FAQs – What do “safe” versus “abusive” environments for personal and social transformation include?

Someone working on a research project recently asked me for my definition or description of “spiritual abuse” and how I would “measure” the levels of abuse and recovery that a person experienced. I’ll get to that task eventually, as it is part of my own research work on metrics of transformation.

But, to answer my researcher friend, I realized that first I needed to figure out the contours of what makes a system conducive to either constructive growth or to harm. A quickee checklist of abusive actions would be meaningless for measuring the degree of destructive impact from spiritual abuse. At the least, a workable checklist needs a reasoned and relatively comprehensive theory behind it. If we’ve developed a clear context for said checklist, that makes it possible to interpret the abusive actions, not just observe their presence. And my intuitive hunch is that a systems approach will also make measurement more possible for the overall negative impact or positive recovery from abuse.

So, I started by mentally cataloging what I have concluded a “safe” and “healthy” environment looks like – and then how the elements in that system get corrupted through “abuse” and “power-lust.” I also ran all of that through the grid of the book I’m writing about how to measure the qualitative impact of personal and social efforts for transformation. (We too often look at only the quantitative elements, like dollars and hours spent and the number of people at our activities. But those really only indicate our investment in the opportunity to possibly make changes – not the changes themselves.)

This all meant my approach to what’s “healthy” needed to include frameworks I use, like paradigm systems and quadruple bottom line thinking for achieving goals for the common good. (The definitions of these frameworks come in earlier parts of the book, but I’ll at least sketch them out here.) So, what follows is the overview of safe versus abusive systems that came out of that process. It’s still rough and needs more work, but it’s getting there.

What Do “Safe” Versus “Abusive Environments

for Personal and Social Transformation Include?

To get a good definition of “spiritual abuse,” I think you need to have a strong description of what constitutes a “safe” and “healthy” environment for personal and social transformation. Then, spiritual abuse involves any kinds of attitudes, beliefs, and actions that foster an unsafe, unhealthy, harmful environment for everyone in a group or organization – even if the destruction appears to only be directed at specific individuals or subgroups.


A safe, healthy environment for discipleship and spiritual service maintains a dynamic tension among individuals, their organization’s community, and the larger global culture, economy, and ecology.

It allows for self-determination of direction by individuals … while keeping in mind a social conscience toward how the behaviors of individuals affect the lives of those they connect with and are interdependent upon … while keeping in mind how individual and group activities affect the broader positive transformation concerns of justice, lower ecological impact, and productive purposes for the common good … while seeking to act consistent with a comprehensive, coherent approach to honoring God’s moral, ethical, and ecological imperatives. In short:

People who are safe, healthy, and mutually transforming to be around are those who demonstrate “Kingdom culture” – the embodiment of the character of Christ in all aspects of life. That incarnational character comes from the inside, not from being imposed on the outside, and it flows through all forms of social organization they participate in. These factors are crucial, because, as Price Pritchett says in The Ethics of Excellence, “The organization can never be something the people are not.” We cannot create a safe organizational environment for spiritual transformation if none of our people in it role-model what it means to have our character changed.

The dynamic tension of human rights and responsibilities within a quadruple bottom line framework (community, ecology, economy, spirituality) is designed to foster freedom. Yet, although this may sound relatively open and transformative, that doesn’t mean that “anything goes.” Too much organizational structure leads to constriction; not enough structure leads to chaos – and neither one of those is a safe system for finding personal and social purpose.

Also, trying to keep all people involved can actually detract from the common good when some people attempt to co-opt the system for selfish purposes. Whether these abusive people come across as “nice” or “nasty,” they cause direct and indirect harm to people through their use of manipulation, deceit, threats, ultimatums, bullying, sarcasm, gossip, invalidating comments that dehumanize individuals or groups, and/or outright violence. We must be vigilant to guard against people in the organization injecting their “poisonous DNA” into the system. We must block them from using their participation, position, and/or power in ways that taint the organization and turn it spiritually abusive.

In their essence, forms of spiritual abuse typically betray various aspects of Kingdom culture and what is safe, healthy, and transformative.

A system that inflicts harms elevates and protects people who act the following kinds of ways that pervert the dynamic tensions described earlier.

  • Deny, negate, or invalidate individual worth, discernment, and self-determination, through both overt social overrides and covert social pressure by the leaders, their followers, their organization, or the larger society.
  • Focus on externals (such as appearance and behaviors) and conformity instead of over internal character qualities and transformation.
  • Deny or disregard social connection, conscience, and consequences through crass individualism and/or an attitude of consumerism that expects some sub-group in the organization to “serve” all the rest.
  • Deny or disregard the transcultural issues of common good (justice, ecology, economy) that transcend all virtual boundaries (e.g., gender, generations, race/ethnicity, social-economic class or caste, access to technology, political units or countries, blocs and alliances, etc.).
  • Pervert biblical principles by holding to a form of godliness, but denying the power that makes it possible. It all becomes rule-and-role-centered instead of Spirit-empowered.

There are typically multiple, intertwined sources that lead to corrosive systems of spiritual abuse in Christian churches, ministries, and non-profit agencies. Each abusive/authoritarian system will have its own unique combination and twist on these elements. The directions it goes depend on the dominant people in it and their paradigm system.

The DNA of spiritual abuse affects all three layers of the paradigm system: theoretical (the deepest “DNA” level, which includes epistemology/processing style, values, and beliefs that drive all other aspects of the system), operational (organizational strategies and structures), and relational (lifestyles, cultures, and collaborations). Then, there are three kinds of personal involvement that create an interlocking support network for abusers.


  • Abusive leaders who use the system and its people ultimately to serve their own personal purposes and power-lust, even if they insist their beliefs, values, and behaviors are all “godly.” These so-called “leaders” rarely act alone. They rely on several kinds of enablers.
  • Their active supporters act as henchmen who carry out their directives. Often, this gives leaders plausible deniability, because they are removed from direct victimization of people. Active supporters also enable abusive leaders by defending their character and choices.
  • Their passive supporters give excuses for or remain silent about leaders and their henchmen. In essence, they affirm the abuse, protect the abusers, and perpetuate the system of victimization.


  • An organizational culture of abuse that conditions the ways people act toward one another in all levels of relationship (friends, family, groups, teams, congregation, culture). The culture creates social pressure to conform to the abusive norms – regardless of whether the overall atmosphere is hypermoral (legalism, compliance) or amoral (license, chaos).
  • Organizational partnerships where external groups (e.g., project collaborators, ministry associations and denominations) reinforce the abuse and abusers of the local organization and fail to confront it/them.


  • Organizational infrastructures that have been slanted to benefit the abusers and their supporters/enablers. This could include processes and procedures related to communication, finances, accountability, constitution and by-laws, membership covenants, who can lead and who can volunteer – or the lack thereof, for any of these elements. The tentacles of toxicity eventually reach into every corner of the corporation, such that if the abusive leader is removed, the system coasts onward with abuse because it’s become woven into the very fabric of the infrastructures.
  • Operational strategies, such as specific approaches to how and why people get together as a congregation, who qualifies as their leaders/employees and how they are hired and fired, associations with denominational entities or other groups and what ownership or influence they are allowed to have with the local congregation.


  • Any form of epistemology and/or specific theological perspectives that inherently lead to abuse, whether through flaws of deficiencies or of excesses. (For instance, fatalistic-deterministic views of God. Legalism – saved and/or sanctified by works. License – what you do doesn’t matter. Dominionism – that Christians should dominate politics and all other realms of culture to impose biblical morality.) This also includes what kind of leaders that theological systems sees as required, how they are chosen, how much authority leaders and followers have, and consequences or processes involved when leaders prove themselves to be unqualified (due to spiritual immaturity) or disqualified (for patterns of sin, including abusive behaviors).

A system may or may not yet exhibit all the elements interwoven together. However, they likely will in the long run unless something is done to intercept individuals and systems at risk, or to intervene to expose and stop abuse that is already in place. Even if abusive leaders and their supporters are removed from the system, that doesn’t automatically fix the hangover elements that remain.

These various individuals and features ended up grafting corruption into every level of the “paradigm DNA” of the organization. But recovery is possible for those personally harmed by the abuse of power, and change is possible for an organization that has been co-opted and corrupted.


My intuitive sense is that survivors of spiritual abuse will find substantial healing in the long run when they work to analyze and interpret what happened to them and around them that inflicted trauma on them. I think it would be especially helpful to work through the various possible layers involved, as outlined above. Were the sources in what they experienced as spiritual abuse: personal, relational, operational, and/or theoretical? Each kind of source likely requires different solutions for recovery.

For instance, sometimes the abuse is not about the specific person who becomes a victim, but about some aspect he or she represents – some specific, identifiable (or self-identified) cultural category that marks them for victimization. Let’s use the category of women as a mini-case-study, and list some specific examples where attitudes and behaviors about women may set up situations of spiritual abuse through misuse of authority or power dynamics.

  • Personal. The pastor is a misogynist, and he acts out on that toxic hatred of women by dehumanizing or otherwise marginalizing them – even if these behaviors happen to contradict the organization’s official theological stance.
  • Relational. The church exists in a host culture that has strong gender-based roles for what a woman can or cannot do in their society. That may require some cultural adjustments in the ministry settings to be sensitive to the host culture – while not letting that culture’s restrictions diminish biblical mandates about freedom and opportunity for women.
  • Operational. The denomination does not allow women in roles of ministry over men, therefore the local church member of the denomination abides by that.
  • Theoretical. The official theological view is patriarchy, meaning that men are supposed to exercise “leadership” over women in all relationships: courtship, marriage, family, workplace, church, society.

By analyzing the specific source (s) of the spiritual abuse or discriminatory treatment, abuse survivors can better interpret their experiences. (For instance, they may find that at least some destructive experiences had little to do with “the system,” and more to do with idiosyncratic behaviors of certain people who were allowed to act that way or who successfully hid it from people in the system.) From there, they can become more specific in considering how to react in terms of their own recovery, and how to act with strategic and appropriate responses to the particular causes and/or perpetrators.


A similar approach of paradigm analysis is needed to get specific about what has gone wrong for an organization, and then address the set of difficulties they uncover in their system. To achieve restoration – to turn or return toward health as a group – the people of the organization or community need to examine their corporate values, beliefs, operational systems, internal culture, and external collaborations. They need to analyze how they created an environment conducive to planting and maintaining misuse of spiritual authority and power structures, and how these led to the personal benefit of some and the victimization of others.

After conducting this kind of system analysis, people in the organization can work toward figuring what concrete steps to take that clear out the debris and return it to a spring that brings life instead of a toxic wasteland that brings death. Those processes (which I write about elsewhere) can help them:

  • Refind what communal resources they had and have.
  • Redress the relational and organizational problems.
  • Bring restoration to the people who were harmed.
  • Recover a more positive and constructive future.
  • OR close down the organization permanently if it cannot be turned or returned to a safe and healthy system.


With all that background in place, now, here are some descriptions and checklists that hopefully will make far more sense because the can be placed into a larger interpretive framework.

For basics of how abusive leaders function: Strategies and Tactics of Leaders Who are Abusive.

For basics of how abuse survivors heal and recover: How Do I Know I’m Healing From Abuse?

For basics of how an abusive system changes: Spiritual Abusers, Toxic Systems, and God’s “Gestalt of Grace.”

For a fairly comprehensive listing of Christian books on spiritual abuse through about 2011, see: Chronology of Books on Spiritual Abuse and Recovery.