Spiritual Abuse and
Why These People
Left Their Churches
The fact that people are leaving their home church has drawn the attention of many church practitioners, theologians, researchers, and Christians in general. There have been many ways suggested to welcome people into a church community as well as to retain them in that church family. What may be lacking is a more complete understanding why people are leaving and for what specific reasons.
There have always been a number of reasons why people choose to leave their church. Unfortunately, there are many people who have been put in the precarious position that they have to exit from their home church. These reasons need to be explored more fully. The reasons that these people give need to be listened to more intently.
One of the main reasons that needs to be factored into the whole is the issue of spiritual abuse. The question is: Has this negative dynamic been considered as much as it should be? When it is felt that spiritual abuse only occurs in marginal cult-like groups, then there is less awareness about this recurring church problem.
I get regular emails from people looking for assistance after they have realized that their church is unhealthy, that is, toxic and that they must make the inevitable decision to leave. Church exiting for them is now a harsh reality.
One of the questions that I asked participants in my study to describe was: What factors influenced your decision to leave your home church?
As we consider ‘why’ people have left their home church in the context of their experience with spiritual abuse, then we can get a grasp on the dynamics that took place while they attended that community. From these reports, we can observe, consider, and draw some reasonable conclusions.
As stated in many ways before: People who leave churches because of spiritual abuse are in a distinct category from those individuals who might be classed as troublesome people in churches.
It is important to break down stereotypes of what some church leaders think are the contributing factors to the ‘church leaving’ issue. Labeling ‘leavers’ as backslidden or choosing the way of the world does not get deep enough when investigating this negative church ministry issue.
Often those who leave a church are perceived as those who have left Christ. This, also, is an inaccurate assumption.
The fact is: Church members who were supportive of and compliant with their leadership, were regular attenders, givers, and volunteers are a description of those who ended up experiencing the effects of spiritual abuse. This is a situation for Christians to ponder further in order to see if they have a valid assessment.
Why Do People Leave Their Home Church?
It is important to just ask people. Participants in my doctoral study were asked to identify what factors influenced their decision to leave their church. It might be interesting to note that a few people acknowledged that no one had ever asked them that question before.
A number of reasons were described for leaving their home churches. The main reason for church exiting revolved around authoritarian and controlling pastors and the leadership team. The following are the common terms that were recorded by participants: authoritarian, controlling, manipulation, and abusive.
There were twelve people who were asked to leave their church by the pastor and/or the leadership team. Most of these people were married couples, so it is not hard to double the numbers to see how many people were impacted, not to mention children or other family members who attended the same church.
Since these congregants had been deemed as regular attenders, fairly mature in their faith, and were involved in voluntary service in the church, the notion that they were excommunicated because of some moral sin is not reasonable to consider.
Another factor that influenced people to leave was the fact that they perceived that the leader seemed to be accountable to no one.
Selected excerpts from the participant questionnaires will be included in each category to illustrate the point. These comments can be instructive. Explanations have been edited only for the purposes of clarity, spelling, punctuation, and spacing.
The following comments describe the reasons why these Christians left their home church:
“Yes. There was a tremendous dichotomy between what was said by leadership, and the message they actually conveyed. They often spoke of the freedom we have as believers, as well as our individual value in God’s eyes. But any attempt to think or act with any degree of freedom was quickly and firmly labeled as unsubmissiveness to leadership.
An overarching theme in most of the subtle messages was that only a few were actually spiritual enough to hear and follow God for themselves, and that everyone else must follow them.”
“The main problem stemmed from the fact that the leader was not submitted to anyone and yet wanted submission. His doctrine was off and his tactics were abusive and the church showed no fruit.”
“It was clear that the pastor was never going to address any problems: present or future. . . . I was told that the Lord spoke to my pastor, so if I disagreed, I was in error.”
“Deception, manipulation by a pastor who was absolutely accountable to no person. . . . Negative feelings were mostly the fact that there was nothing we could do to stop the misbehavior of the pastor, and the natural feelings of failure in such a situation.
We had invested greatly in this congregation. It was also hard to understand how people in leadership positions could ‘put up’ and even enable this kind of behavior by the pastor. . . . Leadership and authority exercised by one person in a congregation is not only un-biblical, but is inherently abusive and destructive.”
“Previously I was taught I must not speak against a leader, either to voice concerns or disagree—that was the teaching, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed,” you were not allowed to say anything that didn’t agree with the leader. “
“He [the pastor] had left such a trail of hurting and damaged people, and I felt that I could no longer be a part of that type of destruction.”
“We were falsely accused by the senior pastor of being rebellious and unsubmitted. . . . The church that we left is still being destroyed by authoritarian leadership, control, and abuse. It was a wonderful community of people that was ruined by false spiritual leadership.”
“I learned that if a man is truly led to be the shepherd of a group of believers that he will be in among them and teach truth from his heart and not be a controlling, manipulating, and dominating person—lording his position over them.”
‘We had felt like something was wrong over the years, but always ‘stuffed it’ thinking it was ‘just us.’ Whenever we went to the pastor with grievances, it was denied or turned around on us. We finally realized that we had major doctrinal differences (they taught a harsh gospel lacking grace and mercy), along with the fact that we felt stifled, controlled, and intimidated. . . .
Yes. I believed so much of what they said. I towed the lines they put up. You need to understand something. These people (the leaders) were my life. I took care of their children for them. I put my own interests last and served them for years.
I made it possible both physically and financially for them to exist. As far as the rest of the group, I really thought they would know our hearts and at least come to talk. Only one couple did.”
“Our eyes were opened to seeing that our church was run by a manipulative and oppressively controlling pastor who had just enough charisma and mountain charm to bamboozle the masses into believing and following him as “God’s anointed,” appointed for this church and the surrounding area of the county. Adding to his ruling hand is an Elder Board of “Yes Men” of which the pastor was chairman.”
Just Plain Asked to Leave
The following are six accounts of those who were asked to leave by their church leadership. Some of them made an effort to meet and communicate with the leadership and seek some type of understanding and/or resolve.
Couple 1: This couple had been involved and served at this church for 7 years.
“When I declined the opportunity from the pastor to be on staff my husband and I sensed a change in relationships from the pastor and staff members. We were no longer invited to social functions with the staff. I no longer received support in the church sponsored ministry work I was doing. Staff hindered opportunities for me to serve in other areas of the church.
I stopped attending church sponsored events outside of the Sunday service because I did not feel welcome. I approached the pastor’s wife and explained the events that were happening and feelings of not belonging and the pastor’s wife said, “at the risk of further alienating you, maybe you should leave the church.” My husband and I experienced passive aggressive behavior toward us and our work in the home group we were leading.
Meeting with the pastor to discuss issues was non-productive, passive aggressive, overly authoritative, and extremely controlling. I began to notice that the size of the church congregation had dropped from 1000 to 600 in the past seven years.
I discreetly sought out a few people who had left the church and learned of the same root causes as to why they left.”
Couple 2: This couple was involved and served in this church for over 10 years.
“After the first excommunication we applied to the courts to have our membership reinstated—the elders immediately agreed to the mediation we had originally requested. The Christian mediator found the elders at fault and had our membership reinstated—a process that took 6 months due to delays by the elders.
Although the elders apologized in writing we were subjected to shunning and stalking by the elders and most ministry leaders. We were put under incredible pressure to leave.
Six months after returning we were once again excommunicated—virtually no reason given for the decision other than we seemed to make the leadership uncomfortable. Although the church membership held meetings to discuss our situation we were not allowed to attend to defend ourselves.”
Couple 3: This couple was involved and served in their church for 15 years. They were involved in this denomination for 67 years.
“We were asked to leave by leadership. . . . I was charged for having a hard heart, by someone. My first response was to go to the Lord to check from Scripture what that means. . . .
After I did a lot of soul searching before the Lord, I knew that the accusation was not true because the Scripture seems to indicate that when someone’s heart becomes hard they cannot turn to God, and that was not my experience, but it took several days for me to come to that realization.”
Couple 4: This couple was involved and served in this church for over 10 years.
“The hireling [the pastor] telling us to get out was why we left—we were so into the cult that we were trying to stay after all of the abuse we suffered. We were trying to communicate our problems with him and his wife, and their treatment of my wife and I, when the end came.”
Couple 5: This couple attended this church for 1 year and 6 months.
“The first church was totally under the control of the pastor and when we became aware of the lack of accountability, we spoke with the pastor, who kicked us out for questioning him.”
A Single Person. This person attended this church for 18 years and was involved in the core ministry leadership of the church. The participant describes their response to a comment made by the pastor.
“You must be 100% loyal to the Senior Pastor or you can’t be in leadership. I’m cleaning house—you must be enthusiastic about the church.
You are not enthusiastic or happy and everybody knows it. I’m going to have to ask you to leave [the church].” I was totally devastated, spinning in confusion and disbelief.”
Then There Is Legalism
Legalism was referenced by twelve participants as their reason for leaving. These included things like: public rebuke, shunning, or being falsely accused; private rebuke by leadership in the church office or a home; or extreme church discipline.
Questionable doctrines and beliefs which were deemed unhealthy were also reasons given.
The following are some of the descriptions given by the participants on the topic of legalism:
“Legalism, discipleship over evangelism, family of believers over “unsaved/un-churched/lost,” Sunday attendance and tithing pressures and judgment, kept too busy doing things for the church to live much as a Christ follower among my neighbors, most of all: Lack of focus on the cross of Jesus Christ and prayer.”
The leadership had become cult-like in its leadership. Two or three men, including the preacher decided what happened in the lives of everyone else; this included who one could marry, whether one could look for another job and, if offered one, whether one could take it, whether one could buy a house, etc. The teaching on submission to authority was taken to ridiculous extremes.”
After the following participant had left, they described their thinking this way:
“I viewed every decision and action through that legalistic lens. Realized I had a hard time thinking and making decisions on my own. I lost quite a few ‘friends’ who ceased to associate with me once they realized I wasn’t of the same ilk any more. I was free to think and yet at the same time, afraid to do so.”
A number of people defined the concept of carnal treatment of God’s people by the lead pastor or church leadership. This often influenced the shunning behavior of the congregants towards the participant. Some commented on the pastor or the leadership’s lack of integrity. Others noted either the pastor’s impropriety or the pastor’s outright moral failure.
The Woman Thing
Gender hierarchy was a factor for men and women alike. A lack of biblical understanding of the place of women in the Church and women treated without respect was evident for a number.
The following are examples of how participants perceived this issue:
“First church held that women had to be submitted to the overseeing of men in anything they did. Even held that a woman had to check with a man to see if what she believed was correct. Second church was not that extreme. However, women’s input was not welcomed.”
“Women were not allowed to serve in areas where they felt called to serve. In this particular church women were not even allowed to read Scripture from the pulpit during the Sunday Morning Worship Service.”
We Were Fired!
The following are a few comments from those who felt that they had to leave a position or were asked to leave (were ‘fired’) from a church position; or those who found no room to use their gifting in service.
“I got fired from the Assistant Pastor position for questioning the authority. Hardest part, for me, was to forgive myself for being duped by a pastor who I should have seen through much earlier on in the 14 years I spent under his ministry. Second part of the pain was working through my anger with God at letting it happen to all the wonderful people who had dedicated their lives to such spiritual fraud.”
“The Senior Pastor while able to be quite charming to the congregation and others in the community, was emotionally abusive to his staff in general and had become increasingly abusive to me my last year on staff. The dynamics in the office were often hard for me to understand, but in the last months working there I saw the Senior Pastor’s behavior as deceptive, grandiose, and highly manipulative . . .
It was the denomination on the district and even national level that we believed could have come to our aid, but they chose to ignore the situation. Their behavior leads one to conclude that they don’t believe a pastor should be held accountable by a lay person because they were upholding and employing a pastor who sued a parishioner for taking a concern in private to the elders.”
“The realization that there was no hope for most of us in ever following what God put in our heart; the fatigue with lots of hype but no real change; the growing disillusionment with the traditional church pattern; and the realization that it had little connection to the life that Jesus and his followers exhibited.”
Church Governance Issues
Disagreement with the pastor or the church leadership regarding church governance was commented on. The fact that there was no dispute resolution process in place was noted.
Although the term elitism was referenced only once to refer to leadership, this descriptor could be validated by similar terms used.
“I was disappointed with the leadership because I perceived that I did not get a fair hearing and opportunity to dialogue. I went into meetings where decisions had already been made and any listening was really only waiting for their turn to lower the boom.
My hope had been that as a minimum, we would clarify our differing views and come to an understanding of each other’s positions before agreeing to disagree, accommodating each other, and getting on with ministry.
If the views were differing enough, we could painfully, but at least amiably, separate. Unfortunately, the leaders just couldn’t survive the ‘fog’ of life, differing ideas, and had to believe they had God’s will and as such had to stick up for God by booting us out the door.”
Disillusioned by Church Governance
Based upon the surveys, these participants indicated that they had come from churches with a significant level of authoritarian and controlling behavior from the lead pastor and/or the leadership team.
This leadership style was the expected ministry style and seemed to go unquestioned among the congregation until a certain point, which involved these congregants. After this point, this behavior took on greater vigor and simply got worse. Individuals or couples were faced with the realization that any hope of change in behavior or restoration of fellowship was unattainable at this time, if ever.
Disillusioned by Church Teachings
Legalism was another main reason for leaving. An apparent faulty view of the grace of God provided grounds for leaders to place ‘heavy loads’ or theological ‘burdens’ on people. This corruption of the Gospel of grace placed participants in a vulnerable position to be manipulated by leaders. Public or private rebuke, shunning, or being falsely accused by leadership in the church office or a home seemed to be a form of extreme church discipline to intimidate congregants and seemed to be unwarranted in nearly every case.
Furthermore, the entire concept of biblical church discipline seemed to be a topic that was misunderstood and misapplied and needed to be revisited by the local church as well as by denominational overseers.
The mar factors which had been recognized in the majority of participants, demonstrated that these damaging teachings and the hurtful actions manifested by church leaders were evident among them at that time. It pointed to the fact that participants were lacking a secure and reliable theological foundation.
Distortions in understanding the Christian faith included the following: not fully understanding salvation and sanctification by the Holy Spirit by grace; having poorly developed skills for interpreting God’s Word; inability to discern whether teachings were biblical truth or not; not to blindly trust leadership without exercising discernment; not fully grasping how God’s people actually should be treated by Christian leadership; and not fully understanding how to experience authentic Christian community.
Specific areas of Christian belief are often distorted in abused people—these misbeliefs need to be discerned and set straight so that their spiritual life can be restored. The distortions in these basic beliefs and the personal impairment they created were evident among the majority of participants.
A renewed biblical understanding in these areas helped people to be restored and to establish balance in their spiritual walk.
Church leaving is much more complex than initially understood by church leaders and congregants. When church exiting is seen through the lens of the harm of spiritual abuse along with faulty belief systems, then there is a much broader scope to process this occurrence.
Considering the voice of those who have left the church and what reasons led up to their exiting allow for their reasons to be affirmed and valued. Listening to the emotional trauma that was involved through this distressing season helps to shape our thinking.
Leaving a church for reasons of work transfer, home relocation, or other natural reasons for attrition are difficult enough but to add to that situation the torment induced by spiritual abuse can make this experience very painful for those who go through it.
Most people appreciate when people understand the depth of their personal pain after an untimely personal loss. Such an incidence that happens in and through the local church needs to be understood much better. It is hoped that others in the Body of Christ can provide solace and safety for those who find themselves in this type of dilemma.
It is important to be among those who:
Aim to Understand and to
Raise the Awareness about Spiritual Abuse.
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For Further Reflection
Though parents may forsake their children, as the Scripture states in the Psalms, those who are forsaken by their church family can take comfort in the fact that the Lord will be there for them too.
Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me. Psalm 27:10
Psalm 27 is a wonderful psalm to think more about. It begins by stating the fact that:
The Lord is my light and my salvation —whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?
The psalmist longs to be taught by the Lord and to be led by him in straight paths, in spite of his oppressors.
Teach me your way, Lord; lead me in a straight path
because of my oppressors.
This psalm ends with hope that things will gets better and the exhortation to wait for the LORD, which always is a good practice.
I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.
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© 2012 Barb Orlowski, D.Min.