I’m heading into the final stretch on editing my book about spiritual abuse, and am pretty sure I can finish it soon. It’s exciting to be this close to completion, since I started this particular book almost four full years ago, and it looks like the launch will be in January, which is “Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month”! I’ll be posting some excerpts on my blog, the first one today: a five-year-old shares her view on the differences between sin and evil, and I share some thoughts on why spiritual abuse at least constitutes evil.
Malignant Ministry: Discerning and Dismantling Systems of Spiritual Abuse
Excerpt #1 ~ The essence of malignant ministry and some basics of identifying it.
Malignant ~ ma·lig·nant [muh-lig-nuhnt]. adjective
1. disposed to cause harm, suffering, or distress deliberately; feeling or showing ill will or hatred.
2. very dangerous or harmful in influence or effect.
a. tending to produce death, as bubonic plague.
b. (of a tumor) characterized by uncontrolled growth; cancerous, invasive, or metastatic.
The best description I ever heard for what’s at the core of spiritual abuse came from a child. When she was asked during a Sunday school lesson what the differences are between sin and evil, she said, “Sin is when you’re doin’ something bad. Evil is when you’re doin’ something that looks good, but you’re thinkin’ something bad.” Not a full definition of evil, but not bad for a five-year-old.
Boil it down to its very essence and that is what spiritual abuse in ministry is really all about. It’s one form of evil, the kind where those inflicting the damage look good on the surface but there is corruption underneath. Malignant ministry looks like righteousness but instead it produces guilt. It looks like community but instead it sprouts shame. It looks like humility but instead it implants fear. Malignant ministry masquerades in all sincerity as Christlikeness and good, but in reality is corrupted and evil. And, like some christianized cancer, it injects disease and decay into whomever or whatever it touches. This is true whether we’re talking about an abusive individual leader or layperson, or about a toxic institutional organization or strategy.
So – if we go with that idea of spiritual abuse as a cancer in the Church, how do we deal with it? Treating cancer depends on the type, but in general, a couple things have to happen. In order for the body to return to health, the cancerous sources must be minimized or removed, the injured organs need to be treated and rest, and the body as a whole needs to be restored and rejuvenated. I’d suggest that organic process isn’t so very different for organizations, whether in a church or ministry or non-profit or collaboration that’s recovering from the presence of toxic people.
But we have some very serious problems. The churches of North America have a fairly poor record of confronting these kinds of corrupting influences among us. We don’t know how or when to challenge the perpetrators of evil, whether they are in the pulpits or in the pews, and we don’t know how to help them if they are truly repentant and want to change. We fail to see how people actively enable or passively endorse bullies, and thereby they share responsibility for extending the cancerous influences. We often scapegoat and ostracize the very ones who try to warn us about malignant ministry.
We don’t identify where elements of evil enter our theology through legalism and control or through license and chaos. We don’t recognize how, over time, various forms of spiritual abuse affect the very organizational infrastructures we put in place and thereby transfer a legacy of corrosion onto next generations. We don’t know how or when to intervene and eradicate these evils, and how to move toward prevention of an abusive environment and promotion of a safe one.
In short, we just don’t know how to discern and dismantle the systems of spiritual abuse, or how to deal with all the people and processes that restoring health involves. But there is hope, and there is help …
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Some of the next excerpts include:
- An “extended” systems definition of spiritual abuse that is comprehensive and keeps the elements interconnected.
- A “narrative” approach to theology helps us keep people’s roles and responsibilities in focus.
- What it means for the Church that the social tide is going against bullies,
- Thoughts on books about spiritual abuse published in the last 30 years.