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.
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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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
From Relevant Magazine:
FAQ about what spiritual abuse is and isn’t:
Uncovering and Facing Spiritual Abuse:
Also check out their resources page.
The Wartburg Watch, Spiritual Abuse and Characteristics:
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.
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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.
Who do I call to put a complain against my leaders from church? I am in a similar situation with an apostolic church, and need to talk to someone about this.
If you have an association, I would contact the leaders or governing board.
Thank you for your article. I recently left a church where I attended for over 20 years. I am angry at myself for the many years I put up with abuse, and allowed the abuse on my children. You said something important—because the pastor did not begin that way, although they had a very “strong” personality.
The pastors always frowned on people that went to the doctors. They felt it was a lack of trust in God. (Which I never understood why it was ok for the pastor’s wife to frequently go get Botox at a doctor’s office if medicine was frowned upon—they should have had faith for the wrinkles to go away right?) They frowned at members when they missed services—be it for family vacation or illness.
When a leader’s husband got Covid, they kept going to church because the pastors “were guiding them through it” was what I was told. I was also reprimanded severely for seeking medical help when I was sick and tested positive for Covid.
Soon many people at the church got sick. The pastors themselves came down with Covid. They never told anyone and they kept going to church as if nothing. There were a couple of people that died. I cannot say if they got Covid from church attendance, but I cant say they didn’t get it from there either.
The control and manipulation were so strong at that church that a few months ago when I was still attending that church I read an article like this shaking the whole time, because I was certain they would know I was looking stuff like this up.
Yes, I stopped attending that church. Yes, I too have been unfriended by people that I have known and considered my friends for many years. But I have not left THE Church. I love God, I love His people, I am just really hurt.
Thank you again for your article.
Nora, I’m so sorry. What a grief you’re walking through!
Oh my, Matthew 23! “But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’ ; for One is your Leader, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your teacher, the Christ. But the person who is greatest among you shall be your servant.”
The whole chapter is kryptonite to celebrity and hierarchy in the church.
I’ve heard from pulpits some of the blatant examples of spiritual abuse you mentioned, but my main experience is with benevolently presented, normalized manipulation. Stuff that seems to be in leadership training manuals because it’s ubiquitous. I’d describe it as an end-justifies-the-means functional unbelief that relies on “cleverly devised speech” and presentation techniques to influence the Body, instead of humble trust in the Spirit.
I’ve left feeling I’ve been sold something from the stage (usually shame and other motivations to try harder) and that real, healthy* Body life happened in the Spirit interactions that managed to squeeze around the program and professionalism.
The manipulation become most obvious surrounding money (tithing, building funds), getting people to serve, and perceived threats to authority.
Recovering from a long-term emotionally/psychologically abusive situation it’s been difficult to find traditional church fellowship that isn’t laced with the genre of what I experienced.
It’s not that untrue or unbiblical things are strictly always being said, but there’s actually so much more being communicated between the lines.
What seems to be taken in stride as normal and expected from pulpits I‘ve found triggering, toxic with repeated exposure, and cross currents with the relationship God is leading me to have with himself, my own heart, and others. I’ve had to seek fellowship outside traditional church services because of it.
I’m so sorry for what you’ve walked through. But I’m grateful for the wisdom you’ve gained.
I am a relatively “new” believer – 11 years now and I am 68 years old. The church that I attended when I came to faith in Christ was powerful to me as a new believer. In retrospect, however, I can see where there was abuse of power, shunning of people who did not follow the edicts of the lead pastor and his minions. Anyway, there was upheaval in the church after about 3 years of my attendance and serving in the church (minor roles). The lead pastor was called to account for his abuse of power, his treatment of individuals (elders, deacons and many who were serving in the church). He pretty much destroyed the church that he started by pulling out all of the resources, money, buildings, etc.
After all of this, I was still attending with a new pastor who said things like, “Will you all follow me as I build my church?” Or things that were very very degrading to both men and women and not biblical at all. I found myself getting up on Sundays and getting ready to go to church. Then saying to God that I just couldn’t go to church that day. After doing this for about a month, I decided that I needed walk away. I was not “mature” enough as a Christian to confront the pastor for how I was feeling so felt it best to just walk away.
The next Sunday after my decision, I was on my way to check out a church (an acquaintance from work attended the church I was going to check out!). Well, on my way, I saw a sign for a church being held at a high school. I always say that I could have taken my hands off the steering wheel and I would have still gone to that church! 8 years later, I am still there and have never looked back. In this church, I feel that I could bring concerns to my pastor as well as any of the elders. I feel spiritually led and continue to grow in my faith.
Thank you so much for this post – It helps to know that there are others who experience abuse in the church. Perhaps my “abuse” was not as horrendous as others have experienced but any abuse that makes one question their faith, to lose their faith or to feel lost in their faith needs to be dealt with: brought to the leadership, leaving the church or whatever – forgiveness. The only thing that matters to me really is that we don’t lose faith in Christ! He is our lead pastor!
I’m so sorry for what you’ve walked through, Leanne, but I also commend you for paying attention to your gut.
My family just walked away from serving with a ministry overseas as missionaries because of this exact thing. When our sending pastor advised us it was time to leave based on spiritual abuse I thought he was overreacting, but reading this article my mouth fell open as I could hear the words of the ministry director and have examples for nearly every one of the spiritually abusive characteristics. I was the last of five missionaries to walk away from that nightmare, as I was on the “inner circle” hearing about how everyone else was “spiritually immature” or “disobedient to God’s will.” Once those phrases were used to describe me when I asked questions about things, I knew it wasn’t the others who were spiritually immature or disobedient but the leader. It was tough to walk away but I am so glad I did. After going to the president of the board for this ministry and talking to him about my leadership concerns, he turned around and told the ministry director everything I’d said to him privately. It shows a lot about the ministry organization as a whole. I am so grateful God gave me the wisdom to see that mess for what it really is.
Oh my. I’m so sorry, Lane. What a mess.
Unfortunately, this is why so many dislike organized religion. I have seen a lot No one is policing them. They hate to be challenged about their bad behavior so they handle it badly and hurt people in the process. Control is how some lead So sorry but this has to be confronted. If nothing else it may stop them from doing it to others
Mary – this post exactly describes the Ministry with which my husband and I were most recently associated. I could give specific examples of every single item on this list. It could have easily been written about our specific situation! And that is scary because it tells me that this must be a widespread problem and that there are many others that experienced the hurt and alienation that we have gone through. The sad thing is that so many people don’t recognize this and continue to allow themselves to be manipulated and drawn further into this cult-like mentality. Some of this Pastor’s favorite phrases were “I am God’s MAN in this church,” “follow ME as I follow Christ.” He continually took scripture out of context, spent more time talking about himself during his sermons than Christ, and even went so far as to carry a cross down the aisle of the church one Easter Sunday. He constantly calls for media attention for himself and “his” church. We had some very talented soloists in our choir and they would occasionally be asked to sing at other churches in our community. If they did they were criticized for doing so. My husband was a very gifted Sunday School teacher and I was the pianist and co-director of the music ministry. It became so bad that we found ourselves feeling literally “dirty” after sitting through Sunday morning services because we knew this wasn’t what God called His church to be. When we expressed concerns, we were visited by the associate Pastor and were told to plan our “exit strategy.” We have been unfriended on social media by the pastor and all social media affiliated with the church. It is very sad but sadder still that we weren’t the only ones hurt by this pastor. And many more continue to think he is the absolute best ever.
Oh that is so horrible. I wrote this post several years ago, which shows me the problem is vast and widespread. I pray you find a safe place.
How about churches or people that use scripture to get their own way. Like to keep women silent or children obeying their parents to the extremes of normal. Or don’t allow any questions of the church and its practices or scripture itself if it is different from their interpretation. Or churches that use a person to do some dirty job and then cut that person off as the cause of the whole problem when they were just doing what they were told to do.
It is all so sad and gives the wrong opinion of Christ and his church.
I think that’s an oppressive atmosphere, to be sure.
I think those ten points pretty well cover the Catholic churches. Sad to say but unfortunately their history speaks volumes about the actions of the priesthood
It’s often found in powerful hierarchies.
I found your article after reading Runaway Radical by Amy and Jonathan Hollingsworth, an autobiography of abuse on the mission field.
I have kept very quiet about what happened as you reccomend here, so as not to discolor the reputation of my former missionary organization and church. There is a part of me that thinks I have taken this to the extreme. If my husband cheated on me, I would need a few confidants around who knew the story for support. Why would I protect church leaders more than my own husband? Spiritual abuse on the mission field is life-altering and a serious faith challenge. I keep thinking that those who would rearrange their lives to go overseas and their donors deserve to know the truth. If spiritually abusive situations are common, foreknowledge could equal prevention. I am considering attempting to write my story without naming names. If it were to be published, however, some would figure it out.
I appreciate your views on this subject.
I believe in honesty. Tell your story. Those who abuse do not need your protection.
Thank you. ❤
Mary, thank you for that last statement, “Those who abuse you do not need your protection”. Silence, not “dishonouring” a leader, not having a “critical spirit” or causing dissension are all phrases circling in good Christians’ heads that stop them resisting abuse and stop them seeking healing.
Unfortunately, most abusive leaders honestly don’t see what they are doing as wrong. That’s another topic.
That’s a fair and real topic, to be sure.
I agree! I have watched churches protect those even when the bad behavior is apparent to all. I say stand up to them- the whistleblower has to live with himself It doesn’t matter what the so called purity of the church rule means to them. It isn’t pure when things like this are happening
Well said, Martha.