10 Ways to Spot Spiritual Abuse

This topic has been ricocheting in my heart and head many years. But recently, I’ve noticed a greater influx of reader email about this topic, so much so that I felt it would be wise to address it. 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 leader above me 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.

I woke up last night at 3 in the morning with this burden I couldn’t shake. I sat down and 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 a 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. Can’t admit failure but often searches out failure in others and uses that knowledge to hold others 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. Harbors 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.

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Mary DeMuth
Mary DeMuth is a writer, speaker and book mentor who helps folks turn their trials into triumph. Author of nine books, her recent memoir, Thin Places, shows how God heals the most painful places. After church planting in the south of France, she, her husband and three children now live in Texas. Find out more at http://www.marydemuth.com.