Thursday, August 13, 2009

Red Flags

No one ever wakes up one day and says, “Hey, you know? I think I’ll shame and abuse the flock today,” or "I think I'll become a cult leader." Instead, gradual changes take place, usually involving the lure of power that slowly takes hold.

If you study spiritual abuse, you can get a feel for how this happens: Despite differing manifestations of abuse in churches, there are common denominators. Several sources cited on this site point out the following traits and show just how it is a church can move from a healthy body to a dangerous one.


One common finding in cults and spiritually abusive groups is something called “elitism.” It’s a feeling that your vision for the church is superior to that of others. Though most churches  and leaders, feel that they are on the right path, that their doctrines or practices are what God wants, that alone isn’t elitism. Elitism happens when you look at other churches or individuals and believe that your vision or your practices are among the very few that really please God. It is comparative. It is a superiority complex. This initial pride and puffing up – that can begin so very subtly -- ends up justifying any abusive behavior that follows.
Information control
Another common denominator in cults and abusive groups is something called milieu control. It is an attempt to control the environment of members, and especially the information members are exposed to. This may start out as an innocent desire not to have heretical teachings invade the body. But this control becomes deadly in abusive groups. Before long, only those things approved by church leaders, and only material that portrays the church or leaders in a good light are encouraged. Information is censored. Everything concerning the church must go through the leader to make sure it is "appropriate," "healthy" or “not divisive.” Material brought in from outside is frowned on and sometimes actively condemned.
In the worst cases, such material is simply not allowed.
This discouraging or forbidding of outside sources can lead to tight control of information and eventually isolation from society at large, as much information is deemed unholy or worldly and a danger.
Anything the leadership wants you to believe is allowed. Anything that doesn't support the leader's position or perspective is discouraged or banned. If it is something harmful to the image of the church, no matter how accurate or useful, it is kept from members. In some cults, only certain translations of the Bible are allowed. In others, only “correct” interpretations of scripture are tolerated. In some groups any information not originating from the headquarters is deemed unsafe.

When you hear pastors or leaders complaining about "murmuring" or "gossip" in an abusive church, it can sometimes be nothing more than fear that reliable information unfavorable to the leadership is leaking out. Some leaders will actually use the pulpit to denounce the free flow of information, but they will call it something negative and preach against it.
How does this start? How does this control over others’ lives and minds begin?
With a desire to control. It may perhaps at first be only a healthy desire to keep doctrine pure – but control over information and thoughts escalates and gets out of hand.
Sometimes it begins as a shortcut to keep the hassles from members to a minimum. Innocent beginnings, but they can lead to tragic endings.

Image, image, image

Milieu Control is strongly related to another red flag: Image Consciousness. Abusive churches are concerned about image. Sometimes, image is everything. This church has a vision superior to other churches. To preserve that lofty status, anything negative must be quashed immediately, even if it is true. If a leader is caught in sin, the sin is quickly swept under the rug. If many members have left, no one is allowed to talk about it. The church “represents Christ to the community” and you can’t let the public know that the church has a problem or people will think Christ does. This is COMMON practice in abusive churches and is close to idolatry, equating the church, or church leaders, to Christ himself.

Shame, flattery and manipulation

Image Consciousness, in many abusive churches, leads to harsh treatment and manipulation of members. To keep negative information from leaking out of the body, members are sometimes shamed or spoken against -- sometimes from the pulpit. Ministries are whisked away from those who begin to ask questions, and ministries are used as rewards to “loyal” members who know how to keep quiet about the misdeeds of leaders, or who prove useful through slavish work or flattery of leaders. And in abusive groups, flattery goes both ways. Leaders know how to flatter selectively. They flatter those they can use. But they also shame. They will use flattery and shame very deftly to keep the image of the church polished and gleaming and to keep in total control.

Authoritarianism: I'm in control; You shut up

Another red flag is authoritarianism, the concentration of power in the hands of a few or sometimes even one person. That power can start out used well. The maxim “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” is especially true in churches. It corrupts leaders in different ways.

Two kinds of corruption

Some are lured by the financial aspects of power and begin to lavish on themselves gifts and luxuries. How does this happen? Possibly, these once godly leaders have sacrificed much over the course of their lives while watching other Christians live luxuriant lives. When the church begins to do well, they see this as a sign that it’s “their turn now,” that they deserve some blessings because they have served so long and so hard for very little. Soon, that feeling of dessert takes over and they feel entitled to more and more. Eventually some may even feel they deserve other men’s wives or multiple wives.

More dangerous, though, than leaders who fall to hedonistic ways are those who believe that because their vision for the church is unique, superior and direct from God that God’s mind and their mind are becoming fused. They soon begin to see their own actions as God’s. Anyone who opposes them is opposing God. When this happens, watch out! They won’t phrase it that way. They may not even realize what they are doing. They feel they have a special place as God’s best spokesperson. Because they are so special, they will steamroll over anyone in their way. Because they are anointed, they soon feel they have a role in rooting out imperfections among lesser Christians, and they can do it with gusto. 
Excellence, or legalism?

These leaders can become more than just haughty; they can become harsh and demanding. They look down on others around them and puff themselves up, all the while stressing the need for humility. They begin to practice a perfectionism that kills. It won’t be called perfectionism. It might be called “striving for excellence” or “pursuing a holy life” or “giving God His due.” It becomes legalism and it drains the life out of individuals and churches, as members try harder and harder to meet standards that become out-of-reach. While members are whipping themselves for failing to perform, the preaching will be on grace. While members are burdened and shackled to legalistic aims, the sermons will be on freedom. But members are not feeling free or forgiven. They are loaded down with guilt and work and feelings of failure.

Calling concern "divisiveness"

Another red flag is a false call to unity. When authoritarian pastors want to quell dissent, they label even legitimate questions “divisive.” You are interfering with the unity of the brethren if you raise issues of concern. This tactic ensures a lockstep, zombie-like following and cements the cult leader or abusive pastor into his place at the top. Who wants to be divisive? Who wants to cause trouble? Who wants to be spreading heresy or harboring a critical spirit or injecting division? (These are common phrases used against those expressing concerns about abusive leadership, and they serve as giant, fluttering red flags.) Most humble, sincere Christians concerned about wayward leadership will be cowed by such tactics. The abuses of the leader will continue unchecked.

When people slink out

The final red flag in this short overview is the telltale indication of trouble signaled by people leaving a congregation. If spiritual abuse is taking place, you might not catch on right away. People in manipulative groups will have been warned – subtly or otherwise – not to talk about church problems. They will be called weak or gossipers or immature if they mention why someone left. Those who leave also may suffer residual effects of controlling mechanisms in the church and say little about why they left.

If you notice an exodus of people from a congregation, it’s a sign to dig further and check for other signs of spiritual abuse.

These are just some of the roots of spiritual sickness to watch for in your congregation, but they seem the most common.

Friday, August 7, 2009

New Provender search feature

Now, Provender has a search page that almost works. Because the main Provender site features a single blog post, listing all sources on spiritual abuse, it is hard to search for individual terms and items. Now, you can go to a page that has each, individual item as a separate post.CLICK HERE


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What is Spiritual Abuse?

Spiritual abuse. It can happen in big churches and small. It can happen in churches that at first seem sound, biblical or healthy. Certain signatures define spiritual abuse: authoritarian leadership, claims that the group or leaders have a special calling or gifts, inability of leaders to handle criticism, harsh treatment of those who question or try to leave. These are just a few. Though the manifestation of abuse differs in externals, underneath are similar traits, repeated in abusive groups. Become familiar with spiritual abuse in a variety of churches and you will soon see how these leaders manipulate and control.

Are you covering for a spiritually abusive pastor?

What's happening to my church?

A message to culty group defenders

Cult Next Door posted this excellent response to those culty-group defenders -- who lambaste victims on blogs exposing spiritual abuse. These folks see nothing wrong with the abusive leader, defend the hurtful practices and blame the one exposing the tactics. They needle victims, and pile on blame. They excuse the harm of abusers, and belittle the pain of victims. Provender wishes every blog on spiritual abuse would have a little message like this for these folks.

Sometimes, they apologize

Every once in a while, church leaders in these situations apologize. A Florida blogger, FBCWatchdog, was kicked out of church and given trespass warning documents after being outed as a church blogger critic, and later was branded a "sociopath" by the pastor of his large, Florida church, in the local paper. The blogger eventually brought suit. After the ruling (and likely as part of the settlement), the pastor publicly apologized. There is much more to the story, but these are the highlights.

Using words to manipulate

It can be subtle, or it can hit you head on. When spiritual abusers are cornered, certain techniques crop up again and again. Here are some samples.

What does elitism have to do with spiritual abuse?

Does your church think it's special? What does it think of other churches? Elitism is a big sign your church or group could be spiritually dangerous. CLICK HERE for more

Misusing Scripture to Abuse

Check out The Cult Next Door's interview with Provender on twisting scriptures.

Stories of abuse and survival

Links to stories of spiritual abuse:

She had to choose between church or daughter

When he wanted to move out of state, the pastor of this Kansas UPC church said he'd be going "down, down, down."

This cult church made a virtual slave of one blogger -- 15 years of misery

What is it like to lose your son to a spiritually abusive church? One mother's story.

Her husband gave up law practice to give his all to church, and the whole family ended up shunned by order of the leadership.

Cruel stepfather is also pastor of a California "Bible-based" church (a Calvary Chapel). His children suffered beatings meted out by this pastor/stepdad. Church leaders would not disassociate themselves, only minimize and cover up the pastor/dad's violence.

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

Holey coverups

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

"Untouchable, unaccountable, unknowable, and alone"

Abusive pastor destroys congregation he was "called" to serve

Check main site

Make sure to check out the main Provender site

Contact Provender

If you have found an especially helpful site on spiritual abuse, please email Provender and we'll see about adding it. If you need to tell your story, you can also email Provender. We'll always keep your story confidential unless you wish to post it in the case studies section.

Also, if you notice broken links on this site, please contact Provender: Click Here

Featured link: The Web of Narcissism

Provender's guest posts

A Sense of Futility on Quivering Daughters blog

Spiritual Abuse is Hidden Trauma on The Cult Next Door blog

Are you covering your pastor's nakedness?

In Predators in the Pulpit, Chris Efinda discusses the covering nakedness doctrine. Enablers of spiritual abuse justify cover-ups of abusive pastors using this pseudo-scriptural approach. Efinda says that the spiritual "sons" of abusive leaders feel that hiding the wrongdoing of abusive pastors becomes a divine test of their own faithfulness. If you are acting as a go-between, or "filtering" what comes from your pastor and to make it seem more acceptable to others, are you trying to cover your pastor's nakedness? It's very likely.

Also see, Are You Covering for a Spiritually Abusive Pastor

A word from Ezekiel

The word of the Lord came to me: "Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them."

Ezekiel 34:1-6

A message to abusive pastors from Jeremiah 23

Woe to the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD.

Therefore thus says the LORD God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; You have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, says the LORD.

And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all countries where I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and increase.

And I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them: and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall they be lacking, says the LORD. ...

For both prophet and priest are profane; yea, in my house have I found their wickedness, says the LORD.

... for from the prophets of Jerusalem is profaneness gone forth into all the land.

Thus says the LORD of hosts, Do not listen to the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you: they make you vain: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the LORD.

They say still to those who despise me, The LORD has said, You shall have peace; and they say unto every one that walketh after the imagination of his own heart, No evil shall come upon you.

...I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied.

But if they had stood in my counsel, and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings.

...I have heard what the prophets said, that prophesy lies in my name, saying, I have dreamed, I have dreamed.

How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets that prophesy lies? yea, they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart;

Which think to cause my people to forget my name by their dreams which they tell every man to his neighbour, as their fathers have forgotten my name for Baal.

The prophet that has a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that has my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? says the LORD.

Is not my word like as a fire? says the LORD; and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?

Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, says the LORD, that steal my words every one from his neighbour.

Jeremiah 23

Tell your story

The Cult Next Door blog invites those who have been spiritually abused to tell their stories. This can be a healthy exercise for victims of abuse, especially those living under a "can't talk" rule.

Follow the leader, but with care

An editorial on how easy it is to fall into the trap of following dangerous leaders.

Search Here

To search Provender (or to see the latest additions to Provender), CLICK HERE

Order of Posts

I like to keep the list of helpful sites on Spiritual Abuse at or near the top because providing links to the best resources on this topic is the main purpose of this blog. If a post seems to disappear, you can usually find it below the first post.

Psalms for the Oppressed

A glimpse into life under the thumb of controlling church

Breaking the Chains: Overcoming the Spiritual Abuse of a False Gospel by Shari Howerton details life under the thumb of an oppressive church.

Spiritually abused woman needs prayer, help

How they use words to manipulate and abuse

Spiritual Abuse Quote of the Month

Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in order to promote learning the group's ideology or belief system and group-approved behaviors. Good behavior, demonstrating an understanding and acceptance of the group's beliefs, and compliance are rewarded while questioning, expressing doubts or criticizing are met with disapproval, redress and possible rejection. If one expresses a question, he or she is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to be questioning...Approval comes from having the new member's behaviors and thought patterns conform to the models (members). Members' relationship with peers is threatened whenever they fail to learn or display new behaviors. Over time, the easy solution to the insecurity generated by the difficulties of learning the new system is to inhibit any display of doubts -- new recruits simply acquiesce, affirm and act as if they do understand and accept the new ideology. -- Step 5 of MargaretSinger's Six Conditions for Thought Reform, found on ICSA

Covering and Manipulation

Two sites I want to emphasize:
The site Covering and Authority ends up buried and hard to find because it was a late discovery, so I thought I'd make a handy sidebar link to this page on the concept of covering or theology of covering. This site includes many scriptural references refuting the idea of human responsibility for the sins and behavior of others.

Also, a Rest Ministries page on manipulation and spiritual abuse disappeared when Geocities closed its sites in October. Before it disappeared, I preserved part of it and now have it linked HERE. This site exposed, in vivid detail, techniques abusers use to get followers to do their bidding. Very insightful

Additional resources

Dr. Barb Orlowski has provided these additional resources she came across in the course of her research. Thanks, Dr. Orlowski.


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