Spiritual Abuse Recovery-Research by Dr. Barbara Orlowski

"… 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 info@churchexiters.com. 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



Spiritual Abuse Recovery-Research by Dr. Barbara Orlowski — 28 Comments

  1. The people who asked how your daughter got her brain tumor are much like Job’s “friends”.

  2. Funny thing, they actually thought they were being “nice.” Instead, I think they were really saying-“Glad it’s not me.”

  3. After some conversations with our friend Karl, I’ve been looking into church history a bit. I’ll have to say that seeing what I’m seeing, coupling that with the issue of spiritual abuse, I don’t see how the kind of authority structure that developed after Constantine converted and the State authority and church authority became intermingled could ever actually be a good thing. How the RCC as it later evolved could ever not have ultimately become an institution in which abuse would occur.

    Men (mankind), Spiritually reborn or not, simply can’t handle power without being corrupted by it. Any kind of hierarchical church authority structure would then seemed doomed to eventually produce abuse in one war or the other, and the greater the power available, the greater the potential harm.

    At this point, I’m definitely wondering how any governing church body can avoid the issue, and I am wondering how anyone can put the kind of absolute faith in a church governing body the RCC (or SGM, or the former shepherding movement) requires.


  4. Great post.

    Great book recommendation.

    Thanks for sharing the story about your daughter. The questions you were asked and your own questioning is priceless. Very human, but something that is not productive and very condemning in most cases.

    Zeta, great thoughts. But I would also add that some of the worst cases of dysfunction and abuse that I have seen have been in churches that had no hierarchical structure and prided themselves on a “one man, one vote” type of full democracy.

    In fact, I would venture to say that Barna’s research (quoted above) includes a lot of people who had negative experiences in church business meetings in churches with very a democratic polity.

    The Church is a flawed institution. But then, so is government, educational institutions, the military, the home etc.

    I guess that’s the way life is. We will never “fix” anything, but we have to work hard to make it better, I suppose. And each generation has to take up that task.

  5. Zeta, I totally agree! I have spent the last 6 years studying church history (which is no different than ‘history’ after the 4th century since the church/state is the same thing!) and came to the same conclusion. And what is ironic is that groups fleeing persecution from the church in Europe brought their own brand of abusive hierarchies and legalisms into freedom. The Puritans, the Mennonites, etc. It only goes to show than humans can rationalize their own abusive tendancies as being different and ok.

  6. “In fact, I would venture to say that Barna’s research (quoted above) includes a lot of people who had negative experiences in church business meetings in churches with very a democratic polity.”

    I have a perspective on this. I was in very hierarchical seeker mega’s for many years. You know, the kind that bill themselves as “Servant leaders” but they are anything but!

    There was NO democratic polity. The elders and staff made ALL decisions. The pew sitter had NO input at all. EVerything was a fait accompli and people liked it and thought it was biblical. I saw a ton of evil because I worked or consulted with these mega’s. But the pew sitter never saw it. All bad stuff was hidden. Lots of effort into hiding the bad stuff. Everything was about image and “relationships’. Be nice. No negative.

    I started remembering those cantankerous Wed night business meetings from my childhood in the SBC. I started to long for them. Even the fights~! At least the pew sitter was involved and knew what was going on and had a say. I started seeing the real value in this as the Body.

    What we have now is a sort of totalitarian niceness that has become a club that is weilded by leaders. We see it with Rick Warren, Obama, etc…defining what is civil when neither one of them are civil. Disagreement is seen as uncivil. Vehemet disagreement is seen as violent and hateful. We have lost the ability to disagree as adults because it is all about controlling people.

    Give me the contentious business meetings. At least they are not lemmings being led by blind guides who are nothing but celebrities and cult leaders.

  7. Anonymous

    Thanks for your insight. In my experience, the more input from the congregation, the less overall abuse. However, it is anecdotal. I love to read. Do you have any resources that would help me look into this? Also, thanks for your kind comments.

  8. Zeta

    Good thoughts. I wonder if there are checks and balances that have been employed that reduce such occurrences.For example, is there a way to insure that elders are truly neutral and not protectors of the pastors?

  9. I will have a comment soon concerning my issues while I was at Prays Mill. The Cracker Barrel Winter Conference went very well and I really enjoyed our meeting.

    There is much to report and I will do so soon, right here. Thanks Dee and Deb.

  10. Doug,

    Yes, I thought the CB Winter Conference went well, and I’m looking forward to your upcoming report.


  11. Dee:

    I do not have any resources, sorry. It’s completely anecdotal.

    Where I live more of the people I know who are educated and well off attend churches with more hierarchical leadership structure, which I find interesting. One might think it would be the other way around.

    Baptists, Churches of Christ and Pentecostals have a less educated laity, but they prefer a more open and democratic governance style.

    I am not sure that I can associate more abuse in churches with democratic tendencies or less. Of course, the Catholics would be suspected to have the highest rates of abuse given all that has occurred, all the lawsuits, the press and the probably billions paid out in damages. But I am not so sure that is true. The sexual issues play a role there. From what I have read in at least one conservative Catholic publication, some blame is laid at the feet of allowing self identified homosexual leaning persons to attend seminaries and become priests starting the in 1960s or so. Again, I am just suspecting about all this.

    The one comment that I hear over and over again from my acquaintances who were raised in the Baptist church but who left when they got older was the dislike for the angry spirit they perceived and all the arguing and fighting. Much of this occurred in business meetings with open mics etc. That is an invitation, in my opinion for the least informed but most convictional person to speak. I am not sure that is a wise or biblical thing.

    But neither is shutting people out or hiding information from them. That is clearly wrong.

    I guess Barna would be the only guy I know of that might have statistical back up. If you run across any, let me know.

    I have gone to several great churches in my life time, many of which had different polity, none of which had abuse. Oh, correction. There was this one church I attended where an adult had made advances on some of the teens. They had an open mic policy. The adult was well loved, got up, said some things that were half truths (sound familiar) and wiggled out of it. Not sure it would have been different with a different polity, except that he would not have gotten an open mic. That was 30 or so years ago. I am not sure the church knew how to handle it. Nor am I sure about how far things went with the involved teens.

  12. “The one comment that I hear over and over again from my acquaintances who were raised in the Baptist church but who left when they got older was the dislike for the angry spirit they perceived and all the arguing and fighting. Much of this occurred in business meetings with open mics etc. That is an invitation, in my opinion for the least informed but most convictional person to speak. I am not sure that is a wise or biblical thing.”

    Yikes, I am glad not to be in YOUR church. You might want to rethink your attitude:

    26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”[d]

    I attended a Wed night business mtg in an SBC church in Jan and it was quite fun. there were a few disagreements but everyone stayed jovial as they worked it out. the crowd was made up of janitors, bank presidents, school teachers, business owners, etc. I think the janitor was probably the best informed of the bunch. he has tons of common sense and the bank presidents and insurance company president (woman) listen to him all the time.

  13. Junkster:

    Thanks. That is reallly helpful. Confirms what I suspected. Hey, the SBC beats the ABC by 1% on most of those scores. I would not have suspected that.


    The negative things that I hear are not from people in my church. They are from people in other, non-Baptist churches, but who grew up Baptist.

    Thanks for the verses. I am not sure of their application.

    But at any rate, I gave up a long time ago trying to find if the Bible mandated a certain polity. I don’t believe in the Catholic vision, obviously. But I believe that Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and others have made polity choices that can fit within the teachings of the NT.

    I am glad that your church’s business meetings go well. Ours do, too. My kids have grown up in a church with no controversies and no mean behavior by leaders or between members. That is a great heritage that we both can pass on.

  14. Anonymous,

    Most people do not want any controversies at church. That is why mega’s do so well. People just want to sit in pews and be entertained. A pay others to run things.

    If you read the Epistles, there were “controversies” galore in the early church. And almost all the Epistles are addressed to the entire Body. Not a few who ran things.

    I was just a bit taken aback about your haughty reference to “uninformed” people with conviction who speak at “Baptist” church business meetings and you think it unwise and unbiblical. This here:

    “The one comment that I hear over and over again from my acquaintances who were raised in the Baptist church but who left when they got older was the dislike for the angry spirit they perceived and all the arguing and fighting. Much of this occurred in business meetings with open mics etc. That is an invitation, in my opinion for the least informed but most convictional person to speak. I am not sure that is a wise or biblical thing.”

    You never say if it is SBC or IBF Baptists who like to fight and are uninformed. Would you mind telling us YOUR denomination?

  15. dee, abused children face tough life questions daily including personal safety help must come from one they know and trust, there when needed, tsalks on their level, gentle, caring our free SPREAD THE WORD TALK WITH THE LORD program inspires daily talks ACM using our free blog posts for sermons/discussion topics get free copy of our song lyrics g. hubbard p.o. box 2232 ponte vedra FL

  16. abuse in any form brings on tough life questions for those abused. need reliable answers from one they know and trust, there when needed, cares, talks gently our free SPREAD THE WORD TALK WITH THE LORD program inspires daily talks AM using our free blog posts for sermons discussion themes get free copy of our song lyrics g. hubbard p.o. box232 ponte vedra fl 32004 http://talkwiththelord.blogspot.om

  17. eugene,

    Yes just what abused people need, some trite platitudes and self-promotion. What they need is to run like hell from religion. Get some psychiatric help if the abuse was serious, make a few close good friends and move on with their lives.

    Going back to the church is no different than the abused wife constantly being drawn back to her husband (or another abusive relationship), convinced either that it was her fault or that he’s really a “good” guy and will change, both delusions.

  18. Karl

    Now, we are on a tear, aren’t we. Actually, some churches have some excellent programs to help those who have been abused. The AMIA churches are particularly proactive in this area.

    Unfortunately, many churches have failed deeply in this area and that is to their eternal shame. As you may know, this is a hot button topic with me, having left a church that was callous in this area.

    The Bible is clear-anyone who harms one of these little ones who believe in me, they may as well put on a Mafia cement block and drown themselves (That comes from the DIV-(Dee Interpretive Version)

  19. @ Dee: why am I not surprised?!

    The editorial board at CT underwent some changes a couple of years ago, and since then, there have been some doozies of articles (like the one above).

    Someone commented on that article that they could not believe that it was all about grace for perps but not help for those who’ve been abused. I couldn’t agree more!