out of the darkness: never underestimate the damage of spiritual abuse.

if there’s one thing that really pisses me off in this world it’s abuse.  to me, abuse is when people use their power, authority, position, or strength in unhealthy damaging ways to control, harm, manipulate, and use people.  abuse strips people of dignity.  it confuses and hurts.  it messes with our heads. it crosses socioeconomic and cultural boundaries and is far more prevalent than any of us probably know.  and while i often speak of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, one other form of abuse (which i would probably place in the “emotional” category)  is spiritual abuse.  so many have been harmed by messed-up church systems where power & control overtook a sincere desire to serve God and be part of christian community.  i hear story after story of weird church experiences, and the theme always seems to be the same:  sincere dear Christ-followers get sucked into an unhealthy, power-driven, unsafe system and somehow end up hurt and with their faith damaged.

for those of you new to the carnival, this past summer i did a series of interview called “out of the darkness” where friends of mine shared their real story.  you can see a list of posts in this series here.  i have wanted to include this one for a while and am thankful for my friend claire* who was willing to bravely share her experiences of emerging from the ravages of spiritual abuse.  she is smart, talented, powerful, kind, and extremely loyal.  she entered into a community looking for family and a place to live out her devotion to God and when she started asking questions and wrestling with her faith, ended up seeing how unsafe and unhealthy the whole thing really was.  she’s “out” now but is still healing from the damage.  i am privileged to know her and see God redeeming this experience in amazing ways.  as you read, remember there are all kinds of degrees of spiritual abuse–some more severe than others.  notice what parts you or someone you know might connect with.

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  • share a little bit about your family, educational, spiritual background & how you ended up in a spiritually abusive church.

I was an only-child to a single mom, who raised me by herself until she met my step-dad when I was 10. They were both self-described atheists and very much lived the “just be a good person” doctrine. When I was 15, my mom was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, which started my spiritual quest for the meaning of it all. A friend invited me to Young Life, and over time, I became a solidly evangelical believer at 17. I was very determined to be “Super Christian” and was asked to be a junior high leader three months later, which further magnified my need to get a solid handle on this new faith. I read and listened to everything I could get my hands on, as I felt like I needed to “catch up” to my friends who got to grow up knowing what I was just then learning.

I went out of state to college and made sure that my first priority was to find a mega-church to plug into, becoming an integral part of the college group. I was also a Young Life leader, ran discipleship groups through college and graduate school, and later went to seminary to pursue a career in Christian counseling. My mom died the summer before I graduated from college; her death became a pivotal part of my spiritual and emotional journey. My step-dad soon left the family picture out of his own grief, and I found myself alone in another state at 22 and confused on many levels.  I was so vulnerable and longed to be part of a “family.”

  • describe what drew you to the church you ended up having to leave. what kept you there initially?

Several months after my mom died, a new girl at work invited me to come to her church. She described it as more like a family than a church, and something hopeful sparked inside my heart.  Instantly upon my arrival, I was both literally and figuratively embraced and the desire to matter was soon quenched. I therefore consciously ignored over time the theological alarms regarding the church’s beliefs, as it became easy to rationalize almost anything if enough love was thrown into the mix.

For the six years that I was a part, I honestly learned how to be an authentic Christian, how to let myself be loved, and to work through deep wounds. However, the painful flip-side of the truth is that there were more secret interactions that happened behind the scenes that darken many of those good memories.

  • what were some of the dynamics that you experienced, some of the “standard practices” in the community?

From the pulpit and in relationship, it was often relayed that God communicated prophetically to the senior pastor or to other leaders in the church. The pastor would say things such as, “Claire, the Holy Spirit showed me a vivid picture of your life, and He wants you to know that it is dangerous to run away from the mantle of authority that He has placed you under.” It was the ultimate trump card;  how do you disagree with that?!  While things were said that made me raise an internal eyebrow, the culture subtly sent a message that no one should verbally express any concern over these types of statements, lest we be accused of a “spirit of disunity” or having unresolved authority issues. Different friends outside the church started to express concern that I was a part of a cult, as my own opinion became less important than the need to submit. I dismissed their concern, as the family void screamed louder than all logic.

  • did you have some moments where you were like “hmm, something doesn’t feel quite right here?”  what did you do with those feelings?

I was the only one at seminary that went to a more charismatic church, and I attributed my discomfort to basic theological differences. In actuality, I did ascribe more to the evangelical way of thought, but I wanted the real life community that I was experiencing. I always wanted something more with my life, and it sort of felt like I was getting that. One of the things that I heard often was that a pastor could sense “the spirit of death” attached to me, as I was told that it would be my “thorn in the side” and always an issue. This meant that if the “spirit of death” was present, I could be instantly plucked from whatever I was doing in church or an event, as I could potentially be a hazard to myself or others unknowingly. While many of the teachings of the church did not completely resonate with me, I told myself that many things of the spirit could not be understood. I stuffed them into an incredibly deep place and told myself constantly that I loved the people, and so I could trust that it was really my unnecessary doubts that were causing my inhibitions.

  • can you share some of the specific words/phrases/ways-of-manipulating that were passed on to you?

While there were so many subtle ways of the abuse of power, two particularly poignant ways come to mind. One of the biggest ways was through eye contact;  it was made very clear that an infraction of any measure resulted in a need to avert one’s eyes. The verse that was used was “I will set before my eyes no vile thing.” Psalm 101:3. A small group leader would often have a conversation about how it was important to look at each other authentically and with pure eyes.

Once I got in specific “trouble” when, casually over coffee, I was letting my small group leader–who was a mentor to me–know more about my private world. I shared with her that I was writing a letter to my mom (who had died 3 years prior) about things left unsaid, and how my heart was broken. She then proceeded to later tell the senior pastor that I was, in fact, talking to spirits, which meant that I had committed an infraction. He told me in his office that if I was ever found to be communicating with the dead again, I would no longer be able to teach my Sunday School class. He then prayed that the “spirit of death” would be lifted off of me. I was also informed that I had to work out my sin with God and would be advised as when I could clearly make eye contact with my leaders again. If there was an infraction, it would be either directly or indirectly stated that as a transparent community, we needed to look at each other only with honest hearts. Even now, I sometimes feel myself look away or reflect later that I didn’t make eye contact, out of fear of not being exactly “right” in relationship. I am working very hard on purging that issue out of my system entirely

  • you are an educated, extremely smart woman.  i know some people might be asking, “how come you didn’t just go “this is crap” and go find another place to go?”  help others understand how easy that is to say and much harder to do when you are in it.

That is one of the absolute hardest pieces for me to reconcile, the fact that that I did buy in for so long, too long. I am so full of passion, and I have always wanted to make lasting impact with everything I do, especially as a believer. I felt as if my partnership in the church was my responsibility to make a real difference in relationships. I had become disillusioned with “playing church”, and I really thought that I had arrived at a place that did the real thing. The community component was unlike anything I had ever seen, and it made sense to me more in my heart than in my head. Once things started to seem off to me, I think I was in too deep to see the truth from a clear perspective. My emotional need to be connected to a “family” far superseded my intellectual apprehensions.

  • when did something significantly shift in your heart, where you knew “i can’t be part of this anymore.”

There were many smaller moments that shifted over the last year there, but a specific time does stand out. A clear moment was when the youth pastor and I took the high school kids to a conference. I was listening to some of the things/phrases specific to our church that he was telling our youth group on the way to the center, and it made my stomach turn. He was telling them that they needed to make sure to not “open their ears up to deceit” and to the “ways of the flesh” as this internationally known conference was not put on by our church. I was so very bothered that we were literally instructing our kids to not even listen to other Christians that did not believe the exact same way. As I sat there in the conference, I decided that I could not morally reconcile being a representative to a younger generation when I no longer believed in the practices of the church.

  • what happened after you left?  what were some of the ramifications of your decision?

I was not sure how to “leave”, as the church had become my family and many of my main relationships. I was pulling back from as much involvement, but I was still as committed to the families and friends there as when I did buy in. One day, the associate pastor, whom I was close to, called me at work to ask about my lack of regular attendance at small group. I confided that I was thinking about checking out another church. That is when his tone–and my world–changed.

He then started a rapid fire succession of questions, asking if the NEW church knew about my past abuse as a kid, if they would love me as much as this church did, if they were spirit-led, or if I knew what it was like to live without a spiritual covering? He said that in order to leave the church, I would need to get permission from the senior pastor, as he would have to give me a specific blessing. I adamantly refused, and he stated,“Then be prepared to deal with the consequences” and hung up.

I then received a call from the family that I was the closest with, the one that I had been on vacation with the month prior. She stated, “We no longer trust you, if you are not a part of the church any longer.” I then received the same message via e-mail about ten times from other families that day. I was beyond devastated, to say in the least.

  • what has your journey been like since?  what are you learning about yourself, God, “the church” as a result of your exit?

The beautiful thing about The Refuge is that it is very clear that the love in our community has absolutely nothing to do with a theological, political, or emotional state; it is completely personal. I am completely confident that if I woke up one day either believing something different or thought a different way about any spiritual issue, it would not matter one bit. I would still be loved as Claire, because of who I am, and not what God is working out in and through me. My hope has been restored for church, as I am part of a hope in action for a faith community.

As for me, I am learning how strong my voice is again, leaning into trusting my heart. I am seeing how not having to have the answers is actually the wisest that I have ever been. For years, I suppressed the real Claire that is both a woman and a leader and developed a fear of my strength. I always felt guilty for being annoyed at the “submissive woman” construct, and I am now allowing myself the freedom to emerge from under that idea entirely. I am experiencing how deeply I am cared for by God, when for the longest time I thought I had been forgotten in the shuffle. The amazing circumstances that led me to where I am now, especially physically, point to a God who is paying serious attention to details of my life (and I didn’t need someone else to tell me what God was saying).

  • now you are “re-entering” christian community again; what freaks the hell out of you?  what is bringing you hope?

It freaks the hell out of me to accidentally say or do the wrong thing and find myself reeling from a blow. For example, once as a church leader at a youth camp, I joked that the rec room looked like a water bottle cemetery. The pastor’s wife took me aside and literally reamed me for saying such an inappropriate thing, stated that I had a “spirit of defiance” and that I was communicating towards the youth a dangerous flippancy towards death. Now it seems ridiculous, but at the time, I was so scared of falling out of good graces that I quietly obliged.

It makes it a lot easier that The Refuge is so incredibly safe, and that even bigger things, like difference of opinion on theological or political issues, are handled so diplomatically. I am confident that I made the right decision where I have landed, but I still feel the urge to run away. Old doubts about letting myself feel too connected–and therefore too vulnerable–have re-surfaced. It is bringing me hope that I could be in a place where my gifts could be used, my voice could be heard, and I would have the freedom to “be” without the confines of some arbitrary authority) I feel smarter, stronger, and more aware of my own baggage that I am bringing to the table, and that offers a sense of freedom.

  • what words of hope do you have for others out there who have “left” and are lonely, scared, and confused?

I would say that it is important to trust the process, as there really is life in the “in between.” I was horrified at the thought of living in the balance of nothing–no church, a bruised faith, a wounded heart, and a lack of real “direction”. However, it was that very journey that led me to where I am now, and there was no real “map” assisting with my spiritual destination.

  • anything else you’d like to add?

What has been the most healing for me is to find safe people to talk with about the inner details of my journey. It is one thing to listen to another sharing pain, but it is so humbling–and ultimately very healing–to allow yourself to share the vulnerabilities in your life and find you’re really not alone, or ungodly, or “unfit” for leadership just because you struggle.

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thank you, claire, for your honesty and courage to “get out” of an unsafe system and find hope again.  the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be the free-est, least oppressive place on earth. it is a travesty that so many have used the name of God to control, oppress, and keep people in the fold. may those “stuck” find the courage they need to get out and find freedom, hope, and their voice again (or maybe for the first time).

21 Comments

  • I applaud Claire both for the courage to come forward with this, and the way she has verbalized it. Spiritual abuse is very real, and it is far more prevalent than possibly most folks realize. Although it is often more subtle than the extremes of Claire experienced (don’t look in the leader’s eyes? seriously?), the more subtle forms are no less damaging.

    I’ve been on both ends of this issue, personally; I’ve been on the receiving end more than once as a member of different churches, and regrettably, as a church leader, I’ve been a perpetrator, wounding others. It is one of the greatest complaints I have about institutional forms of Christianity and the clergy/laity divide, because there is an inherent pressure that invites and enables those subtle (or not-so-subtle) forms of manipulation. As a leader in the church, I found myself manipulating people in ways I never would have conceived of doing otherwise, convincing myself it was somehow according to Scripture, or necessary to keeping the church intact and on course.

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    • Your humility in acknowledging you were an abuser touches my heart and gives me hope that those who abused us may someday see their actions clearly …

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  • Claire, I read this with eyes full of tears. I’m so sorry for what you went through. I came from a group much like you described. I too, was one of the abusers and abused. For my part in it, I have asked forgiveness. Just so you know, there may be someone in leadership that finally does what you have the courage to do. Blessings on your journey from here on out.

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  • I hardly know what to say. It makes me so angry that a christian would use shame to control someone. Or that they would try to control anyone at all.
    This woman’s story is a powerful one of redemption. Thank you for telling it.

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  • Miss Claire, you rock my socks! Brave, honest, compassionate, and authentic, willing to think outside the box, and go against the religious power of the day….hmm sounds like you are in good company with, oh what was that guys name? You know, the one who refused to bow down to the religious abusers of his day… Yeah, that Jesus guy. Don’t always know what I believe about him, but seems to me you are walking in his footsteps my friend, in a most beautiful way.

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  • I am blown away by this piece. Thank you Claire for your honesty, courage and ability to look at the wrongs done to you and then step away from them and go off in a new direction I will always look in your eyes and tell you that you are amazing.

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  • Claire – Spiritual abuse is the pits…I know from experience. It affects your outlook on everything, including God, and robs your sense of self esteem. I’m thankful you have found the beauty and safety that is The Refuge. May you continue healing!

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  • Claire. The moment I met you, I swear.
    I felt as if something, somewhere,
    had happened to me, which I couldn’t see.

    And then, the moment I met you, again.
    I knew in my heart that we were friends.
    It had to be so, it couldn’t be no.

    I couldn’t help but think of this song as I read your story, the ugly things that you survived, and escaped. As sad as I am for what you had to go through to get here…I’m so grateful you made it!

    Claire. If ever a moment so rare
    was captured for all to compare.
    That moment is you in all that you do!!

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  • Claire,
    Very articulate, insightful, and wise! Thanks for telling your story.

    Kathy,
    Keep doing what you do! You’re the best!

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  • Kathy: I was recently tuned into your blog by a friend. I am a seminary student and live in Texas. I applaud you for this post and doing this work. I’ve found that so many people have been hurt by churches, and many times the wounds run deep. I’m very interested in doing the work of providing a safe place to hear stories like Claire’s, and somehow aid in providing a way for the Holy Spirit to bring healing in these situations. I think healing from spiritual abuse it’s something that is often overlooked, or not directly addressed in churches. It’s human nature just to bash or lash out at the type of people, or denomination, who hurt us without moving deeply inward to come to a place of healing and forgiveness.

    I enjoy your blog. Thank you again for your honesty and courage.

    In Christ’s love,
    Laurel

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  • Claire- so engaged by your story. I was most deeply touched by your sharing how your emotional needs superseded your mind and your inner red flags because you had a *family* and what you believed were deep,close relational bonds. Thanks for your courage and commitment to sharing your story and to continuing to journey on where God wants to take you. So thrilling to see all you shared with kathy about healing you have recieved and continue to recieve.

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  • Claire– you rock! thanks for telling this story, your story, with courage, bravery, and beauty–your hope and ability to take steps of faith like going back into christian community is astounding and so, so wonderful. i’m glad you’ve landed in a safe place–kathy, thanks for sharing this interview with us!

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  • jeff – thanks for your honesty here, having experienced both sides of this issue. i agree with you that there are all kinds of degrees of abuse, some more subtle than others. subtle manipulation & control get many-a-church-built. i’m pretty sure that was never the idea.

    barb – oh thanks for your honesty & heart. forgiveness and healing is a beautiful thing.

    jamie – yeah, it makes me so angry, too. shame as a tactic is so ugly and damaging. i am so proud of claire and see so much beauty in her redemptive journey.

    michelle – you make me smile. yep, i think she’s in good company!

    dawn – yep, she’s amazing. and yeah, direct eye looking is the place she and all of us can freely live in.

    erin – it does suck. thanks for your heart and all you do to help others heal and find freedom & hope

    deb – oh you are so beautiful. thanks for sharing your heart in such a lovely way.

    phyllis – thanks, my friend. the story’s always the same, isn’t it? so glad healing & hope is possible.

    laurel – i am so glad you took time to comment. i think it is wonderful that you recognize the pain and want to do something about it as you work directly with people. the wounds are indeed so deep; my hope is that more and more leaders recognize it, don’t dismiss it, and provide safe places to heal and come-back-to-life again. peace and strength and hope to you for the journey. let me know where you end up!

    robert – thank you for taking time to comment; yeah, so often when we don’t have any safe places or objectivity around us to bounce our “red flags” off of, we end up ignoring them, especially when everyone around us doesn’t seem to mind.

    ryan – yeah, she’s so brave! thanks for your encouragement and your passion to create safe places for healing & hope, too.

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  • Wow. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so glad you have emerged from these difficult circumstances and are now able to flourish. Be well!

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  • It’s hard to even respond to this because I feel so raw on this topic. Claire, you did an amazing job of sharing, and you showed us so much of your heart in this, and shared so honestly–and I saw an incredibly beautiful person.

    Spiritual abuse was part of the fabric of my growing up. I’m still in the unravelling process, so I’m hoping that there is some rebuilding and healing ahead. Sometimes I wonder if everyone that grows up Christian experiences this…well, probably not…and I’d better be careful not to turn into the Grinch who stole Sunday School. Though come to think of it, the Grinch hated all the trappings, but when he took them away, he found out there really was something real and beautiful under there. I hope I’ll find that out about Jesus.

    Has anybody read The Jesus Girls? I’m hoping to get it soon…it really sounded like it would resonate, talking about the mixed bag of growing up in the church.

    Thanks, Kathy, for posting this. I’m seeing how the dimensions of our lives bleed into each other, and how abuse in one dimension will seep through into the other parts of our lives, and leave us more vulnerable to other types of abuse. And I guess, heartbreakingly, most of us have experienced abuse in multiple dimensions.

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  • Blueorchid8, The book looks fascinating. I am presently reading a book “Angry Conversations with God: A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir” and it is good so far (about 1/2 way through. I am trying to find books that will help my daughter (age 24) as she was so very hurt by all we went through. Any more recommendations anyone?

    BTW, my daughter has blogged pretty frankly about her experiences in dealing with God after the abuse. If you are interested in her website I will give it to you. I think it is different coming from it at my age as opposed to growing up through it.

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  • well, miss claire, i am looking at you straight in the eyes: you are so loved and wanted.
    i am grateful that you were so honest about that need to belong and be accepted. it looks different for me, but i end up in the same place when i succumb to that powerful allure- lose my sense of true self.
    well done, so articulate!

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  • dear claire, it breaks my heart how the church can be so cruel and damaging. no wonder many decide to chuck the whole God thing, forever. i’m glad you are giving it another try. you have so much insight to offer. sadly, i have to admit that there were times that i was the one who was wounding in “the name of God.” thanx for your courage to share. welcome home to the family.

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  • nick – thanks for taking time to share..

    blueorchid – as always, thanks for your raw honesty. and i don’t think you’re the grinch who stole sunday school. while i am sure there are many who have had some amazing experiences, i also have tended to see that it’s far more tipped the other way, especially in very controlling cultures. people throwing around God’s name and power is very dangerous & i think we need to be reminded of how much damage it can really do. i haven’t read Jesus Girls. one thing that does seem really clear, though, is what you said about all the different dimensions of abuse all blending in together in various ways.
    thanks for sharing….

    barb – thanks for sharing. i read jeff vondervan’s book a long time ago about spiritual abuse, i can’t remember the exact title but he’s got some good stuff. thanks for sharing your daughter’s blog, i will check it out for sure. i am glad she’s telling her story and seeking hope and healing & that you are on the journey with her.

    karl – thanks for your love for our dear community & that you are a safe and kind and un-power-up leader. it makes us so much safer & i am so grateful that even though we screw a lot of things up, that somehow we are creating a culture of freedom and safety and healing.

    mike – ditto to you, too & i agree, it takes so much courage to try again…thanks again, claire for sharing your story with us.

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