Here is an annotated list of top sites on spiritual abuse.
The list is organized into eight sections:
- Resources on the mechanism of spiritual abuse, how it commonly works
- Resources for determining how healthy or unhealthy a church is
- Resources that focus on the spiritual aspects of spiritual abuse
- Resources that deal with recovery from spiritual abuse
- Books on spiritual abuse
- Blogs on spiritual abuse
- Video resources
- Stories of spiritual abuse
If you wonder if your church is spiritually abusive, or if you suspect church leaders are engaging in cult-like practices, or if you think authoritarian power structures are in place at your church, this site can direct you to helpful sources.
Perhaps you are just wondering if your church is moving in a dangerous direction. Many sources linked here can help you determine that, too. Many sources on spiritual abuse are scattered throughout the Internet. Here, we've tried to gather the best ones into one place - to make searching easier.
(If you find a useful site, send a link and I'll see about adding it.)
Resources that explore the mechanism of spiritual abuse:
Battered Sheep Ministries: This site is brimming with great articles. What Language Does Your Church Speak? gives a list of common spiritually abusive code phrases, things you are likely to hear in a church that abuses its members; Abuse of Authority in the Church; The Bible and Spiritual Abuse; Is Your Church Free from Cultic Tendencies? A Checklist Are Churches the Home of Wolves? and many other great resources.
Rick Ross is a cult expert who once had a great site full of resources on what to look for, not just in a potential cult leader (or spiritually abusive pastor), but in followers of cult leaders -- and also what to look for in a safe group. Unfortunately, the domain name for his site went up for sale and was bought by gambling interests and now is a casino site. Sorry that it took so long to catch this.
On Cult Education Institute, however, a copy of the original article exists and I'll post it below. CEI is a cult database site with a pretty good search engine for cults. They may include groups some would dispute are true cults and they charge for many of their resources, so I didn't list them earlier.
Warning Signs Even though many spiritually abusive churches aren't considered cults, cultic techniques are very often employed in abusive churches. This is an essential list for anyone looking to attend a new church because you never know at first what kind of group you may be joining. Initially, spiritually abusive groups can bombard new members or attendees with something that some authors here have called "love bombing" a technique that on the surface seems like love and care. Even though it is a ploy, it can appear genuine and heartfelt for a time. Some warning signs of abusive leaders:
- Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability
- no tolerance for questions or critical inquiry
- unrealistic fears about the outside world
- the leader always needing to be right.
- Leader criticism is characterized as "persecution"
- extreme obsessiveness toward leader or group, resulting in the exclusion of every practical concern
- a dramatic loss of spontaneity and sense of humor
- former followers are, at best, considered negatively, and at worst considered evil
- anything the leader does can be justified, no matter how harsh or harmful.
Barnabas Ministry offers a well-organized site that helps someone in a questionable church decide if their church is leaning toward the unhealthy or dangerous. It summarizes traits from different sources on the subject of spiritual abuse, then gives a list of things to watch for, and then asks some questions that should help anyone who is confused about the direction their church is going. The one problem with the site, however, is that for part of the site, you have to scroll sideways for a long time in order to read each line. Very annoying. Some of the evaluation questions:
What did you spend your time on this week with regards to the group?
Did you really want to do it, or did you do it only because you were told to do it?
Did you "filter" anything from a higher-up to a subordinate?
Do you see problems with the system?
Do you have any way to bring these up and have them taken seriously?
Do you find yourself making statements and positions of the leadership more palatable for others?
Do you really want others to have what you have concerning your church?
On another page of Barnabas Ministry, called Uncovering and Facing Spiritual Abuse, is an account of an abusive situation that may not at first be recognized as abusive.
Rest Ministries Unfortunately, this site died when Geocities closed in October. It was a terrific resource, though, and I luckily preserved some of what was there on this link. The pages on manipulation and authoritarianism are excellent. Ron Henzel is still around and writing on other topics, so maybe he will post his great insights on spiritual abuse on another site and oblige those who profited from his analysis on spiritual abuse.
A pastor who gets it! This Vineyard pastor, on a post called Spiritual Abuse: Shepherds ruling like royalty, identifies several manifestations of spiritual abuse
How to Tell if a Ministry is Cultic by Voyle A. Glover
I recently discovered this well-written article on pastor idolatry. It shows how churches that emphasize a pastor's preferences over anything else are cultic at heart, though they think they are very biblical. Here is an excerpt:
Tell me, you pastors who seek the adoration of your congregation, ye who seek the prominent place in your congregation, which is worse: to be disloyal to you, the pastor, or to be disloyal to Jesus? Is it worse for a church member to betray you, or God?
For the most extreme groups, this site might be helpful. Spiritual Abuse Questionnaire lists so many extreme behaviors that the group would have to be off the charts if it had all these problems. A church could display a tenth of these and still be very abusive. If you find yourself answering YES to many of these, you might want to make a dash for the hills.
Describing "fringe" groups is the New England Institute of Religious Research with Eight Signs of an Aberrational Christian or Bible-based Group:
- Scripture twisting
- Controlling leader or leadership
- Separation or isolation of members
- The chosen few (spiritual elitism)
- Uniformity of lifestyle
- No dissent
- Traumatic departure
- In transition (to a less healthy system)
- An emphasis on spiritual experiences
- An increased focus on the role of demons
- A large proportion of members with personal, emotional, and dependency needs
- A teaching emphasis on attitudinal sins (such as rebelliousness, lack of submission, pride, and self-centeredness)
- An unhealthy dependence on those in authority
- Few checks and balances
- Minimal leadership accountability
- A defensiveness that results in intolerance of member-critics
- Deceptive recruiting practices.
- Dynamic and authoritarian leadership.
- Alienation from family and friends.
- Induced fatigue.
- Sanction oriented.
- Doctrine in flux/ false prophesies.
- Mind control.
A review of the book Captive Hearts, Captive Minds by Madeleine Landau Tobias and Janja Lalich includes some interesing headings: The Master Manipulator, Demystifying the Guru's power (why do we assign such power to these mere men and women?) and The Authoritarian Power Dynamic. It also mentions the term "trust bandit," an apt description of a spiritual abuser, and includes these traits to look for:
Traditional elements of authoritarian personalities include the following:
Spiritual Abuse by Scott Nicloy, a Salvation Army counselor. This article explores reasons behind spiritual abuse and the sometimes unintended nature of it. It also includes something on former alcoholics who become spiritually abusive pastors, an angle I had not seen before. Nicloy talks about black and white thinking, zealotry, power hunger, perfectionism, isolationism and other signs of an abusive church.
- the tendency to hierarchy
- the drive for power (and wealth)
- hostility, hatred, prejudice
- superficial judgments of people and events
- a one-sided scale of values favoring the one in power
- interpreting kindness as weakness
- the tendency to use people and see others as inferior
- a sadistic-masochistic tendency
- incapability of being ultimately satisfied
Narcissism in the Pulpit, includes a wealth of good information about what's behind a leader's need to control abusively. (The tiny type in gray lettering made the site awkward to read, but I found that cutting and pasting into a Word file is helpful, and the information is worth the trouble.)
The site uses a World Health Organization definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder: “Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a disorder in which a person has a grandiose self-importance, preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, a driven desire for attention and admiration, an intolerance of criticism, and disturbed self-centered interpersonal relations..."
Authoritarian pastors may be driven by a personality disorder like this one. Knowing what to expect and how manipulation works can be quite helpful, especially for those still enmeshed in an abusive situation. Five of nine listed criteria must be met for someone to be categorized as a clinical narcissist. Among them: obsessed with fantasies of unlimited success, interpersonally exploitive, sense of entitlement, firmly convinced of own uniqueness and specialness...
As long as we're talking psychology, another site mentions the covert-aggressive personality. Off a link at Under Much Grace blog is this article from a book called In Sheep's Clothing by George Simon, Jr. on tactics of manipulation. The excerpt is on Abusive, Manipulative Relationships and includes tactics such as these: evasion, covert intimidation, projecting blame, minimalization, vilifying the victim, playing the servant role, brandishing anger and more. Well worth investigating if it sounds like your pastor.
An Australian site called Clare's Blog: Clergy Abuse Australia, (also drawing on The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse) sums up spiritual abuse nicely for any spiritually abusive situation, in Australia or anywhere else.
Many abusive pastors use flattery to manipulate. This article from Wittenberg Gate explores the danger of flattery.
When pastors come between man and wife there is trouble. This article, A Word to the Wives, found on the Wicked Shepherds site, explores the dangers when church leaders interfere in a marriage.
What god are you worshiping in a spiritually abusive church? That is the question Dale Ryan seeks to answer in his article: If your god is not God, fire him. Highlights:
Let me be clear about this. The god who is quick to anger and slow to forgive is not a “distorted image of God.” It is the opposite of God. It’s the wrong god. It’s not God at all. It’s not that I was looking in the right direction but just couldn’t see clearly. I was looking in the wrong direction entirely. It was the wrong god. There is, of course, a whole pantheon of not-Gods. Take your pick:
The angry, abusive god
The abandoning god
The inattentive god
The impotent god
The shaming god
This brief and clearly organized article from Australia in pdf format called The Insidious Harm of Spiritual Abuse cuts to the heart of the matter and discusses the four "rules" of spiritual abuse: Don't trust, Don't think, Don't talk and Don't question. Graham Barker, the author, alsto provides several short case studies.
Does your pastor pretend he "knows your heart"? This article shows that the little mind tricks your pastor plays on you are not much different from occultic practices. Divination - Is it Real or Fake?http://cicministry.org/commentary/issue82.htm shows how wrong pastors are to divine supernaturally what another is thinking. It is occultic practice.
When has Authority Gone Too Far? This article, also a Battered Sheep contribution, highlights the unhealthy way we've turned pastors to gods. It includes a list of 11 marks of perverted authority:
- The claim of direct authority from God, rather than testing things by the Word
- The command is to "submit to me," rather than "I will serve you"
- The method of leadership is to "order" people around, rather than to appeal for them to do the right things
- There is a dominating, "pushy" drive instead of a dependence on God to direct
- There is a sense of control, rather than a sense of support
- A gift is exploited so that others are made to feel dependent on it
- There is an inflexibility--"don't question me"--"don't touch the Lord's anointed"
- There is unapproachability and intimidation--the "aura" around the leader keeps the followers in "awe"
- There emerges an organization built around a man and his peculiar emphases instead of around Christ and His Word
- There will be cyclical challenges to the authority figure (which are immediately and forcefully purged)
- There is more concern for maintaining the authoritarian structure than there is for caring about the people in it.
Resources on determining how healthy or unhealthy a church or group is:
Is your church healthy or unhealthy? Battered Sheep credits a Control Techniques pamphlet with this decent overview How Can I Discern Whether I'm in a Healthy or Unhealthy Fellowship?
What Really Matters blog shares a list of what's healthy and what's not in this easy-to-read comparative list.
Thugs in the Pulpit Are you, yourself, an abusive pastor or church leader?
This article by Richard Dobbins in ministrytodaymag.com includes a list of indicators that one might be a spiritually abusive pastor. Scroll down to the Looking Inside section. Some items include the following:
- I see myself as someone "special" who can only be understood by other "special" or high-status people.
- I require excessive admiration and feel entitled to special treatment.
- Others are expected to automatically comply with my expectations.
- I am preoccupied with unjustified doubts about the loyalty or trustworthiness of friends and associates.
- I fear confiding in people since they may maliciously use any information I give them to do me harm.
- I read demeaning or threatening meanings into innocent remarks.
- I bear grudges and am unforgiving of others I feel have harmed me.
- I am quick to perceive attacks on my character or reputation that are not apparent to others and react angrily or counterattack.
- I am uncomfortable in situations where I am not the center of attention.
From Spotlight Ministries, Are You the Victim of Mind Control? contains a useful checklist to see if your group is exhibiting characteristics of a cult:
- Do you feel that no matter how hard you try, the ‘good deeds’ you perform for your group or pastor are never quite enough? As a result of this do you often feel plagued with feelings of guilt?
- What are you motivated by? Is it genuine love for God and the group etc., or is it fear of not meeting the desired standards.
- Is questioning the group, or the group leaders, discouraged or frowned upon? Does the group you belong to believe that it is an elite and exclusive organisation which alone has ‘the truth’ and answers to life’s questions?
- Does the pastor pour scorn upon, attack, and mock other Christian churches and their interpretation of the Bible?
- Is reading any literature critical of the group discouraged? Many cults will warn members not to read anything critical of the group, especially if written by an ex-member (who are called names by the cult such as “apostate”, “hardened”, or “of the devil” etc.). This is a well known information control technique to stop the member from discovering the clear and documented errors of the cult. Members' abilities to think for themselves is effectively disarmed in this way. Instead, they will think more and more as the rest of the group thinks.
- Take a look at the way the group looks and acts. Does everyone dress more or less the same, act the same, and talk the same? One observer, speaking of his particular involvement with a cult, said that the group encouraged its members “to do everything in exactly the same way - to pray the same, to look the same, to talk the same. This in psychology is a classic example of group conformity. Its purpose is to ensure that no-one tries to act differently or become dissident, thus nobody questions the status quo.” (Andrew Hart, Jan. 1999).
- Does the group discourage association with non-members (except, maybe, for the possibility of converting them to the group)?
- Does the pastor give you ‘black and white answers’? What the pastor agrees with is right and what the pastor disagrees with is wrong.
- Does everyone in the group believe exactly the same things (i.e. what the group leaders tell them to believe)?
- Is there no room for individual belief, or opinion even in minor areas?
- Does the group wear ‘two faces’? On the one hand, does it attempt to present itself, to potential converts and the public at large, as a group of people who are like one large family, who have love among themselves, where everyone is equal? But on the other hand, the reality is, that many members inwardly feel unfulfilled and emotionally exhausted?
- Have you attempted to disable your own God-given critical thinking abilities by ‘shelving’ various doubts about the pastor or group’s teachings etc.
- Are others in the group, who do not conform to the requirements of the movement’s teaching, treated with suspicion, and treated like second class members?
- Does the group tend to withhold certain information from the potential convert? Are the more unusual doctrines of the group not discussed until an individual is more deeply involved in the movement?
- Do you feel fearful of leaving the group? Many cults use subtle fear tactics to stop members from leaving. For example, the group may imply that those who leave will be attacked by the Devil, have a nasty accident, or at least not prosper because they have left ‘the truth’
Although specifically for Reformed Baptists, some of these traits of abuse may seem familiar to others as well. From the Wicked Shepherds site is this checklist of spiritually abusive acts. Included are these items:
•Does your church tightly control the flow of information within its ranks?
•Does the head of your church, along with the other “leaders”, use public shaming as a method to gain the compliance of followers?
•Does the head of your church and his “fellow elders” appear to be intolerant or consider it evil persecution when criticized or questioned?
•Are you discouraged to associate with former members, being warned that they are "evil" or "defiling"; a “danger to your spiritual welfare”?
•Is leaving your church to join another church that “is not approved by your elders” equal to leaving God?
•Do you fear being rebuked, shunned, or ignored for expressing a different opinion?
•Is there a relentless obsession of reminding the sheep of “who’s in authority”?
There are many more questions in the survey, and you may want to check it out.
Attacking Men of God? is an article listing the main arguments of abusive leaders when they are under attack. If you have ever questioned an abusive leader, you have probably already heard these questions, as they turn the tables against you.
Is your pastor a serial bully? A long checklist is available at Because It Matters blog. An excerpt:
•is self-opinionated and displays arrogance, audacity, a superior sense of entitlement and sense of invulnerability and untouchability
•has a deep-seated *contempt of clients* in contrast to his or her professed compassion
•is a *control freak* and has a *compulsive need to control everyone and everything you say, do, think and believe; for example, will launch an immediate personal attack attempting to restrict what you are permitted to say if you start talking knowledgeably about psychopathic personality or antisocial personality disorder in their presence - but aggressively maintains the right to talk (usually unknowledgeably) about anything they choose; serial bullies despise anyone who enables others to see through their deception and their mask of sanity
•displays a *compulsive need to criticise* whilst simultaneously refusing to value, praise and acknowledge others, their achievements, or their existence
• shows a lack of joined-up thinking with conversation that doesn’t flow and arguments that don’t hold water
•flits from topic to topic so that you come away feeling you’ve never had a proper conversation
Resources that focus on the spiritual side of abuse:
The Bible and Spiritual Abuse is helpful for those so convinced their abusive leader or group is true to scripture that they won't listen to their own conscience or pleadings of concerned friends and relatives. For those suspicious of human reason alone, this combines reason with a healthy dose of scripture that points out that today's abusers are more like Pharisees than like Jesus. Those who won't listen to "worldly" articles might take a look at this because it is grounded in scripture. Henzel is very convincing in his Bible-based reasoning.
How do you study the Bible after someone has bludgeoned you with it? This post on Under More Grace discusses the problem many have coming out of abusive churches in approaching scripture. The author discusses the difficulty she had and how she dealt with it, and she includes links to many useful sites as well. She also gives helpful suggestions on how to relate to scripture when it stops speaking to you as it used to.
Antidotes to Spiritual AbuseAntidotes to Spiritual Abuse This site offers a list of common statements found in spiritually abusive groups and confronts each of them with a scripture or two very apt for rebuttal. A nice, clearly organized post.
This article, in a South Dakota newspaper, discusses how easy it is to fall into the trap of following dangerous leaders.
Stop Spiritual Abuse contains an abundance of articles that challenge abusive systems. Are pastors more anointed? This article by John R. Anderson called Touch Not Mine Anointed (something you hear frequently from abusive pulpits) corrects a basic misunderstanding and reminds readers of the "priesthood of all believers" mentioned in Revelation 1:6. After reading this, you'll realize how absurd it is to take certain Biblical passages the way abusive pastors use them.Other headings include these: Christians criticizing Christians: Is it biblical?
Unlimited authority from Twisted Scriptures by Mary Alice Chrnalogar; Beyond Accountibility from the same author; and a whole lot of others.
Matthew 18: What does it really say? This article, The Two Mattnew 18 Formulas in Light of the Love Commandments by Kevin Johnson looks at the context of Matthew 18 and shows how it is often misused.
If people are saved at my church, how can it be spiritually abusive? This article from truthguard.com points out that God can work in the darkest places, and that just because God works somewhere doesn't mean it has His stamp of approval.
Wicked Shepherds site chronicles the particular abuse pertaining to Reformed Baptists. In this group, elders sometimes pit spouses against each other to make the "rebellious" one submit to the leadership. The interference by church leaders into the marriage relationship is horrendous. Some of the spiritual advice on this site -- although tailored to Reformed Baptists -- is helpful for other groups as well. Don't be put off by the graphics that look like books for sale. They are really illustrating articles.
Also from Wicked Shepherds is this article entitled: When Should a Christian Leave a Church? Again, this analysis is tailored to Reformed Baptists, but many points in the article could apply to people in other groups as well. Some excerpts:
There are only two options for you if you are sitting under a ministry like that ... One, you can stay in that church. However, you will have to shut up and obey the "duly authorized eldership" and totally dry up spiritually. You will be sinning against Christ by allowing your pastor to be the Lord of your conscience -- and believe me, that is a grave sin!
If you stay under such a ministry very long you cannot help but yield your conscience to the leader.
However, the moment you do that you will begin to live in fear of that leader and his authority over your soul. When you reach that point, you are actually part of a cult and you have totally given up your true liberty in Christ. You will be afraid to even think for yourself, let alone speak and act that way.
Unfortunately, there are some churches that actually demand that kind of submission from you in order for you to be a member in their church, or cult, as the case may be.
They will bounce you in and out of membership according to your "rebellion" (questioning anything the elder says or does) or "repentance" (treating the pastor like a pope). Some poor souls have been in and out of church membership many times at the whim of the preacher.
These kind of churches use the office of elder and deacon as a carrot stick to award the "really loyal devotees."
Accountability in the Bible Abusive churches and leaders often have a skewed view of accountability. While the peons (you) are held accountable to a human shepherd (them) often they are not held accountable to anyone. How did authority and accountability work in the New Testament?
This site from ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association) lays out the scriptural framework and points out the trouble with churches and groups that abuse people's willingness to be held accountable. Another work by the same author is this one on why Evangelicals are vulnerable to cultic influence.
Is submission to church leaders necessary for spiritual protection? This site, part of a larger site called Covering and Authority, provides a very clear response to the issue of "covering" in churches. It shows how recent a doctrine this is and points out the logical fallacies of the practice.
A brief reminder of what the Bible says about spiritual abuse I Peter 5:3: a page full of this verse in different translations, as well as commentary excerpts.
If you don't like it, why don't you just leave? This question is addressed by a group of former SGM members (SGM Survivors) who get that question frequently, as do many who point out spiritually abusive practices in other denominations or movements.
Resources that deal with recovery from spiritual abuse:
Walking Away from Spiritual Abuse, also by churchabuse.com, discusses the difficulties of leaving and of not leaving abusive groups. To someone never involved with cult-like churches, it might seem like a no-brainer. You just leave! But anyone even peripherally involved with such a group, and all the manipulative tactics used to get you deep into the tentacles of the organization, knows it's not that easy. You might have friends and family still in it, you've associated your walk with God with the group so much that sometimes it seems that walking away is the same as walking away from God. This resource is helpful not only for those needing to find a way out, but for anyone who suspects their group might be an abusive one.
Getting your identity back after spiritual abuse: This article, Spiritual Identity Crisis, again from churchabuse.com, discusses the difficulty victims have after years of treating pastors as divine beings. "This void (or identity crisis) is most likely the result of allowing our identity to be stolen away when we were involved in the group, and then being forced to manage our own identity again when the group/leader is no longer in our lives." You might not think you need to read this article immediately after escaping from a spiritually damaging group, but if you come back to it later, you can realize how helpful it is in connecting the dots and helping you get your life back together.
Abusive Churches: Leaving them Behind Also from Battered Sheep (the original site seems to be no longer in service but Probe Ministries has this page), this article not only describes the painful exit process worshipers endure, but it also includes a good list of traits to look for in a church to indicate an abusive or healthy nature. Under the header Discerning Good from Abusive, Pat Zukeran includes these things to look for:
- Does the leadership invite dialogue, advice, evaluation, and questions?
- Is there a system of accountability or does the pastor keep full control?
- Does a member's personality generally become stronger, happier, and more confident as a result of being with the group?
- Are family commitments strengthened? Or are church obligations valued more than family ones?
- Does the group encourage independent thinking, development of discernment skills, and creation of new ideas?
- Is the group preoccupied with maintaining a good public image that does not match the inner circle experience?
- Does the leadership encourage members to foster relations and connections with the larger society that are more than self-serving?
- Is there a high rate of burnout among the members?
1, People who knew you before you got involved in the abusive group. (That might not help if you grew up in an abusive church, but for those who entered later in life, it definitely is.)
2. Healthy Christians who treat you with respect, even when your elitism is insulting to them.
3. Those who have left an abusive church and can talk freely about it without "rancor, resentment or vengeance."
Common aftereffects of involvement in spiritually abusive churches and cults can be found listed on this site called Cult Awareness and Information Centre. Some highlights:
- flashbacks to cult life
- disassociation (spacing out) feeling “out of it”
- “Stockholm Syndrome”: knee-jerk impulses to defend the cult when it is criticized, even if the cult hurt the person
- difficulty concentrating
- hostility reactions, either toward anyone who criticizes the cult, or the cult itself
- dread of running into a current cult-member by mistake loss of a sense of how to carry out simple tasks
- dread of being cursed or condemned by the cult hang-overs of habitual cult behaviors like chanting
- trouble holding down a job
The following are counseling services that have contacted Provender and asked to be listed. Provender doesn't know any more about these practices than one can tell from looking over a web site, so we don't specially endorse them but simply provides them for the reader to check out on their own. I've included these because the counselors claim to have once been members of cults and they also provide counseling by phone or Internet.
Kira Love Counseling Services Kira, a former spiritual abuse victim and now a counselor, will provide counseling sessions, in some cases by telephone.
Kira has a Masters of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy from Seattle Pacific University, with a focus on individual and couples’ work. She also earned a B.S. in Organizational Behavior at Seattle Pacific University. She is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC), and she is accountable to the ethical codes of both the AACC and the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). This information was taken from her site. She also says this:
I counsel individuals, couples and families from a systemic, holistic lens, treating many disorders, issues, and life struggles, with a focus on: ~ complex and/or post traumatic stress disorders ~ childhood neglect and abandonment ~ insecure attachment styles and reparation ~ trauma and abuse (including spiritual/clergy and professional abuse) ~ grief and loss ~ depression and anxiety ~ relationship betrayal and crisis ~ pre-marital ~ drug, alcohol and food addictions ~ life transition and personal growth. You can find more information on her site linked above.
Knapp Family Counseling
According to the web site, John M. Knapp, LMSW is a counselor, therapist, cult recovery expert, consultant, and speaker. He has counseled over 2,000 former cult members in the last 13 years. He founded three web sites well known in cult recovery: TranceNet.net, TMFree.blogspot.com, and KnappFamilyCounseling.com.
Knapp claims to have been a member of an Eastern Meditation Cult and he says that he brings a wealth of experience, expertise, and first-hand stories to the study of cults, gangs, and high-intensity domestic abuse relationships. For someone caught in an eastern cult, especially, his services could be helpful. There is nothing on his site (that I saw) indicating current Christian faith, so if that is a concern for you, you might want to ask about it.
Knapp does seem to be transparent and provides a list of fees on his site and mentions a free initial consultation.
Also at Barnabas Ministry is a book review of Ken Blue's Healing Spiritual Abuse: How to Break Free from Bad Church Experiences. Though I haven't yet read the book, it looks like a fabulous resource. One passage quoted in the review is this:
The second classic type of spiritual abuser is the heroic, grandiose or messianic narcissist who is obsessed by a desire to be someone great or to do something unprecedented for God. Carrying out this fantasy requires the cooperation of others and access to their money. Like the first type, this leader may not consciously wish to hurt anyone; but others are hurt as they are used for the leader's and God's "higher purposes (p. 111)." In order to achieve the public support they need, these leaders make extraordinary claims for themselves or have others make them in their behalf. Such claims may include a special anointing, unusual personal sacrifice, unprecedented encounters with God, unique training, a singular teaching or leadership gift, a revelation of truth that is not available to others, or secret knowledge of God's end-times purposes. These and other claims imply that God has a special calling on this leader, and so it is the "unspecial" people's duty to admire and follow him, which they often do in droves (p. 113).
Recovery from Spiritual Abuse is one of the few sites I've seen that directly address how to treat someone newly out of a spiritually abusive group. Though the site stresses recovery, its list of statements (for reconciling "outcasts" to God's people) is helpful even for grappling with the whole spiritual abuse issue. It kind of reminds the deceived of things they used to know but may have been brainwashed to forget:
- Leaders are not more favored by God over others in the church.
- All struggle spiritually, even leaders.
- All are in various stages of growth (no instant spirituality).
- All make mistakes, none is infallible.
- All can learn to hear God’s voice for themselves - no need to remain spiritual children who must submit to parental leaders.
- All need each other - none is needless.
- All have something to give and are valuable to God.
- All leaders and lay persons—are called to live by the same standards.
- All need to have their own relationship with God apart from the involvement of other believers—including spouses.
- The church is not just one building or one gathering, but believers everywhere.
Being told to just get over it and move on? This article, by churchabuse.com, is helpful for those under condemnation for not recovering fast enough. Being Told to "Get Over It and Just Move On" is concise but useful. You had enough shame dumped on you by your abuser. You don't need more from your friends.
Ten Characteristics of Abused and Wounded Christians, from Restoring the Heart blog, summarizes aftereffects of spiritual abuse mentioned in VanVonderan and Johnson's The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.
Best books on spiritual abuse:
The Heresy of Mind Control is a free online book that offers THE most detailed treatment of the subject of spiritual abuse available online, as far as I know. The author, Stephen Martin, goes into great detail and provides cogent analysis of the methods abusers use to control the flock. It is in a PDF format and is 167 pages, but it's well worth reading every page. Some of the chapter titles include the following: Milieu Control, Mystical Manipulation, The Demand for Purity, The Cult of Confession, (Thou shalt not Question) The Sacred Silence, Loading the Language, Doctrine over Person, Dispensing of Existence, From Control to Freedom. To open the book, you need to click the link at the bottom of the page. There is an opportunity to donate if you find the resource helpful. For a nice, clear table of contents, you can take a preview on the Freedom4captives site.
Churches that Abuse This is now an online book (free), and it is the standard, the classic, on spiritual abuse. Ron Enroth, a California sociologist, examines in detail different traits of abuse and gives examples of some individual cases of Bible-believing churches exhibiting each trait. For those who think cultish practices only exist when non-trinitarian doctrine is present, this book should present a challenge. Churches that Abuse is important because Enroth shows that the distinction between cults (that many define as groups having serious doctrinal error) and spiritually abusive groups (holding an orthodox belief system) is minimal. Is it that big a deal that the doctrine is OK if the behavior is abusive? It isn't really out-of-line to view abusive groups, even with spotless statements of faith, as you would cults.
Many sources on spiritual abuse cite Jeff VanVonderen and David Johnson's book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. It is a groundbreaking work and is still popular today. Some say that these authors were the first to coin the term "spiritual abuse." This review provides a detached, analytical view of some kinds of spiritual abuse. The most helpful parts to me are those discussing the abusive pastor's emphasis on his own authority - called here "power posturing" - and on the Can't Talk rule.
A more inclusive summary of the book, and very good checklist is here.
Spiritual abuse occurs when shame is “used in an attempt to get someone to support a belief, or…to fend off legitimate questions”. (p.22) “In a place where authority is grasped and legislated, not simply demonstrated, persecution sensitivity builds a chase for keeping everything within the system. Why? Because of the evil, dangerous, or unspiritual people outside of the system who are trying to weaken or destroy ‘us’. This mentality builds a strong wall or bunker around the abusive system, isolates the abusers from scrutiny and accountability, and makes it more difficult for people to leave—because they will be outsiders, too.” (p.73)
Crooked Cross: A Journey Out of Religious Abuse by Willow is one example of a growing genre of books I'll call "spiritual abuse memoirs." These personal stories can be helpful for others, even if their situation doesn't closely resemble that of the protagonist, because some spiritually abusive traits are common, though the harshness level or surrounding circumstances differ. A reader can recognize familiar tactics and see what extremes unaccountable or elitist pastors are capable of.
This review of the book Toxic Faith (by Stephen Arteburn and Jack Felton) is worth a look. Heavy on psychological theory, it still contains some valuable insights.
You can always find groups and individuals trying to benefit from the misfortunes of others and even on this topic you will find folks promoting products, techniques and teachings for sale to help you in one way or another. Even so, sometimes their materials are insightful.
Many readers will no doubt shrink from the anti-Charismatic nature of a book by a Steven Lambert, ThD, mentioned on a site called "Real Truth" (Can there be a fake truth?) Nevertheless, some of the items Lambert provides on his site called Signs of Spiritual Abuse are worth considering. He lists 33 signs on his site, but I'll just list a handful:
- Apotheosis of the leadership — exalting them to God-like status in and over the group
- absolute authority of the leadership
- No real accountability of the leadership to the corporate body
- Pervasive abuse and misuse of authority in personal dealings with members
- Paranoia and insecurity by the leaders
- Abuse, misuse, and inordinate incidents of "church discipline"
- Doctrinal demeanment and devaluation — the requisite of espousing and teaching "sound doctrine" is demeaned and devalued
- Theological incompetency by the leadership, especially with respect to the rules of hermeneutics and Bible exegesis employed in the formulation of doctrine, giving license to twisting and adulteration of Scripture in order to provide proof-texts for unorthodox and invented doctrines
- Spiritualism, mysticism, and unproven doctrines
- De facto legalism, or works mentality, and its resulting loss of the "joy of salvation," though "freedom" is forever preached from the pulpit and the church is constantly touted as being a "safe church" by the leadership
- Isolationism — corporate and individual, especially with respect to exposure to outside ministry sources
- Devaluation, suppression, and non-recognition of members' bona fide God-given talents, abilities, gifts, callings, and anointing, as a means of subjugation
- Constant indoctrination with a "group" or "family" mentality that impels members to exalt the corporate "life" and goals of the church-group over their personal goals, callings, and objectives
- Members are psychologically traumatized and indoctrinated with numerous improper fears and phobias aimed at keeping them reeling in diffidence and an over-dependence or co-dependence on their leaders and the corporate group
- Corporately, there eventually develops an inordinately high incidence of financial, marital, moral, psychological, mental, emotional, and medical problems, including sudden deaths and contraction of "incurable" and "unknown" diseases
- Lack of true personal spiritual growth and development, especially in terms of genuine faith and experiencing the abounding grace, forgiveness, goodness, blessings, kindness, and agape-love of God
- Members departing without the prior permission and blessing of the leadership leave the group under a cloud of manufactured suspicion, shame, and slander
- Horror stories frequently told by leaders about individuals or families who left the group without the prior permission and blessing of the leadership, and the terrible consequences and curses they suffered as a result
- Departing members often suffer from various psychological problems and display the classic symptoms associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
I Can't Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult is Wendy Duncan's tale of life in a Bible-based cult and her struggle to recover from its effects.
Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Dr. Barbara Orlowski has written a book on spiritual abuse, and especially healing after the fact. Check out the reviews on Amazon. It looks like a decent resource for those interested in how church government figures into disaffection with churches. Orlowski has looked at many online sources concerning spiritual abuse.
Not of My Making by Margaret Jones tells of a woman who endured a series of abusive situations including those in two churches. The author's interview with Provender is here.
People of the Lie, by Scott Peck includes helpful insights on different aspects of "evil people" including those responsible for spiritual abuse.
Best blogs on spiritual abuse:
Blogs on spiritual abuse tend to come and go. The intensity required for confronting pain and abuse is difficult for individuals to manage over long periods of time. Still, even old blogs on the subject can be helpful. And some blogs stick around for a long time.
Spiritual Sounding Board is a relatively new blog started by Julie Anne Smith a woman sued by her former Oregon church for writing online reviews critical of church practices. She won. If you want information on current happenings in the word of abusive churches, this is a good resource.
A well-designed and aesthetically creative blog on the topic is this one, called The Cult Next Door: Spiritual Abuse in Plain Sight. The blogger came from an extremely controlling church and her story will chill you to the bone.
If you don't read any other blog on spiritual abuse, make sure to read these two companion blogs. Under Much Grace and Under More Grace are THE most detailed and researched sites on spiritual abuse. The author, Cindy Kunsmun, shares her own experience and years of intelligent research and understanding. It is the groundbreaking blog on the subject.
Under More Grace includes parts of Cindy's testimony and a wonderful treatment of her attempt to recover after being out of the abusive church. Her story is replete with helpful links as well.
Under Much Grace is frequently updated and lists many helpful observations about spiritual abuse. Some of the articles it links to include titles such as these: Why doctrinal statements tell you nothing of the unwritten rules of manipulative groups; Thought reform and Lifton 101; The elements of spiritual abuse; cult leaders and con artists; Why it's so hard to leave an abusive situation.
The analysis in some of these articles is excellent. Also, it now lists clear links to good sources. Information in the sidebar is often even more engaging than information in the main posts. It is a must-read site.
DeTox Church Group This site combines humor, analysis and a sensible perspective and includes helpful observations on their own past experiences and present condition. From the sidebar: We like realness, people who embrace reality yet have faith to believe God can edit the details at any time. We like faith, we just don't want to pretend reality isn't happening.We like humor because it balances out the seriousness of our subject, and it's a welcome reprieve to the seriousness of the times we live in.We like truth and websites, blogs, books that disclose the truth.We value intelligent critical thinking not to be confused with what the church world calls a critical spirit.
Religious Cults Info is a blog looking particularly at a cult-like group in North Carolina, the Word of Faith Fellowship. It includes many worthwhile links, stories of abuse in that Fellowship and other like groups. The site demonstrates how some abusive church leaders exercise control even into the most personal areas of member's lives (like how to roll and fold toilet paper!) Well worth a look.
One of the best restatements of the thought of a person tempted to get involved in an authoritarian church is this from Spiritual Authority Weirdness on Thinking about it all blog: Hmm, God is really big on authority. I better really submit to Spiritual Leader X. There might be some times where I want more clarification... or even disagree, but I don’t want to even approach rebellion. I don’t want to rock the boat, I think I’ll just keep it to myself. It’s probably better that way because God will bless me if I submit to a leader, even if they are wrong or being abusive to me. I mean, look at Saul and David. Saul was trying to kill David and David submitted. I love God and I better submit, too. That really is how it happens. You want to do the right thing but fall into the poisonous thing.
From Set Free on What Really Matters blog is this perspective on the gains you can experience if you leave an abusive group: Here are some strengths I have noticed that develop in people when they leave controlling churches:
- Greater compassion and empathy towards others
- Analytical thinking (You think deeply about core concerns. From this point forward you will exercise keen judgment and discernment so you will never find yourself in the same situation again.)
- Greater level of honesty and trustworthiness (You are so disgusted at the lies, fraud, dishonesty, and even criminality that went on, it makes you resolve yourself to live in a higher degree of honor and trustworthiness. You don’t want to be anything like your former leaders.)
- Social/community activism (You are so tired of looking inward and catering to the needs of selfish leaders, you become extremely enthusiastic about reaching out and serving others.)
- Fearlessness (You have given into a bully for so long, it’s time to stand up for yourself and take a new direction. You decide no one is going to control you or stand in your way! You also decide to step out and go after your dreams.)
- Gratitude (You are so glad to be free from the control, manipulation, and harsh judgment you were under, you become more thankful even for the little things in life.)
- Inquisitiveness and curiosity (You realize it’s okay to question anything!)
- Sense of direction and purpose
- Ability to show emotion
- Ability to be yourself
- Ability to find meaning in adversity
- Ability to cope with difficulties (After all that you experienced and dealt with in a controlling church, handling the normal strains of everyday life seem like nothing. If you have survived a controlling, abusive situation, you can survive just about anything!)
Tales from the Crypt
A good blog on cult involvement is VM Life Resources. This one emphasizes recovery and is directed at the hardcore cult experience. It includes resources for identifying spiritual abuse and articles on cults. The blogger also has written a book entitled I Can't Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult that chronicles her time with an organization that seemed healthy but wasn't. Not sure what the VM stands for, but the site provides lots of good information, both for escapees and the curious.
For something a little different, the Wartburg Watch is a new site that chronicles spiritually abusive situations in churches, with an emphasis on warnings against bloggers.
A blog with tremendously astute insights into spiritual abuse called The Bereans discusses many aspects of church leaders gone wrong. A post called The Enablers or the Persecutor's Last Line of Defense looks at those middle men or yes-men, the defenders of abusive pastors and their role in the church. Very eye-opening. I believe this blog may be from South Africa.
God and Family: Exploring the Dynamics of Family Cults This site examines experiences of people who grew up in a family operating under the apparatus of spiritual abuse and other kinds of abuses. Though it is unique because it focuses not on church groups but family cults, it has excellent links and lists of spiritual abuse characteristics. In fact, it includes more of these spiritual abuse checklists or trait lists than I have seen before in one place. Well worth visiting.
The Word on The Word of Faith. This is somewhat dated, from 1991, but spiritual abuse doesn't change all that much, does it?
VIDEO RESOURCES ON SPIRITUAL ABUSE
The God of Broken Hearts Three people who left the abusive network of Australian churches, BCF (Brisbane Christian Fellowship, I believe), speak about their experiences on a TV program. Though specific to that particular experience, many of the features of the group are similar to other spiritually abusive groups. The one technique that is the most terrifying is the tendency for church leaders to divide families, to "drive a wedge between" part of a family and another part. You see from the film that spiritual abuse drove one man away from faith altogether. The pastor speaking at the end, Greg Passmore, articulates some tremendous insights into the problem of spiritual abuse.
These links are to video presentations by Jeff VanVonderen, co-author of the groundbreaking work The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. Titles include these: The Abusive Religious System and How We Get Hooked. These videos are hosted on the National Association for Christian Recovery site.
Silly Women: This is more audio than visual, but a different take on women victims of spiritual abusers - abusers who creep into houses and take silly women captive through spiritually abusive practices.
Toxic Faith: Surviving Spiritual Abuse. Dr. Stephen Arteburn provides a 2-part series on spiritual abuse.
LINKS TO STORIES OF SPIRITUAL ABUSE
She had to choose between church or daughter
This cult church made a virtual slave of one blogger -- 15 years of misery
This pastor said God gave instructions on how to roll and fold toilet paper properly. Soon the TP police were on the job Also, edicts on not smashing pennies!
They told her terrible things would happen if she left, and no other church would help her.
The man behind the curtain
Church blogger critic experiences wrath of abusers (including fake letter-of-resignation sent to employer) and major harassment with few attempts by church leaders to stop the abuse.
Caught in a Bible-based cult for 13 years
Abusive voices remained in her head after she left the cultish group
A good blog on spiritual abuse, and some great links in the sidebar also.
This sad story includes 15 signs of abuse
This woman left the frying pan of one cult for the fire of another
Parents of woman who cut off baby's arms blame pastor 's influence for taking her to the edge
College senior trapped in abusive group for years finally escapes
Many, many stories mostly from UPC members
An SGM pastoral intern finds leaving isn't all that easy
When husband beat her after worship service, this mom sought help from church only to be abused further
Hedged in at her Canadian Baptist college, this young women had few places to turn, but managed to survive.
When humility is not humility
After divorcing for verbal abuse, this woman was disfellowshiped from a Baptist church with a message on a large screen in front of the church that read: CONDUCT UNBECOMING A CHILD OF GOD
His family chose the elders and shunned him