Recovery from Spiritual Abuse Part 2A-Five Criteria I Now Use to Choose a Relatively Healthy Fellowship

In The Ethics of Excellence, author Price Pritchett states, “The organization can never be something the people are not.” To this I would make the direct application about toxicity, “The organization will always be as unhealthy as its leaders stay.” That’s biblically accurate, not just organizationally true. “And He told them a parable: ‘Can one blind person guide another? Will they not both stumble into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher; but every well-trained student will be like his teacher.’ ” (Luke 6:39-40, Modern Language Bible). Like it or not, whomever we choose to follow, they are the masters we will become like. It’s great advice to “Choose wisely,” … but, what if we didn’t, out of ignorance? Or, worse yet, what if we didn’t, out of being played by a manipulative “leader”?


It’s taken almost a week to prepare this second post in this series on Recovery from Spiritual Abuse. That’s because I needed to recalibrate the whole series and figure out an approach that made sense to me amidst the mountains of personal material I’ve accumulated on the subject. It took some time to sift through multiple ways to organize it. This series cannot meet all needs, and I really don’t have the option to write a full book on the subject. So, given limited possibilities, how could I contribute something important, and perhaps new, but certainly focusing on the big picture of transformation?

While reviewing my own experiences, I realized again that spiritual abuse is a complex phenomenon. It can sometimes involve seriously flawed theology, if not outright heterodoxy. I’m starting to think that it always involves organizational factors for coercing and controlling people. Also, there are always human factors involved, on both the sides of the perpetrators and their victims, as well as the perpetrators’ enablers and critics. So I felt it would be the most helpful to offer systems frameworks I’ve developed for understanding various aspects of abusive leaders, counterfeit beliefs, and toxic organizations. In the rest of this series, I’ll include some details of my experiences, but not make them the focus. While personal details may give a lot of opportunities for empathy and validation, the systems frameworks are more useful for assessment and action. Anyway, I assume that you wouldn’t be reading this series unless you already had some level of understanding about spiritual abuse.

So, as things are shaping up, it looks like I’ll have six posts in the series, and will use some rhymes to inject a bit of fun in a serious but potentially depressing topic, plus make the key points more memorable. This plan may change as the series unfolds, but for the time being, here’s my outline:

  • Part 1 – Lessons. Five personal lessons I learned from surviving a series of unhealthy leaders in churches and parachurch ministries.
  • Part 2 – Messin’s. Five criteria I now use to choose a relatively healthy fellowship, which gives insights into dysfunctional dynamics of power and how unhealthy leaders and organizations typically operate.
  • Part 3 – Susceptible. Five sets of practical concepts and questions that help us explore what made us susceptible to abuse from various kinds of toxic leaders.
  • Part 4 – Respectable. Profiles in healthy leadership, strategies, and structures, including what kinds of responses we should expect from healthy leaders when they are confronted in a biblically appropriate manner. [Yes, there are grace and hope for perpetrators of spiritual abuse, too …]
  • Part 5 – Coping. Entering into the discouraging facts and de-energizing feelings of having been abused by the very people who should have discipled us to be more like Jesus. Plus practical concepts and resources for moving beyond victimization into transformation, and from an identity of “wounded” to “overcomer.”
  • Part 6 – Hoping. Surviving spiritual abuse and recovery is critical to discipleship. But what lies beyond that? How do we steward our life anew after such devastating experiences? What redemptive purposes that bless others might our futures hold for us, which could never have been possible without our experiencing the transformative power of the Triune God?


In retrospect, I was surprised by my response to one particular question posed by Barb Orlowski on her doctoral project survey about overcoming spiritual abuse. She asked what criteria I now use to select a church fellowship, and to prioritize my criteria. I listed five things – all of them deeply theological, but only one having to do with typical “doctrinal statements” or creeds.

If I had taken this survey even five years ago, I’m sure my #1 issue would have been overall theological similarity with the potential church home. Now, that criterion is still in my top five list, but it is #5 instead of #1 for discerning whether to get involved with a congregation or not. (For that matter, I now use the same set of criteria for getting involved with or donating to a ministry, agency, etc., because all such settings manifest some kind of organization philosophy and what they consider acceptable leadership styles. Don’t the Scriptures have sufficient warnings about the dangers of identifying ourselves with evil people to take this seriously?)

So, after processing my own history and considering New Testament scriptures on authority and trustable leadership, here are my five criteria, in summary form (more details in a later section).

1. Governance – I am looking for a track record of healthy group leadership processes and accountability structures that maintain dynamic tension between clarity and flexibility. Ideal: some kind of leadership group that wrestles with decisions, takes care of overseeing necessary organizational and legal details, ensures there is financial accountability and integrity between what leaders say and what they do, and mentors individuals toward maturity and appropriate ministry. Not acceptable: Authoritarian leaders with no accountability or only pseudo-accountability (i.e., do not have a functional governing board that can override or oust self-willed leaders). CEO-manager-style leaders who act like sole proprietors (i.e., instead of working for the organization, they act like it is theirs to do with as they will). Anti-authority forms of congregation rule where no one is allowed to lead, resulting in control by chaos. (The idea that “flat” authority structures automatically rid a church of toxicity is a gigantic fib!)

2. Difference I am looking for evidence of how the leadership and the congregation deal with issues of diversity, culture clash, and conflict resolution. In my perspective, a monocultural or mono-generational group tends to become ingrown. A multicultural or multigenerational group at least brings in diversity that can broaden the “spiritual DNA” of the whole. An intercultural group intentionally seeks to integrate the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of all. Creating unity in the midst of diversity is biblical. Uniformity that cancels the strengths brought by differences is toxic. Moving beyond the peaceful coexistence of multiculturalism toward the more radical ideal of interculturalism requires a lot of work in learning how to relate beyond our comfort zones. If we are monocultural, we might be incarnational. If we become multicultural, we might be countercultural. But if we refuse to become intercultural, we can never really be missional.

3. Sustainability – I am looking for sustainable qualitative growth where leaders are on a trajectory toward Christlikeness. They are not static (no movement), or drifting away from truth and Christlikeness, or orbiting (lots of activity, but no real forward movement). One sign of health and sustainability is the presence of a next wave of leaders who are in a healthy trajectory toward spiritual maturity, and have been substantially raised up from within the body – not simply imported from elsewhere or happened to move there.

4. Biblical Church Discipline – I am looking for a fellowship with a track record of church discipline conducted in a biblical manner for restorative purposes (or willingness to take this approach, if they have not done church discipline in the past). By “biblical,” I refer primarily to Matthew 18: First time, go in person one-to-one; if a second time is needed, take a witness; if there is no restoration, then tell it to the entire body. Also, from this and other passages, church discipline is not to be misused as a tool for embarrassment or punishment, nor is it to be avoided when needed in situations to protect the congregation from immature, heterodox, or counterfeit Christians.

5. Theological Similarity – Just because this is fifth on the list does not mean it is insignificant. As one with a spiritual gift of teaching, if I do not have sufficient overlap with the information processing styles and theological approaches of current leaders, I cannot expect to be able to serve in such a church. My paradigm and perspectives would sow discord. And I will not knowingly inflict on others what in the past has been inflicted on me …

Sidenote: And by the way, if you happen to be wondering about exactly what my theological perspective is, I really don’t have a quick-n-easy label to put on it. Not yet, at least. It’s almost easier to try describing it in terms of what it’s not. So – it’s neither liberal nor conservative, because those are splits from an Enlightenment paradigm processing style where boundaries usually ends up as barriers. It’s not a muddy mixture of (post)liberal and (post)conservative, like some Eastern fusion approach. It’s not postmodern, because I process through paradoxes and integrative connecting rather than segmenting and hyper-skeptical categorization. It’s not really a fit with any singular theological system I’m aware of – including any in the Emerging/Emergent vein.

Although, I guess if I had to try stating it in positive terms, I’d be considered at least part of the edge culture of culturally-sensitive (but not syncretistic) theologically-orthodox organic-systems missional-evangelical (but not seeker-driven, which make churches into gospel preaching outposts instead of disciple incubators, and with definitely more emphasis on theodicy than most who are missional), with some tinges of monasticism, and definitely in tune with decentralized models of relational connectivity and apostolic function in catalyzing pioneer works in a post-Christendom world. Does that make sense?

Well, don’t simply blow this off as being totally mixed up! As perhaps I can demonstrate in some future posts on paradigms, there is an underlying consistency to the thinking that I use for constructing a systems theology that I believe covers many deficiencies, and removes many excesses, of modern-era and postmodern attempts at systematic theology. Perhaps no one will believe me … so, I do hope you at least wish me well and pray for me. I need it! Okay, back to the topic at hand.


Anyway, what does this kind of Christian leader look like? I will not go into a lot of Scripture passages at this time to document all of this. Let me just summarize what I understand to be a fairly wide-ranging New Testament synthesis of leadership as it shows up in my first four criteria.

  • The leaders make every intentional effort to positively equip every disciple to do the works of ministry they were gifted for, AND they make every intentional effort to equip people in the body to avoid hurting one another. This involves mentoring and overseeing people so they do not function at levels of responsibility beyond their spiritual maturity, regardless of their giftings or other capabilities. This also involves developing all disciples to be grace-oriented, accepting correction, and persevering with one another.
  • They protect each member and the group as a whole. The leaders take active steps to make things right if anyone is hurt by the actions of leaders, those who are (or should be) supervised by leaders, or others in the Body. This applies, whether the wound is inflicted through ignorance or intention.
  • They actively seek input from a variety of perspectives, discern directions, and move forward. They follow through on their word, or willingly explain their reasoning if they fail to do so or end up changing their course of actions.
  • They stand accountable for their actions. If their mistaken actions and/or misspoken words occur in public, their corrective steps likewise occur in public so those who saw/heard know that things are being set right. If something wrong and/or damaging happens behind the scenes, they take responsibility and make things right.
  • They get adequate rest, and do not allow themselves or others to burn out.
  • They do not function out of fear or perfectionism, from passivity or aggression, from self-aggrandizement or self-abasement.

Those are a few snapshots of what I consider healthy leadership. (Actually, if all learners-disciples are leaders through their giftings, then this has much to say about healthy discipleship.) You can glean a few more details in the section below (in Part 2B) that gives the extended version of what I actually wrote in my survey response.

Also, I feel I should note that I am using these as my standard operating evaluation criteria – unless I discern that I am being specifically led into a situation which I know to be far less than optimal. In issues of discernment, we always need to leave the way open for providential reasons and leadings that may go against what normally constitutes “good judgment” or even common sense. I realize this may not apply to everyone reading this, but please understand that my specific spiritual gift mix and life experiences mean I am sometimes called into situations as a troubleshooter, or reconciler, or confronter.

Next post: Part 2B – Five criteria for choosing a healthy fellowship, continued. (What unhealthy leadership looks like, dynamics of power, and the detailed version of the five criteria.)

Back to Part 1 – Five Personal Lessons …

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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One thought on “Recovery from Spiritual Abuse Part 2A-Five Criteria I Now Use to Choose a Relatively Healthy Fellowship

  1. Thank you, Brad, for the regroup and for this next level. I am, as always, grateful to God for giving me a brilliant friend who can articulate my experience so much better than I ever could.

    I completely resonate with your Top 5 Criteria, and am processing a bit of grief over the level of resonance… :^(

    I pray fervently (and confidently — our Abba is faithful!) that God will lift us both out of the energy-sucking mire and continue to give us flashes of light and energy as we follow after Jesus with the guidance of the Holy Spirit in order to participate in the mission of God.

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