(If you find a useful site, send a link and I'll see about adding it. Also, if you find broken links, please send a note so I can try to fix them. Thanks.) This post is divided into seven sections: Resources for determining how healthy or unhealthy a church is; resources on the actual mechanics of spiritual abuse, how it commonly works; resources that focus on the spiritual aspects of spiritual abuse; resources that deal with recovery from spiritual abuse; best books on spiritual abuse; best blogs on spiritual abuse; video resources.
If you want to browse through spiritual abuse resources or search for something specific, you should visit the Searchable Provender. On searchable Provender, the most recent articles are at the top.
Resources on determining how healthy or unhealthy a church or group is:
Is your church healthy or unhealthy? Battered Sheep credits a Control Techniques pamphlet with this decent overview.
From Spotlight Ministries, Are You the Victim of Mind Control? contains a useful checklist to see if your group is exhibiting characteristics of a cult:
- Do you feel that no matter how hard you try, the ‘good deeds’ you perform for your group or pastor are never quite enough? As a result of this do you often feel plagued with feelings of guilt?
- What are you motivated by? Is it genuine love for God and the group etc., or is it fear of not meeting the desired standards.
- Is questioning the group, or the group leaders, discouraged or frowned upon? Does the group you belong to believe that it is an elite and exclusive organisation which alone has ‘the truth’ and answers to life’s questions?
- Does the pastor pour scorn upon, attack, and mock other Christian churches and their interpretation of the Bible?
- Is reading any literature critical of the group discouraged? Many cults will warn members not to read anything critical of the group, especially if written by an ex-member (who are called names by the cult such as “apostate”, “hardened”, or “of the devil” etc.). This is a well known information control technique to stop the member from discovering the clear and documented errors of the cult. Members' abilities to think for themselves is effectively disarmed in this way. Instead, they will think more and more as the rest of the group thinks.
- Take a look at the way the group looks and acts. Does everyone dress more or less the same, act the same, and talk the same? One observer, speaking of his particular involvement with a cult, said that the group encouraged its members “to do everything in exactly the same way - to pray the same, to look the same, to talk the same. This in psychology is a classic example of group conformity. Its purpose is to ensure that no-one tries to act differently or become dissident, thus nobody questions the status quo.” (Andrew Hart, Jan. 1999).
- Does the group discourage association with non-members (except, maybe, for the possibility of converting them to the group)?
- Does the pastor give you ‘black and white answers’? What the pastor agrees with is right and what the pastor disagrees with is wrong.
- Does everyone in the group believe exactly the same things (i.e. what the group leaders tell them to believe)?
- Is there no room for individual belief, or opinion even in minor areas?
- Does the group wear ‘two faces’? On the one hand, does it attempt to present itself, to potential converts and the public at large, as a group of people who are like one large family, who have love among themselves, where everyone is equal? But on the other hand, the reality is, that many members inwardly feel unfulfilled and emotionally exhausted?
- Have you attempted to disable your own God-given critical thinking abilities by ‘shelving’ various doubts about the pastor or group’s teachings etc.
- Are others in the group, who do not conform to the requirements of the movement’s teaching, treated with suspicion, and treated like second class members?
- Does the group tend to withhold certain information from the potential convert? Are the more unusual doctrines of the group not discussed until an individual is more deeply involved in the movement?
- Do you feel fearful of leaving the group? Many cults use subtle fear tactics to stop members from leaving. For example, the group may imply that those who leave will be attacked by the Devil, have a nasty accident, or at least not prosper because they have left ‘the truth’
1. “Hears” God for you. God apparently “goes through” him/her to speak to you.
2. Alienates (shuns, ignores) you if you do not adhere to his/her guidance, leadership, or authority.
3. Suggests that rejection of his/her “higher understanding” is done so at your spiritual or even physical peril.
4. Rewards your obedience with inclusion, and punishes your questioning or resistance with withdrawal.
Church Abuse.com features a short checklist to help you determine whether your group or church is abusive or not. There are many such checklists online and they are all a little different. Some emphasize certain abusive behaviors and not others, while others will emphasize a different set of abusive traits. Abusive churches come in many varieties and will not likely match up exactly to any of these checklists. Still, they are helpful because they show that these behaviors are common.
Thugs in the Pulpit Are you, yourself, an abusive pastor or church leader?
This article by Richard Dobbins in ministrytodaymag.com includes a list of indicators that one might be a spiritually abusive pastor. Scroll down to the Looking Inside section. Some items include the following:
- I see myself as someone "special" who can only be understood by other "special" or high-status people.
- I require excessive admiration and feel entitled to special treatment.
- Others are expected to automatically comply with my expectations.
- I am preoccupied with unjustified doubts about the loyalty or trustworthiness of friends and associates.
- I fear confiding in people since they may maliciously use any information I give them to do me harm.
- I read demeaning or threatening meanings into innocent remarks.
- I bear grudges and am unforgiving of others I feel have harmed me.
- I am quick to perceive attacks on my character or reputation that are not apparent to others and react angrily or counterattack.
- I am uncomfortable in situations where I am not the center of attention.
Although specifically for Reformed Baptists, some of these traits of abuse may seem familiar to others as well. From the Wicked Shepherds site is this checklist of spiritually abusive acts. Included are these items:
•Does your church tightly control the flow of information within its ranks?
•Does the head of your church, along with the other “leaders”, use public shaming as a method to gain the compliance of followers?
•Does the head of your church and his “fellow elders” appear to be intolerant or consider it evil persecution when criticized or questioned?
•Are you discouraged to associate with former members, being warned that they are "evil" or "defiling"; a “danger to your spiritual welfare”?
•Is leaving your church to join another church that “is not approved by your elders” equal to leaving God?
•Do you fear being rebuked, shunned, or ignored for expressing a different opinion?
•Is there a relentless obsession of reminding the sheep of “who’s in authority”?
There are many more questions in the survey, and you may want to check it out.
Is your pastor a serial bully? A long checklist is available at Because It Matters blog. An excerpt:
•is self-opinionated and displays arrogance, audacity, a superior sense of entitlement and sense of invulnerability and untouchability
•has a deep-seated *contempt of clients* in contrast to his or her professed compassion
•is a *control freak* and has a *compulsive need to control everyone and everything you say, do, think and believe; for example, will launch an immediate personal attack attempting to restrict what you are permitted to say if you start talking knowledgeably about psychopathic personality or antisocial personality disorder in their presence - but aggressively maintains the right to talk (usually unknowledgeably) about anything they choose; serial bullies despise anyone who enables others to see through their deception and their mask of sanity
•displays a *compulsive need to criticise* whilst simultaneously refusing to value, praise and acknowledge others, their achievements, or their existence
• shows a lack of joined-up thinking with conversation that doesn’t flow and arguments that don’t hold water
•flits from topic to topic so that you come away feeling you’ve never had a proper conversation
Resources that explore the mechanism of spiritual abuse:
Warning Signs is cult expert Rick Ross's list of things to look for, not just in a potential cult leader, but in those who are followers of cult leaders -- and also what to look for in a safe group. This is an essential list for anyone looking to attend a new church because you never know at first what kind of group you may be joining. At first, spiritually abusive groups often bombard new members or attendees with love and care. Some warning signs of abusive leaders:
- Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability
- no tolerance for questions or critical inquiry
- unrealistic fears about the outside world
- the leader always needing to be right.
- Leader criticism is characterized as "persecution"
- extreme obsessiveness toward leader or group, resulting in the exclusion of every practical concern
- a dramatic loss of spontaneity and sense of humor
- former followers are, at best, considered negatively, and at worst considered evil
- anything the leader does can be justified, no matter how harsh or harmful.
What did you spend your time on this week with regards to the group?
Did you really want to do it, or did you do it only because you were told to do it?
Did you "filter" anything from a higher-up to a subordinate?
Do you see problems with the system?
Do you have any way to bring these up and have them taken seriously?
Do you find yourself making statements and positions of the leadership more palatable for others?
Do you really want others to have what you have concerning your church?
On another page of Barnabas Ministry , called Uncovering and Facing Spiritual Abuse, is an account of an abusive situation that may not at first be recognized as abusive.
Battered Sheep Ministries: This wonderful site changed and there are only broken links. However, I've restored the following links to articles that were also found elsewhere. This page provides links to various articles on the topic of spiritual abuse. Titles include these and many more: Abuse of Authority in the Church; The Bible and Spiritual Abuse; Is Your Church Free from Cultic Tendencies? and many other great resources.
For the most extreme groups, this site might be helpful. Spiritual Abuse Questionnaire lists so many extreme behaviors that the group would have to be off the charts if it had all these problems. A church could display a tenth of these and still be very abusive. If you find yourself answering YES to many of these, you might want to make a dash for the hills.
Rest Ministries Unfortunately, this site died when Geocities closed in October. This was a sad development. I have preserved some of what was there on this link. It's too bad the site disappeared, though, because the pages on manipulation and authoritarianism were excellent. Ron Henzel is still around and writing on other topics, but maybe he will post his great insights on spiritual abuse on another site and oblige those who profited from his analysis on spiritual abuse.
Voices from the Fringe is a good place to see what kinds of extremes spiritual abuse can lead to. Ron Enroth, author of Churches that Abuse (see below in book section) writes about different techniques abusive groups use and what the result is. Enroth lists the common threads he finds in these groups:
- An emphasis on spiritual experiences
- An increased focus on the role of demons
- A large proportion of members with personal, emotional, and dependency needs
- A teaching emphasis on attitudinal sins (such as rebelliousness, lack of submission, pride, and self-centeredness)
- An unhealthy dependence on those in authority
- Few checks and balances
- Minimal leadership accountability
- A defensiveness that results in intolerance of member-critics
- Scripture twisting
- Controlling leader or leadership
- Separation or isolation of members
- The chosen few (spiritual elitism)
- Uniformity of lifestyle
- No dissent
- Traumatic departure
- In transition (to a less healthy system)
- Deceptive recruiting practices.
- Dynamic and authoritarian leadership.
- Alienation from family and friends.
- Induced fatigue.
- Sanction oriented.
- Doctrine in flux/ false prophesies.
- Mind control.
A review of the book Captive Hearts, Captive Minds by Madeleine Landau Tobias and Janja Lalich includes some interesing headings: The Master Manipulator, Demystifying the Guru's power (why do we assign such power to these mere men and women?) and The Authoritarian Power Dynamic
Spiritual Abuse by Scott Nicloy, a Salvation Army counselor. This article explores reasons behind spiritual abuse and the sometimes unintended nature of it. It also includes something on former alcoholics who become spiritually abusive pastors, an angle I had not seen before. Nicloy talks about black and white thinking, zealotry, power hunger, perfectionism, isolationism and other signs of an abusive church.
Narcissism in the Pulpit, includes a wealth of good information about what's behind a leader's need to control abusively. (The spooky, medieval background template behind this page is annoying as anything, but I found that cutting and pasting into a Word file is helpful, and the information is worth the trouble.)
The site uses a World Health Organization definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder: “Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a disorder in which a person has a grandiose self-importance, preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, a driven desire for attention and admiration, an intolerance of criticism, and disturbed self-centered interpersonal relations..."
Authoritarian pastors may be driven by a personality disorder like this one. Knowing what to expect and how manipulation works can be quite helpful, especially for those still enmeshed in an abusive situation. Five of nine listed criteria must be met for someone to be categorized as a clinical narcissist. Among them: obsessed with fantasies of unlimited success, interpersonally exploitive, sense of entitlement, firmly convinced of own uniqueness and specialness...
As long as we're talking psychology, another site mentions the covert-aggressive personality. Off a link at Under Much Grace blog is this article from a book called In Sheep's Clothing by George Simon, Jr. on tactics of manipulation. The excerpt is on Abusive, Manipulative Relationships and includes tactics such as these: evasion, covert intimidation, projecting blame, minimalization, vilifying the victim, playing the servant role, brandishing anger and more. Well worth investigating if it sounds like your pastor.
An Australian site called Clare's Blog: Clergy Abuse Australia, (also drawing on The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse) sums up spiritual abuse nicely for any spiritually abusive situation, in Australia or anywhere else.
Many abusive pastors use flattery to manipulate. This article from Wittenberg Gate explores the danger of flattery.
When pastors come between man and wife there is trouble. This article, A Word to the Wives, found on the Wicked Shepherds site, explores the dangers when church leaders interfere in a marriage.
What god are you worshiping in a spiritually abusive church? That is the question Dale Ryan seeks to answer in his article: If your god is not God, fire him. Highlights:
Let me be clear about this. The god who is quick to anger and slow to forgive is not a “distorted image of God.” It is the opposite of God. It’s the wrong god. It’s not God at all. It’s not that I was looking in the right direction but just couldn’t see clearly. I was looking in the wrong direction entirely. It was the wrong god. There is, of course, a whole pantheon of not-Gods. Take your pick:
The angry, abusive god
The abandoning god
The inattentive god
The impotent god
The shaming god
Apologetics Index quotes Ken Blue in an explanation on why devoted Christians fall into submission to cultic and manipulative leaders on its new introduction page, How to recognize and deal with spiritual abuse.
This brief and clearly organized article from Australia in pdf format called The Insidious Harm of Spiritual Abuse cuts to the heart of the matter and discusses the four "rules" of spiritual abuse: Don't trust, Don't think, Don't talk and Don't question. Graham Barker, the author, also provides several short case studies.
Does your pastor pretend he "knows your heart"? This article, by churchabuse.com, shows that the little mind tricks your pastor plays on you are not much different from occultic practices. Divination - Is it Real or Fake? shows how easy it is not to let abusive pastors have power over you in this way.
Common Characteristics of How Cults Operate: Decent list that pinpoints techniques that cults, and controlling churches, use to capture and keep followers. Here is a sample: Intimidation and accusation are the most often used. For example, any questioning of authority is treated as rebellion, and not trusting. They suppress questions and conform to the group’s behavior. They Discourage Critical or Rational Thought and Questions. They will reply with comments like, "Satan is the cause of all doubt; he is keeping you from the Truth," or it will take time to understand the deep things of God. Critical thinking is discouraged being called prideful or sinful or rebellious. No independent thinking is encouraged.
Con Artist Pastors? The Persecutors is a series on the African Bereans blog (see below in blog section). It looks at many different aspects of abusive leaders and their helpers. In Part 12 of the series, blogger and minister Chris Efinda explores the covetous abusive leader. Here are some excerpts:
Con artists share these traits:
- tend to be excellent conversationalists
- exploit our human weaknesses like greed, dishonesty, vanity, compassion or just a naïve expectation of good faith
- are psychopaths with antisocial personality disorder, or ASP, that begins in early childhood or adolescence.
- are often witty and articulate. When they get to the pulpits, they can be very effective in presenting themselves well and are often very likable and charming, but in relationships they are very controlling, self-serving, and irresponsible.
- look good on the outside, but an ulterior motive lurks on the inside.
- see themselves as victims rather than those they hurt.
- claim a special anointing. They believe they are special and entitled to special behavior; rules that apply to others do not apply to them.
- display their own brand of logic and an excuse for everything.
- appear to be very giving, but there is always a price to pay for their attention.
- can apologize easily, but there is no sign of true repentance.
- don't feel love or guilt; tend to minimize the pain of those they have hurt.
- discredit their accusers when they are confronted.
- cope by making themselves the hero in the worst situations.
- are clever, and often able to keep from being caught.
- have extreme shifts in personality, may be kind and sarcastic in the same instant.
- are very needy, and blame others for not being able to meet their needs.
Here are some disturbing patterns that believers will also do good to watch for:
- Con artists, in the clergy, play with our inner beliefs or ignorance.
- Con artist pastors focus on mind control. They want to create “dumb sheep”. They specialize in teaching people what to think. They condemn, ridicule, or get rid of those who have an “independent spirit”. They label or use character assassination on those who refuse to go along.
- Con artists pastors don’t operate alone, they hide behind “shills” or “co-conspirators”. They usually find someone that the members know and respect for his/her integrity to give their message a high level of credibility. By so doing, the credibility of the speaker will dispel any hidden agenda.
- Con artists pastors ask for trust just because “I am the pastor”. They just adore their titles of “pastors”. Jesus said about them: “They love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have people call them Rabbi (Mat 23:7). Most church goers will not question the credibility of a “mfundisi” or pastor.
- Con artists pastors tend to ignore the evidence by simply discarding the truth as “a devil scheme”.
- Con artists pastors create a problem, and then pursue (refuse?) to offer a solution. By so doing, chaos, confusion, grief, misery and all the related negative emotions, conditions and circumstances are at play to manipulate people to make choices that under other circumstances they would never consider.
- Con artists pastors use guilt projection and condemnation to induce “spiritual conversion”.
- Con artists pastors set up a secret language. They use “hinting” to manipulate people into giving them their resources; they give ambiguous orders so that if anything backfires they could safely deny it, then reject the responsibility and the blame on some one else.
- Con artists pastors are easily offended. When they are caught in an unethical action, they often feign offence, or become dramatic. This tactic will often put the accuser on the defensive and derail the confrontation.
- Con artists pastors are capable of the unthinkable to muzzle the truth.“But evil people and phony preachers will go from bad to worse as they mislead people and are themselves misled.” [2Ti 3:13]
There is a simple way to prevent self from being a victim: “Ask questions, ask the “pastor” to show you his claims in the scripture, then get another opinion and/or search for yourself.”
Any good pastor will welcome reasonable questions or bona fide fact finding, and will not urge anyone to take a quick decision.
Con artist pastors just hate confrontation; they will get rid of you as soon as you become too inquisitive. If you have fallen prey to a con artist pastor, don’t let the guilt and the shame overpower you. Rather run to the cross, plead the blood of Christ, repent and receive His grace, forgive the persecutor to kill any root of bitterness, revoke and cancel any allegiance you pledge with the persecutor and then cast out the devil and his hosts in the name of Jesus Christ.
It might also be useful to seek counseling and deliverance from a reputable ministry or therapist.
The con artists in the clergy are usually "too smart by half." Eventually, their lies catch up with them. They are forced to cover lies with more lies. When it gets to be too much to believe, others begin to feel betrayed, or used.“Make no mistake about this: You can never make a fool out of God. Whatever you plant is what you'll harvest.” [Gal 6:7]
Another site that shows the techniques abusers use, and compares them to mind control techniques used on prisoners of war is this from Margaret Singer's 6 Conditions for Thought Reform listed on the web site Refocus.
When has Authority Gone Too Far? This article, also a Battered Sheep contribution, highlights the unhealthy way we've turned pastors to gods. It includes a list of 11 marks of perverted authority:
- The claim of direct authority from God, rather than testing things by the Word
- The command is to "submit to me," rather than "I will serve you"
- The method of leadership is to "order" people around, rather than to appeal for them to do the right things
- There is a dominating, "pushy" drive instead of a dependence on God to direct
- There is a sense of control, rather than a sense of support
- A gift is exploited so that others are made to feel dependent on it
- There is an inflexibility--"don't question me"--"don't touch the Lord's anointed"
- There is unapproachability and intimidation--the "aura" around the leader keeps the followers in "awe"
- There emerges an organization built around a man and his peculiar emphases instead of around Christ and His Word
- There will be cyclical challenges to the authority figure (which are immediately and forcefully purged)
- There is more concern for maintaining the authoritarian structure than there is for caring about the people in it.
Also, on that site was this very insightful list of common excuses people give for their abusive pastors and church leaders:
- a) They aren’t like that all the time
- b) They are only like that with you
- c) They didn’t really mean it
- d) You don’t really understand them
- e) You are just being difficult
- f) You must have a problem with them (do you think?)
- g) That’s just the way they are
- h) They are just very passionate about their work
- will often manipulate minor bullies... into acting as agents of harassment and as unwitting or unwilling conductors of vendettas
- is adept at placing people in situations where the sociopath can tap into each person's instinctive urge to retaliate in order to use them as his or her instruments or agents of harassment
- gains gratification from provoking others into engaging in adversarial conflict
- once conflict has been initiated, the sociopath gains increased gratification by exploiting human beings' instinctive need to retaliate - this is achieved by encouraging and escalating peoples' adversarial conflicts into mutually assured destruction
- revels in the gratification gained from seeing or causing other people's distress
- when faced with accountability or unwelcome attention which might lead to others discerning the sociopath's true nature, responds with repeated and escalating attempts to control, manipulate and punish
- is adept at reflecting all accusations and attempts at accountability back onto accusers
- is adept at creating conflict between those who would otherwise pool negative information about the sociopath
Resources that focus on the spiritual side of abuse:
The Bible and Spiritual Abuse is helpful for those so convinced their abusive leader or group is true to scripture that they won't listen to their own conscience or pleadings of concerned friends and relatives. For those suspicious of human reason alone, this combines reason with a healthy dose of scripture that points out that today's abusers are more like Pharisees than like Jesus. Those who won't listen to "worldly" articles might take a look at this because it is grounded in scripture. Henzel is very convincing in his Bible-based reasoning.
Antidotes to Spiritual Abuse This site offers a list of common statements found in spiritually abusive groups and confronts each of them with a scripture or two very apt for rebuttal. A nice, clearly organized post.
Stop Spiritual Abuse contains an abundance of articles that challenge abusive systems. Are pastors more anointed? This article by John R. Anderson corrects a basic misunderstanding and reminds readers of the "priesthood of all believers" mentioned in Revelation 1:6. After reading this, you'll realize how absurd it is to take certain Biblical passages the way abusive pastors use them.Other headings include these: Christians criticizing Christians: Is it biblical?; Unlimited authority from Twisted Scriptures by Mary Alice Chrnalogar; Beyond Accountibility from the same author; and a whole lot of others.
Matthew 18: What does it really say? This article, Principles not Procedure: How to Deal with Corrupt Church Leadership, by Kevin Johnson on a site called Prophezei, looks at the context of Matthew 18 and makes the case that sometimes, the best option is to simply leave.
If people are saved at my church, how can it be spiritually abusive? This article from truthguard.com points out that God can work in the darkest places, and that just because God works somewhere doesn't mean it has His stamp of approval.
Wicked Shepherds site chronicles the particular abuse pertaining to Reformed Baptists. In this group, elders sometimes pit spouses against each other to make the "rebellious" one submit to the leadership. The interference by church leaders into the marriage relationship is horrendous. Some of the spiritual advice on this site -- although tailored to Reformed Baptists -- is helpful for other groups as well.
Also from Wicked Shepherds is this article entitled: When Should a Christian Leave a Church? Again, this analysis is tailored to Reformed Baptists, but many points in the article could apply to people in other groups as well. Some excerpts:
There are only two options for you if you are sitting under a ministry like that ... One, you can stay in that church. However, you will have to shut up and obey the "duly authorized eldership" and totally dry up spiritually. You will be sinning against Christ by allowing your pastor to be the Lord of your conscience -- and believe me, that is a grave sin!
If you stay under such a ministry very long you cannot help but yield your conscience to the leader.
However, the moment you do that you will begin to live in fear of that leader and his authority over your soul. When you reach that point, you are actually part of a cult and you have totally given up your true liberty in Christ. You will be afraid to even think for yourself, let alone speak and act that way.
Unfortunately, there are some churches that actually demand that kind of submission from you in order for you to be a member in their church, or cult, as the case may be.
They will bounce you in and out of membership according to your "rebellion" (questioning anything the elder says or does) or "repentance" (treating the pastor like a pope). Some poor souls have been in and out of church membership many times at the whim of the preacher.
These kind of churches use the office of elder and deacon as a carrot stick to award the "really loyal devotees."
Attacking Men of God? is an article listing the main arguments of abusive leaders when they are under attack. If you have ever questioned an abusive leader, you have probably already heard these questions, as they turn the tables against you.
Accountability in the Bible Abusive churches and leaders often have a skewed view of accountability. While the peons (you) are held accountable to a human shepherd (them) often they are not held accountable to anyone. How did authority and accountability work in the New Testament?
This site from ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association) lays out the scriptural framework and points out the trouble with churches and groups that abuse people's willingness to be held accountable. Another work bu the same author is this one on why Evangelicals are vulnerable to cultic influence.
Is submission to church leaders necessary for spiritual protection? This site, part of a larger site called Covering and Authority, provides a very clear response to the issue of "covering" in churches. It shows how recent a doctrine this is and points out the logical fallacies of the practice.
A brief reminder of what the Bible says about spiritual abuse I Peter 5:3: a page full of this verse in different translations, as well as commentary excerpts.
If you don't like it, why don't you just leave? This question is addressed by a group of former SGM members (SGM Survivors) who get that question frequently, as do many who point out spiritually abusive practices in other denominations or movements.
Resources that deal with recovery from spiritual abuse:
Walking Away from Spiritual Abuse, also by churchabuse.com, discusses the difficulties of leaving and of not leaving abusive groups. To someone never involved with cult-like churches, it might seem like a no-brainer. You just leave! But anyone even peripherally involved with such a group, and all the manipulative tactics used to get you deep into the tentacles of the organization, knows it's not that easy. You might have friends and family still in it, you've associated your walk with God with the group so much that sometimes it seems that walking away is the same as walking away from God. This resource is helpful not only for those needing to find a way out, but for anyone who suspects their group might be an abusive one.
Abusive Churches: Leaving them Behind Also from Battered Sheep (the original site seems to be no longer in service but Probe Ministries has this page), this article not only describes the painful exit process worshipers endure, but it also includes a good list of traits to look for in a church to indicate an abusive or healthy nature. Under the header Discerning Good from Abusive, Pat Zukeran includes these things to look for:
- Does the leadership invite dialogue, advice, evaluation, and questions?
- Is there a system of accountability or does the pastor keep full control?
- Does a member's personality generally become stronger, happier, and more confident as a result of being with the group?
- Are family commitments strengthened? Or are church obligations valued more than family ones?
- Does the group encourage independent thinking, development of discernment skills, and creation of new ideas?
- Is the group preoccupied with maintaining a good public image that does not match the inner circle experience?
- Does the leadership encourage members to foster relations and connections with the larger society that are more than self-serving?
- Is there a high rate of burnout among the members?
- flashbacks to cult life
- disassociation (spacing out) feeling “out of it”
- “Stockholm Syndrome”: knee-jerk impulses to defend the cult when it is criticized, even if the cult hurt the person
- difficulty concentrating
- hostility reactions, either toward anyone who criticizes the cult, or the cult itself
- dread of running into a current cult-member by mistake loss of a sense of how to carry out simple tasks
- dread of being cursed or condemned by the cult hang-overs of habitual cult behaviors like chanting
- trouble holding down a job
Kira Love Counseling Services Kira, a former spiritual abuse victim and now a counselor, will provide counseling sessions, in some cases by telephone.
Kira has a Masters of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy from Seattle Pacific University, with a focus on individual and couples’ work. She also earned a B.S. in Organizational Behavior at Seattle Pacific University. She is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC), and she is accountable to the ethical codes of both the AACC and the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). This information was taken from her site. She also says this:
I counsel individuals, couples and families from a systemic, holistic lens, treating many disorders, issues, and life struggles, with a focus on: ~ complex and/or post traumatic stress disorders ~ childhood neglect and abandonment ~ insecure attachment styles and reparation ~ trauma and abuse (including spiritual/clergy and professional abuse) ~ grief and loss ~ depression and anxiety ~ relationship betrayal and crisis ~ pre-marital ~ drug, alcohol and food addictions ~ life transition and personal growth. You can find more information on her site linked above.
Knapp Family Counseling
According to the web site, John M. Knapp, LMSW is a counselor, therapist, cult recovery expert, consultant, and speaker. He has counseled over 2,000 former cult members in the last 13 years. He founded three web sites well known in cult recovery: TranceNet.net, TMFree.blogspot.com, and KnappFamilyCounseling.com.
Knapp claims to have been a member of an Eastern Meditation Cult and he says that he brings a wealth of experience, expertise, and first-hand stories to the study of cults, gangs, and high-intensity domestic abuse relationships. For someone caught in an eastern cult, especially, his services could be helpful. There is nothing on his site (that I saw) indicating current Christian faith, so if that is a concern for you, you might want to ask about it.
Knapp does seem to be transparent and provides a list of fees on his site and mentions a free initial consultation.
Also at Barnabas Ministry is a book review of Ken Blue's Healing Spiritual Abuse: How to Break Free from Bad Church Experiences. Though I haven't yet read the book, it looks like a fabulous resource. One passage quoted in the review is this:
The second classic type of spiritual abuser is the heroic, grandiose or messianic narcissist who is obsessed by a desire to be someone great or to do something unprecedented for God. Carrying out this fantasy requires the cooperation of others and access to their money. Like the first type, this leader may not consciously wish to hurt anyone; but others are hurt as they are used for the leader's and God's "higher purposes (p. 111)." In order to achieve the public support they need, these leaders make extraordinary claims for themselves or have others make them in their behalf. Such claims may include a special anointing, unusual personal sacrifice, unprecedented encounters with God, unique training, a singular teaching or leadership gift, a revelation of truth that is not available to others, or secret knowledge of God's end-times purposes. These and other claims imply that God has a special calling on this leader, and so it is the "unspecial" people's duty to admire and follow him, which they often do in droves (p. 113).
Recovery from Spiritual Abuse is one of the few sites I've seen that directly address how to treat someone newly out of a spiritually abusive group. Though the site stresses recovery, its list of statements (for reconciling "outcasts" to God's people) is helpful even for grappling with the whole spiritual abuse issue. It kind of reminds the deceived of things they used to know but may have been brainwashed to forget:
- Leaders are not more favored by God over others in the church.
- All struggle spiritually, even leaders.
- All are in various stages of growth (no instant spirituality).
- All make mistakes, none is infallible.
- All can learn to hear God’s voice for themselves - no need to remain spiritual children who must submit to parental leaders.
- All need each other - none is needless.
- All have something to give and are valuable to God.
- All leaders and lay persons—are called to live by the same standards.
- All need to have their own relationship with God apart from the involvement of other believers—including spouses.
- The church is not just one building or one gathering, but believers everywhere.
Being told to just get over it and move on? This article, by churchabuse.com, is helpful for those under condemnation for not recovering fast enough. Being Told to "Get Over It and Just Move On" is concise but useful. You had enough shame dumped on you by your abuser. You don't need more from your friends.
Ten Characteristics of Abused and Wounded Christians, from Restoring the Heart blog, summarizes aftereffects of spiritual abuse mentioned in VanVonderan and Johnson's The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.
Best books on spiritual abuse:
The Heresy of Mind Control is a free online book that offers THE most detailed treatment of the subject of spiritual abuse available online, as far as I know. The author, Stephen Martin, goes into great detail and provides cogent analysis of the methods abusers use to control the flock. It is in a PDF format and is 167 pages, but it's well worth reading every page. Some of the chapter titles include the following: Milieu Control, Mystical Manipulation, The Demand for Purity, The Cult of Confession, (Thou shalt not Question) The Sacred Silence, Loading the Language, Doctrine over Person, Dispensing of Existence, From Control to Freedom. To open the book, you need to click the link at the bottom of the page. For a nice, clear table of contents, you can take a preview on the Freedom4captives site.
Churches that Abuse This is now an online book (free), and it is the standard, the classic, on spiritual abuse. Ron Enroth, a California sociologist, examines in detail different traits of abuse and gives examples of some individual cases of Bible-believing churches exhibiting each trait. For those who think cultish practices only exist when non-trinitarian doctrine is present, this book should present a challenge. Churches that Abuse is important because Enroth shows that the distinction between cults (that many define as groups having serious doctrinal error) and spiritually abusive groups (holding an orthodox belief system) is minimal. Is it that big a deal that the doctrine is OK if the behavior is abusive? It isn't really out-of-line to view abusive groups, even with spotless statements of faith, as you would cults.
Many sources on spiritual abuse cite Jeff VanVonderen and David Johnson's book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. It is a groundbreaking work and is still popular today. Some say that these authors were the first to coin the term "spiritual abuse." This review provides a detached, analytical view of some kinds of spiritual abuse. The most helpful parts to me are those discussing the abusive pastor's emphasis on his own authority - called here "power posturing" - and on the Can't Talk rule. A more inclusive summary of the book, and very good checklist is here.
Spiritual abuse occurs when shame is “used in an attempt to get someone to support a belief, or…to fend off legitimate questions”. (p.22) “In a place where authority is grasped and legislated, not simply demonstrated, persecution sensitivity builds a case for keeping everything within the system. Why? Because of the evil, dangerous, or unspiritual people outside of the system who are trying to weaken or destroy ‘us’. This mentality builds a strong wall or bunker around the abusive system, isolates the abusers from scrutiny and accountability, and makes it more difficult for people to leave—because they will be outsiders, too.” (p.73)
This review of the book Toxic Faith (by Stephen Arteburn and Jack Felton) is worth a look. Heavy on psychological theory, it still contains some valuable insights.
You can always find groups and individuals trying to benefit from the misfortunes of others and even on this topic you will find folks promoting products, techniques and teachings for sale to help you in one way or another. Even so, sometimes their materials are insightful.
Many readers will no doubt shrink from the anti-Charismatic nature of a book by a Steven Lambert, ThD, mentioned on a site called "Real Truth" (Can there be a fake truth?) Nevertheless, some of the items Lambert provides on his site called Signs of Spiritual Abuse are worth considering. He lists 33 signs on his site, but I'll just list a handful:
- Apotheosis of the leadership — exalting them to God-like status in and over the group
- absolute authority of the leadership
- No real accountability of the leadership to the corporate body
- Pervasive abuse and misuse of authority in personal dealings with members
- Paranoia and insecurity by the leaders
- Abuse, misuse, and inordinate incidence of "church discipline"
- Doctrinal demeanment and devaluation — the requisite of espousing and teaching "sound doctrine" is demeaned and devalued
- Theological incompetency by the leadership, especially with respect to the rules of hermeneutics and Bible exegesis employed in the formulation of doctrine, giving license to twisting and adulteration of Scripture in order to provide proof-texts for unorthodox and invented doctrines
- Spiritualism, mysticism, and unproven doctrines
- De facto legalism, or works mentality, and its resulting loss of the "joy of salvation," though "freedom" is forever preached from the pulpit and the church is constantly touted as being a "safe church" by the leadership
- Isolationism — corporate and individual, especially with respect to exposure to outside ministry sources
- Devaluation, suppression, and non-recognition of members' bona fide God-given talents, abilities, gifts, callings, and anointing, as a means of subjugation
- Constant indoctrination with a "group" or "family" mentality that impels members to exalt the corporate "life" and goals of the church-group over their personal goals, callings, and objectives
- Members are psychologically traumatized and indoctrinated with numerous improper fears and phobias aimed at keeping them reeling in diffidence and an over-dependence or co-dependence on their leaders and the corporate group
- Corporately, there eventually develops an inordinately high incidence of financial, marital, moral, psychological, mental, emotional, and medical problems, including sudden deaths and contraction of "incurable" and "unknown" diseases
- Lack of true personal spiritual growth and development, especially in terms of genuine faith and experiencing the abounding grace, forgiveness, goodness, blessings, kindness, and agape-love of God
- Members departing without the prior permission and blessing of the leadership leave the group under a cloud of manufactured suspicion, shame, and slander
- Horror stories frequently told by leaders about individuals or families who left the group without the prior permission and blessing of the leadership, and the terrible consequences and curses they suffered as a result
- Departing members often suffer from various psychological problems and display the classic symptoms associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Not of My Making by Margaret Jones tells of a woman who endured a series of abusive situations including those in two churches. The author's interview with Provender is here.
People of the Lie, by Scott Peck includes helpful insights on different aspects of "evil people" including those responsible for spiritual abuse.
Best blogs on spiritual abuse:
A well-designed and aesthetically creative blog on the topic is this one, called The Cult Next Door: Spiritual Abuse in Plain Sight. The blogger came from an extremely controlling church and her story will chill you to the bone.
Another blog with a panoply of resources
Under Much Grace is frequently updated and lists many helpful observations about spiritual abuse. Some of the articles it links to include titles such as these: Why doctrinal statements tell you nothing of the unwritten rules of manipulative groups; Thought reform and Lifton 101; The elements of spiritual abuse; cult leaders and con artists; Why it's so hard to leave an abusive situation. The analysis in some of these articles is very enlightening and helpful. Also, it now lists clear links to good sources. Information in the sidebar is often even more engaging than information in the main posts. It is a must-read site.
One of the best restatements of the thought of a person tempted to get involved in an authoritarian church is this from Spiritual Authority Weirdness on Thinking about it all blog: Hmm, God is really big on authority. I better really submit to Spiritual Leader X. There might be some times where I want more clarification... or even disagree, but I don’t want to even approach rebellion. I don’t want to rock the boat, I think I’ll just keep it to myself. It’s probably better that way because God will bless me if I submit to a leader, even if they are wrong or being abusive to me. I mean, look at Saul and David. Saul was trying to kill David and David submitted. I love God and I better submit, too. That really is how it happens. You want to do the right thing but fall into the poisonous thing.
From Set Free on What Really Matters blog is this perspective on the gains you can experience if you leave an abusive group: Here are some strengths I have noticed that develop in people when they leave controlling churches:
- Greater compassion and empathy towards others
- Analytical thinking (You think deeply about core concerns. From this point forward you will exercise keen judgment and discernment so you will never find yourself in the same situation again.)
- Greater level of honesty and trustworthiness (You are so disgusted at the lies, fraud, dishonesty, and even criminality that went on, it makes you resolve yourself to live in a higher degree of honor and trustworthiness. You don’t want to be anything like your former leaders.)
- Social/community activism (You are so tired of looking inward and catering to the needs of selfish leaders, you become extremely enthusiastic about reaching out and serving others.)
- Fearlessness (You have given into a bully for so long, it’s time to stand up for yourself and take a new direction. You decide no one is going to control you or stand in your way! You also decide to step out and go after your dreams.)
- Gratitude (You are so glad to be free from the control, manipulation, and harsh judgment you were under, you become more thankful even for the little things in life.)
- Inquisitiveness and curiosity (You realize it’s okay to question anything!)
- Sense of direction and purpose
- Ability to show emotion
- Ability to be yourself
- Ability to find meaning in adversity
- Ability to cope with difficulties (After all that you experienced and dealt with in a controlling church, handling the normal strains of everyday life seem like nothing. If you have survived a controlling, abusive situation, you can survive just about anything!)
A good blog on cult involvement is VM Life Resources. This one emphasizes recovery and is directed at the hardcore cult experience. It includes resources for identifying spiritual abuse and articles on cults. The blogger also has written a book entitled I Can't Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult that chronicles her time with an organization that seemed healthy but wasn't. Not sure what the VM stands for, but the site provides lots of good information, both for escapees and the curious.
For something a little different, the Wartburg Watch is a new site that chronicles spiritually abusive situations in churches, with an emphasis on warnings against bloggers.
A blog with tremendously astute insights into spiritual abuse called The Bereans discusses many aspects of church leaders gone wrong. A post called The Enablers or the Persecutor's Last Line of Defense looks at those middle men or yes-men, the defenders of abusive pastors and their role in the church. Very eye-opening. I believe this blog may be from South Africa.
God and Family: Exploring the Dynamics of Family Cults This site examines experiences of people who grew up in a family operating under the apparatus of spiritual abuse and other kinds of abuses. Though it is unique because it focuses not on church groups but family cults, it has excellent links and lists of spiritual abuse characteristics. In fact, it includes more of these spiritual abuse checklists or trait lists than I have seen before in one place. Well worth visiting.
The Word on The Word of Faith. This is somewhat dated, from 1991, but spiritual abuse doesn't change all that much, does it?
Messy Christian is an interesting blog from Malaysia with keen understanding of injury to abusers and spiritual recovery.
VIDEO RESOURCES ON SPIRITUAL ABUSE
These links are to video presentations by Jeff VanVonderen, co-author of the groundbreaking work The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. Titles include these: The Abusive Religious System and How We Get Hooked. These videos are hosted on the National Association for Christian Recovery site.
Silly Women: This is more audio than visual, but a different take on women victims of spiritual abusers - abusers who creep into houses and take silly women captive through spiritually abusive practices.
Toxic Faith: Surviving Spiritual Abuse. Dr. Stephen Arteburn provides a 2-part series on spiritual abuse