10 Signs You're in an Abusive Faith System

Monday, May 6, 2019

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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