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Welcome to readingremy.com

Glad you stopped by. My blog has evolved over time. It has served as a place for me to discuss topics found in my books. But other times what I discuss turns into a book, as it did with “Out of Exile.”

Because I’m both pastor and an addiction spirituality consultant, I interact with people on how God can help them overcome their problems in practical ways. My writing isn’t hyper-spiritual but down-to-earth, no-nonsense advice. 

My writing isn’t hyper-spiritual but down-to-earth, no-nonsense advice.

A common theme with me is helping people make a comeback. I like to look “under the hood” to find what’s wrong with our thinking, help get things rewired, and then encourage people to trust God to find a new life.

Much of my writing is to pastors; both to help them and to help them help others. But I think everyone can find things here that will help them.

I hope you’ll subscribe to my blog and like my Facebook page in the margin. And feel free to send me a note. I promise to read it and reply. If you sign up for my monthly newsletter, you can download my latest book, Out of Exile, for free.  Thanks for spending some time on my site!- F. Remy Diederich

Creating a Positive Staff Culture

churchstaffA friend of mine recently told me how much they hate working at their church. They said that everyone on staff is miserable.

WHAT?  How is that even possible?

But this is true in more churches than you may realize. Today I want to offer some practical suggestions on how to create a positive church staff culture.

Many people join a church staff and assume it’s going to be upbeat, positive, and spiritually uplifting, only to experience the drudgery related my friend. Surprised? I sure was. Before I joined a church staff I just assumed it would be the best work environment this side of heaven. I mean, everyone is a believer. Everyone is nice, and positive, and friendly, right? Plus, you have the best mission statement in the world: to reach people with the message of Jesus. What could possibly be bad about working at a church?  More than you realize. Church offices can suffer from the same problems that exist in the business world.

When I asked my friend what it was he didn’t like about working at his church he said that there was no enthusiasm. Everyone just did their job and stayed out of each other’s way. He said he looked for excuses to work by himself because it was such a negative environment.  I asked what the senior pastor was like. He said he kept to himself and was often depressed. I thought that might be true. The senior leader always sets the tone whether that’s at home, at work, at school, or a church.

Five Ways to Turn Your Staff Culture Around

Here are a few recommendations for your staff that have worked for me through the years:

1. Meet with your staff individually each week. I’m surprised how rare this is. When I was an associate pastor I regularly had to ASK my senior pastor to meet. I never understood how you could have a staff and not meet with them on a regular basis. Even if you give them no direction (which you should), you show them so much value just by checking in with them each week. 

Suffering for Jesus shouldn’t mean going to work on Monday! Church offices SHOULD be the best place to work in town: the most rewarding and fulfilling. If your office isn’t, change it.

I check in with my direct-reports personally as well as professionally. I offer real-time feedback so they always know what I like about what they are doing or know my concerns. And I want to hear the same from them about me too. How can I improve if I don’t have a feedback loop?

2. Meet as a staff once a week. We meet for an hour and a half. Here is how we use our time:

  • Check in. One third of our time is just asking how everyone is doing. We go around the room (ten people) and everyone takes 2-3 minutes to give the highs/lows of their week. It might be mundane, funny or heart breaking. It’s all good. We do this in our elder meetings too. It sets the tone for the meeting (friendly) and puts everyone on the same level.
  • Share solutions. Staff meetings aren’t for problem solving. We try to solve problems in smaller meetings and then come with solutions to share with everyone.
  • Invite input. There’s always room for push-back. If our “solution” isn’t good, people have the right to say so and we will revisit it. When people have no say in what’s going on they feel invalidated and lose interest.
  • Pray together. We don’t take a lot of time, maybe five or ten minutes. But we bring church members, upcoming events, and ministries before God. After all, it’s his church. And it’s not a business. Prayer brings us together and creates a sense of intimacy among each other.
  • End on time. This is one of my golden rules in life. When you don’t end on time, people feel cheated. They feel taken for granted. Don’t do that.

3. Keep other meetings to a minimum. Other than staff meetings and one-on-one meetings with staff, we have very few meetings. I’ve never understood pastors that say they spend all day in meetings. I’ve never heard anyone tell me that what they like most about their job is the opportunity to spend their day in meetings!

4. Build relationships and have fun. Just like my wife and I regularly have dates and vacations, our staff regularly has team building events. We recently went  on an overnight at a church camp and each member took 20 minutes to share their life story. We played games and ate together. Simple stuff, but very bonding. We go bowling, take boat rides in the summer, go out for tacos or coffee to celebrate a success, do service projects together, etc. It costs a little money and takes some time away from work, but the payback is huge.

5. Keep an open door. Everyone keeps their doors at least cracked. It’s not a rule. It’s just the culture. It’s friendly. It says, “I’m available.” It can be abused. So be careful. But for some reason that’s not an issue for us. We are a “get-er done” kind of staff…very results oriented. But we know that we can always bop into someones office with a question, or a joke, or to make quick plans to hang out together after work.

Suffering for Jesus shouldn’t mean going to work on Monday! Church offices SHOULD be the best place to work in town: the most rewarding and fulfilling. If your office isn’t, change it. If you are the senior leader, you need to make the first move. If you aren’t, print this off and slip it under the senior leaders’ door!

Tell me what your office is like. What makes it great or what makes it drudgery? I’d love to hear back. What starts in your church office will naturally flow into your congregation…for good or bad.

How to Reclaim Your Church from Spiritual Abuse

nextstepsThis is part six in a six part series on spiritual abuse. Today I want to suggest steps a church might take to help them move on from a past with spiritual abuse.

Please read parts four and five before reading this post because my recommendations are based on the problems I outlined there.

The problems in MHC’s (Mars Hill Church) communications were for every issue, they denied, hedged, evaded and accused others for as long as they could. Then, once there was undeniable evidence, they made excuses, laid blame or made diversions by nitpicking the details. Even the few times they had a “buck stops here” moments or Mark Driscoll “accepted responsibility,” he blamed his elders and claimed he never knew. blogger

So the LORD will cut off from Israel both head and tail, both palm branch and reed in a single day; the elders and prominent men are the head, the prophets who teach lies are the tail. Those who guide this people mislead them, and those who are guided are led astray. Isaiah 9:14-16

A lot can be learned from a major fallout out like Mars Hill Church in Seattle. And a lot can be learned from Israel in the Old Testament. Some things never change. Israel dissolved. Ten tribes were lost to the nations. Mars Hill also dissolved. I was part of a church of 2000 in Minneapolis that dissolved after immorality was revealed in the leadership.

My point is that if you don’t handle a crisis well, your church may cease to exist. It happens. So please be careful how you handle a crisis. If you don’t want your church to dissolve from spiritual abuse, you need to take bold action.

Next Steps to Reclaim Your Church From Spiritual Abuse

These are the steps I recommend to church leaders if they want to get back on track:

1. Get outside help. Whether you realize it or not, your thinking has become distorted. You don’t see straight. If you did, the abuse wouldn’t have taken place in the first place. You need outside influence – fresh eyes – to see what’s wrong and make objective decisions. When spiritual abuse exists, there is a dysfunctional system in place that supports the abuse. Even if you stop the abuse, the dysfunctional system remains. Until the dysfunctional system is dismantled your problems will continue.

Hopefully you are part of a denomination. One of the primary roles of a denomination is to provide outside support and direction to a church in a time of crisis. Use them. If you don’t have a denomination, hire a consultant, or invite a respected church to help lead your church out of your mess. It’s humbling to ask for help, but it will give you clear, objective thinkers during a cloudy season and your congregation will trust you more moving forward.

2. Change up the leadership. Every position in leadership, staff and elders, should be up for consideration. It might require termination, resignation, paid or unpaid time-off, etc. New people need to be brought in who don’t share the tainted past.

Your denomination can help you with these decisions. Most people don’t like to take bold action like this. They are afraid of overreacting and regretting it. But my experience is that taking bold action during a time of crisis is what saves the day. People who try to walk the middle line, and please everyone, end up inviting the disaster they are hoping to avoid.

3. Review what happened. Abuse didn’t just jump out of a box one day. It developed over time. Think through how it came about. What were the steps that led you and others to compromise what you knew to be true, and/or allowed someone in authority to take advantage of innocent people?

4. Isolate the errors and false teaching. As you review the past and find the missteps, name them. List them out. Understand the depth of the error: relationally, spiritually, biblically, etc. 

Coming out of a time of spiritual abuse is not the time to be passive or equivocate. It’s time to clear the air as quickly as possible. People need to know that you see the problem and are doing everything you can, as fast as you can, to right the ship.

5. Tell your stories. The abuse happened in community. It needs to be processed in community. People like to think the consequences of abuse will magically go away. They won’t; not unless you take action to make them go away. You need to shed light into the darkness of abuse by openly talking about it.

One way you help that happen is by telling your story. When you tell your story you will see the horror in people’s eyes, validating your experience. For years you minimized the abuse. You told yourself that you were wrong and your abuser was right. They were smarter than you and you just needed to toe the line. But seeing the reaction of people who hear your story will help empower you. They will confirm what you felt deep down all along. Hearing their story will do the same.

6. Fully admit and own the abuse. This will help you to clean house and regain trust from the congregation.

7. Grieve the losses. A death has happened. Life has been stolen from people. Time has been taken. Relationships have been broken. You don’t skip away from these things. Most people don’t understand the importance of grief. New life can’t come to you, or your church, unless you embrace the sorrow and confusion of grief. If you try to move on prematurely, the wounds of abuse will get buried and fester and putrefy, coming back to haunt you in years to come.

8. Be patient with each other. Everyone heals in different ways and at different rates. Two people may have had the same experience, but because of their personality and past experience, one can rebound quickly while the other seems lost for a few years. There is no right or wrong way to recover. Don’t judge people for not recovering like you do. This will only revictimize the abused. Don’t rush things. Recovery times time.

9. Trust God. God is the god of resurrection. That’s his game. All roads lead to resurrection and renewal with God if you will consistently take his hand and let him take you there. But it’s a process. It took years for the effects of spiritual abuse to sink in. It may take years for it’s grip to let you go. Don’t give up. God is faithful to complete the work he started in you.

Coming out of a time of spiritual abuse is not the time to be passive or equivocate. It’s time to clear the air as quickly as possible. People need to know that you see the problem and are doing everything you can, as fast as you can, to right the ship.

The fear of being honest is that you’ll lose people. But you’ve already lost people. You’ll lose more either way. So the question is: do you want to lose people because you are not being fully honest or because you were fully honest? I think the answer is clear.

I hope these six posts have given you some insight into the problem of spiritual abuse and how to move on from it. I’m happy to answer any questions you might have. Thanks for reading!

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You Can Smell Spiritual Abuse

Stop-spiritual-abuseThis is part five in a six part series on Spiritual Abuse. Track back to read all the posts so far.

I left off on my last post talking about the dangers of minimizing spiritual abuse. If spiritual abuse is minimized, a church will be quick to move on and not give abuse victims the care they need to heal.

Victims will be made to feel like they are the ones at fault. They overreacted. They are overly sensitive, etc. This subjects them to abuse…again. This is equal to throwing salt on an open wound.

Don’t Create a Cover Up

I understand that it’s very hard to fully own something as ugly as spiritual abuse. No one wants to admit the depth of it. No one wants to own that it happened in their church. But if you don’t admit it – fully – you will only add to the tragedy. A church that is quick to move on chooses to sacrifice the abused for the sake of their own reputation. They mistakenly think that, by not admitting the abuse, they will be saved from the pain and shame of fully disclosing it. In their mind, it’s for “the greater good” that they minimize what took place and move on.

But creating a cover-up is a very sad legacy to afflict on your church. A few years back I took a team of people to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Houses were flooded up to two stories. The only solution to save these houses was to gut them, stripping them down to the studs. Once the houses were stripped, they needed to be sprayed down with an antibacterial solution, left to dry, and then rebuilt.

A church that is quick to move on chooses to sacrifice the abused for the sake of their own reputation.

It felt terrible to throw out totally new appliances and woodwork. But trying to save them would have allowed the bacteria to grow and would cause the ultimate demise and destruction of the houses. It was better to gut them and start over. 

This is a perfect example for what needs to take place after abuse has “flooded” a church community. You can’t soft-sell what happened. You have to own it and clean house.

You Can Smell Spiritual Abuse a Mile Away

What people don’t understand is how sensitive and perceptive survivors of abuse are. They can “smell” abuse a mile away, even when others can’t. They hear it in the teaching, the tone of people’s voice, the subtle manipulations used, and by what’s said and not said.

Let me use another analogy from my past. When my wife and I were first married, we lived in married student housing at the University of Minnesota. Before living there, I had never seen a cockroach. After living there I became very familiar with them! The roach population got so bad that the University resorted to monthly fumigation. All the residence would have to leave for the day while they set off a fumigation “bomb.”

That insecticide has a very unique smell. The smell is permanently etched in my brain. I smell it sometimes when I’m in apartment buildings and occasionally in restaurants. I’ll often mention it to whomever I’m with, “Can you smell the insecticide?” I’ll ask. They never can. I’m just super sensitive to it. But when I smell it in a restaurant, it’s a warning sign that the restaurant has a roach problem, not some place I want to eat!

It’s the same way with abuse. Once you’ve been abused, once someone had forced themselves into your personal space without your permission, you never forget it. Not everyone will see what you see or hear what you hear. They might call you oversensitive and diminish what you sense. But you know you are right. No one can tell you differently.

If you’ve suffered spiritual abuse in a church, you can’t go to that church if there is the slightest scent of abuse in the air. You know what others don’t: they haven’t fully rooted out the last vestiges of abuse. Instead of getting the abused to be quiet, they should be sought out and used as a “Geiger counter” to detect and eradicate any traces of abuse in the church.

Eliminating Every Trace of Abuse

The false teaching used to control people needs to be actively rooted out and corrected, not merely downplayed or ignored. Respected teachers from outside the church should be brought in to reset the biblical compass in the church. The errors that were used to perpetrate the abuse need to be spelled out and fully exposed so people understand the threat they are to God’s glory and the purpose for his church.

Bold action should be taken to get a church back on track. Spiritual abuse introduces a toxin to the lifeblood of the church and needs to be removed before it causes any more damage. I’ll talk about some possible steps a church might take in my next post.

If you found this helpful please “like” it and share it with the buttons below. I’d love to hear what your experience is as it relates to what I wrote today.

Don’t Minimize Spiritual Abuse

minimizing-abuseThis is the fourth post in my blog series on Spiritual Abuse. Be sure to track back to read the full series.

I will soon post how a church can take steps to recover from their spiritually abusive past. That is, once spiritual abuse has been uncovered, what steps need to be taken to get the church back on track?

But before I list out what that means, I want to discuss two concerns I have about how a church might mishandle spiritual abuse. I’ll discuss one concern today and another one on Wednesday.

Concern One: People will minimize the abuse and explain it away.

The problem with abuse is that not everyone sees it. If everyone saw it, it would be obvious and people would take bold steps to eradicate it. What typically happens is only a few people see it full blown. A few more people see a little here and there.  They are concerned, but not enough to “make waves” and say something. Most people don’t see it at all. They aren’t close enough to the source so it’s easily missed or explained away.

When stories of abuse come out, they are so easy to deny. There are usually many more people who haven’t seen it. They outnumber those that have seen it. Those who haven’t seen it talk about all the good that is happening. No one wants to think their leaders have gone rogue. They shut down concerns by warning people about being rebellious, or gossips, or negative, etc. The abused either shut up or walk away. 

…don’t let people talk you out of the fact that spiritual abuse happened or convince you that, if it happened, it wasn’t “that bad” because good things happened too.

One abuse survivor said she hesitated to say anything about her spiritual abuse because: She felt dramatic and whiny for mentioning spiritual abuse, like she was overstating what happened. DAYNA DRUM, OCTOBER 27, 2014, Relevant Magazine

As a pastor myself, I’m all for supporting your pastor! But I’m surprised how many people blindly support and protect their pastor even when there is strong evidence about their misbehavior. It’s important to give someone the benefit of the doubt (especially when I’m the one being doubted) but questionable behavior warrants questioning, especially when there are ongoing concerns by a variety of people over time.

Other people will justify abuse by saying the “end justifies the means.” That is, if someone made spiritual progress, by so-called “spiritual abuse,” can it really be abuse if they were helped? Yes it can. And I question if they really were helped, in the long run.

Learning from Sexual Abuse

Comparing spiritual abuse to sexual abuse might bring some clarity. Let’s say an adult coerces a minor to have sex. The minor is willing. They even enjoy it. Is it abuse? Yes it is. The fact that it is consensual and enjoyable has no bearing on whether it’s abuse.

What makes it abuse is that the adult violated the innocence of the minor. Just because the minor didn’t feel violated, or understand they were violated, means nothing. A violation still occurred. Something was taken from the minor that can never be recovered. That’s abuse.

The same is true with spiritual abuse. People can testify to the amazing power of a pastor’s ministry. They can have multiple people stand up and tell their story of how they came to God and were set free. But if their will was violated in any way…if the pastor crossed the line of respecting their right to choose, redirected the person to rely on the pastor and not God, or manipulated their choice through intimidating them in any way, it’s still abuse.

It’s often easy for people to misinterpret any change or impact as the work of God. When someone is under the mind-control of a persuasive abuser, they are easily manipulated into thinking that God is doing something in their lives when it is, in fact, the abuser.

My point here: don’t let people talk you out of the fact that spiritual abuse happened or convince you that, if it happened, it wasn’t “that bad” because good things happened too. When you minimize spiritual abuse you are telling the abused a number of lies:

  • You weren’t violated in any way, so get over it.
  • You don’t know what it means to be spiritual.
  • We aren’t concerned about what happened to you if it didn’t happen to us.
  • You are expendable. We don’t need to “stop the train” just because you were hurt.
  • You are overreacting.
  • You don’t have the right to question authority.

When people hear these things subtly implied, they are revictimized. I’ll talk more about this on Wednesday. The answer to spiritual abuse is to not minimize in hope of it quickly going away. The answer is to fully expose it and take responsibility for it.

If you found this post helpful, please “like” it and share it below.

How have you seen a church minimize abuse?

How to Recover From Spiritual Abuse

This my third post in a series on spiritual abuse. I hope you’ll track back to read my other posts: Recovery

What is Spiritual Abuse?
The Spiritual Abuse Checklist

Today I want to look at how to recover from spiritual abuse. Recovering from spiritual abuse is done on a personal and corporate basis. If you’ve been under the power of a spiritually abusive church or person, you need to take strong steps to find healing. But if your church has been spiritually abusive, then the church has their own work to do. I’ll address that in my next post.

Here are some possible steps you might take as an individual to find healing.

1. Remove yourself from the abuse. This seems so obvious, but surprisingly people remain in abusive environments for a variety of reasons.

  • Mostly they doubt themselves. Deep down they think this is their fault. If they were only a better person/Christian they’d see things clearly and see how they are wrong, just like everyone is telling them. Their “abuser” is right. They are just overreacting. So, false guilt plays a big role in keeping someone from leaving.
  • People will also doubt their ability to make it without the influence of their abuser. The abuser played such a big role in their life. Yes, they crossed boundaries, but maybe they needed to do that to keep them on the straight and narrow. In other words, they are quick to minimize and deny the abuse.
  • Plus there is the peer pressure. If your friends and family all say there’s no problem, who are you to disagree? You don’t want to be the only one leaving. Isn’t it better to keep quiet and go along…not make waves? But this is why you need to get out. You need to clear your head from this kind of thinking. Just because others don’t see the abuse, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Think of it as being wounded in battle. If you are wounded, you don’t remain to keep fighting. Let others do that. You need to get to a safe place before it’s too late.

What if the church has “repented” of the abuse? Should you stay then? Maybe. I’ll
talk about this more in future posts. But unless the church does a wholesale admittance and cleansing of the abuse and establishes new leadership, there will be too many vestiges of abusive behavior in place and it will subtly eat away at you (and others).

2. Take a break. Part of the sickness of spiritual abuse is that it builds an unhealthy dependence on a person or church rather than a dependence on God. To help show you that you can survive with God alone, take a break from church. There was a season of five years when I didn’t attend church. This is probably more than the average person needs, but God did something in my heart that shaped me and prepared me for future ministry (ironically).

3. Get perspective. If you’ve been abused then most likely your thinking has been distorted. You’ve bought into some lies that need correcting. You need to put some distance in between yourself and your church for a period of time (if not indefinitely) in order to clear your mind and get back on track. A few ways to do that are:

  • Talk to friends from other churches that are known for being healthy and grace based.
  • Talk to a pastor from a healthy church.
  • Read about spiritual abuse to understand how it works.
  • Read about grace.

4. Get counseling. Abuse does a number on your soul. It’s a transgression that’s hard to quantify but is nevertheless very real. You need to sort it out with someone who can see the abuse clearly. Plus, it’s important that you understand what it might be about you that made you susceptible to the toxic thinking in the first place. I’ve found that people who struggle with insecurity and shame are especially vulnerable to the legalism promoted by spiritual abuse. They are naturally driven to want to please others to feel good about themselves. Abusers provide that.

5. Develop a strong devotional life. Spiritual abuse sets up a person, or church, as an intermediary between you and God. All the rules and requirements may have made you think you were on the inner circle with God, but it actually pushed you farther away. So work on developing your relationship with God through prayer, reflection, and meditating on scripture. 

Spiritual abuse sets up a person, or church, as an intermediary between you and God. All the rules and requirements may have made you think you were on the inner circle with God, but it actually pushed you farther away.

6. Establish healthy boundaries. Some people have trouble saying “no.” They feel obligated to go along with friends, family members, and people in authority. Hopefully you will look at these issues in counseling. But it’s very important to not just protect yourself from a toxic church, you might have to protect yourself from unhealthy people in your life too. Just like an alcoholic has to be careful not to let people back into their lives that could cause them to relapse, so does the person who has been spiritually abused.

People will come at you trying to minimize or deny what’s happened to you. They’ll say things like: “You are overreacting. It wasn’t that bad.” “You are just resisting what God wants in your life. You are being rebellious.” “They can’t be abusive. They are good people. They really helped me.” “The devil is using you to divide this church.”

Boundaries will help protect you from these attactks.

7. Reengage with a healthy church. Most churches talk about grace. But many churches talk about it better than they practice it. Visit a number of churches. Sit in the back and just listen and observe. Now that you’ve gained some perspective, look to see if grace is taught as well as lived out. Remember, abuse and legalism can be subtle. You don’t want to engage in a church that puts you on the hook to please THEM and not God.

Should you return to your old church? That would be ideal. If they have done their work to eliminate and repent of all abusive behavior, and you have found healing, then the best case scenario would be for you to be reunited with your church family. But that’s a big “if.” So be careful with that. Don’t be coerced to go back unless you feel good about it: you feel strong enough and you sense it would be a good thing for you.

You will undoubtedly be tempted to leave church forever. I understand that. I did that for many years. But I came to realize that God has chosen to move in the world through his church in spite of our brokenness. So I hope you will find your way back to church and become a fully functioning part of the body of Christ.

—-

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but I hope it gives you some of the first steps you need to find your way back to spiritual health. If you’ve had a successful recovery from spiritual abuse I’d love to have you share with my readers what helped you. Please comment below.

I’ll talk about this more over the coming days. Be sure to send me your comments and questions and “like” this or forward this post to a friend if you found it helpful.

Spiritual Abuse Checklist

This is part two in my series on Spiritual Abuse. Read part one here: What is Spiritual Abuse?

When we think of abuse, we often think of the extremes. We think of sexual or physical abuse. It’s violent. It’s evil. It’s ugly.spiritual abuse checklist But spiritual abuse isn’t that dramatic, it’s more subtle. You don’t always see it at first. (Spiritual abuse might include physical and sexual abuse, but let’s not go there for clarity sake.)

When the hotheaded jerk beats his wife and the police are called, everyone knows. It’s obvious.  There’s no disputing the broken jaw or black and blue marks.

But with spiritual abuse it’s not that obvious. There are often questions. There’s uncertainty. We can’t always see the damage that’s been done. Because of this, I want to give you a checklist to help you discern if abuse is really taking place.

A Word of Caution: Humility Required

But before I give you the checklist, I want to speak a word of caution.  When we talk about abuse, we need to come at it with humility. It shouldn’t be a witch hunt. I take no pleasure in identifying toxic and spiritually abusive pastors and churches. I do it with a broken heart, aware that I am capable of doing the same thing. Plus, in confronting abuse, churches can dissolve. Pastors can lose their jobs. This is very sobering.

As you learn about spiritual abuse and possibly confront it, I hope you will do so with humility. I’m not asking you to excuse the abuse in any way. But let’s not demonize the idea of abuse to such an extreme that none of  us think we are capable of it. Sure we are. We are human. We mistreat each other all the time. And if we are not careful, our response to spiritual abuse can be just as ugly; Just as hurtful; and just as divisive and destructive as the original abuse.

Jesus cautioned us to take the log out of our own eye before we take the speck of dirt from someone else. So before you accuse others of emotional or spiritual abuse, look in the mirror. Are you doing this to others…even in the subtlest ways? Do you recognize that you are capable of it?

Spiritual Abuse Checklist

With that said, let me give you a checklist to help you determine if you might be in a church that is spiritually abusive. Sometimes a symptom checklist helps to reveal the obvious. We are so prone to deny abuse. But if we answer “yes” to several questions, it helps us to break through our denial and admit the obvious.

There’s nothing scientific about this list. These are merely questions I developed based on observing spiritually abusive church environments. 

Sometimes a symptom checklist helps to reveal the obvious. We are so prone to deny abuse. But if we answer “yes” to several questions, it helps us to break through our denial and admit the obvious.

  1. Is the outside influence getting wider or smaller? That is, do you see your church making more and more connections to other churches and pastors or less and less? Does your church find reasons to break fellowship with others?
  2. Is the list of acceptable behavior getting smaller and smaller and the list of objectionable behavior getting longer and longer? Has it been made very clear to you what you can and cannot do as a church member?
  3. Is there a sense that you have to check with somebody to make sure you are doing the right thing?
  4. Do you find yourself hiding or minimizing thoughts or behavior to not draw critical attention to yourself?
  5. Is there a climate of fear and shame in the congregation?
  6. Is there high praise for conforming to the acceptable model?
  7. Are certain teachings repeated over and over, or is the full range of biblical truth taught?
  8. Does the teaching move people to rely more and more on the Spirit of God or the teachings of the church and its leadership?
  9. Are people afraid to challenge questionable behavior and teaching?
  10. Is your leadership defensive when questioned about their behavior and teaching?
  11. Is it hard to get information/answers from the leadership of the church, specifically the pastor? That is, is there a pattern of avoidance?
  12. Is there a sense that your pastors are better or more insightful than other pastors, that his/her teaching is more inspired than other pastors?
  13. Is there a sense that your church has an inside track with God, possibly the only way to God?
  14. Are you made to feel guilty or like God doesn’t love you for not complying with what’s expected from your pastor or church?
  15. Do you find yourself having to justify and explain away your concerns about the leadership?
  16. When you ask questions of the leadership, do they eventually turn the conversation around to attacking you personally or your spirituality?
  17. Is there a system of accountability in place to correct pastors and leaders that stray in some fashion? Most denominations have this in place. If your church is independent, what kind of safe guards are in place should leadership stray? Note: many independent churches have people they say they are submitted to, but in reality, these people hold no authority over them for correction.
  18. Do you find people outside of your church expressing concern about your involvement in the church?
  19. Do you find yourself increasingly doubting your ability to make good decisions?
  20. Does encountering your pastor/leaders leave you feeling more confident or more ashamed of yourself and needing to please them?

If you answered “yes” to even a few of these questions, it’s worth a discussion with someone in leadership. (If you can think of another question to add to the list, let me know.)

Confronting Spiritual Abuse

Now, here’s a word to the wise. Don’t go in to confront your leaders with “guns blazing.” It never helps to accuse people and put them on the defensive. Like I said at the outset, everyone is capable of misbehavior. We often fall into emotional and spiritually abusive behavior because we want the best for someone else but we approach it in controlling ways. We don’t trust people to listen to us, or trust God to do his work, or trust our ability to confront people respectfully, so we take the easy way: manipulation.

When you speak to your leaders, give them the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume the worst. Assume they mean well but they’ve chosen poor tactics to achieve their goals. Over the years I’ve detected my own manipulative behavior. I’ve worked hard to strip it from my toolbox. I never meant harm. I just wasn’t trained in interpersonal relationships so I had to learn through trial and error (like most of us). I couldn’t have written this post twenty years ago. I was too guilty of it.

Let me give you an example. Over the years I’ve caught myself saying “You must do this…” It’s a subtle word, must, but why did I feel the need to use it so much? Didn’t I trust the person to follow my advice? Didn’t I trust God to reveal to the person their need to do what I was recommending? No, I didn’t. I needed to turn up the intensity so people didn’t feel like they had a choice in the matter. That’s manipulation. Whenever I speak in that manner I’m violating people’s right to choose. It’s a form of abuse. I may have been ignorant of my abuse but not innocent of it. I needed to own that about myself and change.

When you speak to your leader, tell them how you feel when they say or do certain things. Don’t accuse them of abuse. Image you were to confront me about my language. You could say something like, “Pastor, I’d like to talk to you about something you often say. You often say, “You MUST do this or that.” When you say that, I feel like my ability to choose is being violated. I feel like I am no longer accountable to God, I’m accountable to you. I’m sure you don’t mean for this to happen, but I wonder if you could choose a different way to convey your passion?”

Do you see how respectful this is? No accusation. You simply told me how you felt when I said something. Hopefully, if you confront your pastor, he/she will listen and  be a better person for it. If they won’t listen to you, then refer to my post on How to Confront a Toxic Pastor.

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What is Spiritual Abuse?

In my last post I talked about how to confront a toxic pastor. Like my post on toxic church people, the post on toxic pastors was read by hundreds of people. The interest in these two posts tells me that there is a lot of toxicity in the church. We need to do something about this! Jesus called us to be the “light of the world,” but how can that be if we allow so much darkness to exist?spiritual_abuse

A toxic church is a church where spiritual abuse is allowed to exist. But many people don’t know what spiritual abuse is and are blind to it. Part of the problem is that so many Christians have been unknowingly exposed to spiritual abuse, they don’t see it for what it is. Spiritual abuse has been normalized to some extent, preventing believers from grasping the dangers of it.

This might not make sense to you right now, but follow along with me for the next few posts and I think you’ll start to see what I mean. I plan on releasing at least four posts over the next two weeks discussing the subtle power of spiritual abuse. Here’s what I have planned so far:

  1. What is Spiritual Abuse?
  2. A 20 Question Checklist on Spiritual Abuse.
  3. Let’s Not Revictimize the Spiritually Abused.
  4. How a Church Can Recover From Spiritual Abuse.

I’ll wade in slowly today with some simple definitions of abuse taken from the newly revised edition of my first book, Healing the Hurts of Your Past (not yet available).

First, my definition for abuse:

Abuse happens when someone crosses the boundaries of another person and enters that person’s personal space for their own gain (that is, the abuser) and to the detriment of their victim. Abuse involves a systematic pattern of manipulating, intimidating, or coercing their victim to gain and maintain power and control over them.  

Spiritual abuse has been normalized to some extent, preventing believers from grasping the dangers of it.

Now, my definition of emotional abuse:

Emotional abuse often works in conjunction with other forms of abuse. You can recognize emotional abuse when someone: 

  • dismisses your difficulties, issues, or input as unimportant, or an overreaction.
  • doesn’t listen to you.
  • belittles you by calling you names and humiliates you in front of others.
  • puts down your opinions or accomplishments.
  • acts excessively controlling or jealous:

- they limit your use of money, technology, travel, etc.

- they restrict you from seeing friends or family.

- they constantly check up on you.

  • ignores logic and gets dramatic and even hostile in order to get their way.
  • makes you feel responsible and guilty for things that have nothing to do with you. In other words, it’s always your fault. It’s never their fault.
  • attempts to destroy any outside support you receive by belittling your friends, family, church, counselor, etc.
  • causes you to “walk on eggshells” in an effort not to upset them.

Finally, here’s my definition for spiritual abuse. It incorporates the definitions above:

Spiritual abuse is a form of emotional abuse, but it happens when people use God, or their supposed relationship to God, to control your behavior. The physical abuser might use their fist to threaten you. The verbal abuser will use their words. The spiritual abuser uses God (or the Bible, church, or religion) as their threat.

Parents can spiritually abuse their children by threatening their children with what God will do to them if they don’t obey their parents. Ministers can do the same thing. I was talking to a friend once about why he left his church after going there for years. He said, “I was just tired of getting beat up every week” (referring to harsh sermons). I’ve actually heard this a lot. This is spiritual abuse.

It’s unfortunate how quick some people are to defend spiritual abuse. If I went to my friend’s pastor and told him that people were leaving his church because he was spiritually abusive, he’d probably say, “No, I’m just preaching the Word of God. I can’t help it if they find it offensive.” Spiritual abusers are quick to explain away their behavior, justifying it as their service to God and people’s lack of commitment. 

One of the subtlest forms of spiritual abuse is when a religious person speaks emphatically about God and faith with no room to disagree. I bet you’ve been in a group where this has happened. You were with one or two people who were going off on what the Bible says on some topic and how their way of interpreting the Bible was the only way to see it. They belittled any person that dared to disagree with them, and all the while you were thinking to yourself…Well, I disagree! But you didn’t want to say anything because you didn’t want them to think you were a bad or unspiritual person. That’s spiritual abuse. 

But They Aren’t Trying To Hurt Anybody

People often can’t see spiritual abuse because they think of an abuser as someone who purposefully sets out to harm others. In their mind, an abuser is an evil person with evil intentions. But that’s not necessarily true. An abusive person can simply be someone who is not aware of how their behavior adversely impacts those around them.

Pastors can easily fall into abusing others precisely because they do care for others. They want to help so much that they force their beliefs and behaviors on others, thinking that their ways will rescue people, when in reality, their behavior crosses personal boundaries that create emotional and spiritual damage. People excuse their behavior because they trust their motives. But there is no excuse for spiritual abuse. Good intentions don’t absolve them of their abusive behavior.

I’ll talk about this more over the coming days. Be sure to send me your comments and questions and “like” this or forward this post to a friend if you found it helpful.

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