Dwelling on Authority
A story of abuse at a Midwestern church

My story is not one of violent abuse or long-term abuse or super-controlling abuse. This is a case of creeping, subtle abuse. But it destroyed nearly an entire body of believers.

When our pastor first arrived, the church was full of several eager, active, sincere couples and young families. After two years under this pastor, all but two had left or been kicked out. As of today (April 2011) I understand that every regularly-attending family there when the pastor was called in 2005, is out of the church. One couple who attended right about the time the pastor came is still in it, but the wife knows it is an abusive church and has been vascillating. New people have come and gone, even newer ones remain, for now, but the situation there is spiritually toxic and it takes a strong stomach to stick it out for long.

The first inkling I had that our new pastor had a problem was during a meeting on hosting a Halloween alternative at our church. We often did this, opening the church to provide a safe and fun time for church kids who don't celebrate Halloween.

Our new pastor, however, had other ideas. He came to the meeting armed with literature and made it clear that even so much as an acknowledgment, by the church, of the existence of Halloween was evil. The only proper response for Christians to Halloween was to cower in the dark in their homes.

The pastor nursed a persecution complex. He began to preach frequently about "attacks of the enemy" and it was pretty clear what - or rather who - he was referring to. The enemy, at first, was the young woman who had hosted the meeting on Halloween alternatives. She and her family were among the first to leave.

Those who attended the business meetings that followed told me that the pastor demanded obedience at these meetings, that he went to lengths to point out his scriptural authority over others. Not attending meetings, since I wasn't part of the board, I found this behavior hard to believe. I thought people must be misinterpreting something.

Defending the wrong
To me, the pastor might have a few awkward moments, but he was preaching scripture and getting us back to the basics from which I felt we'd wandered for some time. I had the idea that this pastor was leading us to greener spiritual meadows than we had known for years, and I didn't want anything interfering with this wonderful dream. So I ended up taking his part whenever there was conflict, and I even came down pretty hard on those who had trouble with him.

Several other seemingly minor incidents happened that followed the same pattern. The pastor would take a bold stand on an issue not covered by scripture and those who agreed with him were flattered while those who didn't were preached against in lightly-veiled sermons.

The pastor once denounced Bible studies from the pulpit, spitting out the word "Bible study" as if it were toxic. I thought of some Bible studies where people tried to show off their knowledge of scripture, and agreed with him. Waste of time. But I had been in many, many studies and adult Sunday schools, where people met to look into God's word together. Was there really anything wrong with that?

This should have clued me in, but instead, I came up with excuses for him. He wanted to keep in control of teaching to keep the church from heretical teachings, I told myself. He must have been in some bad Bible studies and thinks they are all like that. He doesn't want some boring lay person driving out new folks.

Though the pastor didn't make us take notices of our Tuesday women's prayer group out of the bulletin, his wife never came to them. I made up excuses for her absence. And when we added a Bible study component, I knew we had to keep that part a secret.

Rock Star Pastor
While tension built among board members -- or former board members -- something even more surreal was happening with the worship team, and few knew of it. Few knew of it because the church this man came into was a humble church, a church not used to gossip or rumor-spreading. People generally kept quiet out of respect. But in case they didn't, any number of sermons elevating gossip almost to murder and adultery status was now cascading down on the blinking congregation.

For a long time, the only thing demanded of worship team members was that they practice the night before church, if they wanted to play that Sunday. The pastor wanted to be on the worship team. In fact, he wanted to be front and center with a 12-string guitar. But he did not want to practice. He would not come to practice, despite pleas from the worship leader.

He also did something else very strange. Whenever he'd get on the platform with his guitar, he'd reach over and turn the volume up on his guitar mic and turn down the volume on everyone else's. Our worship leader spent hours beforehand adjusting the balance because the team was his ministry and he wanted excellence for the Lord. He was not paid for any of his time. This man loved God and the church and put in many hours trying to produce beautiful music for Sunday services, in honor of the Holy Lamb of God. With a few twists of knobs, all the balance and care was wiped out by the pastor.

The other problem was that despite his loud guitar, the pastor was frequently out of tune. Other worship team members said that they usually had to tune their instruments to the pastor's out-of-tune guitar, in a last ditch attempt to provide harmony.

When the worship team leader mentioned the need for practice and the volume controls problem to Pastor X, he would agree to do things the right way, but then renege on his promise repeatedly. Finally, the worship team leader brought the matter up at a prayer meeting. Big mistake. You don't criticize Pastor X.

Immediately, the pastor retaliated by replacing the entire worship team with one new guy for the last song. Previously, the last song, after the sermon, was a time of jubilation. Kids would come running up from Sunday school to join their parents, big smiles on their faces, and the whole congregation would worship loudly and joyfully in celebration. To take that song away was petty and hurt more than a few people.

That was enough for the worship leader, who had remained for months after the first wave of members had left, trying to reason with and understand the pastor, to no avail.

When the worship leader quit, another musician, Pete, demanded an honest answer why. The pastor gave the same speech he always did about some people not understanding -- or needing to worship elsewhere. God had "revealed to him" that people would leave, he always said.

But Pete wasn't going to let him get away with the same explanation again and told him, gently but firmly, that he needed honest answers. He would not be back, he said, the next day for church.

Two weeks later, when Pete's wife came to worship, she was told that she was not welcome to worship there. The pastor's wife called a "bouncer" over to escort her out. No hearing. No good explanation. She was not allowed to stay.

The pastor, in rooting out worldly behaviors in the church, focused on potlucks. He arbitrarily decided that the monthly potluck would have to go. One couple in the church was devastated because inviting people to potlucks was a ministry for them, and a very good one. They invited many friends and relatives to potlucks, people who would not come for a sermon but would come for a special event. Some whom they invited ended up staying and even helping with the toddlers and children and becoming a part of the church family.

The pastor and his wife, however, who never opened the parsonage for social events and had trouble socially, felt ill at ease with potlucks and decided to ax them.

When the couple came to express their concerns, the pastor remained adamant and would not even agree to allow them to make baloney sandwiches and clean up, or use the church property in any way at all. Until this pastor came, anyone was able to use church facilities at any time.

The following Sunday, the pastor preached against potlucks. Really. This was a church from a group that prided itself on preaching chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse to get the "whole counsel of God," but he was able to preach a sermon against the couple anyway, twisting the scriptures to serve his purposes.

The couple, who'd been in the church more than 20 years, left. I didn't know they had come to the pastor about potlucks and that the sermon was aimed at them. I chided the woman, my friend, for being a wimp and leaving the church without trying to work things through. I am ashamed now that I partook of a kind of spiritual abuse myself by shaming her and causing more pain.

A week after that couple left, the pastor reinstated the monthly potluck. At first I thought he must have felt bad about the couple leaving and decided to sort of undo what he'd done. But he never called them. He never called any of the sheep he'd driven away. I think now, the potluck mandate was likely a loyalty test.


The pastor
The pastor's contract was up for renewal, and there had not been a meeting. The pastor had replaced board meetings with prayer meetings and disbanded the board. He also wrote up his own statement of faith, replacing the congregational one. Also the state required a meeting each year for churches to renew their tax exempt status and we had not had one for more than a year except for a kind of sham prayer meeting where the pastor prayed for one woman's back for hours to avoid any kind of discussion on church business. So, at a prayer meeting, things that had been neglected for some time would be discussed.

But word had reached the pastor that trouble was brewing at the prayer meeting, and he and his bouncers physically blocked a public sidewalk to prevent anyone entering the church for a meeting. He had turned away people who arrived for the meeting and when the last remaining elder arrived, there was an altercation and the elder was excommunicated.

Months later, the pastor blew up at a member of the new worship team (the old one was long gone), and most of the new team ended up fellowshiping with the other outcasts in another church. Much of the old church reunited at this church, and more and more families from the old place would join the new one. I am still amazed that God put so many pieces of our jigsaw puzzle back together again, and the harsh feelings toward each other melted away as we all begin to learn what was behind the destruction of a once-harmonious church family. Even some of the former bouncers are now fellowshiping with us at the new church!

Even so, the effects of the abuse continue.

When I read of the experiences of other churches and groups, I see that our church was only beginning to sink into an abusive pattern when we left. Many groups experience much more direct control and more cult-like behavior. Nevertheless, the roots of an abusive system are in place, and I fear for those still caught in the church and for those in the future.

For years I could not drive by the building without a shudder. I remember one time, not long after we were out, my husband drove right in front of the building. I felt like a cat trapped in a box, trying to scratch my way out. I yelled at my husband to go a different way, but he wanted to break my fear. I have never been so panicked ever.

When I'd go to a store, I'd always drive up and down the parking lot lanes trying to spot the pastor's car. If I saw one that looked like his, I would not shop  there.

One time I woke up in a panic. I'd remembered that I had placed the pastor's wife's name and phone number on our children's emergency number card on file at their school. If they got sick at school and I was out shopping, this man and his wife could have control of my child! Who knows what terrible thing he or she could do to them?

Another woman in the church told me she feared he would burn down her house when she and her husband were sleeping. These fears were not entirely rational, but the pastor was so random, would turn against people so quickly and seemed so disturbed at times, that anything, anything at all seemed possible.

Thankfully, I no longer have the same fear and paranoia as I did after were were first out. As the church shrinks, so does my fear and worry.

Every so often I hear of a new family or individual attending the church and I wonder how long until they see the damage. I have received calls from newer members asking about the history of the church, because to strong Christians or experienced believers, something seems "off" from the beginning. The pastor is better at roping in novices and inexperienced believers. But the damage done to them is incalculable.

It felt like playing crack the whip at the end, being whipped one way and then another as I tried to determine who was right, the pastor or his critics. I was a staunch supporter until the end. I had made custom bulletin covers to go with his sermons each week. I put together and printed out the bulletins at my own expense, taught Sunday school, did whatever I was asked and flattered him constantly. But I was still uneasy. The people complaining were those I had spent years with and knew to be honest.

Because my spouse yelled at the pastor in front of the church (when the church bouncers were blocking people from entering) we were out the next day, with a letter of dismissal. I am utterly grateful for that development, difficult as it was when it happened.

It took two years before I had any sense of peace, and next month will mark our fourth year out. I still have some residual effects even after all this time, but nothing like those of people in more severe situations. Because, relatively, we had a mild and short-lived case of spiritual abuse (only two years of suffering under this man) I stand agape in wonder at those who have survived severe or long-running cases. Their stories always humble me.


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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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