Dealing with Spiritual Abuse - Q & A Part 1

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When I wrote the series of blog posts on spiritual abuse, I knew it would elicit questions. I had originally thought to just answer questions individually and privately, but after talking it through Rob and I decided that the questions also needed addressing publicly, as we knew the answers would be helpful to many others.  So over the next few posts I'll be addressing some of those questions.

To read the original series click here

Q - Hi, I’ve found spiritual abuse happening at the last two churches I went to, but I’m aware I can’t keep leaving churches just because I feel they may be abusive. What do I do?

A - Once we have been a victim of spiritual abuse then our abuse antenna is tuned to recognise it easily, and sometimes we become highly sensitised to it and suspicious of leadership in general. If that happens we can make the mistake of calling strong leaders 'abusive' and we need to guard against that and make sure it is abuse we are seeing not just strong or wounded leaders reacting unwisely in a situation. Once you recognise abuse, however, you can at least guard yourself against becoming its victim.

If you see abuse happening then you should address it. Talk to the church leadership and ask them nicely if they could explain to you what was happening in what you heard or saw. You can use phrases like – “Can you help me process something. I heard (or saw) this, (then say what you heard or saw) but I don’t want to jump to conclusions, so can you tell me what you meant by… (the thing you heard or saw happen)”. Listen to their explanation then reflect back to them what you heard them say and ask if that’s correct. Use a phrase like, “So what I’m hearing you say is that … is why that happened.” Give them a chance to respond to that or explain further and if you’re not satisfied with their answer, ask more questions. Their response will give you an indication of whether they are open to dialogue about their leadership style or skills, or not. At the end of your discussion thank them for taking the time to process with you.

A good leader, while finding critique and process awkward or hard (as we all sometimes do), will take what you ask and think it through, and should come back to you and give you feedback on the discussion you had.

It is hard, however, to stay in a place where abuse is obviously happening and not allow anger, frustration or even bitterness to shape how you see, and respond to, the leadership in that church. If you can't find a way through those feelings, then you need to consider whether staying there will actually cause more problems, because people do pick up on your attitudes and responses; you can't always hide them. Often what happens next is that people unwittingly begin to make remarks against how a pastor leads, and in doing so they begin to spread suspicion, and may even resort to divisive comments and behaviour.  The other important thing to do is to pray for those involved, to ask the Lord to expose what needs exposing and to give people wisdom in dealing with it.

Q – I recently left a church I’d been in for years because I recognised that an abusive culture and leadership style had developed. The other day a friend from that church dropped by to visit me at home, and said they were passing by and thought they’d drop in. It turned out that they actually came on purpose, with the idea of seeing how I was and trying to persuade me that ‘I was wrong in believing what I did’ and that ‘things have changed’. When I realised that they came on purpose with an agenda, it hit me like a physical blow, and I burst into tears. Is this normal? What do I do?

A – Feeling sudden, overwhelming surges of emotion is normal and is part of the process. You’ll find that it will come in waves, some days will be better than others. Over time, however, as you work through your grief and feelings of betrayal, those times will diminish.

As far as their saying “I was passing and thought I’d drop in,” if that is proved to be wrong by other things they say, then question them on it. Ask, “Was it a planned visit?” Don’t be afraid to ask, as they should not be allowed to tell a ‘lie’ if they did come deliberately and with a pre-planned agenda. And yes, you will have well-meaning friends who are still in the church who want to help you by showing you where you ‘misunderstood’ and were ‘wrong’ etc. Their love and concern will be genuine, but because they haven’t seen what is truly happening, they will try and get you to come back and admit your ‘wrong’ perspective or response.

You’ll need to have something prepared to say to people like this before hand, so that when it happens you don’t feel so blindsided by it. I used to say something like, “I really appreciate your visit and your love for me, but this is something I have to work through before the Lord, so please don’t try and use our friendship to try to influence me one way or the other.”  Some people got offended by that because from their perspective they were just trying to help; some people did understand, even though it was hard for them, but it was a rough time.

Q – Our pastors left our church because of abusive behaviour by a person in a position of authority over them. They are looking at possibly starting a new church. What is your advice in a situation like that?

A - In regards to the leaders who left starting something new, I would advise them not to look at starting a new church immediately. They need time to process and work through what has happened to them. They will need time to examine the denominational process and beliefs, as well as their own beliefs as part of that denomination. Some teaching they had, or taught, may have been influenced by denominational beliefs and tradition rather than being scripturally right. They will need to examine leadership styles – the denomination’s and their own – to find out what is good and worth keeping, and what is not, otherwise they will most likely replicate the old leadership patterns and beliefs in their new situation. If they are wanting you to be involved then you have the right to ask them some questions like the following ones. While these will be hard questions to ask and answer, they are necessary.

1. How are you processing what you’ve been through, and who do you have as reference and accountability in that process?

2. What beliefs from the situation have you identified that need transforming so that we don’t repeat the same thing going forward?

3. What will you do to make sure the same beliefs and practices aren’t carried over into anything you start?

Part 2