Part Two: Subtle Signs of Spiritual Abuse

Wow. I want to thank everyone who has reached out to me, encouraged me, and shared their own story of spiritual abuse following my last post. While it breaks my heart to hear about the pain that people have gone through, I am encouraged by the unity that occurs from being vulnerable. I wanted to elaborate on my previous post by identifying some of the common signs of spiritual abuse. When I had one of my last meetings with staff before deciding to leave, one of the staff members directly said (unprompted and somewhat randomly) that the church was not spiritually abusive. In that moment, I didn’t think the church was guilty of spiritual abuse because I didn’t actually know what spiritual abuse was. For the last year and half of attending this church, I had multiple experiences that triggered a red flag; however, I always made excuses for these moments because I wanted to believe the best about my church. After leaving, I began doing research into the signs of spiritual abuse. Each article/book I read described everything I had experienced at this church, and it quickly became undeniable that spiritual abuse had occurred.

As Christians, I think it is important to be educated on this subject. The enemy loves to create division and conflict within the church. It is vital for church leaders and attendees to be aware of the subtle signs of spiritual abuse in order to protect and defend the health of the church. The enemy is very tricky and can create chaos when proper policies and accountability are not in place. Spiritual abuse is not a fight between the abuser and the abused, it is fight between the enemy and God’s church. Instead of being quick to deny spiritual abuse, the church must learn to listen to those that have been hurt and identify the areas that the enemy has caused to become spiritually abusive. After much research, I have created a list of signs to look out for and will again use The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen to help communicate these ideas.

  1. There is the neglect of real needs in favor of the “needs” of authority.

If you have ever found yourself ignoring your own needs to meet the expectations of the pastors or leaders within the church, then you may be in a spiritually abusive system. One of the struggles I faced as a connect group leader was seeing individuals within my group seek pastoral care within the church and being told to “join a connect group” (even though they were already attending one), and being made to feel that their problems were inconvenient for the pastors. For example, one girl’s family reached out to the pastors after one of her family member’s received a devastating medical diagnose. After briefly talking with the pastor after church one Sunday, plans were arranged to meet for lunch. When the day arrived to meet, the pastor was a no call/no show. Weeks later the pastor finally reached out and explained that he forgot because his assistant did not put it on his schedule. Instead of taking personal accountability, he deflected the blame and never rescheduled. He did however exploit this family’s story on stage during service which falsely suggests that he is invested in the lives of those that attend. When in reality, this family never attended service again because they felt awkward about the incident. They were made to feel like the pastor’s busy schedule was more important than their own needs, and were made to feel like a burden for wanting to meet with the pastor.

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  1. Can’t Talk Rule

This concept is one of the most prominent and disturbing signs of spiritual abuse that appears in this church. Johnson and Van Vonderen describe the “Can’t Talk Rule” as this:

“The real problem cannot be exposed because then it would have to be dealt with and things would have to change; so it must be protected behind walls of silence (neglect) or by assault (legalistic attack). If you speak about the problem out loud, you are the problem. In some way you must be silenced or eliminated. … The real problem, however, is that if a Christian who feels violated stops talking, then the perpetrator will never be held accountable for his behavior” (68-69).

When we met with the staff following the event where they kicked a woman out of church,  we were intimidated and shamed into silence. They said they were choosing to remain silent because it would only make this woman look more foolish. They villainized the act of talking about the issues. When we explained that we were using the language the church had provided and direction individuals with questions from our connect group to reach out to staff, a staff member lashed out abruptly and said, “I told you specifically not to gossip so I hope you aren’t”. We were continually told not to “gossip” about this situation with anyone, and in my last meeting with staff, I was confronted about a previous conversation I had with a friend concerning the issues within the church. The staff should not have held a personal conversation I had with a close friend against me. For those that still attend this church, they are told they cannot “gossip” or they will face the same consequences of those that have left. The inability to address and confront issues within the church protects the pastors from having any real accountability. Disagreements are a healthy part of community and relationships; forced agreement and silence creates a false image of unity and harmony.

  1. Preoccupation with Fault and Blame

As mentioned in my previous post, when we first met with staff they were very quick to blame everyone else for the issues within the church. The people who left feeling broken and hurt, were blamed for asking too many questions, not trusting the pastors, and for “slandering” the church. Staff continually proclaimed that they did nothing “morally wrong” and were blameless. In one meeting with staff were an individual mentioned that the church was causing more issues by trying to put out the small fires instead of just addressing the larger issue, they demanded to know the names of people who were asking questions. The effect of this is that it makes the people who have questions feel like they are causing all the problems. It also prevents a movement of God’s grace from bringing restoration to the unhealthy areas within the church.

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  1. Idolatry of the Pastors

From the very beginning of attending this church, my sisters and I have always felt that there was an idealization of the pastors. Following big events, it is not uncommon to see an outpouring of posts thanking the pastors while failing to give any credit or glory to God. We even witnessed the pastors receive an uncalled for (and somewhat random) standing ovation at a friend’s wedding. We always justified this by assuming that the pastor’s did not ask for this attention; unfortunately, that is not the case. Johnson and Van Vonderen explain this idolatry (serving false gods) in a shame based system as over valuing appearance, what people think, and power-orientation (57). For example, while serving in college ministry we were required to “own the atmosphere” of the evening services. Many nights after service, we would be corrected for not being vocal enough in our feedback to the pastor’s message during service. This correction was coming from the pastor who felt that we were not encouraging enough during his sermon. The intention of giving vocal encouragement during the sermon was always framed as creating an atmosphere that would help new believers feel more connected to the message. In reality, most guests felt that the “cheerleader” section was odd, and it was not uncommon to see staff scrolling on their phone disconnected from the message while saying, “so good” in an inauthentic response. So many Sunday nights after serving for almost 12 hours, I would leave feeling like I need to do better because the pastor felt like the energy in the evening service was lacking. I took responsibility for making the pastor feel encouraged and secure about his message, because I thought the “energy” of the room was connected with the presence of God. Ultimately, the pastors require honor. One of my close friends was corrected for not tagging the pastors in an instagram post where he talked about a church event even though he paid for and planned this on his own. The pastors were disconnected from this event, but still required honor. It is spiritually abusive to require constant praise, and “the way you can spot a false system is that the leaders require the place of honor” (134).

  1.  Feeling Indebted to the Pastors Because of Their Sacrifice and Obedience

While attending this church, the pastors were thanked on an almost weekly basis for their past obedience to come to Kansas City and start this church. Their sacrifice was narrated in a way that made everyone feel like they owed the pastor’s their gratitude and service. In a spiritually abusive system, the congregation feels almost indebted to the pastors because their “obedience” is over emphasized, while the attendees obedience is often minimized.

  1. Preoccupation with Spiritual Performance

In a spiritually abusive system, there is an unhealthy focus on spiritual performance which often results in either shame or self righteousness. Personally, I found myself serving nearly 15-20 hours a week at this church and still feeling like I wasn’t doing enough. One Sunday, my sisters and I missed an evening service. Later that week, we were corrected for not attending. Since we were a part of college ministry, we were suppose to be at the evening services to “own the atmosphere”. We were told by this staff member that for a moment she was worried about the condition of our hearts. I remember feeling ashamed for not being good enough despite having served from 6am to 1pm at this church that day. While attending this church, I felt like I needed to justify any time I couldn’t be there on a Sunday. I would feel guilty for missing a Sunday while on vacation, and planned vacations specifically so I wouldn’t have to miss. One Wednesday evening, we were called by a staff member and told that we needed to attend a Freedom Night that the church was having. With only a few hours before the event, we told this staff member that we had homework and other responsibilities we needed to take care of. We were told that our priorities were out of line, and shamed for not being committed and being “all in”. At the time, I truly felt like I was the problem. I didn’t understand that I had unhealthy boundaries because there was such an emphasis on performance.

These are just a few signs of spiritual abuse that I experienced but was unable to identify at the time of the occurrence. There are many other subtle signs, and I think it is important to be educated on this subject matter. I know that so many other people have had much worse experiences of abuse within this church which has resulted in these individuals needing counseling to heal from the damage. Those are not my stories to tell; however, I hope that in sharing my truth individuals will feel empowered to share their own. Ultimately, my heart in discussing the effects of spiritual abuse it not to tear down the church but to make it stronger.  

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