The past few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences with various kinds of churches, ministries, and Christian non-profits. Mostly I’ve focused on situations that relate to spiritually abusive leaders and toxic organizations. But I’ve also considered relationships with other Christians where they got into or came out of “christian cults.” I won’t be going into the details here, but I did want to share the big picture of what’s happened. Keeping that big-picture perspective in mind, here are the contours of what I’ve experienced.
In about 40 years associated with the evangelical church, I spent a total of 26 years associated with 7 different situations that turned out to be malignant ministries. In most cases, the person or organization was already toxic, but it took me time to figure that out. Usually, I left the situation soon after – but not always. There were a few times when I stayed far longer than I wanted, strictly because I strongly sensed I was supposed to. That happened several times, even when I clearly knew the situations were toxic. As it turns out, by staying in those particular experiences longer than I personally wanted to, I ended up seeing things happen that were crucial to developing a broader perspective of how spiritual abuse works, its impact on people, and how God does something redemptive despite the abusers. Discernment coupled with a commitment to follow through yielded important fruit.
In this 40-year period, I have been involved:
- With about a dozen pioneering ministries, organizational start-ups, and church plants.
- Directly and/or indirectly with multiple unusual ministry organizational situations: church-within-a-church, church/ministry mergers, church transitions, and church or ministry closures.
- Occasionally with interdenominational events at the local and national levels, and once in an inter-religion discussion group.
- With four church splits of various intensities and durations. One split into four fragrments in two years. At another, the leakage of leaders and members was constant, with some staff lasting barely a month. Another lost probably a third of its membership. At another, most people left within a maximum of 18 months of starting to attend.
This doesn’t mean that I’ve seen it all. But it does mean that I’ve seen a whole lot: good, bad, and ugly. And all of that sets the stage for the points of my last post and this one.
In my last post – Reflections on Malignant Ministries and God’s Mercies Thereafter – I shared five observations drawn from those 26 years of toxic organizations. In summary form, they are:
- After every disastrous experience that could have led to despair, God provided both key individuals and one or more churches/ministries to help me cope, process, recover, just “be,” etc.
- Circumstances of their own making eventually cornered the perpetrators such that each eventually had to face some kinds of consequences for their actions.
- Not in every case, but in many of them, individual enablers or side people came back to offer a word of apology, or acceptance, or thank, or “wish I’d listened,” or something like that which indicated growth for them personally and taking some level of secondary responsibility.
- Media helped … and the core themes here were epic storylines where good overcomes evil, or that connected in a healing way with deep emotions, or that made me laugh – often at the ironies and absurdities of being human.
- Often there were good experiences in formal or informal ministries happening right alongside the bad ones, which helped balance things out in the long run.
I discerned other important aspects of malignant ministries and ministers from the body of abusive experiences during this same 40-year period. I’ll expand upon them in my forthcoming book, Safe Houses for God’s People. It deals with how to discern malignant ministry, support survivors, dismantle systems of spiritual abuse, and (re)build safe and sustainable places of discipleship. Here are three important other things I learned, dealing with cults, church discipline, and key “action-reflection” questions that emerged from various specific instances of abuse.
1. Some Characteristics of Cults (and Even Occultic) Ministries
I lived in multiple places where there were churches and organizations that were considered “cults,” often by both people in churches and in the community. Most of these cults directly affected relationships with people I knew – friends, roommates, fellow church members.
- Some of these cults were just local, one-off entities, while others were just one more manifestation of greater- or lesser-known cults (like Aryan Nations or British Israelism) or false doctrinal systems gone viral (like the “Prosperity Gospel”).
- ALL of them featured toxic, authoritarian leadership with varying levels of excessive influence from their dazzling intellect or their celebrityship (neither of which biblically have ever been indicators of holding to true doctrine), to their outrageous control via Shepherding Movement style overlording.
- ALL of them featured some form of legalistic salvation and sanctification – either false requirements to become Christians or to earn God’s favor as a Christian, or faulty interpretations of what God was required to do for Christians.
- As a result of these various cults, some of the people in them that I knew isolated themselves from any church, or insulated themselves from all Christians outside their own church. One roommate withdrew himself from interacting with the rest of us, and eventually moved out (like his “shepherd” told him to) and moved in with guys from his new church. One acquaintance had elders who pressured him to enter a marriage match that they arranged for him with a woman in the church he’d only known for six weeks – and there were problems immediately.
- Not all cults are occultic, but some of them I knew of were so wrapped up in spiritual warfare and fighting off the invisible forces of evil that I would suggest they were dabbling in a form of near-occult “ChristiAnimism.” (That is a very serious charge and I have addressed that in my page on Theodicy – the conflict of good and evil. There I suggest some resources that consider the questionable biblical integrity of strategic level spiritual warfare, spiritual mapping, and the “Transformations” video from The Sentinel Group.)
- Sidenote: Where I have lived for the past 20 years is rather known for syncretism. It has a number of churches and ministries which represent fusions of various kinds of esoteric and occult philosophies/religions hidden underneath a veneer of Christianized language. These are clearly cults and outside The Church, while the ChristiAnimism ministries function within organizations generally considered orthodox otherwise.
2. Church Discipline ~ Too Often, Mostly Done Badly
I have witnessed about a dozen times when the extreme measure of church discipline was carried out … and a few when it wasn’t, but should’ve been, to make the church a safer place for everyone to be in.
- Only about four times did I see it done correctly and kindly, according to the process of Matthew 18, and with kindness and openness toward the person. In two of those cases the person responded through repentance and eventually returned into a forward-moving relationship with Christ and productive fellowship in the local church.
- In some of the other eight or so cases, the pastor knowingly failed to share key factors about the situation which might well have led to an opposite conclusion about whether discipline was appropriate or not. These hidden details later came to light and people (rightly) felt like they’d been duped.
- In some cases, outside people with some kind of inside authority were brought in to help validate the pastor’s decision and process amongst congregation members. These included denominational leaders, and fellow pastors or staff from other churches. Some reamed out the congregation for their supposed lack of support for the pastor, others simply reinforced the pastor through their presence. But, it turned out these outsiders hadn’t been told the full truth, they’d been given a severely “spinned” version. And at least some of them later acknowledged their gullibility or apologized for their ignorance.
- In about half of the other situations, “discipline” was equated with everyone shunning the dis-fellowshipped persons – shutting them out, refusing to speak with them. However, when Jesus said to treat unrepentant disciples as you would “a gentile or a tax gatherer,” what do we know about how Jesus Himself treated gentiles and tax gatherers? Did Jesus shun them in the way these pastors required? No.
- In some churches, there were people in the congregation who SHOULD have been confronted and disciplined but were not, and they continued to cause confusion, dissension, and contention. Not surprisingly, some of these were in the same churches where discipline was applied … so it turned out to be quite selective, depending on what those in control felt like doing.
3. Key Questions Arose for Personal Reflection and Ministerial Responsibility
In the storyline of our lives, a spiritual question resides. Questions we pick up from our providential circumstances – like “Why me, God?” and “Who am I and how do You want to use me?” – help sensitize us to watch for the answer. And we simply cannot fully figure out the answer in advance. Hopefully as we process the “embedded question” as best we can, it readies our discernment to see the answer when it unveils itself. And, ultimately it turns out the Answer is not a what … it’s a Who, an Answerer. (Hope Awaits: Pursuing Questions That Lead to the Answer[er])
At least one key question that I had to face about my personal paradigm and spirituality came out of each major experience of abuse, plus at least one key question about implications for my social responsibility for ministry in and through the Body of Christ.
Put in terms of the thinking process: Within the “What?” details of every abusive experience there arose several “Now what?” challenges out of considering the “So what?” interpretation of its redemptive meaning. Each question eventually led to further understanding, further action, or both in the years that followed their emergence.
But how do we distill these out of our experiences? What happens for you when you read the following question?
“When you think about your toxic church experiences, what do you think were some questions for you that brought a redemptive edge to your understanding of them?”
For some of us, we’ll know instantly and intuitively. The moment we’re asked, we might even open our mouth to say something like, “Uhh … I don’t know …” and out will pop an answer. After that, we may be able to add what specific points seem to contribute toward that answer, but that only explains why, not justifies it. Thus, the question confirms the process. Here are four actual intuitive statements I got from people I know about several different churches.
- I was there a month and I just felt a really weird vibe there, so I left.
- I met the pastor and it really R-E-A-L-L-Y creeped me out!
- His expressions looked totally plastic and I thought, “This guy’s too slick.”
- First time I saw him, even before we were introduced, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
For others of us, we’ll process it in an opposite way. We’ll detail what happened, analyze what seems to be behind it, think about it some more, tinker with ideas. Gradually a question or two or a few will surface as we spend time intentionally reflecting on all of this. The details that prioritize themselves over time describe and analyze the situation. Thus, the process confirms the question. Here are four actual intuitive statements I got from people about those very same churches as for the list of intuitive statements above.
- This is a little church, but in just a couple years, they went through, like, a whole series of worship leaders, children and youth leaders, advisory board people??
- The preacher consistently talked over final points about the sermon with his associate – in the front row – right during the worship time. Talk about distracting!
- Nobody brings their Bibles. They don’t project Bible passages on the screen. The pastor only occasionally reads the Scriptures during the sermon.
- I was sort of new to church, and was thinking about attending long term. I couldn’t find their mission or vision statements anywhere, so I asked three different paid staff people what they were. Two didn’t know for sure and said what they thought it was, and the third said something and then went and checked to see what they had in print. He came back with it but wasn’t sure it was current. I found out later they’d been re-doing their statements, but basically, no one knew anything.
Hopefully that illustrates the differences between intuitive and intentional observations. The same basic question that came out of ALL of these people’s experiences is, “What’s up with that?” NONE of the people stayed in the churches for long. And, as it turns out, ALL of these churches eventually proved to be very toxic and a lot more people ended up leaving them.
Regardless of how we processed our experiences of abuse to distill out some questions, we don’t have to justify our responses. And we may not find validation for our perspective from other people in the same malignant situation, whether they’ve left it already or not. I’ve found that some people end up with different issues to consider because of their own particular level of spiritual development at the time it happened. And some people in the same church or ministry that I was eventually came to essentially the same conclusions, but it took them three or four years longer. There is no formula for when or if it happens, how long it takes, or how deep the questions will go.
Anyway, here are the questions about personal spirituality (first in the set) and social responsibility (second in the set) that came up for me in my seven worst experiences of malignant ministries and ministers. I’ve put the main themes from the experiences in order by topic, not according to the timeline in which they happened. The questions don’t fit those two categories perfectly, and themes and questions may not make complete sense because I’m not sharing the full context here. But still, perhaps some of them will resonate with things you’ve wondered about or stumbled upon because of your own experiences.
1. DOCTRINE. Doctrinal imbalances can eventually lead to severe cases of overfocus, and those in turn naturally lead to tipping the scales in the direction of disaster.
- Will you continue following Jesus, despite the fact that others follow a fake Jesus and/or harm others in His name?
- Will you keep seeking for a relatively balanced church worth participating in?
2. ENABLERS. In a sick system, other agents and organizations (like publishers, event planners, and media) provide back-up support for spiritual bullies.
- Will you be courageous and disclose sufficient detail about a spiritually abusive person if the situation calls for it in order to alert those who would otherwise be hurt, whether by their direct involvement or through their organization’s association?
- Will you confront the system that supports abusers so they can’t continue their abuse – or at least, not unchallenged?
3. EXCLUSION. Strong biases for certain learning styles with no accommodation of people with other styles leads to an organization with severe blind spots about growth/progress; the very people who could help the organization thrive are excluded from contributing.
- Will you learn to pray for those who block you from ministering according to how God made you – and seek to forgive, and try to understand what context has shaped them for ill?
- Will you be considerate of people who don’t fit the mold of what’s expected for how people “must” learn or serve?
4. INHUMANE TREATMENT. People should be more important than things; we should not sacrifice people’s welfare and dignity in order to enhance the financial bottom line.
- Will you keep the commitments you made in good faith until they are fulfilled – even if the organization fails to do what they’ve promised – or unless God releases you from them?
- Will you ensure the entire organizational strategy and structure of any ministry you begin reflects balanced, life-giving Christian faith and practice consistently?
5. MONOCULTURAL SUPREMACY. If you refuse to integrate the cultures in your midst, the organization eventually disintegrates.
- What makes you susceptible to leaders like this who eventually pressure everyone to conform toe their personal culture?
- Will you integrate people with differences in learning styles, cultures, generation, etc., in order to create a stronger team for Kingdom ministry?
6. POWER-LUST. Control-freak leaders love power (and themselves) more than they love people.
- Will you continue to keep asking questions about what these leaders say, and keep cultivating your freedom of thought, conscience, and self-determination?
- Will you speak up and keep contributing, despite fears or reprisal?
7. RESOURCE MISAPPROPRIATION. Clever manipulators can always find ways to bend organizational infrastructures for their self-serving purposes.
- Will you call for full truth and challenge the “spin” and partial truths the abusive person is giving?
- Will you warn perpetrators, stand with survivors, and work toward personal and church health?
For me, this process of reflecting on the last 40 years has been fascinating and encouraging – not simply for the opportunity to analyze, but to witness that God had a redemptive plan where I would experience His healing balm. It has been healing to see, feel, and know that God saw. God knew. God cared. The suffering was horrible and not something He caused, yet eventually I felt there was a redemptive purpose in having endured it. Only He could have brought that positive purpose about, and that has helped me move “further up and further in,” as C.S. Lewis suggested in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Final Battle. And in this all, I find ever more deeply that, in the midst of my questions, God is my Answer[er].