A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing a dear sister who revealed to me she once belonged to a controlling church environment. As we delved further into the conversation, she talked about the abuses she suffered as a church worker and member, incidents which are all too common in churches today. Many Christians tend to assign abuse to “fringe” Christian groups whose hallmark is turning congregants into robots. However, there are mainline denominations that also engage in abuse. It may not be talked about as much, or even at all in some cases, due to fear of ostracism or being seen as one being used by “the enemy”. After much soul searching and prayer, my sister friend mustered the bravery to leave her former church without fear of repercussion and is now flourishing in a new home church. Let’s go to the interview…
Nikkele: Let’s talk a little about your religious background.
Sister: I’m a Christian. [I'm] not a church baby. I was raised in a traditional church.
Nikkele: What qualifies you to talk about spiritual abuse?
Sister: I am able to talk about spiritual abuse because I have experienced it. [I am] currently part of a healthy, non-denominational ministry.
Nikkele: How would you define spiritual abuse?
Sister: Using your authority to dominate another person. Misusing your position for personal gain.
Nikkele: And how does that abuse impact congregants?
Sister: [It] makes them weak. Some act like sheep who need to be led to the point where they don’t know what’s good for them. In order for them to function and survive, they must be told what to do and be controlled in every aspect of their lives; spiritually and naturally. On the natural side, the sheep are afraid to make decisions, so they go to the spiritual leader for everything. Even things in their bedroom! Certain things should be off limits.
Nikkele: Why does it spill into the natural?
Sister: Things that should be common sense, or come from reason and decision…there is an inability [to make decisions] because of the dependency upon the spiritual leader. They value the person’s opinion to the point where they cannot make their own decisions about anything.
Nikkele: How does that happen? Over time?
Sister: It happens when an individual sees a spiritual leader as filling a void. It could be a situation where the person grew up without a father, or there was abuse in the home by the father figure. The person with spiritual authority comes in and replaces that image or role. Now the person feels important, loved, and all of the positive things that were missing. You look at the authority figure as someone who is protective, nurturing, etc. It just replaces what has been missing. So, all of the trust is just poured into this one person.
Nikkele: After you put your trust in the person then find they are abusive, what happens next?
Sister: You really don’t think the person is abusive. You know in the back of your mind that something is wrong, but right off the bat you do not say it is abuse. You begin to question certain things, but you never call it abuse. You begin to reason and say no one is perfect. You begin to make excuses or exceptions.
Nikkele: In what other ways have you experienced or witnessed abuse in the church?
Sister: [Takes a long pause before answering question] Taking a person’s willingness to serve, and the love the person has for the ministry and God, and just totally disregard the person themselves. The work that needs to be done, like let’s get it done at all cost. No matter if the person is tired and weary. There is little concern, initially, for the person’s overall health or wealth.
Nikkele: So going above and beyond is your reasonable service?
Sister: Yes. I have seen it turn into a doctrine where you’d rather wear out than rust out. It means a person would rather be tired and weary for the Lord than just sit there and just get rusty doing nothing. In other words, keep going and going and doing and doing because that is what God is pleased with.
Nikkele: Isn’t that a works based faith?
Sister: Yes. But it’s not presented that way. It is presented as work unto the Lord because only what you do for Christ will last [tongue in cheek].
Nikkele: How did it affect you while there?
Sister: I became angry and bitter in the beginning. It evolved into self-hatred.
Nikkele: But if it wasn’t your fault, how could you hate yourself?
Sister: No one can do anything to me unless I allow them to. It turned into, well, I experienced sickness because I overtaxed my body trying to keep up with the church. I also had to maintain a household and run a business, and all the while in the name of pleasing God.
Nikkele: So you were more Martha than Mary?
Nikkele: How did it make you feel about God? Did you blame him or see the faith in an altered light?
Sister: Out of ignorance I blamed God for not supplying my needs. How could I do all of these things and work so hard in the ministry and still be broke and can’t pay my bills and be so unhappy? The light bulb came on when I realized that no one can do anything to me that I don’t allow them to.
Nikkele: So how did that help you change your view of God?
Sister: I had to do some serious soul-seeking after I hit rock bottom. I did soul-seeking, praying, fasting, and the Lord really began to reveal himself to me, that he is not like that. My situation was not because of him, because he is complete and his Word is complete, and he does supply my needs through the opportunities that he presents to me in regards to my business. It is what I do with those opportunities that afford me to pay my bills.
Nikkele: So are you saying that some Christians do not take advantage of opportunities because they don’t recognize it as God? As in they always expect something to come in the miraculous or directly through the church versus through God orchestrating things in every day life?
Sister: Yes, yes, yes, and yes. The reason I say that is because just like those dumb sheep–not calling us dumb but it is what is is–they just sit and wait for things to drop out of the sky when God puts people in our path. The problem with sheep under that type of abuse is that they can’t act on the opportunity without first going through their leaders. It is okay to get counsel, but some things are common sense.
Nikkele: So, are you saying that some people feel they cannot be blessed outside of the umbrella of their church?
Nikkele: Why are you so adamant about that?
Sister: Just having experienced it. I found as I began to venture outside of the [church] walls and experiencing and exploring different things, that God is bigger than my church. He is really outside. He is outside y’all!
Nikkele: Based on that answer, there must be some people out there praying for breakthroughs they could have had.
Sister: They could have it. Deliverance may have already come and gone. God revealed to me that 80% of my days were spent doing activities that weren’t producing cash flow for my business. I was busy but I wasn’t productive. 20% was spent on things that produced cash flow, but it wasn’t enough. I needed to bring more balance and set things in order.
Nikkele: Let’s go back to the abuse in terms of how you felt. When you realized what was wrong, and this was the part that really made me want to interview you, were you afraid to move on? If so, why?
Sister: Yes, because I felt like God was going to “git me”, that God was going to punish me. I initially felt like God was going to punish me for how I was feeling. I felt bad.
Nikkele: So you felt God was on your leader’s or church’s side and not on yours?
Sister: Yes, because there was always a scripture to back up the fallacy. One scripture that was used was obey those that have watch over your souls.
Nikkele: Like in slavery during the antebellum period? [joke]
Sister: Yes. [Now] I was free but at the same time I was praying for God to set me free from how I felt. I was praying for God to release me. That release came in the form of a choice that had to be made.
Nikkele: So you felt like you didn’t have the power of choice?
Nikkele: Did that contribute to the unhappiness?
Sister: Yes. Who wants to be “super-ruled”? Who wants to live like that? But it all goes back to me because although I felt this way, I did not verbalize it. I held it because I felt guilty and that it was wrong for me to even have these type of thoughts because it’s not what God said in his Word. We should be happy while in service to the Lord; we should not do it grudgingly.
Nikkele: But even that is taken out of context because some things that are called the Lord are really Man.
Sister: Right. I know that now but that’s from me developing, really getting in God’s face to know who he is and what he’s like, and beginning to take a stance and verbalizing how I feel. Saying no.
Nikkele: I went through that too, where I started to question if the God who was presented to me was really the God of the Bible. Were you afraid of what people thought? Of ostracism?
Sister: Yes. I was so…I was in prison not only by the spiritual authorities but by their children who pretty much ran the ministry.
Nikkele: Blood children?!
Sister: Yes. They pretty much terrorized the ministry because it was what they said, how they said it, it was their way or no way. They would say, “Y’all can’t take anything. You take things from the world but not from the house of God”, meaning you are weak-backed. “You want me to baby you. I’m just being real.” And I would say under my breath, “Yeah, real rude.” It was just an idea they had to treat grown people as if they were children, their children. And they were children themselves.
Nikkele: What would you call the spirit that motivates that behavior?
Sister: I think that’s witchcraft.
Nikkele: But some might say how can it be witchcraft if it’s in the church?
Sister: It is witchcraft. It’s in the church primarily because the behavior goes uncontested. It goes unchecked. No one stands up. Some leaders experienced church hurt, and as result they take it out on the congregation. They lump everyone into one category, “church folk”. There’s no grace there. There’s no mercy. The same grace and mercy they talk about God has is absent in their lives.
Nikkele: How did it affect you after you left? Was there any residue?
Sister: There’s a wall that you put up. You withhold, you hold back, you don’t develop relationships with other people. You are not your true self, although you say you are, because you have missed out on some very valuable relationships. People who can help you you totally ignore because of your experience. That’s before you truly get healed from your experience. But at the same time I made a resolve that no one can do anything to me that I don’t let them do. I would not be forced to do anything against my will in or outside of the church, and will not ever again be held to a standard of man.
Nikkele: What would you say are some of the warning signs of an abusive ministry? Give me three major ones.
Sister: The leader and church are the only ones who are right. Every and all decisions have to come through one person. You are not allowed to have outside relationships or fellowships. If you leave the church, God is going to kill you. There is fear that you have to stay because that’s where God told you to be [laughter]. I’ve seen people leave and come back. Leave and come back, and they are still alive. And I said God is not going to kill anyone. I mean, the prodigal son didn’t die. He came back home and came to his senses. Sometimes we create a God to fit our own agenda. So we have different Gods under the same church.
Nikkele: But leaving the church is not leaving God is it?
Sister: No, but you are made to think that way. If you are not there, they say you left God, you backslid. Even one of my brothers in Christ went on to another ministry, and when he comes back to visit someone in the congregation would say, “Brother, it’s not too late for you to come back to God.”
Nikkele: Don’t ever invite me to that church! [laughter]
Sister: I think it is just an ignorance of who God is, not knowing who the real God is. We make up a couple of Gods. Gee whiz! It’s gonna be alright!
Nikkele: Any words for those who may be in a spiritually abusive situation?
Sister: Umm hmm. That if you are in a situation where you are experiencing these things, and you question whether these things that are happening are right, earnestly go to God and pray about it. There is more to life than just being inside the church walls. God wants us to live. Paul said he was a slave for the gospel; he wasn’t a slave to the men inside the church. He was committed to doing things for the gospel’s sake. But men would have you thinking that churh programs, and bake sales and dinner sales are the gospel, and that’s the work that needs to be done for the gospel. And that’s wrong. Get an understanding of the Word. The Bible says in all thy getting get understanding. Understand who God is to you. And make decisions without fear. God is not going to kill you for being yourself.