One year later: surviving spiritual abuse

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It’s been a year since I left a spiritually abusive church. A year since I bid an ugly goodbye to a congregation I had, for better or worse, immersed myself in for four years. A year of things heard about myself through the grapevine—and of whispering things about others through the grapevine too. In many ways it’s been a difficult year. There’s no good way to leave a spiritually abusive church. There’s no clean exit, emotionally or spiritually. It’s usually too late for that.

Honestly, I’m tired of thinking, talking and writing about spiritual abuse. I’m tired of the looks you get from people who don’t understand what it is and file it under “church politics” or “bitterness” or who ignore it altogether. I’m tired, too, of speaking about it with people who do get it, who’ve been through exactly the same thing. Spiritual abuse is taxing. It’s draining. Its effects don’t abide the week, month or year perimeters we draw around other things in our lives. It long outlasts its genesis, its perpetrators.

That’s exactly why I need to continue thinking, talking and writing about spiritual abuse, of course: because it’s so poisonous. It thrives on the silence and exhaustion of its victims. It banks on remaining unspoken. Its architects will go to great lengths to avoid direct, clear confrontation.

I’ve learned a lot about spiritual abuse this year. On the negative side of things, I’ve learned that so-called “top down” spiritually abusive leaders all look, act and think the same. Tullian Tchividjian’s recent saga is an excellent example of this. These leaders are boring in their predictability. They are usually narcissistic. They demonstrate a superficial concern for others that they use to manipulate and exploit them for personal gain, whether physical, material or emotional. They’re controlling. They avoid taking responsibility for their actions; there’s little to no accountability. When confronted, they either blame their victims or they play the victim. They’re liars, and their lies are big and bare-faced. They surround themselves with “Yes men”, people who believe the image these leaders project, and they use them to control and manipulate and report back on those not immediately within their reach.

Most importantly, I’ve realised that spiritually abusive leaders cannot be reasoned with. Reasoning with someone requires empathy, and they have none. For a long time the biggest question I had about the leadership at my old church was, “How? How could they be/think/act this way?” But when you remove empathy from the equation, the answer clears up: they did what they did, said what they said and thought what they thought because they are unencumbered by empathy. They don’t care about anyone other than themselves. That’s the long and the short of it.

On the positive side of things, I’ve learned that it wasn’t my fault that I ended up in a spiritually abusive church. Emotionally I was in a very negative space when I first started attending my old church. I was dealing with the aftermath of having been in a close friendship with a pathological liar and the uncertainty of a calling on my life when I saw the ad for this church in a local newspaper. I knew something was off about the leadership when I first started going, but I thought it was merely vainglory. The church as a whole seemed nice. I started attending a Bible Study. I began to feel more comfortable about being a Christian and studying theology. I thought I could avoid the seedier aspects of the church and its leadership by effort of will alone.

That I was making a mistake in that assumption I wouldn’t realise until later. Spiritually abusive environments don’t tolerate anyone operating outside their aura of influence and manipulation. You either do or die, and the “doing” is more stealthy and eroding than you’d think.

Sometimes – less often, these days – there will still be moments when I punish myself thinking that I should have known better. But then I remember something I read on a blog about spiritual abuse: healthy people trust. It’s not that I made a mistake in trusting that my old church would be a place of God, or its congregation decent people; that’s what normal people do. The mistakes lie with the unhealthy church community, its corrupt leadership and their deceit and manipulation.

Surviving spiritual abuse is unpleasant. It doesn’t feel much like surviving. It’s a struggle to reorientate yourself emotionally and spiritually. It’s a struggle to remain emotionally healthy; to continue to trust people, to open yourself up to others, to allow yourself to be part of a church once again. It’s a struggle with God, with knowing his character and promises, and having had to deal with the worst from his followers. But perhaps the most difficult thing to deal with, post-spiritual abuse, is that so few people understand what spiritual abuse is, or believe that it’s real. Unlike other forms of abuse, spiritual abuse often goes unacknowledged by the people and institutions around us. They just don’t think it’s that big of a deal.

That’s why I wanted to write this post, an update of sorts: to remind myself and others that yes, it happened. Yes, it’s a real thing. Yes, our feelings – our hurt, our anger, our fear, our frustration, our disbelief, our confusion – these are all normal; this is what spiritual abuse feels like.

And I wanted to remind myself and others that, trite as it sounds, life goes on. Our pain will go on with it, but it needn’t define us along the way, and eventually we will leave it behind.

I wish I could offer a “how to” on this “going on” thing – a plan with predictable results. I can’t do that, of course, but maybe I can offer some insights and pointers:

  1. Some people are just assholes.
  2. Do not be dissuaded from your experience, your impressions and your feelings.
  3. Read up about spiritual abuse, on both its perpetrators and its victims. This helps you identify patterns and locate your own experience within them.
  4. Staying in touch with people from the spiritually abusive church is difficult. They may be in denial about what happens there or devalue your experience. But their feelings don’t negate your own.
  5. Forgive. Keep forgiving! This doesn’t “erase” what happened or the guilt of those involved, but it sets you free from self-flagellation. You’ve got quite enough to be getting on with.
  6. Forgive, but do not trust the spiritually abusive environment ever again! They might try to convince you that forgiveness = trust. This is gaslighting. Don’t fall for it.
  7. God isn’t on their side. God isn’t on your side. God is on God’s side, the side of justice and love. Know that God has seen what happened to you, and wept. Know that God will work on the situation. I’m pretty sure God struck my old pastor down with illness as a humbling experience. It didn’t take, but maybe second time’s the charm? 😉
  8. Reacquaint yourself with God. Read the Bible. Pray often. Read books by good mainstream authors. Listen to sermons and teaching by good mainstream speakers. Spend time with God in non-conventional ways.
  9. Find a new spiritual home. Go in with an open heart but sharp eyes. Don’t commit straight away.
  10. Be patient with yourself. Be patients with others.

If I wrote another blog post like this a year from now, I’m pretty sure in essentials it would be much the same: spiritually abusive environments will still be spiritually abusive environments and taking advantage of people; it will still hurt that we were one of their number; we will have moved forward, if only in bits and pieces. And hey, that sucks. But there are other things that will also still be true: we will still be loved by an Almighty God. We will still have survived something that was meant to mow us down to manageable size. We will still have resisted. We will still be healthier than those we left behind.

Friends, whether it’s one week later, one month later, one year later or ten years later: it’s been a week, a month, a year, ten years. And we are free. We are free.

Never forget it.

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2 thoughts on “One year later: surviving spiritual abuse

  1. Lee,
    What wisdom and what great kindness to continue to bring this issue to light. Thank you for sharing your experience and insight. Yes, spiritually abusive churches exist! And they do great harm to individuals and the cause of Christ in the world. Many stumble into these churches because, like you, they are at a very vulnerable place in their lives. Many remain because they never have the strength to break away. Some stay because they are so useful to leadership that they become part of the abusive hierarchy. I’m thankful you got out. I’m thankful you are finding your way toward healing. Keep sounding the trumpet, sister! Bless you for telling the truth.

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  2. Part of processing spiritual abuse is reviewing what you went through repeatedly, talking about it over and over again – it’s how you come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t your fault. It means you’re well on your way on the right road to recovery.

    Spiritually abusive people want you isolated, if you compare notes with others, then they run the risk of having their playbook exposed. If they can convince each and every one who has left to never talk to others who have left, then they have a good sporting chance of playing by the same playbook for awhile longer.

    Good Christians are an easy target, add in the theology about being totally depraved as well as on forgiveness and you can twist scriptures to your hearts content making sure people blame themselves and getting them to not trust their own instincts and get them dependent on you for the best interpretation of Scripture.

    Avoid membership contracts as much as humanly possible – some are designed to protect the church from lawsuits from you and certainly not to protect you from the church’s internal discipline procedures. In recent years, some churches continue to pursue it’s official members even after they’ve left a congregation partially because they think the membership contract gives them permission to do whatever they want to restore a brother or sister into good standing. High commitment churches can be overly demanding.

    Abuse happens in hierarchies, there’s always somebody to pass the blame. Just because churches teach that God is hierarchy, it doesn’t mean that all hierarchies are godly. Jesus once told his disciples not to lord over others their authority, but to lay it down. It’s harder than it sounds – but Jesus did it by not getting involved with the establishment, instead of becoming a Sadducee or Pharisee, he was a wandering Rabbi. Churches that pattern themselves as an authority-based hierarchy are at risk of being abusive. Abuse also happens in hierarchies of just two people – so theology framed in language like “authority” and “submission” needs to have a check and balance, or else one party will be powerless and the other too powerful for it’s own good.

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