Recovery from Spiritual Abuse Part 1-Five Personal Lessons from My Surviving Toxic Leaders


SPIRITUAL ABUSE CATEGORY SUMMARY: Posts in this category profile human and organizational aspects in systems of abuse, suggest their source problems, and lead survivors toward constructive personal and institutional responses.

About the Spiritual Abuse Series

I supposed if I could determine all things for myself, I would never have undergone the difficult series of encounters I did with spiritually abusive leaders, unsustainable ministry structures, and toxic church systems. Who in their right mind would want to earn the equivalent of a Ph.D. in experiencing church toxicology?

And yet, this area of unwanted expertise does have a redemptive side, as I have been finding out since some processing of the big-picture lessons learned. My intentional exercise in externalizing has involved connecting the dots of periodic abusive situations during the last 35 years. These have all occurred in theologically conservative churches and ministries that are evangelical, non-denominational, Baptist, and/or mildly charismatic. I’d thought a lot about specific instances before, but focused on discerning the overall patterns when I completed a survey in January 2008 for doctoral student Barb Orlowski’s D.Min. project on recovery from spiritual abuse.

This series was designed to have four parts, dealing with a range of personal and systems issues in toxicity versus sustainability.

Summary of Part 1 – My Experiences

The Spiritual Abuse Part 1 post addresses the five main personal lessons that I have distill out of my experiences:

  1. Do not enter or exit church relationships lightly.
  2. Listen to my gut intuitions, and consider them carefully.
  3. Do not protect toxic leaders, organizations, or people, or I am adding to their body count of traumatized victims.
  4. Steward my life experiences and giftings as well as possible, considering that I am a subject of Jesus Christ, not of church leaders.
  5. Healthy context, forward trajectory, and transformational hope are critical to sustaining my personal involvement in a church or ministry, so look for those before committing to deeper involvement.

Summary of Part 2 – How to Choose a Healthy Fellowship

In a mini-series of six blog posts, Part 2 overviews the five main criteria I now use to choose a healthy fellowship (governance, dealing with difference, sustainability, biblical church discipline, and theological similarity), and goes into extensive consideration of these criteria, especially how they show up in ministry systems.

  • Spiritual Abuse Part 2A overviews the five criteria and what healthy leadership looks like.
  • Spiritual Abuse Part 2B looks at learning discernment – interpreting the realities between appearance versus substance among leaders – illustrated by Pride and Prejudice.
  • Spiritual Abuse Part 2C considers the framework of intervention when toxic patterns are entrenched, interception for those at risk but before their abusiveness is too far confirmed, and prevention so future leaders will act in healthy ways and avoid toxicity. It also gives a bit more detail on each of the five critieria.
  • Spiritual abuse seems to be pervasive in the North American church, and many wounded disciples seek for resources on the internet. The Interlude post allowed readers to comment on issues they would like to see explored.
  • Spiritual Abuse Part 2D adds material on organizational cultural dynamics and governance. It gives a framework on monocultural, multicultural, and intercultural approaches to structuring an organization, and then analyzes potential church governance models in several three generational paradigms – Traditional (Builder), Pragmatic (Boomer), and Holistic (younger generations).
  • Spiritual Abuse Part 2E completes this section with a portrait of a healthy church that is intergenerational and intercultural, and also looks at the redemptive role of suffering in building leaders who leave a legacy.

Summary of Part 3 – Dynamics of Leadership: Abusive Versus Healthy

In a mini-series of three blog posts, Part 3 focuses on personal elements in spiritual abuse versus healthy leadership, such as what background issues make some people more susceptible to being misused by leaders and some to become abusive leaders, and what makes for respectable leaders.

  • Spiritual Abuse Part 3A overviews the conceptual framework for healthy discipleship and personal transformation in the book, Finding Authentic Hope and Wholeness: Five Questions That Will Change Your Life, by Kathy Koch, Ph.D., of Celebrate Kids, Inc. It also lists tentative topics related to spiritual abuse susceptibility and/or recovery for each of the five elements in her framework – security, identity, belonging, purpose, and competence.
  • Spiritual Abuse Part 3B uses films to illustrate different types of abusive personalities in leaders.
  • Spiritual Abuse Part 3C explores how power addiction is like porn, in terms of treating people like objects for personal (mis)use.

Summary of Part 4 – Recovering from Spiritual Abuse

This series originally was meant to be capped off with a mini-series of posts on personal and corporate recovery from spiritual abuse. However, I did not get this section of posts completed. I had outlined topics related to moving forward after surviving the trauma of spiritual abuse by a person in a role of power/authority. It was designed to focus on coping emotionally, relationally, and spiritually, plus learning to hope again and imagine a different future, as we attempt to regain our bearings, overcome spiritual deflation from the barbs of abuse, and find a redemptive edge to experiences that no one should ever have to endure. If opportunity for publication of this material as a book presents itself, I will add those principles and experiences, and more.

Other Posts on Spiritual Abuse

Additional posts in the Spiritual Abuse Category addressed Barbara Orlowski’s ground-breaking doctoral research on spiritual abuse, issues of redemption and restoration, and a guest interview with therapist Dr. Margaret Jones on leadership and spiritual abuse.

  • Barb Orlowski Gives “Oral Defense” on Doctoral Report, October 2nd
  • Dr. Barb Orlowski’s Website Up and Running!
  • Dr. Barb Orlowski’s Dissertation on Recovery from Spiritual Abuse to be Published
  • Spiritual Abuse Recovery Book by Dr. Barb Orlowski Published!
  • Redemption and Restoration Part 1-The Power of the Powerless
  • Redemption and Restoration Part 2-The Restoration of the Powerful
  • Join Me on Monday, May 4th for a “Virtual Book Tour” Visit from Dr. Margaret Jones
  • Guest Interview with Dr. Margaret Jones on Leadership and Spiritual Abuse


Many of the topics for this blog are planned (as you’ll find out in the near future, when I post a “reader’s guide” for the material I have already posted and plan to post). However, the actual posts seem to happen more by what’s going on with me and/or people I care about, and that sparks me to complete something that’s already underway.

Well, that’s what’s happened recently, as I’ve been dealing with issues related to recovery from spiritual abuse, and addressing concerns about toxic theologies and leaders and structures and such like. In fact, it’s been a couple months since I’ve been delving deeply into what I’ve learned from my own experiences with toxic leaders (i.e., authoritarian, controlling, fearful, manipulative, quenching, etc.). This is not a pleasant topic, as the experiences were distinctly destructive. Still, I learned some absolutely critical things that refocused the course of my life in positive ways. And it’s a topic I know I need to post something constructive about anyway. So here it is, focusing as much as possible on how I’ve (hopefully) grown through this instead of on the sordid details.


In the autumn of 2007, Peggy, the Virtual Abbess, alerted me to the ACTS Seminaries doctoral project of Barb Orlowski, an acquaintance of hers who was conducting research on “recovery from spiritual abuse.” (For an excellent online overview of Barb’s project, see Brother Maynard’s post on Church-Leaving Forum & Help Request.)

Barb developed a 20-question survey for those who had left churches over authoritarian leaders and who had sought spiritual recovery from the emotional and spiritual distress involved. During a sort of “last call” for subjects early in 2008, I responded and completed the survey. It took me a full week of all the time I could spare, and my survey turned out to be 16 single-spaced pages! That’s because I’ve been through multiple extremely toxic church/parachurch situations in the past 35 years – several of them church splits.

This meant I had to answer 10 of those 20 questions three times each (I only used the three church splits). For the other 10 questions, I synthesized the overall perspectives of how I felt about the experiences, how I processed the trauma and grief, and what resources for help I found.

One of Barb’s most intriguing questions related to what criteria we now used to choose a “home” church. She also asked us to prioritize our criteria. This pair of questions required many hours of synthesizing. I’ll get to my response on that in a separate post soon, on the five theological criteria I came up with. But first, I wanted to share some of my overall personal findings that came out of grappling with Barb’s insightful questions.


During the last 35 years of institutional church participation, I survived one slam-dunk church split where a group literally hijacked the church (confiscated keys, changed locks, kicked people out, etc.). I survived one slow-leak church split where disciples dribbled away because they (rightly) could no longer stomach an angry, competitive, controlling pastor. I survived several near-static church situations where fearful pastors did it all themselves to attempt perfection and ended up not letting anyone else use their spiritual gifts (i.e., they totally quenched the Spirit). I also survived several other situations with lesser impact, though I learned from them about what various kinds of faulty focuses could do to the trajectory of a church/parachurch ministry.

The most difficult of these experiences add up to a total of 15 years. I know, I know … Didn’t you learn? Yes, there’s the wise old proverb: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Didn’t you learn? So what’s going on, with my having gone through maybe half a dozen really toxic situations?! Am I just a repeat revolver shooting spiritual blanks here? Didn’t you learn? Or does discernment have to be earned and learned on the battlefield, and I’m actually right on target to make a redemptive difference for those who follow by warning them?

The following are five key things I did learn from that series of experiences, and much of this found its way in some form into Barb’s survey. (Some of these overlap with the five criteria I now use to find a home church, but there’s enough distinctives to keep these separate.)

Lesson #1. Do not enter or exit church relationships lightly.

I endeavor not leave a situation just because it is painful, nor stay in a situation just because I think I “should” persevere. Also, I have come to where I don’t commit to a church situation until I sense the Spirit’s nudge to do so. If it turns out as toxic, I don’t leave until/unless I sense the Spirit giving me freedom to do so. That way, I’ve learned some very important lessons that wouldn’t have been possible if I’d just strictly followed my initial enthusiasm or my end-of-the-road exhaustion.

For instance, in one situation, I sensed I was to go into a church plant situation that eventually turned toxic. I then stayed a few months longer than I wanted to because I strongly sensed the Spirit saying “wait.” Because of what I saw during that very painful overtime period, I learned some critically important things that literally changed the course of my life in positive ways.

Lesson #2. Listen to my gut intuitions, and consider them carefully.

Gut reactions aren’t always reliable, but then, neither are rational thoughts always accurate. I needed to learn to trust that my gut sense of things gives me important barometer signals about problems in a situation, and that I should watch for the leading of the Holy Spirit through them.

A couple years ago, I encountered a leader who was all enthusiastic about all things in all emerging cultures, and wanted me to “share” all of my contacts who were working in such cultures. Though it seemed a legitimate request and a righteous thing to do, my gut told me otherwise, so I did not act on the request. As circumstances turned out, my hesitation was justified and the person proved themselves untrustworthy to me and many others.

Lesson #3. Do not protect toxic leaders/organizations/people or I am adding to their body count of traumatized victims.

Though I don’t have to initiate the subject of this or that toxicity that I know about, or join in when others raise warnings, I’ve learned that I should not automatically back down from exhortations about toxicity due to a lack of boldness or out of “niceness.” Whether in a private conversation or a public forum, I need to speak out with conviction AND compassion when someone states a “false positive” about someone or something toxic, or when someone commends what appears to be a righteous action – but leaves out the entire context of toxicity in which it was done.

The brilliant flash of a diamond dropped into a sewer does not remove the stench of everything else found there. But how many would dive right in for the diamond …? If I say nothing in such circumstances, doesn’t my silence actually leave a signpost that potentially misleads the naive? Am I then at least partially culpable because of my failure to protect?

I was recently compelled to give the other side of the story when an acquaintance was gushing on in superlatives about a church which had hosted a rather spectacular event. It happened to be the same church that is listed by some as a Christian cult. And I knew personally of its toxic leaders and health-wealth doctrine by watching several friends get messed over by it. One of the guys had even been maneuvered by the church elders into an arranged marriage with a woman he’d known only a few months … it was a terrible mis-match that devastated both of them.

There were other such accounts of control, too, but I shared with my gushing acquaintance the ones I knew. What if I’d said nothing about this him, when he happens to be in a position where he talks regularly in public about his ministry conference experiences? Would he have unknowingly passed along faulty information to unsuspecting people who would have gone to this toxic church, thinking it would be a great place because of his recommendation?

Lesson #4. Steward my life experiences and giftings as well as possible, considering that I am a subject of Jesus Christ, not of church leaders.

I will have to give Him an account of how I invested or wasted the time and talents he entrusted to me. Sadly, I have seen a series of church and parachurch ministers who are trying to maintain an impossible job description as senior leader. They sincerely want to lead their church/team for Kingdom impact, but often end up trying to do it all themselves. And really, I don’t know anyone who is pastovangelist with a strong dose of prophistration gifting, plus a titch or two of teachship and hospitament? Do you? Or maybe these head honchos pursue only the supergifted people, and leave the one-talent and two-talent people in the pews. So … what if I don’t have enough gifts to earn their attention?

I am not looking for perfection in a leader. But I am looking for a fellowship where leaders equip and empower EVERYONE to use their spiritual gifts for the sake of the Body and at a level appropriate to their spiritual maturity. When senior leaders refuse to let others use their gifts appropriately, then that means they are quenching the Spirit. Is there any other way to interpret such actions? (Inactions, actually.) They are accountable if they prevent others from using gifts legitimately …

… but I am still accountable if I refuse to find a way in such a situation to either use my giftings legitimately, or to move on to where I have that freedom. Experience tells me I can’t keep expecting things to turn around, or even hope that I myself will have the opportunity (or responsibility) to turn things around. If things are blocked, I’m not off the hook about my own stewardship and I’ve got to decide what to do next about it.

(Sidenote: If this is a situation you face right now, I don’t have a timeline for when one should/must leave such a situation. I would just say not to linger too long when it is clear the leader is blocking the Body from its calling. And don’t beat yourself up with guilt if you determine later that you stayed too long.)

Lesson #5. Healthy context, forward trajectory, and transformational hope are critical to sustaining my personal involvement in a church or ministry, so look for those before getting involved.

This is the newest lesson I’m working through, in light of the stewardship issue. In some ways, it’s an extension of Lesson #4. When I need to discern whether to invest myself with a group of disciples, I look up front at the combination of three key factors:

  • Overall context (is it relatively healthy, or toxic?).
  • Trajectory (is it moving toward Christlikeness, static, drifting away, or orbiting/lots of activity but no ultimate forward movement?).
  • Hope for change (are those in charge open to transformation AND not blocking the people who could help them?).

I’m convinced that one reason a missional movement even exists is in reaction to so many institutional churches that have become anemic and static, and their leaders or congregants block change – whether actively, passively, or passive-aggressively. Churches are always imperfect, but no one can legitimately use that fact as an excuse for refusal to be transformed, or for exercising unbiblical/toxic leadership. Should bad leaders expect people to stay and sustain them in their traumatizations? Should we hope perpetually that bad leaders will eventually find transformation, if we just hold on long enough?

For those who want – again, not perfection – but a robust fellowship, with Christward movement, and marked by radical transformation, how can we live this with integrity in a church that consistently demonstrates the opposite? Hasn’t this been the issue in nearly every mainline American denomination in the past 50+ years, and now is dominating free church/evangelical denominations: to stay and try to change from the inside, or leave and work for something that seems more livable?

This combination of context, trajectory, and hope is made even more poignant by the fact that I am right now myself in the process of trying to discern what to do about a church home. I have not found a local church where I am enough in accord to join in. In some cases, I do not resonate with their approaches to leadership and to ministry strategy, even if I am basically in agreement with their theological framework. In others, their leadership and ministry approaches are close enough to what I think are contextual, healthy, and sustainable (a later post will likely have details), but they’re creedal churches and I’m not within their theological framework and so would not be able to become a member or exercise my gifts of teaching and leadership.

Actually, most scary to me personally is that I know I have the capability to catalyze, mentor, and resource a team to start something from scratch … a fellowship that balances personal and corporate disciplines – both internal and external, includes intentional and transformational mentoring, uses organic paradigms, conducts continual disciple and leader development, and focuses on multiplication for sustainable ministry. What a refreshing idea, to think about starting with all those principles in place from the outset, instead of attempting to be an inside force for influencing a paradigm shift! But just because I can, does that mean I should?

Or, does the conundrum simply mean I’m supposed to consider moving somewhere else?

It’s anguishing. Just because I’ve learned five lessons does not mean these are five easy pieces!

But since when have discernment and obedience been cost-free?

I have no answer yet, nor even a clue about the timing framework in which I need to make a decision. All I can say is to stay tuned and see …

Here are the next posts planned for this series (and the number of posts and order may change – I’ve already added a Part 4, since I have so much material!).

Part 3: What Made Me Susceptible to Being Used by Toxic Leaders?

Part 4: The Multi-Layered Process of Moving Back Toward Wholeness

Forward to Part 2A – Five Criteria to Choose a Healthy Fellowship …

Forward to Part 2B – Five Criteria (Continued) …

Forward to Part 2C – Five Criteria (Concluded) …

Forward to Interlude – What Issues Would We Most Like To Explore?

Forward to Part 2D – Organizational Cultural Dynamics and Governance

Forward to Part 2E – Mentoring and Moving Toward Hope

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 Links for “Recovery from Spiritual Abuse” Series

UPDATE September 4, 2017. I am adding the full set of links to the series to make it easier to access the posts that are available and to explain what happened with those that are not. I plan to compile this material and more into book projects that will be available in the near future. Please note that these posts have not been updated for nearly 10 years. I have learned much more since then, so I expect the revised versions will be much more clear, divided into smaller chunks to make them more accessible, and with graphics added.

Part 1. Five Personal Lessons from My Surviving Toxic Leaders.

Part 2A. Five Criteria I Now Use to Choose a Relatively Healthy Fellowship.

Part 2B. Five Criteria Continued … Learning Discernment.

Part 2C. Five Criteria Concluded … Detailed Criteria.

Part 2D. Organizational Cultural Dynamics and Governance.

Part 2E. Mentoring and Moving Toward Hope.

Part 3A. Finding Authentic Hope and Wholeness.

Part 3B presented a series of movies to illustrate the concepts in Finding Authentic Hope and Wholeness. I took this post down, as it needed revising. It will be part of a forthcoming book.

Part 3C. Power Addiction is Like Porn.

Part 3D. Detailing the System – Abusers, Survivors, Enablers, Crusaders, Resistors, Spectators. This became an entire series in 2014, which I’ve compiled on this page: Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse. It identifies and describes not only the kinds of people involved as perpetrators of abuse and their victims, but also those who protect and perpetuate the system. There are also practical how-to’s for dealing with malignant leaders and toxic organizations

The following posts were originally planned to complete the series in 2008, but I did not complete them for the blog. However, I will be including them when I revise the entire series into an upcoming book.

  • Part 3E. Detailing Transformation – Security, Identity, Belonging, Purpose, Competence.
  • Part 3F. Picturing the System – Four Films.
  • Part 3G. Presentational Temperature Guide to Toxic Leader Types – Six Films.

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11 thoughts on “Recovery from Spiritual Abuse Part 1-Five Personal Lessons from My Surviving Toxic Leaders

  1. As we look to move foward after a year of detox from a very toxic church I am interested in following your thoughts. Thanks for these. spot on.

  2. Brad, thank you for this new series. This is a great bit of stewardship, bro, and The Abbess is very grateful. Of course, it describes my situation almost exactly … surprise, surprise! (NOT) ;^)

    I was just speaking with someone the other day about just how much longer to hang on myself, but I do not yet have freedom from the Spirit to leave…and this post speaks to many of the reasons why.

    Being a bridge building type, I am processing the piece of this pie that wonders whether I am to give another opportunity — to provide an opportunity to see an alternative expression of Kingdom discipleship that comes out of the institutional church and moves incarnationally out into the neighborhood rather than trying the old attractional song and dance. Hmmm, indeed….

    Looking forward to the rest of the series!

  3. Pingback: Recovery from Spiritual Abuse : Under the Grace

  4. I really appreciate the level of detail and nuance in your thoughts. This is going to help a lot of people! Thanks for the time you spent on it.

  5. Thanks everyone for your comments and encouragement! I have continued working on follow-up posts, and realized I need to cover several additional issues that are critical to the subject. So, it’s more likely to be something like 5 to 7 parts in the series.

    Frankly, going back through the details of various church splits, passive and/or aggressive leaders, and toxic systems has been rather de-energizing. Thankfully, that temporary loss is somewhat offset in the short term by my gaining of new insights – such as new frameworks for understanding key dynamics between perpetrators and their victims, which in turn may lead to new thoughts on a transformative recovery process. And, in a more long-term perspective, it’s empowering to know that out of my own pain, grief, and depression will come redemptive material can help other survivors of abuse.

    Anyway, will post the next part as soon as I can. Thanks again …

  6. Great post!

    I have experienced a lot of what you have in the church. (I’m wondering if everyone has – I think so to one degree or another)

    As my pastor often puts it, ” The church is a lot like Noah’s Ark…if it weren’t for the storm outside, you couldn’t stand the stench inside.”

    Nice blog site. I look forward to furter exploration.

    – Steve Martin San Clemente, CA

  7. You have some terrific insights into this horrible phenomena. I would like to invite you to listen to the series of podcasts I a doing on this topic right now with Dr. Cindy Kunsman and I would welcome any comments you have. Blessings on you…

    the podcasts are running every Friday from April 18th to May 16th, 2008.

  8. Pingback: How I Got Into Research Writing About Spiritual Abuse, Part 1 | futuristguy

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