Tag Archives: church

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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Making Progress on Book About Spiritually Abusive Churches

Here’s a quick update on the new book I’m working on. It’s a book that helps people in spiritually abusive churches identify what’s wrong with their setting and what to do about it.

Four Changes

I’ve invited people to read my first draft and give me their honest feedback. It’s been very helpful, causing me to make the following changes:

  1. Change the name of the book to reflect a primary feeling associated with experiencing spiritual abuse: Broken Trust.
  2. Eliminate half the material I suggested. It didn’t flow with the main purpose of the book, which is to give practical “how-to” steps” for people in spiritually abusive churches.

  3. Soften my approach. I’m a straight shooter and most people appreciate that about my writing. But people who have suffered in spiritually abusive churches have been shot at enough. I need to be more careful with my words with this audience.

  4. Answer more questions. People in spiritually abusive churches are hurt, confused, and often full of guilt. They don’t know what to do. It seems that everything they do is labeled as wrong and incurs the condemnation of many. They want answers, so I included a whole chapter on FAQ’s and gave more detail to many questions I had already answered.

These changes will make the book much more readable and helpful. If you would like to receive advance drafts of the book, email me here and I’ll add you to the e-list.

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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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Toxic Church, Toxic Faith… a new book in the works

People often ask me what my next book will be. My answer has been that I’ve got nothing in the works. But then I noticed that my blog series last year on toxic church and toxic pastors has gotten a lot of reads. In fact, they are always in the top ten of my years of posts.

I wondered why that was and so I googled some of the topics I covered on toxic church and saw that my posts are near the top of the list. Hmmm… maybe there is an interest out there that I didn’t realize existed.

Checking Amazon.com there is only one book on the subject. So…I have a new answer to the question about my next book. I just started a new book to help people discern a toxic church and know what steps to take with it.

Would you contribute your thoughts on toxic church?

I’m letting you know about this because if you had an experience in a toxic church, I’d like to hear about it. You can email me your thoughts by clicking the link in the margin. I may or may not include your story/thoughts in the book but whatever is included will be anonymous with some details changed so no one could trace the story to you. Whatever you send will broaden my understanding and make for a more helpful book.

It’s a sad statement…

It’s really a sad statement that a book like this is even needed. “Toxic” and “church” should never be two words that are linked. But when it happens, people need to know what to do, so I’ll do my best to offer advice so believers can discover the true church that Jesus had in mind for us: a gathering of people that encourages people to know God and find freedom.

Let others know

Please share this post with your friends who may have interest in contributing their experience with a toxic church. I’d love to hear from them. Thanks so much.

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When Does Celebrating Become Flaunting?

In my last post I made an appeal to the Church to seek unity more than celebrate or defend their side of the current same-sex marriage court ruling. But unity, like love, takes a lot of work.  white_house_rainbow_zps24ptrqtq

For example, unity not only requires that you are careful in what you do or say, it requires being careful with how you are perceived. You can’t always control this. You don’t want to obsess about it. But when the apostle Paul tells us to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit” I think we can do more than we often do.

What I’m thinking of is seeing the White House lit up in rainbow colors. Whoever thought of that was a brilliant PR person. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt and think they did that out of pure excitement and with no malice. They knew the supreme court decision made many people happy and so they threw a party for them. But I have to wonder if the same level of celebration would have been offered if the supreme court decision was 4-5 against and not 5-4 in favor. Or would the decision have been cast as a dark day in America?

When individuals put a rainbow on their Facebook page, that’s one thing. That’s an individual saying “YEAH for my team.” I’m okay with that. But when the government openly celebrates one side of a hotly debated issue it insults the other side. The government has the right to pass a law that people disagree with. I respect that. But it would be nice if they respected all the people who were not represented in their decision by not being so partisan. It only breeds contempt.

Do you see what I’m saying? When does celebrating your win turn to flaunting your win, or worse, mocking and even taunting those who lost? Like I said, I want to think the best. But not everyone is so charitable. To some, the illuminated White House was an aggressive act of “in your FACE!” I think it only added fuel to a raging fire.

In the church I’m seeing a lot of people using the Bell coined phrase, “Love Wins.” Again, I give people the benefit of the doubt. How can you fault celebrating love? But that phrase can easily be interpreted as “Haters Lose.” Do you see how these words can subtly undermine trust within the church? If your side “loves” what does that make the other side? Those who disagree with the court’s decision can easily feel painted as fascist bigots.  Some are, but many aren’t. No one likes to be labeled and then dismissed as a hater.

I’m not trying to be negative here. I just want to point out something that we all need to recognize as a potential threat to unity. Celebrating isn’t always innocent…at least it’s not perceived that way. Wisdom suggests we factor this in whenever OUR side wins, whatever side you are on. Let’s all be careful to make EVERY EFFORT to keep the unity of the Spirit.

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What Ever Happened to Unity?

unityI shared the following thoughts at my church yesterday:

I’d like to bring some perspective on the recent supreme court ruling if I can. It’s interesting to me that in some churches today, they are celebrating. I understand why. Yet in other churches, they are mad and fearful of what may happen next. I understand their concerns too. In many other churches, there is just confusion. I don’t want us to be confused by this.

I can’t say that I know God’s heart but from reading his word,  God may not share any of these emotions this morning. I think this morning God might be grieved because his church is divided.

The agenda that should take priority over all agendas is our walking in unity with people even if we can’t agree with them. That’s a topic I’m willing to talk about.

Jesus prayed, “Father, might they be one as you and I are one.” He prayed that we might love each other in order that we might show the world that He exists. The apostle Paul said that we should make every effort to maintain the unity of the church. I’m not seeing that. What I’m seeing is people taking sides and saying terrible things about the other side of the argument. It’s not right. As your pastor, I want to encourage you to not join in this war of words and actions.

The Bible is clear about Satan’s agenda: he wants to divide believers. If he can divide us and create bitterness in our hearts toward each other, he has done his job. I think that is what has happened. I don’t want our church to fall into his trap.

Jesus said we should be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves. Paul said we should speak with grace and truth. There is no greater time for this than now. This is a watershed moment in the church. I hope you realize the historical implication of what has happened. This decision by the supreme court, and how we react to it, can affect the church for years to come. 

Our church and denomination has always believed in the traditional view of marriage. But I’m not interested in that becoming our agenda. There is a bigger issue at hand (not to diminish the marriage issue). The agenda that should take priority over all agendas is our walking in unity with people even if we can’t agree with them. That’s a topic I’m willing to talk about.

Let’s not be seduced into discrediting and disrespecting people just because they don’t agree with how we see things. I hope our church can be an island of reason amidst a conversation that is often filled with people saying things that they don’t always understand.  

As is often the case in divisive issues: there is truth on both sides of the issue. If one side had no truth it would be obvious and there would be no debate.  We all grab bits of truth and attempt to build our case. It’s important to affirm the truth on both sides in order to find common ground.

To cast off either side of the argument as wrong, stupid, ungodly, wicked, ignorant, backwards, or whatever pejorative you can think of, is unfair and only causes people to dig their heels in deeper in defense of their position. You’ve only made it harder for them to see the truth that you so clearly see.

I’m just one more voice in a sea of voices. But I hope, if you are a follower of Jesus, that you will strive to walk in unity and show respect for all people. The only way through a divisive time like this is if people feel free to openly share their thoughts without threat of being labeled and dismissed as a fool. We need to be quick to listen and slow to speak. I’m committed to that. I hope you are too. Then unity might have a chance.

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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 takes 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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