’re dishonest, like just leaving out information where they’ll tell you some information, but not all the information that you need to make a decision and then when you make the decision or you move forward with something, they’ll say, oh, I can’t believe you did that. You should have known better. And you’re thinking I didn’t have all of the information. I didn’t know all of those pieces. They’ll hide things from you. They will gaslight you. So, they’ll say things happened that you don’t remember happening. Or if you do remember something going down a certain way, they’ll say no, that’s not what happened. There were times when my kids and I would all say You know, he would say something. And we would all say, you just said this, or you just did this. And he’d say, no, I didn’t. And we would look at each other and think, are we insane? Like, what is going on here? Does he chronically say that he’s gonna do something, but he doesn’t follow through on those commitments? And we all do that. Sometimes we’ll say, we’re going to do something, and we don’t do it. But then we own it. You know, we say, oh, yeah, I didn’t do that. I’m so sorry. I made a commitment. I didn’t keep it. I’m really sorry about that. I will work on that. These guys will be like, well, I didn’t I never promised that. I never said that. Why do you or they might say, why are you always on my back so much? You’re just always nagging me about everything, kind of turning it around and making it something bad that you’re doing rather than just taking responsibility for their inaction. They will often inflate the good things that they do and kind of minimize the things that you do. They’ll point out what they’ve done and kind of want praise for just normal adult responsibilities. And we all again, we all like that. But these guys who kind of make it an art to do this. That’s why the people that I help, it’s not just anyone, I really specifically help Christian women deal with this stuff. Because they have to deprogram from a lot of the Christian thinking that is used against them again, and that is spiritual abuse, using these Christian teachings, to control and manipulate them emotionally and spiritually, so that they will show up in the ways and be the like the Barbie doll person that their partner, their Christian husband, believes he is entitled to have a relationship with.
JULIE ROYS 11:45
And I do hope that conservative Christian churches, which is the church I go to, the church I grew up in, I love the church. I hope we’re learning. I will say we were visiting a church because I’m out of town right now. And the pastor happened to talk about wives submitting to husbands, and you know, there’s a part of me that just always is like, oh, boy, what is what is he going to say? But he said, and he made a big point of, it says, submit in the Lord. It does not say if your husband is abusing you, that that’s okay. If what he’s doing is not in the Lord and is not honoring the Lord, then that’s not something you submit to. And I was like, wow! I was, I mean, really surprised because this was a very conservative church. But I do think we’re learning and hopefully, part of this podcast, I mean, part of the reason I do this is because I hear from so many women, and church leaders who say, wow, that was so instructive. Thank you. So, let’s get to Bethlehem Baptist. You came in 2003 to Bethlehem. Sounds like a lot of the same sort of things started happening. And you met with an elder at one point several times. Doesn’t sound like you got very far or like he really understood it. But then there was this incident with your 10-year-old daughter, that was, I mean, shocking to you. And even me reading about it. I was like, wow, that’s the sort of thing you cannot let go. So, would you describe that, and then how you dealt with it?
NATALIE HOFFMAN 13:15
Yeah. Well, that that situation was really complex. She is now almost 18. And she was diagnosed with emerging borderline personality disorder. And she’s been in therapy for years. But so, she has got her own set of mental health issues, okay, like layers of them. So, um, from the time she was a very small child, you know, the terrible twos, the normal temper tantrums. I mean, I had nine kids, so I’m very familiar with this. Well, she was number five. And those normal temper tantrums and things, she wouldn’t respond to the ways that I was trying to train her. In fact, she just got worse. The older she got, the more violent she got, the longer her tantrums would last. We’re talking hours and hours. And where she would scream until she could hardly use her voice anymore. She had blood vessels that would pop out of her, you know, that would pop in her face. So, her face would be all blotched. Just because she wanted a peanut butter sandwich, or because she wanted not to do something, or you know, whatever. Neither my husband at the time nor I were equipped or knew how to handle it. We were very immersed in this very conservative homeschooling environment, where there was a lot of suspicion around mental health, and you know, secular counselors and all of that. And so, we did not reach out for help. And until she was 10, actually, that actually when this incident happened, that was my wake-up call. I was like, Okay, this is ridiculous. This child needs help. My husband needs help. And I need help. But what had happened was, she was having one of her temper tantrums. And he would take her downstairs and would try to get her to stop. And it was abusive. She came upstairs afterwards. And this I remember because it was Easter the next day, and we were gonna go to church. And both sides of her face were black and blue. And I was completely freaked out. And I brought her to him. This was the next morning because I think it takes a while for the bruises to show up on the face. And this was at night when this happened. So, the next morning, I saw it. And I brought her to him, and I said, what is going on? What did you do? And he said, All I did was put my hands, like put my hands on each side of her face of her head. And she took her head and bashed her head on both sides of my hands. Now, from a physics standpoint, that’s not going to give a child black and blue marks, okay? So, I pointed that out to him. I said, no, sorry, that is not what happened here. You did this to her face with your hands. And I wanted him to go to a three-day marriage intensive, because I was thinking if, you know, I still had this magical thinking that something like that could fix him, and we would be okay. So, I made him promise me to do that. And then I wouldn’t tell anyone. But I did tell. I did tell. I reached out to someone at the church, the wife of a pastor there. And she had no answers for me. She was like, I’m really sorry, I don’t really know what I can do to help. She just kind of blew me off. And then a pastor came over, David Livingston. I’m just gonna name names because none of these people are accountable to anybody. I don’t know why.
JULIE ROYS 17:07
Well, and I will say I did reach out to Kurt Elting Ballard, who is the chairman of the elder board, and did send him your entire story and asked if he would like to talk about it, or if the church had a response, and they did not respond.
NATALIE HOFFMAN 17:23
So anyway, he came over and didn’t really, I mean, I don’t even remember the conversation because it was just so pointless. It was basically him I think just checking off a box saying I made my little visit to the hurting family, did my thing, now I’m moving on. And that was the end of that. Now, the good thing that came out of that is that it woke me up. And I realized I am culpable here too unless I get some help for my daughter and also start working on things. That was the beginning of our journey, my journey really with her and getting her help. And she is doing I mean; she still struggles because she has a personality disorder. But she is doing better than I could have ever dreamed that she could do at this point.
JULIE ROYS 18:13
You also wrote a letter to one of the husbands in your husband’s accountability group like he had a men’s accountability group and the wife of this man, is that correct?
NATALIE HOFFMAN 18:26
JULIE ROYS 18:26
Okay, so I actually have an excerpt of their response to you, which I think is very telling. From the husband he wrote, as for your letter, I do not plan to read it. I am all for people confessing their own sins, but I find it very disrespectful to publicize other people’s particularly when it appears to have been done without their knowledge or consent. So, in other words, you shouldn’t be writing him a letter with anything bad about your husband in it. And from the wife, I am no marriage counselor, but I have a hard time fitting this email into Ephesians 5:33, And let the wife see that she respects her husband. That’s a pretty strong rebuke for a woman who’s reaching out saying my husband’s abusive. How did you receive that letter?
NATALIE HOFFMAN 19:13
Um, I was devastated because at the time, I was feeling so hopeless, and so alone. And the letter that I wrote, was so carefully written, and it was, I had been reading some books, I quoted many of the things in the books, it was carefully written. And it was also written with a lot of grace for my husband because I still, I loved him, and I wanted someone to help him so that we could have a healthy marriage. I knew that having a healthy marriage would be good for him and would make him happy and I knew that if he could be a healthy person emotionally and mentally, and spiritually that he would also have a more fulfilling and full meaningful life. So, and would have better relationships with his kids because his behavior was affecting his relationship with his kids as well. And nobody on the outside could see it or cared about it. And then I specifically reached out to three couples who had been involved in our lives for many, many years. So, these were people who I trusted, and who, so I wasn’t airing dirty laundry, I was going to just to these three couples. And then when they responded this way, I thought, well, if the people that we’re the closest to feel this way, then there is no way anyone else is going to. I have to stop like looking to other people to rescue me or figure this out. I’m gonna have to figure this out myself. This is what it is. And I’m going to have to do something about this myself. But yeah, it was like a slap in the face. And it was very hurtful.
JULIE ROYS 21:00
Well, like you said, you felt like you needed to take some control of your own life and fixing this problem. You began, I believe, coaching with Leslie Vernick, who’s the author of the Emotionally Destructive Marriage. You also still though were meeting with as I’m understanding an elder from Bethlehem, Yoshi Kasahara. Also, Caroline Jones, who’s a counselor who was attending Bethlehem Baptist. Could you kind of contrast what Leslie was telling you? And then what Yoshi, and Caroline and you know, others at Bethlehem, what they were telling you?
NATALIE HOFFMAN 21:40
Yeah, um, Leslie really helped me a lot with seeing that I could not control all these other people. I could not control my husband, and I needed to stop trying to make my husband change so that I could be with him. I needed to start accepting my husband for who he was. He had been trying to show me this for, you know, 20 years. And then I needed to decide what I wanted to do about it for me. What I was going to do for my life. So, she was equipping me to make decisions, like, I had my own business at the time that I had built from scratch. And I was making pretty good money by that time that I had to give that I gave it, I would use that money to pay for a lot of the homeschooling stuff. But then I would put all of it into a joint account. And then my husband controlled all of the finances. So, he was still controlling all of the money that I was making, which, on the one hand, I mean, that seems fine, except that if I decided that I wanted to buy something, I wasn’t allowed to do that. I would have to ask permission. And if he thought it was stupid, which he usually did, then that was it. You know, I didn’t get to do that. So, one of the things that Leslie empowered me to do was I bought this table for our kitchen. This gorgeous table that I have to this day, it was it was a conversation piece. And it was a huge gargantuan table, I have a big family. And I was kind of thinking ahead to future grandchildren and whatever. And my husband was just extremely upset with me that I did this, but I did it with the money that I had earned. And that was a huge step for me, and very scary. I was terrified to buy that table. But Leslie was encouraging me to do that. Now, on the other hand, I had this elder at church, and then this other counselor from church, who were telling me to, you know, the typical things. If you were a better wife, than maybe your husband wouldn’t be this way. Are you making sure that you’re doing this, this, this, and this? And are you checking off all of your boxes? And the elder actually gave me a book called Fierce Woman. He was implying that I was a fierce woman. And if I would just be a more, you know, have a more of a gentle, quiet spirit the way a godly Christian woman should have, then my husband would be a good man. He’d be inspired, and I could inspire him. Well, I read the book because I’m like one of those rule followers. Oh, if you tell me, if my mommies or daddies tell me to do something, I will do it. And then I’ll like, do it 10 times over, you know. I’ll give you more than you asked for whatever. And so I read the book. Now for how I’ve evolved over the past few years, if someone handed me that book, I would say, oh, this is funny. Yeah, no, this book, this isn’t who I am. But thank you. But back then I was like, oh, maybe I better and I took notes on it and underlined things in it. And I was like, okay, there are some things in here that I could really work on. But I could not relate to the author of that book. The way that she was and the way she treated her husband, was not how I was treating my husband. It was not how I was treating my relationship. But I could tell Yoshi thinks that that’s what I’m doing, because that’s what my husband is telling Yoshi. My husband was playing out to be a victim. And Yoshi believed my husband. The whole thing got turned on its head. Now I’m actually the abuser and my husband is the victim. But what do you do with that, at that point? What can you do? Now, there’s a whole different narrative out there. And it doesn’t matter the 20 years, my husband didn’t have 20 years of journals, documenting everything. I did. But he was the victim. So, and then the, the counselor that I went to, I didn’t go to her very long, because I don’t think she liked me very much. And I think she wasn’t really a counselor, okay? She had gone through the nouthetic Bible counseling, training, or whatever that’s it.
JULIE ROYS 26:01
The biblical counseling,
NATALIE HOFFMAN 26:02
Right. And I was like one of her first guinea pig clients, but I think there were things that she was still dealing with, in her own personal life, that maybe she was projecting onto me, and probably didn’t even know what projecting was because she didn’t have any kind of education in this area. So, I just said, thank you very much for your help, but I don’t think I’m gonna be able to see you anymore. And of course, the church then viewed that as, look at Natalie, you know, Natalie thinks she knows everything. Natalie is not open to help. She’s not teachable. She’s not, which is the exact opposite of what I was. But you know, that’s the narrative that they wanted to go with. So.
JULIE ROYS 26:48
Well, and that’s what’s so tough when you’re dealing with most abusers that I found are incredibly manipulative. They’re sometimes very, very charming. I mean, James McDonald is still tweeting about me. How I have abused and victimized him. I mean, he’s one of the abusive people I know, right? Little ole, you know, journalist, Julie has bullied the you know, megachurch pastor out of his job. And it’s like, not owning anything of dozens of people who have come with abuse, and they’ve even done an independent audit now. I mean, of course, none of the misuse of funds that they showed are real. I mean, it’s just, it’s mind boggling how they’re always the victim. And people will still I mean, a lot of people will listen to them and, and divorces are messy. I mean, or, you know, troubled marriages are messy. And it is sometimes hard to figure out. But we’re talking this was many years. And so, let’s fast forward now. 2015. So you came in 2003. This is 12 years that you’ve been talking to the pastor’s complaining of how this marriage of what’s happening. And there’s actually a bright spot in all of this. So, Jason Meyer has recently taken over as lead pastor. He is successor of John Piper. And he agrees to meet with you and not just you and him, but also Kurt Elting Ballard. Again, the head of the elder board, Ken Curry, who’s another pastor. And then Kirsten Christianson, and Sarah Anderson and Kristin Marsh, who were all part of this new Domestic Abuse Response Team or DART. So, this looks pretty positive. And from what I understand, their findings were pretty positive, right?
NATALIE HOFFMAN 28:37
Yes, we sat down in Jason Myers’ living room also with all the wives. And it was me they were talking to me and one other woman who had been in their church who had been trying to get help for quite a while. And they listened to our stories, they wept with us. They promised that they believed us. And they promised that they would have our backs. And this is after me getting my chain yanked over and over again. And Jason even specifically said, I know you have every right not to trust us. But I want you to know you can trust us this time. I promise you. He was brand new. He was like coming in and he was going to really make a difference in this church. I don’t think he realized the layers and layers of problematic issues that are going on that he said he’d have to confront.
JULIE ROYS 29:35
I think he realizes it now from what he’s written in his resignation letter. And from the interviews I’ve done that yes, I’m sure at this point, he did not.
NATALIE HOFFMAN 29:44
There was a lot of compassion. And I did feel safe for the first time, and I felt believed for the first time and I had so much hope. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I thought this is the beginning of like, real hope. At this point, there is nothing I wanted more. Divorce had never crossed my mind. Still. I was completely not thinking of divorce or planning on it. I grew up in a Christian home. Divorce this like not even a concept that you even consider. So that was the space of my head at the time. I was just looking for help, like someone help my husband, someone help us. So, I thought we were getting help, and I was super excited. And then it all went bad.
JULIE ROYS 30:27
Let me just read a quote from one of the emails that they sent you. It says they wrote to you after the meeting, The five of us, Dave, Klaus, Kiersten, Kurt and myself, were of one accord that there was no repentance speaking of your husband, not even anything remotely resembling repentance. We really do not think that your husband is a believer. It was good for Klaus and Dave to get a first-hand look at how flatline your husband is, and how clueless he acts about his sin and how he demonstrates an almost complete lack of ownership for the breakdown of the marriage. I mean, at this point, 12 years at Bethlehem Baptist. 10 years before that at another church, kind of hitting your head up against the wall. This must have been, you know, really felt amazing. But like you said, it’s kind of all went south. Your case was handed off to several other elders who really didn’t seem to have that much history with it. Klaus apparently was brought into the whole process with the elders and pastors who have been a part. But then Kirsten Christianson, the head of DART, she was brought in as well. And at this point, the ones that seem to understand you seem to delegate your case over to others. Am I getting that right?
NATALIE HOFFMAN 31:48
Yeah, so the reason why they did that is because there are three campuses at Bethlehem. And I think they wanted to just keep the jurisdictions clean. And so, they just said, since you and your husband go to the south campus, we’re gonna have two elders from the south campus follow up. And so, they had. And they did have those two elders in that meeting, you quoted the email. That email quote was from a meeting where they sat down with my husband at the time and tried to get a feeling for what was going on from his perspective, and Klaus Van Zee and David Filson were in that meeting. So, then I think that because they all kind of agreed, then Jason, Ken and Kurt decided, Okay, we’ve got Klaus David up to speed here, we’re just gonna pass Natalie and her husband over to them, and they’ll, like, follow up. So, the plan was, my husband, I were separated by this time. And there was gonna be this three-month time period, where again, this was so typical, where they said, Okay, here’s the list of things that you need to do, husband. And at the end of three months, if you’ve done them, we’re good to go. So, my husband got his list of things to do. And he started, you know, checking them off. By this time, I knew what I was gonna look for. I was gonna look for one thing and one thing only. I’ve zeroed it all down. I needed him to take full responsibility. And I needed him to no longer blame me, shame me, deflect, make excuses, justify, minimize, none of that. He had to take full responsibility for his behavior. And he could not do that. I never saw him do it. Not once. So that was happening on the back end. But when I tried to explain that, they would say, oh, you’re just being so nitpicky, you’re just being so. So, he would send an email, we would have these email exchanges, and they were kind of watching him. At this point, I’m trying to teach the DART team, what to look for. I’m trying to show them by this time, I had read so many books, I had been talking now to other abuse advocates. I was on a track, like on a fast track of learning all the things. And so, I started trying to teach I started finding all of this stuff in his emails to me, and then showing the DART team. Well, when he does this, that’s what this tactic is, and this is this kind of a tactic, and they just interpreted all of that as you’re just being nitpicky. You’re just, you know, you’re not trying to make this work. You’re not being very forgiving. You’re not really owning your stuff now, because you’re so focused on him and his stuff that you’re not owning your stuff. But here’s the thing about abuse. The victim doesn’t need to own her stuff. She’s a victim, okay? It’s not her fault that he’s chronically doing these things. It’s not her fault that he lies to her, okay? She doesn’t have to. Well, if you were if you had more sex, maybe he wouldn’t lie to you. No, that’s not how it works. They just didn’t understand, and it became a very mind-boggling thing to me that this DART team was writing literature and trying to give it to other churches for how to help people. And I was thinking, you guys don’t know how to help people! How can you be writing stuff about it; you don’t even know and you’re totally botching my case? I never said that to them. But I’m thinking all of this stuff. And I’m thinking, this is so crazy that this is happening Well, at the end of three months, I decided, well, at first, I just, they wanted to go another three months. And at first, I was like, okay, but then I realized this is gonna just keep going the way my marriage has gone. We’re just gonna keep going over the same ground over and over. And I could already tell these two men, Dave and Klaus, which was my understanding at the time, that their marriages had also been very rocky, and there was separation and stuff going on in their lives. So, I knew that there could potentially be some projecting going on where you know, and maybe some aligning with my husband’s perspective, because they were both men. They both, they probably didn’t like it when their wives said, I really don’t like it when you do these things. So, they’re kind of aligning with my husband, and seeing me and my stuff, as being what they’re up against in their own relationships. That is the feeling that I was getting more and more as we were moving on. I did not have any good vibes when I had to sit down in meetings with them. I felt intimidated. I felt disbelieved. I felt really, really gross. I felt like I was sitting with two abusers. And I just realized I’ve got to stop doing this. I stopped and realized; I actually have a choice here. I don’t have to go to this church. I don’t have to go to these meetings. I don’t have to go through the hoops they want me to go through. I could just walk away and be done. These people are just people, they’re not gods and goddesses. They don’t hold any power or any sway over my life. Why am I so scared of them? So that was a very good, you know, breaking point for me, I think and the beginning of my just taking responsibility for my own life and letting them be them and realizing that I need to be me.
JULIE ROYS 37:54
Well, I think that’s probably a common feeling of women who grow up. And sometimes it’s warranted, like the authority figures that I had in my church growing up were amazing people. And I did give them a lot of respect. But you do realize, and, you know, I’ve realized it, you realized through your situation, I realized through all the reporting I’ve done, that there are leaders with huge blind spots. And sometimes they’re not bad people. Sometimes they just have huge blind spots. And sometimes they are bad people. And they’re wolves in sheep clothing. But often, you know, situations, and I don’t know, we can’t judge people’s hearts, but sometimes they just don’t get it. Or like you said it might be too close to their situation. But it’s interesting to me. There’s no professional counseling involved here, except you were under Kirsten Christensen, who was the head of DART. Is she a trained counselor, a professional counselor?
NATALIE HOFFMAN 38:51
She’s not. There was another woman though, who was also on the team at the time. I think she ended up leaving, but Kirsten Marsh, she was a licensed counselor. So, she did have experience. I really liked her. But she also had an agenda, unfortunately, and I think whenever a counselor, therapist, people, helper, coach has an agenda and cannot hold space for the person to be where they’re at, that can create lots of problems. And I think her agenda, possibly and, you know, I can see her actually having grown past this, but I think at the time, she was immersed in this team of people and their perspective, and she wanted to cooperate, and her agenda was let’s make sure that we get these two people together. And let’s make sure that Natalie is doing her thing. And so, she wanted me to, you know, show that I was willing to look at my stuff as well. And so, I told her all of that. I wrote her an email and told her all of the different things that I am doing to work on my stuff. I’ve been working on my stuff for, you know, 20 however many years over 20 years by that time and reading all the books and doing all the things and trying new ways of communicating. I had made it my life’s work by that time to figure out how to please my husband, and not be injured by him. And I was a big failure at it. But at least I tried, right? So, I finally just had to say to all of them, including Kirsten, I just had to say, here’s all the things I’ve done. And I need to try something different now. I really need to take care of myself now. And thanks so much for all of your help. But I got to move on. And I did.
JULIE ROYS 40:44
So, in October 2015, you disengage from DART. My understanding in April 2016, you filed for divorce. And like you’ve been saying that is not one of the options that you felt Bethlehem would allow. And you describe a meeting that you had with Klaus Fonzie and Kirsten Christianson again, the head of DART. This was on May 5, 2016. I mean, it sounds to me reading this, that this was a devastating meeting. Can you describe what happened and why it was so profoundly painful for you?
NATALIE HOFFMAN 41:28
Yeah, it’s so weird. I’m feeling emotional about it. And I’ve actually had EMDR therapy over this meeting. I mean, it’s still to this day, when I think about it, and it affects my whole body. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. So, they wanted to meet with me, and I asked my sister to come with me because I was scared. And I knew that they were going to, you know, try to correct me, or try to get me to change my mind about the divorce. And but I thought, again, it was me just trying so hard to be cooperative and trying to do my part. And so, I went into it again, looking back on it, and knowing what I know, now, I just would have said no thanks. You know, I just would have disengaged completely. But I was still growing and changing and figuring things out. So, I went into that meeting. And it was very short. I think it was less than 10 minutes long.
JULIE ROYS 42:33
So, you said that you wrote an email, and I have just an excerpt from this email that you wrote in response after this meeting. And it does express the anks that you are going through. You write, What I never saw coming was that Bethlehem was going to go for the only thing I’ve been promised by God that I can keep through this horror, and that is God Himself. He is my life. It would have been kinder to take a knife and gut me then to sit back, look me in the eye and tell me God is not part of my narrative. It was a lie from hell that struck a hard blow to my heart and still sends my heart racing every time I think of it. I went home and curled up in bed wide awake all night. I couldn’t even cry. The pain was so horrific. It permeated every cell of my body. I could only lay there shaking for hours. And then I got up and took care of my seven hurting children by myself (you had seven at the time). That is a gut-wrenching letter. I can’t even imagine receiving that and knowing that I played a part in some of it. You sent this to a lot of people at Bethlehem. What response did you get?
NATALIE HOFFMAN 43:48
Well, I sent it just to the people who had been in that room originally. And then those two elders. So, I only sent it to the people and their wives who had promised me that they were going to help me. And nobody responded, nobody, including Jason Meyer. And I know that, you know, he’s left Bethlehem now. And he’s seen a lot of stuff there on another level, but he has never reached he and his wife, they’ve never reached out to me. Even if they would have looked at this more closely. And actually, my daughter, I can’t remember how old she was at the time. She was a teenager, she actually reached out to Jason specifically. I didn’t know it. She told me later and sent him an email begging for his help because I was in a really dark place that that I went into a depression at that point. And I ended up having to go to the doctor and get on medication just to get myself out because I had to take care of these kids and one of them, an autistic child, one of my children had this mental health disorder. And then my dad was dying of cancer. I had so many things go on my plate. Plus, I was running a business trying to make money to, you know, so I could get divorced. So, um, he did respond, it was just a very kind of a lame, you know, thanks for letting me know, I know life is hard kind of a thing. So um, anyway, just to me, I just think that is a really good illustration of the heart of Bethlehem. That’s the heart of the elders of Bethlehem right there. That is their heart.
JULIE ROYS 45:40
Well, and I think for those who are stuck in those systems, because I’ve reported on so many of them, that the ones that do have a good heart, have a very difficult time acting on it. And they either become part of the system, or they eventually get out and then feel really bad for what they did, or the ways they participated with the system. And of course, not knowing, not hearing from the particular people involved. You know, I always like to extend as much benefit of doubt as possible. But yeah, that’s, I mean, these are the things and I’ve interviewed quite a few people at Bethlehem Baptist or at Bethlehem College and Seminary, who say similar type things. They’ll say, you know, there’s good people there, but they keep looking the other way, or they keep allowing it, or they want to keep their jobs. So, they do this. And this is just that is the sort of thing you hear when it’s not just one person. It’s not just one bad thing. It’s a toxic culture. It’s systemic kind of abuse, and their blindness to it so often. So, your story again, so, so powerful. And shockingly, I didn’t realize this till I started reporting on Bethlehem. You can’t resign from membership whenever you want. Your resignation has to be approved by the congregation. And it sounds like in 2017, you tried to resign from Bethlehem. And they wouldn’t let you, right? And you ended up getting excommunicated because you divorced your husband, right?
NATALIE HOFFMAN 47:24
Well, I actually sent in my resignation letter in 2015. So, two years after that, and they, they wouldn’t accept it. So, it wasn’t until two years later that they saw this. So even before I filed for divorce, I tried to resign. But they wouldn’t accept it. So yeah, two years later, when my divorce was final, that was when they sent me a letter letting me know that they had excommunicated me. But I did have someone who, you know, sat in on the because these are public meetings where they have to have a quorum of people to vote someone out. And so, they got to share their side of the story, which was totally twisted, and there were so many lies in it, it was just absolutely insanity, publicly to hundreds of people. And those people all, you know, had to have a majority of people raising their hands to agree, yep, let’s give her the boot. So, by that time, I had really done a lot of healing. And I just kind of decided, hey, you know, every church gets to be who they are, and what they are, and define themselves. And this is how they defined themselves and I got out, or, you know, and they just, I was picturing them jumping up and down like a little toddler, no, you cannot leave! We will be the decision makers of whether or not you leave. And you know, it’s actually kind of amusing when you think about it, because it’s just again, it’s so much control. But you know what? You know what my responsibility was in that? Was signing that member paper in the first place. I chose to sign a paper that agreed to all of those things to all of those rules. I agreed to put myself under their control. Now, I would never do that again. I don’t recommend it. But you know, everyone has to make that decision for themselves. But just know if you do sign a paper like that, then they can turn on you if you decide that you’ve changed your mind about what’s on that paper. That’s just the way it goes.
JULIE ROYS 49:35
That is a whole other discussion and a worthy one. I have heard from so many people who have, and I’ve become a member of every church we’ve been a part in. And in my adult life, that’s what we do. We’re joiners, we get involved, we give our resources and then our time and that’s what we do as believers. That’s what I’ve always pictured is part of our, our, I don’t want to say duty because it doesn’t feel like a duty when you’re doing it out of love for Christ, you know, I mean, it’s a joy. But I’ve never really thought about, you know, signing on the dotted line. I never read the fine print on the membership because I just trust them. And I think a lot of people operate that way. And so, I don’t think that’s an uncommon kind of story if the things go bad if the church again, is set up in such a way that it can be very highly controlling, and in some cases, manipulative. We’re pretty much out of time. But a couple of things, I just want to give you an opportunity briefly, to speak to Bethlehem or churches, who say they want to help abuse victims, about how they really need to act to help abuse victims.
NATALIE HOFFMAN 50:48
I think, first of all, they need to get educated, and they need to be educated by experienced people, people who have experienced abuse. There are some amazing books out there that they could read. They can bring people in. Leslie Vernick is a great person to have come into a church and teach you things. Bethlehem wouldn’t allow Leslie to come in because she is a woman. So, that right there is, but she would have been really helpful for them.
JULIE ROYS 51:22
So even if she’s not preaching, just the fact that she’s a woman, she can’t present on something?
NATALIE HOFFMAN 51:27
Right. Because they’re men, she could present on something if she was presenting to women, but not to men.
JULIE ROYS 51:33
NATALIE HOFFMAN 51:34
So, it doesn’t matter if some of those men are in their mid-20s. And I don’t know how old she is. But she’s an older woman, with a, you know, over 30 years of counseling experience, written several books on this, goes into churches all the time and speaks on this has, this is what she does. But that doesn’t matter, because just by virtue of their male hood. So, I mean, just things like that. Anyway, I would say, assume that the person who comes to you for help, is the one who probably needs the help, not the one who presents you with a good story in his defense. And also, I would say, don’t have an agenda, hold space for God. God is the one who gets to lead and guide these people. And just because someone gets a divorce, or even the abuser, I don’t think that it’s appropriate for churches to say, okay, abuser, I mean, whatever you know, his name is you have to do a, b, and c. No, they don’t have to do what you want them to do. They get to be who they are and do what they want to do. Make decisions based on what people are showing you that they are, not based on what you think they should be, or, you know, some idea in your mind of what your end goal is. So, if we held space for people to be who they are the woman’s asking for help. Why don’t you just help her? Why do you have to go and, and now maybe she’s coming to you and saying change my husband, then you can say Actually, we don’t do that. Your husband needs to want to change. Now if he comes to us and ask for help, we can help him get him into some good counseling, but you’re the one here. So, we want to help you. We want to support you. How can we help you and support you through this? What do you need from us? What do you want to do? And if she says, I want to be separated, let’s help you get separated. And she says I need to get divorce. Let’s help you get divorced. Let’s help you find a good attorney. Let’s help you get your kids the healing that they need. Now, if he comes and says, well, I want you to help me stay married, then they can say well, you can’t control your wife. What do you need to do, mate? Maybe you know, if you want to stay married, maybe you need to get into some therapy and learn how to be a guy where his wife doesn’t want to leave them. Most of the time in Christian circles, Christian women who love Jesus, they’re not saying I want to get a divorce because I just don’t like this guy anymore. Yes, it happens. It is very rare. In fact, a study was done. And it showed that Christian women actually are the initiators of divorce more than Christian men are. And I don’t remember what the percentage is, it just is more. Their top three reasons are, Number one, were abuse, infidelity, and abandonment. Okay. But when they interviewed the guys, the Christian men who had initiated divorce, the top reason was they have met someone else. They were having an affair and they just wanted to be done with their marriage and go on and have their new girlfriend. So, I think people need to understand that. There are obviously exceptions to the rule. But if a woman is coming to you and saying my husband is hurting me, he’s been hurting me for 20 years and I need help someone help me. Then you need to believe her, and you need to help her.
JULIE ROYS 55:00
Well, and believing victims is such a big deal. I mean, and that’s what the METOO movement is showing us. Victims are normally victims; they usually don’t make up their stories. And it churches, though I mean, I don’t know if you saw that sin of empathy video that Joe Rigney and Doug Wilson did, which has been part of the story of Bethlehem. I mean, I watched it and my jaw just like, I was out running while I was listening to it, and I came back and I was just, I was ready to hurt someone. I mean, it was just, and, and it’s not, I have yet to find a victim who’s just manipulating things. It’s like, you can hear the believability. And they’re almost always telling the truth. And, and to sit back there and say, me as a powerful man who’s never experienced being a vulnerable woman, in this kind of a relationship, I’m going to pass judgment on it. And assume that I know more than the victim knows. It just struck me as incredibly arrogant, and not the kind of message that we need to hear in the church. We need to hear some humility from the men that are leading these churches to have a willingness to listen and think maybe I’m missing something, and begin standing up for the victims, not the powerful person who doesn’t need an advocate half the time. They have enough power. It’s usually the woman and the victim. And it’s not always a woman who’s a victim. I mean, as we’re seeing in some of these, actually, some of the cases of spiritual abuse were against men, but they were in vulnerable positions. They were usually students where they have a professor. I mean, again, the power differential, we’re slowly, slowly learning I think, as a church, and Natalie, you and your ministry and your story are helping us understand it. So, I just want to thank you for taking as much time as you did and telling your story so honestly and vulnerably. And despite all that, being faithful to the Lord. That’s a testimony. And so, I’m grateful for that. And again, thank you for our time.
NATALIE HOFFMAN 56:58
Thank you for having me.
JULIE ROYS 56:59
Well, and thanks for listening to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And again if you’d like a copy of Is it Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marraige: A Christian Woman’s Guide to Hidden Emotional and Spiritual Abuse, we’re happy to send that to you for a gift of $25 or more to The Roys Report. If you’d like to do that, just go to JulieRoys/donate. And again, your gifts are what fund this podcast and all the investigative work and articles we publish. So please consider supporting The Roys Report. And thank you so much to those of you who have already generously given to this ministry. We could not do it without you. And just a quick reminder to subscribe to The Roys Report on Apple podcasts or Google podcasts. That way, you’ll never miss an episode. And while you’re at it, I’d really appreciate it if you help us spread the word about the podcast by leaving a review. And then if you would share the podcast on social media, we’d really appreciate that as well. Again, thanks so much for joining me today. Hope you have a great day and God bless.