sub·tle :hard to notice or see : not obvious: clever and indirect : not showing your real purpose
For some reason, we’ve fallen into thinking that church (spiritual) abuse is only “real” abuse if it’s life threatening, illegal or overtly immoral (which is different than covertly unbiblical). We sit in our conservative, highly-educated, straight-laced congregation and believe we are far from capable of committing spiritual abuse. We don’t make members sign agreements they are forbidden to break, go threatening members who try to leave, refuse to share the budget with membership, dictate what members wear, marry young girls off to older men or deliberately brainwash members into a position of mental vulnerability. In fact, we are disturbed by churches that do.
However, I believe we are capable and guilty of a church abuse so subtle that many members never even recognize it…leaving the abusers free to use the subtle tactics for years upon years on a stealth mission to wield control. Unfortunately, there are victims, but we either choose not to see them or convince ourselves they somehow deserved the treatment they received. After all, the abusers are often church leaders, respected by the masses. Church leaders as abusers? It’s unthinkable…so we won’t allow ourselves to consider the possibility even when our gut is telling us something is amiss.
Over the last 25 years, I’ve witnessed the subtle tactics of abuse by some in church leadership (against ministers and church members who ask too many questions) so many times that I’m starting to recognize some patterns and signs. In my experiences, they look like this:
1. The Ambush
Church members who are unhappy with the performance, personality or mannerisms of a minister begin talking quietly among themselves and gaining supporters who are also unhappy. Rather than approaching the minister with the complaints (which eventually turn into allegations) as is advised in Matthew 18:15-17, the group lies in wait in a state of anonymity until they carry out a surprise attack.
2. The Sniper
A church member acting alone and from a concealed location takes a “shot” at a minister in an attempt to scare or demoralize him. The minister never knows where the “shot” originated.
3. The Stonewall
Church leadership (and sometimes other members) refuse to discuss church business (especially questionable or hurtful actions they have taken) in order to delay or prevent something from happening while claiming it is their duty to practice confidentiality.
4. The Slow Unravel
After making allegations against a minister and/or members of his family and forcing his resignation, leadership refuses to allow the family a chance to address the allegations or reconcile with the church. The family feels defenseless, alienated and discarded by the church. Meanwhile the congregation is allowed to form their own conclusions about why the minister left (while leadership is practicing The Stonewall). Rumors about the minister and his family run rampant. Leadership does nothing to stop the untruths which are allowed to damage the minister’s reputation beyond repair. The slow unravel begins and eventually when the pain becomes unbearable for the minister or members of his family, someone “cracks” (ex. an outburst of anger, a slow downward spiral into depression or addiction, a divorce). Then the church leadership and members point to the “unraveled” minister (or family member) and imply that his current state is the reason they had to take action against him in the first place.
5. The Word Craft
Church leadership skillfully crafts the wording of newsletters, business meeting agendas, letters to membership and announcements to knowingly misguide or deceive the congregation.
6. The Elusive Smoking Gun
Church leadership forces a minister to resign in secrecy and threatens to revoke his severance pay or hurt his chances of finding another job if he tells the truth about what is happening to him. When church members start asking questions about the minister’s departure, leadership covers their tracks by insinuating that, while they are sworn to confidentiality and cannot share any information, they take their job seriously and would not have made the decisions they made without the knowledge they have, but can’t share. The membership then settles into the “they must know something we don’t know…and it must be something big (bad) if they made such harsh decisions” stance. The minister must have had an affair…must have molested a child…must have embezzled money…
Interestingly, many times the “smoking gun” doesn’t even exist, but serves leadership well by diverting attention from their own wrongdoing to blaming the victims. And church members are all too willing to believe there is a serious (but confidential) offense, repeat the theory around town and refuse to ask questions to find out the truth.
7. The Guilt Trip
Church leadership plays on the spiritual sensitivities of members who ask questions or voice doubts, accusing them of being divisive, urging them to put aside “things that don’t matter” and “walk in grace alone”…and reminding them that, as sinners, it is wrong for them to judge others (including their abusers).
8. The Blacklist
Church members who ask questions, raise doubts or threaten to expose deception perpetuated by leadership are gradually excluded from opportunities for their voices to be heard.
9. The No-No
Church leaders shame or coerce members into changing behaviors considered “no-no’s” by leadership. (A no-no is usually an action that dances dangerously close to the line of exposing ongoing deception by leadership).
Any of these subtle tactics ring a bell for you? Have you experienced one that I didn’t mention? I plan to expound on the nine I mentioned in more detail over the coming weeks.