It isn’t so easy to spot physical and emotional abuse, though we’d like to believe we are astute enough to see the signs and symptoms. There might be bruises or some form of acting out. Perhaps a broken bone or emotional upheaval. After some investigation, we can deduce that something has happened to an individual or child, but spiritual abuse is even more subtle. It requires keen awareness and even after detailed investigation may not be understood. But it exists. It happens more than we’d like to believe. It’s out there and in places we would least expect.
Like physical and emotional, spiritual abuse is an action against a person through manipulation based on religious ideology or “is the result of a spiritual leader… that tries to control, manipulate, or dominate a person” (Gibson, 2016). But like the other abuses, it isn’t exactly clear what the abuse is or how the abuse occurred, if an abuse even happened. Often, emotional abuse and spiritual abuse are closely linked due to the very personal nature of spirituality or beliefs. Spiritual abuse often employs psychological processes and manipulation. Often it is unclear who are what has happened to cause the abuse. Other times it is all too obvious.
There are some things, however, that are obvious and egregious; yet somehow they are overlooked due to familiarity, personality, or magnetism. Often Father, or other religious entities, are irresistible or have personalities that draw people close to them. Some are charismatic and start off well enough, but soon enough have difficulties and find themselves traveling down well-trod paths of abuse.
There are signs to watch out for, some of which are: (modified from Demuth, 2016)
Spiritual abusers often demand respect without having earned. They demand allegiance as proof of the follower’s allegiance to Christ. It’s either his/her way or no way; and if a follower deviates, they are guilty of deviating from the “teachings”, never knowing if they are Jesus’ teachings or someone else’s.
Often, abusers use exclusive language and believe their way of doing things, their way of thinking theologically, or their way of handling ministry and church is the only way. They may even suggest that everyone else is wrong.
They often create a culture of fear and shame. Often there is no grace for someone who fails to live up to the church’s or ministry’s expectation. And if someone steps outside of the often-unspoken rules, leaders shame them into compliance. Father (or Mother) will never admit to their own failure and they engage in diatribes about the failures in others or else use exclusive knowledge to hold others in fear. They may even engage in contextomy, quoting snippets of scriptures about not touching God’s anointed, or bringing accusations against an elder. They, of course, are free to confront sin in others.
One of the worst and most egregious forms of spiritual abuse is the leader who cultivates a dependence on themselves rather than on the teachings of the Christ.
Unlike Jesus’ instructions to be a servant to all, abusive leaders often are granted or expect preferential treatment and court others to grant them special privileges.
Spiritual abusers will typically create a buffer between themselves and those who would criticize by surrounding themselves with people whose only allegiance is to them. Those who were once friends, family, or associates swiftly become enemies once a concern is raised. Sometimes these folks are banished, told to be silent, or shamed into submission.
In such cases, followers close to the leader feel like lucky insiders. Everyone else is on the outside, though they often long to be in that inner circle. If someone on the inner circle speaks up about abuses, lapses in character, illegal acts, or strong-arming, that insider immediately moves to an outsider. Fear of losing their special status often impedes insiders from speaking up.
In most cases, fear is used to keep the people under control; whether it is a fear of the loss of acceptance and love, or the fear of condemnation due to living situations or past mistakes. Sin is used as a tool to control and manipulate through fear of recrimination.
In a nutshell, spiritual abuses include, but are not limited to: mind-control, thought reform, coercion, manipulation, deception, legalism, authoritarianism, guilt trips, and holier-than-thou attitudes. And make no mistake, these abuses are often purposeful. The person abusing is aware of their actions, though they may not view them as abusive, even if they are self-serving.
So, with all this in mind, what can we do to avoid creating atmospheres where abuses may occur? Most obvious is to not engage in any of the signs of spiritual abuse. Leaders need to change their thinking and open themselves to alternate ways of thinking. It’s very easy to get caught up in the glamour and tradition of celebrations and positions of power, but we must be mindful that as servants we need to put the needs of our flocks first – not to our own detriments mind you, but sufficient so that our flocks know their needs are important to the survival of the church as a whole.
Pastors need to be mindful of authentic caring – people know if you truly care about them. They can sense that you may have ulterior motives and they know if you are genuine and authentic. There are some out there, however, who are not so in touch with their senses and who may be easily led astray – even by authentic caring. Therefore, being open and upfront with parishioners is imperative. Creating an atmosphere of openness gives everyone permission to be authentic beings, but it also allows for appropriate boundaries.
As with prayer, we must allow ourselves to listen freely and without bias. We must be able to hear feedback without taking things too personally. We must be able to synthesize suggestion and allow ourselves to be open to reflection and humility. Part of creating an atmosphere of openness is allowing others to feel as if their voices are heard and that they, as parishioners, are validated for their humanity. It is also holding them, and ourselves, responsible for actions through caring, gentle, and open communication. But first we must listen for that voice of compassion and love to help instruct us how to move forward into empowerment rather than authoritarianism.
The issue of spiritual abuse runs too deep in our communities to be easily fixed with three easy solutions. No, it can be a long and often difficult process to fully confront and expunge the issues of spiritual abuse. Prevention is key, but in many case people come to us already damaged just as we too have been possibly damaged.
Lastly, we must engage in true forgiveness, not just of the abuser, but of ourselves as well. We must put into practice the very teachings we espouse an open our hearts, souls, and minds to the power and process of forgiveness.
- Clinebell, H. J. (1984). Basic types of pastoral counseling: Resources for the ministry of healing and growth. Nashville, Tenn: Abingdon Press.
- Demuth, M. (2016, September 6). 10 ways to spot spiritual abuse. Retrieved November 27, 2016, from http://www.marydemuth.com/spiritual-abuse-10-ways-to-spot-it/
- Donahue, J., & Moser, M. T. (1996). Religion, ethics & the common good. Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications.
- Gibson, L. (n.d.). Visit our new blog area and watch our videos. Retrieved November 27, 2016, from http://spiritualabuse.org/
- Olen, J., & Barry, V. E. (1996). Applying ethics: A text with readings. Belmont: Wadsworth Pub.
- Remley, T. P., & Herlihy, B. (2005). Ethical, legal, and professional issues in counseling. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
- Stivers, R. L. (1989). Christian ethics: A case method approach. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
The Rev. Father Kenneth Nelan is the pastor of the Sacred Wandering Pastoral Center in Milwaukee Wisconsin. He is also the celebrant of the Sunday Mass broadcast on Facebook.