Recovering from Spiritual Abuse

Recovering from Spiritual Abuse

all-the-props on Women in Ministry blog by Cheryl Schatz

Recently I was contacted by Dr. Barb Orlowski who has compiled her research on spiritual abuse into a manuscript that will form the basis of a yet unpublished book called “Ministering Restoration: Recovering Spiritual Harmony”.  Dr. Orlowski wrote to me because she is interested in the issue of women in ministry as it was part of her study on spiritual abuse by authoritarian and abusive leadership in the church.  In her on-line book in chapter three “What does the Bible say?” she lists the inherent weakness of the hierarchical/authoritarian model of leadership.  These models can be used as a way to abuse the flock if the leadership demonstrates power driven or controlling tendencies.  Barb writes:

Hierarchical and Authoritarian leadership can often slip into abusive patterns.  What appears to be a reasonable system of church governance can often get molded instead to suit the designs of certain types of leaders.  Unfortunately, these leaders distort church authority in ways that eventually misrepresent biblical principles for church governance.  Leadership then becomes a command and control style which slowly erodes the effectiveness of that church body and leaves those under that regime dependent and immature in their Christian lives.

One of the ways that these leaders become abusive, according to Dr. Orlowski, is by not allowing others to participate and these “authorities overstep their bounds and use their position of leadership to mistreat those under their care”. 

Such leaders can become human gatekeepers keeping the use of spiritual gifts within the congregation to those members who are acceptable to the leadership.  Many women have been hurt by such spiritual abuse that the only way they could survive spiritually and emotionally is to exit the church.

In Dr. Orlowski’s manuscript, a reference is made to a Christian who came out of the heavy discipleship/shepherding movement.  Christ was seen as the head of their pastor and the pastor was seen as “head of all in the church and (he) had godlike authority since he was seen as God’s sole representative” over the church members.  Having this kind of authority lends itself to abuse and control and wounding of the sheep.

Barb writes that healing from such spiritual abuse entails finding someone to confide in to help unravel the abuse and lay it down in order to experience healing.  She lists the steps to recovery and gives hope that there is wholeness to be found.  Often wounded healers can reach back and help those who are going through the same process that they themselves experienced.  Talking things out with someone who understands or is just a good listener can be comforting and healing.

On the main page of Barb’s web site, Dr. Orlowski briefly documents her own journey.

In the early 90’s our family moved to Langley, B.C., Canada, near a Christian University which also had a multi-denominational seminary.  I drove my kids to a Christian school and headed off for classes at the seminary, which provided a stimulating opportunity to learn and grow in my Christian life.  Later our two children entered and graduated from Trinity Western University.  I completed two degrees while at A.C.T.S. seminaries — a Masters in Religious Education in 1995 and a Master of Arts in Christian Studies in 1998.

After the summer of 2003, a door opened for an opportunity to be part of the first Doctor of Ministry cohort being offered at the seminary.  A group of us began this new adventure.  I was the only lady among some guys.  Many of my pastor pals had their dissertation topics already picked.  I did not.

The church were we were actively involved for over 16 years came to a difficult state of affairs.  This is where we, as a family, experienced a ‘muddy tunnel’ church experience, along with a number of dedicated church pals.  In my grief and disillusionment with my local church I began to search for answers to better understand what factors had created such a circumstance.  I began to read books, search internet websites and blogs, and reflect on my Christian journey.  The topic which caught my attention was spiritual abuse due to authoritarian leadership.  I had my topic.

I have read and heard some of the pain that is out there in the Christian community.  My research was focused on how people had processed their grief and had come to a place of spiritual harmony in their Christian life.  My interest was in hearing the recovery accounts of those who had been wounded.

The goal of this research was not to open old wounds, but to allow those who had healed over time the opportunity to give voice to their previous church distress as well as to describe their recovery process.

I believe that the Christian community needs to recognize that these distressing situations exist.  We need to grieve together and to continue to heal together.  The understanding gained through grief and healing ought to help many in the Christian Family to minister effectively to others in their difficult season–because so many have ‘been there’ too.

Elizabeth O’Connor has stated that:  “The pain that cripples is the pain that is borne alone — never put into words.  This is the pain that becomes a pool of tears hidden away inside, keeping us from connecting in any important way with others.”

For anyone who would like to contact Dr. Orlowski her email address is listed on her web site.

27 thoughts on “Recovering from Spiritual Abuse

  1. I do not think authoritarian leadership means there will be abuse, but I think it greatly increases the chances.  It depends on the authoritarian leader using their power for good.  The only one I can trust to do that consistently is God. 

    There are, sadly, many stories in history of a mostly good person being corrupted by the reigns of power, Christians know this is because of the sin nature in everyone.  The Lord of the Rings tells this story as a myth, it was exactly because the hobbits had little aspiration to power that they were considered the safest ringbearers and even then Frodo lost his battle with himself.

  2. Don,

    I concur with your statements.  For many the place of power will corrupt them whether it is giving place to their sinful nature a little bit or a lot.  This is why, I believe, that God doesn’t place us under a human mediator as some religions would have us believe, but rather God allows us individually access to Himself through the God-man Jesus Christ.

    Perhaps the best example of the difference between a dictatorial leader and a servant model is what happens when there is a perceived “wrong”.

    2 Timothy 2:24  The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged,
    2 Timothy 2:25  with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth,
    2 Timothy 2:26  and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.

    The one who is a godly servant to the flock will be patient when wronged.  He will act in gentleness and he will pray that God will grant repentance to those who wronged him.  The attitude is one of care for the flock, a heart of love and a patient steadfast nature that will not attack the one who “wronged” him.

    In contrast the one who is an authoritarian leader will not be patient when wronged.  Instead he will act to protect himself instead of acting to protect the flock.  His actions will show that he is the most important and his ego and his “rights” are what needs protection.  You won’t find this kind of leadership in scripture.  Well, actually, that isn’t quite right.  There is a “leader” of sorts who protects himself.  This “leader” is called a “hired hand” or in the KJV a “hireling”.

    John 10:12  “He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
    John 10:13  “He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep.

    This is why I believe we are called to service and sacrifice.  Service helps us to love those we serve.  Those who are pastors for the money they get or the power they wield are unlikely to care about the sheep because their focus is not the sheep but themselves.  So one of the ways to know whether a pastor has a true heart of a pastor is to see what he does when trouble comes.  When he is wronged, who does he protect, himself or the sheep?

    Don, I liked your example of the hobbits.  I never did “get” the Lord of the Rings, probably because I have too much of a logical mind to “get” things that don’t seem to make sense.  I do appreciate those who are able to distill the message down to a place where even I can grasp it.

  3. On church and church leaders, it is all there in black and white what to LOOK for, but some miss it entirely.  Look for a serving church and look for serving leaders who are patient (etc.) and much of the rest comes out with the wash.  I can deal with a leader when I have differences in interpretation if they are gentle.

  4. I can deal with a leader when I have differences in interpretation if they are gentle.

    Amen!  Gentleness makes the differences easier to handle.  If someone thinks that I am wrong, it certainly won’t help me to change my mind if that person speaks harshly with me or mocks me.

    Proverbs 15:1  A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.

  5. “Barb writes that healing from such spiritual abuse entails finding someone to confide in to help unravel the abuse and lay it down in order to experience healing.  She lists the steps to recovery and gives hope that there is wholeness to be found.  Often wounded healers can reach back and help those who are going through the same process that they themselves experienced.  Talking things out with someone who understands or is just a good listener can be comforting and healing.”

    This is harder than it sounds. There could be some very close to you that will NEVER understand because they have no experienced it. These can be folks who love you but are not there and will think you are going overboard or being unforgiving or disrespectful to the leader or something. YOu learn not to talk about it and then find yourself even lying about why you do not attend church there or why you stay away from certain people. Folks do not want to hear negative truth about an organization they think is great. They accuse you of gossip if you tell the truth. This is a huge hurdle. It is part of what is so isolating.

    In my situation the abusers are kind of well known and well loved by even those not in the church. Because they are so ‘high up’ most folks do not know them as they really are. They know them by their public persona.

    There really is a double edged sword for some. Even others who have been spirutally abused by the same folks are quiet because it affects their whole life…even their employment in some respects because of the far reaching influence of these well known folks. It is best if they just keep quiet because it is like fighting a huge PR machine. You will never be believed.

  6. Lin,

    I hear what you are saying.  For those without a safe place amongst their family and friends, it can be especially hard.  Many people when they are forced to leave their churches because of some type of spiritual abuse find that they are separated from all of their friends.  This makes their situation all the more hopeless in their eyes. 

    In this day and age of computers and ways of communicating without having to live close by each other, we can connect and have a community through the internet and email.  I treasure the community of believers that comes here.  It is my desire for people to feel safe to contact me and to know that what is placed openly on this blog is meant for hope and healing.  This may not be as good as people you can go to and receive a physical hug, but it may be the next best thing and for that I give God the glory and honor and praise that he has provided ways for us to connect.

  7. Sometimes, the internet is a major part of one’s inner healing from abuse, BECAUSE we can find others who understand to dialogue with.

    It has been a major major help in my life.

  8. tiro, this has been very true for me, also. Meeting and conversing with you, Cheryl, Paula, Don, Cindy K and many others has been very edifying to me. I have learned so much from each of you.

    It is exciting to know that we WILL meet one day for sure. :o)

  9. This is a very good subject and dialogue.  Thank you Cheryl for hosting such a wonderful place to discuss all this.  I’m getting so blessed reading your blog – I also appreciate all the contributors here as well; its really cool.

    I have also experienced more than my share of this over the course of serving the Lord for 25+ years.  I’ve come to the conclusion that our present model for ‘church’ has so many flaws and is so far from the example that we were given in the New Testament church; its no wonder this goes on.  Of course it took me a couple of decades to come to that conclusion; all the while getting shut down, accused, and in some cases shunned for the contribution that I was trying to bring to the table. 

    There is true beauty in this little community that you folks have going on here.  Keep it up.  I may not comment a whole lot Cheryl, but I am reading regularly and I am getting so much out of it.  Thank you all so much for all of this; it means a lot to me…  MM

  10. I am blessed whenever I read all your posts.  It is refreshing to see fearless dialogue among brothers & sisters in Christ.  Thanks Cheryl for being there!!  I am very blessed to know you and hopefully in 2009 I can hug you in person.  I have seen and know first hand “spiritual abuse” and sad to say I am one who has put up a huge wall.  God has healed some of the pain but there is more to be healed.  I don’t trust all people but I feel safe here. 

  11. This week has been very busy for me as I am working day and night on year end accounting for our ministry and by the end of the day I am very exhausted so this has kept me away from the blog.  Hopefully the work will be done this week.


    I think it will be exciting to meet each other in person in heaven.  Some of the regular posters here have become very special to me that I feel like I know you.  I will certainly want to get to know you for real in our final home.

    tiro and Don,
    Many thanks for all your input and kind thoughts.

    What a blessing to know that you have joined in our little community even if you don’t post very often.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that our present model for ‘church’ has so many flaws and is so far from the example that we were given in the New Testament church; its no wonder this goes on.

    I have thought lately that the church may end up going back to home churches as the present model of church has become so infiltrated with hierarchy and abuse.  Also the structure of the church as we know it does not allow for everyone to use their gifts and the church has become a training ground for pew sitters instead of participants.  This is not the way it should be.

    Thanks for popping in and sharing your thoughts!  I am glad to know that you too are one of the (usually) silent readers here.  I am amazed at the amount of people who have been spiritually abused and who have also put up a huge wall in their hearts because of it.  When we have the opportunity to care for one another and share our concern and love, we are given the special blessing of helping to tear down that wall that has been built up.  Jesus is the only one who is truly trustworthy, but he lives inside of us and we need to continue to grow to be like him and minister his love to the body.

    I will look forward to that special hug later in 2009!

  12. Cheryl,

    I have been thinking the same thing.  I was recently talking with a dear friend of mine in Ireland and the church body that his Father has pastored for some time has recently shifted back to house meetings and away from traditional ‘church’.  They are apparently experiencing great things since the shift. 

    Wouldn’t that just be an exciting thing to witness.  Amen sister, I’m with you on that one..!  MM

  13. Hello Cheryl!
    I just discovered this community and am so thrilled. I wanted to make a comment regarding the first comment to this post:
    Don wrote:
    “I do not think authoritarian leadership means there will be abuse, but I think it greatly increases the chances. It depends on the authoritarian leader using their power for good. The only one I can trust to do that consistently is God.”

    One thing I am learning –open to correction :-)– is that there is a distinction between authoritarian and authoritative. Personally, I would be very interested in hearing of an example where authoritarianism did NOT lead to abuse in some form. Maybe this is purely hermeneutics; it is something I am very interested in myself and look forward to further commentary.

    Thank you for providing this place!

  14. Hillary,

    I am so thrilled that you have stopped by and I hope you find this a warm and accepting community place!

    Your point is excellent! I do think that there is a huge difference between authoritative and authoritarianism. I would welcome anyone who has experienced authoritarian-styled leadership who found that abuse did not follow.

  15. I just read this blog trail so my comments here are late, but I, too, want to thank all of you for this place, your own websites, and your comments. You are my church right now and have been for over a year. The things Lin pointed out in #5 are very true. It can be very difficult to share about one’s struggles. I like the idea of truly biblical gatherings such as homegroup-style churches but they can be very very difficult to find. Regular churches have ads, websites, etc. I have been trying to find an egal ‘home church’ in my area and have had no luck so far. I have found some egal churches in my area and have met with the pastors, a few of whom felt strongly that I should be attending my spouse’s church (very strict fundamental church-which I left), and nearly all of which believe in some degree of male ‘headship’ in marriage though not in church function. So far, all were male pastors. It is extremely difficult to find a truly and completely egal church that does not at the same time endorse gay theology. Interestingly, the item of ‘headship’ that the most egal of them still clung to was the notion that in a situation needing a ‘tie-breaker’, the husband would be the one to decide. This strikes me as odd in that it implies that women, even those who are allowed full contribution within the corporate church setting, just somehow cannot be counted upon to make a good decision or be tie breakers themselves within a marriage. Why is it a given that unsolvable stand-offs will be inevitable? That a couple will come to a place where they will not be able to make a decision mutually (even if that means one or both come to change their stance voluntarily)? That the Holy Spirit cannot bring them to a place of agreement?

    The way many churches are structured, even the egal ones, it is tough to make relational inroads very quickly. The main services themselves do not lend to much interaction that is genuine nor to each contributing what God has placed on their hearts. Sunday schools or midweek groups then become the second choice and they are many times just micro versions of Sunday service, that is, they have a speaker, songs, prayer, and maybe a bit of time for discussion or open interaction/fellowship (and I don’t mean just at the ‘cookies and milk’ time).

    The other difficult thing about being married and looking for a church is that if one’s spouse does not accompany you, and yet is going to a church, it can make folk really raise their eyebrows at you, especially if you are a woman-even in a so-called egal church. I was told by the pastor of one such church that God must have some things for me to learn about submission. I was aghast and angry. I wondered why he didn’t assume that God had some things for my husband to learn about love or submission? Male authority is so deeply ingrained. I was also recently told that if I loved my husband I would go with him to his church. So now church attendance is no longer about fellowship with like-minded ones, it is about ‘loving and supporting one’s spouse’? So why isn’t it ever suggested that my husband be the one to do so? Even by these so-called egals?

    I still pray for some crumb of local fellowship but don’t know if it will ever happen. My consolation and encouragement are the stories of Christians who spent years in isolated prisons for their faith, and died there. That is, they never ever again had warm, in-person fellowship in this life. I hope I do someday. Meanwhile, you all are precious to me as cyber sisters and brothers in Christ. Like Mike, I may only rarely comment, but I do visit the sites frequently-especially on Sundays.

  16. My apologies for not providing better paragraph breaks and indentations-what a thick mass of a thing to wade through!

  17. Don’t give up truthseeker. Sometimes the best things take more work to find and secure. They are worth the wait.

    The online Christian world is an amazing adventure I agree. 🙂 Even though I’m involved in a good church, I depend greatly on the fellowship I receive online. And so wish they all were closer for realtime fellowship.

  18. truthseeker,
    I added some paragraph breaks to your post. 🙂 I can hear the hurt in your story. I too am amazed when I hear these things:

    I was told by the pastor of one such church that God must have some things for me to learn about submission. I was aghast and angry. I wondered why he didn’t assume that God had some things for my husband to learn about love or submission?

    When it is assumed that the problem is always the woman, then we have encountered prejudice. What shouldn’t be in the church is too often right there in our face. And so many women experience deep hurt because of it. It is my desire that the church would be able to see true unity in our lifetime. Perhaps we need persecution to pull us together and without the prejudice. In China most of the pastors are women for one reason or another, and it doesn’t appear that there is nearly as much prejudice against them in that country. They do what they have to do to shepherd God’s church in the way that they are called.

  19. Hi Everyone,
    I’d like to add a thought. Stan Grenz, in his book, Women in the Church, takes the apparently problematic texts of Scripture and demonstrates that biblical analysis soundly supports an egalitarian view. When this view is considered, an imbalance in the idea of the submission of women to men in the church is demonstrated. The further implication is that the egalitarian view demonstrates that it is a better model for marriage and the family. Grenz’ rationale for an egalitarian view and for writing his book is “to show that the vision of male-female mutuality is grounded in the Bible, is the logical outcome of evangelical theological commitments, and best serves the practical needs of God’s people.”

  20. Cheryl, and Dr. Barb, thank you for your comments! Cheryl, thanks for fixing my run-on paragraph!! 🙂 Yes, this is a painful time for me because of this issue and my current lack of local, like-minded fellowship. There is no end in sight to the situation, either, so I need to learn to rise above it with grace and hope and victory, despite the contrary beliefs of those around me and their comments. And pray!

    “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you”, and “Be still and know that I am God” are both very meaningful passages for me during this time, as is “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”

    Dr. Barb, I was not acquainted with Stan Grenz’s work (nor you and your website, etc., for that matter!) and look forward to reading it! Thanks! I found a free online version so that is helpful, too.

  21. Dr. Barb, I just peeked at your site and can’t wait to finish reading all that you have written. Those of us who have experienced spiritual abuse need not only the correct facts and understanding of what the bible teaches on these matters, but also healing and restoration within our spirits and our lives. It looks like you address this latter aspect, especially, in your research. Many, many thanks!

  22. I am actually both relieved and surprised to find so many others that have suffered at the hands of an abusive leader. In so many ways he is a godly man that I respect and admire. In addition to pastoring the church, he has gone on missions trips to help people in third world countries. He is uncompromising in his sermons. He has a good marriage with a lovely wife. I have gone twice in twenty years to
    speak directly with him in his office about some legitimate concerns I had about a certain ministry I felt the Lord is calling me to. Twice he has stated that if it is Gods will for me then I should follow my heart. Then, a couple weeks later, he rebuked the ministry from the pulpit in such a way that everyone in the church had to know he was talking about me. How in the world can a man who says he knows the bible start to finish think that this is right? I could name several scriptures to contradict what he did, starting with “If your brother offends you, go to him in private…….”. I went to him in private, shared my concerns, was assured that all was well, and then, out of nowhere comes this public rebuke. If that were the only thing over all these years I would overlook it. But I could name dozens of similar things done at the hands of this man. He has also hurt other sincere Christians who don’t seem to fit his “standard”. He does not tolerate well anyone who steps out of the boat in any way. I know that he is doing all he can to keep me from using the gifts God has given me, mainly because I don’t have a certain last name or unending bank account. Forgive me if I go on. I could never tell anyone else in leadership about this because they all back each other up and love to use the issue of “submission” to keep people in line. But I can tell that being able to read similar accounts of others who are in the same position as me helps me know that I am not just “imagining” this. Thank you!

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