I have to confess, this blog has been difficult to write. In the many weeks of writing this blog, there has been a continual struggle between two extremes – one side of me messily bleeding all over the place, the other side of me keeping it sterile and clinical, as if you were reading a bland ingredient list for catsup. I hope this (very long) blog entry captures some useful information, and gives a glimpse into the very personal aspects of this research in my own life. This blog entry has been a journey through my own personal valley of shadow.
Stay On Target
Thanks, I needed that.
So in Part One of this blog, I talked about the convergence of Social Psychology (how people tend to act under particular external stimuli) and Hacking (manipulating something to get a new or different output). Social Engineering is this convergence – the art of manipulating humans (the 8th Layer of the OSI Model), typically for financial gain. Now I’d like to talk about another form of social engineering that is picking up visibility in the media – the manipulation of people (human hacking, if you will) in a spiritual setting.
In the Inheritance book series, Paolini writes about Eragon, a boy who finds a dragon egg in the mountains near his home. With the hatching of the egg, Eragon sets out on a grand adventure to become a dragon rider with his beautiful dragon, Saphira. This series takes Joseph Campbell’s recipe for the Hero’s Journey all the way to the bank, following the adventure framework in the path of such greats as Lucas’ Star Wars and Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. But though I could ramble on about the key elements of Campbell’s framework, that’s not what this blog is about.
In the book series, Eragon learns that everything has their true name, which describes its very essence. When a person learns their true name, it gives them deeper understanding of what makes them tick – it summarizes their deepest desires, what motivates them, why they act the way they do. Knowing someones’ true name gives you complete power over them.
In the series… spoiler alert… the chief antagonist learns the true name of Eragon’s half-brother, Murtagh, and thus is able to control him completely. The book illustrates that knowing the full essence of a person – what makes them tick – is a powerful tool. And in the wrong hands, it can be disastrous. I won’t spoil the ending of that book series any more – go read it, it’s a pretty good series. Just don’t watch the movie – it’s a diabolical train wreck of a film that bares only a passing resemblance to the book.
The point is that knowing what makes you tick can be used by the wrong person to control you. Sadly, those in a position of authority can – and often do – use their understanding of others to control them. When that wrong person uses their position of authority to abuse others within a spiritual context, this is referred to as Spiritual Abuse.
Open Vulnerabilities within the Church
When it comes to vulnerabilities, churches are the IIS server of the Social Engineering world. I can see the non-technical folks scratching their heads with that one, so I’ll elaborate. Back in the day, Microsoft had a web server called Internet Information Server (IIS). I remember learning the intricacies of this server back in the 90’s as part of my MCSE 4.0 certification, ah it seems like only yesterday… And the thing about IIS server is that it was very well known to be chocked full of vulnerabilities. Or to say it a different way, hackers knew with a very high degree of certainty that if they found an IIS box hosting a web page, they could hack into it rather easily.
Churches bear close similarities to the IIS server in that several of the core tenets or belief systems in churches are well known, and are able to be manipulated by bad guys. Things like forgiveness, believing the best in others, generosity, kindness, and meekness – these general characteristics are vulnerabilities that can easily be taken advantage of. And this is critical to understand – we can not always recognize the bad guys for what they are. The bad guys are most likely already inside our churches now – and because of the known vulnerabilities of a church, may be taking advantage of people to have free reign.
What I’m not saying is the church needs to stop being forgiving, or generous, or so on. What I’m saying is we need to see these characteristics as potential areas that will be methodically targeted and exploited by the bad guy. Knowledge of these vulnerabilities is the first step in guarding against exploitation of those vulnerabilities. That is probably a whole other blog post, maybe I’ll shelve this for now. For more on this topic, I highly recommend Jimmy Hinton’s podcast on how abusers prey on our belief system. Jimmy was instrumental in helping clean up the mess at my old church, I owe him a great debt of gratitude. But to stay on target, here is the key takeaway: bad guys will often target well meaning churches as a means to their own ends. This process almost always includes some form of Spiritual Abuse.
Spiritual Abuse, Defined
I will define Spiritual Abuse based on the (rather excellent) research of David J. Ward, as defined in “The Lived Experience of Spiritual Abuse:”
“A misuse of power in a spiritual context whereby spiritual authority is distorted to the detriment of those under its leadership.”
My darling Pooky could probably take that definition and perform some type of fantastic sentence diagram wizardry. Unfortunately, I’m nowhere as talented, so I’ll break that definition out into its individual components:
- Misuse of power
- A spiritual context
- Distorted spiritual authority
- Causing detriment (harmful)
- Under leadership
First and foremost, note that point 1, 3 and 5 are closely related. Spiritual Abuse relies on someone in a position of authority distorting that authority to harm those under their leadership authority. See the connection? Spiritual abuse relies on authority.
Point 2 identifies the context – it’s spiritual. In most cases, this takes place in a church or religious setting. It is worth noting that Ward’s research on this topic was conducted exclusively with victims from a Judeo-Christian background, and as such, this blog most directly applies to that context. It is also worth noting that my own personal experience in this area is also from that same context.
And Point 4 identifies the results – spiritual abuse causes harm to those who are abused.
This may be a difficult concept to grasp for those who have not been abused in such a way. Melanie Childers, in her article “Holy Havoc: Chaplains as First Responders in Healing Spiritual Abuse“, notes that spiritual abuse appears to resemble most closely those of violent domestic relationships, in that they both involve ongoing relationships of trust and intimacy that have been voluntarily chosen. And as a result of this violated trust and intimacy, people are harmed. There is detriment. There are lives left broken and shattered as a direct result of spiritual abuse.
Characteristics of Spiritual Abuse
There are clearly identified characteristics and patterns of spiritual abuse. Ward identifies the following:
- Leadership Representing God
- Spiritual Bullying
- Acceptance via performance
- Spiritual Neglect
- The expanding external/internal tension
- Manifestation of internal states
As I pointed out in the definition of Spiritual Abuse, the common theme is authority. A spiritual leader maintains their position of authority in large part from their position of spiritual leadership. While interviewing victims of spiritual abuse, Ward noted that abusive leaders usually treat their victims as children.
This stands in stark contract to the mutual respect found among fellow believers who are on a lifelong journey into eternity. The model shifts towards treatment of the congregation as insolent children in need of constant correction. In my experience, the focus was most commonly present in the negative – we didn’t _____ enough, or weren’t as _____ as we should be, or were too easily ______, or we didn’t _____ well enough. The picture takes shape of a congregation full of bumbling spiritual toddlers, in need of a wise earthly father figure who is much closer to God.
This is a far cry from the Biblical example set forth that we are all on the same spiritual journey, and are to speak into each others’ lives in different ways. By contrast, there is no speaking into an abuser’s life – there is only acceptance and obedience to their direction. The direction is almost exclusively uni-directional. That is to say, because the leader is on a higher level than the rest, they are above reproach and do not receive correction, they only deliver it. And the less you know about them or their shortcomings, the better.
One practical example of this identifying uni-directional vulnerability. If your spiritual leader knows about your own proverbial flawed skeletons, but has not reciprocated, you are in a lopsided position of vulnerability that has the potential for abuse. There are numerous reports of this taking place in the realm of Scientology, whereas their leaders have enough dirt on the followers to keep them under control. On a more personal level, I remember on more than one occasion a pastor saying that it’s ok to disagree with them – you can come to them later, and apologize for being wrong. This kind of tongue-in-cheek statement reveals a perceived position of spiritual higher ground, while dissuading others from disagreement or speaking into their lives. To over-simplify, the leader will tell you what to believe – and you will (to borrow the line from the old hymn) trust and obey.
This is an area where I struggle to keep it somewhat clinical. I’ve witnessed so many examples of spiritual bullying from the pulpit. It is worth noting that from my own experience, this has been almost exclusively uni-directional. That is to say, due to the one-sided nature of the pulpit, an individual is given the opportunity to speak to a wide forum of others – but rarely is feedback provided back towards the pulpit. And this lack of real-time feedback and accountability is frequently used to harass others. Here, social psychology is powerfully at play. How many of us would honestly stand up in middle of a sermon and call out the preacher for saying something that is abusive or aimed to harm / intimidate someone else? Can you imagine the myriad eyes of every other congregation upon you? Spiritual abusers take advantage of this social tension, in order to dominate.
Some practical examples of pulpit bullying include derogatory name calling of specific people (whether directly or indirectly named) or general types of people. This also includes weaponizing scripture by using partial truth to further a personal agenda. Here, I struggle to keep it somewhat clinical, and will provide a generic example. Quoting scriptures about forgiveness, with the goal to force congregants to overlook, ignore, or disregard the leader’s own sin, is manipulating the scriptures in an abusive manner.
There can be no question that God forgives sin – otherwise, we are all in deep trouble. However, coercing others (especially uni-directionally) to forgive and forget, without addressing the diverse emotional issues that require forgiveness, is flat out abuse.
note In my haste to get this post finally onto teh interwebz, I did a shoddy job in this section. My editor graciously recommended that I share this article on Forgiveness and Reconciliation that does a much better job than I, being a common layperson… Forgiveness is a complex process that ideally involves repentance and a change of behavior from the person who has caused the offense. Ideally both sides would come together to work through the offense together – in a proverbial sense, mending the broken fence. To be clear, the process of forgiveness does not require that the offender repent, or even acknowledge their wrong.
This entire forgiveness process (which can often, in the presence of abuse, take time) is very often overlooked or over-simplified by an abuser, in an attempt to jump to the end of the forgiveness process of letting go of the hurt from the offense. Without following the entire process through, you do not necessarily have true forgiveness – you have simply whitewashed the abuse. The abuser has in essence weaponized the concept of forgiveness – their goal is not to mend that which has been broken, it is to force compliance. The husband who tells his wife that she needs to forgive and forget his physical abuse is almost certainly on the fast track to abusing her again. And the pastor who coerces the congregation to forgive and forget the sins of that pastor is almost certainly on the fast track to more complex forms of sin. I’ll stop there.
Bullying leads rather naturally into acceptance by performance. The pastor who insists that others disregard his affair because that was between him and God, is coercing your performance. And have no doubt – without your active bowing to their demands, there will be no acceptance. Those who do not perform according to the demands of the abuser are bullied into compliance. The message is clear – act a certain way, or face the consequences. Expect retaliation in the form of a sermon about gossip, or a Facebook post about God forgiving all sin, or any other form of passive aggressive bullying. Rarely will the abusive pastor come to you, one-on-one, and want to talk through (bi-directionally) such an issue. It is also worth noting that logically, it falls apart. If you don’t behave in accordance with the leader’s desires, you will potentially be labeled as being unforgiving, or unable to let go. But the leader is under no such compulsion to forgive or let go of your perceived unforgiveness. Or to say it differently, a higher standard is expected of the victim, that the leader does not himself (or herself) practice.
This is one of the sadder aspects of Spiritual Abuse. Dr. Darrell Puls wrote an excellent article for the AACC (American Association of Christian Counselors) about the prevalence of narcissistic personality disorder among pastors. Shannon Thomas penned this fantastic quote on the topic: “Research shows that narcissists are drawn to certain professions and high on the list is Pastor. Many people go into ministry for all the right reasons, but some are drawn to the power, rather than being a servant leader.” This could make for an entire blog post in and of itself – but suffice to say, one of the primary traits of a narcissist is that they view others as an extension of themselves. Or to say it differently, you only exist in so much as you are useful to the narcissist pastor.
And therefore, if you do not serve a purpose, you are neglected. Practically, this could include being physically ignored, socially avoided, or spiritually neglected. If sermons are directed towards shaping the congregation’s outward actions to line up with the pastor’s personal desires (as being markedly distinct from your collective congregational internal spiritual growth), you could be suffering from spiritual neglect. The mark of a Christian leader is that of a loving shepherd who meekly serves the flock. Is your leader following (or actively striving towards) that example?
It is worth noting that most of the traits of spiritual abuse co-exist as a result of narcissistic pastors who abuse their position of authority in a quest for their own self fulfillment. Preston Ni wrote an excellent article on this topic in Psychology Today that could pretty much summarize and replace this entire blog. It highlights one of the most common bullying tactics, gaslighting… but I’ll let you read it there, before I get sidetracked. Good article, hats off to Preston Ni.
The Siamese Twins
I’m combining the last two traits, as I view them as a type of Siamese Twin: two different items that are so meshed together, they are almost one. This is where things start to really get real for the victim of spiritual abuse. Expanding external/internal tension refers to the conflict between what is inside our mind, and the actions that are conducted outside of our mind. Ward calls this the “dissonance between one’s inner and outer worlds.” I personally refer to this as the church smile, the mask of “everything is OK” that got strapped across my face each time I headed into the abusive environment. The popular Christian band Casting Crowns wrote a song called Stained Glass Masquerade that practically describes this dissonance. Suffice to say, this tension is real and will continue to grow and build, as it leads to a manifestation of internal states, the symptom or result of abuse. Ward calls this “the bio/psycho/spiritual repercussions of the abuse” which most commonly lead to some form of anxiety, physical illness, stress, anger, or depression.
Wrapping it Up
In the 90’s, my wife and I were in a campus bible study group that became a religious cult. Thankfully, we got out of that situation, and (rather foolishly) thought our adventures were over and the quiet life was at hand. We spent the past twelve years of our life in a Southern Baptist church that we thought was a good and safe place – only to find out it was just a crust of thin-ice over a deep murky pool, an elaborate system of lies protecting a pastor who was a convicted child molester.
I’m fully aware that I am damaged goods, a broken vessel. Shortly after we left our church home of twelve years, we found ourselves licking our wounds in the back row of a church we visited near our home. That Sunday, we heard a sermon from Pastor Matt Looloian that was like cool water to the parched soil of my heart. He was preaching on the account of David and Bathsheba, about how David used his position of power and authority over Bathsheba to rape her. God knew about David’s abuse, and brought perfect justice, balanced with perfect mercy. As is so often the case, the narrative focused on the abuser David, while his victim Bathsheba was just a sideline reference. She had lost everything as a result of the abuse committed against her. She didn’t ask for or deserve the abuse, she was just a convenient pre-meditated target for the abuser.
And this is the most important part to me – Matt wrapped up by saying that God can heal not only the effects of our own sin, but can heal the effects of sin committed against us. That was such a foreign concept to me – much of my life has involved blind acceptance of the pain from sins committed against me. Much like the snowman who gradually grows larger as a result of snowballs being chucked at it, I have been taking on this hurt and accepting it as a new part of myself. But I find incredible hope that I don’t have to live forever with the hurt and pain from abuse. That Sunday morning, God knew exactly what we needed to hear. And if Matt is reading this, I thank him for giving me – and hopefully all of you reading this, who have suffered spiritual abuse – hope.
It is my sincere hope that you find this lengthy blog informative and educational. If you are currently in an abusive church, or have come from one and are dealing with the deep feelings of betrayal and loneliness, you are not alone and there is hope. If none of this really applies to you, please consider this an educational blog that warns you of some of the exploitable vulnerabilities that exist within a religious institution. And as always, thank you for taking the time to read, to learn, to grow.
There are tons and tons of resources and articles out there on this topic, many of which I’ve used as research for this (extremely long) blog post. It is my hope that you find them helpful. They are dumped here, in no particular order.
- Safe Sheep: Church Abuse Awareness on Facebook
- Jimmy Hinton’s Speaking Out on Sex Abuse Podcast
- Grace (and the abuse of grace) for narcissists and abusers
- When It Comes to Abuse, the Church Needs a Paradigm Shift