Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Instrumental Voices in Leaving an Abusive Church Environment

Over the weekend, there was great discussion on how we can best help friends who still remain in an abusive church.  It is so frustrating to be on the outside knowing they are seemingly stuck in that spiritually abusive environment.  

I thought of Pastor Ken Garrett and his experience in an abusive church/cult and wondered if he had seen the post and might have $.02 to offer.    (If you haven't read about how Ken and I connected on this blog, it's a great story.)  So I went to my computer to send him a quick e-mail and imagine my surprise when I found that he had sent me a note just two minutes earlier.  His comment was too large to post as one comment, so he sent it via e-mail and said I may use it as I see fit.  Yes, I think so, thank you very much, Ken :)  I think you'll see why we got more than $.02 worth out of the deal.

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Once again, the question:

                How can we best help friends who remain in an abusive church?

Response from Pastor Ken Garrett: 

Great question, and comments!  As I reflect on our experience in an abusive ministry, I am increasingly certain that our departure was in fact an act of divine deliverance--not a result of human argument, pleading, or opposition.  Since our group was very, very academic-oriented, we felt (for the most part) that we possessed a better grasp of the Bible than most others, so attempts to Scripture "bomb", or "reason" us out of the group didn't make the smallest dent in our convictions and commitment to it.  It was only when we personally began to talk/complain (with God, and with one or two very close, trustworthy friends) that things started rolling in the direction of us leaving.  But, it truly was an act of deliverance from God, prayed for, by us and doubtlessly by many friends and family along the way.  That being said, when I look back on people who were instrumental in my leaving the group, there are some similarities and some very powerful qualities that I note: 

1.  In most cases, the people instrumental in me leaving were those who knew me before I became a member of the group, and despite the unfortunate changes in me, and my purposeful distancing of myself from them--they stayed kindhearted, patient, and friendly towards me. 

(JA note:  same story for us!)  
They let me know that what I was doing wasn't their cup of tea, but that regardless of my religious beliefs they loved me and hoped for the best for me.  In this way they communicated affection, respect,  and kindness towards me, but did not give the impression that their well-being was somehow tied up in whether or not I was a member of a weird (abusive, in fact) group.  

Often concerned family members commit this error: out of love, and a sense of family pride, they are heavy-handed in confronting the member of an abusive group.  In doing so, they often drive the member more deeply into the group.  So, a calm, loving distance that somehow assures the person in the group that he/she is unconditionally loved, and seen as being much more than simply a member of an abusive, suspect church is a good start.  It gives the person something to hide deep in their souls--the knowledge that they have a friend outside the group who seems truly unintimidated by the group (or group's leadership).  It is very powerful for a person to know with certainty that there are friends waiting on the outside, who will not be "I told you so" types...

2.  The example of healthy Christians who treated me with respect, despite the fact that I looked down on them for what I perceived as their shallow, cookie-cutter faith (so happy to have been forgiven for such arrogance!) made a deep impact on me, too. 

 To realize that believers who did not think like I did, whom my pastor would NOT want me to be like...but who were very happy, blessed, and in love with Jesus, become a powerful picture for me--convincing me that there was truly joy to be found "out there," away from the abusive group.  So, if you're a Christian, and have a Christian friend, co-worker, acquaintance, etc., who seems to be a member of an abusive, exclusive, sect-like church, and you relate to that person with the free, relaxed, grace-filled manner that God has given you--you're having a much deeper impact than you might imagine.  Arguments, accusations, theological sparring rarely make an impact.  Love always does.

3.  Finally, even though I worked hard not to show it, when a person who had left an abusive group openly, freely talked of their experience, warts and all, without rancor, resentment, or vengeance--it was very powerful. 

 If they spoke in a way that communicated respect and empathy (and perhaps even love with pity) for those still in the group--so much the better.  That's why it is so helpful for a person to be able to enter a forum anonymously and read (perhaps even interact) with others who understand the dynamics of an abusive church, and the abusive pastor.  Calls to curb anonymity, to "just move on," or to repress the experience, or to cover it over with greater spiritualization and religious talk do nothing but create more inner tension and mental/spiritual anguish.  Those attempts to repress always fail, always create more victims, and always dig people into their broken churches even deeper—having made the decision to be less than honest.  Critics that claim those who write and respond to abuse survivor blogs should not do so, or are somehow acting in an unhealthy or unbiblical way are simply betraying their ignorance to the issue, or at least are demonstrating a lack of genuine experience with the issue.   
JA's note:  I just rose from the couch and waved her white hanky - WOOHOO!!!!  YES!!!  Preach it, Ken!!!  This is one subject that so many people who have not experienced abuse find objectionable.  They want to move us along our journey of healing quickly because our pain makes them feel uncomfortable.  We've experienced it here on this blog with Fred.  The subject has come up time and again and really is one of the primary issues Fred Butler (Click at your own risk.) and those of his ilk have to do with survivor blogs.  Last I checked, Fred has dedicated five blog posts to the subject of survivor blogs . This discussion has also come up on forums where pastors and church leaders have church-related discussions. There are many people who feel very uncomfortable with discussing these subjects and have even complained about it here.  I's important to realize that sometimes even those in church leadership positions are not going to understand what we are going through and in fact, may hinder our healing progress if they tell us to hurry up and move along without understanding there is a healing process involved.  

Sorry for the long post, Julie Anne!  (JA note:  ahem - whatever, Ken - apology is not working for me - haha.  Just keep sending me more stuff like this :)  

Thanks!  Pastor Ken  
JA Note to Ken:  Thank YOU!!!!  I so appreciate your wisdom on this topic.  I'm trying to count on one hand how many pastors I know who really understand spiritual abuse.  I'm not doing very well with the counting.  So delighted we connected under such bizarre circumstances - I have learned so much from you.   Thanks, friend!

photo credit: las - initially via photopin cc


  1. Thanks Ken,

    That's very helpful and, as always, insightful. I was hoping you would chime in.

  2. Pastor Garrett's points sound right on the money.

    Though not a survivor myself, I've read quite a few survivor stories. I especially remember the tale of one woman, and her escape after years in a cruel, abusive group. One of the things that saved this woman was the constant reassurance from her parents that they loved her, and would always be there for her. Her advice to people who want to reach those still trapped inside: Show them compassion. After all, compassion is likely something they're starved for, and something they probably won't find 'on the inside'.

    1. You are absolutely right. I can look back and it is absolutely true that my former friends who stood by me, watched me, loved me, extended grace to me while I was still in the abusive church also gave me the courage to get out. They didn't tell me to get out. They didn't tell me I was wrong. They remained my friends and kept their concerns to themselves. But I knew in my heart that they would be happy once I was out. I knew they did not agree with where I was. The love and grace they showed me was powerful - so powerful that I wanted to experience it again - - - this time on the outside of the abusive church.

      You know what - - - all of those people were there with me at BOTH hearings. I don't know how many there were - probably over 20 or so. Oh my, it's making me cry just to think about it. Maybe this deserves a post.

  3. Julie Anne,
    I am so glad to know there were people there to support you and love you when you broke free from the unChristlike church. Jesus told us to love one another. There is so much abuse in this world. It is really wrong that the "church" is not a safe place for those who come there to worship Jesus.
    I used to go to church because I wanted to know God and learn what the Bible teaches us about him and how to live our lives. I wanted a closer walk with Jesus. His love for me filled my heart so. My joy was to serve in the church and over time I served in several different capacities. My church family meant so much to me. Our lives revolved around our church. All of you know what I mean because you have experienced the same when Jesus came into your heart. THEN something happened within the church where I attended. I did something to become a target. I still can not pin point what I did exactly. But it irritated someone and then the abuse started. What I now know was abuse. I was so sure I was where the Lord wanted me to be I just stuck it out until I was so hurt. I could not comprehend that any issue that had become a problem could not be addressed and corrected. My mental and physical health was harmed. My church had become an unsafe place for me. Looking back I can see there were people who left and you never knew why. They must have experienced something like I did. Why would a church run off people who love the Lord and work for free? What made them want to hurt us and make us leave.
    In my situation the only people who were there for me were my husband and my children. My children fixed a dinner for me to celebrate my getting out. The greatest thing I want to share is how close I felt to Jesus. It was like when I exited the church bldg. I walked in to the arms of Jesus. He loved on me. It was like a barrier had been removed and I could see him more clearly in just strangers, say at the grocery store, the check out lady. This was happening to me everywhere and I was not saying a word they did not know about my situation. But, they were saying the words I needed to hear.
    I ran into more people with the love of Jesus in their hearts that I had the last two years within my church. I was overwhelmed. Here I was a person who had never missed a Sunday morning or night service or Wed. night service in just about my whole life realizing God is out of the church box. He is alive and well wherever you are even if you are not in the bldg. on a Sunday morning. I study my Bible more and read your blogs which has led me to more scripture. You all are healing me through your ministry. Thank you so much.

    1. Pat - What an amazing story. Your story is interesting - you did something and became a target. Isn't that odd - - - you are at a church loving Jesus, serving Him, serving others and somehow YOU became a target? There is really no rhyme or reason to some of these things - and maybe you'll never find out. But the important thing is that you were able to identify it and remove yourself from that situation.

      Thank you so much for sharing and I'm touched that you are finding the blog helpful. I appreciate the feedback, but more importantly am thrilled to know you are healing because that's what this is all about to me.

    2. Thanks Pat for sharing a significant part of your story. Yes, you ask pertinent questions: "Why would a church run off people who love the Lord and work for free? What made them want to hurt us and make us leave."

      You have been working through your pain and disillusionment with a dysfunctional church system. Your comment that you 'walked into the arms of Jesus' after you left was precious to hear. So many others can identify with what you have said here. Glad that you are making progress with your recovery.

      You might be interested in the many articles posted on my website that address church leaving, spiritual abuse, and how to recover.

      Check out: www.ChurchExiters.com

      All the best as you journey in new places with your Lord.


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