Their Story About Spiritual Abuse

Introduction

Having a website entitled: Church Exiters is a wonderful way to invite people to contact me and to hear their comments, questions and disheartening church stories. Often people are in the middle of a smozzle–that is a descriptive word for personal pain after an encounter with a church leader and how it has devastated them. This is more than a difference of opinion or a personality clash. Spiritual abuse has harmed them and has marked them.

People come into a tailspin not knowing exactly what has hit them. Spiritual abuse can range from mild to severe. There are many blogs and websites that are available to those who are distraught by spiritual abuse and are looking for information, resources, and comfort through their traumatizing situation.

It helps for people who do not understand the depth of personal pain from spiritual abuse to ponder the accounts of those who have experienced it. It is also helpful for those who have experienced it to be able to identify with the similar stories that others have. Hearing stories of others helps everyone to be on the same page and to recognize the factors involved in this dysfunction in the Body of Christ.

A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, having a descriptive account of how one couple was treated in their church helps to show how spiritual abuse occurs, by whom, and how others seem to go along with the leader’s perception. This story has been chosen as a suitable case study to illuminate the dynamics of pastor-congregant interactions, which led to distress for these people. This case study provides several of the common elements that are found in the accounts of many other people.

The following is a story about someone that we shall call ‘Jill.’ This name is chosen in order to protect this person’s identity. People who have experienced spiritual abuse are usually reluctant to share their story with just anyone. They are still processing their many emotions, one being fear. It helps immensely when people are brave enough for their story to be posted on the internet in order to help others.

I have chosen Jill’s story for a number of reasons. Both Jill and her husband were involved in their church for a number of decades, yes, decades. They had proven their loyalty and faithfulness by attendance, service, giving, and supporting the leadership. Jill is also an excellent communicator. Our email exchanges have been edited for clarity and brevity, yet to carry the main points of their story.

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Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

We had just celebrated Christmas and were in the afterglow of this wonderful break with family and friends. Usually there are a few email greetings, but it is fairly quiet at that time. I am always delighted to get emails through my [email protected] email account. As I checked for any emails, there was one from someone we’ll call Jill.

Jill explained that she had found my website on the internet. She got a copy of my book and began to process her disheartening church situation in a deeper way by reading it. Since Jill is a good writer and penned some insightful emails, it seemed good to document her thoughts for others to read. Jill gave permission for her story to be shared.

As Jill said, she wants her story to be available and she wants to be someone who helps others to understand spiritual abuse and then to take appropriate action.

Thank You, Jill!

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And So We Begin

Dec. 27

Dear Barb,

I have almost completed your book, Spiritual Abuse Recovery, and have been greatly helped. Several months ago, my husband and I left our church after 30 years of service. Shortly after I felt the leadership and I had reached an impasse and I resigned from my ministry leadership position, my husband was encouraged to leave the elder board.

He was head of the elder board and I was the leader of the prayer ministry. We were in the midst of working through a conflict with the pastor when the pastor suddenly decided he had had enough. His explanation was that he had spent enough time on this conflict and needed to return to his ministry agenda. The other men on the board supported this abrupt withdrawal from working through the conflict. No efforts toward reconciliation or restoration would be made. And worst of all, no accountability.

We have been stunned and heartbroken. Your book has helped me to understand the puzzling behavior of our former pastor and the elders and to begin to process what happened.

Prevalence of the Problem

I’m making progress but am still pretty raw. I am so very grateful for what you have provided for those of us who have experienced such a terrible thing in the church. While I am still recovering, I am struck by the prevalence of this problem and am interested in knowing if there is any coordinated effort to educate the Body of Christ about this and challenge leaders to build in accountability and oversight for all churches.

I believe the same kind of accountability would be helpful in the church for its leaders, to protect the Body of Christ. I can only hope that the church would be as willing to review its own leaders as hospitals review their doctors.

Once again, thank you ever so much for your invaluable resource and help for those of us with surprising and deep wounding from people least expected to harm us.

Dec. 27

Hi Jill,

Thank you for your email. Good to hear from you. I’m glad that you were able to get a copy of my book and that it was bringing you both comfort and some insights.

Yes, it is painful to go through what you have described. You have also gained the knowledge that you are not alone as a couple, but are part of a huge number who feel wounded by their church leadership and have gone through the process of seeking answers. It is a time to grieve and to be aware that this is what you both need to do now, for a time.

Your question and later comment addresses what some colleagues and I have been constantly talking about. In fact, this was the topic of a recent phone conversation with a colleague.

Your comments spur on a group of my associates with the idea that we have considered before of the need for a neutral ministry group to be available to those experiencing spiritual abuse in their home church.

I related to some folks recently about the beginnings of the SPCA, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals–that it started by a group of concerned people. An individual or a couple could appeal to such a group, when there is no one else. They could find people who understood spiritual abuse, who they would feel safe with, and be helped by their ministry. So far, this is only the spark of an idea, but more and more people are recognizing the need.

There are a number of bloggers who have sites where people can share or vent about their distressing church experiences. Although experiences may vary and the details are different, there are many commonalities in what happens to people. Do you have anyone in your immediate area who you can visit/share with?

All the best as you look to the Lord through this season for comfort, peace, wisdom, and joy! Barb

What Just Happened??

Dec. 30

Dear Barb,

I am SO blessed to hear back from you! I can’t thank you enough for your response, interest, and care.

We were involved in a non-denominational church so there was no denominational source outside our church to consult. Furthermore, in the 30 years that we had been involved there our church has had many people leave to become involved in the other local churches we have visited.

Every place we have visited, we have encountered someone we knew from our old church. That’s good and bad. Good to see old friends. Bad because many of those people left because of unresolved conflict that they associated with us because we stayed. So it has been awkward.

Right now, I’m just weary of the whole thing and would prefer to take a break from the church search. Each visit has brought some kind of encounter that triggered more pain.

I am in the process of writing my story and would love to share it with you. I’m glad to give you a brief overview.

Our Story

Ten years ago, in the first few months of our pastor’s ministry, I approached him about a conflict in the new prayer ministry which I led.

Our pastor shocked me by personally attacking me in response to identifying a problem that we needed to work together to address. Instead of addressing the issue I raised, he looked at me and said, “You know what, you will never be a part of my staff.” There had been no discussion about his staff. The remark came out of the blue.

Your book helped me understand that I had unwittingly challenged his authority and caused him to feel threatened. As time went by, I paid the consequences for that ‘indiscretion.’ Your explanation that pastors with this type of behavior can be great to work for and with, if they do not feel challenged, was very helpful. I now realize that I innocently made him feel threatened and then paid for it by his exclusion and indifference for years. It also explained why others in our church did not experience the same animosity from him that I did. They had been able to avoid the mistake I had made.

I didn’t realize that simply because of raising an issue with him, the relationship door– both personal and in ministry–slammed shut. Over the course of 10 years, I served by leading a weekly prayer meeting on Sunday evening, directed an intercessor team that the Lord led me to put together, and taught a class on prayer, some of which I wrote the curriculum for.

Even though I went to the pastor a number of times to discuss the prayer ministry, he was unwilling to dialogue about it. I would make suggestions, but he rejected them and made no effort to encourage me in the general prayer ministry. I functioned without direction, encouragement, or even interest from him. Why did I continue? Because each time I went to the Lord for direction about staying, He clearly directed me to continue. It was simply out of obedience that I stayed. The pastor’s indifference was very hurtful. I read that George Bernard Shaw once said that indifference is the essence of inhumanity. That resonated with me. I so wish someone could help this pastor see that his behaviour is not consistent with the way the Lord calls his earthly shepherds to care for His flock.

Several years ago, our church joined with some other churches to host a prayer conference. Each church hosted a part of that conference. The pastor refused my requests to even help serve refreshments for the seminar segment at our church, much less take advantage of the opportunity to meet with the leader and help with the hosting. (I asked to be included, the pastor refused.) Not once in 10 years was I encouraged to participate in conferences or growth seminars in leadership or prayer. Yet I consistently saw staff members being sent by the church for spiritual growth opportunities.

Furthermore, my husband and I led an adult education class on prayer. The pastor (who was also the director of adult education) would only communicate about the class with my husband. The few times he actually emailed me were at my husband’s prompting and were only a formality. While my husband, as head elder, was aware of the problem between the pastor and me, he was working (and hoping) that his gentle guidance would encourage change.

Neither of us understood the depth of the problem and, therefore, did not understand that a patient approach was not going to yield change.

The Climax Came

The climax came, when for a third time, the pastor organized a corporate prayer meeting and excluded the Intercessor Team and me. At this point, I believed our personal conflict had spilled over into ministry and was breeding disunity. So I wrote the board a letter describing my experience under this pastor and the difficulty that I had with the pastor organizing a prayer ministry event while excluding those who had been faithfully serving the church through prayer. I believed it modeled disunity.

I suggested that they either help the pastor and me to work together or dissolve the prayer ministry. Their response was to rebuke me for my complaint and tell me that they were in the process of deciding the purpose and vision for the prayer ministry. When they were done, they would let me know what part they wanted me to have in their design.

I resigned from the prayer ministry and told them that it would be better if they just ran it because their solution was to redesign the prayer ministry without addressing the core problem–the pastor’s refusal to include me in ministry. They tried to persuade me to reconsider, which led to my husband finally confronting the pastor in front of the entire board about his personal behaviour toward me.

(My husband and I had gone to the pastor twice during the past 10 years and confronted him privately about his behaviour toward me. Both times, he justified his behavior and saw me as the problem. My husband and I decided to continue to try to work with him, love him, and trust the Lord to bring about the change needed to allow unity.)

My husband’s confrontation prompted the pastor to email an apology to me (and copy in each board member). In the email, he listed each offence described by my husband and specifically apologized for each one. I responded by joyfully accepting his apology and suggesting that in the spirit of Phil. 4:2, 3,* that we meet to work toward full reconciliation.

(*Phil 4:2, 3: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”)

And They Lived Happily Ever After

Neither the pastor nor the Board of Elders responded to my accepting his apology and offer to work toward reconciliation. Instead, they called an emergency elder meeting and suggested my husband leave the board because he had disqualified himself as an elder. The disqualification was not explained. Yet the elders were unanimous in encouraging him to step down though they did not require it.

Nothing We Could Do

This is where I believe education would be so helpful. This pastor’s behavior was inappropriate and I was very disappointed to have a leader model that kind of attitude without accountability. My husband was the head elder and I was a ministry leader and yet there was nothing more we could do once this pastor pushed back.

What can be done to offer help to people like us in a situation like this? If we had had an outside accountability group, that could have been the catalyst needed to break this cycle in this man.

I really don’t believe this pastor even realizes how off-base he is. He believes that he is the source for all teaching in the church and did not consider that the Lord could be trying to get his attention that his leading was not appropriate in this matter.

In his 10 years there, I repeatedly approached him for leadership and guidance in my ministry but I was disregarded. This was compounded when I consistently saw him work with his staff who oversaw all the other ministries in the church. I have been deeply wounded by being disregarded; not even worth anger. George Bernard Shaw once said that indifference is the essence of inhumanity. That resonated with me.

I think it’s worth mentioning that there were a number of times in the past few years as our situation escalated that both my husband and I said to each other, “Isn’t there somebody we can go to for wise counsel about this situation?” But each time, we could not come up with anyone who didn’t have a personal connection with someone in our situation. We didn’t believe we could get unbiased counsel unless we could talk with someone outside the situation.

Having a Confidant

I have one friend who has been through something similar, who attended our church and walked through the whole final process with us. He is a brother who has the same burden for prayer that I do; he loves the Lord.

He has been consistently concerned, listened for hours as I processed and gently pointed me to a more righteous way to feel and behave. He is patient and caring. The Lord has greatly blessed my husband and me with him. I have no contact with anyone else from the church except my husband’s family. I have found that the Lord’s grace is sufficient. 🙂

Thanks for “listening.” And thanks for your concern.

I am glad to answer any questions or help in any way to find a resolution to situations such as these in the universal church.

Loyalty, Conflict, and Change

December 30

Hello Jill,

So good to hear back from you and read more of your story. Thanks for taking the time to write out the details. Yes, it is very disheartening. In a nutshell, this appears to be a subtle, but classic case of don’t rock the boat. The boat rocker–certainly not the captain–is the problem. Not only that, when the problem seems to be ‘the woman’, then that compounds the issue. So if you are a compliant, quiet server, then no problems, but speaking out in this type of church culture, you have found out the hard way, is a no, no! Raising a concern, equals conflict; ‘we have no conflicts here’, so a concern goes nowhere. You raised the conflict, ahhh, a person of interest, that is, a person marked and to avoid, as they are a problem to me. Need I go on!

Even with a so-called accountability group, such pastors like you describe, would not be interested in such a group and no one can make them, since there is no one above the pastor in an independent church. As you have found, integrity and loyalty just don’t count when you raise an issue.

Over time you both have realized that this pastor, along with the other leaders, have a nice thing going there, but without accountability in the church fellowship, the church will just keep repeating itself. Even if/when this pastor leaves, the church may end up getting another, apparently nice pastor, yet the same way of running the railroad can show up. On top of all this is that the average congregant just doesn’t get it!

Yes, it is hard when others, especially family members are still there. It points to the fact that you (and your husband) ARE the PROBLEM, since there appears to be the ‘pastors are always right’ syndrome. No amount of explaining with some people can change that.

From my experience and that of others, I don’t hold much hope for a change, either in the pastor or the church culture. I trust that this is some kind of comfort for you. God doesn’t just sweep in and do an amazing ‘change or miracle’. He allows people their freedom and things play out over time. The only safe and healthy thing people can do is vote with their feet, try to share with those who are somewhat open to your story, and seek a caring and healthier church fellowship. OK hang in there. Do different things; try some new and creative things. Keep busy; get out often. Pursue righteousness with the energy that Christ gives!

Dec. 31

Hi Barb,

Wow! Your remarks were so encouraging and helpful. Thanks for taking the time to respond and share so much. I really appreciate it.

As far as telling my story, I just really wanted to capture the details while they were still fresh. Bottom line, I’m so hoping that the Lord can use it somehow for His glory. The really curious thing to me is that the Lord made it very clear to me over and over that I was to stay the course there and just continue to trust Him.

Somehow He used my presence there for His purposes; I may never know what they were. As I sought His leading, I was disappointed over and over that He wanted me to stick it out. I came to love the story of Joseph and have a deeper appreciation for Job’s experience.

Believed or Not Believed

I’m still hurting quite a bit; but your perspective has helped me just in the fact that someone who has heard my story has affirmed that what happened to me was wrong. One of the most painful aspects of this situation is that I have not been believed.

I appreciate your encouragement to take care of myself and try to enjoy life. I have been doing just that.

I have not missed one second of being in our old church, nor any of those relationships. I sensed the atmosphere was so toxic that to remain in relationship with any of those people would be a way to draw me back into that unhealthy culture. I’m so thankful to be free!!

Jan. 1

Happy New Year, Barb!

Your book certainly deserves strong consideration, especially for those who really need the help. So we look forward to continued healing and hope after being liberated from a toxic church life. Praise to Him for His provision of good help in this life, in our relationship with Him and from others.

Jan. 4

From Jill:

These spiritual abuse websites and blogs are very helpful. It’s sobering to see so many people from so many places experiencing spiritual abuse.

Somehow the sheep need help to understand that they have responsibility to be more diligent in recognizing what is healthy and what is not. And also to be encouraged to be watchful of their church leadership. It is not just okay to do, it’s righteous (and yes, loving) accountability. Your book and the others out there on spiritual abuse are invaluable in the effort to help. But it seems that more needs to be done. . .

Jan. 4

From Barb:

Yes, everyone’s voice on the various internet sites gets you going and gives you a way broader picture of this issue. That was what kept me going with my doctoral research! You are now in the information stream.

You have made a good comment! I may share it with my Spiritual Abuse Conversation Cohort. Yes, we all have something to contribute–from our vantage point. Here’s some info about Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month:

January is Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month.

My colleague has put a blurb about it on our websites.

See: www.spiritualabuserecovery.com and www.healingspiritualabuse.com .            Several colleagues and friends have chosen JANUARY as Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month. January is Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month.

There is a public page at http://facebook.com/SAAwareness .  There is hope and healing, yet there is a work to do in raising awareness and telling truth to free people from abusive congregations. Help pass it on. Facebook page is sponsored by Lisa Bertolini of ‘Soul Liberty Faith’ www.SpiritualAbuseAwareness.com. You have our support. We believe you!

Jan. 6

From Jill:

One of the most bewildering aspects of experiencing spiritual abuse is the blindness of the other sheep to it. I’m beginning to understand that the enemy uses the “Don’t be divisive” admonition from leaders and members of the flock to keep the sheep blinded and even resistant to truth, for fear of introducing disunity.

It was so disheartening when I would share a little of what I was concerned about and experience the listener’s disapproval. I’m wondering if this is the best place to help the sheep–to educate them to evaluate their church experience according to truth.

Jan. 6

From Jill:

In my experience, the leaders truly believed they were doing things the “right” way. They would never consider themselves to have any of the characteristics of spiritual abusers. And the sheep in their flock think anyone who has a “problem” with the pastor must be the one at fault.

This was so consistent. They now believe that the church has been protected from a poisonous influence with my departure. This atmosphere, that the leaders create, is very strategic in keeping the sheep ignorant and “in line.” It is pure deception. I believe the leaders are included in the deception. So the question is: how can we penetrate with the truth?

Jan. 6

Hi Jill,

Yes, the leaders were just trying to lead God’s people after all–as they felt that they had been trained to do. Just doin’ their job!

Yes, you make an interesting point, but as I have said previously, it is very difficult to break through that kind of church culture with ‘the truth.’ As with the saying: ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, so truth, as it appears, is in the eye of church leadership. They are [always] right–because of their lofty position in the flock; and the congregant, well, they are the lowly ones who depend on the leadership; they don’t have the training, background, prestige, whatever, and they are the ones who are wrong, or who could rock the boat.

Bottom line perception: the ‘problem’ [always] lies with the congregant.

The Woman Thing

A Few Months Later

Hi Barb,

I’ve been catching up on reading Spiritual Abuse info/articles. I just finished your article, Women in the Church. It really struck a chord with me.

While my husband and I battled to resolve our conflict with the pastor, I was at the same time viewed as a woman in rebellion to my husband and the church’s authority. I have a strong personality and speak out–something they viewed as inappropriate for a godly woman.

They decided that I had a lust for power and that was what was driving my persistence to hold this pastor accountable. One of the elders even described me as “ambitious.” They refused to consider that my complaints had validity, and instead, viewed them through the lens of unrighteous behavior for a Christian woman under God-given authority.

What was so stunning was the involvement of my two closest friends and their husbands. They shared the opinion that I was in rebellion to my husband and the church. In fact, it was one of my friend’s husbands (also an elder) who declared that my husband had disqualified himself as an elder. I was bewildered by such unloving actions from our friends and no effort to restore a relationship with us.

Hi Jill,

Glad to hear back from you. Glad you enjoyed the women in the church article. Yes, that is a battle ground for so many groups. There are enough people working to inform and fight back that flawed teaching. You both have become a statistic because of it!

Thanks for sharing more about your situation. The sin of not controlling one’s wife . . . that’s as old as the hills! Yes, many women have bought into the system as well. If you raise your chirpy little head, well watch out! Have to maintain the status quo. After all, they feel that they have to tow the biblical line. Keep other women in their place, after all! Humbug!

I trust that you have connected with Christians for Biblical Equality, their website is: www.cbeinternational.org. So many articles are available that are free. Also all kinds of resources. I was enjoying the Pricilla Papers and Mutuality Magazine. In renewing membership you get these, also the Arise Newsletter.

Hoping that you can connect with them. There are lots of sisters out there and brothers too, who are fighting against this foolishness.

Summary

As you can see, healing and recovery for Jill and her dear husband is ongoing. There is progress being made, but sometimes it seems slow going. I am so thankful for Jill’s story–it needs to be heard.

Jill has made many insightful comments and raised some worthwhile questions based on their disheartening experience. We can learn from one another. We each have a part to play regarding the issue of spiritual abuse. There is something that each of us can do to:

Raise the Awareness About Spiritual Abuse.
 
 
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Comment on This Story

If you would like to make a comment to me or to Jill about this story, I invite you to send an email to:  [email protected].

Share Your Story

For those of you who would like to share your stories of spiritual abuse and recovery, I have a questionnaire available to help with that process.

Many find that doing this questionnaire has been therapeutic and has brought them some measure of closure.

Click on the links above entitled: 

Add Your Voice or Take The Survey.

Let me know if this works for you or if you have any questions.
Barb

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© 2012 Barb Orlowski, D.Min.