if there’s one thing that really pisses me off in this world it’s abuse. to me, abuse is when people use their power, authority, position, or strength in unhealthy damaging ways to control, harm, manipulate, and use people. abuse strips people of dignity. it confuses and hurts. it messes with our heads. it crosses socioeconomic and cultural boundaries and is far more prevalent than any of us probably know. and while i often speak of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, one other form of abuse (which i would probably place in the “emotional” category) is spiritual abuse. so many have been harmed by messed-up church systems where power & control overtook a sincere desire to serve God and be part of christian community. i hear story after story of weird church experiences, and the theme always seems to be the same: sincere dear Christ-followers get sucked into an unhealthy, power-driven, unsafe system and somehow end up hurt and with their faith damaged.
for those of you new to the carnival, this past summer i did a series of interview called “out of the darkness” where friends of mine shared their real story. you can see a list of posts in this series here. i have wanted to include this one for a while and am thankful for my friend claire* who was willing to bravely share her experiences of emerging from the ravages of spiritual abuse. she is smart, talented, powerful, kind, and extremely loyal. she entered into a community looking for family and a place to live out her devotion to God and when she started asking questions and wrestling with her faith, ended up seeing how unsafe and unhealthy the whole thing really was. she’s “out” now but is still healing from the damage. i am privileged to know her and see God redeeming this experience in amazing ways. as you read, remember there are all kinds of degrees of spiritual abuse–some more severe than others. notice what parts you or someone you know might connect with.
* * * * *
- share a little bit about your family, educational, spiritual background & how you ended up in a spiritually abusive church.
I was an only-child to a single mom, who raised me by herself until she met my step-dad when I was 10. They were both self-described atheists and very much lived the “just be a good person” doctrine. When I was 15, my mom was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, which started my spiritual quest for the meaning of it all. A friend invited me to Young Life, and over time, I became a solidly evangelical believer at 17. I was very determined to be “Super Christian” and was asked to be a junior high leader three months later, which further magnified my need to get a solid handle on this new faith. I read and listened to everything I could get my hands on, as I felt like I needed to “catch up” to my friends who got to grow up knowing what I was just then learning.
I went out of state to college and made sure that my first priority was to find a mega-church to plug into, becoming an integral part of the college group. I was also a Young Life leader, ran discipleship groups through college and graduate school, and later went to seminary to pursue a career in Christian counseling. My mom died the summer before I graduated from college; her death became a pivotal part of my spiritual and emotional journey. My step-dad soon left the family picture out of his own grief, and I found myself alone in another state at 22 and confused on many levels. I was so vulnerable and longed to be part of a “family.”
- describe what drew you to the church you ended up having to leave. what kept you there initially?
Several months after my mom died, a new girl at work invited me to come to her church. She described it as more like a family than a church, and something hopeful sparked inside my heart. Instantly upon my arrival, I was both literally and figuratively embraced and the desire to matter was soon quenched. I therefore consciously ignored over time the theological alarms regarding the church’s beliefs, as it became easy to rationalize almost anything if enough love was thrown into the mix.
For the six years that I was a part, I honestly learned how to be an authentic Christian, how to let myself be loved, and to work through deep wounds. However, the painful flip-side of the truth is that there were more secret interactions that happened behind the scenes that darken many of those good memories.
- what were some of the dynamics that you experienced, some of the “standard practices” in the community?
From the pulpit and in relationship, it was often relayed that God communicated prophetically to the senior pastor or to other leaders in the church. The pastor would say things such as, “Claire, the Holy Spirit showed me a vivid picture of your life, and He wants you to know that it is dangerous to run away from the mantle of authority that He has placed you under.” It was the ultimate trump card; how do you disagree with that?! While things were said that made me raise an internal eyebrow, the culture subtly sent a message that no one should verbally express any concern over these types of statements, lest we be accused of a “spirit of disunity” or having unresolved authority issues. Different friends outside the church started to express concern that I was a part of a cult, as my own opinion became less important than the need to submit. I dismissed their concern, as the family void screamed louder than all logic.
- did you have some moments where you were like “hmm, something doesn’t feel quite right here?” what did you do with those feelings?
I was the only one at seminary that went to a more charismatic church, and I attributed my discomfort to basic theological differences. In actuality, I did ascribe more to the evangelical way of thought, but I wanted the real life community that I was experiencing. I always wanted something more with my life, and it sort of felt like I was getting that. One of the things that I heard often was that a pastor could sense “the spirit of death” attached to me, as I was told that it would be my “thorn in the side” and always an issue. This meant that if the “spirit of death” was present, I could be instantly plucked from whatever I was doing in church or an event, as I could potentially be a hazard to myself or others unknowingly. While many of the teachings of the church did not completely resonate with me, I told myself that many things of the spirit could not be understood. I stuffed them into an incredibly deep place and told myself constantly that I loved the people, and so I could trust that it was really my unnecessary doubts that were causing my inhibitions.
- can you share some of the specific words/phrases/ways-of-manipulating that were passed on to you?
While there were so many subtle ways of the abuse of power, two particularly poignant ways come to mind. One of the biggest ways was through eye contact; it was made very clear that an infraction of any measure resulted in a need to avert one’s eyes. The verse that was used was “I will set before my eyes no vile thing.” Psalm 101:3. A small group leader would often have a conversation about how it was important to look at each other authentically and with pure eyes.
Once I got in specific “trouble” when, casually over coffee, I was letting my small group leader–who was a mentor to me–know more about my private world. I shared with her that I was writing a letter to my mom (who had died 3 years prior) about things left unsaid, and how my heart was broken. She then proceeded to later tell the senior pastor that I was, in fact, talking to spirits, which meant that I had committed an infraction. He told me in his office that if I was ever found to be communicating with the dead again, I would no longer be able to teach my Sunday School class. He then prayed that the “spirit of death” would be lifted off of me. I was also informed that I had to work out my sin with God and would be advised as when I could clearly make eye contact with my leaders again. If there was an infraction, it would be either directly or indirectly stated that as a transparent community, we needed to look at each other only with honest hearts. Even now, I sometimes feel myself look away or reflect later that I didn’t make eye contact, out of fear of not being exactly “right” in relationship. I am working very hard on purging that issue out of my system entirely
- you are an educated, extremely smart woman. i know some people might be asking, “how come you didn’t just go “this is crap” and go find another place to go?” help others understand how easy that is to say and much harder to do when you are in it.
That is one of the absolute hardest pieces for me to reconcile, the fact that that I did buy in for so long, too long. I am so full of passion, and I have always wanted to make lasting impact with everything I do, especially as a believer. I felt as if my partnership in the church was my responsibility to make a real difference in relationships. I had become disillusioned with “playing church”, and I really thought that I had arrived at a place that did the real thing. The community component was unlike anything I had ever seen, and it made sense to me more in my heart than in my head. Once things started to seem off to me, I think I was in too deep to see the truth from a clear perspective. My emotional need to be connected to a “family” far superseded my intellectual apprehensions.
- when did something significantly shift in your heart, where you knew “i can’t be part of this anymore.”
There were many smaller moments that shifted over the last year there, but a specific time does stand out. A clear moment was when the youth pastor and I took the high school kids to a conference. I was listening to some of the things/phrases specific to our church that he was telling our youth group on the way to the center, and it made my stomach turn. He was telling them that they needed to make sure to not “open their ears up to deceit” and to the “ways of the flesh” as this internationally known conference was not put on by our church. I was so very bothered that we were literally instructing our kids to not even listen to other Christians that did not believe the exact same way. As I sat there in the conference, I decided that I could not morally reconcile being a representative to a younger generation when I no longer believed in the practices of the church.
- what happened after you left? what were some of the ramifications of your decision?
I was not sure how to “leave”, as the church had become my family and many of my main relationships. I was pulling back from as much involvement, but I was still as committed to the families and friends there as when I did buy in. One day, the associate pastor, whom I was close to, called me at work to ask about my lack of regular attendance at small group. I confided that I was thinking about checking out another church. That is when his tone–and my world–changed.
He then started a rapid fire succession of questions, asking if the NEW church knew about my past abuse as a kid, if they would love me as much as this church did, if they were spirit-led, or if I knew what it was like to live without a spiritual covering? He said that in order to leave the church, I would need to get permission from the senior pastor, as he would have to give me a specific blessing. I adamantly refused, and he stated,“Then be prepared to deal with the consequences” and hung up.
I then received a call from the family that I was the closest with, the one that I had been on vacation with the month prior. She stated, “We no longer trust you, if you are not a part of the church any longer.” I then received the same message via e-mail about ten times from other families that day. I was beyond devastated, to say in the least.
- what has your journey been like since? what are you learning about yourself, God, “the church” as a result of your exit?
The beautiful thing about The Refuge is that it is very clear that the love in our community has absolutely nothing to do with a theological, political, or emotional state; it is completely personal. I am completely confident that if I woke up one day either believing something different or thought a different way about any spiritual issue, it would not matter one bit. I would still be loved as Claire, because of who I am, and not what God is working out in and through me. My hope has been restored for church, as I am part of a hope in action for a faith community.
As for me, I am learning how strong my voice is again, leaning into trusting my heart. I am seeing how not having to have the answers is actually the wisest that I have ever been. For years, I suppressed the real Claire that is both a woman and a leader and developed a fear of my strength. I always felt guilty for being annoyed at the “submissive woman” construct, and I am now allowing myself the freedom to emerge from under that idea entirely. I am experiencing how deeply I am cared for by God, when for the longest time I thought I had been forgotten in the shuffle. The amazing circumstances that led me to where I am now, especially physically, point to a God who is paying serious attention to details of my life (and I didn’t need someone else to tell me what God was saying).
- now you are “re-entering” christian community again; what freaks the hell out of you? what is bringing you hope?
It freaks the hell out of me to accidentally say or do the wrong thing and find myself reeling from a blow. For example, once as a church leader at a youth camp, I joked that the rec room looked like a water bottle cemetery. The pastor’s wife took me aside and literally reamed me for saying such an inappropriate thing, stated that I had a “spirit of defiance” and that I was communicating towards the youth a dangerous flippancy towards death. Now it seems ridiculous, but at the time, I was so scared of falling out of good graces that I quietly obliged.
It makes it a lot easier that The Refuge is so incredibly safe, and that even bigger things, like difference of opinion on theological or political issues, are handled so diplomatically. I am confident that I made the right decision where I have landed, but I still feel the urge to run away. Old doubts about letting myself feel too connected–and therefore too vulnerable–have re-surfaced. It is bringing me hope that I could be in a place where my gifts could be used, my voice could be heard, and I would have the freedom to “be” without the confines of some arbitrary authority) I feel smarter, stronger, and more aware of my own baggage that I am bringing to the table, and that offers a sense of freedom.
- what words of hope do you have for others out there who have “left” and are lonely, scared, and confused?
I would say that it is important to trust the process, as there really is life in the “in between.” I was horrified at the thought of living in the balance of nothing–no church, a bruised faith, a wounded heart, and a lack of real “direction”. However, it was that very journey that led me to where I am now, and there was no real “map” assisting with my spiritual destination.
- anything else you’d like to add?
What has been the most healing for me is to find safe people to talk with about the inner details of my journey. It is one thing to listen to another sharing pain, but it is so humbling–and ultimately very healing–to allow yourself to share the vulnerabilities in your life and find you’re really not alone, or ungodly, or “unfit” for leadership just because you struggle.
* * * * *
thank you, claire, for your honesty and courage to “get out” of an unsafe system and find hope again. the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be the free-est, least oppressive place on earth. it is a travesty that so many have used the name of God to control, oppress, and keep people in the fold. may those “stuck” find the courage they need to get out and find freedom, hope, and their voice again (or maybe for the first time).