Why I Haven't Left the Church

Monday, May 27, 2019

The American church has a current obsession with talking about the "nones." This segment of the population, the group that claims no religious affiliation at all, is the subject of just about every trending study. They're the scapegoat, the problem, the evidence of our culture's moral decline.

What I fear that the American church fails to realize, however, is her culpability in this emerging demographic. Most "nones" didn't start as "nones." No, most "nones" were at one point part of the church. They just decided that the church wasn't for them.

They were "dones" before they became "nones." And I totally get why.

I have seen the Church be capable of unspeakable horrors. I've seen churches place the appeasement and comfort of the attendees over her mission to love and redeem the hurt and broken. I've seen churches worship political platforms and nationalistic identities over and against the One who was slain. I've seen churches bully and abuse their staff members and lay members. I've seen churches silence prophetic voices, perpetuating self-promotion and self-preservation over Jesus' call to grace and justice.

I've wrestled and cussed and railed and lamented. I've become frustrated, angry, indignant, and cynical.

But then I think about what the Church could be. I remember the time a church gave me permission to ask hard, uncomfortable questions without passing judgment. I remember the time a church strategically moved into a specific neighborhood because they wanted to live with and meet the physical needs of the impoverished people who lived there. I remember a time when a church radically welcomed LGBTQ people, offered their building as a place for the homeless to stay, fully funded a Syrian refugee family's immigration. I remember when a church cried with me, prayed with me, and sat with me when my heart was breaking.

This is what the Church is capable of. This is what God's kingdom looks like. This is why I believe it's important to do life and mission with other individuals who are committed to God's beautiful dream of God's kingdom being realized here on earth as it is in heaven.

More often than not, the American church fails to reflect this ideal. And it is because of this failure that the American church is dying. We're quick to put the blame on the "nones" or the "dones," blind to the ways that we have often chased people out of the church. It's easy to blame the quitters, but it takes some hard, honest examination to admit that the fault may lie within our own churches.

There have been several occasions when I've wanted to throw in the towel.

But then I remember that if I love Jesus, then I have to love his friends. They're a package deal.

Church is messy. But I'm committed to being a change-agent in the church right now, so that when the new church rises from the ashes, she remembers who Jesus has called her to be.

I've taken much needed breaks from church to reassess and heal. I've taken breaks to find God and to refocus on the mission. But at the end of the day, I'm not ready to give up yet.

God hasn't give up on his Church, and I hope that one day, in the midst of breaking bread, worshiping, and reading Scripture together, we can learn to how love and forgive and reconcile again and again.

So You're in a Spiritually Abusive Church. Now What?

Monday, May 6, 2019

In my last post, I identified 10 signs that you're in an abusive faith system. Spiritual abuse is real, and the very worst thing we as a Church can possibly do is avoid talking about it. Maybe you read some of the signs on the list, resonated with them, and are asking, "Now what?" Here are 5 ways you can begin the healing process.

1. Talk to some trusted individuals.
When I was in the middle of spiritual abuse and felt like I was going crazy, I talked to a trusted friend who is a pastor. I made an appointment with a spiritual director. I talked to a man in my small group who specialized in corporate conflict resolution. All three of them cried with me and told me that what I was experiencing was "abuse."

Carefully pray about who to approach, but don't be afraid to voice your concerns to some trusted friends and mentors, even if it means breaking one of the "rules." You shouldn't be alone and isolated in your abuse, and in order to properly understand what it is you are experiencing, you need some outside perspective. Be honest and vulnerable. It's worth it.

2. Call the abuse what it is.
At first I was taken aback that my friends and mentors (and later counselor) used the word "abuse" to describe my situation. "Abuse" is a strong word, and I don't throw this word around lightly, especially with regard to a church. But with their counsel, I realized that there was no other way to describe it. We need to call this kind of system exactly what it is: abuse.

When we're in abusive situations, we tend to rationalize our hurt so we don't fall apart. If we call the abuse what it is, we might not be able to continue functioning within the system. This rationalization distorts how we view our own experience and produces a false narrative out of the need for sheer survival. But when you name the system, you can begin to understand the ways you've been manipulated and used. You can assess the situation accurately. You can stop making excuses for your hurt and pain. You can stop burying the grief. And most importantly, you can get help.

3. Pray about whether to stay or leave.
Pray. Pray. Pray. Fast if you are able. Seek God fervently in this season and listen to what he has to say. Ask your trusted friends and family members to pray and fast with you. Step away from the church for a while to gain perspective - we often can't see clearly when we're in the middle of an abusive situation.

If God is telling you to move on, then go bravely. Be honest with the leadership about why you are leaving, but do so humbly and without anger. If you are considering staying, know this: God does not want his kingdom to advance at your emotional and spiritual expense. If you do not have them already, put some clear boundaries and support systems in place for the remainder of your time at the church (and beyond).

4. Get counseling and silence the shame.
When our bodies hurt, we see a doctor. When our minds and spirits are hurt, however, we tend to try to heal and mend on our own, especially within the Church. But there is great wisdom in seeing a counselor, even if you feel like you are processing everything relatively well. A counselor can assess your perceptions of reality, guide you to the truth of situations, and give you some tools to heal. There is no shame in needing help or in seeking help from a professional. And you should silence the shame right now that says you deserved the abuse or should be strong enough to heal from it on your own. This abuse does not define you, and you do not need to live in fear and shame.

5. Break the cycle.
Don't fall into the same cycle of shame and guilt by broadcasting the church's flaws to everyone you know. There is a big difference between being honest about your experience and telling everyone you know about it. Let people approach you. Be truthful (call the abuse what it is), but speak about it the way Jesus would if he were in your shoes.

As much as this church may have hurt you, God still loves her. Pray that God will redeem his people and restore it to a right relationship with him. Pray that God will right the wrongs and heal others who have also been abused. And pray that God will heal you and guide you through the process of forgiving your abusers.


Healing from abuse takes time. Give yourself lots of grace. Forgive over and over and over again. And trust that God can turn such an ugly, horrific experience into something beautiful for his kingdom. God feels every pain you feel, sees every tear you cry, and he will not waste it. God is a master redeemer, even of abuse wrought by his own people.

God has a better story for you.

10 Signs You're in an Abusive Faith System

Today marks the anniversary of when I resigned from a church because of spiritual abuse. It was both one of the bravest things I've ever done and one of the most painful things I have ever done. Often times pain comes with bravery.

When I resigned, I sat down and wrote a statement that detailed why I was leaving. I prayed for days over what to say, and I shared my statement with some trusted mentors and pastors to make sure I was being both truthful and gracious. I memorized it so I was ready to give my statement at any moment's notice. Let me tell you, crafting my story and memorizing it in such a way was at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The very next week, without any prior notice, I was given the opportunity to share with the staff about why I was leaving. I mentally pulled up my prepared statement and told my co-workers that I was leaving because "my values were incompatible with the values that have been placed on the staff."

Immediately afterwards, the leadership brought me into a meeting where I was bullied, belittled, accused, and blamed. It was traumatizing. I'm still recovering from it.

I've deliberated even writing about my experience, fearful that my desire to share my story would come off as either divisive or vengeful. Neither of those is my intent. The reason why I tell my story is because spiritual abuse is something that we need to talk about. Bringing this ugly, hidden side of the church into the light diminishes its power.

One of the very worst things we can do is pretend that spiritual abuse doesn't exist.

I was first exposed to spiritual abuse when I was teaching a college class on the Biblical narrative. After our session on the early church in the book of Acts, a middle-aged woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and recounted her story about how the church she had attended for over 20 years abused her and her family. The lead pastor eliminated all forms of accountability, created an us-versus-them culture, and shut down all opposition. Listening to her story, I wondered how anyone could be a part of a church like that. As this woman shared her doubts and confusions, I wondered how you don't realize that what's happening is a form of abuse.

And then I experienced it myself.

Spiritual abuse is subversive. It's not always apparent, especially to those who are caught up in it. Most of the "rules" and behaviors are left unspoken. Thankfully, my experience became a little clearer when the leadership gave the staff five things we needed to do "in order to not be fired." Four out of the five rules actually make this list. But not everyone's experience is as clear as mine was.

Now, from telling my story, I have been amazed at 1) how little known spiritual abuse is; 2) how many people have experienced spiritual abuse but haven't had the words to name it for what it is.

I am by no means an expert on spiritual abuse, but here are 10 ways I've seen it through my own experience and the experiences of others brave enough to tell me their stories:

1. The church has a celebrity pastor who falls into defensiveness and pride.
This is a pattern we see in many large churches, especially evidenced last year with the "Church Too" movement. This pastor may have started out with strong leadership skills, but the idolatry of his personal platform causes him to slip into protectionism, which is often birthed out of insecurity. Suddenly, the leader's image takes priority. He becomes equated with the church, and the church could not function in his absence. Most decisions boil down to whether it makes him look good. He considers himself above critique and surrounds himself with "yes people" who will always agree with him. His insecurities cause everyone else's insecurities to spiral out of control.

2. The biggest priority is guarding the image of the church and its leaders. At all costs.
Those who are part of the church are not permitted to tell truth. They are forbidden to point out reality and to question or critique. They must maintain positive attitudes at all times and are not allowed to express their feelings unless they make the church look good. Protecting the reputation of the church and those in power becomes more important than protecting the dignity of those the church serves. Further, when the prophetic gift is silenced, self-promotion and self-perpetuation becomes the mission. Without prophetic criticism, the church's calling is lost and replaced with this new self-serving identity.

3. There is no accountability.
Whether it comes about intentionally or by accident, the church structure eliminates all forms of accountability. The leaders remove themselves from the accountability of the staff, the elders in the church, or even the denomination at large. Church boards or advisory councils are non-existent, and if they do exist, they were hand-selected by the head pastor and serve as more "yes men." Those who have concerns with church decisions are forbidden from approaching the boards and councils, often threatened with punitive consequences.

4. You are forbidden from talking to anyone about a conflict.
Obviously, there is a huge difference between gossiping and seeking advice and support. The former is characterized by a spirit of animosity; the latter is characterized by humbleness and a desire for reconciliation. Preventing staff or laypersons from talking about their problems creates further problems, sometimes even perpetuating abusive relationships that may already exist. It breeds isolation and prevents Biblical conflict resolution from taking place. And because you can't talk about problems or address the dysfunction, you start wondering whether you are crazy (you're not).

5. You are not permitted to do anything outside of your role.
Don't get me wrong: it's important for staff members and volunteers to achieve their objections and complete their ministry responsibilities with excellence. However, when they are prevented from serving in other ministry areas and are told to "stay in their lane," control and dominance have become priorities. Very rarely is calling confined to a lane, and churches do themselves a disservice by limiting the Holy Spirit's empowerment. When people are told to stay in their lane, the efficiency of the local church's system is given priority over what is ultimately best for the kingdom in the long run.

6. Fear and shame become weapons to drive people into submission.
There are no healthy systems for conflict resolution. Instead, tactics of fear, intimidation, and isolation are employed in order to "resolve" conflicts. Shame is systemic. Anxiety becomes a strong reality and staff members or laypersons do not know who they can trust.

7. There is an "insider" culture.
The main leader creates a special following, and these people feel lucky that the pastor is paying attention to them. All those on the outside want to be part of this favored inner circle. Those who are outside strive to get "in," and those who are already "in" do whatever it takes to stay favored. This often involves staying silent on critical issues so as not to offend the leader (see #2).

8. Numbers are everything.
The gospel of attendance and tithing replaces the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The church measures its entire success on how much new revenue they have or how many people showed up at the Christmas Eve services. Often these numbers are conflated so as to assuage the leader's insecurities. Decisions are made based upon what will boost numbers and not on what will further God's kingdom. The leaders do not publicly talk about sin and avoid engaging in any conversation with the culture that may be deemed controversial, lest it adversely affect attendance numbers and giving.

9. People who do speak out are silenced or bullied.
Those who dare to leave their bunkers and declare their truth are intimidated, shamed, and silenced. They are not met with grace, but with judgment. The leaders are quick to protect themselves instead of humbly listening. They do not want to hear any truth that may be at odds with the distorted, dysfunctional reality that they have created. And when someone leaves the church, they are immediately ostracized. Church members or staff members are fearful to continue communicating with those who are shunned, and if they do maintain a relationship, it's done in secret.

10. Your value is based upon your performance.
You are not appreciated for who you are, but for what you accomplish. The culture is one of utilitarianism. Staff members and volunteers are greedily devoured. You are no longer a pastor, but a "ministry professional." The church demands more and more from them. Rest is an afterthought, if thought of at all, and is understood to be a necessary component so that you can work even harder. Ministers and laypersons are burnt out, stressed out, and used up.

In short, I want you to know that spiritual abuse is real.

You are not crazy.

And you are not alone.

My story has a redemptive ending. Following my experience at this particular abusive church, I began a new career at another church whose values have been the exact opposite as the ones that appear on this list. You can read more about the way God redeemed my story here.

Perhaps you have a story to tell, too. Please send me a message. I would love to talk to you and pray for you.

Here are some further resources that have especially helped me process my own experience. In my next post, I talk about some steps to take if you think you may be undergoing spiritual abuse.

"10 Ways to Spot Spiritual Abuse" by Mary DeMuth
Toxic Faith by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton
    (For a quick summary of the points in the book, see this concise handout and this summary article).
"14 Signs of Spiritual Abuse" by Mark deJesus
"3 Ways to Identify and Address Spiritual Abuse in Ministry Leader" by Eric Stratton
Broken Trust: A Practical Guide to Identify and Recover from Toxic Faith, Toxic Church, and Spiritual Abuse by F. Remy Diederich

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