ICSA Today, 2020, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2-7
When the Walking Wounded Walk Into Church
This article is based on a chapter from the author's doctoral dissertation and forthcoming book, In the House of Friends: Understanding and Healing From Spiritual Abuse in the Church, about the recognition of spiritually abusive churches and recovery from the trauma they inflict on members.
The members of healthy churches often have a tough time understanding the concept of an abusive, Christian church—a church that holds to correct, orthodox theology, and yet functions like a cult. Many believe that a church with “good doctrine” is inoculated against spiritually abusive conditions. Moreover, recent statistics suggest that only about two percent of the congregation sitting in a church on a Sunday morning have experienced spiritual abuse. That’s a lot of people, but it’s also few enough spread out over the 350,000 churches in America to go unrecognized and unappreciated. As a result, very few Christians today understand the experiences and trauma their fellow Christians who have been spiritually abused have experienced. And because their wounds are spiritual—invisible—they are not readily noticed. What are these wounds survivors of spiritual abuse carry with them when they walk through the doors of a healthy church?
I have asked friends who have shared my experience of belonging to an abusive church to describe their experiences of reentry into healthy churches. They speak of loneliness, insecurity, and the prevailing fear that they are perceived as spiritually damaged goods when they seek to worship in healthy churches. I’m not sure if we spiritual-abuse survivors really stick out as prominently as we feel we do—but we do share that sense of unhealed woundedness that we fear must be obvious to others. Many of us are compelled to find a good, healthy church as an issue of obedience to God, but we do so with a vague, gnawing feeling that our very reason for finding a good church might be a part of what led us into the abusive church in the first place. Others among us simply step back, take a break, and disengage from the whole organized worship scene. These folks frequently do not receive much patience or understanding from their fellow Christians, who often believe that, until a survivor of an abusive church buckles down, bites the bit, and joins another church—this time a good church—God won’t have much to do with them.
Those survivors who do choose to enter a church again enter a community that believes and does many of the very same things those in the abusive church she left believed and did: Good churches sing; abusive churches sing. Good churches have powerful, persuasive preachers; abusive churches have powerful, persuasive preachers. Good churches have programs for the kids; abusive churches have programs for the kids. Good churches open the Bible for answers and direction; abusive churches open the bible for answers and direction. Good churches collect money for their support; abusive churches collect money for their support. Good churches notice and affirm new people and visitors; abusive churches notice and affirm new people.
There are certainly many differences between a good church and an abusive church. But to a survivor of spiritual abuse suffered in a church, a whole lot of things may look and feel the same in both. And now, as she comes into church, she brings in a lot of pain, and hurt, and brokenness with her. She is walking, but she is wounded. Let’s take a look at some of these wounds...
The trauma inflicted by spiritually abusive churches reaches deeply into the realms of the psychological, emotional, and spiritual, and therefore has a profound effect on the self-image of the survivor and on his most dear relationships. These are the unseen wounds that ache in a person's heart. They are wounds of the soul.
Abusive churches unwittingly demand that their members create a false, church self—one that serves the demands and expectations of the church about how to speak, act, think, decide and be compliant. To comply, the member often builds a new, false self—one who does and says things that obey the church, but that simply aren’t him. He’s not himself anymore, but neither is he the false self. The false self gives more money than the true self wants to give, spends more time at church than the true self wants to spend, prioritizes involvement with the church over time with family, friends, and the things he used to like to do. The false self is on duty day and night to keep him out of hot water with church leaders, and this false self applies layer after layer of inauthentic living that he soon claims as his true identity.
In fact, the member’s true identity has been highjacked by the false self, and is hidden away deep in the dark, cold cellar of the member’s mind. The visible personality, expressed in church-friendly living, is the one leaders and fellow church members see. The hidden personality, the one who has been relegated to the basement and rarely is let out into public, wastes away in its forced seclusion, but it never dies. The splitting, when the member speaks and acts on the outside incongruently with what he believes and desires on the inside, can do horrible damage to his mental health. Such cognitive dissociation makes him a type of walking civil war from an emotional-psychiatric perspective. The battle between these two selves may form a split personality the member carries with him when he leaves the church.
But what of the core self, the true, God-given personality each human being is born with—our souls? I believe that our souls are a creation of God, and God never relinquishes ownership of His creation. We can ruin our souls, neglect them, starve them, ignore them, damage them beyond all recognition—but in the end, they belong to God.
And as I reflect on my experience of being spiritually abused, I believe my soul, the inner me, was always working to get me out of my abusive, cultic church. It nagged me, itched my conscience, gnawed at my thoughts, and, in the end, like a whack-a-mole game, simply kept popping up. Finally, it won out, and I shed the fake me like a snake shedding its skin.
So under such a weight of mental stress, what are some of the wounds of the soul that members in the spiritually abusive church may suffer and carry with them when they leave? Survivors may experience flashbacks when later circumstances, interactions, and conditions remind them of their experience in the abusive church. Such episodes may trigger responses that may seem inappropriate or extreme. An authoritative, charismatic, talented preacher, for instance, can trigger survivors into feeling the same emotions and tensions that they experienced under the preaching of the abusive pastor, if that pastor was such a preacher. A casual statement from the new pastor affirming the positive, beneficial results of regular attendance, financial support, or even the practice of a healthy spiritual discipline, can trigger survivors into experiencing the same emotions they did when those personal, spiritual disciplines were demanded of them in the abusive church. The simple phrase the Bible says can cause survivors to brace themselves for the blow to come—as they mistakenly anticipate the Bible will be used to make demands, exert control, and strip away their autonomy.
Survivors often struggle with depression, including persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety, purposelessness, pessimism, joylessness, and exhaustion. The level of depression the survivors of spiritual abuse experience often merits medical and psychiatric intervention in the form of counseling, medication, and even physical therapies designed to help them in their recovery. One of the most harmful results of pastors not appreciating the phenomena of abusive churches and Christian cults is that they are slow to refer survivors to the specialized counseling and medical care that can provide significant assistance in their recovery.
Survivors may attempt to self-medicate as they seek to alleviate emotional pain and stress. They might abuse drugs, whether prescribed by a doctor or scored on the street. Alcohol can provide the nightly relaxation they require to be able to sleep or to take the edge off of their fear of going to work or church. They might also use sex to distract themselves from emotional pain, or resort to unhealthy overeating. I often ask those who have recently exited a high-demand group, abusive church, or cult if they are self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, or other harmful behaviors, and if they acknowledge that they are, suggest they would benefit from a visit to a primary-care physician. They may have begun self-medicating when they were in the abusive church, and that may have been tolerated, encouraged, and even exemplified by its leaders. Abusive churches do not produce or sustain healthy people.
Survivors often struggle with guilt. They may have compromised personal standards of ethical speech or behavior. They feel guilty for the things they said and did while they were in the church. They are sure that, somehow, somewhere deep down, they must shoulder some blame for their abuse.
Survivors often struggle with shame. Shame, while closely tied to guilt, is much worse. It is toxic to the soul of its carrier. Shame is the result of mixing up what we do with who we are. We feel guilt over the wrong things we do; we feel shame for who we believe we are. We do something wrong, bad, hurtful, and then we feel guilty, as we should. But when we do or say something wrong, deceitful, dishonest, and then surmise that we therefore are unworthy people—that is shame. We feel we are unworthy of respect... courtesy... kindness... forgiveness; that we deserve to be hurt and abused by our pastor.... Things like that. Shame suffocates our souls—pounding into them the message that we don’t deserve the air we breathe.
Abusive leaders of abusive churches may have shamed members through public (group) condemnation; mock trials (often with a twisted, ecclesial tone to them); or private, one-on-one discipleship meetings with a spiritual mentor. Sadly, although the members may successfully walk away from their abusive churches, they often carry destructive feelings of shame for many years after they have left.
Survivors of spiritual abuse are often angry. They are offended and provoked as they come to grips with what the leader and the group did to them. As time passes, they may better understand the unstable, vulnerable position they were in when they were recruited into the church, and how the leaders took advantage of their condition. But improperly processed, this anger can be misdirected, resulting in self-loathing and nastiness toward others, and even God.
When I left the church, I was enraged at God within weeks, blaming Him for the 12 years there that I accounted for as wasted and devastating to my family. “So, is THAT the way You answer the prayers of 22-year-olds who want to serve You?! THAT’S what You do when they ask You to lead them ... send them to a CULT?! You are one lousy Father, God,” I railed. “Thanks a lot!”
While misdirecting our anger can delay recovery from spiritual abuse, we should not fear it, for something terrible has happened. As abuse survivors, we were mistreated, disrespected, and used. Of course, we are angry! The challenge, for survivors, and for those who wish to help them, is to find healthy ways to deal with anger, whether through our own reflection and study, through professional help, or through a new and nonabusive spiritual community.
Survivors often struggle to accept the ambiguity of many theological, faith-related issues. Abusive churches and cults do not teach their members to tolerate diversity of opinion. Instead, they insist that there is one way, their way, and that all other views are simply wrong. In such areas as politics, , gender roles in the church and home--including the relationship of husbands and wives, education, styles of music, social standards, dietary practices, or even a citizen’s obligations to the government, there is only either/or, in the beliefs and assumptions of the abusive church – never both/and. , It is very difficult for members who leave such totalist ideology and teaching to accept that other Christians simply disagree about some issues that were the abusive church considered litmus tests for the authenticity of faith, and often, salvation itself. And it can be particularly challenging for those who have left such monolithic, our-way-or-the-highway thinking to navigate the waters of today’s pluralistic world.
The mix of the feelings and attitudes listed previously can make things pretty messy in a survivor’s head. After leaving my abusive church, I experienced a bizarre combination of self-loathing and self-righteousness, especially during the worship services of the normal churches I attended. I recall sitting in a Sunday service just months after I had left, inwardly criticizing the music, the content of the sermon, and the skills of the preacher. As I thumbed through the worship guide, I judged what seemed to me the church’s shallow programs and lack of biblical vision and focus.
But only moments later, I was overcome with excruciating shame and self-consciousness. I whispered to my wife, Sharon, “I have got to go. See you at home.”
Five minutes later, there I was, head down, shuffling down the street, with one step, hating the new church, with the next, hating myself for criticizing it. It can be tough for the survivors of abusive churches to simply show up to worship, give themselves a break, and remain for the whole service.
Survivors may experience sleep disorders and nightmares. I still have dreams, most of which do not rate as out-and-out nightmares. I think my dreams are a type of self-healing, as my subconscious is attempting to heal my conscious memories. Patterns of being back there are common, with me reliving the horrible stress of the abusive church, but often openly questioning or criticizing its leaders. I think those dreams are an attempt to allow me to relive the experiences, only this time (in the dream) working on making things turn out better than they did in real life.
Loss of Theological Certainty
Survivors of spiritual abuse often carry significant wounds to their faith, as they reevaluate the core theological beliefs they held and find them to be insufficient, illogical, and even destructive. They suspect, and often fear, that many other of their tightly held beliefs may also be simply untenable, and wrong. They are unsure of just how many of those beliefs they will need to examine and discard, how long that process might take, and what beliefs might replace them. Often, the first belief to crumble is that the God they believed in and felt they were faithfully obeying was predictable and committed to showing exceptional favor to them. That God doesn’t seem to exist—and, as survivors, they may find themselves wondering whether any God exists. Or the idea that a loving God allowed the deceit, loss, and pain to occur in a community that claimed to follow Him can deeply unravel survivors’ belief systems. Survivors also find themselves reevaluating their approach to the Bible because much of the abuse they suffered was directly and indirectly validated as being in accordance with biblical teaching. Finally, survivors of spiritual abuse in a Christian church cannot be faulted for questioning the validity and trustworthiness of any church, especially if the doctrinal beliefs of their abusive church closely correspond to the doctrines of supposedly healthy churches. Therefore, it is critical that survivors of abusive churches be shown gracious acceptance should they choose to stop attending church services, refuse to become members of a church, or stop identifying as Christian.
I have discussed what I think are the most prominent wounds of the soul there are. But there also are other wounds, such as overwhelming, gnawing feelings of isolation, loneliness, insecurity, lack of confidence, embarrassment, indecisiveness, and a host of other emotional maladies.
Marriages do not do very well in the abusive church, for narcissistic pastors are wary and suspicious of the exclusive loyalty marriage entails.. Often, such pastors bear a general animosity toward all dyadic (two-person) relationships in their church. Any exclusive, unique relationship between two people (husband-wife, parent-child, friend-friend, etc.) constitutes a threat to the pastor’s control, and is therefore discouraged, ignored, or invaded.
Abusive pastors may demand that no secrets between spouses are kept from the leader. Spouses are pressured to divulge their respective mate’s personal issues, failures, and even statements made in the privacy of the home. In its extreme forms, this interference with the marriage relationship may even include abusive leaders prying into the intimate, sexual areas of the marriage under the guise of counseling, encouragement, or discipleship, but with the actual intent of unraveling the intimate safety marriage partners share.
The demand for attendance at the many services and programs and meetings of the church, along with private meetings with leaders and teachers, can drain members of the time needed to relax and enjoy time with a spouse. Survivors who have experienced such abuse of their marriages often struggle with trusting their spouses, and they wonder whether their marriage can be saved, or if it is worth saving.
For those marriages that began in the abusive church, achieving a healthy marriage is especially difficult because the only identity that either spouse knows of his or her mate within the marriage is that of the abusive church member, not the prechurch individual. But whether their marriage began before the couple’s membership in the abusive church or after they joined, the church’s attack on the marriage is often ruthless, deep, and lasting. making them hesitate to step into a church again. You can’t really blame them for wanting to step back from church and instead take a deep breath on Sunday mornings, relaxing together over a quiet breakfast before going on a hike.
Regret and guilt can be overwhelming for parents who have subjected their children to a church that hurt them. Having believed they were raising their children in the most positive, spiritually healthy way, they have had to face that they exposed their dear children to deep, lasting wounds.
For Sharon and me, the church we believed would provide the best life, spiritual education, and positive experience of our Christian faith ended up robbing our children of joy and faith itself.
On autumn evening in 1996. Sharon and I and our three daughters were at the dinner table, talking about the start of school for the older girls, Bryn, then 12, and Rachel, then 10. (Our youngest, Grace, was almost 2.) The subject of the abusive church we had left just weeks earlier came up often at mealtime. (Did I just write “often”? It’s really about all we ever talked about.)
“Do you think we’ll ever go back there?” asked Bryn.
“Yeah,” her 10-year-old sister quietly asked; “are we going back?”
Sharon and I looked at each other with a look that said, Go slow and easy on this one—they lost all their friends when we left the church. Our kids were all born while we were members of the church, and Bryn and Rachel had spent all their young lives in it, living semi communally for 6 of the years we were members. The other children in the church were like siblings to them. They spent countless hours with the same kids, learning to walk at the same time, having little-girl tea parties together, loving the same toys, playing on the same Little League teams, worshipping the same pop stars, and attending the same schools. As far as we saw, they led an idyllic life and when we left the church we also suddenly, forcibly, separated the girls from their best friends.
With each day of freedom from the church, our certainty that we would certainly never return only grew. We lived in a nice little house in the old neighborhood I had grown up in. The girls had already begun the school year in their new schools and were enjoying exploring their new neighborhood. Going back to the church was out of the question. Now, we were faced with what we believed to be a critical challenge—telling our daughters we would never return to the church, and to their dearest friends.
“Well,” I began, “we’re not so sure about it...”
Sharon continued, “Because we’re not sure it’s where we really want to be, as far as...”
“...what’s best for our family,” I finished.
The table was silent as the girls looked from Sharon’s face to mine, trying to figure out what might come out of our mouths next.
“So, no; we’re not going to go back. Ever?”
“No, we’re never going back. Ever.”
There, I thought. We said it. After a brief, awkward pause, both Brynny and Rachel looked at each other, and then got up from the table. I looked at Sharon, whose face revealed the same worry that I was feeling. Oh, no, I thought. They are going to run to their rooms. They’re crushed, disappointed. It’s going to be a long night. Dad disappoints, yet again.
But they did not run to their rooms. Instead, they giggled, locked arms, and began swirling around the kitchen floor like exuberant square dancers, chanting,
“We’re never going back! We’re NEVER going back! We’re NEVER GOING BACK!”
Sharon and I stared, open-mouthed, both thinking, What have we done to these kids? There we sat at the kitchen table in stunned silence, watching the spontaneous, joy-filled dance of freedom on our kitchen floor, and realizing in yet another way how we had really gotten it all so wrong. (In the near future, we would learn what had happened to several of the girls in the abusive church, and the unrestrained joy of our daughters that evening would make more sense to us.)
Parents who exposed their children to spiritually abusive churches may carry crushing guilt for using methods of discipline that were harsh and painful. They may realize that they were uninvolved and neglectful, quick to dish out punishment and correction, slow to shower grace and unconditional love. They may grieve the degree to which they granted other, nonrelated adults the authority to correct and discipline their children, and to act as parental figures.
Parents may grieve over the money, time, and energy that went to the abusive church and not to their children. As their children begin to believe they truly are free of the abusive church, they may begin to relate to their parents what life was really like for them, including examples of emotional, physical, and in some cases, sexual abuse. Parents’ confidence may wither as they realize how extensive the effect of the spiritually abusive church was on their children, who memorized verse after verse of the Bible while also memorizing whom to obey, and whom to fear in the church.
There is perhaps no greater responsibility in life than that of parenting a child. It is a bitter thing to grasp the fact that your kids, who had no choice in the matter, were abused in the church that Mom and Dad raised them in. This is a burden that loving, understanding, empathetic friends, pastors, and extended family members can help to bear in caring for parents who survive abusive churches.
Abusive churches do not exist to make people happy, satisfied, and spiritually healthy. Rather, they exist to serve and support their leaders. A prime example of this is how members are persuaded to give up their money. Once we had left our church, we realized that what were presented as “opportunities” to support the work of the church were simply ways for more of our hard-earned money to make its way into the hands of the pastor of our small church.) And besides the loss of actual wealth members suffer, there is often the loss of potential wealth if members fulfill the expectation of near-perfect attendance at church programs, ministries, and special events. The time they might have spent working, developing businesses, or taking on odd jobs is sacrificed to the church instead.
The survivors of abusive churches often are struggling financially, and fighting, scrimping, and saving to regain financial stability. Some are at a stage of life when they expected they would own homes, be secure in their professions, and have retirement savings; but they often have none of those resources and are starting over to build wealth. Even now, it still pains me to think of the lost income, both real and potential, of those 12 years we were under the domination of an abusive pastor. I suppose anyone can make bad financial decisions and end up with fewer dollars in the bank. But the feeling of being ripped off, deceived, and squeezed in the name of Jesus stings, and it takes a while to get over that.
Educational and Professional Wounds
Many survivors have neglected or been actively dissuaded from pursuing educational and professional goals. They will feel that they have lost opportunities for advancement in the workplace and have left their dreams and goals on the altar of loyalty to the abusive churches and pastors. Some may have put career plans on hold, having been told by their abusive leaders that they instead should be investing their time and energies in the abusive church. They may have been told that, as the church grew, there would be opportunities for paid service, perhaps even as pastors themselves, if they would only hold on and keep on giving to the church. And they gave and gave—and left with nothing.
Survivors of spiritually abusive churches often walk through the doors of healthy churches feeling like professional and academic failures. They feel like unfortunate, spiritual gamblers who have cast the dice in a bid for greater meaning and productivity as Christians and thrown snake eyes.
These are just some of the main areas of trauma and woundedness that the survivors of spiritual abuse may bear. They don’t leave these wounds at home on Sunday when they seek a healthy church in which to worship, and they don’t leave them in the car in the parking lot either. The wounds of spiritual abuse come right through the door with the survivors and are, in fact, the wounds that they hope to find care for in the healthy church.
Rev. Ken Garrett, DMin, is senior pastor of Grace Church, located in his hometown of Portland, Oregon. After a 20-year career as a paramedic, he completed seminary studies and transitioned to the pastorate. For 12 years, Ken and his wife Sharon belonged to a high-demand, abusive church whose members lived communally, practicing an overbearing, extreme form of the Christian faith. Ken and Sharon made a painful exit from the church in 1996 with their three daughters. They now enjoy many opportunities to counsel and care for survivors of abusive churches from the Portland metro area and have begun a quarterly Spiritual Abuse Forum for Education to promote friendship and education for survivors of spiritual abuse. Ken has earned a Doctor of Ministry degree, with a dissertation focusing on the recognition of spiritually abusive churches and recovery from the trauma they inflict on members. Ken loves reading, traveling, and hiking in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.