One of my long-time friends who is a serial survivor of spiritual abuse in churches, contacted me about Ben Reed’s article on ChurchLeaders, about “Post-Traumatic Church Disorder.” He asked me what I thought about it. This post is the result of my spending the morning, working through the article.
* * * * * * *
Since 2007, I’ve written extensively on spiritually abusive systems. This portfolio includes a dozen case studies (for links, see the navigation sidebar, 2 CASE STUDIES AND ARTICLES), content analysis of books on abuse and personal recovery, sets of indicators for identifying malignant leaders and toxic systems, and practical how-to’s for when rehabilitation is/isn’t appropriate. I’m currently completing the first of four volumes in a training course on how to deal with toxic systems and how to set up healthy systems (see Futuristguy’s Field Guides site).
Toxic systems are complex phenomena that can involve multiple sources (e.g., malignant leaders, troublesome congregants, toxic infrastructures) and sequels (staying when you should leave, leaving when you could stay, PTSD, “nones, dones, and gones”). In comparing Ben Reed’s article at ChurchLeaders on “Post-Traumatic Church Disorder” with those categories, I found some helpful points, but felt it was more problematic than not.
I do believe the article embodies his well-meaning attempt to address some very real problems in churches, and it does include some accurate indicators of sick leadership. However, in my opinion, Mr. Reed oversimplifies both causes and correctives. He also mixes up categories of people involved; there is a significant difference between a “troubled” congregant (who is being crushed by those in leadership) and “troublesome congregants” (who are attempting to override those in leadership). He seems to put the weight of change on those who genuinely experience misuse of power/authority in a Christian church or ministry context – rather than on those responsible to remove unqualified and disqualified leaders.
And, from all I’ve personally experienced and heard from other survivors of spiritual abuse, that flip of the responsibility script will inevitably bring more harm than help to congregants. I’m concerned that his article can easily leave conscientious people feeling guilty, as if they’re causing dissension in the church, when in fact they’re discerning overlording by those who should be removed from leadership in the church.
Also, Mr. Reed apparently recommends that people stay and try to change themselves and the toxic church they’re in. However, in my long-term readings of books and blogs on recovery from spiritual abuse, the overwhelming pattern suggests the wisest general course of action is to leave a church where there are indicators of overlording leadership. Here are details on my conclusions and why I find this article problematic …
* * * * * * *
In the first paragraph of his article, author Ben Reed says he’s talked with men and women in ministry about what he calls “post-traumatic church disorder” (PTCD). I’m not sure from the article if/how much he’s talked with victims or whether he’s experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or PTCD himself.
Mr. Reed then gives a definition of PTSD and PTCD, and offers 11 indicators of leadership attitudes and actions in systems where there is abuse of power/authority. I find his list to be accurate, and they could be detailed out with many specifics of how these get used to “condition” both leaders and congregants.
He also notes that the poison of these attitudes and actions seep into the infrastructure of a church, which I have typically found to be the case. Also, the longer these kinds of abuses continue, the harder it is to correct things later. Unfortunately, this reality also means that if the offending individuals are removed, much residual toxicity from them remains in the institution. If the organization is to survive, those structural issues must be addressed, along with repair work with people who were harmed.
- Unhealthy staff culture
- Abusive (spiritual, emotional, verbal, physical or otherwise) leadership
- Unwise leadership decisions
- Constant complaining
- Fighting (open name-calling, character assassination, slander)
- Gossip (behind-closed-door name calling, character assassination, slander)
- Insulated leadership, refusing to be held accountable
- Self-serving shepherds
- Manipulative leadership
From there, Mr. Reed shifts from source attitudes and actions to destructive responses and constructive treatments. This is where it gets confused, I believe. He gives 12 symptoms of PTCD, and then 5 treatments. However, it’s only clear in the 5 treatments section that he’s speaking to followers in the congregation, not to church leaders. And this is also where the script gets flipped and “troubled” congregants who are having emotional reactions in response to the 11 unhealthy leader habits can be misinterpreted as being “troublesome congregants” who are causing or continuing the problem.
Don’t get me wrong; troublesome congregants are a genuine concern. I have spent hours with church and ministry leaders who’ve been intentionally undermined by people in the pews who seek to control the direction of the church, veto or vote out those on staff whom they don’t like, gossip and back-bite in order to ruin the reputation of leaders and others, etc.
But, Mr. Reed’s 12 so-called symptoms of PTCD can be signs of an observant, intuitive, and spiritually in-tune congregant in response to abuse – actual or perceived – by overlording leadership. While some of these behaviors look the same as those of controlling congregants, the underlying motivation of controlled congregants often is not. Take a look at his list:
- A deep distrust of church leadership, despite anything specific that you see.
- A callousness towards church staff.
- Growing cynicism towards the church.
- Growing desire to gossip about leadership.
- When your pastor calls you, your first thought is “What have I done?” or “What’s he going to be mad about this time?”
- A knee-jerk anger when your pastor asks to meet with you.
- A knee-jerk fear when your pastor asks to meet with you.
- Constant questioning of the motives of your church staff.
- Refusal to engage in serving and attending worship.
- Continual doubting of your pastor’s heart.
- Refusal to give financially to your local church because of your distrust.
- A growing anxiousness in dealing with church leaders.
I could be misunderstanding him, but when Mr. Reed lists 12 symptoms of Post-Traumatic Church Disorder, I get the sense that he believes each one points at sin on the part of the followers – perhaps based in faulty interpretations of their leaders. However, in my personal experiences and in considering 10 years of interviews with survivors of church abuse, I’d conclude just the opposite. We should consider these reaction patterns as indicators of spiritual discernment and/or the Holy Spirit moving the person out of a church so they are not lost from involvement with the Church. Don’t just suggest they are all sins and invalidate the underlying perceptions that there are malignancies to deal with among leaders and in the church system.
For instance, a “growing desire to gossip about leadership” (#2) may actually be the victim searching for help to process and validate their observations and to know they’re not crazy. A “knee-jerk” (#6, #7) reaction could mean a follower’s conscience is fighting against a manipulative leader’s conditioning. As a survivor of multiple abusive situations myself, this list makes sense to me because the kinds of sick and subtle conditioning that go on in toxic churches twist reason, toy with emotions, and tear a hole in the soul. Didn’t God create our conscience, emotions, empathy, and gut intuitions to activate for good reason, in order to protect ourselves and others?
This list of 12 symptoms seems to be a challenge to potential “troublesome congregants” to examine themselves and not give up on church. Mr. Reed recommends 5 treatments:
- Remind yourself of who the church is.
- Help make better decisions.
- Serve selflessly.
- Don’t go it alone.
To me, these 5 “treatments” potentially keep conscientious congregants locked into a toxic system where they actually cannot influence the leaders or directions in constructive ways, no matter how much they want to or how hard they try. So, the longer they stay, the more harm they will endure, and the more likely they may be to abandon church life completely in the long run. I believe experiencing abuse, false guilt, and responsibility-shifting to victims is why there’s a significant dropout problem and an increase in those who identify as “nones” (no religious preference) and “dones” (no conventional/institutional church involvement, though may still be active in faith in the community).
In my opinion, if you perceive several of the 11 indicators of toxic leadership systems, it is time to leave – because those are all milestone measures that the system is unlikely to get fixed. (As far as I have studied, there are scant cases of overlords mending their ways, church infrastructures being repaired, and reconciliation efforts reaching out to those victimized. In most cases, the underlings just continue to get crushed spiritually until something irrevocable and outrageous happens so that there is no doubt about the toxic nature of the leaders/system. If Mr. Reed or others have case studies where abusive systems were reversed, I am very open to hearing about them.)
I’d suggest that Mr. Reed’s 5 treatment actions are better recommendations for what to do in seeking another church to call home – a place where leaders are transparent, open to input, and earn your trust. To those, I would suggest 2 concrete steps to undertake, whether you are a leader or follower in such a system:
- Discern whether leaders (paid staff, key volunteers, board-elders-deacons) meet biblical qualifications for character and behaviors, or are UNqualified (due to lack of emotional-relational-spiritual maturity or needed skill set for their roles), or are DISqualified (due to breaches of biblical character/behavior standards for those in the public eye, and so should be removed from public ministry with no guarantee of ministry restoration).
- If the leadership overall is unqualified and/or disqualified, then abuse is inevitable, if not already happening. Leave unless the Holy Spirit clearly is leading you to stay. Don’t take the opposite approach, i.e., stay unless the church leaders force you to go. (And if you are led to stay – which I have been at times, even in the most toxic of situations – be open to what specific purposes the Spirit seems to have in you remaining there for a season. But remain aware of the possibility, or necessity, of departing.)
* * * * * * *
I’d like to recommend resources for particular audiences.
If you are a paid or volunteer leader, and you perceive abuse of power in your in church or ministry, I consider Barb Orlowski’s book is the best resource for your situation. In the course of of work on a Doctor of Ministry degree, Barb surveyed leaders involved in abusive organizations to find out what happened to them, how they responded, what has helped in their recovery, and how this has affected their involvement in church/ministry. The resulting book is, Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Dynamic Research on Finding a Place of Wholeness. The survey questions are on her Church Exiters website.
For a personal story of a church staff member who shifted course because he concluded what he was involved in was anti-biblical, check out UnLeader: Reimagining Leadership … and Why We Must, by Lance Ford. It traces how he came to shift his paradigm about church and leadership, and the changes that meant for principles and practices of leadership.
Whether you are a church leader or victim of abuse of power/authority by leaders, I’ve introduced relevant concepts of toxic spiritual systems on my blog page on Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse. This detailed introduction includes descriptions and specific indicators to watch for in identifying malignant leaders, intentional enablers, and people who are pawns in these sick systems. It also gives practical how-to’s for dealing with a range of unqualified or disqualified leaders, and organizations that are repairable versus need to be shut down.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious affliction, regardless of where or when the traumatizing experiences took place. One of the most comprehensive and practical sites I’ve found for understanding PTSD, for those suffering from it — and those who are their family, friends, advocates, and therapists — is the National Center for PTSD, posted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.