5 Steps of Recovery from Spiritual Abuse

"Abuse Policy" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

“Abuse Policy” cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

Here are 5 steps to recovering from abuse. I am focusing on spiritual abuse in particular:

  1. Admit that it happened. What I find with many people who’ve experienced abuse is that they can’t believe that such a thing happened to them in the church. It is repugnant to them that an organization that boasts about grace and love can be so mean and hateful. They can’t comprehend or acknowledge that people who are in the people-helping business are actually in the people-hurting business. So, don’t minimize it by saying, “Oh, they didn’t mean to,” or, “They didn’t treat me very well,” or, “I was wounded”. You have to be able to say you were actually and really abused… that you were treated in such a way that it hurt you.
  2. Recognize the symptoms. There are many symptoms of abuse, such as depression, withdrawal and isolation, low self-esteem, guilt and shame, not trusting others, nervousness and fear, emotional instability and crying, etc. Another aspect of this that I noticed when it has happened to me or notice in others is that their sense of God or the spiritual is damaged. The heavens are as brass. This is partially due to the fact that we may attribute divine power to those we trusted in the church.We might even acquire a strong distaste for anything spiritual, such as fast-forwarding spiritual music on our song lists. Also, the difficult question, “Where was God when this happened?” may arise. If we start trying to answer this question, there is no telling where we could end up. But we have to be open to the change this question invites.
  3. Talk with someone. It is important to talk with someone who understands abuse, especially spiritual abuse. When one is spiritually abused, an interior fracture can take place which will manifest itself in different responses. Some simply change churches. Some leave the church. Some leave Christianity. Some leave their God and their faith. Most consistently, many people experience their spirituality “freezing”, slipping into an extended dormancy or an eternal hibernation. Like broken bones, talking with someone can help your fractured spirit set in a healthy manner. You might become a Buddhist or an atheist, but your spirit, your inner self, has healed properly so that your new spiritual life is authentic and not reactionary.
  4. Write in a journal. A couple of weeks ago I recommended to someone that they begin writing in a journal. A week later we spoke and this person was amazed at how revealing it was. What this person discovered through journal writing was that there was a lot of anger coming out through their pen. This person wouldn’t have realized this without journaling. I’ve kept a journal all through my spiritual journey. It is an amazing tool which helps me understand myself and for processing all that happens to me. It is a very revelatory act. Journaling may help you acknowledge and admit the abuse, recognize the symptoms, and find hope for a way through the trauma. It usually helps your spiritual self heal faster and better.
  5. Appreciate the process. Many people consider the process of recuperation and healing as a necessary but unpleasant passage to becoming whole again. In fact, this process is the wholeness. There are no useless experiences. They are all fertilizer for our integration and maturity. This isn’t to say that you should stall in an endless cycle of the therapeutic process though. Did you know that doctors have their own doctors? Did you know that some regions require psychotherapists to employ their own therapists? These times of healing are rich with forgiveness, wisdom, compassion, self-awareness and confidence that would not be gleaned without it being appreciated.

I hope these help.

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17 Responses

  1. liz says:

    Our spiritual abuse took many years to recover from because we were atteding that church for 24yrs & 2o of them I was on staff. We were in ‘frozen pain’ even though we continued in a new church. If I look at pics of myself during the first yrs after leaving, I don’t even recognize me. Talking did help, counseling & journaling. Our latest mistake was blogging about our feeling & thoughts – our pastor’s wife at our new church read them & flipped. Showed them to our pastor & we were called in and angrily yelled at for being bitter. I still love the body of church but I have serious doubts about authority in the american church:(

  2. Becky says:

    Great stuff … I’d like add based on my own crappy Christian experiences that despite any assurances to the contrary, the cycle of abuse will continue UNLESS the abuser recognizes the pattern in themselves and is seeking recovery as well.

    Abusers are often charming narcissists who apologize for causing one harm and then promise it won’t happen again. But then it does – and in the past, I put up with it as I kept seeing glimpses of God and held out hope. But we shouldn’t have to settle for Christian crumbs when in fact Jesus promised us a full on feast. Until the abuser decides to stop the abusive cycle, find healthier places to play. I wish I had learned this lesson with US emergent church when I went to my first conference in 2005 and something felt a bit “off.” My gut often is smarter than my head.

    UNTIL you feel you can enter the abusive cycle with detachment, it’s often better to stay away unless absolutely necessary – I find the analogy of an alcoholic going to a bar to be helpful for me. Yes, one misses one’s bar buddies but they only helped fuel the addiction. Sometimes one can eventually go into a bar without drinking but other times, that’s not doable. However, there are plenty of other places where people gather – seek those out.

  3. nakedpastor says:

    Liz: that was an unnecessary and harmful thing for the pastor’s wife to do. You are allowed to be in pain. My God!

  4. nakedpastor says:

    Thanks Beck. Good insight.

  5. liz says:

    Thanks for your understanding the need for pain to have a voice. Our pastor said he thought the american church needed much help but we should only write positive things about the church – “Tweet and blog things that are Ra Ra Jesus”
    His wife no longer speaks to me. She is worship leader, so my ministry & calling is finished. We are visiting other churches. Not easy. Thanks again.

  6. nakedpastor says:

    You see people, Liz’s story is exactly what I’m talking about! That’s it in a nutshell. Thanks Liz.

  7. Kirsten Mebust says:

    The lines are clearer, at least, when a lead pastor or church staff person is the abuser. What about when members or groups in the congregation do the abusing? During one particularly difficult period, I was an advocate for a commitment that a few people in the congregation did not want to make. I received anonymous and harassing phone calls on the subject, was called names in a congregational meeting, and so on. It stopped when the congregation made the final decision (a compromise.)
    I didn’t know who was behind the harassment, didn’t know who to name. A therapy group I was in pointed out to me that of all eight of the women there, six had left the church and one had never been in it. Then there was me.
    I went to seminary instead.

  8. nakedpastor says:

    quite a story kirsten. wow. powerful

  9. I was unfamiliar that there was even a term for this! But after doing a little digging…wow…I think I’m experiencing a version of this…perhaps not as severe as some others, but nonetheless it is a disheartening occurance for sure.

  10. ttm says:

    It’s easy for others to ignore, explain away, or deny abuse in the church or Christian community. Unless they experience spiritual abuse themselves, they simply can’t believe it happens.

    My family and friends didn’t have the church/school classroom in which they were hired to teach children “bugged” by pastors and administrators, but I did. My loved ones couldn’t imagine why anyone there would do that to me. (It was because the people in charge thought I was veering from the “approved” teacher’s manual and putting ideas of personal freedom and choices in malleable childrens’ minds.)

    My friends and family weren’t told they had to make themselves available for a month of teaching until a replacement could be found, only to discover the next day that they were being let go immediately. Wednesday: I turned in my letter of resignation. Thursday: I was reminded that I had committed myself to working an additional month to give them time to find my replacement, and I would need to abide by my commitment. That was fine with me. I actually needed the paychecks while I looked for other work, and I LOVED my students and wanted to gradually prepare them for my leaving. Friday: Under the watchful eye of the office assistant who had been following me all day, I walked a student to his car, gave him a hug and said “See you Monday.” His father basically called me a liar and said “Why would you say that when you won’t even be here Monday?” The parents had received letters Friday (mailed Thursday) telling them that I would no longer be teaching at the school. I was then escorted to the office for an “exit” interview and told that my services were no longer needed. I was made to look like a liar when I was the one who had been lied to.

    My friends and family weren’t given a mere two hours to clear out a classroom full of personal items with instructions to have all assignments graded and recorded and next week’s lesson plans ready to go for the “approved” replacement. How could I find boxes, load boxes, shuttle boxes to and from my second story classroom to my small car, get the lesson plans finished, grade the 150-200 daily worksheets and quizzes (That’s basically all the students did–worksheets, quizzes and tests–all day long.), say goodbye to the few teachers I had had time to connect with and leave a neat room behind in TWO HOURS? Short answer: I couldn’t. So I focused on getting all of my stuff out of there before I was escorted out. Of course it looked like I was an incompetent nincompoop leaving a mess for someone else (Poor lady! I hated her then. I pity her now. She was a pastor’s wife.) to clean up.

    My friends and family were not shadowed and publicly “hushed” by pastors and their wives at church. But I was. I continued to attend that church even after I left the school. I guess I was hoping that I could at least worship in the place I had attended for 12 years even if I wasn’t able to work there. Any time friends and acquaintances asked how things were going and I started to tell my story, a pastor or pastor’s wife was there to step between me and the other person to “redirect” the conversation. This was in a church with 2000 members attending services on weekends, but they managed to interrupt and stop most of my conversations! I sometimes wonder how many people they had on the “shadow ttm” team. Maybe it was a secret ministry for the TRULY devoted. 😉

    It has been a LONG healing process. Thankfully, I have a dear friend who experienced a similar situation at the same church. We have worked through the steps toward healing together. I have other friends and loved ones who have a hard time believing what I tell them about my abuse but are able to love me well even if they don’t get it. I do know how blessed I am to have these people in my life and to have kept a friendship with God through it all–though that relationship has suffered as well from all the “churchy” crap. (euphemism for ABUSE)

    Lots of people in the church claim to know the truth, to love the truth and to follow the Truth. But, I believe there are a lot of churchgoers out there who wouldn’t know the dirty truth if it bit them in the ass.

  11. Sandra says:

    EVERYONE needs to have their voice respected. Even if no one can possibly imagine that your experience could be possible, it is still your experience and it is Truth as you know it. I learned early on as a preacher’s daughter that only happy faces were acceptable, that no one wanted to hear my questions, my experiences. People wanted so much to believe that I was “so lucky to be Pastor B–‘s daughter” that any evidence to the contrary was met with a virtual fingers in the ears and a loud “lalalala”.

    As a psychology student, I learned that really what most people sought out therapy for was simply to be heard, to have their experiences validated as Real. The healing that is possible in a therapeutic relationship is largely due to the client having a safe place to be heard.

    Truly, this isn’t so hard–why do we make it so difficult in the one place that we most expect to find solace?

  12. Jason says:

    Thanks for this David,

    The problem with spiritual abuse it it’s subtle (and quite frankly deceptive)nature, that many people don’t even realise that it’s going on.

    There are some really good books around, I have just read “The sublte power of spritual abuse” by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen and just about to read Ken Blues “Healing spritual abuse”

    Keep blazing the way David, thank you for your insight.

  13. Lynn says:

    I agree, NP, that Liz’s story is it in a nutshell. And I know that generally it’s healthy to be positive vs. negative. But if telling the truth of what happened to you is labeled “being negative,” that’s simply shutting up victims of abuse when they dare to utter “ouch!” The victims are to be polite and keep it all to themselves, else they will commit the “sin” of bitterness.

    It’s almost as if a lot of people in churches live in a fairytale world, and they do not want anyone to wake them up from their stupor of “Jesus is wonderful, all is well here!”

  14. Becky says:

    I want to echo NP and Lynn re: Liz’ story. I’ve lost track of the times that people have slammed me because I stood up and said the emperor is butt nekkid. Ran a piece in the Guardian recently where I critiqued the “nice” people who run the National Prayer Breakfast” and was floored to find myself called an left wing conspiracy nut, atheist, etc. They seemed oblivious to the major issues I raised in the article, preferring instead to bask in the warm buzz and bucks generated by buying into the BS.

  15. Societyvs says:

    I have had to deal with a lot of aspects of abuse in my 35 year life, from physical to emotional to abandonment…spiritual abuse (on some level as well). These steps make sense.

    The process from admission to healing involves a lot of artistic expression…writing seems to work on many levels. I went into poetry and music and found I could express my angsts within that art and find another level of freedom from past abuse.

  16. Darrin says:

    and exactly why did we subject ourselves and our families to that environment Sunday after Sunday? Hard to imagine all this stuff happening if you are fishing, golfing, at the hockey rink with the kids on a Sunday morning. (well except for us Canadians and our hockey politics, but that’s another story)or hiking in the mountains..

    That the church organizations are like this is obvious and understood. But what is it in us that makes us need to be in it and subject ourselves to it? That’s a mystery to me.

  17. Angie Cox says:

    I never really thought of my experience as abuse, yet I have certainly endured many of the symptoms you described. Fascinating.