Reflections on Malignant Ministries and God’s Mercies Thereafter

I spent some time over the past week thinking through a series of malignant ministries and ministers I’ve encountered in the last 40 years. It turns out that I spent 26 years in churches and ministries that turned out to be majorly abusive spiritually. I was shocked! But in looking for the redemptive edge in these experiences, I identified five patterns that I believe can offer hope and encouragement to people who’ve survived similarly devastating experiences of spiritual abuse. God was merciful in providing: personal support, justice, validation, beauty/creativity, and constructive experiences to counteract the destructive ones. Hopefully we sense God’s presence with us always – even if we don’t always perceive His many acts of providence on our behalf until later …

When it comes to “races,” I am definitely the tortoise and not the hare.

I am still working on the final draft of my book on spiritually abusive leaders and toxic ministry systems. The set of introductions for the five sections is nearly done. I’ve narrowed down the set of art images I’ll use throughout the book to illustrate concepts visually. I’ve expanded the set of movies and media materials to use for individual and group exercises to reinforce the concepts and identify them in realistic storylines. (If you can’t see the concept at work in a movie, however will you see it at work in your own life?) I’ve collected almost all the resource books I’ll be recommending for further exploration on key topics.

There’s much more to go, but it is good to see and celebrate progress. In a word: Hoorah!

Meanwhile, the slowed pace has allowed more time for important themes to simmer and new patterns to emerge. For instance, I spent some time over the past week in thinking through all the major malignant ministries and ministers I’ve encountered in the 40 years I’ve been in the evangelical movement. This came out of one basic question that had been rolling around in my soul:

What do I have to offer that can bring hope and encouragement to people who’ve survived devastating experiences of spiritual abuse?

And something surprising came to light. Namely, in that 40-year period, it turns out that I spent 26 years in churches and ministries that turned out to be malignant. That’s almost two-thirds of the entire time I’ve identified with the evangelical movement. I didn’t realize that I’d spent so very much time immersed in abusive environments. That is a lot of experience … way too much, actually. But it gives me an unfortunately wide range of specific details to draw from in writing this book.

Of course, I didn’t know when I started with each of these organizations that they already were (or would become) a haven for abusive leaders. A lot of their practices were subtle – at least at the beginning. I’ll identify those patterns in the book. But the last few days, I was looking for something beyond that kind of help that I could offer … something that definitely tied in more with hope – comfort in knowing the Lord takes care of us as His children when we’re thus wounded.

So, I mulled over this key question of hope. I reviewed the various situations I’d suffered, and tracked as best I could what happened with the perpetrators and their enablers over the years. Mostly, I reflected on how God provided help for me to cope in the aftermath of half a dozen disastrous experiences, which lasted anywhere from one year to six years each. That’s where I thought I’d find glimmers of hope for other survivors. Here’s what I came up with:

1. Personal Support

After every disastrous experience that could have led to despair, God provided both key individuals and one or more safe churches/ministries to help me cope, process, recover, just “be,” etc. By “safe,” I mean they welcomed me to participate in worship and to find ways to serve others as I was able. They held forth no timeline or formula for my “healing” or getting through the numbness and depression. They took time and effort to help me sort through the disastrous details of my experiences. Simply put, they just loved me back to life.

2. Justice

Circumstances of their own making eventually cornered the perpetrators into facing some level of consequences for their actions. Eventually they did some overt and over-the-top abusive act that was irrevokable, unexplainable, and irretrievable – or inflicted one last-straw action in a long chain of evidence of abuse. Sometimes this was within two or three years of when I left the situation, sometimes it took as much as a dozen or more years. Sometimes the abusers lost their positions, or their legacy, or ended up stuck somewhere doing something that they surely thought was beneath them. But it showed God was still in control and that He could and would minimize or end the negative impact of these manipulative leaders.

3. Validation

Not in every case, but in many of them, individuals who’d unwittingly enabled the perpetrators eventually offered me a word of apology, or acceptance, or thanks, or “wish I’d listened,” or something like that which indicated growth for them personally and taking some level of secondary responsibility. Sometimes this was as much as five years after the fact, showing that God was working behind the scenes all along for the best of all parties involved – despite what it might look like on the surface. It just took some people longer than others to perceive the abuse for what it was, but once these former enablers realized it, they acted intentionally and in good faith to bring redemption into the aftermath of the situation.

4. Beauty and Creativity

The unexpected thing that turned up was how media helped heal my emotions and energize my will to survive. In one period, I wore out several sets of cassette tapes of Handel’s masterwork, “The Messiah.” (Yes, cassettes – that tells you how far back that was!). Another time it was reading the Chronicles of Narnia, and then listening to the soundtrack from “Les Miserables.” In some of the worst of times, I watched “The Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy repeatedly to feel something – anything – and other times I watched “Connie and Carla” or “Pride and Prejudice” because they were the only things that made me laugh. I stared at a reproduction of Rembrandt’s painting of “The Prodigal Son” for hours, went through my postcard series of Chagall’s stained glass windows of “The 12 Tribes of Israel,” marveled at the illuminated work in The Book of Kells. When I felt I had more fortitude, I even read Frank Herbert’s entire Dune saga and its prequels; here, abuse of power in almost every conceivable form is addressed: religious, political, economic, social, intellectual, family dynasties, etc. That proved highly instructive (and even entertaining), though sometimes hard to take – too close to power-plays I’d experienced! And I watched the most recent movie of The Count of Monte Cristo, along with the seven-hour French TV mini-series version of this complex tale of unjust suffering, and meditated on the vanity of revenge.

Most of these media drew from epic storylines where good overcomes evil, or that connect in a healing way with deep emotions, or that take a redemptive look at the ironies and absurdities of being human. Not inspired like the Bible, but not so very different from the impact of the historical accounts we have of heroes in the Scriptures, or the deep well of emotions in the Psalms, or the provocative wisdom literature of the Old Testament …

All of these different kinds of media together is where I experienced the notion that beauty and creativity are prime antidotes to evil. Maybe they were so powerful a tonic for my spirit because creativity is one of the deepest reflections of who we are designed to be, as creatures made in the image of God. So, to absorb the beauty found in creative products is perhaps one of the most profound ways of remembering our humanity – which can be one of the most fragile of things that is battered by abuse, and maybe at first feels forever lost.

5. Constructive Experiences to Counteract Destructive Ones

Almost always, there were good experiences in formal or informal ministries happening right alongside the bad ones. I know not everyone who suffers spiritual abuse has that to cling to, but I did – thankfully! Perhaps this was just part of God’s providential intervention for me, because part of my calling as a research-and-developer kind of teacher has been to write extensively on the topic of safe and sustainable systems for Christian organizations (and the opposite thereof), and part of learning to discern required just as many experiences in healthy, constructive churches and ministries as in dysfunctional, destructive ones.

Final Thoughts

The other night, our men’s study group wrestled some more with subjects like hope and despair, and how they relate with our prayer life. One basic theme was that when we’re desperate, we’re more likely to be prayerful. Enduring the afflictions of spiritual abuse brings those still in them and those who survive them to what may be some of the most desperate times of our lives. Imagining a different, more wholesome future may seem impossible. And hope may be hard to find at a time when the very places of ministry that should offer warmth and light instead are pummeling us with shards of ice and shrouds of darkness. And yet, if my 40 years of watching and waiting is any indication, God’s Spirit is still at work – often unseen, seemingly slow, rarely doing what we think should be done to rectify destructive situations. Healing and redemption may arrive more at the speed of the tortoise than of the hare, but may I suggest that they are on the way, because He is faithful …

Teach me your way, O LORD;
lead me in a straight path
because of my oppressors.
Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes,
for false witnesses rise up against me,
breathing out violence.

I am still confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the LORD.

Psalm 27:11-14, NIV


This post really is about seeing God’s faithfulness in retrospect, and developing hindsight over the long haul. I survived my first malignant ministry experience – a four-fragment church split – at age 23. This split developed over a five-year period. I was so confused and hurt by the stress and mess it created, that I concluded either Christianity was a crock – – or that something had to be deeply, disturbingly wrong with how we’d lived out our Christianity in this church. I landed on the latter.

That crisis of faith AND practice helped me confirm that I would follow Jesus not matter what, and cling on for dear life! Which I had to do in order to move forward with life. The split was in 1978 – and the only resources I had were the Bible and any “balms of Gilead” that God provided through arts and beauty, and through His people who proved themselves safe, patient, and full of grace. Meanwhile, it would still be over a decade before major resource books would be published, like the first editions of Toxic Faith: Understanding and Overcoming Religious Addiction by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton (1991, 2001) and The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen (1991, 2005) – both great books that helped me immensely. I’m grateful for God’s mercy in helping me survive that and later experiences. And I do find redemptive purpose in creating for others now what resources I did not have at that time for myself …

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Malignant Ministries and God’s Mercies Thereafter

  1. It has been 20 years and I am still dealing with the effects and have to re think things some have blamed the Bible and have turned away. I say it is the twisting of the bible that we participated in for it is what we wanted to hear at the Time. I have worldly friends who are in abusive relationships it is the same thing one is physical and the other Spiritual. I stay away from forceful people and read on my own.

    • Thanks for your comment, Eric. From my experience, too, the effects often go way deep and can last a very long time – whether it’s physical or spiritual abuse. (My sister worked with survivors of domestic violence, and through her ministry I learned a lot about the aftershocks of the emotional manipulation and physical abuse that goes one.)

      In my own church experiences there was one pastor who was a clamp-down/control kind of abusive leader. Toward the end of my time in “his” church, every time I went out of my apartment, I was constantly looking over my shoulder to see if he was at this mall or that store … afraid I’d run into him and have to endure his glare. That anxiety lasted for several YEARS after I’d left that church, and even after I moved to another town, it cropped up whenever I visited where I used to live.

      That whole experience (which lasted over five years) shredded my emotions. But like you said, there was a lot of Scripture-twisting that put knots into my soul. I think I was on the right track in wanting a real and relational church experience … that’s scriptural … and the pastor at this church said stuff all the time that sounded very much like a match for what I understood to be the right thing. But his actions betrayed his words, and ultimately betrayed the truth. He talked grace but enforced a kind of legalism. He talked about everyone participating in ministry, but blocked everyone except his own picks from doing anything significant. There was a form of godliness, but it denied the power for living out true Christlikeness. As I kept looking at the Bible about what a body of disciples should look like, and then at what I was experiencing, it just didn’t add up. I had to rethink what I was experiencing, reject what wasn’t true, and refine what I thought about Scripture.

      A final thought on this: Over many years, one of the passages that has helped a lot was in Acts 17, how Paul spoke with the Berean Jews, and they checked things out for themselves in the Scriptures every day, to see whether what he was saying was really so. It’d be so much easier if those who are totally out for themselves and do it at the expense of God’s people would have signs around their necks warning everyone that they are “malignant minsters.” But since they don’t, we have to exercise discernment as individuals and groups.

      Thanks again for your comment, Eric. I trust you’ll continue to find the strength and tenacity and truth in your walk with Jesus …

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