Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What Does Subtle Church Abuse Look Like?

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.

NM Pics (181)

Monday, June 16, 2014

I Went…again.

Remember this post?

My son and the son of the Music Minister that I mentioned here casually told us last week that they were planning to sing in the church where the Music Minister is now serving…on Father’s Day.

Of course, I went. And I had a different experience than the last time.

I’d never heard the song…

Song For My Family
Words and music by Michael Gungor

This is a song for my family
Outside the walls of Sunday
Morning from some within.
This is a song to confess our sins,
Lay it all out, and try to begin again.
To hope again.
Please forgive our ignorance
In looking down on you
Please forgive our selfishness
For hiding in our pews while the world bleeds
While the world needs us to be what we should be
This is a song for my family who
Just can’t believe in the Jesus that you’ve seen on Sunday morning.
This is a song for the cynical saints.
The burned out and hopeless.
The ones that we’ve cast away.
I feel your pain.
Please forgive the wastefulness of all that we could be
But don’t forget, there’s more than this
Her beauty still exists
His bride is still alive

This is a song for my family inside
The walls of Sunday morning.
Be what you should be.


I swear we underestimate the wisdom of young people. Who else could God use to pierce this cynical heart of mine?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Why I’m Walking Away

My intention was to simply point out the inconsistencies in the “story” emerging from FBC by chronicling my own experience over the last 2 years. I can’t. Here’s why:

1. Collateral Damage

As I began writing the details of my journey, every time I mentioned a conversation or included a document that pointed out an inconsistency, the faces of the children and spouse of the person involved came to mind.  I can’t bring myself to publish the information on the web because I understand the gravity of collateral damage to families. Through conversations with the wives of several of the men involved, it’s become apparent to me that they know only the version of the last 2 years that their husbands have told them. And some parts are in direct conflict with the conversations I’ve had with these men and the documents that were never released to the congregation.  But, the biggest roadblock for me are the children of some of the people I’d have to mention in my experience. I can’t get past the effect it would have on them if I published my experience. It’s unfortunate that I have to choose between telling the truth of my experience (for the sake of the wounded ministers’ families) and staying silent about important parts of my experience (for the sake of the wounders’ families).

2. Fear of Retribution

During the last 2 years, I’ve spoken personally with several individuals who recounted their own experiences in years past with FBC and the resulting fallout in the life of their families. These accounts are in addition to my own and those of the ministers in the most recent chain of events. They are stories from the early 1980’s, the late 1980’s, the early 2000’s and 2012-present. The  common thread in every one of the accounts: When pressed, some members of FBC leadership (both paid staff and lay positions) will do whatever it takes to save face in the community with little regard for families, Biblical conflict resolution or absolute unaltered truth. (note: Some of the current leadership have been in leadership positions during every instance brought to my attention by the wounded I mentioned above…since the 1980’s. And yet members of FBC will tell you today that “this will never happen again” while leaving these individuals in places of authority.) 

After watching those in leadership over the last 2 years, I fear the result of publishing my experience. Not so much for myself, but for the families of the ministers who have already sustained a damaging blow. I’ve witnessed the willingness of leadership and church members to change the story, embellish the story, slightly alter the story in order to retain a grain of truth to claim, create a story, refuse to hear another side of the story, pretend there is no story. Nothing would surprise me. And I can’t risk further injury to families who are already nursing wounds.

3. And This…


Unfortunately, many in the congregation choose to keep their heads in the sand and claim they can’t do anything about the injustices taking place in their midst because they “still don’t know what happened”. If you are a church member who still doesn’t know what happened, did you ask questions? Or did you choose to remain ignorant to the facts, claiming it wasn’t any of your business?  Did you verify the accounts you heard with both parties…the accused as well as the accusers? Did you accept what you heard as fact because it was spoken from the mouth of a leader you respected? Are you comfortable with the damage to real people caused by the actions of some in your church body? Are you comfortable with the damage to families that was allowed to take place while the majority of your church body sat by and refused to get involved?

I’m walking away from publishing my experience, but I will continue to be transparent in sharing it when asked.

Where do I go from here?

I will focus on the healing of myself and my family. I will try to buck the cynicism in hopes that I can one day shake it loose and step back into a church without it being a traumatic experience.

I will continue to journey alongside the wounded families as they learn to cope with the lack of closure, disinterest by the church in reconciliation and the damaged reputations that were the beautiful gifts presented to them by FBC. (I said I’ll be working on the cynicism thing.)

I will continue to document my journey and the journey of others who are dealing with the aftermath of what I consider spiritual abuse.

Spiritual Abuse:

“Spiritual abuse takes place when leaders to whom people look for guidance and spiritual nurture use their positions of authority to manipulate, control, and dominate.” - Ronald Enroth

“Spiritual abuse happens when a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds.” - Ken Blue (Healing Spiritual Abuse)

“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.” - Jeff VanVonderen (Spiritual Abuse Recovery Resources)

“Ask yourself if you are in a place of worship where there is always a fresh, radical presentation of the freedom and equality of individual followers of Christ. If not, consider leaving, because in the end you will find your Christian community was never really about Christ or His people at all.”

~ Wade Burleson