As I begin to write out this blog, my heart feels heavy and unsafe. I am filled with doubt as to whether or not sharing my experience with spiritual abuse is the “right” or “Christian” thing to do. I know that there are many people who will view my words as slanderous, bitter, and overly critical. My character and the quality of my faith may even be questioned. It is from this place of being a christian and feeling suffocated by the weight of the opinions of those within the church, that I invite you all into this part of my story.
I invite you all to read this gently but actively. If you have questions or feel that something I say is incorrect, then please reach out to me. Spiritual abuse is not a new problem within the church. Jesus actively and assertively spoke out against spiritual abuse in his lifetime, and I feel that I hold some of that responsibility today. I grew up in the church. I love the church. I have promoted and testified to the healing I have experienced within the church; however, I have also experienced hurt and deep pain. It can be hard to form a healthy relationship with God when you do not have a healthy relationship with the church.
I recognize that there is a massive number of people who have felt judged and pushed away by the very place that preaches unconditional love and grace. Three years ago I remember talking with my lab partner in chemistry about our faith. She revealed to me how many times she had been burned by the church, and I remember thinking she must have just found a bad church. Surely, if she would just come to my church she would would experience church the way God intended. It wasn’t until three years later after being burned by my church, that I began to realize my lack of empathy for her pain. In some ways, I was shifting the blame or responsibility onto her. I felt immune to spiritual abuse. Unfortunately, even good churches can fall into practices of spiritual abuse. The enemy attempts to kill, steal, and destroy all things that glorify God. Thankfully, God has secured our victory. I believe that God can still perform salvations and miracles within a church that is unhealthy. I also believe that you can attend a church that is spiritually abusive and never be spiritually abused. God protects. God overcomes. God heals.
The intention of this blog is not to expose the church that hurt me. I could write a blog twice as long about the wonderful experiences I had within this church. I grew spiritually and met some amazing, God-focused individuals who love like Jesus. Unfortunately, I also experienced some spiritual abuse and manipulation that has made me feel inadequate in my faith. In order to heal, I had to leave the place that was making me spiritually sick. I did not recognize how damaged my thoughts and beliefs had become until weeks after leaving. For years, I unknowingly and willingly walked out my faith carrying the heavy weight placed on me by the misuse of spiritual authority in my life. Today, I am sharing my truth in order to bring light to the enemy’s tricks and lies. I am sharing my story in hopes of encouraging those who have been burned by the church to know that they are not alone. I am believing that God will use my testimony for His glory. Whether on an individual level or within a larger organization, Christians have always and will always be broken, imperfect, and messy. I am not above it. I have zero stones to throw. I am just thankful that I serve a God who loves the broken. I pray that as Christians we can learn to carry that same culture.
With all that being said, I am finally ready to tell my story (I think…). About two months ago, I made the decision to leave my church of four years due to spiritual abuse that was occurring. In the process of healing and sorting through all of my messy emotions, I began reading The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Vanvonderen. I was shocked to discover that this book that was written in 1991 contained chapters filled with my own experiences, thoughts, and feelings. In order to help explain my own truth, I will be using this book to help articulate the signs and symptoms of spiritual abuse.
Before I go much further, it is important to define spiritual abuse. Personally, this phrase sounds harsh, confronting, and extreme. Johnson and Vanvonderen provide an excellent illustration of spiritual abuse which I think helps to soften the shame-filled tone of the phrase while also maintaining the integrity of its significance and eternal impact. They write:
“It’s possible to become so determined to defend a spiritual place of authority, a doctrine or way of doing things that you wound and abuse anyone who questions, or disagrees, or doesn’t ‘behave’ spiritually the way you want them to. When your words and actions tear down another, or attack or weaken a person’s standing as a Christian- to gratify you, your position or our beliefs while at the same weakening or harming another- that is spiritual abuse” (23).
If you have experienced this within the church, I am sorry. Remember that your “standing as a Christian” is not measured by your acceptance and approval within a church organization. You have unconditional acceptance and approval from a heavenly father that doesn’t expect you to “behave”. If God expected us to behave, he wouldn’t have sent Jesus
The spiritual abuse became undeniable in August following an unfortunate event that occurred one Sunday morning. A young woman who I greatly admire was kicked out of church one morning by the pastor and a staff member. She was threatened to be arrested for trespassing if she did not leave. This individual had called this church home for many years, had served extremely sacrificially, and had been endorsed many times by staff on stage. When news of this event spread, I was confused and had many questions. Under what conditions does the church feel they have the authority to kick someone out of church? Is this the character of Jesus? If so, am I a bad “Christian” because I don’t agree with kicking someone out of church? Am I a bad “Christian” if I question this leadership decision? Ultimately, my sisters and I decided to take our questions to staff. We felt hopeful that they could help us to see Jesus in this mess. Unfortunately, our questions only multiplied as we were met with defensive, contradicting, and and manipulative language.
First, the staff maintained an argument that they did nothing “morally wrong” therefore an apology would not be issued. They then proceeded to weaken and harm the character of the woman kicked out of church in order to justify their actions. Specifically, they called this individual foolish, broken, and bad fruit. They initially claimed that this individual was asked to leave because she was there to bully and harass another individual within the church. This argument was used as the initial justification/motive, and the staff member we talked with claimed she was exhibiting a level of harassment that could get someone fired. In following conversations, the staff changed their answer to pinpoint her concerns/questions of leadership as being the reason for her being kicked out, and claimed “harassment” was accidental and poor word choice when this individual proved to be innocent. They continued to argue that they had handled the situation with “class and grace”. After talking with staff, I was extremely uncomfortable and confused by their responses. I did not understand why they were so quick to defile the name of an individual they once celebrated. The staff said they were handling this with grace, yet they continued to speak a language of blame and judgement. Grace is identifying with and loving the broken, not shaming them. Grace allows us to find courage in our brokenness, and to feel loved in our mess.
I don’t think the staff intentionally meant to lie to us. They were just believing what was most comfortable. They found themselves confronting a messy conflict, and “the need to look good or be right overcame the desire to speak truth. When this happens, the so-called right answer is not the real answer. We tell others what we think they want to hear, not what we really think. This is a lie. It is always a lie” (128). I am 100% guilty of speaking the “right” answer instead of the “real” answer. In a society that sometimes expects (or so it feels) perfection out of pastors and churches, admitting to mistakes can feel impossible. The enemy loves this! Pastors/churches are crushed by a pressure to be perfect, and victims of spiritual abuse are crushed by the language and actions taken to maintain a church’s “perfect” image. It’s a lose-lose situation which is a win-win for the enemy. Thankfully, Jesus secured victory so any “win” for the enemy has been nullified by the blood of Jesus. Unfortunately, victory is not painless. Victory in Christ does not protect us from the real, emotional damage caused by the enemies attacks. It’s okay to feel hurt, angry, and tired. Positive, promise-declaring, attitudes are not a measure of one’s “success” or health in their faith. In fact,I have found that it is in my authentic, real, and broken emotions that I celebrate my victory in Christ most deeply. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to experience judgement when our real emotions and thoughts are not what the church claims to be the right emotions. Clearly you just need to pray more, lean in deeper, and worship louder…Right? Wrong. We serve a personal God. That gives us the authority to experience, feel, worship, and build our relationship with Christ in the way that God designed for us. Guess what? God designed you THIS way. He’s not intimidated by our questions, our concerns, our doubts, or our fears. He’s excited to navigate you through the mess (because it builds real relationship with Him) in order to uncover the fullness of His love.
Following phone conversations with staff where we attempted to sort out the contradictions and questions, it was determined a face-to-face meeting would be best. At this point we had reached out to the individual who had been kicked out of church in order to hear her truth as well as another individual who had experienced her own rejection from the church. This second individual had been brought up by staff during their defense as being part of all the problems. It only felt fair to hear both sides, especially since the claims the staff were making completely contradicted the character of these individuals. Going into our meeting, we had a list of questions to ask. Our questions were not coming from a place of disloyalty or bitterness. In fact, it was more of a plea to find healing in the hurt. We were desperate for a sign of grace and/or humility in order to find a sense of peace. We didn’t want the church to be perfect in their response, we just wanted them to be honest and human. Instead, we were made to feel that our questions were a reflection of poor faith. The church presented a case for how they had handled the situation perfectly, and we were told that if the same context where to arise they would act in the same manner. They felt zero empathy for the people who were hurt by their actions. Our concern for the “other” was met with the questioning of our character. At the end of the meeting, we were directly asked the question, “Do you trust the pastors.” This question was asked with the implications that if our answer was “No”, we would be encouraged to step back from serving in the church. We asked staff if it was possible to trust the pastors and also disagree with them. They answered by saying that theoretically that was possible; however, realistically that should not happen.
As someone who grew up in the Methodist church, I never evaluated my trust for the pastors. Methodist pastors rotate every few years to prevent a church from becoming about the pastors. So, I hesitated to verbally answer the question but found myself subtly nodding my head yes. This incongruence was a symptom of spiritual abuse. I knew there was a “right” answer. The right answer was yes; however, deep down my real answer was no. First, I didn’t have a relationship with the pastors. I was being asked to unconditionally trust people who refuse to live transparently. Also, in my four years of serving faithfully at this church, I never struggled with my trust for leadership. I occasionally had questions about leadership decisions, but I trusted God and I always believed that each season had its purpose. So, it never felt important to have unwavering trust for the pastors. Unfortunately, explaining that our trust was in God and not in the pastors was insufficient. We were asked to meet with staff in a few days after we had reconsidered our answer. We were also encouraged not to serve on Sunday. Their reasoning was that they wanted to provide us time to think without feeling obligated by our commitments; however, it felt as if they were preparing for us to leave.
Demanding trust is a sign of spiritual abuse. Johnson and Vanvonderen explain:
“In this little system trust was expected, even required. It was not something to be earned. How could anyone confront problems, then? How did you get to the truth? … Trust is not something that can be demanded or legislated. It is gained or lost on the basis of integrity and honesty” (121).
When I first approached staff with questions, I assumed it was safe. Over the course of my four years at this church, I had shown kindness and integrity. I was honored by the pastors and staff for my commitment to serving, and felt that my character would speak for itself. When my faith was so quickly questioned by individuals in a place of spiritual authority, I felt small and insecure. Was trusting the pastors an important part of trusting God? Could I trust God and question spiritual authority? Surely I just need to humble out, be corrected, and learn to unconditionally trust the pastors. I am the problem. I am defective.
In the meeting that followed, I came to the forced conclusion that I did trust the pastors. I felt worthless when my character was being questioned, so I lied about how I was truly feeling because I was afraid. I was insecure in my faith, and I needed the validation of staff and church family to feel like I was where God wanted me. As the pastors got on stage during a team service and claimed to be under attack, I felt like they were indirectly framing me as the enemy. They claimed they had come out victorious and pure. Where did that leave me in the narrative? I felt dirty. I didn’t want to lose the respect of these people for standing up against spiritual abuse. I didn’t want to honor my real feelings because I was convinced my feelings didn’t matter/were wrong.
Initially, I sought the path of least resistance which was agreeance; however, I quickly learned that this only created more tension in my spirit. It became clear that I could not grow spiritually in a place that suspected I was bad fruit. I no longer felt championed and empowered. I felt silenced and manipulated. So, I made the decision to find a church where I could grow and be nourished. That decision was followed by a reaction from the pastors and other staff within the church to unfollow me on social media, which communicated that I was no longer a part of their community. It was painful to lose friends solely based on the decision to find a different church. Once again, I felt worthless and rejected. I felt as though in some way I had failed as a “Christian”. The worst part was, I couldn’t even turn to my closest friends without being shamed for gossiping or labeled as the problem.
Okay….Let’s pause, drink some water, take some deep breaths, and check in…because personally I’m starting to feel drained. It is hard speaking truth that I don’t want to believe. It’s hard for me to reprocess one of the most painful seasons I’ve walked through. I wanted to believe that my church was healthy and would never commit spiritual abuse. I wanted to believe that I was above being spiritually abused because I had a strong, personal relationship with God. I wanted to believe that I was living a John 10:10 reality because I didn’t want to risk losing my church home. I also didn’t want to discredit God’s faithfulness during my time at this church. I valued building God’s Kingdom, and wondered if it was selfish of me to expect a church to feel safe and welcoming for me. Church isn’t about me (right?), so why should I let something like this bother me? As I write out all of these thoughts, I still feel insecurity and uncertainty. I still feel selfish and rebellious and ashamed at times. But, these feelings are not from God. These are symptoms of spiritual abuse. The pressure for perfection in faith is not from God. When a religious organization uses intimidation, shaming, and manipulation to control your behavior, do not confuse this with the true character of God. You have access to the same Holy Spirit as those with places of spiritual authority. You are not broken. You are not unworthy. God loves you and accepts you JUST BECAUSE! That can be really hard to grasp when we are accustomed to achieving standards and living up to the expectations of others in order to avoid correction. If you need validation from the church/pastors to feel like your faith is “successful” (like I once did), then you are living in a spiritual abusive context that is inhibiting you from finding true fulfillment and rest in Christ alone.
Honestly, the idea that restful should be a word that describes my faith makes me feel sinful. What about all the serving and kingdom building that needs to be done? I’m not “All In for Jesus” if I’m not exhausted. I can rest when I get to heaven…right?? Clearly, I have a lot I’m still working through…and that’s okay. I’m not writing this blog post because I claim to have all the right answers. I just think it’s time for me to bravely live out the real and honest journey of my faith, instead of the faith I think I am suppose to have.