Cara Dillon Runyan

Responsibility and Red-Flags: Preventing Spiritual Abuse

We work hard to prevent abuse in our world as best we can. And why wouldn’t we? Women are especially familiar with the do’s and don’ts of trying to keep oneself and others safe. From trainings to pink pepper sprays, we go to great lengths to keep ourselves safe from abuses. We do this across demographics too—to protect kids from predators, the elderly from financial scams, and beyond. 

But when I began reading about spiritual abuse, prevention wasn’t a focus—the focus on most authors was on healing. Don’t get me wrong; I needed healing and I know so many others who do, but eventually, it felt like we just had to wait until someone was abused to help them with this information. Understandably, I became disappointed with that. Why wait?

We know that for our health, prevention creates better outcomes than hoping professionals will quickly fix years of poor treatment to our minds and bodies. Decades of smoking can’t be undone at a minute-clinic and taking the stairs once in a while doesn’t undo all those cheeseburgers. Interventions are best before damage is done.  If this is true for our bodies and minds, why wouldn’t it also be true for our souls?

We have to start at the beginning to understand where to go from here—the very beginning. Start in Genesis 1 and you’ll find everything was good—but only briefly. In Genesis 3, we see the fall isn’t only “the fall of man” but also the fall of the created world. Strife entered into every relationship and into creation, as God cursed the ground and man’s work in it (3:17-19). Paul echoes this understanding in Romans 8—of a fallen creation in need of redemption—with the imagery that creation groans in its brokenness.

There weren’t any governments or organizational groups in the garden, but if there were, they would have been corrupted right then, too. Here’s the result: until redemption, sin and brokenness affects every individual heart and organizational institution—no matter how good they seem. Our work, as pursuers of wholeness, is to push back the darkness and bring light both individual and institutional realms. 

As a result of this theological foundation, I believe there are two aspects to prevention: individual and organizational. Too much emphasis on individual responsibility for prevention can result in victim-shaming. If only you knew more, did more, tried harder. That’s not only unfair, it also runs counter to what we know about abusers. They’re really good at what they do and they take advantage of vulnerabilities—of groups and individuals. So, individual responsibility has to be balanced with organizational responsibility, asking, “How is this organization set up to provide opportunities for abusers?” This requires digging deep into structures of accountability within an organization that serve as a check on individual power. 

Here’s what I think a balanced approach includes: 

Know scripture 

Misuse of scripture is one of the biggest ways that spiritual abusers can control others. This is because scripture itself carries important weight for Christians—weight that a leader can utilize to push their agenda. Simple familiarity—the fact that you know it’s in the Bible—with a verse or passage might actually increase your risk for abuse. If someone intends to manipulate you and bolsters their argument with a verse or two from the Bible, your immediate reaction is likely, “Well, I believe and trust the Bible (and this a powerful or knowledgeable person), so maybe what they’re saying is true. This trusting tendency increases with the increase in the power dynamics—maybe the person has education, credentials, a position or even just the confident appearance of reliability. 

Instead, understanding the original context and intent of the biblical author is key to protecting yourself against its misuse and manipulation. This involves some work on our part, but isn’t that worth it in the end? If you want to know more about how to read and understand the bible, I’ve written some more on that here. 

Ask yourself, “Am I confident enough in what I know about the Bible and God’s character that I can quickly spot when someone is manipulating them for their own purposes?

Know yourself

We know that some environmental and genetic factors make some of us more susceptible to certain diseases. It’s similar with spiritual abuse. That means those of us who have experienced unhealthy systems in the past—whether it’s family dynamics, workplaces, or churches—are more likely to be attracted to and at risk of getting involved in spiritually abusive environments. Why is this? A big reason is familiarity. If you’re used to ignoring manipulative red-flags in your current relationships, you won’t be as adept at seeing the same red-flags in an organizational context either.

Likewise, you might also be conditioned to a certain role in your relationships; maybe you’ve adopted the role of codependent caretaker of family members or growing up with a parent with mental illness made you experience chaos and poor treatment as normal. Abusers know how to spot people who are looking for approval of authorities, always assume the best, and let others use them. In his book When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse, Chuck DeGrout emphasizes how this dynamic can become a mutually reinforcing relationship, between confident leaders and insecure followers, noting, “The followers feed off the leader’s certainty in order to fill their own empty sense of self.” Previous negative religious experiences can also intensify your present experiences. These past traumas are all risk factors for future spiritual abuse. 

In response, we have the individual responsibility to heal from these past traumas for two reasons. First, we deserve healthy lives in all aspects—spiritual and beyond. Working with a therapist to bring some of these deep wounds to the surface in an effort to heal them not only helps mitigate our risk of future abuse; it provides the opportunity to live full and healthy lives beyond our hurts. Second, it also helps bring some of these subconscious attractions and patterns into our conscious mind for us to question. Why am I attracted to this particular organization or leader? Why did that interaction feel weird? Why do I feel like I’m trying to convince myself that they didn’t mean to hurt me? We must work hard to know ourselves—our risk factors and our wounds—to truly protect ourselves against future abuses. 

Ask yourself, “Are there any experiences of trauma or abuse in my past that make me more susceptible to spiritual abuse and could I benefit from meeting with a therapist to help me see their impact?”

Understand visible structures

When most people get involved in a new church community or start working for a ministry, their top concerns are typically doctrinal. They ask questions like, “Do I agree with what this place believes about God, the Bible, the salvation, etc.?” Don’t get me wrong; those are important questions. However, few people ask a very different and very important question: “How is this church or organization structured to prevent and respond to abuses of power?”

Few people dig into the hierarchy or structure of their churches or organizations. Why? Because, honestly, it’s kind of boring. When leaders start talking about bylaws and congregational votes and membership covenants and boards of directors and denominational organization, our eyes start to glaze over. These are the visible structures, though, that either hinder or enable abuses to occur. They provide big clues as to who has the power and how and by whom they’re held accountable for its use or abuse.

Especially with the rise of non-denominational churches and house churches, many organizations have no visible structures to address the misuse of power from all kinds of abuse—spiritual, sexual, emotional and financial. Likewise, if you’re assured it’s there, but information about accountability is hard to find or not written down—there might be a reason that’s the case. Kindly ask lots of questions of your leadership before getting deeply involved. If your questions aren’t welcome, that can also be a red flag. We know from examples (like those within the Catholic Church) that structure and hierarchy does not always equal accountability, but the lack of them certainly doesn’t increase oversight for those with power.

Ask yourself, “What structures are in place in my place of worship or work that provide real accountability from everyone involved?”

Understand invisible structures

In addition to visible structures of organizations, there are also “invisible structures.” These are the norms and culture of an organization. They won’t be written down anywhere for you to review. After a while, though, they become clear because most of these “invisible structures” involve commonly used language.

One of the biggest red-flags is the “no-talk rule.” In their book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Johnson and Van Vonderen argue that this unspoken rule results in a dynamic like this: “If you speak about the problem out loud, you are the problem.” There is such a sense of false-peace and reticence to address problems, the one who addresses the problem is shamed instead.

So, a healthy environment would look like one that talks openly about concerns and criticisms with honesty and transparency. The treatment of those who bring up concern or pause is also a major key to a healthy environment. Before getting involved in a ministry or church, ask someone already involved, “Where do people take concerns and how are they treated?” You might not get a fully honest answer—which also says something—but if the response is rote or they can’t think of any examples, it may be an environment that doesn’t allow for disagreement. 

Another invisible structure is how the words of the leader are understood and emphasized. How often does a leader use the language that “God told” him or her some “special revelation”? This can be a red flag, not because I do not believe in special revelation, but because it encourages an invisible structure where no one can question the leader since no one can verify the veracity of their “revelation.” Likewise, is it common among members to use this language? Again, I believe God speaks to people, but if there’s evidence that “God’s word” to someone directly contradicts scripture or only serves to further a personal agenda, there’s reason to be suspicious of how this language is being used. 

Ask yourself, “What invisible cultural structures are present here and do they emphasize conformity over critical thinking and secrecy over transparency?”

Recognize the character of leaders

Everyone makes mistakes—and leaders are held to a higher standard. Those are two truths we have to hold in tandem. It’s not because they’re expected to be perfect; it’s because their role provides greater power and therefore—as Spiderman’s uncle and Luke 4:8 also tell us—greater responsibility. This is also what James warns us about—the heftier judgement of those who take on the role of teacher. This is not license to, in turn, weaponize the phenomenon of spiritual abuse against pastors and cause harm to them over genuine mistakes. Even with abusive leaders, we should work towards preventing future damage and then personally work towards forgiveness and their healing, too. Their poor character shouldn’t corrupt ours. 

Unfortunately—and there seems to be growing evidence for this—there’s also a significant number of spiritual leaders who score highly on narcissistic personality traits. This includes low levels of empathy towards others, lack of self-awareness, and a necessity to maintain their good image at all costs. Again, from his book, DeGrout notes how little research in this area on pastors in the past, but attests, “When I started doing psychological assessments for pastors and church planters, I saw that narcissistic traits were often presented as strengths” like “confidence, strong leadership, clear vision, and thick skin.” Notably, these aren’t the characteristics that likely first come to mind when describing Jesus. 

In a perfect world, no church would provide power or a platform to a narcissistic and abusive leader, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. So, make sure that the organization or church you’re involved in champions the type of character God desires—not the strong-man characteristics that the world prefers. At the end of the day, you have a choice in where you get to be involved spiritually and who you want to follow as a leader. Protect yourself by following someone who acts more like Jesus than a powerful, self-confident CEO. 

Ask yourself, “What kind of character traits are evident in this leader and do they tend towards narcissism or Jesus’ humility and servanthood?” 

What about healing?

Maybe prevention feels a little late for you because you’ve realized you were abused by unhealthy leaders or systems in the past. Luckily, there’s lots of research and resources on healing and recovering a healthy spirituality even after abuse. I’ll share more on those soon.

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