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The Future of the Church and Spiritual Abuse

I was asked recently by a reader whether I thought there was a connection between spiritual abuse victims and the repression of spiritual gifts, which made me think about a connection that has been ruminating in my heart and mind for quite awhile. From the number of people I have heard from who have experienced and are recovering from communities of faith that engaged in spiritual abuse, I have to wonder whether the use of spiritual abuse to coerce unquestioned adherence is the culprit for the decline we see across the board in mainline Protestant congregations. If spiritual abuse results in power retention in those who already have power, then 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. Those young people raised in these community of faiths would now be adults. Adults whose age happen to correspond with the missing demographic in most churches: the millennials.

Perhaps the rise of the nones and the decline in church attendance is because of the rampant spiritual abuse that has crept into and overtaken our communities of faith. Perhaps the next generation of church leaders and ministers weren’t ever allowed to voice or express their calls to ministry, and so instead have found places to express their calls to ministry in other ways. Perhaps the next generation of ministers have created churches in bars, nightclubs, clothing stores, financial advisor offices, and restaurants because that’s where they have been able to find employment. These would have been ministers can’t help but pour drinks, DJ, restock shelves, plan for your retirement, and serve food without using those spiritual gifts that found no place in their communities of faith. They, like Mary and Joseph, have found no room or warmth in churches and so instead have formed congregations, places of worship, and spaces for others like them to bring their gifts to lay at Jesus’ feet in the most unlikely places.

And now churches are interested in drawing in millennials because churches are starting to realize that millennials have overtaken Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation. Churches can no longer depend on the financial safety net of Baby Boomers. So, churches are desperately trying to woo the millennial back into their sanctuaries and back into giving pledges with overhauls in worship style and book studies about millennial culture, all the while avoiding the difficult conversations about spiritual abuse that’s being practiced through exclusion of members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and women. Those who have experienced spiritual abuse and have fought the hard battle of recovering and found faith again, are not going to be willing to participate in communities of faith still tainted and overrun with spiritual abuse practices.

The most important issue our communities of faith need to be addressing is not the decline in church attendance or giving, but why this is happening. Answering that question will require churches and church leaders to take a long, hard look at how they have participated in a culture of hate, exclusion, and spiritual abuse. But don’t expect these conversations to happen without a fight. Those who have engaged in spiritual abuse practices in order to maintain power have proven they are willing to use any means, even holy scripture, to protect their positions of power and privilege.

When It’s Too Much to Bear

So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

I’ve heard this passage preached many times and always the conclusion I heard was that God has not given you more than you can handle nor will God ever give you more than you can handle. The times in my life when the brokenness and pain and evil that exists in our world has been it’s too much to bear, I have always felt a deep sense of shame. I’ve put on a brave face and acted as if the brokenness and pain and evil doesn’t exist and refused to listen to stories or remember because if it’s too much to bear, than my faith is not strong enough.

But I’ve looked at this passage again and I think this is another example of a passage of scripture that has been misinterpreted through our individualistic, self-centered, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, American Christianity. This is a letter to the church of Corinth and when Paul uses “you” here, he’s not using the singular form of you. He’s using the plural form.

In other words,

God is faithful and he will not give y’all be tested beyond y’all’s strength.

It’s not that we as individuals have to be strong enough to bear the brokenness and pain and evil in the world. It’s that the church, the people of God, our communities of faith have to be strong enough to bear the brokenness and pain and evil in this world.

But our churches can’t get to this kind of strength until we stop using the church for our own financial security, self-worth, and salve for our insecurities. Our churches can’t get to this kind of strength until we stop avoiding looking at the brokenness and pain and evil in the world in our Bible studies, in our prayers, and in our preaching. Our churches can’t get to this kind of strength until we stop making church about us and start being real and authentic and honest.

When it’s the brokenness and evil and pain is too much to bear, we need the church to stand strong, but in a time when brokenness and evil and pain are so prevalent, the church has fallen. Be careful, if you think your church is standing and not talking about the brokenness and evil and pain that exists. Y’all, too, will fall.

The Temptation of Spiritual Abuse

Now that I am a religious leader and a religious authority, I understand how quickly patterns of spiritual abuse can be established, even when you don’t intend to do so. I understand that sermon preparation can change so easily from exegesis to isogesis, from relaying what the biblical text says to what I want the biblical text to say. I can understand how the pulpit can transform from the holy desk to a soapbox to share my opinions and beliefs rather than to encourage each individual in the congregation to wrestle with the text.

Because as a spiritual leader, inevitably, you find yourself in situations where you are asked what needs to happen or what the church should do in response to a situation or what a biblical passage means and it’s so tempting in those moments with all eyes on you to answer authoritatively and confidently providing “the right answer.” After all, isn’t this why you went to seminary? Isn’t this where the long hours in the library and in commentaries and in research were meant to bring you?

When we, as religious leaders and authorities, become the only voice of authority for our parishioners, we miss the opportunity to shepherd our congregations. Shepherding is walking beside God’s people, gently guiding them to the path God has called them to follow, allowing them to live into the call to be disciples of Christ, not us. But having disciples, having fans, people who believe that we we do and what we say can’t ever be wrong is tempting in a life of ministry that is often lonely and asks us to give our whole selves to serving God’s people.

The temptation to use our positions of power as religious leaders and authorities is tempting, especially when we believe we are using our power for good, but our call is to speak God’s word to God’s people, not to be God for God’s people. May we be reminded of the holy work we are called to do and the very real temptations that are part of that calling.

The Signs of Spiritual Abuse

As one who has awakened from spiritual abuse, I feel the great need to share my story in order that others may have the space and the place to voice their experiences and begin to heal. My hope in sharing these signs of spiritual abuse is that we may be able to uncover and recover from the misuse of religion and church and transform religion and church into a vehicle by which hurt and pain are healed not inflicted.

To that end, here are some signs of spiritual abuse that may help you as you are ministering to those who have experienced spiritual abuse or as you yourself heal from spiritual abuse:

Guilt and Shame: In a culture of spiritual abuse, guilt and shame are used as motivators of allegiance. Individuals who question or challenge the belief system are shamed by religious leaders so that their voices are not heard. With this shame comes guilt. With this guilt comes low self-esteem and the feeling of not being good enough, faithful enough, or devout enough. These are all tools used to maintain power in the hands of those in religious authority.

Anxiety: In a culture of spiritual abuse, there is always someone watching, at least this is what spiritual leaders and authorities tell individuals in that belief system. This ever-present watchful eye produces anxiety for the individual who is constantly trying to make “the right decision,” in order to be considered good and faithful. This anxiety often leads to extreme indecision because the individual is always looking to the religious leader or authority for “the right answer.”

Pride: In a culture of spiritual abuse, the religious leader or authority has an answer for every situation and every circumstance. The religious leader or authority then teaches these answers and response to his community of faith. Knowing “the right answer” brings pride to the community, but sharing “the right answer” with those who don’t know brings even more pride, so that conversions and re-dedications to “the right answer” are celebrated, counted, and exploited.

Exclusion: In a culture of spiritual abuse, there is a us vs. them subtext that runs through all teaching and preaching. Most often this takes the form of the unbeliever and the believer. Sometimes this takes the form of “the world” and us. These strict dichotomies are dangerous because they do not allow for the individual to be unique. Group normative faith expressions are celebrated and individual expressions of faith are guilted and shamed.

What is Spiritual Abuse?

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Spiritual abuse is the misuse of power by religious leaders or authorities to manipulate and coerce unquestioned adherence to a particular dogma for that spiritual leader’s own gain. This unquestioned adherence is often obtained through a pattern of conditioning. This conditioning can take the form of repeated dogmatic statements, repeated rituals, but is always used to the end of universal conformity.

The danger of spiritual abuse is that it leaves no room for questions about the religion or interpretation of the sacred text. Instead, the believer is left to depend on the religious leader or authority for interpretation of the sacred text. This denies the individual believer’s spiritual instincts and sense of self in particular when the believer does not fit the dogmatic picture of a believer.

Spiritual abuse can very easily lead to verbal abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse because religious leaders or authorities can make abusive practices a part of the dogma or the believer’s path to understanding the divine. Spiritual abuse is not always linked to these other types of abuses, but always involves oppression and forced compliance. These are initiated through manipulation and guilt. Religious leaders and authorities fall prey to spiritual abuse when they try to control the believer’s faith journey and seek to maintain power and control over religious experiences.

In a sense, spiritual abuse is very much like the training of the storm troopers in the Star Wars The Force Awakens. They are trained to perform tasks without questioning or challenging orders. These orders may include mass murder or destruction of planets and all life forms on those planets. The only way to combat spiritual abuse is to question and challenge the dogma and patterns of conditioning used in order to create universal conformity, much like Finn in The Force Awakens who chooses not to kill the villagers.

I write this explanation because I know you are out there. You who has experienced spiritual abuse and still believe. You who sees something more and deeper in the sacred text. You who sees the desperate need that exists in this world.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

The Ugly Truth of Spiritual Abuse

BNG posted an article this week recounting the story of CJ Mahaney being asked to preach at a preaching conference called Together for the Gospel. Mahaney’s focus for his Sunday sermon was on how churches should support their pastors and not question them. The reason his sermon was so controversial was because Mahaney has been accused of multiple accounts of child abuse since the 1980s and using the leadership of his church to cover up this abuse. Should this man be allowed into the pulpit to preach with these allegations?Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard about spiritual leaders engaged in child molestation or abuse. The Catholic Church has been brought to task for this very same issue.

The vast majority of cases where this church leaders are convicted of sexual abuse and molestation of children are in patriarchal systems of religion. This isn’t coincidence. Patriarchal theological teaching, interpretation, and doctrine are the breeding ground for spiritual abuse i.e. the use of spiritual or biblical interpretation in order to justify sexually molesting, abusing, or raping another person.

When we as members of congregants deny that sexual abuse, molestation, and rape are possibilities in our congregation, we deny that 1 in 6 women have been the victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes. Perhaps the reason we are seeing a decline in church attendance and spiritual affiliation, is because of the rampant spiritual abuse that is taking places in our churches (yes, is taking place) with multiple church employees and congregants involved in coverups.

This is an ugly truth. We don’t want to admit that our churches are the places inflicting pain and hurt on people. We want to believe our churches are places of hope and healing.

Church can be that, but not until we bring to light the ugly truth of spiritual abuse.

I’m A Recovering Fundamentalist

I’m a recovering fundamentalist.

If you had met me in college or high school, you would not have liked me because I had all the judgmental, black and white thinking that comes with fundamentalism. You know the kind that tried to convert Catholics and Methodist as though they aren’t Christian because they attend the church across the street.

It’s hard for me to talk about how I thought and how I saw the world because the realization that there were Christians who did not label or group or try to counsel people out of who they were was so foreign to me. I read my Bible consistently growing up, and I prayed a lot, so how could I have so completely missed Jesus’ call to see those in need and love them as they were and where they were rather than seeing people as just another possible convert?

But I have to describe the way I used to think and they way I was so certain that I was right, the way I knew for sure what the Bible said and what the Bible didn’t say because at times I hear it creeping back into my rhetoric. On those Sunday mornings when the baby’s been especially hungry and wants to eat through the night, I hear my prayers return to Father God, when Creator God, Holy God, River of Life, or Still, Small Voice might have fit better.

I find myself in our Baby and Me class at the library talking to little girls and telling them how pretty they are when I could also describe how alert they are or strong their heads or legs or arms are. These stereotypes and assumptions that fill our words before we can filter them through what we want to say and what we mean to say rather than what we’ve always heard.

And now as I see Ben’s eyes focusing on me and can tell he is listening, I want to be ever more mindful of the words he hears me say to him, to those we meet, and especially when I am referring to the Divine.

Thanks be to God for grace and forgiveness even when it is God’s own name we use to oppress, label, and exclude. Thanks be to Creator God that I am a new creation being formed in the image of the Divine with the Divine’s breath in my lungs. May that breath of life fall on those I encounter rather than stereotypes, judgements, and labels.

The Privilege Walk


Last night as a part of our Lenten series on discipleship, our congregants engaged in the privilege walk. We looked at each other differently as we each stepped forward or backward:

Take one step backward if your race, gender, or sexual orientation has caused you to be looked over for a professional opportunity.

Take one step forward if you had more than 50 books in your home.

These things that were a part of our home life, out of our control, not something that we could decide or choose. Things we don’t want to share or talk about.

Take one step backward if you have ever been the victim of sexual harassment.

Take one step backward if you grew up in an area with gun violence, gang activity, or drug use.

Blessed. Entitled. Privileged. It’s a dangerous connection we make when we turn religion into an opportunity to continue privilege rather than fight it. We are Americans and have been afforded great opportunity, but that opportunity is not the same for everyone because like it or not, many of us have been given a step forward over other people.

We have the choice whether that step forward is on the back of someone or whether that step forward is with an arm reaching back asking and inviting those behind you to join you.

You aren’t blessed because God loves your. You aren’t blessed because you are faithful to God. You are blessed, privileged, because of a lot of things you had nothing to do with.

Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.

That Sounds Like Islam

Yesterday, I recounted the question that had been pinballing in my mind since I was interviewed about the SC Primaries. The reporter I was talking to was from a European publication and was trying to understand the evangelical conservative movement, especially in SC. As I was explaining to the best of my ability what it was like as a woman to grow up in a conservative church and how the conservative evangelical movement impacted the greater culture of the south, he commented that he had spent a lot of time in the Middle East and that what I was describing sounded an awful lot like Islam in which church and state were combined.

I responded, “Doesn’t it though and to think that’s what many of the Republican party candidates are railing against.” For me, there is a very important reason I don’t use the pulpit to endorse a candidate. Using God’s holy desk to speak God’s word is the most important work that is done here on earth, but using the pulpit to influence people towards not thinking for themselves and following blindly sets a dangerous precedent that stands in opposition to how Jesus made disciples and to why America was founded.

America was founded on religious freedom; a place and a space for those who were being persecuted to come and to have a second chance at life. The conservative evangelical movement intermingling church and state is a recipe for disaster we have seen again and again in other countries.

As a pastor, I am a citizen as well, so you can ask me personally about my political views, but to ask me that same question in my church will receive a different response. Our calling as religious leaders is not to create robots who follow blindly, but rather to lead and guide our congregants towards working out the calling God has placed on their lives. When we preach only to have more followers, we are preaching for our own gospel and not the gospel of Jesus.

It is easy to follow the loudest voice. It is easy to follow the religious voice. It is harder to imagine that there are those in ministry and in politics who are not at all interested in the well-being of their congregants or constituents, but are only interested in their own power.

May God guide us all as we debate and decide on the leadership of our country.

People-Based vs. Issue-Based Religion

I write and share because I care deeply about the future of the church. I write and share to start a conversation and that’s just what happened after yesterday’s post.

I had several people who asked whether I universally support same-sex marriage. I responded that I won’t comment universally on same-sex marriage as I won’t comment universally on heterosexual marriage. The reason I won’t comment is because at the very core of my beliefs is a people-based religion, not an issue-based religion.

An issue-based religion doesn’t allow a church to support or guide a female who grew up in the church, served on mission trips, wrote Vacation Bible School curriculum, and attended Bible study every Sunday night who expresses a call to preach. An issue-based religion doesn’t allow parents room to accept their son or daughter who comes out as gay or lesbian or bisexual or queer, but instead leads those parents to send their son or daughter to counseling that urges them to change. An issue-based religion leaves the single mother of three who is recently divorced scared and lost and guilty. An issue-based religion serves as the reasoning for a young white male to walk into a church of people who are different than him and open fire after sitting beside them for an hour.

A people-based religion welcomes the person as he or she is. A people-based religion begins a relationship with the person and gets to know the person. A people-based religion doesn’t define a person completely by his or her sexuality, but instead recognizes that every person is multi-faceted. A people-based religion seeks after wholeness and a safe, sacred place to continue to become who God has created us to be.

When we start with issues rather than people, we make statements and claims that demean the divine breath that resides in each human being and doesn’t allow for variables. We reduce people to labels easily classified and organized for our convenience. Issue-based religion is binary. Issue-based religion makes programming and preaching easy because it’s a matter of matching the label to right program.

People-based religion is difficult and messy because it means opening ourselves as pastor and minister to be mothers, husbands, wives, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, cousins, and friends. People-based religion means dropping our labels and titles and being human together as we journey towards what God has called us to. People-based religion is multi-faceted, recognizing that no individual is exactly the same. People-based religion means being vulnerable, real, and authentic.

If I had a choice, I’d choose issue-based religion, but I can’t.

I have been called to people-based religion, which is revealing, dangerous, demands all I have to offer, and then more. I know this is what I was created to do.

Join me.