Wednesday What is it:  What is Spiritual Abuse? Lisa Hunt-Wotton

What is Spiritual Abuse:

“Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual  position to control or dominate another person.” “Spiritual abuse can also occur when spirituality is used to make others live up to a spiritual standard”(Jeff VanVonderen).

Abuse is the improper use of anything. Spiritual abuse is when a spiritual leader abuses the teachings of Jesus and uses their influence to control others.

“Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of spiritual authority, the purpose of which is to ‘come underneath’ and serve, build, equip and make God’s people MORE free, misuses that authority placing themselves over God’s people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly Godly purposes which are really their own.” 

Spiritual abuse often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being.

Spiritual abuse is more common that you think.  Spiritual abuse is often subtle and it is conflicting because you are invested in your church and in your pastor and you don’t want to seem disloyal or to be going against the direction of the church.  This can often be confused with going against the will of God.

The pastor or leader seems to have the inside ear of God therefore he represents God.  Therefore his word is the truth. “Truth is the verbal coinage by which we exchange concepts of value and engender trust” (Martin).  This is why spiritual abuse is so damaging because it deals with our trust and our vulnerability to submit to God  or to obey God and inadvertently we think we have to submit to the pastor and his plans.

Having been a victim of multiple abuses I can testify that for me personally spiritual abuse was one of the most difficult.  The other abuses happen ‘out there’, spiritual abuse damages the very core of who you are and who your were created to be.  It messes with your central belief in God and the way that you see Him.

Some Signs of Spiritual Abuse:

Selective Service.  The church is overly concerned about portraying “excellence.”  People who do not fit a desired criteria—they are too old, too young or too overweight—are not allowed to serve in visible ministries (e.g., ushering and the worship team (Shawn Nelson).

Jump through hoops: There is often a series of hoops that you have to jump through to prove your worth and your loyalty.   Often the leader knows that you will never be someone that they want to use or promote so they just keep setting out more hoops to keep you busy or to keep you at arms length.

Can’t talk:  If you talk about a problem, then you become the problem.  You can’t raise your concerns about an issue let alone your concerns about the pastor or one of the leaders because you are seen as being disloyal.  Then you become branded and you become the problem.  You are then ostracised or labelled a trouble maker.

Submission and Obedience:  These words are used a lot in abusive situations to control relationships and to control women.  If you raise a fear or a concern, you are told to submit to authority over you.

Guilt and Manipulation: The leader uses guilt and manipulation, often very subtley to get the congregation to give more money or to chastise them about their level and commitment and attendance.  They want more and more and more.

Institutionalisation overtakes Pastoral Priority: “People who are driven by productivity, success and results can easily “hide” in a burgeoning ministry environment.

“It works well in a church because no one would ever yell at you for being a Christian who produces results.”

This obsession with results and size means more and more leaders are running their organizations like business executives.  They are watching what makes corporate success and applying the same principles to the church.  “Pastors are expected to act more like CEOs than shepherds; the pastor’s office is located in the executive suite, next to the boardroom where the leadership team meets” ( Shawn Nelson).

The needs for growth and success monopolise the needs of the flock.  Pastoral needs, genuine concerns are minimised for the sake of the vision of the church.

Gender Inequality:  Women in staff roles are paid less than men in similar roles.  Women are seen as inferior and men will only deal with men.  For instance,  a woman may be the cause of a topic of concern but the leaders will only talk to her husband about it instead of to her. Women are seen as weaker and inferior.  Staff or leadership roles are passed over to men when often the woman may be more qualified.

Narcissism:   With narcissistic leaders, the idea of biblical ministry is turned upside down in a complete role reversal.  “Instead of the leaders being there for the true well-being of the flock, the flock is there for the well-being of the leaders… Abusive systems don’t serve and equip people, they use people” (Johnson).  Such self-serving pastors leave a wake of ruined lives in their path (i.e., people who have been “burned by ministry”).  They not only use people but they use people up (Shawn Nelson).  Staff and volunteers are used rather than valued and protected.

People being Used:  The people’s needs go unmet; the church’s needs are more important.  The majority of activity is related to the expansion and operation of “the ministry.”  Families are reduced to “giving units.”  There is a continuous emphasis on financial giving.  People feel manipulated into serving in greater and greater capacities within the church.  The bulk of energy is given to retain new families while older families are ignored.   There is a high turnover rate in staff.  People once “on mission” become disillusioned or “burned out.”  If there are a “pile of dead bodies behind the bus”it is safe to say something is very wrong (Shawn Nelson).

Elitist Attitude.  “A church with an elitist attitude believes ‘no one else’ is really preaching the gospel—except that church.  Or at least, no one is preaching it as effectively as they are!” Their mission is the most important of any in the area.  People are discouraged from participating in activities or ministries that support other churches.

If you feel that you are the recipient of any of these examples I would consider chatting with your pastor or leader about it.  Their response will soon tell you if they genuinely care about you or not.

Recommended Reading:  To purchase book just click on image and it will take you to Amazon.

Shawn Nelson –

The Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. by Johnson and VanVonderen

2 Comments on “What is Spiritual Abuse?

  1. I can relate to a lot of these… I keep thinking one day I’ll write it all down. But it’s hard to tease out the good from the bad.


    • I totally agree, I started to write and then froze a bit. I think that all of us are capable of abusing leadership gifts. For me that is why I hold humility in such high regard. I liked the quote about leadership coming from underneath. So often our posturing and approach can be intimidating.

      Liked by 1 person

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