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 Barb Orlowski who has compiled her research on spiritual abuse into a manuscript that will form the basis of a yet unpublished book called “Ministering Restoration: Recovering Spiritual Harmony”.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.