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.

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