Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week: After-Image

Graphic by the amazing Dani Kelley

I wasn’t able to participate in the first day of Spiritual Abuse Awareness week due to other demands on my time.  I wasn’t sure I was going to write anything today, either.  My experiences are mild compared to the horrific things friends and fellow bloggers have shared, and I believe those people who have survived need safe space to heal.  That sometimes includes people like me, who only feel it like the residual tremors of an earthquake, remaining quiet and letting others tell their stories.  But I had an experience that reminded me that everything has consequences, even if we don’t realize it at the time.  So here is my story about the aftermath of dealing with spiritually abusive people and how deep it can make us bleed.

Last Sunday, the pastor asked to speak to us about our son.

I was on my way in alone; I was playing my violin during the service and had arrived early to practice with the choir.  My husband and children were driving separately.  The pastor stopped me on my way up to the choir loft and said,

I’d like to talk to you for a few minutes in my office after church, about your son.

I must have looked surprised, because she added that it was about his baptism, which is scheduled for the Sunday after Easter.  I nodded and told her that was no problem.  But inside, I was panicking.

That’s not really a healthy response to a conversation with a pastor.

I need to say here that our pastor is a lovely woman.  She is kind and gentle and delivers fantastic sermons.  She has been nothing but loving and warm towards our family, our children in particular.  My daughter warmed to her immediately, which is fairly miraculous–she has discriminating taste in people.  So there are no circumstances under which I should feel threatened or intimidated by this pastor.  Even if I had committed some grave error, I suspect she would handle it with grace.

And yet.

My immediate reaction to anyone in spiritual authority asking to speak to me has become one of fear.  I have learned to expect rebukes rather than positive conversations.  When I realized what had happened, that my response was out of proportion with reality, I was puzzled.  Where in the world did such feelings come from?

I knew that it wasn’t really the result of my experiences as a teenager.  I was a little afraid of the pastor of that church, but I don’t believe that I thought of him as genuinely in authority over me.  I had no sense of church politics or hierarchy; I was in a bubble of Christian youth culture (as much as there actually was back in the late ’80s/early ’90s).  And it certainly didn’t come from the ten years my husband and I spent at our first church as a married couple.  That pastor and his family were like an extension of our own.  We were close, and we remain in touch to this day despite the 3000 miles separating us.

I’m sure you can guess where this is going.  I am not going to sit here and say that I was spiritually abused by our church or the leadership*.  That would be lying, and it would be hurtful to those who are still involved.  But I will tell you this: There were people in authority there who absolutely, unquestionably used intimidation tactics on me and on others.  I was spoken to multiple occasions about my writing, particularly in regard to my feminism and my unwavering stance as an LGBT ally (and once or twice about my parenting).  I was never told I shouldn’t blog or use social media, but I received subtle threats about it more than once.  Additionally, there were a few adults who used my children for the purpose of coercion and “correction.”  (Nothing makes me go all Mama Bear faster than church people using my kids as weapons.)

None of that may sound particularly bad; and perhaps it isn’t.  But taken as a whole, it damaged my sense that pastors and leaders are safe people.  They may not overtly threaten or shun or shout from the pulpit, but they hold power over the people–in large part because they (or the church structure) dictates that they do.  When leaders wield their authority inappropriately, it undermines people’s faith that they can trust them.

This is exactly what happened to me.  I believe that over time, I can–and will–regain my ability to trust, because it wasn’t damaged beyond repair.  But there are others for whom the same cannot be said.  This is unacceptable–not because it’s unacceptable to be non-religious or non-churchgoing, but because the reason for being non-religious or non-churchgoing should never, ever be because it was literally or figuratively beaten out of you.

By the way, the reason the pastor wanted to talk to us was so she could set a time to come to our house to speak to our son about what will happen when he’s baptized, physically and spiritually.  We met last night, and it was good–exactly as I should have expected.

I hope you will read the other stories about spiritual abuse this week.  There are some remarkable survivors out there.  Take the time to get to know them through their words.  And if you have been spiritually abused, please read this excellent post by Caleigh on self-care.  Meanwhile, I’m going to spend some time praying for the strength to trust again.


*That is not to say that I wasn’t exposed to abusive beliefs or teachings; I’m speaking specifically here about being directly abused, harassed, threatened, mistreated, intimidated, etc. by pastors, elders, and other leaders in the church.


For more posts on spiritual abuse, visit these web sites:

Wine & Marble: Spiritual Abuse Day 1

Joy in this Journey: Spiritual Abuse Day 2



14 thoughts on “Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week: After-Image

  1. It has been my experience that recovering from toxic faith is the narrow path that few find. It requires reprogramming, much like what Jesus was telling Nicodemus he needed if he was going to enter the Kingdom of God. I have posted a blog about the role of reprogramming in religion and spirituality. It is such intimate and difficult work, I believe only the Holy Spirit can perform it.

    • One of the things I took away from my experience is that I will never allow myself to feel “owned” by a church again. Because I’m still a Christian, I believe my soul belongs to God–it doesn’t belong to a human institution, even if that institution claims to represent God. That was my first step toward healing. The rest will take a lot of time.

      • Please take a look at my blogs; I’ve down that road and what you will read is the outgrowth of surviving a shift from an unhealthy faith to a healthy one. My piece “Theology of The Self” is of particular importance. Peace.

        • I was particularly interested in your thoughts on the last paragraph, about separating Jesus’ being from his doing. That’s not a way I’ve heard it put before. Good thoughts.

          • I recommend reading “Insurrection” by Peter Rollins. He picks up on a line of thought Bonhoeffer started in one of his letters from prison.

            Bonhoeffer didn’t live to develop this, but he was imagining what a religionless Christianity would look like in the future, as people would become less religious. He contrasted this with a comment that most Christians reminded him of Deus Ex Machina – God out of the Machine. This was a term used in reference to an angel dropped down from a crane in third-rate plays. The angel character was used to resolve conflicts in the storyline that could not be resolved from within the world of the story itself. So, the angel existed for a short time, simply to manipulate from without. When we make who Christ is peripheral to something Christ did, by holding to substitutionary atonement, we are saved more by something Christ did than who Christ is. This makes his being exist to make his doing “work” much like Deus Ex Machina. This is to treat God as an idol, as well as the cross. In this system of thought, God gave Christ to solve a problem – sin – so sin is central to the theological model. It places God the Father and the Son in the orbit of sin. In contrast, recapitulation theory of the atonement, which dates back to the second century (satisfaction theory to the tenth century and penal theory to the sixteenth century) paints a different picture by saying the atonement takes place by God becoming man – he showed up and God stood in solidarity with humanity, even to the point of going to the cross just to get us to get over our felt need to appease God with sacrifice and get beyond our image of God as being blood-thirsty and angry.

            • I think that has to be the most clear summary I’ve read about that. Thanks. I left penal substitution behind a long time ago–it has never made sense to me, for exactly those reasons. But I’m not a theologian, so I didn’t quite have the words for it. And unfortunately, a lot of books on theology are not accessible to the masses–those of us who haven’t been to seminary don’t quite follow the explanations. So thanks for putting it in those terms.

              • It is hard to break down complex theology so everyone can understand it, so thanks very much for your feedback. It’s hard for a writer to know if they’re breaking it down enough and there is only so far one can go without bogging down the piece. Everyone brings a different ability to understand the concepts to the written material from the outset, so one size doesn’t fit all and that makes it complicated. Thanks very much for your feedback – it’s encouraging.

  2. Hi Amy,

    I saw your tweet about possibly losing friends over this post, but after reading it I can’t see why that would be the case.

    I don’t have any similar stories to tell. It may be because, even as a child, I kept an emotional distance between myself and the Church — taking in what I found palatable and rejecting what I did not, in the way that one dismisses the views of the ignorant. This detachment meant that I was never really invested in the organization, so efforts to refine my views or behavior held no sway beyond the influence that one person can have upon another in everyday life.

    You seem to want a relationship that goes much deeper than what I’ve described. Given that your apprehension about this encounter turned out to be unfounded, it may be a step toward regaining trust for you. But in light of your experiences with the behavior of “people in authority” you may not want to open yourself up to that kind of disappointment.

    • I used to want that deeper relationship. In fact, the hurts from two churches ago were much deeper because we *did* have that–and our reason for leaving wasn’t because we stopped loving that church or because there was abuse there. We left because, as sometimes happens even in good families, there were hurt feelings and break-ups. The reason we didn’t return there when we left the last one was that we are now considerably more progressive in our theology and we knew that would be a bad choice. But we still deeply love the people there and have remained friends with them. I no longer look for that; I don’t find it necessary. But at our last church, that was kind of the expectation–and that we should view leadership as sort of our “spiritual parents.” I’m not interested in having anyone take that kind of authority over my life again.

  3. Amy,

    “By the way, the reason the pastor wanted to talk to us was so she could set a time to come to our house to speak to our son about what will happen when he’s baptized, physically and spiritually.”

    I would be very apprehensive about this situation unless the pastor has already set up a time with you and your husband and first explained to you exactly what she is going to tell your son. And your pastor should also explain to you and your husband how you should prepare your son for her visit. And your pastor should agree that if she departs from the prepared script, you or your husband have the authority to tell her to stop. As a young boy, I would have been scared sh–tless if a pastor (priest, etc) showed up at my home and began talking to me about something religious.

    This future encounter may smack of spiritual abuse because it seems that the pastor may be supplanting you and your husband’s authority in your home with her own. Anyway, why can’t the pastor speak to your son at church?

    • Apologies…in the interest of being brief, I didn’t fully describe what happened. The pastor met with us after church to set a time to talk to our son. But he wasn’t unwelcome for that part, he was just busy with friends. She DID fully explain what she would be telling him. We could easily have brought him to church, but she encourages children to be in the comfort of their own homes. When she came over, we ALL sat down, including our daughter (who isn’t being baptized at this time). We ALL talked about it, and all she did was explain the church’s teaching about baptism in kid-friendly terms, relating it to things he already understood. He was allowed to ask as many questions as he wanted, as were we as parents. She mostly explained the actual procedure, since we were previously Baptists and this is a Lutheran church. Honestly, it was really good. Our son has been wanting to be baptized for about two years, so this is a pretty big deal to him.

      Naturally, it’s hard to convey the lack of anything scary or weird in this to someone who wasn’t there. I can’t recall every word that was spoken or every feeling expressed. I just know that this wasn’t complicated and it wasn’t invasive and it wasn’t threatening. It felt very good to all of us.

      And by the way, my husband does not have “authority” in our home. That was one of the spiritual abuses we were trying to get away from. We also don’t view ourselves as “spiritual authorities” over our children for the same reason. Only God gets that place.

  4. I. Hear. You. Even if people in church ministry are not directly spiritually (or otherwise) abusive, the use of abusive or controlling tactics can leave you wary and on your guard. Thank you for sharing. I think these stories are just as important as the others. The more ministry leadership recognizes that there are boundaries and the more people realize that they can enforce those boundaries and that, no matter how small, abuses of power or control or scripture or whatever are NOT okay, the more change we will see.

    • Yes, exactly. I’m not going to excuse the controlling/abusive tactics, but I think many church leaders simply do not believe that they ARE controlling or abusive tactics. One friend reminded me today that there is a big difference in the way our children have been treated in different churches. One thing that our son experienced was a time when he was spoken to/questioned about his spirituality, but he was separated from us. When our current pastor visited us, at no point did she require or even ask for him to be separated from us. Separating children from their parents is a controlling tactic unless the child has reported abuse at the hands of said parent. It should never have happened, and I regret allowing it as his parent.

  5. Pingback: Spiritual Abuse and Discipleship – yep, that’s my first post! | By Searching…

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