Suggestions for Spiritual Abuse Survivors in the
How, When, and Why in Sharing Our Accounts of Recovery
I’ve been writing about spiritual abuse and recovery since 2008. Part of what started me down this path was when I took Barbara Orlowski’s survey about experiences of spiritual abuse, responses to the perpetrator and organization, and the recovery process. Sadly, I had multiple severe experiences to draw from, but I must say that the process of completing her survey made a significant difference for me in understanding what happened to me, how bully leaders work over the people under them, and areas I needed to continue healing from.
I’ve also helped people process their story to write it for themselves. And I’ve written other people’s accounts for them, or set up investigative archives for several lawsuits or other major situations involving spiritual abuse. [Unfortunately, I’m not available to do any of these right now, so please don’t contact me to ask if I can help you. I'm swamped with finishing production of a curriculum series.]
At least journaling about our experiences of spiritual abuse and recovery is a process I highly recommend. You’ll likely find yourself exploring issues and answers you might never get into otherwise. But what happens if you’re feeling a nudge to do something more than just “process”? What if you sense you may be led to do something with the product of all that processing? Is it perhaps time to tell your story? And if so, how do you know when to do this, and what you should include? In this article, I’ve captured some practical how-to advice on these and related questions. Hope you find it of help …
If you follow an inkling to write about your experiences, keep in mind there are many different issues and aspects to consider. For instance, there is what happened while you were in a situation of spiritual abuse. And then, there’s what happened to help you realize the situation was abusive. And what you did next. And how you have changed so you aren’t as vulnerable to the kinds of authoritarian leaders and toxic systems as you were hurt by before.
I believe Barbara Orlowski’s 20-question survey provides an essential framework as you begin thinking through the before, during, and after periods of the abuse and recovery processes. This survey was the basis for her research project for her Doctor of Ministry degree. You need to at least look at her questions to see the flow of how they work together – a well-constructed survey, and I found it immensely helpful in processing my own experiences. (I survived three major, long-term experiences of spiritual constriction and abuse. I went through Barbara’s question series for each situation, and found a depth of insight as a result. My survey took probably 40 hours to complete and was nearly 20 pages single-spaced. That was in 2008 and I have been blogging topics from my survey responses ever since!)
The traditional “journalist questions” provided me with another framework I found very useful in detailing specific events of abuse – and oftentimes the larger context or patterns in which those particular events took place:
- How long
The more detail and documentation (for example, emails, photographs, letters, church bulletins) you can provide for each of these questions, the better.
I also have often used the three-part “what” series of:
- What? (What happened as filled in by the journalist questions.)
- So What? (The larger “why” kinds of questions that deal with what significance can be attached to what happened.)
- Now What? – What steps will I take to change the course of the future, given what I’ve figured out?
One final framework to starting working on … and this is one that you’ll find you have to keep working on. And that is the differences between various kinds of critical thinking skills:
- Facts. Details that are not easily disputed, often related to some kind of concrete document. For instance, the electronic timestamp on an email setting the time something happened, or a line in a phone record that tracks a long-distance call made.
- Observations. Something someone has seen, so it is factual at some level, but is not necessarily the full picture, or a fully accurate picture of what was actually there.
- Analysis. How facts and observations and documents and any other forms of evidence fit together, plus what seems to be missing and what may be overemphasized.
- Interpretation. Opinions of how someone perceives the evidence to fit together in the larger picture, the significance of the event and the evidence, what it means in the flow of history for a particular person or situation.
- Coherence. This is about patterns in the evidence and analysis and interpretation, whether what’s there “makes sense” together or if it seems there are gaps in evidence or in logic in putting evidence together.
- Speculation. Opinions of why someone may have done action ABC (“back-casting”), or what could have happened if XYZ had (or had not) happened instead (“forecasting”). The more facts, observations, analysis, and interpretations available, the more likely that such speculations will be reasoned and reasonable – even if there is no right or wrong answer to the question.
The critical thinking skills framework is especially important if you are required to put together your account of events, such as for a sworn deposition or declaration in a lawsuit. And, unfortunately, as we are seeing in the USA, some individuals and organizations are using frivolous lawsuits in their attempts to coerce people into silence. In legal documents, you must be especially careful about the following and leave out the kinds of things that may be inadmissible evidence:
- Hearsay evidence – what someone else says they or some other third party observed. While such secondary sources can help corroborate what you observed – if the parties involved substantiate/document it, it could end up being just hearsay.
- Speculation – what you think may have happened and/or what caused it and why.
- Overgeneralization – a large pattern that doesn’t have enough quantitative or qualitative evidence for your situation to support it.
- Irrelevant – may be an accurate piece of information but doesn’t fit with the case or the specific issues being investigated.
- Allegation or opinion or conclusion instead of fact.
Finally, these question tools above and the practical suggestions below are meant to help you sort things out. You might find a framework that fits better for you, and maybe none of these will be what you’re looking for. At any rate, I think the key thing is this: If you sense you’re being led to journal or blog or otherwise write about your experiences of spiritual abuse and/or recovery, go for it! I suspect what you need to do in the task will emerge, and also that what you uncover and discover will help you (and others) recover. It is a worthy task as stewards of our experience …
Create a Series of “Snapshots”
“Snapshots” at any and every point along the process can be helpful. Whatever pictures you’re able to give offer some important types of information but also hold some pitfalls.
Sometimes what is raw and relatively unprocessed is helpful because it is closer in time to the events, but it is far harder to get away from our emotions and/or wounds enough to do the best at analysis of the specifics, or interpretation of the overall situation.
One way around this is to write as much as we can about our situation from our own perspective, and have someone else with experience in recovery from spiritual abuse interview us. They will likely ask questions we wouldn’t think that will help us talk/write better about the events, our emotional responses, analysis of the facts, interpreting the significance of what happened, what’s missing and what went overboard, and even what might need to happen from here.
If you do an interview, you might want to record it so you can review it later and maybe transcribe parts.
Sometimes what is processed has more perspective from analysis and interpretation, but can come across as clinical.
One work-around for this is to quote from documents (journals, emails, etc.) that date closer to the time of the events or that are from when you were focused on processing some of the more emotional aspects in your recovery process. This is a way to inject a more personal element back in if it becomes too fact-oriented and dry.
Another way around this is to have one or more people you processed the situation with write about their perceptions of what happened with you. Add quotes from their writings to your story. This lets you tell the story “in stereo,” or more like a “Human MRI” of the situation.
Use “Primary” and “Secondary” Sources
The more detailed, documented, and chronological your own “long version account” of your process, the better – especially by using both primary and secondary sources.
Only the principal people involved can provide “primary source documentation” through their emails, notes, day timer schedules, phone records, etc., at the time of the events and interviews or depositions later on. Those items and observations help establish facts and timelines and participants, etc.
The “secondary source” layer of resources shares other people’s analysis and interpretation of the facts. They look at such things as gaps in the evidence, interconnections among people, patterns that appear at a given time or over time, and how various patterns compare with some internal standard (such as the organization’s constitution and by-laws) or external standards (such as legal mandates or “biblical” commands).
It is far easier to connect with someone’s narrative when there is a clear chronological timeline given. When pieces are all out of sequence, each piece may be helpful but it quickly gets confusing to figure out how they all go together – like a film with too many flashbacks and flash-forwards. As the crafters of our narrative account, we need to do the hard work of getting things aligned in order – not leave that for the readers.
Finally, it is my personal observation that the more documentation and analysis that gets compiled, integrated, and presented in a compelling way about a bully leader or abusive organization, the more difficult that makes it for perpetrators plus their enablers to refute. It creates a “preponderance of evidence” – which doesn’t simply mean you have more pieces of evidence than they do, and so you “win.” Instead, it is about clarity of the details and coherence in how it all fits together. This is, in part, why I’ve helped create several archives on spiritual abuse-based defamation lawsuits, and investigative reporting websites for other situations. Besides feeling the need to figure out the events for myself, I found that conclusions were far more solid if you had a “cast list” of the individuals involved, a timeline of key events, a list of relevant documents, and as extensive of an annotated bibliography as possible. The more information, from multiple people directly involved, accurately presented in a cohesive storyline – the harder it is to deny opinions or allegations that are drawn from it.
Dealing with “Documentation”
I’ve used the term documentation a few times. It’s important to “document” this or that aspect of your narrative account whenever you can. But what if you don’t have tape recordings of meetings, or emails, or certified letters kicking you out of church membership, or … How can you provide “documentation” without documents?
That word doesn’t always mean “proof” or even “documents,” though it can include those. Think of it more as an overall approach to sharing your story: Be clear and accurate in your descriptions, and to write with the maximum amount of detail you can remember, or that you can reconstruct from whatever primary and secondary sources you do have available.
Documentation can be qualitative not just quantitative. When you hear the term preponderance of evidence from civil lawsuits, it’s about the quality of the account being specific, coherent, convincing.
Here is a pair of examples about the same situation that show what a qualitative difference could look like.
A. “In 2008 some horrible spiritual abuse happened when the pastor hurt us, and that pushed us out of our ministry positions.”
B. “In March 2008, my former pastor did ABC to pressure myself and my spouse at least three times to tell him the personal issues of a particular person in our couples ministry. The issues were very sensitive and we had given our word not to disclose them without this person’s permission. As my spouse and I prayed and talked together about this, we concluded it was not appropriate to tell – or to keep being pressured – so we decided to resign from our ministry positions in April.”
The only “documents” indirectly referred to in both statements were a calendar for a date and a list of people and their ministry positions. Which communicates more information? Which sample would you find to be better quality and/or more credible, and why?
Let me share a quote that reinforces that “preponderance” relates not to the quantity of evidence, but to the quality. I found this definition at Legal Dictionary at Law.Com helpful:
Preponderance of the Evidence. The greater weight of the evidence required in a civil (non-criminal) lawsuit for the trier of fact (jury or judge without a jury) to decide in favor of one side or the other. This preponderance is based on the more convincing evidence and its probable truth or accuracy, and not on the amount of evidence. Thus, one clearly knowledgeable witness may provide a preponderance of evidence over a dozen witnesses with hazy testimony, or a signed agreement with definite terms may outweigh opinions or speculation about what the parties intended. Preponderance of the evidence is required in a civil case and is contrasted with “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the more severe test of evidence required to convict in a criminal trial. No matter what the definition stated in various legal opinions, the meaning is somewhat subjective.
You might also want to check out the Wikipedia article on Legal Burden of Proof for more details on the multi-tiered system of U.S. evidence for trials. Don’t get caught up in trying to identify all of the abusive people and enablers involved, and all their activities, with evidence that ties it all up beyond a shadow of a doubt. Tell your own story, the slice of the perpetration pie that you personally experienced, be a witness to what happened. You don’t have to do the job of the prosecutor, too.
You’re more likely to present your story for publication in a blog than as a sworn statement for a civil lawsuit. However, you might want to think about what you would say if you were in front of two different audiences.
First, what would you want to share to a group of your closest friends about what happened but also how God has made a difference and helped you through it all? The sense of relief, of gratitude, and perhaps even of joy can infuse your story with hope. You may find points of God’s providence and protection along the way, how you may have found new sources of encouragement and renewed hope for the future despite the many disappointments, how a healing process brought points of welcome surprise.
Second, what would you state in front of a judge or jury? That sense of the seriousness of sharing testimony might help you hone in on what the most important issues are, and to be as clear and convincing as possible, and to state what you do know and be aware of where you may have gaps that you will never be able to fill in.
And if you do find gaps, it also could be convincing simply to state, “There are those who could potentially corroborate these dates and details, but it has also been my observation that my former pastor — in the documented pattern of many other authoritarian leaders — surrounded himself with people who agreed with him, and dealt with issues of conflict and confrontation in private, which means there would be no other direct witnesses to the events. However, other former members experienced those exact same patterns of isolating the communication so no one else would know the details, and they can speak to that pattern although not to my specific details.”
So, documentation goes together with detailed points of information and patterns that show how those details seem to fit together. This will help you move from the sources and experiences, to their significance.
Editing Our Account and Discerning Points of Significance
It is generally easier to edit down a long narrative account to a shorter story for a specific purpose, than it is to try to add details back in when our records are short on facts, observations, and reflections.
[Caution: Always save copies of your longest versions so you have the full amount of detail stored somewhere.]
Many of us are not very good at editing our own writings. A work-around is to have someone else edit the material for us. Work with them in selecting a storyline or a particular angle the best suits the specific purpose we have in mind, the audience it is for, and the maximum publishing length we’re allowed.
Also, many of us are not very capable of seeing where our own storyline fits into the bigger picture of things. Find someone who is better at that to edit or help you edit, or who can at least expand your perspective by asking big-picture kinds of reflection questions. These questions usually focus on issues about significant, choices, where God was/wasn’t in the picture … things like that which go beyond the facts and the analysis, into interpretation and the largest possible “so what?” of it all, and “now what?” it means for future choices and actions. Because writing our story is also a theological task that may be used to minister to others, it helps to get feedback or editing input from people who can sort through spiritual dimensions of what happened.
Here are some of these kinds of reflection and interpretation questions:
- Did that particular event or person seem important to you at the time? Why or why not?
- Why did it/they turn out to be crucial later?
- Looking back now, what do you think might have helped you make a different/better/wiser decision then?
- If you had the chance to do it all over, what would you change and why?
- Where was God in all of this?
- Were there times you felt He was absent? Other times when you strongly felt His presence?
- What biblical passages or theological principles do you think were distorted to inflict abuse on you? How did you respond to those?
- How do you believe God helped you providentially, even through surviving such painful, damaging experiences?
- What do you think may have made you susceptible to being drawn into a toxic faith-based organization and/or abused spiritually by someone who misuses religious authority?
- If you had the opportunity to share your “Top 10 List” of how others could avoid getting into a spiritually abusive church, ministry, or similar situation – what would you tell them?
- What would be on your “Top 10 List” if you could share with others on how to deal with abuse after you’ve figured out you are in, or have been in, a “malignant ministry” situation?
- What would be your top piece of advice to future church and ministry leaders to help them avoid misusing their authority, and why that particular piece of advice?
- If you could set up a spiritual abuse prevention program for every church in North America, what would you include in it and why?
Expect Journaling or Writing To Be Spiritually Stretching
If you’re being led to write about your experiences, follow how the Holy Spirit is leading. And keep in mind, the documenting and writing process will likely stretch you in ways you couldn’t have imagined. Also keep in mind that the leading to get your experiences down in writing may be separate from what you’re led to do with what you’ve written, once that is farther along.
Pushing back on bullies has to start somewhere. It takes time and documentation to build a well-reasoned case against an individual abusive leader or a toxic organization. You may feel alone and very vulnerable at first. And you might feel even more isolated, strange, creeped-out, etc., if you’re the first person you know of to write about a particular situation of spiritual abuse. But don’t let that stop you – follow how you’re being led in the here and now, and know that other decisions can be made later.
It may help to keep in mind that the more your account becomes linked to other people’s stories from the same situation, the more your own “piece of the puzzle” will fit into the larger picture. Ultimately, the more related sources of facts, analysis, and interpretations that get connected, the more significance each piece will have, and the more everyone involved can learn from the bigger picture that emerges. So, maybe what is happening for you right now is simply to work through the process of getting your piece ready for whenever it is called for.
Also, even if you are not led to publish your story, or not publish it right now, the writing process is still valuable. It will make a difference, at least for you! You’ll probably find yourself asking questions you never did before, coming to new conclusions, revising old concepts, getting rid of bad theology … all kinds of things that rarely happen unless there is an intentional process to reflect on life as it unfolds and to let God keep transforming you with the character of Jesus Christ.
Is This the Wisest Time to Publish?
Even if it clearly is time for you to write your own account of the abuse and recovery, there is a separate question to consider – and you might not know the answer to this until you’ve finished your write-up, or maybe not for a long time afterwards: Is this the time to publish what I’ve produced?
There is no formula for this, as it isn’t a right/wrong decision … it’s about wise/unwise options and following the Spirit’s leading. That’s the way discernment works in decision-making, and it could be that relearning to trust your discernment process is part of what recovery is about. (As many spiritual abuse survivors testify, authoritarian leaders conditioned them to distrust their own thinking process and only trust what their leadership figures tell them.) So – here are some questions to help you consider whether this is a providential time to publish, and also discern what conditions if any might need to be adopted.
- Is this about “payback” to embarrass them, or to warn others and protect them from probable harm?
- Is there any way in which publication is potentially reckless of me?
- Does the reputation or track record of the abusive people – perpetrators, henchmen, and silent enablers – I’d be exposing suggest it isn’t safe to do so? Is there evidence that they are the vengeful, retaliatory type?
- Am I as prepared as possible for any and all consequences – including the possibility of a defamation lawsuit?
- Is my spouse in agreement on the content to post/publish, and ready to navigate any potential consequences with me?
- Are there reasons for not publishing right now because of family issues of any kind?
- What feedback have I gotten from my mentor, “personal advisory board,” and/or prayer partners? How does that seem to line up with what I’m sensing?
- Would it be wiser to publish this under a pseudonym? A survivor account needs enough details to be credible, but are there too many specific details such that the perpetrator(s) of abuse will know exactly who “anonymous” is anyway? Or will it have more credibility if I use my name on the piece?
- Is my story a “lynchpin piece”? Did I know insider information such that other people’s accounts won’t make as much sense until readers know the specifics I am being led to share? If I share my story now, will it potentially encourage other survivors from our situation to share their story?
- Posting a personal story often carries the responsibility of being available for at least the near-term for follow-up to people who have questions, comments, and/or are sparked to share their own related story. Do I have other life circumstances right now that would make it difficult to respond to them and their needs? Am I ready to respond to genuine needs and not feel guilty if I don’t respond to everything everyone might want from me?
Conclusion: Survivor Stories Help Shape a Movement
Many of us who are survivors of spiritual abuse make a commitment to do what we can so that others will not have to endure the kinds of suffering we have. The past few years, the “survivor blog community” seems to have grown exponentially – as has the online sharing of narratives, source documents, and analysis about spiritual abuse. Individuals are sharing their accounts of spiritual abuse, coming to a place of recovery, and the transformations that follow. Groups of survivors from the same church, ministry, or denomination are exposing authoritarian leaders and toxic organizational systems. The weight of evidence from our documentation, observations, and reasoned interpretation may be a significant part of what leads to change in those systems – or at least holding them forth for accountability.
But there is also a deep purpose in sharing that benefits individuals. I am reminded here of a line from the movie, Shadowlands. One student of C.S. Lewis explains why he so loves reading books: “We read to know we’re not alone.” The experience of spiritual abuse must be one of the most devastating things that can happen to a person, since we are relational beings and abuse usually cuts us off from community. When victims of such abuse read the accounts of others – narratives that seek healing and compassion, present justice and future prevention – that relinkage to a larger community may play a significant role in helping them move from “victim” to “survivor.”
So, consider that if the Lord is leading you to share your story, it may be so that someone else will know they are not alone. And isn’t that often how we rediscover hope, when we find a voice of empathy from someone who knows what it is like to endure what we have gone through? When the time comes to share, steward your story with that hope in mind … and may the Lord’s blessing be upon you in that ministry.
Additional “futuristguy” Resources
Many people are now writing or commenting on spiritual abuse survivor topics. Given the damage to our souls wrought by such so-called “discipleship,” it is no surprise that some of what we write demonstrates anger, sarcasm, innuendo, curses, and harsh or vulgar language. However, if this does perhaps help us in our venting about abuse and abusers, it can also prove “triggering” – not edifying – for others who read it. So, in the following post, I offer some practical advice on Writing Respectfully and Defusing “Triggers” that I have learned over the years in my research writing on abuse, violence, and social action.
For advanced suggestions on writing your story, see Tutorial #9 on Transformation. This tutorial covers a series of critical thinking skills and tools for detailing events and discerning the times, with the ultimate goal of moving beyond our current paradigm and past factors that shaped it, and pursuing a future that is both possible and preferable. As an illustration, it uses the Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) network, and the civil lawsuit filed in September 2012 against SGM and specific leaders within it. This tutorial also has a section in Part 2 called “From Single-System Trajectories to Mega-System Trends.” It contains a list of spiritual abuse investigation and archive sites, many of which present the stories of individual survivors – especially from very specific church denominations or ministry organizations.
If you are interested in some examples of my writing about complex issues involving aspects of spiritual abuse, check out the following archive sites and blogs. These show how I used various of the above principles in creating as comprehensive of a “case” as I could about allegations of abuse of spiritual authority. I often built the entire historical narrative by starting with just a basic timeline of major events, a list of “key players,” and a few main source documents. Factual details and the overall context got filled in by bits and pieces from items in the bibliography. Logical issues, gaps in evidence, overgeneralizations and other problems became more evident as the factual narrative got longer and stronger, and as some well-reasoned comments on blog articles and news reports pointed out inconsistencies. In some cases, parts of the archive/site were done by teams, but I did the majority of the writing/editing. See the first page or the “About” page for an overview of the archive/site.