Not Just the Obvious
It is really quite easy for the average person to identify a spiritually abusive leader; they often have very high media profiles. Tele-evangelists and cult leaders fall into this category. These individuals often ply their abusive ‘cons’ for decades, harming a multitude of gullible people.
But it is not just late-night television preachers or cult leaders wearing sunglasses in the tropics that are meting out spiritual abuse, there are many, many mainline Christian pastors who do the same kinds of things to followers. The vast majority of spiritually abusive ordained people likely have some type of personality disorder. Personality disorders are a mental health condition unlike other, organic mental health conditions. For example, if I live with depression, there are some brain chemicals that are mixed up, and taking a medicine can help me. Not so in personality disorder: there is no medicine and no chemical imbalance thus far known. It is likely that personality disorder is genetically passed on from parent to child, and when the child that has the gene is raised by a personality disordered parent, they have a great chance of becoming one themselves. In a Canadian study of Presbyterian pastors, it was found that around 25% showed significant signs (meeting criteria for personality disorder) of covert and overt narcissism...that is one in every four pastors!
Why Is It So High?
There are many yet unproven theories why there are so many personality disordered, spiritually abusive pastors. Some argue that the nature of being a spiritual leader affords the pastor a kind of unquestioned authority and power that is attractive to people with personality disorder. Another theory is that the authority, power, and unquestioning respect given to ordained people brings out the disorder characteristics post haste.
The issue of automatic respect and deference that our culture generally gives to ordained people is well proven in that countless children have been sexually abused by ordained people that the parent trusted with the care and life of their child. Sexual abusers of children, no matter if ordained or not, are always personality disordered. When an ordained person is guilty of the abuse, their very status as a pastor makes the behavior clearly spiritual abuse as well.
Why Is Spiritual Abuse Not Recognized?
Spiritual leaders with personality disorders are very often very slick and naturally skilled at what most people call ‘brain washing’. Over time, with charismatic personality, empty promises and well timed favors or rewards, personality disordered spiritual leaders are able to manipulate vulnerable followers to swallow every word the leader says as if it coming straight from God. In addition, personality disordered perpetrators are in constant activity both grooming their image and plotting their next moves to gain more control, power, adoration, and compliance. Much like a mosquito, they have the ability to anesthetize their victims at the same time they are feeding from them. If a church member does notice and tries to speak up or challenge the leader, they not only have the wrath of the pastor, but the protective followers as well. In many cases, the damage does not become known until the whole house of cards tumbles.
Why Is Nothing Done About It?
The general public is woefully uneducated about spiritual abuse and personality disorder, let alone the fact that so many ordained people have the disorder. Pair this with the fact that many victims of a personality disorder are so embarrassed by the situation that they simply exit the back door and stay quiet, or are actively suppressed from complaining or speaking the truth by a church hierarchy that is equally embarrassed or needing to keep things hushed for legal and thus, economic reasons. In many, many cases, the spiritually abusive personality disordered pastor simply gets brushed off, shined up, and inflicted on yet another unsuspecting congregation.
Even as few as five of the characteristics below can be an indication of dysfunction caused by a disordered spiritual leader.
One or more leaders fit the definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Consistent presentation of a distorted view of God.
Authoritarian power structure, rather than legitimate, earned authoritative power sharing.
Assumption and demand that all bow to the power of the office (pastor, deacon, etc.) rather than earned respect over time.
Reliable attacking and defaming anyone who dares question anything about the system, and especially the leader.
Use of direct challenge to one’s Christian authenticity as a means of silencing or gaining compliance.
Routine ‘cherry picking’ Scripture out of context as ‘proofs’ of absurd positions.
Feeling like no one in the congregation, especially leaders can be genuinely trusted.
A feeling of intense sadness, stress, anxiety, or discomfort at church events instead of feelings of peace, comfort, safety, and care.
Representation that anyone on the ‘outside’ of the church is evil, to be mistrusted, and to be isolated from.
Survivors of spiritual abuse have difficulty in accepting grace and forgiveness.
Increasingly long and detailed lists of behavioral requirements as proof of loyalty and faithfulness, and scrupulous accounting of compliance / non-compliance.
There is a congregation-wide preoccupied with scrupulous spiritual performance.
There is a high degree of legalism and a plethora of rules.
People who dare challenge or step out of line are shamed, belittled, and get constant criticism.
There is a persistent sense of one’s own spiritual inferiority.
There are many examples of individuals exhibiting the extremes of compliance to the minute rules and dramatic instances of defiance.
Looking under the surface of the congregational structure, there are very skewed personal boundaries.
The genuinely guilty seem to have no sense of guilt and the innocent often have a great burden of feeling culpable.
There is a press by the leader to intense self-denial of members to the point of self-detriment.
There are insinuations or directives to avoid the ‘outside world’.
A pattern of minimization of damages done to member functioning.
Pressure to hand over personal locus of control.
Many implied, unspoken rules and implied threats for breaking same.
Realization that there is a special code or special ‘speak’ for insiders.
Extensive use of emotional manipulation and use of minions to pressure others.
Routine triangulation in communication (someone is a ‘go-between’).
Lots of finger pointing and blame shifting, almost always away from leadership.
Strong feelings of helplessness in membership, not being able to function even in daily life without the leader(s).
Dependence on direction and advisement even for small personal issues (such as hair style).
‘Obedience and Submission’ are central themes, not Jesus.
Implied or direct threat of public shaming or shunning.
Network of secrecy about a great many things in the congregation.
“Back room decisions” that are aside from the puppet church council.
A condescending view of laity by leadership.
An attitude that only special skill or special people only can interpret Scripture.
Well groomed presentation by leadership that comes off as false humility.
Members feeling trapped, like there are not alternatives and no escape from the leader or the congregational community.
Secret or obviously different standards of sacrifice, fasting, or spiritual performance for members in contrast to leaders.
Stated special privileges that the leader claims due to their office, status, or spiritual state.
Consistent and ever increasing tithing pressure.
Minimization of the pain and suffering of spiritual abuse victims.
Strong avoidance of secular authority; prohibitions of members from contacting secular authority, and refusal to seek professional consultation that is not ‘in the congregation’.
Sweeping the past wrongs under the carpet with no attempts to forensically review or process the wrongs.
Weird feeling that interactions with leadership are inauthentic and not genuine.
Communication that disingenuous, confusing, and contradictory.
A sense of tightly suppressed (or totally unsupressed) sinful behavior in the leader.
Clear and persistent lying by leadership.
Frequent use of ‘red-herrings’ and distractions, often accompanied by high drama in order to get attention off of the leader(s) or a sinful situation that leaders are involved in.
Volumes of petty, made up rules that are more important than people, their needs, or emotions.
Intense energy on getting new people into the congregation, but not really taking gentle, nurturing, and challenging care of them once they are in the congregation.
Leader(s) are proficient Scriptural technicians, but relationally ignorant and relationally abusive.
Members who disappear from the congregation, and no one ever mentions them again.
Ever increasing high demands for more time dedicated by members to events; anger and rejection for declining.
Feeling constantly exhausted by being a member; not finding personal serenity, feeding, and growth.
Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on April 29, 2020:
Great article. it's all true.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on January 14, 2017:
Thank you for this very informative and helpful hub. I also want to say that I have great respect for your areas of specialization, and I will be coming here often to read more of your articles.
ptosis from Arizona on January 02, 2017:
Wrote this 17 years ago: http://www.network54.com/Search/view/46384/9592211... "How can an agency expect people to learn to respect other people's rights if they violate their own offer of trust? I can only conclude they operate in bad faith."
Thank you for this hub. You are a great writer
William E Krill Jr (author) from Hollidaysburg, PA on May 31, 2016:
Could not have said it better myself!
Denise W Anderson from Bismarck, North Dakota on May 31, 2016:
It is interesting that the same characteristics of an emotionally abusive spouse are found in the spiritually abusive leader! The desire for controlling others, and especially, the lack of relationship warmth and caring for those in the congregation appear paramount. The people are blinded and manipulated into believing that they must remain in the relationship in order to get the promised benefits that never come.