Browsing Tag

Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week


in which I've poured my soul out

pouring water

This past week has been exhausting. I’ve been following the #churchsurvivors and #churchabuse hashtags on twitter, I’ve been reading all of the posts linked up as part of Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week  . . . and . . . it’s taken a lot out of me. A lot. I’m exhausted. We’ve all been reminding each other of the importance of self-care right now, and that is oh so very true.

I have another post ready to go up tomorrow for the last day of Spiritual Abuse Awareness week, and I’m proud of it, and I think it ends this week on a good, hopeful note.

But I am drained. Going back to that place inside of my head, trying to understand myself as I was ten years ago– it’s frightening. And soul-crushing. I get angry– not an anyone in specific, just more of the world at large. I understand why it happened– and I don’t, all at the same time. So I get confused, and then I don’t want to think about it anymore. But, I take a deep breath and plunge back in anyway– because it’s important that the world sees this– that the world understands what can happen when good men stay silent and do nothing.

What we’ve all done this week is important. We needed to tell our stories– if simply just to get them off of our communal chests.

But the real first step is to take the blinders off, and to start honestly looking at our own lives. Where have I been that’s been a spiritually abusive environment?  What have I done that’s fostered spiritual abuse in my church, or in my family? What things have I said and done that has done damage to someone’s soul? How have I willingly participated in a culture that encourages abuse? When have I spoken up in defense of it?

Because I have done all of these things. I continue to do these things, completely unconsciously. I belittle, I dismiss. I ignore. So very often, I don’t want to make myself uncomfortable in order to help someone else. I could stand up and offer a healing balm to someone who I know needs it… and I don’t. Because I’m hurting, because I’m tired… there’s always a reason.

We also need to take a good, long, hard look at our churches, at the leadership we’ve put in power. We might be able to look at our pastors and say, “oh, he’s such a godly man,” and that might be very true. Or it might be a terrible lie, and our reticence to see the truth might blind us from the untold damage he’s doing. It might be our elder boards, or our deacons, or our Sunday school teachers. It might be someone who has no “actual” leadership position, but for some reason always bullies everyone else– and we let it go, we let it slide, because… why? Because being a bully isn’t a “real” problem?

It’s easy to look at our churches and think “my church is fine, none of that happens here,” and the thing is, statistically speaking, that’s probably a lie. Walk into a typical Sunday school class of 20 children, and at least two, maybe three, of them have been sexually abused. At least one of those has been sexually abused by their parent. Look around at the married couples in your church. Statistically speaking, roughly a third of those marriages is going to end– and a few of those women are being verbally or physically abused by their husbands, and your pastor might have told one of those women that they need to “love their husband through it.” Or, they might not even realize they are being abused, because they bought the lie that a “strong man” is just naturally expected to dominate his wife.

Maybe none of that does happen at your church, or in your community, or in your family. And maybe it does. We shouldn’t be going around leaping at shadows and inventing evils where there aren’t any, but we should be conscientiously developing awareness. We should be encouraging an atmosphere of accountability in our homes and churches– for everyone. We can’t afford to be blind.



learning to live with not knowing

no handles

The summer after my freshman year at a conservative Christian college was tumultuous, for a variety of reasons. My year away from the fundamentalist church-cult, while still not spent in a healthy spiritual environment, had given me a spark of identity. My life was still dominated by the teachings I had grown up with, but I started trying to spread my fledgling wings.

My relationship with my parents became strained as I began openly rebelling– I started back-talking my mother, something that had never been tolerated at any level. My innate know-it-all tendencies were even more pronounced; I started making ridiculous pronouncements and unsupportable sweeping statements just to voice a disagreement. We all had difficulty adjusting to my insistence that I was becoming an adult– looking back, the difficulty of this transition was exacerbated by the teachings about parent-child relationships that exist in fundamentalist churches. Children, in these churches, are not really considered independent people– they are very much described as the property of their parents: “an inheritance of the lord,” as “arrows in the hand.” We exist to be trained “in the way we should go,” to become the “Joshua generation.”

During this particular summer, my mother took my sister and I to visit her best friend in Texas. After almost eleven years at our church-cult, my family had been the target of a variety of attacks– my mother and me especially. The leader needed my father, and knew that my father had a strong desire to follow Christ. He took advantage of that, and he used my father’s generosity and loyalty to his own ends. This led to him focusing on silencing and disenfranchising me and my mother. Anytime my father had to work through church, the leader would bombard my mother with vicious attacks. Every time this happened, my father would confront him, and he would deny it– or promise not to let it happen again, and it would get better… for a little while.

So we went to Texas, in order for my mother to spend some time away while my father gave the leader yet another ultimatum. The week we spent in Texas was freeing for my mom– she spent a lot of time talking through things with her friend; after eleven years, this was really the first time that I understood what had been happening in our church– how deep the abuse went outside of what I had experienced. The silence of other victims was that profound. My father spoke with the leader while we were gone, extracted yet another promise, and we came back in time for church.

Nothing had changed. The second my father was gone, the leader preached his most vicious sermon, screaming it from the top of his lungs at times. When my father got home, my mother pulled him into their bedroom. I remember sitting on the sofa with my younger sister, listening to my mother plead with my father to leave the cult.

We left– and when we did, the leader excommunicated us. He forbade me from speaking to his daughter ever again, and he blamed my mother for “turning my father away from God.” When we had begun attending the church-cult, there was no sign that the leader was a narcissistic sociopath. He seduced my parents with the siren call of a life dedicated to holiness and righteousness- of dedicating themselves to being good parents– servants of the Lord. He convinced my mother she was insane. He persuaded my father that God needed him to be a part of the church-cult. The fact that we stayed as long as we did was not my parents’ fault. They were victims just as much as I was– even more so, in some ways. I don’t blame my parents for “keeping me” in the cult. I didn’t have a choice– and neither did they, not really.

I’ve forgiven them, completely. But I have to live with the consequences of what happened to all of us.

We began attending another church, and my mother began stretching boundaries and enjoying freedom and liberty. For my parents, who had entered the cult as adults, recovery was not easy– but it was straightforward. Once we were out, it was possible for them to return to the core of their faith. They had other churches, a lifetime of experiences for comparison.

I didn’t.

So, when my mom cut her hair and started wearing pants, my sister started watching Harry Potter, and my father ordered cable television, superficial as these things are… my world fell apart.

I had grown up believing in the principles espoused by fundamentalists. My parents, in their earnest desire to raise godly children, had unwittingly encouraged a lot of the internalization of various doctrines– like the inferiority of women, or that men are not responsible for their sin toward women. That, as a woman, I had no choice about the course of my life. That God did not love me, and was not interested in my desires or feelings.

For a year after this, I wanted absolutely nothing at all to do with God. I instinctively felt that if you took away the fundamentalist cult, all you would be left with is an empty structure without any truth left in it. I didn’t want to know a god who was only waiting up in heaven to strike me down. Reading the Bible became nearly impossible– because, to a fundamentalist, there is only one correct interpretation of a verse or passage– and after eleven years, nearly every passage in the Bible had a fundamentalist interpretation attached to it. I didn’t want to go to church anymore– any church I tried, I spent every single second of the service on guard, waiting for some massive boot to drop on my head and crush me.

There were two ideas that brought me back, slowly, inexorably. The first was a compelling argument– at least, for me. I didn’t know who God was, but I was compelled to believe that he existed. Intellectually, I had to be honest– just because I believed he existed didn’t at all define his nature. Maybe the deist system was right, maybe he existed as Allah, or maybe he could simply be the Uncaused Cause.

The second idea was the historically substantiated existence of Christ and his Resurrection. From the perspective of a historical scholar, we have more raw material– and not just the Bible– about the life of Jesus than we do about Alexander the Great. For me, this was an anchor. I don’t know about a lot of things. There are a of lot things I still struggle with, sometimes violently. But for me, I can accept that God exists, and Jesus exists. I can live my life with the motto “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, in all things, charity.” I don’t have to have every single last question hammered out in order to believe.

Today, I’m happy. I married a man who finds the fundamentalist religion I’m familiar with completely foreign. He grew up free to question– encouraged to doubt. I grew up with a false sense of certainty, and once it was removed everything else in my life was shaken.

Doubt, I’m learning, is the only healthy place for me to exist. I can have confidence, but certainty, as a fundamentalist would define it, is a dangerous place. I go to a church that is open to an exchange of ideas, and comfortable with tension. They focus, not on being “right,” but on helping the physical needs of our community. There’s no authoritarian leadership, no member roll– everyone pitches in, everyone helps. I’m comfortable here, where there’s no Church Constitution, where there’s no contracts or covenants. We try to live our life based on the Greatest Commandment– to love God, and to love our neighbor as our self.

And I’m learning to not just be “ok” with not knowing all of the answers– I can embrace not knowing. I want to live in a perpetual state of uncertainty, because as long as I’m searching for an answer, I think I’m closer to the truth.



spiritual abuse and how it shaped my identity

broken piano

My fundamentalist church-cult was incredibly small. I remember at one point counting around seventy people and thinking that it was a huge number. But, on average, we usually had around thirty or forty people regularly. At one point after my family finally got out, I sat down and made a list of all of the families the church-cult had hemorrhaged over the years we attended. I estimated over two hundred and fifty people– the church-cult had gained and lost seven church bodies in ten years.

I know many of their stories, now—have told a few of them, here. For one man, it was because the leader of the cult called his unbelieving wife a whore the single time she visited—in her nursing scrubs. She had come straight from work, and the “pastor” had called her a whore, to her face, because she was wearing pants. She died in a car accident a few weeks later.

When one family joined the church-cult, the leader invited himself for dinner, and when he arrived, sat at the head of the table—and told the husband and father that he’d sat in that chair for a reason—it was to show that he was the authority now.

One Sunday evening, the leader walked up to a woman who was grieving the loss of her mother to cancer, and screamed in her face during his sermon that she was giving Satan a way into his church by allowing demons to oppress her through her depression.

After a new couple joined the church, he told the newlywed husband that he had made a grave mistake by marrying a Chinese woman, but how it was now the husband’s responsibility to make sure his wife knew who was the head of the home.

I tell you these snatches to communicate the breadth of the spiritual abuse that happened. It was small, it was not well-connected. It was one church, one man, one insignificantly tiny congregation. Most of the people who came didn’t stay very long—but some of us did. My family was one of those who stayed, for reasons far to complicated to explain now, and because of that, I grew up in this environment—where a spiritually abusive pastor was the only kind I knew.

The spiritual abuse that was focused on me was integrally connected to my identity. The only significant part of my identity in this patriarchal and Quiverful-laden environment was that I was a woman.

However, I had something special: I was a talented pianist. I’d loved music since I was a baby, had started learning to play the piano when I was a toddler and by the time my family reached the influence of this abusive leader when I was ten, I was fairly accomplished. About a year after we joined, I was capable of becoming the church’s pianist. I also began accompanying the Ladies Chorus, who sang every other week. I absolutely loved it. I loved practicing for offertories. I loved coming up with arrangements of hymns for the Chorus. I loved improvising during the “invitation,” coming up with a new way to play every verse of “Just As I Am”—no matter how many verses we sang.

Slowly, so slowly no one in my family noticed what was happening, the church-cult and its leader took over our lives. My mother has an angelic voice, so she was frequently called upon to sing “specials.” I would play for her, and I appreciated all the attention we got and the praise the leader heaped on us. At one point when I was about twelve or thirteen, though, the leader started calling our house late Saturday night and telling my mother that he “wanted” her to sing in the morning. Sometimes these calls came so late at night that mom had to drag me out of bed so we could practice. These late-night practice sessions, at first, started off fairly well. I was excited—I felt honored that the leader had felt “moved by the Spirit” for us to perform in the morning. Over time, though, resentment grew. I didn’t want to stay up until two or three in the morning to perfect a brand-new arrangement. Me and my mother started fighting, and at one point I told her to tell the leader of the cult no—I was not putting on a “special” in the morning with no notice. If he wanted us to sing, he should have called earlier.

She agreed—but the next morning, the leader came to me and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was never to refuse him again—because I wasn’t really refusing him, I was refusing God. It terrified me, and made it absolutely clear that telling the leader “no” was a sin. The only thing I could offer God, as a woman, was my talent as a pianist– to deliberately withhold that ability, regardless of my feelings, was the rankest sin.

Every year our church hosted a “revival.” Over the years it became incredibly obvious to me that the leader of our church-cult told the guest evangelist of “problem members” and their “sin”—and the evangelist would target them. Supposedly, being an “outsider,” we were supposed to receive his rants as “divine revelation.” One evangelist came more than any other, and his son, Jason*, a talented musician, usually came with him.

When I was fifteen, the Ladies Chorus sang during one of these revivals, and after the service was over a few of the teenagers were talking around the piano. Jason sat down at the piano, and began sarcastically mimicking my arrangement for the song; he openly mocked its simplicity, which he dismissed as “easy” and “child’s play.” My fifteen-year-old ego was devastated, so the very next night when Jason walked me to an unlit area behind the church, I went with him willingly, happy he was being nice to me. He assaulted me, ignoring my weak attempts to stop him. When I tried to tell the pastor’s wife and daughter about what had happened, they dismissed me, telling me to “quit being so jealous because he was a better pianist than me.” I needed to surrender my pride and accept that men are just naturally more gifted, and I shouldn’t object to that.

As I got older, playing for the congregational singing became excruciatingly painful. Part of it was the church’s spinet piano—it wasn’t capable of producing enough sound, so I had to practically beat on it for it to make enough noise. My grandfather knew how much I loved playing, so he donated enough money for the church-cult to buy a new piano. The leader took me along to the music store for my opinion—which he proceeded to completely ignore. He decided to purchase a “student” piano—a piano that I was incapable of playing with my wrists and arms in the condition they were. After a few weeks of trying to play but then having to wrap my arms in ice packs to dull the pain, my mother took me to the doctor. I had tendonitis, and if I continued playing the piano I might need to have surgery.

My father told the leader that I wouldn’t be able to play for church anymore. It was a phone conversation, and I remember sitting at the kitchen table, listening to my father argue with the leader, with me listening and sobbing. Losing the ability to play for church was devastating, and for years after this I often attributed my feelings to pride. I believed that I was just upset about losing the spotlight, about not being able to show off anymore. Now, after healing some from these wounds, I can see what was really happening. My existence had been reduced down to whether or not I could play the piano. Everything about who I was in that environment was tied to my talent. The only thing I could possibly bring to God was my music. The only way I could serve him in church was through the piano. The only way I had any value as a human being was tied to this ability– because, as a woman, I had nothing else. A woman is not allowed to speak, for it is a shame unto her. A woman is not allowed to question. A woman is not capable of leadership. A woman cannot hold responsibilities, because she is innately untrustworthy. The only thing I had access to in this system was music. When I lost that, I lost everything.

After I stopped playing for church, I went into physical therapy for almost a year. It was a painful road back to health– although no one ever fully recovers from tendonitis. It plagues me every day– wrist braces, ice packs, and plenty of Advil are always within easy reach. My mother also found a new piano teacher that could work within my limits and focus on healing my body so I could keep playing. Both of these allowed me to practice, but I literally had to start from scratch. I was playing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” for months in order to re-learn my technique.

About six months into this process, the leader’s wife approached me in the parking lot. She took both of my hands in hers and looked me directly in the eyes. “Samantha, I’m frightened for you,” she began. “Christina* says that you’re still talking piano lessons.” I nodded my head solemnly. “Why aren’t you playing for church, then?” I tried to explain, haltingly, trying to tell her how much pain it caused, but she interrupted me. “No, no– you don’t understand. If you keep on playing the piano, but you don’t use your talent to glorify God, he will take it away from you. If you think that God will let your rebellion go unpunished . . . God will not be mocked, and you can’t serve God and mammon. You know that. You need to repent and come back to God– you need to be willing to play for Him, even if it causes you pain.” Again, I tried to explain that I was trying to preserve my talent, to make sure I could physically be able to play in the future. She just put her hand on my head and told me to remember what she had said when one day I woke up and God had taken it all away.

The terror crept in. I was sinning. I was being selfish. How dare I to presume to know more than God. I wasn’t trusting him to heal my wrists– I was depending on my own might, my own power. The arrogance. But my parents wisely forbade me from trying to play the piano in church again.

A few months later, my uncle died. My parents and grandfather left to take care of the funeral and the estate, leaving me and my sister behind in the care of one of the leader’s daughters. The Sunday morning while they were gone, the leader gave a message on the Parable of the Talents. Halfway into the sermon, he launched into one of his “illustrations.” I will never forget his words.

“There is a young lady, right here, sitting in this church service. She has a prodigious talent for music, and has used that talent here, in this church, to bring glory to God, as is her duty. But now– oh, now, she is being stubborn. She faced one solitary, tiny, easy little trial, and at the first sign of hardship, she gave up. She turned her back on God– and now she is open rebellion before Him. She has decided to put herself first. She’s decided that she is so much more important than any of us. Oh, she’s better than us. She wants to make sure she can become some famous musician and leave anything truly important behind her. She has forsaken the worship of a Holy and Righteous God, and she better look out, because he’s going to come for her. One day, she’s going to wake up and God will have reduced her to nothing. She thinks this talent is hers, to do whatever she wants with it? She’s wrong, and she will face the consequences.”

To this day, thinking about those words immobilizes me. I want to disappear, to melt away, to run and hide. While he was ferociously screaming down at us from the pulpit, I remember desperately trying not to look at anyone or anything– it felt like I had gotten the wind knocked out of me. I remember looking to my right and seeing one of the married woman scoot further away from me, and looking across the aisle to see faces turning around, craning their necks to get a look at me.

I got home, picked up the phone, hid in my mother’s closet, and called my parents. They were horrified– but not surprised. He had done this before. He had done this so many times before. When they came home, me and my father went to the leader to confront him. Oh, no, he said– I had misunderstood him. I had mistaken him. He hadn’t been talking about me at all– it was very clearly intended for someone else.

He looked me straight in the eyes and lied to me. Lied to my father. He said I was too young and immature to really understand his true meaning. After all, and he laughed a little bit, how can you expect a girl to really understand anything?

That was the moment that I left that cult. My family didn’t leave it for another four years, but I stopped being present. I began ignoring everything the leader said. I took up journaling and writing during the church service– under the pretext of “taking notes.”

But, in many ways . . . it was too late. The spiritual abuse I had endured for years had their result. I became afraid of stepping inside a church building. I cringed at common passages and phrases. And I was trapped inside a system that told me I was worthless. That I was less than any other human being. I had no power, I had no voice. Any ability to make choices for myself was gone, scrubbed away by a fundamentalist indoctrination.


Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week and Blog Link-up

into the light

This is just an announcement– most of my lovely readers probably already know about this, but just in case there’s someone who doesn’t:

Hänna, from Wine & Marble, is kicking off the Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week tomorrow, March 18. She will be hosting the first day of the three-day link up, focusing on the question:

What is your story? Share your experience — showing the details without going into specifics about places or people involved. What made the environment spiritually abusive? Was it language, unspoken social codes, beliefs, assumptions, expectations? How did these factors enable the abuse? How did you eventually leave, and why?

I hope that tomorrow is a really important day. One of the biggest problems facing the modern church, I believe, is that it’s incredibly difficult for people to spread their stories about their experiences with spiritual abuse. Part of overcoming that will be by showing that the spiritually abused have a voice, no matter how well-connected or powerful their abuser is.

The second day will be hosted by Joy from Joy in this Journey, focusing on:

How has your experience affected you? What has it done to you emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, etc.? What has your journey been like? How have you gotten where you are today? Do you feel you’ve healed? What do you still struggle with?

This was one of the hardest things I had to realize about getting away from my spiritually abusive environment– it followed me, because it was inside my head. Spiritual abuse, just like every other type of abuse, has long-term consequences.

The third and last day will be hosted by Shaney Irene, talking about:

Why should those who haven’t been hurt care about this issue? What do you wish you could tell those who want to help but weren’t close enough to know or see your situation? What do you wish every pastor knew before starting ministry? What would make the church a safe space for you?

Optional, for those who didn’t do the first two days: What did you learn? What changes will you encourage in your churches, etc. in order to prevent spiritual abuse and provide healing?

Also, Rachel Held Evans will be participating in Spiritual Abuse Awareness week with her series “Into the Light.” I’m excited about that, because, well, it’s Rachel Held Evans. What’s not to like? And Elora Nicole will be hosting anonymous stories of spiritual abuse all week.

Please get involved, either by writing your own story or reading other stories– or both.