I found the FANTASTIC article this morning in which it lists 10 signs of an abusive church (ElizabethEsther.com), so I thought I would reblog with my own personal reflections from former church bodies that, in retrospect, were horribly abusive.
1.) Personality Centric: a pastor whose charming, charismatic, intense, persuasive and intelligent personality holds unquestioned sway over his/her congregation. He/she is treated like a celebrity. Not held accountable. Not held to same standard of morality as the rest of the congregation.
* This should have been a HUGE red flag for myself. The “pastor” at my former, abusive church was all of those things; he was charming with his pearly white smile, he was incredibly intense to the point where you thought you and he had some unique spiritual bond; he was incredibly intelligent and when he found someone with equal/greater than intelligence (not trying to puff out my chest, but in this case, it’s true) his true colors emerged to that party (me). It’s incredible to think how he misused my beautiful God to fulfill this twisted need for ego and power. He WAS INDEED treated like he was Justin Bieber or someone with unique celebrity status — he was never held accountable. EVER.*
2.) Operates Independently: no oversight, doesn’t answer to an established denomination, there is no way for grievances to be filed or addressed, even in cases of outright abuse the police or civil authorities are not called.
* Where do I start with this one? My former abusive church was the classic “non-denominational-small-church-that-big-churches-are-trying-to-hold-back-because-we-have-a-better-idea-of-God’s-love. Oh. Boy.*
3.) Engulfment: “true members” of the church devote their WHOLE lives to the church, center all their activities around church activities, discouraged to have friends outside the church, family members who express concern about the church are cut off, leaving the church is the same as leaving God.
* This WAS me. For months on end. And I remember distinctly when I first attended the church an initial gut reaction was YUCK! (listen to your gut, folks), but it was that sense of identity and belonging that allows you to stay. Also, there was instance after instance where they would talk about “people who have left” and “satan” in the same sentence. No need to say anymore.*
4.) Busyness: a plethora of required/mandatory-without-saying-it’s-mandatory activities that fill up the weekly schedule, giving time and energy for free to various hard labor projects (cleaning and cooking for pastor’s family, for example).
* EL OH EL!*
5.) Stalking: Big Brother-type monitoring is called “just keeping each other accountable.” Calling to “just check in” if a member misses church meeting. Approving clothing, daily decisions, watching online activity for “problematic” opinions and posts–all under the guise of “spiritual care” for the person’s soul.
* They called it “caring” but in actuality it was keeping tabs on “their money” and they stalked my Facebook page like a HAWK!!! Look, I AM, indeed, a VERY opinionated person who – at least I think so – has an open mind (at least now) about religion and I’m not quiet about it. They went as far as to have a “meeting” with my husband and I, but it was more directed towards me and my “upsetting Facebook activity”. *
6.) Coded Language: an ingrown church has developed a special, insider language/lingo that only those who have been there for a long time understand. Sometimes common, everyday words are given different definitions particular to that church; ie. “keep sweet” is a phrase used in some polygamist circles that means women should behave in a church-approved way.
* The language they used was similar to mainstream fundamentalist sects.*
7.) Unrealistic Promises: members of an unhealthy church are often seduced by big talk about all the wealth, blessings and riches God will give them if they just devote their lives to this church. Delivery on these promises is rare. Those who do not experience God’s blessings are told they have “weak faith.”
*It was less of the prosperity gospel, but more of “if you are truly one with God, you won’t know depression or have lustful thoughts* whilst the head pastor makes illicit, inappropriate touching to women in the congregation.*
8.) Courting Rituals: a man must seek leadership approval (above parental approval) before seeking “to court” (or date) a woman, courting couples must follow a prescribed set of rules according to arbitrary traditions established by the church; ie. no kissing until the wedding day.
* To be fair, I didn’t see much of this at my former, abusive church, but then again, at the age of 33 I was the youngest member that wasn’t a child…and I was married…soooo…..*
9.) Shunning: if someone leaves the church, church leadership requires all other members to ignore this person until they “repent.” New church members are told to shun family members who don’t support the church. Parents are told to shun “rebellious” teenagers. Husbands are to shun “unsubmissive” wives. The church comes first in all relationships.
* I mentioned this in #5; they didn’t use hard words like “shunning” in a direct manner, but that’s what was implied. Once, someone left the church, did something “wrong” which was really understanding the jig was up in this very, very unholy place, they were never reference by name, just a “them” and “we” mentality.*
10.) “The Ends Justify the Means:” a spiritually abusive church justifies all kinds of oppressive behavior by saying they only desire to truly serve and love God. “We’re doing this for Jesus, so it’s OK!” ; ie. spanking children to “break the will” because the end result is a child who will love and serve God for his/her whole life. Be wary of a church that emphasizes “purity of doctrine” over the WAY it treats people. Methods and processes matter. The ends do NOT justify the means.
*HA! That was my former, abusive church to the “t” in which they justified EVERYTHING — every little action as “we’re trying to glorify God and you are shrouded with Satan” Or the ever popular belief of, “We’re doing this because we love God and want to save you” but in reality they loved themselves, didn’t know who God was (or at least not the same God I love) and wanted to twist their word to separate you and authentic truth. This former church put emphasis on orthodoxy over the way it behaved — the former pastor would text me and make phone calls nearly every day to just “talk” when in reality using my words for his own sermons and then declaring “I am ONE with God” …. This guy was a sun-leathered walking definition of the words “religious propaganda” ….. *
I want to close with this thought:
If you’re reading this list and see a few things that are resonating deep within you: RUN!
Your church doesn’t have to have all 10 signs to be a deprecating testicle of stinky shit, some of the most abusive churches are the ones that are the best con-men — they understand to best hide their abuse, they must hide it under a falsified version of God.
Basically, listen to your gut.