10 Ways to Spot Spiritual Abuse

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This topic has been ricocheting in my heart and head many years. I’ve noticed a greater influx of reader email and Facebook conversations about this topic, so much so that I felt it would be wise to address it again. (I wrote this post five ago, and I’ve updated it to give you more resources.)

Spiritual Abuse is Real (and you are not crazy)

Although I am thankful I haven’t had an extreme experience with spiritual abuse, I have had some incidences that have scarred me and made me leery of churches and ministries that bully.

Some of my spiritual abuse experiences include:

  • A supervisor telling me that even though I was burned out and losing my health, I had to stay in the ministry because if I didn’t I would lose all my gifting to do future ministry.
  • A church that repeatedly told us they basically had the corner on the market of Jesus and that if we had to go elsewhere, we would miss God’s highest.
  • A leader who found ministry to be a vehicle for his great gain, lying and manipulating donors to earn more and more money.
  • A ministry that shamed me into throwing away all my evil music (including Lionel Ritchie and Duran Duran…oh the evil!)
  • A leader who cornered me, threatened me, and yelled because I brought up a concern that others saw. This led to panic attacks.

Perhaps you have a story to tell too.

This post came because I woke up one night at 3 in the morning with this burden I couldn’t shake. So I wrote these traits of spiritually abusive ministries and churches. This is not an exhaustive list, but it typifies what happens. Often you don’t realize you’re in an abusive situation until your health is damaged, your soul is torn, or your outside relationships suffer. My heart in sharing this is to simply shed light on unhealthy, manipulative, controlling practices.

Spiritually abusive ministries…

  1. Have a distorted view of respect. They forget the simple adage that respect is earned, not granted. Abusive leaders demand respect without having earned it by good, honest living.
  2. Demand allegiance as proof of the follower’s allegiance to Christ. It’s either his/her way or no way. And if a follower deviates, he is guilty of deviating from Jesus.
  3. Use exclusive language. “We’re the only ministry really following Jesus.” “We have all the right theology.” Believe their way of doing things, thinking theologically, or handling ministry and church is the only correct way. Everyone else is wrong, misguided, or stupidly naive.
  4. Create a culture of fear and shame. Often there is no grace for someone who fails to live up to the church’s or ministry’s expectation. And if someone steps outside of the often-unspoken rules, leaders shame them into compliance. Leaders can’t admit failure, but often search out failure in others and uses that knowledge to hold them in fear and captivity. They often quote scriptures about not touching God’s anointed, or bringing accusations against an elder. Yet they often confront sin in others, particularly ones who bring up legitimate biblical issues. Or they have their circle of influence take on this task, silencing critics.
  5. Often have a charismatic leader at the helm who starts off well, but slips into arrogance, protectionism and pride. Where a leader might start off being personable and interested in others’ issues, he/she eventually withdraws to a small group of “yes people” and isolates from the needs of others. These ministries and churches harbor a cult of personality, meaning if the central figure of the ministry or church left, the entity would collapse, as it was entirely dependent on one person to hold the place together.
  6. Cultivate a dependence on one leader or leaders for spiritual information. Personal discipleship isn’t encouraged. Often the Bible gets pushed away to the fringes unless the main leader is teaching it.
  7. Demand blind servitude of their followers, but live prestigious, privileged lives. They live aloof from their followers and justify their material extravagance as God’s favor and approval on their ministry. Unlike Jesus’ instructions to take the last seat, they often take the first seat at events and court others to grant them privileges. They typically chase after wealth–at any cost, and often at the expense of the very people they shepherd.
  8. Buffer him/herself from criticism by placing people around themselves whose only allegiance is to the leader. These leaders and churches view those who bring up legitimate issues as enemies. Those who were once friends/allies swiftly become enemies once a concern is raised. Sometimes these folks are banished, told to be silent, or shamed into submission.
  9. Hold to outward performance but rejects authentic spirituality. Places burdens on followers to act a certain way, dress an acceptable way, and have an acceptable lifestyle, but they often demonstrate licentiousness, greed, and uncontrolled addictions behind closed doors.
  10. Use exclusivity for allegiance. Followers close to the leader or leaders feel like lucky insiders. Everyone else is on the outside, though they often long to be in that inner circle. If someone on the inner circle speaks up about abuses, lapses in character, illegal acts, or strong-arming, that insider immediately moves to an outsider. Fear of losing their special status often impedes insiders from speaking up.

I’m sure I’ve missed some traits, but looking from the outside, these resonate most. Do any of these traits resonate with you? Do you have any more to add? My hope is that by writing about these excesses publicly, we can begin to dialog openly about this very real problem. Hiding it or pretending it doesn’t exist simply adds more confusion and anger to those who have walked through the trauma of spiritual abuse.

Spiritual Abuse Often Stems from a Christian Celebrity Culture

In light of these traits, I’ve asked myself: where does this come from? (Aside from the sinfulness of the human heart). As an author (and mostly as a speaker), I’ve had a little bit of experience in pulling back the curtain on ministries and churches that abuse. My hunch is that ministries involved in abuse of power and abuse of others stems somewhat from our culture’s hunger for celebrity. (Yes, even in the church).

Before I was published, I attended my first major Christian writers conference. Author Randy Alcorn keynoted. Having always admired him for his humility and dedication to the kingdom of God, I soaked up his words, particularly when he shared,

“The greatest danger of notoriety is you start thinking about you. People then exist to serve you. This is exactly the opposite of the servant mentality. Jesus came to serve, not to be served”

Randy Alcorn exemplified graciousness and demonstrated a beautiful forgetfulness about himself. It’s stuck with me.

In the past ten years, I’ve written thirty books in varying degrees with several publishers (and some self pubbed). I’ve spoken around the world. From the outside looking in, I have achieved that “fame” I saw when I first met Randy Alcorn. And I pray I can continue that avenue of humility.

But I have also seen the underbelly of fame, and not merely within the author and speaking community. I’ve seen celebrity entice pastors, ministry leaders, and performers bend beneath celebrity’s pressure. Folks who demand special treatment, live lavishly and recklessly, silence their critics by demonizing them, and surround themselves with people who only sing their praises.

God’s kingdom starts to look a lot like a personal kingdom, an empire to one leader, a cult of personality that exists to further the agenda of one. And sometimes those structures oppress their followers.

It’s a warning we all must heed. No matter what our sphere, how large our following or platform, none are immune to pride. We may convince ourselves we’re about God’s work, so we do everything we can to build that empire, forgetting the servant nature of Jesus. We demand to be served instead of choosing to lower ourselves and serve others.

It’s heady. And it’s wrong.

As one who has lived overseas, who has viewed the American church from afar, I never would’ve seen this culture of celebrity had I not ventured elsewhere. We are a commodity and fame-based culture down at our core. We flock to gurus, project our needs onto them, and latch on those who dine at the cool table. We contribute to this culture of celebrity by simply needing, demanding and feeding it.

And sad to say, we have sometimes replaced our pursuit of growth with our pursuit of someone else who has packaged a growth program. It’s easier to follow a step-by-step system than it is to do the hard work of pursuing Christ.

But what about impacting the kingdom of God? What about having famous people meet Jesus, using their gigantic platform to woo people to Jesus? While it’s not inherently wrong to have fame or to have thousands of followers, it is shortsighted to think that only famous people can “make Jesus famous.”

The kingdom of God is upside down, counterintuitive. Jesus stooped. He left the nirvana of heaven to hang out on this dusty earth. He made Himself nothing (though He is everything) in order to rescue us. And His kingdom didn’t inaugurate via star preachers and ministers and authors and speakers and singers and actors. No, it began with ordinary men and women who had been turned upside down by the Preacher who had no place to lay His sacred head.

Jesus takes broken folks, messed up people like me, to show the world that He is amazing. He doesn’t need celebrities to do that. Consider the wise words of the Apostle Paul (who certainly had a modicum of fame):

“For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29, NASB).

Of course, it’s great to see more books, more messages, more sermons given about the greatness of God. But we must be careful that we believe these are the only avenues for God to shine His greatness. And we must examine our hearts if we seem to “need” a celebrity in order to know Jesus.

Idolatry is wrong, even if the object of our idolatry is another Christian. Should we honor our leaders? Of course. But we should not pedestalize them, worship them, or believe them perfect. That does a huge disservice to them.

Singer and songwriter Michael Card wrote this in his book, Scribbling in the Sand,

“Never cease praying that you will not become a star or a celebrity. Donald Davidson has said, ‘Our culture places an absolute premium upon various kinds of stardom. This degrades and impoverishes ordinary life, ordinary work, ordinary experience.’”

It’s time we get back to praising the ordinary folks, dignifying those who serve unseen, to honor those who quietly worship Jesus. When we do this, we deal a deathly blow to spiritually abusive ministries, and we safeguard our hearts.

Sometimes I think about the end of time, about the long line of believers awaiting entrance into their eternal reward. And I think I’ll be surprised at who will be first and who will be last. Folks without fame may be the most affluent on the streets of gold, and those who sought recognition here left their reward on earth’s shores.

I hope and pray I won’t be the latter.

Six Ways to Cope with a Spiritually Abusive Situation

I’ve shared traits of spiritually abusive ministries as well as a possible why to their existence. But that doesn’t necessarily help you cope in the aftermath. So I have thought a lot about what might be helpful for those of you walking through a difficult church or ministry situation. The following are six ways of coping. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s biblically-based. I pray they’re helpful.

One. Take your commitment seriously.

So many times we take the convenient way out. If someone hurts us, we are easily offended and don’t want to take the time to work through the issues in a healthy manner. God calls us all to our local body of believers, and our covenant with those people (who are sinful just like us) is a serious, important one. We should not take lightly a desire to abandon the fellowship God has brought us to. (Of course it’s different if you’re dealing with a parachurch ministry–which is not the same thing as a local church body). In either case, it’s wise to seek counsel and pray, asking God what He wants you to do in the midst of this painful situation.

Two. Ask God if it’s time to confront.

Matthew 18 delineates when we should do this, and the manner in which we should. If we’ve been hurt by someone, we are to go to them in private and share our perspective. If the person refuses to listen, we bring witnesses. And after that, the leaders of the church. Confronting in love is one of the hardest disciplines in the Christian life because it requires deep humility on our part (to take the log out of our own eyes first), and it is risky. When we dare to bring another’s sin to light, we risk relationship, misunderstanding, slander, and all sorts of painful things. But, if God calls you to bring up an abusive situation, you must obey. Not simply for your own peace of mind, but for preventing other people from becoming victims of the perpetrator’s behavior.

Three. Refrain from chatter.

Gossip and hearsay destroys ministries and churches. Rise above that. Keep your circle small. While it’s okay to discreetly search out a discerning friend to see if you’re crazy in the midst of an abusive situation, it’s not okay to alert everyone–unless people are in danger, children are being abused, or the ministry is breaking the law. Keep things under wraps before during and after a confrontation. God’s beautiful body is the church. We don’t want to do anything that makes for disunity.

(That is not to say we shouldn’t confront, but in doing so, we need to keep our mouths quiet. Again, though, if a ministry is breaking the law, it’s the responsible thing to do to report to the proper authorities. Doing that is not gossip, it’s being a responsible citizen.)

Four. If attending or being a part of this body is hurting your spiritual life or damaging your family, consider stepping away for a period of time to gain perspective.

Take some time away to renew, refresh, and seek God to see what He has for you. Sometimes when you’re in the midst of an abusive situation, you can’t think clearly about it. Removing yourself from it for a period of time will help you clarify your position and give you time to heal. Seek out counsel outside the ministry to reorient yourself and your heart.

Five. Keep the body of Christ in high regard.

As I mentioned earlier, God is zealous for His Bride. Folks will know we’re Christians by our united love for each other. Satan’s schemes are always to divide and bring disunity. Do not be privy to or a part of his ways. If you’re deeply hurt, find a way for Jesus to shoulder that hurt. Seek counsel outside the church that’s harmed you. And pray for the protection of that body. Don’t contribute to its malaise.

Again, though, I must emphasize that reporting legitimate law-breaking activities is ALSO keeping the body of Christ in high regard. It is a loving act to enact or be a part of the justice process.

Six. Sometimes you have to permanently break ties.

If you’ve walked through most of these steps and still you sense God saying to move on, then do. Not with fanfare or ire or angry words. Once you’ve said what needs to be said to the right people, leave. Spend time working through your pain. Seek counseling. Ask God for discernment for the next ministry opportunity He places before you. And also be willing to be an agent of healing for others who may leave the abusive situation.

Resources for the Spiritually Abused

This is not an exhaustive list (and I’d appreciate your input in the comments section). But it’ll give you a good start as you recognize spiritual abuse and seek to heal from it. (Click the graphics to get resources).

Articles:

From Relevant Magazine:

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FAQ about what spiritual abuse is and isn’t:

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Uncovering and Facing Spiritual Abuse:

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Also check out their resources page.

The Wartburg Watch, Spiritual Abuse and Characteristics:

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Books:

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I’m not an expert on spiritual abuse, but I have interacted with enough people who have been deeply wounded to be very, very concerned about this issue. Spiritual abuse is a major factor in people leaving the church for good. In order for ministries and churches to thrive, we must be vigilant to highlight those entities that abuse others.

It does us no good to sweep spiritual abuse under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen.

In fact, hiding does more harm than lovingly exposing spiritual abuse in our midst.

We live in an era where the powerful are heard and praised and their victims are maligned and made to think they’re crazy. It’s time we reverse that. It’s time we dare to tell the truth about our own sinful underbelly and dignify spiritual abuse victims by not only listening to their stories, but also standing up for them and against people who pander Jesus’ name in order to harm and control others.

Jesus often sides with the victim, and we should too. We must love justice enough to do something about this issue.