PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Unchecked Power Can Be Silencing

This is the first in a series of four blogs highlighting Paula Mehmel’s experience of clergy abuse by hierarchical structures.

In recent years, there have been a lot of blogs and articles about why so many pastors and other rostered leaders are leaving the ministry. As an ordained ELCA pastor for 34 years and the current pastor of a UCC congregation, I have come to believe that one of the biggest issues facing church workers in mainline denominations is the singular power of one person to derail an individual’s call to ministry. In too many of our churches, hierarchical structures leave targeted clergy little to no recourse to defend themselves.

This unchecked power silences people. Pastors who’ve been victimized are fearful of talking about the behavior they experienced from the powers that be for fear it will prevent them from being able to continue their call or get a “letter of good standing” to serve in another denomination.

After reflecting on this situation, I am convinced that we need a #MeToo movement for church workers. Much as victims of sexual assault are silenced by criticism of what they were wearing or doing when attacked, pastors who have been the victims of unilateral control become fragile and fearful of speaking out.

Additionally, within the church we also need to share our #MeToo stories so we can use our collective voices to change a broken system. In the end, one of the reasons the #MeToo movement went forward was because a celebrity like Ashley Judd was willing to share her story, giving others the courage to do likewise. If pastors and other rostered leaders don’t talk about what happened to us, nothing will change.

After much prayerful reflection, I have decided to share three blog posts detailing how I have experienced the damaging impact of unilateral power at different times in my life and a final blog with my reflections on what needs to change. My hope is that, by sharing my story, I will help bring this issue out of the shadows, spurring others to add their voices to mine.


I first experienced the destructive effects of unilateral power as a seminarian. During my clinical pastoral experience — my summer CPE session — I was raped, just two days before CPE was scheduled to end. Even though I was beaten and bruised, with visible marks on my neck and face and broken ribs inhibiting my movement, my male CPE supervisor required me to process the rape with my five male colleagues two days after it happened. If I had refused, he would have required me to redo my entire CPE semester.

Because I had planned to go to Zimbabwe on a seminary exchange program the following January followed by a trip around the world, I had no choice but to do as my supervisor demanded. Otherwise, my rape would not only have ripped my life apart in the present, it would also have derailed my future. In 1987, a CPE supervisor was all-powerful in the life of a seminarian, and I was powerless in the face of his demand.

After I reluctantly agreed to participate in the group session, my CPE supervisor began by saying, “A great violence has been done to Paula, and, in fact, that same violence has been done to each of us because it has ripped our group asunder prematurely.”

Thirty-six years later, those words still ring in my ears. I could not believe that my supervisor was equating the brutal violation of my body with an inconvenient disruption to our group. I suspect the other five men in the group don’t still struggle with PTSD from the experience, and the truth is that I forgave my rapist — a stranger — years before I forgave my CPE supervisor. At a time of extreme vulnerability, I was made to feel even more powerless by the person who should have protected and supported me following one of the most traumatizing experiences of my life.

As painful as it was, that experience taught me two lessons. The first was how one person in the church hierarchy could wield absolute control, leaving me no recourse. The second was how to use lemons to make lemonade.

Because my supervisor forced me to deal publicly with my rape, I became very open about it. I used my experience to minister to other rape victims and those who had suffered other kinds of violence. And while I in no way believe that God wills such violence, I was able to allow God to redeem it as I cared for others.

But the first lesson — my newfound understanding of the singular power of one person to derail my career without recourse — I never addressed. Until now.

In my next blog, I will share a story that is more recent and far more painful for me than this one. I hope you will read on.

2 thoughts on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Unchecked Power Can Be Silencing”

  • Carol May 26, 2024 at 6:55 am

    Paula, you are the bravest and most genuine person know. I pray that, as you reexamine the trauma of this horrific experience, your healing continues and others learn from you. As always, I’m here for you. ❤️‍

  • Lainey June 1, 2024 at 9:15 am

    I found CPE to be one of the most abusive and traumatic experiences of my life as a disabled person. I am an ambulatory/part time wheelchair user due to a connective tissue disorder, and the CPE supervisor allowed and also participated in the regular denigration of me as a disabled person. The most empowering and freeing moment I think I have ever experienced in my entire life was the day I told them all I was leaving my CPE residency before it ended.


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