“Hangover Unholiness” Left by Malignant Ministers: Spiritual Abuse Recovery Questions for 2013

January is "Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month"

January is “Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month”

For the past several years, January has been designated as “Spiritual Abuse Awareness” month. I’ve been intentional to post something relevant on the topic at least in January – though this is one of my major blog topics, all year round.

For 2013, it seems my focus may be shifting. I’ve been blogging here extensively on spiritual abuse the past five years, mostly on analyzing the dynamics of “malignant ministers,” spiritually abusive organizational structures, and the toxic cultures they create. Some of my writing has been on personal recovery issues, and it seems some new dimensions on this topic are on line for me to explore this year …

Much of my practical synthesis of materials comes out of questions raised by personal experiences, and this year’s writings incorporate those, plus what I’ve been learning from the experiences of others. Probably one of the most intriguing things to emerge during my times of reflection on 2012 and “prayerparation” for 2013 is a list of recovery-related questions to work on answering this year. Here it is, as of January 29, 2013:

How do we dismantle a toxic culture that grew up around spiritually abusive leaders, their faulty doctrines (authoritarianism, patriarchalism, legalism, perfectionism, etc.), and the organizational structures that institutionalized those anti-biblical rules?

Or can any of it even be salvaged? If so, how do you flush out the poisons to clear up the system?

More specifically, if malignant ministers leave a church – but they’ve left their toxic imprint on the organization’s leadership strategies, structures, and training – how does that infrastructure affect the next wave of leaders, if they don’t do anything to change it?

Even if a group of people left over from when a toxic church folds start a new church, what do they need to watch out for in order to ensure it has the healthiest start possible? Or would they do better just to assimilate in somewhere else that they’ve discerned is relatively healthy?

When you’ve had a multiple-generation-long history of toxicity in a church/ministry, what impact does that have on those who were children, reared in it during their formative years? What unique problems might they face, assuming they even continue seeking to follow the way of Jesus and don’t just drop out because of the spiritual abuse they experienced?

How do we best help people who are exiting out of long-term involvement in malignant ministries as they begin to realize different aspects of how it victimized them – and how they, unwittingly and perhaps even unwillingly, victimized others through the faulty values, beliefs, and practices promoted by that toxic organization?

I don’t have fully developed responses yet. But, with the upcoming Sovereign Grace Ministries [SGM] class action lawsuit and the Calvary Chapel/Grenier defamation lawsuit – which is due to start up February 19 – and other antics of “malignant ministries,” I believe these kinds of questions will be important to address. There are more and more people joining the “nones” category in religious preference, and many of them are survivors of spiritual abuse. Also, there are more people who figure out their church leaders are abusive, because they pull some kind of stunt that makes even their loyalest followers feel like fools.

Also, especially in relation to the SGM lawsuit, people who’ve attended there are becoming more aware of how deeply the doctrines, practices, and authoritarian styles of their leaders have tainted them. And then what do they do? Something like 20% of the churches that were in the SGM “association” network a year ago have already left … what “unholy hangovers” do their leaders and members need to deal with in the aftermath of their split from the SGM network? So, these questions are very practical for the recovery of God’s people.

Last year’s defamation lawsuit of O’Neal/Beaverton Grace Bible Church [BGBC] versus Julie Anne Smith and four other defendants was grueling. It’s very possible that the upcoming SGM and Calvary Chapel/Grenier lawsuits may be just as difficult for taking in all the details. I’m not sure how closely I will be following them, but I have written some analysis pieces on the BGBC lawsuit, and those may be helpful for gaining some wisdom on the upcoming cases. (I’ll add links later.) Instead of writing about these other lawsuits specifically, I expect I will be finishing a series of curriculum books on how to deconstruct a malignant ministry and reconstruct one that is healthy and sustainable.

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4 thoughts on ““Hangover Unholiness” Left by Malignant Ministers: Spiritual Abuse Recovery Questions for 2013

    • You’re welcome Alex … the case that’s been filed against you is another important one, as was the one filed against Julie Anne Smith. And I know there are people praying for you to have strength, courage, and tenacity – and for the truth to prevail in the upcoming lawsuit. Those are my prayers for you today as well.

  1. Brad,
    Really good questions. It seems detox has mostly been addressed at the personal level. You are doing important work identifying systemic issues at the organizational level. I think there is also a social-cultural aspect of detox that exists beyond the organization having to do with social identity, relationships, group think, etc. Your questions reminded me of how complex this issue is and how comprehensive approaches to healing must be.

    • Hi Linda — great to hear from you, and thanks for your feedback.

      Each phase in stabilization, recovery, and growth brings forth new questions, deeper levels of grace for healing to explore. It really does seem to me that we’re in the midst of a shift in the questions we ARE asking, and ones that I suspect we NEED TO BE asking. It seems to be shifting from an emphasis on the personal, over to dimensions of the social. The two always were side by side — just as Robert Jay Lifton in his original research on authoritarian “cults” of totalism looked at both individual “brainwashing” and mass social conditioning. But I don’t know that we (i.e., the survivor community) were ready for the social dimensions of spiritual abuse recovery yet.

      However, the times we live in seem to be sparking that shift. The events of the past few years have unsettled and reshaped the spiritual abuse survivor “community” into more of a “movement.” I’m thinking here of things like the Beaverton Grace Bible Church vs. Smith et al defamation lawsuit, the release of documentation about the leadership layers in Mars Hills Church, and the filing of the class action lawsuit against Sovereign Grace Ministries.

      I think I’m seeing a wider arc of trajectory, more momentum, and deeper drilling into our paradigms. It can’t be just about personal healing — not that it ever was about that alone, despite what critics may think. Think of the hundreds if not thousands of current and former members of Sovereign Grace Ministries who may be shocked out of numbness (or maybe even into numbness?) by the startling revelations in the lawsuit about what has allegedly gone on behind the scenes. Where will they go when they realize that their spiritual haven hasn’t really been such a safe place? What happens when they realize they’ve been given deep-tissue wounds in their spirit, and are fumbling around for what questions even to ask about their past, their present, their future? What happens when they start realizing that the social environment at the church in which they raised their children tainted those young ones’ perspectives over years and years of exposure to toxic teachings and masked but malignant ministers? Who will help them, and how?

      And the questions of what becomes of organizations themselves that have been steeped in legalism for so long that it permeates every strategy and structure, every communication method and message? Can it survive? Should it? Can it be salvaged? How and by whom? Or have they become supertoxic “Three Mile Island” or “Chernobyl” landsites that can only grow mutated crops, and should be abandoned?

      This is an opportunity for our community/movement to step into the gap to serve, to show what gravitas of character the Lord has rebuilt into us through our experiences of recovery from abuse. To extend our “consider the victims first” mindset to next waves of survivors. To stretch ourselves toward understanding implications of abuse and recovery for entire systems and not just individual people. And perhaps those who have been critical of us — sometimes for right reasons, because we who are wounded can lash out as wickedly as anyone — will see there is an emerging degree of pastoral care for the next generations of wounded, not just critiques of wounders, and it will cause them to wonder. I am hopeful the new set of questions our community is already asking may even mean we will become known more for what we stand for in spiritual healing and health, than merely what it appears we stand against because we’ve had to.

      Well, that was not what I expected to come out when I started with the notion of “thanks for your comment, Linda.” But okay, there it is, for what it is worth, on the last day of January 2013’s Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month.

      P.S. This material seemed so important that I transferred it to a new post so it could start its own thread. I added this resource to it and will post it here as well:

      For some additional perspective, consider how this compares with thoughts I posted in January 2012, on Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month: Emerging Issues, 2012:

      http://futuristguy.wordpress.com/2012/01/31/spiritual-abuse-awareness-month-emerging-issues-2012/

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