A reader sent me a link to Eric Starkey's blog, A Different Perspective. I have been in contact with Eric and he has graciously given me permission to reprint his story. Eric's story will sound familiar to some. He writes well and from the heart. Whenever I publish someone's story, it is with the hope that it will make a connection with someone. Perhaps that someone will be you. If you connect with this story, I hope you will sense that Eric's story did not end with abuse. God has continued to work in His life and his recovery through spiritual abuse. ~ja
A public note to Eric from Julie Anne:
Eric, A lot of people won't like what they are reading from you. They will say you are wrong to go public with your story. Your story and my story has similarities. There will be people who will accuse you of being divisive and not handling this properly. I know you have not published your story in haste, but with much prayer and consideration. Your story represents what so many people are currently going through and they have felt trapped, unable to leave their abusive church. May they have the courage to leave now! Thank you for speaking out and risking all for the sake of Christ and His reputation and for the truth. ~Julie Anne
Hello, my name is Eric Starkey and I was a victim of spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse is a serious form of abuse which occurs when a person in religious authority or a person with a unique spiritual practice misleads and maltreats another person in the name of God or church or in the mystery of any spiritual concept. Spiritual abuse often refers to an abuser using spiritual or religious rank in taking advantage of the victim’s spirituality (mentality and passion on spiritual matters) by putting the victim in a state of unquestioning obedience to an abusive authority.Spiritual abuse is the maltreatment of a person in the name of God, faith, religion, or church, whether habitual or not, and includes any of the following:-Psychological and emotional abuse-Any act by deeds or words that demean, humiliate or shame the natural worth and dignity of a person as a human being-Submission to spiritual authority without any right to disagree; intimidation-Unreasonable control of a person’s basic right to make a choice on spiritual matters-False accusation and repeated criticism by negatively labeling a person as disobedient, rebellious, lacking faith, demonized, apostate, enemy of the church or God-Prevention from practicing faith-Isolation or separation from family and friends due to religious affiliation-Exclusivity; dismissal of an outsider’s criticism and labeling an outsider as of the devil-Withholding information and giving of information only to a selected few-Conformity to a dangerous or unnatural religious view and practice-Hostility that includes shunning, (relational aggression, parental alienation) and persecutionDespite the comparative frequency of spiritual abuse, those types of behavior and actions which are today classified as spiritual abuse can be seen to be prohibited in the major texts and scriptures of numerous religious traditions. Indeed, in the Christian Bible, spiritually abusive behavior is condemned as being one of the worst forms of sin due to its capacity to diminish or even to destroy an individual’s relationship with God.
For most of my time under him, I hung on every word that he said. In a lot of ways he began to control my life. For most of those years I was on staff at a church we had planted and had the “honor” of being considered one of his closest confidants. The fact that I got so close to him is what finally allowed me to eventually realize that he was spiritually abusing me, and others. Over time, I began to have trouble reconciling his behavior with what he was preaching and teaching from the pulpit. His sermons sounded so good… and so right, but what I observed from the fruits of his life began to contradict his sermons. Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them.” Keep in mind, drawing a large crowd and growing a large church was not the good fruit Jesus was talking about. There have been many, many people throughout human history who were talented enough to draw large crowds, but whose lives were not producing the fruits that Jesus spoke of.
The contrast between his actions and the entirety of the teachings of Christ is what finally brought me to the point of understanding what was actually happening. I must admit that it was a very long and confusing process. I can still listen to his sermons to this day and be tempted to think that everything is “just in my head.” This is just part of the deception of “spiritual abuse.” I have wrestled with writing this blog post for some time; the deception that surrounds everyone involved in a situation like this is what finally motivated me to complete this post and make it public.
It is very embarrassing to admit this, but my mind really got messed up while I was under this man’s influence. I remember really wanting to leave the church multiple times but slipping deeper and deeper into it all at the same time. By the time I was in my late twenties, I began to question this man to his face in private meetings regarding the decisions he was making. Reasonable questions mainly regarding the diversification of church government and the simple fact that I wanted to leave the church. Every time I would question him the conversations would get more intense. We could never agree to disagree; he was adamant that I always see it his way and conform to his way of thinking. And He would make me feel like I was going against God when I questioned him. I loved God with all my heart and the last thing I wanted to do was rebel against Him, so I would end up cowering to the abusive pastor every time.
In the last few years that I was under him, there were many times when I was in emotional agony; there are simply no other words to describe how I felt. I would go for long walks trying to sort things out. I would lie in bed at night and wrestle with why things were the way they were. I would work very long hours at the church attempting to prove my loyalty to my pastor and God. I guess deep down, I was still attempting to seek acceptance from him. I was looking for a “pat on the back.” I needed a “pat on the back” from him. It all sounds so “sick” now as I think back on those days.
Within a few months it was obvious that I made an awful decision. After we became full-time, he thought he owned us! The abyss between what he said from behind the pulpit and what I observed by watching him became simply un- reconcilable. During this time, I began to lose respect for him. BUT, my mind was still warped. I did not understand what spiritual abuse was and I was not aware of the dynamics that were happening inside the church and inside my own mind. I was hurt, confused and in emotional turmoil. But, I still felt a need to submit to him, to honor him, to be loyal to him and most importantly to protect and defend him. –Even though I was beginning to lose respect for him. Yes, I was a mess!
I knew when the pastor found out that we were leaving that he would do whatever he could to stop us. I also knew that when he realized that he was not able to stop us that he would do his best to cut us off from our church family and He did. There were meetings held behind our backs. He told the staff and the church board that he knew we were going to fail on our next ministry endeavor. The night that it was announced to the church that we were leaving, we were not even allowed to be in the room. STILL, my mind was warped; I did not fully understand what was going on. He did everything he needed to do to make our departure look “OK” publicly, but what happened in private was a different story. I went along with everything and never uttered a single negative word against him to anyone in the church. I “honored” him throughout the entire process.
This man who had called himself one of my best friends, and “my spiritual father” quickly kicked us to the curb. When he found out that we wanted to plant another church, he gave me six weeks to get out. As a matter of fact, I was vacated out of my office within a few weeks and forced to use the sound booth in the youth building for an office the last month I was on staff. He would have kicked us out sooner, but he needed us to wrap some things up and train others to do what we were doing. We also had a big Easter drama planned and I was the only one who knew how to operate all of the sound and video equipment. Keep in mind that I had faithfully served him for over six years in the current church working full time hours at very part time pay for over five of those years. None of that mattered; I was no longer useful to him. On my last day in the office, he did not even get up from behind his desk when I left. No embrace, no handshake, absolutely nothing but coldness. Even after everything that had happened, I was still absolutely stunned and deeply hurt. –But still making excuses for him.
Our way out of the abusive situation was church planting. We moved 725 miles away to plant a church in Terre Haute, Indiana. Moving away was the best decision we could have ever made. We decided to move because I did not want to plant a church locally. I knew it would be a mess if I did. I also just wanted to get away from the situation; there was so much hurt and confusion. Keep in mind even at this point, I still honored this man. I still defended this man. In the year after we moved to Indiana, people from my former church would call me and complain to me about the things he was doing and I would STILL defend this pastor. I would still make excuses for him. The reason why I would never publicly address the situation or acknowledge the problems were because I still believed that God was using him and directing him. I did not want to have a rebellious spirit. I was also still praying and hoping that he would see his errors and repent. I truly believed that he eventually would.
How did I come to the realization that I had been spiritually abused? That’s a good question. When we left the abusive situation, we had no idea we were being spiritually abused. In fact, we did not even know what spiritual abuse was. I guess back then, if someone would have asked me what spiritual abuse was, I would have thought it happened only in extreme cult cases like David Koresh or Jim Jones. Obviously our situation was not nearly as extreme. I would have never connected myself to spiritual abuse. I was too smart and too strong to be a victim of something like that. Yeah, right… My first clue was a conversation that I had with the pastor of the church in Indiana that “mothered” our new church plant. I remember telling him in a conversation that he was my “new “pastor and therefore I was submitting my ministry and church plant to him. (Not submitting to the church, but to him personally.) I remember the look on his face after I said that. He had a puzzled look and did not quite know what to say. We moved on to other conversation, but I remember that awkward moment; it stuck in my head for some time.
As with all of us who follow Jesus, I was not perfect either and God was leading me through a process to break my pride and arrogance and to bring me to a place of deeper surrender to Him. He used my church planting experience to break me down and to deliver me from my arrogance and pride. In the midst of that process, I began to build relationships with other pastors at God’s direction. I began attending a weekly pastors’ prayer group, having lunch with other pastors and attending and then working in spiritual retreats called “Emmaus Walks.” The more I got around more experienced and healthy pastors, the more I began to realize that things “weren’t right” in me and in my past. I began to address these things as God brought them up in my spirit.
During this season of my life, I wanted nothing more than to completely surrender my life and ministry to God. As I began to deal with my own spiritual “unhealthiness,” it became apparent to me that I had learned these behaviors from my former pastor. After all, he had started “mentoring” me when I was 18 and he had declared himself my “spiritual father.” I addressed him on a few different occasions; once by phone and another time by letter. My hopes were for repentance (on both sides) and complete restoration; the results of my attempts were completely the opposite. My attempts at communication were private; his responses were made publicly from behind his bully pulpit.
Through this process I realized that I still had an unhealthy emotional connection with this man. After everything that had happened, I still yearned for the relationship to be reconciled. I realized that my emotions and my spirit had been damaged by this unhealthy relationship and church experience. I did not know what to call it, but I knew something was not right in me. It only took about thirty minutes of research one evening to learn the name of what had happened to my wife and me, “spiritual abuse.”
At that point I began to stop making excuses for my former pastor and I began to look at the reality of the situation. That process did not happen overnight. It probably took me a full year to completely come to terms with the fact that we had been spiritually abused. The reality is that we were taken advantage of. Our love for God and His people was exploited by a selfish incomplete man who manipulates people to get what he wants. He does not truly love the sheep; he uses the sheep. He may say he loves them; he may even think that he loves them, but his actions prove different. Love is not proven by words; it is demonstrated in actions –as Jesus did on the cross.
Our former pastor took advantage of two young kids who loved God and him very much. The problem was that our relationship with God grew to the point where we were able to begin to see what he was doing, to us and many others. When we became a threat, he had to dispose of us as quickly as possible. –After the first time I seriously questioned him in a specific but very respectful way without backing down, (on the phone from Indiana) he never made a single attempt to communicate with me again. I was focused on restoration and he was worried about disposing of us as quickly as possible. I was still defending him and he had already started assassinating my character to protect his.
Obviously, I have had to work though un-forgiveness and bitterness with this situation. I must confess that I experienced a season of deep bitterness. When I realized the full reality of what had happened, I was very bitter. I felt like the bitterness was eating me up on the inside. I have never had cancer before, but bitterness has to be something close to it, an emotional cancer eating away at your heart. I knew it was wrong to feel that way; I knew it was sin, but the bitterness was there anyway and I had to deal with it. Thankfully, God, in His sovereign grace, had surrounded me with a wonderful wife & kids and new friends in Indiana who really did love me. God used those wonderful people in conjunction with a Christian counselor to help me work through the bitterness. I will not say it was easy, but we got through it. And I am soooooooo thankful. It feels so good to be healed and free; words simply cannot express how good it feels.
Our lives have changed so much over the past five years; if you have read prior entries in my blog I think it is obvious. We are almost completely different people. Here is a quick summary:
- We have become spiritually healthy; we have never been closer to God.
- We have become emotionally healthy; we have learned much better boundaries in our relationships.
- We have become physically healthy; I have lost over 100 pounds and Amy has lost over 50 pounds.
- Our marriage and family life has never been healthier.
- We have become financially healthy; long story, but just trust me!
- We are free to be who God created us to be; we no longer strive to conform to what people want us to be.
- We are enjoying fruitful ministry, on God’s terms as He leads and we love it!
- We are doing things that we never dreamed we would do!!! -I recently started an itinerate preaching and teaching ministry that is going very well and Amy is back in school working towards becoming a Physician’s Assistant. -I am so very proud of her!
So if everything is going great for us and we are no longer bitter, why write this blog post?
One of the primary characteristics of spiritual abuse is the fact that few people openly talk about it. It is NOT a sin to talk about it. It is NOT a sin to expose it. It is NOT a sin to refuse to be abused. It is NOT a sin to stand up for yourself. The spiritual abuser is the perpetrator; not the person who is being abused.