I’m saddened by the number of people I have met who have incredible (and true) stories of abuse in church situations. Although I had taken a course in helping people recover from spiritual abuse, I had never thought much of it until my wife and I went through a very bad and abusive situation in our church.
Since then, I’ve come across numerous stories of people who have been abused by pastors and church leaders. I have met many people who have had terrible church experiences–some which have resulted on them turning their back on the church altogether.
I came upon a website called Spiritual Abuse Recovery Resources. I was struck at how closely the stories on it resembled Vicki’s and my own story–and also resembles the suffering of many more, even highly-respected churches–who are going through the same struggles today. Here’s some of what is said about spiritual abuse:
. . . Nothing about spiritual abuse is simple. Those who have experienced it, know it is powerful enough to cause them to question their relationship with God, indeed, the very existence of God. And it is subtle too! The perpetrators of spiritual abuse are rarely ‘Snidely Whiplash’ sorts of characters who announce that they are going to drain your spiritual energy. They may be people who seem like they are seeking to guide you to the deepest levels of spiritual maturity.
Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of spiritual authority, the purpose of which is to ‘come underneath’ and serve, build, equip and make God’s people MORE free, misuses that authority placing themselves over God’s people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly Godly purposes which are really their own.
I’m sure God’s heart is grieved by what too often happens in his name in what is supposed to be a place of healing, refreshing, and strengthening. What astounds me is how that those who are spiritual abusers of God’s people don’t think they are doing anything wrong. (The truth is, many Bible Colleges, Seminaries, and published training materials for church leaders promote a leadership style that is thoroughly permeated with teaching of a God who calls men to be authoritative leaders, demanding submission and recognition of their “anointing.”)
Here is a small section from about halfway through Barbara’s story:
Although John and I left the church after that meeting, we returned a few months later, because we were unable to find another church that was as close to doing what we believed represented the kingdom of God. Also, we loved the people and we missed them; they were energetic, expressive, responsive, loving, and eager to serve God and each other. And we had had some wild adventures with God in that church—receiving his heart for some of the people, developing our gifts, helping others discover and develop their gifts, and growing together in love and faith. Despite John’s alleged character flaws, Richard [the pastor] allowed us to serve in a leadership role in the church. And so we became even more involved in the lives of the people as we tried to help them in their struggles, enjoyed a new sense of purpose and belonging, and kept what we hoped was a safe distance from the pastor and his wife.
John and I soon began to notice, however, some other things that disturbed us. First, there was the gradual and steady disappearance of the more spiritually mature people in the church. And no one seemed to know why any of them had left. Then there were the subtle beliefs that originated with the pastor. There was the belief that if you are truly serving God, either you are in “full-time ministry” or you are preparing for it, and the rest of us working folks are a disappointment to God. (Don’t ask who was funding the full-time ministries.) And that God wants to heal you emotionally or physically, but if the problem isn’t gone after we’ve prayed for you two or three times, then you must be doing something wrong. And that the best way to heal an emotional need is to get busy for God—never mind your troublesome feelings, which aren’t important anyway. These beliefs were never publicly spoken, of course; in fact, I believe Richard would have said quite the opposite, if pressed. But the actions we observed revealed his true colors.
Not surprisingly, all the ministries of the church had to endure Richard’s invasive micromanagement. And the central feature of any meeting involving the pastor was hearing him lecture for an hour or more. Then there were the self-serving claims Richard made in the church newsletters: Because the church was obeying God, he had blessed it by multiplying its numbers and enabling it to spin off several other churches and numerous highly successful ministries. A gross exaggeration. In addition, we learned that there was no one within the church whom Richard and Jill trusted as intimate friends. Whether they had intimate friends outside the church, I don’t know, but Richard’s persistent attempts to bring under his authority the pastors of other churches in the area made me wonder if he trusted anyone but himself and his wife.
Part of the overall problem was that any attempt to confront someone in leadership had disastrous consequences. Anyone who expressed an opinion that the pastor didn’t like was understood to be unsubmissive, if not outright rebellious. Worse still, the associate pastors aspired to become clones of the pastor and were afraid to challenge him on anything. But none of this was common knowledge; it happened in secret. (Read it all here.)
I still shake and feel unwell when I read stuff like that because I can see it happening everywhere I turn in all types of churches and religious organisations. God help us to see that it’s not only unhealthy to ourselves spiritually, but may affect our physical wellbeing as well. God help those who today are abusing God’s people, that they may recognise where their “leadership style,” “authority,” or “vision-casting” may in fact be abusive:
- Binding instead of freeing
- Beating down instead of empowering
- Holding tight instead of releasing
- Demanding instead of loving
- Deflating instead of inspiring
- Building distrust rather than harmony
God, may we experience healing in our experiences with your people. May those who lead your church do so in humility and graciousness, encouraging, freeing, empowering, and loving your people. May you build your church, growing us together in love, so that all will know we are seeking to be followers of Jesus Christ.