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Beware of "Spiritual Abuse"

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Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse, Part One

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Church as a Safe Place

By Peter R. Holmes and Susan B. Williams
Guest Writers Q:  When we hear the word “abuse,” most of us immediately think of physical or sexual abuse.  What are some other forms of abuse you have identified in the church?

A:  As a background and resource to Church as a Safe Place, we have drawn upon the experiences of the significant number of our own congregation who once were “former Christians.”  By this we mean that they are people who had a history in the church but for various reasons had left congregational life.  Sadly, we heard several stories of physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by church leaders or others within the church.  But there were also many other troubling stories describing behavior many of us have never recognized as “abusive.”  For example, when one woman we know lost a baby several years ago, her pain was multiplied when she was told by members of her faith community that this happened because she and her husband had left the mission field in Africa.  Others had been rejected outright because of failure to conform to the extra-biblical rules and values held by those in leadership.  After hearing story after story, we were able to identify harm and abuse in the church in five major areas: verbal, emotional, physical, sexual, and spiritual.  These areas of abuse are not exclusive.  Many situations involve more than one type of damage, and the boundaries between them are blurred.  For instance, verbal abuse can lead to deep emotional trauma that lingers for many years.  Because so much of this abuse involves those who claim to be speaking God’s words, there is often a spiritual aspect overshadowing another form of abuse.

Q:  Since every person has the potential to mistreat someone else—and churches are simply groups of people—is there such a thing as a “safe” church?

A:  The word “abuse” seems strong, but most people who have suffered abuse within the church can at least recognize that their feelings are being hurt, and they don’t feel that church is a safe place for them.  This happens far more often than most of us would think.  We are not suggesting that every church is unsafe.  Neither are we giving everyone permission to accuse others unjustly.  But our congregations are part of our Western society and can be as abusive as the society they are a part of.  Because abuse in our (or, really, any) culture is so common that it becomes like background noise, when congregations become abusive or hurtful environments, it is all too easy for the organization and its members to develop a tolerance to it.  It becomes normal.  For many of us, of course, local church life is an enjoyable and safe experience.  For many others, abuse has become synonymous with church life.  This is an area in which most churches demonstrate room for improvement, which is why we consider Church as a Safe Place to be a handbook for churches in confronting, resolving, and minimizing abuse.

Q:  What role does confidentiality play in the prevention—and the sometime proliferation—of abuse by leaders in the church?

A:  Traditionally, the pastoral relationship, like the one-to-one counseling model, has been a private one.  In the USA, initiatives like HIPPA, the national standards to protect the privacy of personal health information, reinforce this.  But, in an age when confidentiality in any form is becoming the holy grail of medicine, we would like to question the wisdom of allowing this to creep further into congregational life.  The issue of confidentiality can create a number of problems.  At one extreme are the pastors and leaders who keep an iron grip on all relationships and disclosures.  They insist on knowing all confidential information and often seem to think that it should come to them alone.  This increases their power over those who seek help and can lead to abuse of that power.  At the other extreme are churches where openness is encouraged to the extent that people do not feel safe around their leadership because they might use confidential information about them in sermons and conversations in the church lobby.  We can think of one example in which a young woman attending a youth rally felt great shame when the speaker asked all the virgins to stand.  This truthful young woman remained seated, feeling publicly exposed, as the others applauded themselves.  Finding a balance in matters of confidentiality can be difficult.  A culture built on openness is particularly helpful to people with no Christian background because when they move into congregational life they are able to hear everyone’s amazing stories and this is compelling.  If everything goes on in private, with very little told, they begin believing that church is lived in secret.  The safest place on earth is where there are no secrets.  That being said, the sharing of those stories should always be done voluntarily, not under pressure to conform.

Q:  When we realize that we have been abusive to someone, how do we go about setting things right?  What if we are the ones who have been abused—what should we do then?

A:  As we outline in our book, begin by asking: What would be best for the person I have hurt?  How would it be most easy to contact them?  The normal answer is by sending a card or letter.  When you first make contact, begin gently.  You have a responsibility to give the other person the opportunity of finding a way back to you.  Try to set up a meeting.  You may even suggest that the other person bring along a friend if they wish.  When a person has been very hurt, mediation will at times be necessary.  Someone impartial will need to step into the situation to listen to what is being said by both people or parties.

If you realize you have been abused, the first thing to do is to talk to someone about it, someone who is able to listen to your perspective rather than continue to defend the other person(s).  Invite the Lord to be with you as you admit you were abused.  Perhaps you need to raise your voice as you let the anger out.  Give the pain to the Lord.  Resist the urge to blame God for what people have done to you in His Church.  This will cut you off from His restorative Love.

Q:  What are some specific steps churches can take to maintain an environment safe from physical and sexual abuse?

A:  Physical abuse can leave many hidden scars.  Accusations should always be treated very seriously, and we should not let our loyalties or prejudices stop us from hearing the person’s perspective.  Rumors of sexual abuse in any form should never be ignored.  Always ensure that the appropriate person checks out such suspicions, regardless of who the alleged perpetrator may be.  Any leader of a faith community who discovers that someone is truly being sexually abused has a duty in law to inform the police.  It is inadvisable for a Christian leader to see anyone alone pastorally, especially someone of the opposite gender or a child.  It is better if the counselee brings a friend or for the leader to seek the support of another member of the leadership team. 

Q:  How should complaints of abuse be handled?

A:  When anyone comes forward to talk about being abused in any way, leaders should treat what is said seriously and listen carefully and transparently to people on both sides of the conflict.  They should talk it through with other trustworthy people, staying mindful of the fact that human nature is revengeful and vindictive.  Sometimes things are not as they seem.  If the abusive situation has been confirmed, choose to honor all parties who are involved, seeking reconciliation.  In instances of sexual abuse, notify the proper authorities.  For instances of emotional, verbal, and spiritual abuse, seek to restore trust between the two parties if you can, knowing that trust is a key element of restoration.

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ChurchWatch Blog by Craig von Buseck

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Peter HolmesPeter Holmes has combined a career in business and management consultancy with service in the church and international missions.  He holds an MA in pastoral psychology and a doctorate in therapeutic faith community and is a lead reviewer with the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ therapeutic community program. He is co-author of the book Christ Walks Where Evil Reigned,a social commentary, in a Rwandan setting, focusing on how darkness can consume a nation and how hope and transformation can be released.  He has developed a therapeutic discipleship program available in seminars and in books such as Letting God Heal, Changed Lives,and Becoming More Like Christ.  Among the nine books he has authored, Becoming More Human, Trinity in Human Community, and Church as a Safe Place describe the extension of his ideas in local churches.  

Susan B. WilliamsSusan B. Williams is driven by a passion for promoting positive change, a passion reflected in every area of life—her education, her profession, and her ministry.  As a specialist in personal, relational, and organizational change, she holds an MPhil and PhD in the personal and social dynamics of transformative change.  Williams has authored several books, including Changed Lives, Becoming More Like Christ, and Church as a Safe Place with co-author Peter R. Holmes, with whom she also wrote Passion for Purity.  She specializes in working with local churches and church members as they pursue transformative change, particularly in the therapeutic community of her home church, Christ Church Deal, Kent, UK.

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