The topic of spotting spiritual abuse has been ricocheting in my heart and head for 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.
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 servanthood of their followers, but live prestigious, privileged lives. They live aloof from their followers and justify their 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.
8. Buffer him/herself from criticism by placing people around themselves whose only allegiance is to the leader. Views those who bring up 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 reject authentic spirituality. Places burdens on followers to act a certain way, dress an acceptable way and have an acceptable lifestyle.
10. Use exclusivity for allegiance. Followers close to the leader or leaders feel like insiders. Everyone else is on the outside, though they long to be in that inner circle.
Have you ever experienced this kind of situation? What did you do? How did you heal in the aftermath? And what can we do as responsible Christ followers to expose this kind of abuse? What can we do as leaders to follow in the gentle footsteps of Jesus?