Category Archives: faith

Abusive Pastors, Understanding Why They Do What They Do

If you’ve been subjected to spiritually abusive pastors or leaders, you might wonder how that is even possible. Aren’t spiritual leaders supposed to be the ones who have their lives together? After all, how can they lead you into a healthy relationship with God if they don’t have one themselves?

According to NetCE,[i] there are three primary traits that cause people to spiritually abuse others:

  1. Narcissistic traits/tendencies, resulting from a deep insecurity. For many who spiritually abuse, having spiritual knowledge to hold over people becomes a way to meet their need for inner security or self-esteem.
  2. A genuine belief that one is doing “the right thing” (rarely an intent to harm). Many who act out in spiritually abusive ways genuinely believe they have found some type of “answer” and desire to share it with others, likely unaware of the subconscious insecurities that drive them.
  3. Skills in the language of love, emotions, trust, and intimacy.[ii]

These three traits create the perfect storm of spiritual abuse. It starts with insecurity.  In my opinion, shame is at the heart of the abusive pastor’s insecurity and narcissistic behavior. Shame is an inner gnawing that convinces them that they don’t measure up. Their deep sense of inadequacy is then transformed when they find the “truth,” but not always in a good way.

Abusive Pastors are Well-intentioned Dragons

Coming to faith can set you free, but it can also be misused to justify your much-needed sense of superiority. Your shame seizes the opportunity to exalt yourself over others, but you don’t see what you are doing because you think you are helping people find the truth like you did. Your leadership is tainted from the beginning.

Abusive pastors are often well-intentioned dragons, forcing their will on people thinking they are doing people a favor. When people resist, the pastor doesn’t think he/she is at fault. It’s the person’s lack of faith or spiritual interest. So, the pastor either increases his/her control over their member or dismisses them as unworthy.

In their classic book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, authors Johnson and Van Vonderen make this observation:

There are spiritual systems in which…the members are there to meet the needs of the leaders… These leaders attempt to find fulfillment through the religious performance of the very people whom they are there to serve and build. This is an inversion of the body of Christ. It is spiritual abuse. (p.23)

It’s sad to see people use spiritual leadership to meet their own emotional needs.

Confronting Abusive Pastors

In my new book, Broken Trust, I suggest that if you are being spiritually abused, you should either confront your abusive leadership or leave the church. Unfortunately, it’s often very hard to confront abusive pastors because they rarely see their faults and are very defensive when confronted.  

Converge Magazine wrote an excellent article looking at the ministry of a nationally known spiritual leader and why he needed to be confronted.

The greatest difficulty in ministering to abusers is this: they don’t believe there is anything really wrong with them. Their skills at self-deception, combined with their distortions of thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes, fortifies them against recognizing their soul sickness.[i]

If you are waiting for a spiritually abusive leader to see their sin and change, you might be waiting a long time.

Helping Abusive Pastors

In Broken Trust, I include an entire section to help pastors dismantle their spiritually abusive church. Some pastors are evil. But many pastors stumble into abuse for a variety of reasons…as I mentioned, often related to their shame.

Many abusive pastors choose their tactics thinking they are serving God and believers. They don’t realize they are doing much harm. They are no different from well-intentioned parents whose poor leadership ends up hurting their children.

If you are suffering under the ministry of an abusive pastor, I hope you will confront him/her. But if you can’t confront, then I hope you will leave their ministry. One way or another, they need to get the message that their tactics are hurting people.

This post was adapted from Broken Trust…a practical guide to identify and recover from toxic faith, toxic church, and spiritual abuse.

[i] https://convergemagazine.com/real-love-mark-driscoll-14786/2/

[i]  NetCE offers Nationally accredited Evidence-based CME / CEU / CE for healthcare professionals.

[ii] Understanding and Treating Spiritual Abuse. Jamie Marich, Ph.D., LPCC-S, LICDC-CS, www.NetCE.com

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Spiritual Abuse and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Spiritual abuse and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In my last post, I mentioned five lessons I learned from spiritual abuse survivors in the writing of my new book, Broken Trust. One of the lessons is that post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is more prevalent than you might realize among survivors of spiritual abuse.

In writing Broken Trust, I purposefully sought out input from survivors of spiritual abuse. As I heard back from these people, they shared a common experience. Many of them were easily triggered by words and experiences that the average believer finds normal.

For example, singing a popular worship song in church, hearing a particular Bible verse quoted, or even being introduced to a pastor might trigger a “fight or flight” response: a sudden panic attack or intense anger. Possibly both.

Here is a brief video that discusses this phenomenon. 

What I find troubling is the guilt that often accompanies this experience. People often conclude that their negative response to these spiritual inputs mean that something is wrong with them. They must be defective to have such an adverse reaction to a spiritual experience. It makes them question if the accusations from their abusive congregation were right.

Maybe they are the problem.

PTSD doesn’t have to come from one powerfully traumatic experience. It can come from the slow drip of the stripping of your dignity that happens with spiritual abuse.

Maybe they were wrong to leave.

Maybe they are hypersensitive and unreasonable.

It reminds me of my experience after leaving a spiritually abusive church. I was unable to attend worship services any place for five years, even though I tried many times to return. I didn’t have panic attacks, but the services seemed superficial and inauthentic. I left the services more irritated than inspired.

I don’t think I suffered from PTSD, but my experience helped me relate to what I was hearing from others. My bad church experience deeply affected me. It changed me. It wasn’t something I could just “get over.”

Spiritual Abuse and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Stephen A. Smith blogs about spiritual abuse at libertyforcaptives.com. He wrote an article called, “Crock Pot Trauma” that I recommend you take the time to read. Here is an excerpt from his article:

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) classifies and describes various anxiety disorders, one of which is post traumatic stress. Part of the classification of post traumatic stress is the reaction to the traumatic event:

  • Triggered panic attacks
  • Agoraphobia (fear of being trapped, or loss of control around people)
  • Avoidance of places or people which remind us of the traumatic event or situation
  • Restricted expression of affect (difficulty feeling happy or loved)
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Trouble with nightmares or lack of sleep
  • Hypervigilance
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Flashbacks
  • Inability to function in relationships
  • Sense of a foreshortened future
  • Feeling trapped, detached or estranged from other people.

While not every spiritual abuse victim suffers these symptoms, some do. I have experienced all of these symptoms during the past five years—and I know folks from my former church and other cult-like groups who have experienced similar symptoms. Indeed, the church consulting agency that helped our church disband recommended that the church be shut down entirely. They did this because almost every member of the congregation was traumatized when they entered the church building. In a manner of speaking, we were all spiritual POWs now set free. Yet many of us still carry psychological chains.

Sometimes it takes very little to rattle those chains. Situations which trigger my feelings of panic include: seeing a police car turn on its lights behind me; reading the same translation of the Bible that my former pastor favored; being late to an event by even one minute; encountering an authority figure; hearing the old hymns that my former church used to play; walking into a congregation of less than 100 people; participating in an event which has a formalized dress code; grocery shopping; and flossing my teeth. Yes, in my former church we even had a theology of flossing. Our pastor equated flossing with spiritual maturity.

What I’m hoping you’ll see is that PTSD doesn’t have to come from one powerfully traumatic experience. It can come from the slow drip of the stripping of your dignity that happens with spiritual abuse. If you have experienced this kind of abuse, you are not defective. You don’t need fixing. You need healing. Your soul has been ravaged. It’s not your fault, no matter what others say or what you might feel.

If you have experienced some kind of spiritual abuse, please consider that you might be suffering from PTSD. It’s a very serious condition that requires outside help from a professional.

In Broken Trust I wrote:

Spiritual abuse will convince you that it is selfish to think of yourself. You are conditioned to feel guilt whenever you put your needs before the needs of the organization. Seeking help might even imply that your spiritual leaders are wrong, and you don’t want to make that accusation. But if you want to regain wholeness, it’s imperative that you get very “selfish” right now and seek the healing you need. Chapter Fourteen: How to Recover From Spiritual Abuse, Broken Trust

The impact of spiritual abuse won’t just go away on its own. I hope you care for yourself enough to seek help.

 

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Survivors of Spiritual Abuse: Five Ways to Offer Your Support

I’m working on a new book called, Broken Trustreclaiming God’s survivors of spiritual abusegrace from toxic faith, toxic church and spiritual abuse. I want to help the many hurting people I’ve met find a way to healing and wholeness. In this post, I’d like to speak to pastors and other believers who meet survivors of spiritual abuse.

In my book, I describe survivors of spiritual abuse as the person that Jesus spoke about who  was wounded and found by the side of the road. The religious people were not willing or able to help him. Thankfully the “Good Samaritan” stopped and did what was necessary for healing.

It’s very easy to dismiss the concerns of survivors of spiritual abuse as overreacting. It’s tempting to minimize their hurt and expect them to “get over it.” But what many people don’t understand is that survivors of spiritual abuse often suffer from PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder). Minimizing their abuse and expecting a quick recovery only adds to their pain and may send them away, feeling like no one can understand them, or they are too broken to heal.

Helping Survivors of Spiritual Abuse

Here are five ideas to keep in mind when befriending or pastoring survivors of spiritual abuse:

1. Listen to their story. Survivors of spiritual abuse need to tell their story. It helps them to process their experience. They gain awareness of what happened to them even as they speak. Talking helps them to sort out what happened.

Don’t feel the need to jump in and correct them or offer solutions. That’s what they have experienced in abuse: people telling them how to think and feel. What they need is a safe context to speak without being corrected or judged for their thoughts or emotions.

2. Validate their experience. As people tell their story, they are afraid of being judged. They are afraid of being rejected because they are either too far off base or too broken. Let them know that you appreciate them telling their story and you believe their experience. Even if you don’t think their experience would have wounded you so deeply, be careful not to minimize or dismiss how it affected them. It’s their story to tell.

3. Don’t offer quick fixes. Christians are great at offering simplistic solutions to complex problems. I noticed the contrast in approaches when I joined a Celebrate Recovery ministry. The small groups gave each person a chance to respond to the evening’s teaching. But other members were not allowed to offer comment. We just thanked the person for what they shared and went on to the next person. This was so foreign to me (and refreshing).

My experience in church small group studies is that someone would share a concern, and everyone else in the group felt it was their responsibility to offer their 25 cent diagnosis of the problem along with as many Bible verses as they could remember. Point: don’t do that! Just listen and draw them out. Invite them to say more and give more examples. It will help them to heal.

4. Give them space and time to heal. People are often exposed to abuse for years. It will take years for them to regain their equilibrium. Don’t rush them. If they have recently joined your church, don’t push them to become a member or volunteer. You can offer the opportunity, but don’t imply that either are necessary to be fully accepted.

You have to realize that just returning to church is a big step for survivors of spiritual abuse. It might be months or years before they can do any more than that.

5. Appreciate their hyper-sensitivity. Survivors of spiritual abuse are prone to high anxiety and panic attacks due to their past experiences. Little reminders will trigger strong reactions. Many people have spoken to me about their fear of running into someone from their old church at the local store. Don’t brush this off as silly, insignificant, or “nothing to worry about.” Some people organize their day around avoiding people.

You can be a healing presence to survivors of spiritual abuse or another person along the way who adds to their pain. Consider how you might be a healing presence.

Get a Free Copy of Broken Trust

If you would like to read a draft of my book, Broken Trust, email me and I’d be happy to send you a free copy. It’s still a work in progress. Any feedback you have to offer me would be welcome. I’m doing my best to offer practical advice so people can move toward healing and full recovery.

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Unmet Expectations: How Should You Respond?

Christmas is over. Was it all you hoped it would be? I’m not just talking about the presents, but the relationships. Did it all work out? How you respond to unmet expectations is really the daily battle of life and it determines your success in life as well.

Hundreds of Expectations

Whether you realize it or not, you face unmet expectations every day, not just the day after Christmas. You have hundreds of expectations for how the day should go, from your alarm clock going off on time, to the weather, to how your boss should treat you, to how your favorite Netflix show should end. It’s endless.

The Emotions of Unmet Expectations

When you meet those expectations, you experience a degree of satisfaction and contentment, even elation. But when they aren’t met you experience these primary emotions:

  1. Anger. You are mad that your expectations weren’t met and start looking to blame someone for it: others, yourself, and sometimes God.
  2. Sadness. You grieve the loss of what didn’t happen.
  3. Fear. You are afraid that your expectation will continue to go unmet.

For the small expectations, these emotions are barely detectable. But they still exist to some degree. The bigger the difference between what you expected and what you got, the greater the emotion.

Responding to Unmet Expectations

Now, there is nothing wrong with these emotions. They are God-given and natural. The problem is what happens after you experience these emotions. How will you respond? Choices must be made and this is where we often go wrong. We let our emotions influence our choices.

Put simply, our choices go in two directions: constructive and destructive. We default to destructive because that’s what feels good in the moment and that’s what people modeled for us most often growing up. We follow one of two paths:

  • Silence. We shut down and isolate from others.
  • Violence. We strike out with our words, actions, or even our fists.

Unfortunately both responses only cause more loss and begin a downward spiral that leads to more emotion and more bad choices.

A better choice is to be constructive. Again there are two paths to go here:

  • Resolution: You seek to meet the unmet expectation either by raising the performance or lowering the expectation.
  • Acceptance: You choose to accept that you can’t meet  your expectations and that life can still go on.

Like I said before, this process is ongoing every day, whether you realize it or not. Your brain is processing losses non-stop, choosing these two pathways and incurring the benefit or curse of your choices. Choose well and you release the weight of your loss. Choose poorly and you add another brick to your backpack.

Inviting God into Your Unmet Expectations

You can’t do much about your emotional response to unmet expectations, but you can do a lot about how you respond to them. This is where God can help. Turn to God with your anger, sadness, or fear and say:

Father, I’m so disappointed in what didn’t happen. But I don’t want my emotions to influence me to do the wrong thing. Help me to think clearly and respond in a constructive way. Give me the wisdom and ability to resolve what went wrong or the grace to accept it and move on.

This is a very practical way to incorporate God into your daily life. Unmet expectations happen all the time, so invite God into those moments. If you do, you’ll find yourself living with a greater sense of peace than you ever have before. You’ll also find that God has become very real in your life as you turn to him on a regular basis.

Here’s to a better 2017. To learn more about overcoming losses you might want to read my books, STUCK, or Return from Exile.

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What Would You Call This Book?

I’ve got just a quick note for you about a new book I’ve written. new book

I need your help in picking a title.

Would you click this link and pick which one you like the best?

Much appreciated!

What’s it About?

The book is a rewrite of “Out of Exile,” a book I wrote to help pastors recover from setbacks. But since everyone experiences setbacks, I wanted to offer something that helped everyone. I rewrote, “Out of Exile” offering examples that fit all kinds of loss: death, divorce, health, career, etc.

The book is written with 40 short chapters to help people understand loss, how it impacts you, what you can learn from it, and then how to overcome it to make a comeback in life.

I look forward to hearing from you. The survey will take less than a minute.

You can request a free copy of the book in the survey in exchange for a review on Amazon.com. Here’s the link again.

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Lose Your Christian Cliches and Jargon

I recently spoke in church about seven ways to share your faith without Christian clicheticking people off. (Download: Road Trip- Sharing Your Faith.) One of my seven points was to “Lose your clichés, jargon and spiritual innuendos.” Christian clichés, etc. are so easy to fall into, but they undermine your credibility causing people to question your sincerity.

Here’s an excerpt from my message:

Christian clichés

Christian clichés are when you over simplify complex matters with a pat answer. Rather than offering a thoughtful response, you quote a Bible verse, or say something like, “You just gotta let go and let God,” as if that is the end of  the discussion. No more needs to be said. 

The truth is, we should learn to speak intelligently about the concerns that people have about faith without resorting to a cliché. 

Clichés are often true. But that’s not the problem. The problem with clichés is that they trivialize what’s important by making it sound like once you know God you don’t have to think any more. You just have to pull out your list of Top 20 Christian clichés or Bible verses to answer any hard question that comes your way. The truth is, we should learn to speak intelligently about the concerns that people have about faith without resorting to a cliché. 

Jargon

Jargon is the words or terminology that are unique to a subculture. A subculture is any smaller group of people, like medical workers, or athletes, or motorcycle riders, etc. You have medical jargon, and sports jargon. You’ve got biker jargon. Every hobby has its unique jargon. Churches are a subculture.

But jargon only makes sense to people in that subculture. For example, if a doctor uses medical jargon on me, I’m clueless. It’s not helpful. And it’s the same when you use Christian jargon with your friends and family. People don’t know what you are talking about. Church people say things like:

  • “I feel led to do this.”
  • “I feel a check in my spirit.”
  • “We need to bathe this in prayer.”
  • “Those are works of the flesh.”
  • “You need to be born again.”
  • “The blood of Jesus covers that.”

If you’ve been in the church a long time, you probably know what these mean. But if you aren’t a church person these phrases just sound silly, if not scary. Plus it’s rude to talk in code around people who don’t know the code.

I am careful not to use jargon in church on Sunday. It’s tempting because it’s like shorthand for people in the know. But I understand that many people come to our church who didn’t grow up in church. Using jargon is confusing at best and offensive at worst.

Spiritual Innuendo

You probably know what sexual innuendo is. That’s when no matter what you say someone reads something sexual into it. They always find a sexual connotation. They think it’s funny and clever.

It’s not clever. It’s awkward. And it’s just as intellectually insulting as sexual innuendo.

Personally, I find it insulting to reduce everything to sex. I don’t mean it’s morally insulting (although that is true as well). I think it’s intellectually insulting. God gave us a creative brain to talk about interesting things, yet some people want to use that brain to talk about sex and they assume I want to do the same. That’s insulting to me.

People do that with faith. They turn everything into an opportunity to work God into the conversation. You might say, “Man, I love these French fries.” And then I say, “That’s interesting you should say that because I was just thinking about how much God loves us.” And you are thinking, “Really, that’s where you want to take this conversation? I can’t even mention French fries without you bringing God into the conversation?”

It’s not clever. It’s awkward. And it’s just as intellectually insulting as sexual innuendo.

If you want people to treat you seriously, hear what you have to say, and not get mad at you, then please… lose your Christian clichés, jargon, and the innuendos. It’s hard at first because it’s a strong habit. But people will relate to you better if your faith doesn’t drip from every word you speak.

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Toxic Pastors and Why They Are Not Confronted

Why is it so hard to confront toxic pastors? If they are clearly in the wrong, it seems like it would be the obvious thing to do. But if you’ve ever been in a toxic church, you know how hard it can be.

Here are ten reasons why people don’t confront toxic pastors.

Ten Reasons People Don’t Confront Toxic Pastors:

  1. You don’t want to be accused of being rebellious. Toxic pastors make you feel like disagreeing with them is equal to questioning God. And we all know that bad things happen to people who question God, right? The Old Testament has more than enough stories to give you pause. You don’t want the ground to open up and swallow you, and you don’t want to be labeled a rebel, or God forbid, having a “rebellious spirit.”
  2. You get filled with self-doubt. Toxic pastors make you feel like YOU are the problem. They say things like, “The reason you disagree with me is because you aren’t as spiritually mature as I am. You need to trust my leadership and submit to my authority like the Bible tells you too.” That can mess with your mind. They turn things around and before you know it, you are asking for THEIR forgiveness when it should be the other way around.
  3. You fear losing your circle of friends. Sometimes we tolerate a toxic church simply because that’s where our friends are. When I left a church, after being there for seven years, I lost my entire network of friends.
  4. You don’t want to lose your equity investment. If you have a home mortgage, you have an equity investment. Each month that you make a payment, your equity, or ownership of the house, grows. But if the bank foreclosed on you, you lose your equity. All that investment would be lost. That happens in relationships too. You feel that you’ve invested so much time and energy into the relationship/church that you don’t want to lose your investment. So you try a little harder, a little longer, hoping it will work. You even tell yourself that God will reward you for persevering. So you invest another year, but the system doesn’t get any better. Now you’ve lost another year and your equity has increased which makes you feel even MORE obligated to stay.
  5. You like to be liked/needed. If you are a good performer, the toxic system can be very rewarding. You feed off of the praise. Or, maybe you simply can’t handle the thought of the church people not liking you if you leave. Your low self-worth keeps you trapped.
  6. You fear losing your salvation. They had you convinced that their way was the only way to God. Even though you know they are wrong, you fear falling away from God without their strong input into your life. You’re not sure you can make it on your own.
  7. You fear exposure/humiliation for leaving. You know if you leave that your name and reputation will be trashed by those in the church. You’ve seen it happen to others who left the church and you don’t want it to happen to you.
  8. You fear being wrong. What if they ARE right? After all, what do you know? You don’t know the Bible like they do. And the pastor and his/her followers seem so convinced.
  9. You lack boundaries. You were raised to believe that people had the right to impose their thoughts/beliefs/will upon you. You don’t feel like it’s your right to question others. You are used to being violated. You think that’s your lot in life, so you let it continue.
  10. It’s not worth your time. You are so sick of the craziness that you are just done. You don’t think talking to the pastor will change anything, just aggravate you more. So you up and leave. End of story.

As you can see, confronting toxic pastors isn’t so easy. There are lots of reasons people fail to follow through on their intentions. It takes maturity to stand tall and confront the madness. Someone has to do it. Why not you?

Can you think of other reasons that people don’t confront toxic pastors? Leave a comment below.

If you need help in confronting church leadership, see my post on how to confront a toxic pastor here.

If you have encountered a toxic pastor, let me know about your experience. I am in the process of writing a new book on how to handle a toxic church experience and your insight would be helpful to me. Email me here. Thanks.

 

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