"… nearly four out of every ten non-churchgoing Americans (37%) said they avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people." Barna Research
"For many, leaving the community comes after chronic mistreatment (abuse), misuse of spiritual authority from the church leadership. Feeling ashamed, abandoned, and with no community to support them, most individuals never have the opportunity to tell their story. Therefore, the rest of the congregation simply believes that these individuals have fallen from grace." Tami Brady-review on Amazon.com
I am grateful for my brush with spiritual abuse. This is certainly a strange thing to say. Yet, without such an experience, I could not be in a position to write this blog. As I have said before, about 75% of my Christian walk was spent in excellent churches with humble pastors, great elders and thoughtful teaching. Oh, I had a brush or two with some rigid folks, but I thought they were far outliers on a standard bell curve of great and medium good Christian churches.
Had I not experienced the bad and the ugly, I would have thought that most people, who complained about horrible churches, were whiners who brought their trouble on themselves. Each time we thought to start the blog, something interfered. You see, God had some things he wanted us to experience first.
Over the course of 1 ½ years, God efficiently, and effectively, brought me, as well as my chic fellow blogger, a variety of experiences which included an awareness of sexual abuse of those in the church, elevation of "B" issues to "A" issues, outright denigration of those who did not agree with said secondary interpretations, weird doctrines about birth control, young marriages, etc. I saw some pastors who outright insulted members of their congregation and showed no compassion for seriously abused children, even blaming them for their continued abuse. There was secrecy, cover-up, confessions that were later denied, and an attempted refusal to talk based on “authority” of the pastor (good night!). One pastor even interfered with my ability to join another church. I am grateful that it only lasted a short time,
If you had told me that this sort of thing went on, I would have laughed and said it must be a cult. It may be cult-like but it is existent in today’s supposedly mainstream, evangelical churches. We learned a hard lesson in fairly short order. It was to prove vital in our understanding of others. You can be sure that we believe such experiences now!
I remember when my daughter, who was 3 years old, was diagnosed with a massive malignant brain tumor. I was 7 months pregnant and had another 4 year old daughter. Can you imagine the thoughts that would run through my head? What did I do to cause this? Will my other children get sick?
Sadly, a few other people thought it might be within their purview to figure out how my daughter got the tumor. I was barraged with comments like:
“Didn’t you work on the Navajo Reservation? They have uranium deposits there.” (Oh great, my two years of serving the Navajo Tribe was now the cause of my kid’s brain tumor. It's now my fault for working there?-BTW-no correlation).
“Does this run in your family?" (Actually, it doesn’t but imagine how I'd feel if I had had a relative with a tumor? So, if a relative had colon cancer, I shouldn't have kids?)
Of course, I blamed myself.
- Maybe I used the microwave oven too much.
- Maybe it was the heart medicine I took.
- Maybe I didn’t get enough sleep.
- Maybe I walked too close to some power lines.
- Maybe, maybe, maybe…..
Except, it was most likely none of those things. Her tumor was exceedingly rare and was probably just some gene malfunction because we live in a fallen world.
In fact, in one of my amusing moments, this hit home to me. I was checking out of a supermarket, barely coping, close to tears and another acquaintance came up to me and said (groan) “What caused your daughter’s brain tumor?” I looked at her and said, “You did.” Startled she said, “What do you mean?” I told her that she did, the man in the parking lot did, the whole world did when we rebelled against God and allowed sin, with the after-effects of pain and suffering, to enter the world. And then, before I could start crying again, I walked away. (Bet she never asked anyone that question again).
It is a human condition to want to place blame on another. I call this the Garden of Eden Complex. You know, Adam blamed Eve; Eve blamed the serpent and on and on throughout history. And it hasn’t changed. I want to confess that, had any of our dear readers had told me their stories before my own experience, I might have looked at them and thought, “They probably deserved it.”
And that is the root of spiritual abuse. It is a blame game. If you don’t do what I want, I will manipulate you until you either do what I want or get lost. And, if you get lost, I will pursue you in order to make sure everyone else knows what a loser you are.
When we started this blog, we planned to do a faith analysis of current events. Well, God had planned a game changer. Shortly after starting, we were contacted by Doug Pittman about a situation in his church, Pray’s Mills Baptist. Here is a link to an article in that series. I traveled to Georgia to meet with the folks involved. Over a meal at Cracker Barrel, the first of our Cracker Barrel Summits, I became convinced that something was terribly wrong in the church. I had been reading many blogs of people harmed by churches.Then we heard about Tom Rich, in Florida, and, before we knew it, we were being contacted by people from all over this country, and even abroad, about “me too” experiences. We were ready because we had been there.
In fact, let me take this opportunity to do a “Joseph” on my former church. They meant it to cover up their own issues, but God meant it to prepare us for something good. They opened our eyes, and, in so doing, have been the wind beneath our kite. I am now grateful for the experience and can even laugh about it, on occasion. That early marriage and quickie engagement meeting was a trip! Hmmm, I feel a parody coming on….
But, I digress ;0 What are the results of spiritual abuse? It can include such things as loss of faith, mistrust of clergy, suicide, nervous breakdowns, depression, broken relationships, insecurity, anger, isolation, loss of confidence, insomnia, and on and on. Pain is the key.
Those who have been abused include: doctors, lawyers, scientists, computer experts, PhDs, pastors, homemakers, Charismatics, Calvinists, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, women, men, children, etc. Those doing the abuse come from all backgrounds including mega church pastors, country parish vicars, and those from every kind of denomination.
I was naïve. I figured that, if I went to a good church with a well thought out church polity, all would be well. However, as I, along with many others, have come to discover, it is not what is written that counts. It is that which is unwritten and said in back rooms that rule the day.
Thankfully, spiritual abuse is becoming recognized within the church and many authors have written excellent books, which focus on the attributes of abuse along with books aimed at abuse within specific denominations. Also, there is rising concern for sexual abuse within the evangelical church in spite of recalcitrance on the part of those who want to hide such issues. (Shame on them!) We have written extensively on these problems.
However, not much has been written about how to recover from abuse with one’s faith intact. Barbara Orlowski, who had recently published book entitled Spiritual Abuse Recovery, Dynamic Research in Finding a Place of Wholeness, contacted TWW. She had read our blog and saw that we had written on spiritual abuse. As I began to read the book, I was hooked on page 1 and decided to review it. She has all sorts of ideas about recovery. But first, we reviewed Dylan Morrison’s, The Prodigal Prophet, to give our readers a personal story of spiritual abuse.
In an email to TWW, she says, “I completed a Doctor of Ministry at A.C.T.S. Seminaries in Langley, B.C., Canada in 2008 and was delighted to get my research study published by Wipf and Stock Publishers in Eugene, Oregon.” In other words, this is not just another book filled with opinions. It is the result of long hours of research and study. Some of the revelations might surprise, and even irritate, a few pastors.
The original dissertation is available at A.C.T.S. Seminaries on the Trinity Western University campus in Langley, B.C.
On page 7 of her book she states “The purpose of this book is to show how Christians may transcend a devastating experience in a local church setting to achieve a state or condition of spiritual harmony, It aims to demonstrate how people who experienced grief and loss in their Christian lives at the hands of church leaders worked through a purposeful spiritual process and regained a measure of spiritual equilibrium.”
In an email she states: "The book “deals with a very real dysfunction in the Body of Christ. This book gives voice to those who have experienced spiritual abuse in their home church and how they recovered from this devastating experience. It gives insights into this complex and sensitive church ministry issue. This book considers the issue of church leaving. It is a resource for caring church leaders, instructors, denominational advisors, and church consultants. My research also included the fact that several women were marginalized by gender hierarchy in their churches. Many switched churches, others switched denominations, others simply left the institutional church.“
Her book is beginning to be known in seminaries. “Last May I made it a priority to contact seminary professors at various institutions about the availability of the book. Because it is a doctoral work and not just a mom writing about her experience I trust that it has some clout in the academic world. I have gotten a bit of positive feedback from various profs so that's a good sign. Some seminaries and Bible colleges now have a copy in their libraries.”
Some of our readers may want to know whether Orlowski is an orthodox Christian. She most definitely is. In fact, her book was reviewed by Dallas Theological Seminary and is posted on their Book blog. Here is the link and an excerpt of the review
"Barbara M. Orlowski’s doctoral research into the problem of disenfranchised believers is presented in her book, Spiritual Abuse Recovery. She defines spiritual abuse as “the misuse of spiritual authority to maltreat followers in the Christian Church.” Orlowski focuses on dedicated Christians who have served in their churches for years before making the difficult decision to leave after experiencing spiritual abuse. She follows them on their journey to find healing and wholeness.
The strength of Spiritual Abuse Recovery lies in the positive outcomes Orlowski presents. Rather than dwelling on the tragic abuse perpetuated by a narcissistic pastor, she shines light on the path to wholeness.
Church leadership must address this issue, so the abuse will stop and those who have come to their church for healing will be understood. The abusive patterns such as hierarchical leadership style focused on power and control, insincerity, hypocrisy, kingdom building, heavy handedness, and an inability to handle criticism must be recognized and avoided."
We will continue to take a look at this excellent book in our next post. We cannot recommend it more highly. Although it is available on the usual book sites, it can be purchased directly from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a safe email address in spite of the warning that appears. She says, “One benefit from people contacting me personally is that I can meet and connect with people this way and am available to hear their stories, offer support, and be a friend to them. It provides a further touch to feel the pulse beat of what is going on out there.”
I also recommend her website Church Exiters at this link. It is subtitled: Ministering Reconciliation: Restoring Spiritual Harmony. It's goal is to explore the issues of people who have experienced spiritual abuse in their local churches and how they have recovered.
We will continue this review on Thursday.
Lydia's Corner: Numbers 6:1-7:89 Mark 12:38-13:13 Psalm 49:1-20 Proverbs 10:27-28