Thursday, August 9, 2012

How Can Spiritual Abuse or a Controlling Pastor Destroy a Marriage?

I've been having discussions about how spiritual abuse affects marriages.  The abuse can occur in a somewhat direct fashion (such as Paul's story) or indirectly.  When I did a quick Google search on spiritual abuse and divorce, there was very little on the topic.  Yet since publishing Paul's story, I've had more people send their stories or mention they, too, have gone through divorce as a result of spiritual abuse and how it devastated their lives.  This is much bigger than I thought.  And it pains me to know that so many are dealing with this issue alone.  If I am describing your story, I want this message to be loud and clear:  you are NOT alone.  

I'm going to share a different slant than Paul's story.  It did not get to Paul's level of destruction, but looking back, I can see how it could be a setup for disaster.  

Pastor Coming Between Spouses in Unhealthy Ways

In our church, it struck me odd that our former pastor had long phone conversations (sometimes more than an hour) with married women while their husbands were away at work.  I had no indication in any of these situations that there was anything more than long phone conversations.  As far as I know, the topic remained on spiritual matters.   However, this sent warning signals to me - especially since the pastor had pretty strict guidelines about men/women and their interactions (do not be seen alone with someone of the opposite sex, do not be in a car alone with someone of the opposite sex, etc).  For the record, I think there is wisdom in setting some guidelines, don't get me wrong.

Here's a little background info.  This pastor had mentioned that he thought women should remain silent and not ask questions or add to the discussion during the various teaching times at church.  According to the pastor, this was so that men would step up to the plate and assume their spiritual authority in the home.  He felt that if women were doing most of the questioning and talking, men would be more inclined to sit quietly.  Having women remain quiet, he thought, would encourage men to engage in the discussion.  

So JA asks:  why did the pastor have long private phone conversations with wives instead of encouraging them to discuss this topic with their husbands?  Or why not include the husband in the conversation and/or schedule a meeting together?   I wonder how the pastor would have felt if my husband had telephoned his wife to engage in a spiritual discussion while he was at "work".  (JA's side commentary:  Spiritual Abuse 101 = Everybody obeys pastor's rules except the pastor.  OY!!)

Anyway, imagine the kind of intrusion into marriages this could cause.  Let's look at this hypothetical conversation between husband/wife based on the above scenario:

husband:  how did your day go, honey? 
wife:  fine.  I got a call from pastor. 
husband:  really?  again?  why? 
wife:  oh, we were discussing Romans 13.
husband:  why?   did you ask him to call you?  
wife:  no, he just called to talk about it.  he wanted to make sure I understood what he was talking about last Wednesday 
husband:  Oh.  hey, were you able to get my blue polo shirt washed?  I want to wear it tonight. 
wife:  no, sorry, didn't get around to it.  the phone call took too much time.
husband:  (deafening silence)

Ok  - that may be a lame (can you tell I live with teens?) conversation, but any number of scenarios could come up between a husband and wife when a pastor crosses  boundary lines in a marriage.  It can start out small, but eventually husband realizes that pastor is taking up a lot of his wife's time and energy.  It's not helping the marriage whatsoever.  The pastor has come between the husband and wife in their normal day-to-day affairs, rather than encouraging their togetherness.  He is undermining the marriage and the trap is set for an emotional connection between pastor and wife that could destroy a marriage.

Let me take a brief diversion to discuss how all of the above affects the bigger church.  The scenario I discussed brings up a whole lot of questions and I remember having crazy thoughts and feelings during the time.  Here's the deal.  People who knew this was going on were also affected in some way.  It affected husband/wife relationships and families.  It caused at a minimum, questions or concerns from those not personally involved.   I'd like to welcome you into the world of my head during that time.  Fasten your seat-belts, here goes:

Where were the husbands?   Did they think this was ok?   If they didn't think this was okay, did they bring this up with the pastor?  If not, why not?   
Did the pastor's wife know about these long conversations with other women?  How did she feel about them? 
What about kids who were at home who heard these long conversations with the pastor - did they think it was odd that their pastor kept calling their mom?  Why didn't mom have as much time for dad, but gave more time to their pastor?   
I also wondered how those particular women were selected and why he didn't call me.  Was I too spiritual or not spiritual enough?  Did I not ask the right questions?   
This seemed to create an inner circle and it brought back feelings of high school cliques and the "in" group.   Why was there an "in" group at church?  Why didn't I fit into the "in" group?  Was something wrong with me?  What does God think about "in" groups?
Knowing that my good friends were being called by the pastor left me intrigued and yet happy for them because in my mind I justified that a pastor would only be wanting the best for his people.   So I justified within myself that this was good, that he was helping them in their spiritual struggles.  They seemed to be so spiritually confused or have many more questions since coming here, so it appeared he was helping to settle their minds.   This must be good, right????
Yet, on the flip side, there was also a creepy, icky feeling going on.  This kind of thing was accepted there.   Should I question it?  Was I wrong for questioning it?  Why do I always question things?  I felt if I were to question it, I would be the odd person out, the stand-alone person, and that is not always a fun place to be.  

Do you see that crazy thinking going on in my head?  Some questions were good, but at the same time I made excuses, justified behaviors, wanted to believe the best, and even questioned myself.   What eventually happened to me was I ended up distancing myself a bit from my closer friends.  I could not condone what was going on, but also had a hard time speaking out against it.  I was confused.  It was not until months after leaving the church that my very close friend and I almost screamed to each other saying:  what was THAT all about?  We could then see it very clearly, that it was completely wrong.  We couldn't see it so clearly while we were there, but it became obviously wrong once leaving.  Living in a church like this makes your brain go crazy with this flip-fop reasoning.  Surely I was not the only one who had thoughts like this.  

Ok, let's go back to the topic on marriage and how controlling pastors or spiritually abusive pastors can affect or even destroy marriages.  

I noticed that Pastor Ken Garrett mentioned controlling pastors and how they could affect the marital relationship in his excellent blog post here:  1 Timothy 4:1-16 Study Notes: End Times Teachers, Fallen and Faithful.  Be sure to read it to get the full context.  

Here is a quote from Ken's blog post specifically addressing controlling pastors and their influence on marriage:

 Control of followers  
3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth.
  • These leaders will gravitate towards undue influence and control of some of the most routine and personal aspects of the lives of their followers, namely, personal-intimate relationships such as marriage, and the daily activities of life, such as eating.  It is common for those in controlling, abusive ministries to find that the influence of their leaders creeps into even their most intimate relationship—that of marriage.  This happens when the marriage relationship loses its intimacy, and even secrecy, and comes under the control and authority of a pastor or leader.  Bad leaders are suspicious of all relationships that are out of their reach and control—such as the relationship between a husband and wife.  

A healthy marriage is one in which husband and wife share openly and secretively with each other.  Communication is foundational.  I was struck by reader, 56 Years a Baptist's beautiful comment yesterday.  Here's the part that tugged at my heart and made tears well up in my eyes:

My healing came about through a person God brought into my life, my heart, and my home. We are still madly in love with each other, get over the rough spots through times set aside for conversation every day.

This one-on-one conversation builds the relationship and intimacy.   This  intimacy is sacred.  It must be respected and encouraged.  A pastor who interferes with this relationship is certainly not honoring the sacredness of marriage, nor the the integrity of the family.  


  1. TOTAL PAGEVIEWS: 198,765

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    3. Great googly moogly.

  2. Thanks for this post. Processing...

    1. wallflower - you aren't the only former member processing.

    2. I've been thinking quite a bit about the getting between husband and wife thing. I did get a phone call once that seemed to have no real purpose behind it. Always have had kind of a weird feeling about it.

      Seems to me like the over scheduling of weekends (friday nights, breakfast on saturday for the men, all day in church on sunday) is also a method of disrupting marriage and family. If you are busy with church stuff you don't really get time to just hang out with your spouse and kids. Or it might be just that the abuser can't stand the idea of "his people" being out of his line of sight.

      Still processing...

  3. If everybody obeys the pastor's rules except the pastor, that's a big red flag. The pastor shouldn't create rules that are extrabiblical. The pastor shouldn't create rules that the poor, dumb sheep are supposed to obey but that don't apply to him because he thinks he's wiser.

    Any pastor who has multiple, long, private phone conversations with any woman other than his wife...ginormous red flag.

    Still praying that people in a church with these characteristics will open their eyes.

  4. Great post Julie Anne,

    These wolves exert control by crossing boundaries. They don't cross in big bounds but in little steps. This leaves open many ways to explain things away. I suspect that sometimes our only warning is that creepy feeling we get when the boundaries are crossed. When we start explaining away the behavior it gets harder to get out. We start, in a manner of speaking, throwing good money after bad.

    Your post is a good reminder to me that, as a pastor, I'm charged with doing everything in my power to build up and strengthen marriages. Thank you.

  5. phone rings:

    woman: Hello?

    wolf: (sniff) Hey!

    woman: Pastor?

    wolf: (strange gummy slapping sound) Is your husband home?

    woman: No. He’s at work, you know that.

    wolf: Right. So, what are you wearing?

    woman: Excuse me?!

    wolf: Ahh, what are you wearing to the church picnic on Saturday?

    woman: I don’t know? Why?

    wolf: Well, last year you remember Patty Purswell came inappropriately late to the picnic wearing pants?

    woman: She’s a nurse. I think that’s her uniform. She was coming directly from work.

    wolf: It’s a violation of god’s law... Hezekiah 13:6 or something, something... (sniff, sniff)

    woman: Ok...(?)

    wolf: Yes, they were white pants too, and with her being a fat bottom woman, she really filled those pants out tight, so tight I could see her underwear, she was wearing blue panties with pink polka dots beneath her tight-white-worldly-pants. How abominable!

    woman: ok

    wolf: Yes, I and the elders addressed the issue with her the day after the picnic.

    woman: O, I was wondering why we haven’t seen Patty since the Sunday after last summer's picnic.

    wolf: Rebellious woman of the world she is—harbors a wicked Jezebelian spirit.

    woman: Uhm, Pastor?

    wolf: Yes?

    woman: You’ve caught me at a bad time, I’m in the middle of cooking some cookies and cleaning up the house for the Ladies’ Bible Study this evening. Should I have my husband call you back?

    wolf: No. I just wanted to have you...Yes, I just wanted to have you remind the newer and younger ladies of what it means to dress modestly. And, Uhm, delicate matter here: Judith’s daughter was wearing eye make up again at youth group. Please bring that up. I may have to privately discipline her if she doesn’t get with the program. (sniff) Ok?

    woman: ok

    wolf: Alright. I’ll call you tomorrow to see how the meeting went.

    (click. wolf hangs up)

    1. That's funny! Love your sense of humor, monax. Thank you for that.

    2. I trust I've built up enough personal capital with Julie Anne for her to let me slide on this. She may have to post a lyao trigger warning!

    3. How does Reverend Wolf not get a talking-to from a husband in a scenario like that?

    4. Just barely, David.

      If wolves were only so obvious as that. The day a pastor starts dissecting women's panties privately to me would be the last day.

      But while we're at it. Check this out. Never-mind. I can't stand it anymore. I have to do a post on this. Stay tuned. Oh my. This gets me going.

    5. Hmm...the way my former 'pastor' did this was to install the 'target' woman into a staff position (volunteer at first) and then set it up to have weekly meetings with her to go over the 'report' he required for the 'position'. He targeted(s) women who are in (or have just come out of) abusive relationships. He offered to give marriage counseling. He used what he learned in these 'counseling' sessions to manipulate the woman - by offering the very things she was starving for because of the abuse: understanding, compassion.....attention.

      If the first stage went well, he would 'promote' her to a 'paid position' - the better to lock her into a position that is hard to get out of. Think about it. Most women in abusive marriages have husbands who control, in part, by controlling the money. In giving the woman a paid position - and offering not to tell the husband - he is giving her a sense of freedom.....

      He is a master groomer. I know of one woman that it took him a full 14 months to break her defenses down and manipulate her into the place where she gave in. This included lying about how his wife treated him, saying that God ordained it and reading out of Song of Solomon....but these were the last stages. The first stages were just kind sympathy for the pain she was 'understanding ear'.

      I know - personally - of 4 who were targeted, and anecdotally of at least 4 more.

      Hmm...the more powerful the kool-ade served, the more blatant the leader can be...he would actually have the ushers hand her folded up notes during service. They had no idea they were 'love' notes....

    6. how insightful, Jeannette. not just your discerning read on things, but how the wolf leveraged his own discernment toward his hungry wolfish ends.

      so your former 'pastor' used his position of spiritual authority and gifts of insight to 'target' starving sheep. this is most sad—not just the blindness on the ‘pastor’s part due to his lust, but the blindness at the victim’s end, a blindness due to her ongoing starvation.

      what did Joseph Conrad write in Heart of Darkness: “No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze.”

    7. Sadly, I did not see it while I was there - until the very end when I walked away. This is not something that happens overnight. I was broken and starving, myself - fortunately, I wasn't his 'type'. At least not for that kind of attention. But I was ripe for his manipulations from the pulpit and bought a lot of the bull for several years. It took the incident I described above happening to a dear friend right under my nose to break the spell. Even then, it took my friend and I several months to begin to really process exactly what he had done. Most of his victims allowed themselves to be swept away - pushed out of town - and believed they were the only one - he just had the 'one time lapse' 'everybody makes mistakes'. They still believe they were mostly to blame - because that is what he and his wife told them....

    8. BTW - it has been 5 1/2 years since I walked away and it has only been in the last few months that I have reached that place where I am no longer afraid of him.....of what he can do to me.

    9. if there's ever any concerns of danger, Jeannette, please consider contacting me and I will do everything in my power to protect you. no one should ever be afraid of a 'pastor'... of what he might do to you.

  6. When our pastor emails me he usually cc's my husband and his wife. If he calls me, it is a very quick and to the point conversation covering whatever he needed to ask or tell me. Any longer conversations I have with him take place in the company of others or at the very least with his wife or my husband present, such as when they are over for supper. This is not a RULE or anything set in's just sensible; and it is part of a pastor living a life that strives to be above reproach.

    JA, what you’ve described sounds very, very unhealthy.

    1. Of course I was thinking of this in my dealings with my current pastor. Today he sent me an e-mail regarding a couple memorial services I'll be playing for and I figured out rather quickly that his secretary also accesses his e-mail as she responded to my e-mail from his account. That's a new one. And today I probably spent over an hour alone with the pastor - whoa - in the sanctuary. I was at the piano - and he was singing :) Doors were open. All cool.

  7. Julie Anne, by coincidence I posted an article today called "My Thoughts on the Sexualization of the Church (and Other Problems)" at that also addresses the clergy sexual abuse problem.

    1. VK, i'm reading you now and just came across your poem Do Cry

      you are an exceptionally gifted poet! very beautiful poem.

      btw, although I've only reached so far as the poem, i'd like to say that in my estimation that sort of talk is inappropriate for mixed open company. at least that conversation would never take place in my company. (i'm a single man but if i were married) i'd never casually discuss the private personal details of my marital intimacy even with my best guy friends. it's a sacred holy thing that is kept between a man and his wife.

    2. Virginia, I stand up and applaud you!

      Lots of good and wise advice in that post, thank you.

      . .

      As a single man in my thirties I worked with pre-schoolers in the church nursery. I really loved those kids, and they loved me back. We learned and experienced a lot together. Most of their parents knew me and trusted me with their children’s lives. On more than one occasion the other nursery adult would disappear for awhile when I was with the children. I remember strongly emphasizing to the women who headed up the nursery to never let that happen again. Never leave me, never leave an adult alone with children. Especially a man, goodness, the stigma male care givers still have in this society. Not that the children needed protection from me, but I needed protection from ever the appearance of an impropriety.

      Btw, Tim and Kathy Keller give three outstanding talks on Sex, Singleness and Marriage.

    3. Thank you, Virginia, it's a great article.

  8. Definitely I have lost my husband with a different problem. His beloved preacher taught him to not truat a word or thought from me for "Eve was deceived"; so I've been treated with utter contempt for wanting to ask them questions before my husband joined them without me. Women are like bigger children it appears; The preacher wouldn't allow anyone to treat HIS wife the way he treated me when I was visiting them however. My husband likes their control of women ideas. I hope someone out there understands why I haven't left--don't have too many options at my age either; seems Paul got a lot of sympathy ha! ;O) thanks for your prayers!

  9. Dancing in ColoradoAugust 9, 2012 at 9:17 PM

    sorry--should have proof read: make that "not trust" in 2nd sentence. and the different problem is that the preacher will not treat me as being 'worthy' of speaking with; my husband's picked up his disdain and contemptuous attitudes toward anyone who'd disagree with him; honestly, it's hard for me to barely believe this has happened--almost unbelievable to me so perhaps others find it too hard too believe. Thankfully Julie does believe me for she's seen it and there have been others I've met over internet who've been through similar and sure did believe me and understand. "Too crazy for words" really caught my attention above. This so-called preacher wiped out the intimacy of spirit we'd had before going there and the vital trust needed to have that intimate communication necessary for all parts of the relationship. My husband even said maybe "you don't know what it means to be a real woman" since I was different from the twenty-something year olds in the 'church' (of just several couples). And for years he has let me know he's martyring himself and staying with me--but his attitude is that I am a nasty person not worthy of any esteem or respect as being another Christian even. So I guess this IS so crazy that few folks can take it in nor know how to sympathize. My family certainly couldn't. (he is one very 'charismatically' agreeable, witty, cordial, gentleman with everyone else BUT me practically ha! He truly is 'trying' to do in his flesh what only the Lord's Spirit can do and promised TO do in us after we're born again. And that IS 'legalism'. The Lord said that the letter kills but the Spirit makes alive, didn't He? I do understand that better now. I think our society has also been taught there is something 'wrong' (mentally) with a woman who will stay with an abusive man, whether he is emotionally or physically abusive, or both. So I believe women are in a worse situation often from abusive 'preachers' coming between them and their own husbands as I've experienced. (all half-kidding above about 'Paul getting more sympathy' aside)

    1. Dancing, The issue you are addressing is most certainly a real and shocking reality for many, many women. A lot of it stems from Patriarchal circles. Thank you for mentioning it. It is something that I should post about. I have dealt a lot with this in my homeschooling circles. In extremes, it devalues and degrades wives and mothers. It absolutely is abusive and God certainly would not be pleased. Christ does not treat His Church in such a manner, so neither should husbands treat their wives like way.

    2. Dancing in Colorado: And that IS 'legalism'.

      Since I'm stirring the pot today. Behinds the scenes yesterday JA and I were discussing Bob Jones University.

      I wrote to her: I remember as a teenager being at a youth conference or something that had a video promotion for Bob Jones U - I remember hissing and booing so those around me would be alerted to my perspective regarding the school. If I had known better I would have shouted "Legalistic Fundamentalism is of the Devil! Students Beware!" Seriously.

    3. Dancing, here's a hug from a distance. You are hurting because even though your husband is physically there, he's mentally and spiritually gone. I imagine that this creates a deeper loneliness than actually being alone. I am so sorry.

      I will be praying for you.

    4. Dancing in ColoradoAugust 10, 2012 at 11:07 AM

      Thankyou! :O)
      What really spurred me to write was reading Julie's ending above. For a so-called preacher to unashamedly, brazenly think he is so holy and righteous that he is thus qualified with God-like insight to judge hearts) and thus to cause the break up of a marriage and then cast all blame on the wife with false accusations, is just incredibly hard hearted and deceived, isn't it?
      I now realize that 'narcissistic' is an accurate term.)
      He did all that too, while saying he had other preachers (who just happened to be either related to him or close friends-all fundies, tell him he has done everything perfectly).
      Below is the part that was so very true, it made me 'wah' out loud to you guys again, ha! "got cheese with my whine?" (but really, you know that the Lord is a God of compassion and He in you, using your compassion for me, has been a wonderful edification. 2Cor.1

      "A healthy marriage is one in which husband and wife share openly and secretively with each other. Communication is foundational. I was struck by reader, 56 Years a Baptist's beautiful comment yesterday. Here's the part that tugged at my heart and made tears well up in my eyes:

      My healing came about through a person God brought into my life, my heart, and my home. We are still madly in love with each other, get over the rough spots through times set aside for conversation every day.

      This one-on-one conversation builds the relationship and intimacy. This intimacy is sacred. It must be respected and encouraged. A pastor who interferes with this relationship is certainly not honoring the sacredness of marriage, nor the the integrity of the family"

      This bunch robbed us of that and will be having to explain it to the Lord before I keep hanging on. Once in a great long while, i get a glimpse of the man I fell in love with, so I keep praying for him and trying to be a good wife to him, but using the Bible as a guide, NOT the extra-Biblical ground rules his 'church' added to it.

  10. Julie Anne,

    Not only can spiritual abuse (or legalism with wrong views of marriage, divorce and remarriage) destroy a marriage, it can prevent one from happening or cause an unwise one to occur. Both can be tragic.

    I don't have time right now to explain my past situations, but I'll drop by this thread later and give a few examples.

    1. Thank you, Steve. I'm definitely interested in more examples.

  11. Here's how legalism can affect marriage. Years ago when I was a fairly new Christian, I was changing churches, and had about a 4 month overlap of attending both churches at the same time (too long a story to explain why). They were both very legalistic, but as I experienced, their legalisms were different, and in many cases mutually exclusive!

    A year before my conversion to Chrisitianity, the woman I was married to (she wasn't a Christian, either) had an affair, then divorced me to run off with this other man. In most of Christian history, the church would say that because adultery and desertion had occurred, I would be free to remarry, biblically speaking. But...

    The first church had very twisted views of marriage/divorce/remarriage. They believed that there was no remarriage after a divorce for any reason. Not only that, but they believed that divorce wasn't real in God's eyes, and therefore I was still married to this woman in God's eyes, and I was to remain single as long as she still lived. Some even told me that since she was still my wife (an unbeliever) that I had to woo her back. (I guess I could have killed her and then been free to marry again, but only if I pulled off the perfect crime! LOL) This church ended up splitting because the leader was Harold Camping (yes, THAT Harold Camping) after his very first failed end-of-the-world prediction. Most of my friends there split with the good guys and also began seeing the wrongness of the legalism there. But many of them still held the marriage teachings. They told me that if I every got remarried that I would be committing adultery, and they could not attend any wedding of mine because they couldn't bless adultery. Also, adulterers don't inherit the kingdom of God, so if I ever remarried it would likely mean that I wasn't really saved. There were many in that church that had to live under the same oppressive legalism, and it took many years for people to undo this thinking and live normal lives again.

    The second church, however, had a completely different view. Not only was I FREE to marry again (like most Christians have believed), but I needed to actively persue marriage! It is not good that man be alone, after all. The bible says so! So, these people strongly encouraged me to find a woman right quick like. I was under mutually exclusive legalistic teachings at the same time. Imagine the confusion this could cause somebody younger in the faith like I was at the time.

    So the first church prevented marriages from occurring, and the second pushed people into marriage in an unhealthy way. So glad all this was behind me when I finally did marry. I married the right woman!

    1. Steve, I appreciate your story. Thank you for sharing it with us. I'd like to echo Holly's sentiment below: I'm glad you found the right woman!

    2. Thanks, Steve, for sharing your story. Wow, that was some crazy time for you. You would be the ideal candidate to say good-bye to God/church entirely.

      I think you need to write a book - you probably have enough stuff with the Camping experience alone.

      I've always sensed an underlying passion in your words on your blog and in your comments on other blogs. It makes sense now. I'm happy for you that you took your time to marry the right woman despite crazy teachings. Keep writing, Steve.

    3. Actually, what I've written is only a tiny fraction of a much larger, very bizarre story. Yes, the Camping thing could fill a book, easily. I call it my "Camping trip from (to?) hell."

      And, yes, I've struggled with faith/church many a time.

  12. Makes my head spin, Steve. I'm glad you found the right woman despite the odd counsel. It is amazing to me that you emerged a believer from all of that.

    1. I married my sweetheart from my college days - finally - like 17 years after we met. That story is even better than the above one is bad. :)

  13. phone rings:

    husband answers: Hello?

    (wolf hangs up)


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