Tag Archives: toxic church

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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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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I Left My Toxic Church…Now What?

Last year I posted a number of articles (see more links below) helping people to identify a toxic church. I  took a long look at spiritual toxic churchabuse, along with steps to deal with a toxic church. But I’m realizing that I left out at least one important post: what do you do when you leave a toxic church?

Entering a new church can be tricky. It’s like rebounding off a bad relationship. Some people swear off dating altogether while others fling themselves at the next person walking by. Both are unhealthy reactions. So let’s take a look at this.

Engaging Your New Church

First you have to realize the condition you are in. You belong to the walking wounded. You might look good, but all is not well inside. If you’ve been in a spiritually abusive church it’s affected your thinking. You aren’t seeing straight. Your view of God and other people has been skewed.  So be aware that you are prone to misread situations at your new church. That’s not bad, you just need to be aware of it and factor that in.

That means: go slow. Sit in the back row and observe. Don’t be too quick to judge the new church as right or wrong because, remember: you are off center. It’s going to take some time to recalibrate.

Be careful not to overreact. Talk to the pastor about any concerns rather than jumping to conclusions and assuming the worst. You don’t want to infect your new church with the toxicity from your past.

Grieving the Toxic Church Experience

A toxic church causes a number of losses that need to be grieved. You need to come to terms with those losses before you reengage in a new church. I’m not saying you shouldn’t attend a church, just don’t jump in and start leading or serving in any significant way. You might end up hurting yourself and the new church.

The best thing you can do for your new church is to get healthy. There’s plenty of time for you to get involved later.

Let me walk you through the fives stages of grief as they apply to recovering from spiritual abuse:

Denial. It’s hard to admit that someone could take advantage of you spiritually. No one likes to admit being duped or that they elevated a pastor beyond human status. It’s embarrassing. But the first step to any healing is to admit what went wrong.  Yes, you bought into the toxicity hook, line and sinker. You are in a place you never thought you’d be. There. You said it. Now you can move on.

Anger. Anger is the natural response to any loss. Don’t kid yourself. You have lots of anger at the church, specific leaders, and anyone who convinced you to “just trust the pastor.” You might even be mad at God. The tendency is to cover it up. But that will only hurt you in the long run.  Instead, get in touch with your anger. Anger is appropriate when you’ve been hurt like this. Give yourself permission to feel the God-given emotion.

List out the losses you experienced at the toxic church. What did the toxic thinking rob from you?  Maybe a sense of dignity? Control? A true concept of God? Healthy relationships? Money? The list might be long.

But here is one tip for dealing with your anger…find healthy, constructive ways to process it. Too often the “ex’s” of a toxic church spend inordinate amounts of time obsessing with each other about the bad old days and how awful they were. Plus there is the constant update on who is still in the toxic church and who has left.  This is so tempting to do and so unhealthy.

Looking back is only helpful if it exposes the faulty thinking that you absorbed. But it’s very easy to slip into slander and gossip. People will quickly grow tired of you singing the same sad song all the time. So find a support group, or friend, or counselor where you can process your anger without infecting others with the negativity.

Bargaining: This is when you look for a quick fix to solve your problem, like, “God get me out of this mess.” It involves a desperate mindset that encourages you to look for simplistic solutions. For example, you might pray, “God, just show me a new church where I can jump in and forget about the past.” You don’t want to do the hard work of healing. You just want a quick fix. Be careful. That can backfire on you in the long run.

Depression: It’s easy to give up on church altogether. You assume that church is broken and it’s not worth the effort to try again. It’s all an illusion. You become cynical and distrusting of every leader and what church is all about. You might even give up on God. So either you quit church, or you attend, but you are a negative influence because you’ve lost hope.

I know what’s that like. I was there once. But this is where you need to believe in the God of resurrection. God wants to bring something from the ashes of your experience. He’ll use what you learned for good, if you let him. He did with me.

Acceptance: This happens when you are willing to accept that something died and believe that life can be good again. You no longer try to make the past work or make sense. You put the nails in the coffin of your experience and bury it. You no longer talk about it with your ex-church mates. You have moved on and are willing to accept the new church experience God has given you. You won’t let your past experience infect your new experience.

I love the church and its people. I hate spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is bad enough when it happens. But simply leaving a church doesn’t solve the problem. You can carry the disease of spiritual abuse with you if you don’t treat it properly.  I hope these few tips help you find the road to recovery and to reengage in church in a healthy way.

What kind of problems have you faced after you left a toxic church? Leave a comment below and it might not only help you but help others in the same situation. I’ll do my best to give you some advice.

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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.

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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?

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Seven Steps to Confronting Toxic Church People

So how do you confront “that guy?” (see my previous post). Let me outline one approach.

Seven Steps To Confronting Toxic Church People

toxic church people1. Assess their health. As I said in my previous post, the first step is to understand where this person is coming from. You have to discern if this person is emotionally and spiritually healthy. Are they credible? Often not. Please read yesterday’s post to understand the shame factor and how it drives people’s motives. Don’t get sucked into their vortex. If they aren’t reasonable they have needs they are trying to meet that reason can’t solve.

2. Seek the Truth.  Before you dismiss their complaint or issue, ask God if there is any shred of truth to what they are saying. Not every mouthpiece for God is pure (myself included). There can be mixed motives. So I want to humbly be open to what I might learn from what the person has to say, even if it seems extreme at first. Can you strip the message from the messenger and find any truth?

3. Engage.  If your assessment is that they are toxic (and not just having a bad day) move to contain their toxin. I like the adage from Bill Hybel’s: If something feels funky, engage. We tend to walk away from toxic people hoping they’ll just go away.. Most likely they won’t. Their agenda is bigger than you imagine.. So move toward the person ti contain the toxin. .

If something feels funky, engage. Bill Hybels

4. Take it offline. Toxic people are looking for an audience. They will typically find an audience in a class, business meeting, through social media, or in the church lobby. Some people incessantly ask questions or offer comments that bog down classes or meetings. Other people camp out in the lobby and pick people off one at a time with their agenda. Tell them that you are happy to discuss their issue where you can give them your full attention. If they launch into a diatribe, interrupt them. It’s not rude. THEY are rude. People are looking to YOU to DO SOMETHING. They will appreciate you taking leadership. By taking it offline you deny them their audience.

Other people lob grenades through emails, Facebook, and blogs. If these are impacting your church, you need to talk to them about stopping. Just because it’s online, doesn’t give them free access. It might not make them cease and desist but you need to speak to it and possibly alert others in your church that what is being spoken is unhelpful. This gets dicey, so discretion and wise counsel is needed.

5. Set boundaries. Just because you take it offline doesn’t mean they can dominate your time. Give them 30 minutes, or whatever amount of time you think is appropriate. Discuss their issue. Listen. Affirm what you can. State your differences. And then thank them for voicing their concerns. You will take them into consideration. But let them know you will no longer allow the topic to dominate any forum within the church. If they can’t support your ministry then they need to find a ministry they can support.

6. Don’t waste your time. Too many pastors allow toxic people to dominate their time. They end up spending 30% of their time on .5% of the congregation. That’s not fair.  I know you think that your love and reason will change them, but that’s not your job. If they show no openness to dialogue, then move on…quickly. You’ve got hurting people under your care, or a sermon on Sunday, that you need to attend to.

7. Ask them to leave. This is a last resort after you’ve done your best to speak with them. But sometimes it’s necessary. You are the overseer of the flock. You need to protect your church from toxic people. And people need to see that you ARE seeking to protect them. If your church is the kind of place that allows loose cannons to roam free, you’ll lose good people.

Paul was clear in speaking to the Romans: I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. Romans 16:17. So, if this person refuses to comply, they must leave, for the sake of the Body. You don’t have to be harsh.. Let them know it pains you that it’s come to this, but you regretfully must ask them to leave.

Like I said in the previous post, this is not easy, but necessary. When’s the best time to confront a toxic person? As soon as possible. Good luck.

There are always exceptions to the rules, so I’m happy to entertain scenarios that might require altering my suggestions. I’d also like to hear some success stories (or horror stories) from your experience. It might help others.

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