This is just a quick note to let you know about a free book on spiritual abuse. My last book, Broken Trust,is available for a free download on Amazon Kindle through Thursday.
I don’t get to release it for free very often, so I hope you take advantage of it. If you’ve already read it, then I hope you share the free link with your friends, maybe post the link on Facebook.
You might wonder why I promote a free book. It’s not a good way to make money! True, but I get greater joy from the emails I receive from my readers than I do when Amazon sends me a check.
For example, let me share what one person wrote in a review (she sent the same thing to me in an email):
Due to spiritual abuse I left my church after fifteen years, it was a heart breaking decision. I started to do research to help me understand what had happened to my church. Through that research I read two books, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse and Broken Trust. Both books were extremely helpful, especially Broken Trust. I recommend this book highly to those people like myself who are walking wounded of spiritual abuse.
In the introduction to the book I wrote how I didn’t want to write the book at first because I wasn’t convinced there was a large enough audience for it. I didn’t want to invest a year of my life in writing a book that no one would read. But to my surprise, it challenges the sales of my most popular book, Healing the Hurts of Your Past.
In a way, that’s sad to me…sad that there is so much hurt. It’s incomprehensible how the church and pastors can be a source of spiritual abuse. That’s so backwards. But I’m happy that I went with my gut and wrote the book. It seems to be helping people.
If you do read the book, I’d love to hear what you think.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
Trouble with nightmares or lack of sleep
Exaggerated startle response
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.
This is my sixth book, and by far, Broken Trust is the most collaborative effort. I have my own spiritual abuse story, but everyone’s story is different. To help broaden my frame of reference, I sent out over a hundred copies of the book, at various stages along the way, to get people’s feedback. I didn’t want to give a slanted view of the topic and my only hope in avoiding that was to get regular feedback from spiritual abuse survivors. Spiritual abuse is a sensitive topic. I didn’t want to mishandle it.
I am grateful for the advice I got from so many people. I included survivor input throughout the book so my readers would get a broader view of the problem.
What I Learned from Spiritual Abuse Survivors
As I think back on the writing process, here are a few of the more important lessons I learned from the spiritual abuse survivors who helped me with the book.
Words matter. When talking about spiritual abuse, you are speaking about something that has torn people apart on the inside. I have a direct approach in my speaking and writing. Most people appreciate this, but I didn’t want to be reckless or sloppy with my word choice. It’s easy to misinterpret the intention of words on a page. I had to change my approach with this book, softening my words and explaining my intent with greater care.
When talking about spiritual abuse, you are speaking about something that has torn people apart on the inside.
Tone matters. The concerns of spiritual abuse survivors are typically marginalized and dismissed. They are used to people trying to get them back “in line” with trite quotes from the Bible or cliché spiritual answers. This shuts them down because they don’t feel heard. I went out of my way to see things from the perspective of the survivor and speak to them, and for them, with empathy. I wanted them to know that I was on their side and not out to “fix” them.
PTSD is common among spiritual abuse survivors. PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is something we often think of in terms of war veterans. That was my first exposure to it. But it was clear to me that spiritual abuse survivors suffer from this too. I’ll write another post on this soon to say more about this important topic. I think this is one of the biggest reasons survivors of spiritual abuse have difficulty returning to church or relating to pastors. There are just too many triggers that take them back to a dark place.
Spiritual abuse is broader than the church. At the end of my editing, I had a former Jehovah’s Witness tell me that she loved the book, but it was hard to read it at times because of how often I referred to the “church” or to “pastors.” She said that those are two words that JW’s rarely use and it was a bit of a stumbling block. She requested that I use words that encompass a greater number of people who might suffer from spiritual abuse than just those in a Christian church. I would have never thought of that on my own. I went through the entire book and did as she asked. It now is much more inclusive of all people who have suffered spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse is more common than we realize. People often lament that fewer and fewer people attend church. They assume that people are increasingly choosing to not believe in God. I disagree. I think church attendance has dropped, not because people have quit believing in God but because church leaders are often condescending, close-minded, and heavy-handed in their approach. There was a day when people would put up with that. No more.
The Generosity of Spiritual Abuse Survivors
I’m surprised by the number of people who wanted to help me with my book. They were grateful that someone wanted to help people in their situation heal. Many people were willing to freely give me their input and advice. It was a true team effort. It gives me great confidence, in releasing this book, that people will find it helpful because it’s filled with wisdom from a variety of spiritual abuse survivors.
Broken Trust is available for pre-sale now and will release on September 18th in paperback and on Kindle. If you read the book, I’d appreciate your reviewing it on the Amazon page. If you are a blogger, I hope you will review Broken Trust. If you have a podcast or radio show, I’d love to speak with you and your audience. Thanks for considering these options. Spiritual abuse is not a pretty topic, but it needs discussing. You can help with that!
I’ve sent out a few copies of my upcoming book on spiritual abuse, called Broken Trust. I’m grateful to see that one reviewer (Stephen A. Smith) put it on the top of his list of fifteen books on spiritual abuse. Here is his list in the order that he recommends them:
Best Books on Spiritual Abuse (libertyforcaptives.com)
Broken Trust: A practical guide to identify and recover from toxic faith, toxic
Stephen A. Smith
church, and spiritual abuse by F. Remy Diederich (this title available from Amazon Sept. 18, 2017)
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen
Twisted Scriptures by Mary Chrnalogar
The Heresy of Mind Control by Stephen Martin
Churches that Abuse: Help for Those Hurt by Legalism and Authoritarian Leadership by Ronald Enroth
Coping with Cult Involvement by Livia Bardin
Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Dynamic Research on Finding a Place of Wholeness by Barb Orlowski, Ph.D.
To Be Told: Know Your Story, Shape Your Future by Dan Allender
I’m pleased to announced that my new book on spiritual abuse is now available for pre-order on Amazon.com.
I’ve been working on Broken Trust for the past year. The book is subtitled: a practical guide to identify and recover from toxic faith, toxic church, and spiritual abuse. That’s an accurate description of what the book is about.
..this book provides the clearest, simplest, most helpful coverage of spiritual abuse and recovery.”
The book is so much better than what I had initially planned. I planned on simply spinning off a book from a series of blog posts I wrote with a few related sermons. Then I had the idea of inviting survivors of spiritual abuse into the process of writing the book. Good decision!
The book took on a totally different feel. Rather than a one-dimensional slant coming solely from my perspective, my helpers challenged me in many ways to consider new angles on the topic that I hadn’t personally experienced myself. The result is a much broader and more compassionate approach to the topic.
High Praise for the Book
I’ve sent out many draft copies of Broken Trust already for feedback. One survivor of spiritual abuse, and avid blogger on the topic, replied back to me saying:
“As a spiritual abuse survivor and blogger, I have now read dozens of books about this topic. Many are academic in nature, or very dense. I am comfortable saying that this book provides the clearest, simplest, most helpful coverage of spiritual abuse and recovery.”
That was great to hear and gave me the confidence to start finalizing the book and put the publishing in motion.
The book is scheduled to launch on September 18th. I still have some final tweaks to make on the book, but the clock is ticking.
Would You Join My Launch Team?
My hope is that my book gives grace and wisdom to readers who have been deeply hurt by abusive church leaders. I want so much for people to make a full recovery and not be reduced to spiritual “road-kill.”
Would you consider doing the following?
Read a free advance PDF copy of the book.
Post a review of it on amazon.com on September 18th.
Repost your review on your blog and/or Facebook page.
Share a link to the book on your Facebook page or other social media.
I’ll send a signed paperback copy of the book to the first twenty people who post a verified purchase review of the book on amazon.com and post a copy of the review on their Facebook page.
I’m working on a new book called, Broken Trust…reclaiming God’s grace 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.
If you are a victim of spiritual abuse, would you be interested in helping me to write my fifth book? The topic is toxic faith and spiritual abuse. The working title for my new book is: Toxic Faith, Spiritual Abuse…and AMAZING Grace.
This book is a book that I wish I didn’t need to write. In fact, it’s probably the last thing I WANT to talk about. No one likes to talk about it. But for the sake of Jesus and his church, we have to.
I blogged about it extensively in the wake of a toxic church imploding two years ago in my area. Those posts have since become my most read posts. That’s sad to me! Really? There’s that much interest?
Of all the posts, the most read post is: How to Confront a Toxic Pastor. So disappointing. But that tells me it’s a huge problem.
I pulled together all those posts along with a sermon series I did on Toxic Faith from Galatians. As I started the drafting process I started to wonder if I had answered all the questions people have. Probably not.
That’s where you could really help me.
Helping the Victim of Spiritual Abuse
I want to help two primary groups of people:
1. People in a toxic church who are SUPER confused.Why are people so passionate about teaching that makes you so uncomfortable? Why is it wrong to question it? Are you a bad Christian? Are you even saved? Do you really have to work THAT hard for God to love you?
2. People who realize the problem and want to do something about it. The right answer might be to quietly leave. For others it might mean a confrontation, if not a series of confrontations.
My hope is to pull together anywhere from five to fifty people who would read through my original writing and tell me what helps, what doesn’t help, and what’s missing.
I’d like people who are in one of the two groups above so they can give me personal feedback. I came out of a toxic church, but it was years ago now. I may have forgotten some of the pain and some of the issues.
What will you do on this team?
Read my work and write me your thoughts. If you have friends in the group, you might read it together.
My hope is that the group would not only help me (and thereby help my readers) but be a source of healing for people on my team.
Like I said, I’ve been there. I am a victim of spiritual abuse. It caused me to drop out of church for five years. I almost gave up on church altogether. Instead, God used me to start a church! Pretty ironic.
One qualifier: some people come out of a toxic church both bitter and vindictive. I’m open to their involvement if they can restrain themselves from using the group as a dumping ground for their anger. But I’d love to help them work through that, so I’m happy to include them.
Please share this post with people whom you think might be interested.
Power is an interesting study. Reading the book, The Power Paradox, opened my eyes to how power and powerlessness play into our lives in dramatic ways. I’ll talk about power in this post and powerlessness in an upcoming post.
Author, Dacher Keltner believes that our culture’s understanding of power came from Machiavelli’s book, The Prince. He says:
The Prince offers a philosophy of power suitable to such violent times, treating power in its purest form as “force and fraud.” We gain and keep such power by committing coercive and unpredictable acts that are impetuous, fierce, and violent.
We hold on to such power by appearing virtuous even though we harbor other intentions. This kind of power quiets (or kills) rivals and critics, inspires allegiances, and mutes the masses. Through coercive force and fraud, we dominate. Dacher Keltner. The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence (p. 20). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
This definition relates so closely to what I’ve written in this blog about toxic pastors and what I observed in the recent political campaign. The “force and fraud” isn’t as blatant as in Machiavelli’s era, but is present nonetheless.
This expression of power doesn’t stem from confidence but fear. The Machiavellian leader is afraid they are losing power so they resort to manipulation to grasp power before it slips away.
This grasp might work in the short run but, ironically, it eventually leads to a loss of power…the very thing they feared. People subjected to abusive power will only submit to it for a season before they say, “enough” and revolt (think abusive marriages, churches, bosses, and governments). The author explains:
People resort to coercive force when their power is actually slipping. In our professional lives, people who endorse Machiavellian strategies to social life— lying, manipulating, and stepping on others to rise in the ranks— actually report experiencing less power and influence than the average person…Today coercive force is a more likely path to powerlessness than to gains in power. The Power Paradox (p. 21).
The Power Paradox and Gaining Power
So, how does one gain power? Keltner says that power is not gained by grasping it but by receiving it from others. People are eager to give you power in their lives when you show acts of kindness that benefit them. The author says that power:
…is given to us by others rather than grabbed. We gain power by acting in ways that improve the lives of other people in our social networks…Our power is found in simple acts that bind people together and yield the greatest benefits for the group. The difference we make in the world depends …on raising the right question, offering encouragement, connecting people who don’t know one another, suggesting a new idea. Power is surprisingly available in daily acts of social life. Critical to avoiding the power paradox is recognizing that enduring power hinges on doing simple things that are good for others. The Power Paradox (p. 35).
Kelner adds by saying:
…we empower others through daily acts of influence: by acknowledging another’s good work, by offering an encouraging phrase or making appreciative eye contact, or by giving others responsibilities, resources, and opportunities. The Power Paradox (p. 38).
The Power Paradox and Losing Power
What I found especially interesting is how people who gain power can easily lose it. While gaining power came from showing kindness, the power they receive often causes them to distance themselves from others, lose empathy, grow selfish, and eventually lose power.
People are eager to give you power in their lives when you show acts of kindness that benefit them.
I saw this played out recently in my study of King David in the Bible. When David was young he fought for the people and they championed him as their king. But once he gained power he grew distant and selfish, choosing to commit adultery and even murder to cover up the adultery. The people took note and when David’s son Absalom offered them his leadership as a viable alternative, their hearts went with him. Power gained and lost. (You can find this story in 1 & 2 Samuel).
Whatever your position of power might be (teacher, pastor, parent, manager, etc.), be aware that your position naturally tempts you to neglect the empathy and kindness that put you in power in the first place. Don’t fall into the trap of coercing people to maintain your power. What got you power (empathy and kindness) will keep you in power.
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 abuse, 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.