While a church administrator, I had the unfortunate experience of witnessing profoundly disturbing spiritual abuse – not just once, but twice. In one instance, the abuser was a thirty-something-year pastor intent on maintaining control of what had become his church. In the other, the pastor was the victim of two elders who happened to be related to the former long-term pastor. In both cases, while there were the primary targets of the abuse, there was a system wide fallout upon many other victims. Both churches are recovering, but remain shadows of their former selves. As a result, and after much research, I am offering this paper.
While researching the subject of spiritual abuse, it became obvious there were several distinct categories including cultism, abuse suffered by pastors/ministers, and sexual and non-sexual abuse at the hands of pastors/ministers. The greatest amount of literature uncovered deals with cults, followed by sexual abuse, and the abuse of pastors at the hands of “clergy-killers”. Material discussing the emotional, physical, marital and spiritual issues of these particular religious aberrations is readily available, lending credence to the realities of the pain and suffering of the victims.
The least reported aspect of spiritual abuse, the non-sexual abuse of parishioners, pastors or church staff by church leaders, became the subject of this research paper. This decision was prompted by three factors – (i) the relatively small amount of relevant material; (ii) the apparently cavalier attitude possessed by some regarding this phenomenon; and (iii) my own personal witness of, and experience with, episodes of this nature. With rare exception, only one or two chapters in each book, some of which are secular, dealt with situations of this type.
The development of spiritually abusive patterns
Before discussing issues of pastoral care for the spiritually abused, it seems necessary to define the situations, environments and methodologies within which spiritual abuse proliferates.
“Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment” (Johnson, p. 20).
One of the earliest non-scriptural references to abuse at the hand of church leadership was found in Six Books on the Priesthood by St. John Chrystostom, written in the fourth century CE. Chrystostom’s discussion revolved around the high expectation of thought and behavior and the displacement of ego necessary for the office of bishop, combined with his fear of his own human weakness of spirit and inherent iniquity. Ambition, conceit, pride, anger and love of power are among his most common self-criticisms, as well as reasons for disapproval and rebuke of church leaders. Jealousy, arrogance, fawning over the rich, acquiring and hoarding material wealth, slander and political intrigue, while not character traits repeatedly applied to himself, are appended to the list of unacceptable qualities in a presbyter (Neville).
Chrystostom cited these characteristics as foundational to the then-current incidences of abuse. Preaching for self-promotion rather than the edification of the populace, ignoring the plight of the widowed and sick, and complicity in the condition of the poor by amassing wealth as opposed to supporting the needy were some of the symptoms of pastoral abuse he mentioned. Chrystostom’s description of the consequences of these actions was dire, but his contemporaries were evidently not motivated to change, since he died en route to exile for upsetting the church and political elite.
Chrystostom pushed against power, and power pushed back. In Understanding Clergy Misconduct in Religious Systems, Candace Benyei states that, when our forebears in Eden assumed the right to possess the knowledge of Good and Evil, they actually made a decision to rely on their own resources instead of the gifts of God. In this search for meaning in their lives, they instead “discovered insecurity, and its corollary, the need for power” (Benyei, p. 6). Power, she asserts, is a function of advantage or privilege. Insecurity teaches that there is not enough abundance to satisfy everyone equitably. The need, therefore, develops to guarantee existence by controlling more than a fair share of available assets. When this underlying fear of ‘being without’ is exacerbated by childhood experiences of abuse, abandonment or neglect, it can lead to what Wayne Oates, in When Religion Gets Sick, calls the “sociopathic power orientation”.
According to the Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling, the more correct term for sociopathic is “antisocial personality disorder” or “antisocial person” (Hunter, p.46). Throughout the texts researched, the authors interchangeably used persecutor, oppressor, abuser, antisocial person and sociopath to describe this personality type. For consistency and ease I have used the terms ‘antisocial leader’ to denote a church elder with inclinations towards abuse, and ‘abusive leader’ to refer to those actively engaged in spiritually abusive behavior.
An antisocial leader controls others by dividing and conquering – maintaining some level of distrust and conflict between – his or her ‘subjects’. Leaders of this type become “known for the number of people who leave the church” after suffering or witnessing one conflict after another at the hands of the leader (Oates, p.164). Other people learn about these conflicts – only occasionally at first, but then with increasing frequency. Any effect on the antisocial leader is negated or limited by the congregation’s tendency to find a scapegoat. “Because it is unbearable to believe that the beloved [elder] could commit such acts, since that would shatter the fantasy that one had at last found the ultimate caregiver, victims are often [to the congregation] unforgivable” (Benyei, p. 95). Most often the persons disclosing mistreatment are accused of lying, bearing a grudge against the leader, being sick or neurotic, or even as evil incarnate. The church so described has a secret to keep, and will attempt to squash any attempt to make indiscretions public.
“Too many churches communicate this kind of shaming message: ‘the problem is not that your boundaries were crossed and violated, the problem is that you talked. If you would not have made such a big deal, everything would still be fine.’ If a person accepts that message, they will stop talking. The real problem, however, is that if a Christian who feels violated stops talking, then the perpetrator will never be held accountable for his behavior” (Johnson, p.69).
Sometimes, the antisocial leader will participate in, if not initiate, accusations to deflect attention away from the original conflict. With each new disclosure, the number of people aware of the pattern seems to grow. The leader may then become more abusive by aggressively using ‘scapegoating’ as a defense – against individual victims, entire church groups, other churches or ecclesiastical bodies such as presbyteries. The insecurity of the antisocial leader mandates that his or her power base be protected at all costs.
“The leader addicted to power punishes and purges the system of anybody who would upset the status quo” (Arterburn, p.176).
Eventually the elder may take on the role of the persecutor, becoming an abusive leader (Arterburn, p.193). Uncorrected, he or she may become paranoid and possibly depressive “especially when caught in misdemeanors or frustrated in his or her global sense of power” (Oates, p. 165). An inner circle of ‘disciples’, or faithful supporters, is enrolled to both feed the abusive leader’s ego needs and serve as a source of information that can be used for damage control. “With the faithful followers willing to do anything to support the persecutor, the organization becomes dysfunctional and unbalanced, leaning heavily toward the top” (Arterburn, p.196). Robert E. Quinn, in Deep Change – Discovering the Leader Within, describes the next development as a “tyranny of competence”. Fearful of being overshadowed by someone more competent, the abusive leader may manipulate situations to discredit other lay or ordained care providers, become competitive instead of cooperative, intentionally generate ill-will, and even participate in subtle forms of sabotage with regard to other programs within the church.
‘Plausible deniability’, a tool of some politicians and business people, becomes an effective device within this environment. Essentially, plausible deniability is an intentional process whereby other people are asked to discredit or attack someone, but only after the instigator stages a ‘show of support’ for that person. This allows the abusive leader to deny that he or she communicated the particular message, ostensibly because it is contrary to his or her publicly stated opinion. “Persecutors don’t start out to deceive and victimize their followers or families” (Arterburn, p.202), but out of their own fear eventually develop into what I have euphemistically labeled ‘ethically challenged’ individuals. Rather than being the origin of untruths themselves, abusive leaders actively encourage gossip and may use any information, no matter the source or credibility, to further their interests. “Truth” may become subjective and prone to manipulation and distortion.
Distraction, or the use of smoke screens, is another tactic employed by some abusive leaders in the aforementioned environments. With the constant and ever-increasing need to maintain the appearance of virtuousness, the leader may use or manufacture other urgencies to “create confusion and uncertainties [that] delay or evade any processes that would seek to uncover the real problem” (Benyei, p.106). Within the staff functions of the church this tool may create confusion as to roles, responsibilities, administrative procedures and hierarchical structure. Within the church, selective amnesia with regard to history or events, the mysterious absence or inadequacy of records or meeting minutes, or the proliferation of stories about a purported attack from inside or outside sources enable the veiling of ‘secret’ agendas or the evasion of consequences resulting from specific situations. “When you see people in a religious system being secretive -watch out. People don’t hide what is appropriate; they hide what is inappropriate” (Johnson, p.78).
Arterburn & Felton developed a comprehensive list of characteristics of the abusive leader, or persecutor, that is abbreviated below (Arterburn, p.213):
- Needs to embellish and make things grander than they really are
- Needs and seeks power and control
- Projects own misbehavior onto others
- Believes people are extremely good or bad, usually depending on the level of support offered to the leader
- Often motivated by greed or materialism; impressed by those with wealth or material goods
- Feels is owed something
- Is extremely self-centered
- Contorts Gods Word to fit own beliefs or needs
- Surrounds self with people who are insecure and easily swayed
- Manipulates others using guilt, shame, and remorse
- Attempts to make others accept responsibility for his or her own mistakes
- Has compulsions in several areas, especially in area of ‘hard work’, that appear admirable to the world
- Is not involved in accountable relationships
- When in a bind will ask for forgiveness and appear sincere when doing so, but doesn’t change
- Fears not measuring up or losing image
- Fears that if no longer able to perform for the masses will be useless to God.
The abusive leader can become pathologically unable to distinguish between the actual and created realities (Oates, p. 166). Within this context, paranoia may develop into a persecution complex. Because reality becomes fuzzy, the created or manipulated diversions may seem to become real leaving the abusive leader feeling oppressed and attacked. The congregation can also become absorbed with fictitious enemies, thereby strengthening the alliance with the leader, who takes on the role of defender.
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