Adapting the analogy of warning from mines to ministries—
survivors of spiritual abuse often become “barometer people.”
Earlier in the Industrial Era, before more technologies were available, the mining industry used a surprising signal to warn of toxic gases in the mine. They used a caged canary. The canary would only stop warbling if it were suffocating. In that silence, the miners knew they had only minutes to escape, or face the same fate themselves.
Adapting that analogy of warning from mines to ministries–survivors of spiritual abuse often become “barometer people.” Just as the canaries were indictors of a deadly environment in the mines, spiritual abuse survivors are indicators of “spiritual storms” in our churches and ministries.
Barometers are weather instruments which are used to measure the atmospheric pressure. These mechanisms are sensitive to the weight of the air in the atmosphere and to changes in the environment. Christians who have experienced spiritual abuse and then have recovered from it get sensitized to what can go horribly wrong in churches and ministries that have ended up becoming toxic.
These Christ-followers can become a wealth of insight as they figure out what happened to them in their churches and why, and what made them susceptible–as well as what made the perpetrators suitable candidates for becoming spiritual abusers. These folks can potentially become some of the most valuable participants in new endeavors or existing ministries. They can aid intentional groups in practical ways to become healthier.
Here’s why: The types of people who have lived through toxic environments have a unique sensitivity that others in the Body of Christ generally do not have. Therefore, their ‘toxicity-meters’ are often far sharper than those who only have a theological or theoretical concept of what “healthy” and “safe” ministry means.
Also, it is important to keep in mind that, even before survivors figure out the what’s and why’s of their abuse and abusers, the very fact of their obvious spiritual disorientation and distress serve as warning indicators to those around them. When those close to them see those signs, it should prod them to figure things out or perhaps even to flee as well.
The value that those who have recovered can provide for the Christian Church is worth exploring. Furthermore, regarding these disastrous dynamics, those who have survived spiritually abusive ministers and their enablers stand as witnesses to their toxic personalities and methodologies. Their lives and their insights serve as “weather reports” that can alert others to hazards ahead.
Their documented accounts are warnings of failure to create healthy ministry strategies and structures. Case studies on real situations–along with hypothetical dysfunctional church settings–provide a safe “laboratory setting” for examining and discerning what we need to avoid if we are to construct social organizations that are righteous and reasonable.
It becomes of prime importance to understand that no organizational leader or ecclesiastical designer is qualified to serve in such an important role unless he or she:
Is already prepared and committed to prevent infliction of such trauma on God’s people,
Has the ability to intercept those at risk of abusing others,
Makes it a policy to intervene and remove perpetrators of abuse.
These basics must be in place or the entire scenario will continue to be repeated.
What About Healthy Church Settings?
Some people are sure to ask, “What does healthy LOOK LIKE?” and rightly so. Fundamentally, if people are equipped to serve and disciple those who are church exiters or spiritual abuse survivors, they’d likely be able to help just about anyone.
When it comes to church leadership ministry, the idea of a healthy model or a proto-type church is very intriguing. It is the complementary side of setting up a checklist or assessment tool for how healthy a church is.
What Others Have Done
I am reminded of the group that started years ago through a church that Dr. Alan Jamieson pastored in New Zealand. This group was called Spirited Exchanges. People met once a week. It had appeal for two types of people: those harmed spiritually by church leadership and those with serious faith questions.
Those in the second group were people who needed a safe place to explore their faith questions in a non-judgmental environment. This was not the person who should be sharing their questions or concerns in just any church home group, but one who needed another place to work through issues, while not distressing others who needed a more optimistic weekly format.
Spirited Exchanges ran for about ten years. The coordinator also started a similar group in the United Kingdom. They had a dinner format and provided a welcoming place for individuals and couples to share and grow together with others on a similar path. It was a very profitable endeavor.
I have always liked the name and the concept of this unique group. I have been in contact with the coordinator of those groups. I believe that churches who would take on this type of ministry would find a unique dynamic happening in such a group that would spill over into the rest of the church in a positive way.
People who have experienced spiritual abuse and have reasonably recovered from it can be key people in their current church family as well as in the broader spectrum of Christian ministry today. It would be wise to engage their sensitivity and their skill sets in various ministry efforts in the future.
As people of faith have been comforted by the Spirit of Christ through their experience of spiritual abuse, they now have comfort and wisdom to share with others who find themselves wounded in the same way in the church. Such people are a gift and can be a huge resource in a healthy church as well as in their extended local community.
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For Further Reflection
One passage that comes to mind, when thinking about those who have received comfort in their troubles, is found in 2 Cor. 1.
Christians who have experienced the comfort of a loving God can be the first responders to people in need. This passage gives direction to those who have received comfort from God’s Spirit—that they could be available as effective comforters to those who come to them in their distress.
What a rich opportunity for Christians to share life together and express how God has been there for each of them in their personal distresses in the past and that God will be there for this hurting person now.
2 Corinthians 1:1-5
1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
To the church of God in Corinth, together with all his holy people throughout Achaia:
2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Praise to the God of All Comfort
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,
4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.
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The impetus for this article came through email correspondence with my colleague, Brad Sargent. The majority of the ‘barometer people’ ideas are his.
© 2013 Barb Orlowski, D.Min.