She pieces together her story with measured words. She speaks slowly and thoughtfully, as someone intimately acquainted with betrayal. She is wading through a minefield.
It’s heartbreaking to admit that our churches aren’t perfect, and sometimes devastatingly so. It’s easy to get confused by imperfect yet persuasive leaders; it’s important to be aware and alert to the traps that entangle church leaders, especially when it comes to spiritual abuse.
Kelly is not angry or spiteful, but humbly baffled as she recounts her heartbreak of spiritual abuse—how church leadership manipulated her family, put chains on their spiritual gifts, and ultimately ran them out of a church they had helped plant and grow.
Spiritual abuse can forever leave silent bruises on souls, reeking havoc in churches and homes.
Here are three ways Kelly, and her husband Scott, recommend in recognizing spiritual abuse and finding a church with healthy leadership.
1. The Holy Spirit is the only one who should have complete control over your life.
Healthy leaders believe that God is always working in others. They trust the role of the Holy Spirit and recognize the power and perfect peace of trusting God’s people to God.
Spiritually abusive leaders remove and nullify the individual role of the Holy Spirit and they want complete control over your life. Language like “God told me that you should…,” and “God’s will is for you to…” is used while cherry-picked Scriptures are wielded to back up personal agendas. The Holy Spirit is given no room. Spiritual abusers’ actions routinely communicate their belief of their inside scoop on what God wants for you, regardless of your own convictions and relationship with Jesus. Spiritual abusers seek control over major and minor areas of the church and members, and they will not listen to members or other church leaders.
Keep your leaders’ words in check with how the Holy Spirit is leading you.
2. Look for accountability among leadership as a guard against the secrecy that feeds spiritual abuse.
Especially when it comes to finance, spiritual abusers often want unlimited access to funds and no accountability in any area.
On the contrary, wise leaders surround themselves with accountability and a system of checks and balances. Healthy churches function with the an open budget, accessible to all members at all times. The finances of the church should routinely be discussed as a body, without a suspicion of misuse. Some churches have a third party take care of finances including budgets and expenses.
3. Look for humble leaders who will listen to concerns instead of silencing them.
Humble and aware leaders, when confronted with a concern, will respond with a true desire to listen and make changes appropriately.
Spiritual abuse often includes bullying: Someone may confront the abuser and immediately be discredited and dismissed by the abuser. Sometimes the abuser will attempt to publicly tear-down the person who confronted them, deflect the attention and redirect the blame to the person who is calling out the abuser. Spiritual abuse can even include threats, black-mail, and bullying others into complete silence.
Pride is often the most dominate characteristic of a spiritual abuser. A spiritual abuser’s words and actions exude a tone that is above correction and above lowering one’s self out of humility. Spiritual abusers rarely admit they are wrong and never apologize.
Grace, Forgiveness and Healing
All leaders are only human and can fall pray to the need to control instead of care, force instead of forgive, enslave instead of serve their congregation. We must all work hard to create a space for grace, safety and growth.
“We are crippling people with rules and laws,” Kelly agonizes. “Church is not a machine, it is not a business, it is not a corporation. It is a living body and every one of us is important. We need to free each other to minister according to our gifts.”
As a living body of Jesus followers, we are called to keep and care for each other until Jesus comes back for us.
There is hope. It can be incredibly difficult to remove yourself and break the cycle of abuse, but it is possible. Communities like RecoveringGrace.org, RepentantPastor.com, and WeLoveMarsHill.com help victims of specific spiritual abuse situations find healing.
If you recognize you are in a spiritually abusive situation, seek wise counsel from women and men outside your church. Other pastors, counselors, and leaders can help you identify spiritual abuse, or potentially dangerous leadership.
Kelly and Scott have accepted the road they are called to walk and are following a healing path of forgiveness.
“Forgiveness is not easy or instant,” said Kelly. “But it prevents bitterness. We choose forgiveness because it releases us and allows us to move on.”