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Spiritual abuse grows like mould in a Petri dish

Spiritual abuse takes place when a leader uses his or her position to control or dominate another person, often running over their feelings and opinions and disregarding what might happen to the other person's life — their emotional state and spiritual well-being.

Power is used to bolster the position or needs of a leader, over and above those of others, often people who have come to them in need (The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Johnson & VanVonderen, 1991).

“Spiritual abuse occurs when a leader with authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds” (Healing spiritual abuse: How to break free from bad church experiences, Blue, 1993, p. 12).

Spiritual abuse affects people by making them extremely self focused, “preoccupied with doing things right and keeping happy those who are in places of authority” (Johnson & VanVonderen, 1991, p. 201).

Spiritual abuse grows like mould in a Petri dish where church ministries are highly programmed and there is an expectation of success on the part of top leadership.

Every church has programming of some kind. It would be irresponsible to simply get up in the morning and say, “Well, I wonder what's going to happen today.”

On the one hand, that would be refreshing, because Jesus told people that every day has enough concerns in it and so the best thing to do is to simply live one day at a time.

Practically speaking, however, we all live in a world that runs on the clock. We have numerous events that need to be scheduled, and so people expect that church programs will correspond to pinpoints on a calendar, and they need those pinpoints in order to coordinate and balance their commitments.

Having said, that some churches are highly programmed, as if the church were a smorgasbord.

In Brooklyn people hold what they call the Smorgasburg. It is the Brooklyn Flea and Food Market, and it gathers at Williamsburgh and at Brooklyn Bridge Park, Pier 5.

More than 108 vendors bring their varieties there and you can get everything from Asian hot dogs to “BiteMe” cheesecakes to Beet Ketchup to Umame Nuts.

Such places are a lot of fun to visit. There is always a festive mood. The Saturday Market in Portland, Oregon is like that too. You could spend the better part of a day there walking between the booths, up and down the aisles, dodging the rollerbladers and skateboarders, and listening to the live music.

When the church attempts to be a one-stop spiritual shopping spot, though, things tend to go awry. On the one hand people begin to view the church as a place to go to purchase something they need, and on the other hand people get burned out trying to provide that experience.

People shop for programming in the church that provides something for the children, the adolescents, and the adults. As if they were looking at a menu, they expect to be able to purchase spirituality with their attendance and their tithe, but spirituality doesn't really work that way.

For the church leaders the goal becomes getting more people through the doors of the spiritual market and getting them to keep coming back. It fits with the commercialisation of spirituality, and leaders tend to evaluate the success or failure of their ministries by how complete their programming is and how well organised and efficiently it runs.

Early in my ministry, when I was in charge of a Sunday School of more than 300 and when that included a nursery and the recruitment, training, and scheduling of teachers for classes from preschool to junior high, I realised that no matter how efficient the programme was, if there was not a proper focus, it would be a waste.

Worse than that, it would be a distraction.

Ministry is not programme. Ministry is people. If church leaders value programme and the things that make for efficiency and maximal programming above their people, they will tend to use the people to accomplish the programming.

If they tell themselves they are fulfilling their ministry because they have created buildings and programs, they are like the rich man who decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones only to find out he would not survive them.

Spiritual abuse takes place when people lose sight of the fact of grace and institute performance-based economies. Grace is favour that one has not earned. It is gift, not wage. It depends on the giver not the receiver.

A religious community that is built around the appreciation of grace can have programs and benchmarks, goals, and a value for efficiency but all those things take second or third place to the people themselves.

The programmes are seen as having been made for the benefit of the people and not the people for the benefit of the programs. This is the message that Jesus gave the Pharisees in Israel when they complained that he was performing miracles and healing people on the Sabbath. Among other things,

He told them that the Sabbath for made for the people. At other times he was tell them that they were loading up the people with all kinds of additional rules and demands for better performance, but not getting involved with them in order to ease their burdens.

God is for people. He demonstrated that in a huge way in giving his Son out his love for the world. God is not trying to catch people in their screw ups and put them in their places, condemning them, and weighing them down with even more things they won't be able to accomplish.

As the scriptures indicate, if God be for us, then who or what could be against us? That includes the fact that people stumble and don't measure up. God was active in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. There is so much in that, that defies a performance-based approach to spirituality.

When I am meeting with people in psychotherapy who are caught in abusive spiritual systems, or in a spiritually abusive relationship (because sometimes this comes up in that context as well), I try to keep myself oriented to grace. It is so important! It helps a person ground him or herself enough to affirm oneself and set reasonable boundaries with abusive people, regardless of what authority they think they might have over others.

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Published December 10, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated December 10, 2013 at 12:53 am)

Spiritual abuse grows like mould in a Petri dish

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