Saturday, March 11, 2006

What To Do If You Find Yourself In a Spiritually Abusive Religious System

Dr. Jeff VanVonderen closes his book "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse" by identifying two different approaches for the person who finds himself/herself in an abusive religious framework.

I am posting this article in response to two emails I received from people in a church where the pastor seems to be, according to the members, very abusive verbally, going so far as to publicly shame dissenters, and even slandering deacons and lay leaders in an attempt to establish his authority and silence all opposition. If you find yourself in such a situation, how do you respond?

First, VanVonderen says you can take flight and leave. For many people trying to decide whether to leave or stay in an abusive religious system is a question just too close to home. Dr. VanVonderen gives several objective questions that you need to ask yourself before choosing to flee the system:

(1). Can you stay and stay healthy both at the same time?
(2). Does grace really have a chance in this system?
(3). Is it possible the system might need to die?
(4). Are you trying to help the system, even though you are exhausted?
(5). Are you able to listen to the voice of reason?
(6). Do you really know where to sow?
(7). If you came today for the first time, knowing what you now know about the system, would you stay?

The second response to abusive religious systems is to stay and seek change, what VanVonderen calls "stay and fight." VanVonderen says Christians should not like to "fight," but he says too many Christians are naive. Telling the truth will mean a fight. Truth telling leads to change, but a person who tells the truth must be absolutely sure God is telling him to stay, and that he is not staying for the wrong reasons.If a person decides to seek change within an abusive system, there are several reminders that will help that Christian be a gracious agent of change.

(1). Decide whom you serve.

The issue is not whether we will serve someone, it is who. "Let a man regard us in this manner," says Paul in I Corinthians 4:1, "as servants of Christ." If your perspective is that you are here to serve people, you may please people, but you may not serve them. But if your perspective is that you are here to serve Christ, you will serve people, but you might not please them.

(2). Keep telling the truth.

Peter and John said in Acts 4:19: "Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking of what we have seen and heard."

(3). Know who your enemy is.

It is never people. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the forces of this darkness, against spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12). While people are sometimes used as pawns, they are not the enemy.

(4). Hang on to the Shepherd.

"And he has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you'" (II Cor. 12:10). Fighting the fight of faith for the gospel of grace takes dependence upon God, says Dr. VanVonderen, not education, status, power, fame, but pure dependence on the Shepherd. Hang on to God and tell the truth.

(5). Messes are not bad.

Dr. VanVonderen says in unhealthy religious systems the person who exposes problems becomes the problem. But the truth never causes the mess, it just exposes it. In fact, says VanVonderen, messes aren't bad.

In I Corinthians 11:18-19 Paul says to a very contentious church in Corinth "I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part, I believe it. For there must also be factions amont you." There must be factions? What about peace at all costs? What good thing can come from division? Paul answers, "In order that those who are approved may have become evident among you" (v. 19). Only in the midst of division will you be able to tell who genuinely cares about God and His ways from the heart. Messes can be good.

(6). Confront the leaven.

If a little leaven leavens the whole lump, where there is leaven in an abusive religious system, there must be attempts to remove it in order that the entire organization is not destroyed.

(7). Know how a healthy spiritual religious system funtions.

Transparency, servanthood, unselfishness, focus on the Kingdom, humility, grace, cooperation, affirmation, and other adjectives can describe a healthy system. Dr. VanVoderen closes his book by drawing a diagram of a healthy spiritual organization.

Our staff at Emmanuel constantly evaluates our service as servant/leaders to our church to insure that we are not falling into "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse" trap. We tell our people constantly that we are there for them, and they are not there for us. I think we all would do well to create safe environments in our churches and agencies where people really sense the power and presence of Jesus Christ through dynamic leadership that values every person for who he/she is, not for what he/she does.

In His Grace,



Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why you put that post there, but it was informative.

Anonymous said...

I know very well why he put that post there.

I wrote to Pastor Burleson and asked him how he could stay so graceful under fire. I shared with him that I am in the middle of a church conflict where I have been labled the troublemaker, all for asking questions about the way we handle our finances as a church.

Pastor Burleson was gracious enough to respond to me with a recommendation for a book, but when I told him I could not order the book because I was not near a Christian bookstore, he said he would post the pertinent, Biblical principles on his blog.

Thanks Pastor Burleson for showing me the way!

You have been both an example and an encouragment to me.


JUSTAMOE said...

The "must" of 1 Corinthians 11:18-19 is the Greek word dei--also found in the Lord Jesus' statement to Nicodemus, "You yourselves must be born again" (John 3:7; cf. v. 12). Paul pointed out the inevitability for strife among the Corinthian believers--there still was so much moral and ethical corruption among them that the result was factions formed (cf. AT Robertson's commentary). Churches will experience strife as long as churches are people; laymen and ministers alike will need to learn to resolve conflicts in ways that honor Christ, mature believers, and do not split the Body.

"As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between us. There are two things [people] can do about the pain of disunion with other [people]. They can love or they can hate." (Arthur Paul Boers, quoting Thomas Merton, in "Never Call Them Jerks," p 26--but see the book for how to love, not hate, those fellow-believers with whom we may disagree). Cf. Galatians 6:1f: gentle-enough restoration is a mark of true spirituality, but perpetuated strife and/or fearful neglected are signs of a believer not yet fully like Christ our Savior (so Larry, with due self-reflection, seek appropriately with others to reset the broken bone; reserve amputation for a bone which will not be reset).

"It's doubtful that God can use any man greatly until He's hurt him deeply" (Marshall Shelley, quoting AW Tozer in "Well-Intentioned Dragons," p 80--again, see the book for taming the dragons [Shelley points out: senior pastors and other vocational ministers sometimes are the dragons!]).

Anonymous said...

First, thank you for this forum to allow this discussion to take place. I have followed your blog carefully for a couple of months, and find it very interesting and no accident that the discussion has now turned to spiritual abuse.
The original discussions of the power and use (abuse) of authority by the Board of Trustees’ leadership is only a microcosm of such use and abuse wielded in church after church throughout our denomination. Having been a victim of such abuse twice, its symptoms and causes have become very obvious to me and others like me. I shared with my wife some of the postings from yesterday (March 10) regarding the abuses in a Texas church. She immediately began to cry over the hurting people in that situation, remembering still the pain inflicted upon my family in very similar circumstances.
The reason for even bringing this out at this time is this: there is a thread that runs through all of this that leads back to a single source. From individual pastors and leaders involved back to the institutions and their leadership, from which they received their training. This school of thought is encouraging young pastors to make agreements going into a church that get them into place, and then once power is assumed, they begin to eliminate all staff and leaders that oppose their leadership in any way, and take no prisoners.
But they make it sound so spiritual; “since God has place me into this position, then He has put me here to lead my way”, and who can argue with that. The problem is that their way is harsh, biased, unloving, and looks nothing like the loving shepherd that Jesus said will “lay down his life for his sheep”.
I have personally seen this model all but destroy two wonderful fellowships, and hundreds of loving Christians deeply hurt, and know of many others. It is an epidemic, and I’m not sure if anyone knows or cares, and if they do, what can be done to stop it.
It is hard to stand by and watch as the potential for such hurt to young missionaries, church staff and other leaders continues to proliferate throughout our convention. I am one lone, weak voice still standing in the wake as the tsunami of spiritual abuse rolls on. How many will be crushed by its pervasive influence before an alarm is sounded?

A Southern Survivor

Anonymous said...

Has the Bible been asked to do a job that it doesn’t describe as its own responsibility? Where please tell me, does it describe itself as the only authority in every matter of faith and doctrine? Can you give one verse that says this? I think the Free Church traditions, and most of Protestantism in general, has tried to balance on a one legged stool. There is a place for tradition and an overarching teaching authority along with the Bible, as confirmed in the two thousand year history of the Catholic Church.

Anonymous said...

The comment from A Southern Survivor about a pastor saying "God placed me in this lead my way" (especially in the context of traditional Baptist belief that places power in the entire church) reminds me of a story a friend told me. She was widowed, and a man approached her saying that God had told him to marry her. She replied that he would need to wait until God told her the same thing. If a leader's way is right others will see that and follow without coercion. Unfortunately the idea of the pastor as ruler of the church, rather than a servant-leader seems to have become prevalent in the SBC. No one of us, whatever the position, has all the wisdom; we must be open to learning from each other.


mixilmash said...

As one who has witnessed an obscene amount of spiritual abuse inflicted upon my colleagues on the mission field and as one that has also personally experienced the trauma that results from such leadership abuse while serving with the IMB, I found the 7 questions to be right on target. The level of spiritual toxicity is in direct proportion to the degree to which the servant leadership model of Jesus has been discarded and the overlord leadership model (that enlightened secular organizations have already abandoned)misnomered as spiritual leadership. Only "those in leadership" have spiritual faculties, the rest of the missionary staff is considered to be an expendible resource that is best replaced if they don't fit Moreover, may God help them if they dare ask questions or have a thought, because cogs in the machine are not supposed to think or question...just do what they're told! The corporate culture of the IMB has changed from one that cherished God's call upon the missionary force to one that subjugates that call to the dictatorial policies/practices of the "special annointed because we say so" leaders.

The proposed policies in this blog are head and shoulders above the latest excessive policies put in place, but the failure to recognize and repent of a non-Christian leadership model will NOT cure the will only prolong the agony of life support. I realize that some would challenge the statement that the current leadership model is response is just look at Matthew 20 and compare the top down, headquarter centered decision-making approach with what Jesus said.
The fact that I must maintain my confidentiality should speak volumes about the toxic system I'm trying to work around for the sake of the ministry I'm called to. I'm under no illusions about the response of those who run the current system of repression if they knew who I am....for several years a policy has been on the books that a missionary could be fired without recourse without even being told why...all in the name of Jesus....go figure.

Anonymous said...

I HOME:::First of all Catholicism is not another form of Christianity:::"It is another religion"!!!Secondly IF it was true Christianity then maybe you should remove the BEAM from your own eye before attempting to help remove the speck in the eye's of protestantism(sexual abuses,schisms)!!!Third "All "SCRIPTURE"(not tradition)is given by "INSPIRATION" of GOD,and is "PROFITABLE" for TEACHING(doctrine),for "REPROOF"(convictio of error) ";for "CORRECTION",for "INSTRUCTIONS" in "RIGHTEOUSNESS",that the man of God the man of God may be "COMPLETE","THOROUGHLY EQUIPPED" for "EVERY" good work...Fouthly adding your so-called traditions or anything else that is extra-biblical is nothing but a satanic RUSE by which heretics can insert godless teachings such as praying to Mary and other dead people!!!"N0 THANKS" you Catholics have no dog in this fight;;;This fight involves true believers and a True source for resolution,and that can only be found in ONE source of AUTHORITY and thats GOD'S REVEALED WORD "THE BIBLE"!!!