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Why Spiritual Abuse is Difficult to Consider

I can remember where it started. I was sitting in the back of a classroom at Gardner-Webb School of Divinity. I was in my first year of seminary, and I was hanging tightly to the friendships I had made during orientation. We were far enough into the semester that we had gotten past our surface-level introductions. We had already seen each other break down in tears over midterms and in sharing our stories. We were now in the deep waters of walking this journey of answering a call together.

I remember hearing the term spiritual abuse as one of my classmates told her story. She told a story that sounded so similar to mine even though we grew up in different faith traditions, in different communities of faith, that I was speechless. This is what I had been told it meant to be a woman. This is what I was taught I could and couldn’t do, but surely I hadn’t experience spiritual abuse, had I?

If I started to consider that perhaps the theological teachings I had always believed were in fact being used to manipulate, coerce, and silence, then what? I couldn’t possible come out of this realization with a faith that was intact. I was in seminary for goodness sake, I couldn’t question to the point of having to reconstruct and analyze every teaching in just three years, could I?

But then I heard another story and another story. Woman after woman, man after man who were told they could or couldn’t do certain things because “people would leave the church,”  because “women weren’t called to do that,” because “it would cause a split the church,” because “that’s not the way things were done” over and over again church leaders using their power to control and maintain the status quo. Again and again passionate, gifted ministers being put into holding patterns being coerced into “waiting their turn.”

This is spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse results in power retention in those who already have power. There is a whole generation of young people who were raised in churches and communities of faith tainted by spiritual abuse whose voices, ideas, and, yes, spiritual gifts have been silenced. We need these voices in our communities of faith. We need these people to speak up and speak out about their experiences with spiritual abuse. We need these stories to come to light so that our communities of faith may become places of hope, healing, and wholeness rather than places of hurt, abuse, and brokenness.

This is not an easy journey.

It is not easy to consider whether we have experienced spiritual abuse. It is not easy to ask ourselves the tough question of whether our communities of faith are places wrought with spiritual abuse, but this is the confessional work the season of Lent calls us to do.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

When we leave our spiritual practices, protocol, and patterns unexamined, we leave room for spiritual abuse to occur over and over again. May this season of Lent be a time of reflection and analysis. May Almighty God give us strength on the journey.