How I Got Into Research Writing About Spiritual Abuse, Part 1

SOURCE: Thread starting with my response to a question that Andy Garber asked me in a tweet of February 17, 2020. This was in the larger context of posting about experiences in Pullman, Washington, and Moscow, Idaho–often called The Palouse Region.

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The bulk of my origin story about exposing abuse is in a case study entitled “A ‘Hostile Takeover’ and Resulting Trauma.” That happened in Pullman — a four-way church split in 1978 that had about a three-year build up. There were NO “recovery books” on spiritual abuse at the time. /1

Some of the split-offs wouldn’t talk with each other. Some people just totally dropped out of Christianity. So a lot of survival was just me plus Scripture plus the Holy Spirit. I had to decide whether Christianity was a crock, or whether something was terribly wrong in how we were taught or how at that church. /2

None of the four splinter groups survived. I eventually went to a church plant on the WSU campus, Church of the Covenant. Wonderful pastor, narrative preacher so you really felt like you were in the biblical stories he preached from, non-belligerent kind of Southern Baptist. /3

That church plant didn’t survive due to finances, but it did implant in me a sense of prophetic imagination for what church-as-community-life-together could be. I’d eventually come to realize in connecting the dots as a futurist, that imagination plus hope plus prayer amplify resilience. /4

Abuse survivors and others burdened by experiences that bring a weight of being downtrodden may not feel hope or that life is going somewhere. To them, I suggest that when we pray, aren’t we envisioning a world different from what seems inevitable otherwise, but for God’s providence? /5

I believe such constructive experiences grace us with resources to survive trauma, through what this book of essays about JRR Tolkien and “enchantment” call Deep Roots in a Time of Frost. Thus, Church of the Covenant set me up for what I call “The ABCs of recovery” — Arts, Beauty, Creativity. /6

Finding and embodying the storyline in Scripture and in our own lives individually and communally can become a strategically significant element in what my friend Meah taught me is “post-traumatic growth” i.e., how we (sub)create meaning and purpose in life, during and after suffering. /7

All of this was happening 15+ years before the first Christian books on recovery from spiritual abuse were published. So, I didn’t have checklists of theologies to avoid (e.g. Shepherding Movement) or what makes for a malignant minister or toxic organizational system. So–that period went from the fry pan, to cool-down, to right into the fire. /8

Church of the Covenant folded, I landed at a church plant in Moscow, and eventually moved to that town, just eight miles away from Pullman. I’ve not written up details experienced at that church, but it turned out toxic, too. Sadly, solo church planters with no outside network of accountability can quickly go authoritarian. /9

Linguists and futurists see patterns — whether we want to or not. It’s how we’re wired. I subliminally observed that new people came into that church and calculated that they left about 18 months later. Few people stayed longer. It seemed most had fiery conflicts with the pastor. (I certainly did.) When I left, anything related to Jim or Doug Wilson was not a viable option. /10

I ended up in another local church that turned out to be a place of great respite and recovery. In fact, one elder said they’d “turned into a hospital church for people wounded at [the church I’d been at] and Jim and Doug Wilson’s ministry/church.” There I learned necessity of healing and essentials of recovery. /11

So … that 15-year period brought me an explosive four-way split (in the church where I became a born-again Christian and was baptized), a church that fueled my imagination for what church should/could be, a slow-drip “progressive church split,” and a church that welcomed the wounded and soothed our spirit. /12

Those are origins to my call as research writer on abuse. Also significant is that I’ve worked with non-profits since 1972 (unusual for a high schooler in that era) and been writing and content editing since the early 1980s.

I had tons of questions from those destructive and constructive church experiences, I figured others did, too. /13

Thus, it seems a good fit with my gifts in teaching that the best way I could contribute to abuse survivor communities AND church/ministry/non-profit teams is by processing my experiences, curating resources on both toxicity and healthy ministry, and developing indicators and training curricula. /14

Since 2007 and taking Barbara Orlowski’s survey for ministers spiritually abuse by other ministers, I’ve focused on writing. I estimate that I spend a minimum of 1,000 hours a year research writing on abuse-related issues, primarily spiritual abuse. /15

I’ve specialized in case studies and concept frameworks for identifying and dealing with abuse. I apply this material in realms that I’ve worked in or studied extensively: church plants, non-profits, social systems. My perspective is integrative, and includes organic and organizational systems, and intercultural teamwork. /16

Which brings us full circle: I remember what it’s like to feel lost in trauma, full of questions, and without resources. So I create/curate information plus analysis on elements and situations of abuse. I trust that an accessible knowledge base will equip the next wave of survivors and church/ministry leaders to figure out answers to questions they face in their life, times, and cultures. Selah … /17

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In Part 2, I anticipate sharing an overview of other experiences and influences that nudged me toward research writing about abuse and recovery, key lessons I’ve learned from five church and ministry situations that turned out toxic, and what happened with the leaders and/or churches in those five situations.