Spiritual Abuse Survivor Communities ~ 10 Trend Projections and Predictions for 2016-2020

Since 2008, I’ve been writing about different dynamics in the abuse of power, especially in religious institutions. Every year or so since 2012, I’ve taken some time out to note what I see as possible trends within spiritual abuse survivor communities. (I use communities – plural – because there are theological, denominational, and cultural differences among them, despite the common ground of surviving spiritual abuse.) What’s mostly been on my radar are trends in networking, resourcing, legal issues, and where and how spiritual abuse shows up across the theological spectrum. This year, my list turned out differently.

But first, in case you’re interested in track that trail, here is the series of links to my past posts on trends.

Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month: Emerging Issues, 2012.

“Hangover Unholiness” Left by Malignant Ministers: Spiritual Abuse Recovery Questions for 2013.

Spiritual Abuse Survivors: The “Community” Becomes a ”Movement.”

Capstone 2-4: Trends, Turning Points, and Tipping Points in Spiritual Abuse Survivor Communities (2014) – Part 1: Setting the Stage

Capstone 2-5: Trends, Turning Points, and Tipping Points in Spiritual Abuse Survivor Communities (2014) – Part 2: New Observations, Analysis, Interpretations

For more input on related emerging issues and trends, you should also check out the “2015 top 10 post” lists for these three blogs: The Wartburg Watch, Spiritual Sounding Board, and Warren Throckmorton. These are blogs with wide readership that will give you the pulse of what specific individuals and organizations have drawn the interest of abuse survivor communities, based on largest number of hits and/or comments.

As I mentioned, this year, my trends post is a bit different. Instead of just identifying trends, my thinking process seemed centered more on seeing where past trends and current events have been intersecting, and then projecting from those points into the future. What resulted was where I think things could go in at least the next five years and what they could look like. I’ve also included a few more specific “predictions,” when different trend streams converge around some particular group.

So, here they are, 10 projections and predictions, in no particular order – pretty much just how they emerged as I was writing. I numbered them just for easier reference. They may not come as much of a surprise to those who keep up with what’s happening in the broader cluster of abuse survivor communities – spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, etc. But I hope that they give a more articulate reading and reasoning to what I’ve suggested in past posts on trends, and take them a few steps further.

Spiritual Abuse Survivor Communities ~

10 Trend Projections and Predictions for 2016-2020

1. Four Core False Doctrines, Three Core Toxic Systems. Since the first Christian books on recovery from spiritual abuse were published in the 1990s, three main aberrant theologies have consistently been noted as associated with abuse:

  • Word of Faith, where if you can only conceive it, and believe it, then you’re “guaranteed” to receive it. Faith becomes a formula, that supposedly bends God to our will instead of us to His.
  • Health-and-Wealth and the Prosperity Gospel, where God’s blessing on you/your ministry is supposedly validated by wealth. And if you are poor or suffering, surely you don’t have enough faith and these are signs that God isn’t blessing you – and maybe doesn’t even really like you.
  • The Shepherding Movement, where authoritarian leaders who are higher up in the hierarchy than you are responsible to discern and decide on your behalf, and you are obligated to show them respect by your unconditional obedience. Such dictators have usurped the role of the Holy Spirit, and placed themselves in a position of mediating between you and God. And, often, they show no signs of being accountable to anyone else, though they demand you be accountable to them.

These heresies are not tied to any particular denomination, although certain of them are prominent in specific denominations, organizations, and movements. However, they do seem to lead to celebrity culture and spiritual abuse wherever you find them implanted.

I believe that, in the next few years, we will find spiritual abuse materials adding a fourth confirmed heresy to the list: Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS). This false doctrine sets up the idea that there is a hierarchy in the Trinity, and Jesus is permanently in a role of subordination to the Father.

ESS is centuries old, but has gained more prominence in recent years from some Christians who’ve used it as supposed biblical support of (1) authoritarian overlording of everyday Christians by their “leaders,” and (2) patriarchal control of marriage, family, and church by men over women and children. It is based in a principle of “same essence, different roles,” but this often strays into a practice of “different essence, higher-valued and lower-valued roles.” In my understanding, it’s not what we say but what we do that demonstrates what we truly believe and value.

With ongoing refutation of ESS coming from theologians and from spiritual abuse survivors, the battle within the Church is expanding and clarifying. The books on spiritual abuse and recovery used to be mostly about legalism and a gimmee-God form of faith. The focus is now on what I’d call the “Toxic Trinity of AMP”:

Authoritarianism (with leaders acting as mediators between God and believers).

Monetarism (with its celebrity/consumer culture).

Patriarchalism (with men subjugating women, and children, in the name of being “faithful” to “biblical truth”).

2. Networking is Moving Toward More Collaborative Action. Over the past three to five years, those who work with survivors of any/all kinds of abuse and violence have continued connecting behind the scenes. One result is investigative reporting and blogging that increasingly notes common features of conditioning, tactics, and trauma underlying child abuse and negligence, domestic violence, racism, rape culture, and spiritual abuse. This includes looking at institutional factors that protect perpetrators and revictimize survivors. There’s also been more emphasis in survivor media on authoritarianism, celebrity culture, and patriarchy as part of “multi-abuse syndrome” that typically combines dimensions of verbal, emotional, physical, sexual, financial, organizational, and/or power abuse.

I see this search for common ground as an indicator of a shift to more holistic, systems thinking. Helpful new insights and empathy tend to come from looking at the commonalities more than the differences.

Through sharing of insights and resources, trust has grown within this informal network. I believe its members will eventually collaborate in more formal ways, such as to develop prevention trainings, establish “safe ministry environment” certification standards and assessment tools, and conduct independent investigations into situations of alleged abuse.

3. Increased Calling Out of Abusers Plus Their Commenders, Defenders, and Enablers. Abuse survivors have gotten more used to exposing the toxic connections between those who directly abuse others through misuse of their position of power, and those who enable and protect the abusers. Documentation on such connections has become more common on social media, and survivors are more vocal in their public calls for enablers to take personal responsibility for their part in perpetuating abuse. If lawsuits by survivors become more commonplace (as I believe they will), expect that these other individuals and entities will be included as part of calling them to account. If they benefited somehow from their associations with the abusers, they share in culpability as accomplices.

4. Implosion of the Southern Baptist Convention and Other Ministry Associations. As the last of the Builder generation expires and the first wave of the Boomer generation retires, expect the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to become overtly and predominantly Neo-Calvinistic/Neo-Puritanical as younger generations of men take over. For instance, I expect that more SBC congregations will subscribe to the 9Marks contractual membership philosophy by 2020, even though this approach is already being tagged as “The New Shepherding Movement.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the SBC loses a quarter to a third of its stated membership roll during the next five to 10 years, due to normal generational attrition, but amplified by the exit of those with more traditional Anabaptist theologies who no longer trust the SBC system and its trustees. (Sidenote: The last of the Boomers, born in 1964, will be eligible for retirement with full Social Security benefits in 2031. This post from 2008 talks about ministry paradigm transitions with that milestone in mind.)

The more it appears the SBC Cooperative Program for fundraising and expenditures is devolving into a “Calvingelical ATM,” the quicker this membership drainage will occur. This exodus is representative of the wider debate over the meanings of key terms like gospel, evangelical, and missional. At its core, the split is over whether people are being converted to Christ, discipleship, and freedom/responsibility to discern and decide for one’s self; or to a narrowly defined theological point of view, discipline, and unconditional submission to human authorities. We can expect the stark difference in these views to lead to additional divisions in other ministry associations (such as church planting networks and community development networks) and denominations. This debate may also mean the emergence of alternative associations that explicitly reject principles and practices connected with “contractual Christianity.”

5. Lawsuits Against Allegedly Abusive Religious Non-Profit Boards, Staffs, and Membership. A common characteristic of abuse survivors is a desire to take actions so that what happened to them doesn’t happen to others. I expect lawsuits by the “nones, dones, and shunned” to become a more prominent way to push back on alleged ongoing abuse, harassment, and defamation done under the guise of “church discipline” by church leaders and members. This civil court response will be seen as necessary, due to the increasingly legalized and institutionalized forms of membership and discipline “covenants” adopted in evangelical and missional churches. These contractual agreements may be designed to promote conciliation and reduce church liability. But, in fact, they may make legal action the only pathway left to survivors when conciliation principles imposed are not so “biblical” as advertised; and when church board, staff, and/or members refuse to leave survivors alone.

So, I expect there will eventually be a very public civil suit against a prominent pastoral staff and the church’s board and members – along with significant damage awards going to plaintiffs. This massive loss will put other Neo-Shepherding organizations on notice that while their covenants may be “legal contracts,” they also create a formal, shared responsibility among board, staff, and members that may prove financially lethal.

6. Child Abuse Prevention Training. The forthcoming training curriculum on child sexual abuse intervention and prevention from G.R.A.C.E. will make a significant impact in the North American Christian community. I expect denominations from across the theological spectrum will start requiring completion of the curriculum and follow-up certification for ordination and continued licensure of their workers. Meanwhile, we’ve entered a post-Penn State/Jerry Sandusky and Spotlight era, where those who cover up known/suspected abuse share responsibility with convicted abusers. So, don’t be surprised if prominent pastors and ministry network representatives get embroiled in highly public criminal trials for failure in their mandatory duty to report known/suspected child sexual abuse, and related civil suits over “ministry malfeasance and negligence.” This is even more likely, should laws be enacted to lift statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse.

7. Organizational Evaluation and Certification for Preventing Spiritual Abuse. By 2020, I expect there will be an institute to train and certify watchguards, investigators, and bloggers. These advocates for abuse survivor communities will be trained to identify, document, and challenge public figures and organizations that abuse their position of trust and authority. This institute will be part of a broader coalition of individuals, denominational agencies, legal firms, and ministry networks committed to exposing spiritual abuse and offering support and services for victims.

8. IRS Regulations and Investigations on Religious Nonprofits Will Change. It remains illegal for religious non-profit board members, staff, and family members to receive excessive personal and financial benefit from the organization. this is called inurement. Celebrity-culture churches and ministries especially seem to have been safe havens for apparent inurement and other misuses of a tax-deductible donation situation. However, the IRS has not pursued investigations of religious nonprofits in recent years, as we found out during the shocking series of accusations and documentation about Mars Hill Church the past few years, over alleged misuse of authority, governance, and tax-deductible donated funds.

I wouldn’t be surprised if U.S. lawmakers eventually end tax advantages like housing allowances that previously applied only to religious nonprofits and their workers. But, at the least, I expect them to require the Internal Revenue Service to carry out investigations of complaints against religious non-profits. The pressure to do this may well come from spiritual abuse survivors continuing to report allegations of inurement and institutional mismanagement by churches and other religious nonprofits.

9. Abuse Survivor Specialists in Academic, Practitioner, and Ministry Fields. It often takes at least 15 years for a trend to find its way into the mainstream after it first emerges from the sidelines. The spiritual abuse survivor movement has been growing deeper and wider since emerging in the mid-2000 decade. So, it’s very plausible that, by 2020, we’ll see a significant number of spiritual abuse survivors and second generation adults reared in high-demand religious organizations entering professional fields and making their mark. This includes such fields as law, psychology, sociology, social work, forensic accountancy, arbitration and conciliation services, and ministry. These survivor specialist professionals will be highly informed and motivated by their experiences. Some will use their training in the pursuit of personal advocacy and support of survivors, others in the pursuit of social activism and justice for survivors. Overall, they will raise the profile of spiritually abusive systems, with their malignant leaders and enablers, and toxic tactics and impact. This will help reduce the footprint of trauma inflicted by these sick systems.

I have a hunch there will be at least three important outcomes from this trend.

  • This stream of spiritual-abuse-savvy practitioners will gradually make a significant impact on the documentation and public exposure of spiritual abuse, and in the identification, challenging, and/or prosecution of perpetrators and those who enable them.
  • Another possible result is research that stratifies the “dones” into different categories with different needs, according to whether they have experienced spiritual abuse, and if so, to what degree.
  • I expect this will lead to development of “anti-toxic church and ministry start-up strategies” by the dones. They will take the effects of past spiritual abuse into account and catalyze new kinds of ministries with built-in abuse prevention and intervention strategies.

10. Advances in Trauma Psychology and Research. The study of psychological conditioning, stress, and trauma goes back decades. In the 1950s, Robert Jay Lifton interviewed political prisoners who survived the Chinese cultural revolution. In 1961, he published his findings in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, and his eight indicators of a sociological “cult” have provided the groundwork for studies of cultural, political, and religious forms of authoritarian abuse. Dr. Lifton also produced research works on the holocaust, the medical experiments of the Nazi doctors, Hiroshima, and many other traumatic events and traumatizing organizations. He is considered a founder of the discipline of trauma psychology.

With more spiritual abuse survivors going into professional fields, I expect a formal specialization will eventually emerge within the discipline of trauma psychology, focusing on dynamics of PTSD from abuse perpetrated in/by religious leaders and institutions. I expect this will include professional, pioneering research studies, such as the following:

  • The potentially damaging presuppositions and practices in “nouthetic/biblical counseling,” with studies into if/how it amplifies the post-traumatic effects of spiritual abuse suffered by clients before they engaged in this form of counseling.
  • Various old and new incarnations of the Shepherding Movement, and the trauma caused by its leaders high-demand control and the resulting cognitive dissonance in followers.
  • Impact on second generation adults of being reared in high-demand/cultish religious environments (i.e., the parents converted by choice, but their children had no choice in the matter).
  • Level of commitment to following Jesus Christ and susceptibility to a type of Stockholm Syndrome when
  • Distinctive features of personal manipulation and social control used in religious contexts by those with Narcissistic or Antisocial Personality Disorder.

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Trends in Spiritual Abuse Survivor Communities (2012-2016)

Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month: Emerging Issues, 2012 (January 31, 2012).

“Hangover Unholiness” Left by Malignant Ministers: Spiritual Abuse Recovery Questions for 2013 (January 29, 2013).

Spiritual Abuse Survivors: The “Community” Becomes a ”Movement” (January 31, 2013).

Trends, Turning Points, and Tipping Points in Spiritual Abuse Survivor Communities (2014) – Part 1: Setting the Stage (November 30, 2014).

Trends, Turning Points, and Tipping Points in Spiritual Abuse Survivor Communities (2014) Part 2: New Observations, Analysis, Interpretations (November 30, 2014).

Spiritual Abuse Survivor Communities ~ 10 Trend Projections and Predictions for 2016-2020 (January 1, 2016).

Spiritual Sounding Board: The Legacy That a Defamation Lawsuit Left to the Survivor Community (February 22, 2016).

Survivor Blogging Trends 2017

Survivor Blogging Trends 2017: Part One – Past Articles (2012-2016) on Trends in Spiritual Abuse Survivor Communities (May 1, 2017).

Survivor Blogging Trends 2017: Part Two – Survivor Blogs Aren’t the Same as Discernment Blogs (May 1, 2017).

Survivor Blogging Trends 2017: Part Three – Positive Trends in Survivor Blog Communities (May 9, 2017).

Survivor Blogging Trends 2017: Part Four – Challenge #1 – We’re Working Mostly in Words (May 25, 2017).

Survivor Blogging Trends 2017: Part Four – Challenge #2 – Natural Limits of Crowd-Sourced Fact Gathering (November 2, 2017).

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10 thoughts on “Spiritual Abuse Survivor Communities ~ 10 Trend Projections and Predictions for 2016-2020

    • Thanks Jan — and happy new year!

      I think it’s important to offer perspective pieces once in a while, especially if our areas of interest may seem to have a limited audience for the time being. One never knows when something seemingly obscure can become the focus of current events … And that’s part of why I post some of the research writing that I do.

  1. Fantastic, Brad. One of the areas that I see being given much push back is about women. I see men and women increasingly challenging how women are treated and I’m so glad to see it. Until women can be freed from the spiritual prison men put them in, we can never be a whole church.

    Love this comment: “At its core, the split is over whether people are being converted to Christ, discipleship, and freedom/responsibility to discern and decide for one’s self; or to a narrowly defined theological point of view, discipline, and unconditional submission to human authorities.”

    • Thanks Julie Anne. Your observation about the push-back on how women are treated is related to the whole ESS/Eternal Subordination of the Son presupposition and the Patriarchy paradigm. I expect there to be a lot of material published about that in the next decade or so — both online, and via print-on-demand plus regular publishers — and connecting it with various forms of abuse. It’s a serious set of assumptions that seems to show itself where spiritual abuse exists.

  2. Hey Brad, thanks for the post! I wondered if you have explored the work of the International Cultic Studies Association? http://www.icsahome.com/home
    I just attended a regional ICSA conference, and was struck by the impression that they are light years ahead of Christian-based recovery care from spiritual abuse…and, that their therapists report growing numbers of patients entering therapy from abusive “bible-based” groups. They’re great people–hope you check them out if you haven’t already,
    Blessings, Ken

    • Thanks for the lead Ken. I have heard of ICSA and gone to their website on a few occasions over the past couple of years. I appreciate what they do. Some really important perspectives and resources come out of academic research work in “cult studies” and abuse. (“Bounded choice” theory and research into second-generation adults who were reared in cults come to mind.) Hopefully our communities can catch up, and also contribute specialized research to the pool of knowledge on related issues. Who knows … maybe I’ll even get to do some advanced stuff once my current writing projects are done.

  3. “I expect this will lead to development of “anti-toxic church and ministry start-up strategies” by the dones. They will take the effects of past spiritual abuse into account and catalyze new kinds of ministries with built-in abuse prevention and intervention strategies.”

    And then, if history and man’s inborn bent towards sin are any indication, the new boss will be an awfully lot like the old boss. The “sin nature” is quite tenacious. The churches of the “nones” will suffer from the same maladies and toxicities as the current churches despite their intent to be different. People with agendas will found them and run them.

    • I don’t deny our bent toward sin or that people with self-benefiting agendas will always try to weasel their way into power. But I do believe that replicating the same old toxicity is not inevitable. It takes discernment and wise decision-making and consistent vigilance — all in reliance on the Holy Spirit working in us individually and communally — to prevent the creation or perpetuation of sick systems. As far as I can tell from my reading of the New Testament, that’s what is supposed to be happening already.

      When we leave out of the picture and our practices the Holy Spirit’s empowerment for transforming us by applying God’s word to conform us to Christlike character, then all manner of evil is still possible — even probable. Then our Christianity is merely “holding to a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.” But I suspect that Christians who consider themselves “done” with institutionalized church and who are also survivors of spiritual abuse will have a lot of important indicators on their spiritual radar for detecting malignant leaders and sick systems. Once they’ve detoxed, they’re probably far more ready to serve the Body through anti-tox activism than those who may know the theory but don’t yet have the empathy.

      Anyway, those are just some initial thoughts in response. And actually, a huge part of the training course I’m writing is about how to do interception for individuals and entities at risk of becoming toxic, intervention when they’re already abusive/sick, and vigilant prevention so that people who are unqualified or disqualified to serve as leaders-teachers-rolemodels aren’t allowed to. Hoping to get that done this year …

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