Am I in an abusive church? Three Questions. . .

There is a growing number of excellent books and website today that offer the reader first-rate scholarship and discussion about abusive churches and cults. Most of them clearly describe the attributes of such destructive groups, and give some great information for those recovering from membership in them. In this short piece I am not intending to offer such extensive information, as much as to provide three, short questions to a person who is genuinely wondering if the church they belong to is a healthy church that is good for them and their family, or is perhaps a church that has become (or has always been) abusive, and is therefore a bad place to be. I crafted the following three questions as a means of helping member to think through their feelings and beliefs about the church, and perhaps gain strength to leave churches that are, in fact, destructive and harmful to their members.

What got you in? What keeps you in? and What would happen if you left? 

These questions form a pretty small launch pad for the discussion, but perhaps they can be a first step. I am a survivor of any abusive church, and believe the following three questions, though buried deeply in consciousness while I was a member, would have been very helpful to me had someone clearly, pointblank, asked me to consider them.

  1. What got you in?

Members of abusive churches did not join them with a full knowledge of the damage and pain that membership in the church would cause them.  Instead, they joined with some notion of good, blessing, or benefit that they expected to find in the church.  For some, it was the promise of quality, genuine relationships with other, and like-minded people. The culture around us can seem a very cold and superficial place, full of Happy Hours that don’t make anyone happy, Facebook friends whom one never meets face to face, and a perpetual stream of short-term, casual relationships that never seem to meet any deep needs.  Friendship in our world is often a moving target. To find a group of people that share one’s faith and values, and promise friendship and commitment—that can be a very powerful draw!

Others are drawn to a church because it promises to meet their desires for advanced growth in their faith, perhaps even to the point of vocational preparation for some form of Christian ministry. The abusive church that I joined as a young man promised me academic training greater than that of a seminary, along with the “character training” I knew I required if I were to ever succeed in ministry.  Along with that personal expectation, the church itself boasted of a plan to “plant churches up and down the I-5 corridor.” I envisioned my wife and I arriving in Salem, or Ashland, Tacoma or Seattle and starting our own church.

Destructive, abusive churches always offer something to the recruit that is attractive and personally desirable.  Such churches are invariably easy to join, and very difficult to leave. They promise to meet needs that have gone unmet in the recruit’s life so far—to have the “answers” he or she is looking for in life.

Therefore, a valid question to ask yourself, if you are questioning whether or not you are a member of an abusive church, is “What got me in to this church? What was the promise, agreement, or expectation that made it seem so good at the time? Is that promise or agreement being kept, as it was conveyed to me when I joined, or does it remain distant, future, or has it been altered or ignored, now that I’m a member?” In my case, the I-5 dream was exposed over time for what it was—simply a recruitment tool designed to appeal to young, idealistic, ambitious young people like me.  As I write today, that church, over 35 years old, has yet to train anyone for ministry anywhere other than in its own, tiny congregation—and has never come remotely close to planting a new church.

What led you to join your church, and how has it worked out for you today?

  • Did you expect to find friendship in a non-judgmental, free, relaxed church, only to find that friendship is based on your commitment to keeping the standards and rules of the church? Are the friendships you have in your church actually very conditional, despite what was suggested or promised to you when you first looked into joining the church? If so, it is likely that you are in an abusive church, or at least one that is very, very unhealthy. If you are willing to communicate with the leaders of the church, than by all means do so.  But, if you are simply to intimidated, hurt, or uncertain of their receptivity of your input, then it is best that you leave the church, at least for a time, so that you can heal and think through whether your church is a good fit for you.
  • Did you expect to receive a level of academic or professional training in the church that has yet to materialize, or to result in your placement in ministry?
  • Did you anticipate growing to a deeper level of spirituality and character formation, a level that you never seem to come close to attaining?
  1. What keeps you in?

People stay in harmful situations in many other areas of life than churches. Sadly, they remain in hurtful marriage relationships, family systems, jobs and schools that are clearly destructive. With abusive churches, members remain in them, despite the growing, negative costs, and diminishing returns—because they believe it too costly to leave, that leaving the church will prove to be more emotionally painful than the discomfort and joylessness of remaining.  Once a person has become a committed member of any abusive church system he or she has made significant investments in the church, usually on many levels.  He may have given much money to the church, expecting to be a part of its growth and gain. He may have passed up promotions and educational opportunities that would have enhanced his income and career, all to be more available for the programs and ministries of the church. His marriage may have become so identified with the church that his spouse may insist on staying in the church, even if he left it. His children’s best friends might be their fellow church kids. He may have lost many of his friendships and family relationships as he gave his preference, time, and emotional energies to fellow church members above all others.

My wife and I became so embroiled in the life of our (abusive) church that we hardly had any aspect of our relationship that wasn’t in some way affected by the church. We spoke of little else than church-related issues, and subjugated time, finances, even our child-raising practices, to the good of the church, and never our marriage.  In short, it seemed too costly, on too many levels, to leave the abusive church, so I stayed in it long after I became disillusioned with it.

What about you? Have you found yourself in the position of being held IN the church, rather than attracted TO it, as you were when you first joined? Do you stay in the church in order to keep the peace at home, to keep your friends, or to avoid the feared I-told-you-so’s of friends and family that may have shared their concerns about the health of the church? Are you staying in the church, despite growing, privately held concerns over its health, out of a hope that perhaps better days are coming, and needed repentance on the part of its leaders is just around the corner? Do you stay because you want to stay, or because you are afraid to leave?

Tough questions to ask, but if you are willing to at least consider them—even in the privacy of your own thoughts—you will be taking some of the first steps to freedom and genuine joy in your faith!

  1. What would happen if you left?

You might think that I’ve asked that question in order to argue that nothing bad will happen in you leave, and that your fears and pessimism regarding life away from the abusive church are all unfounded. That is not my desire at all. I would like to simply ask you to consider what you believe would happen to you if you left, and I mean what you really do believe. Abusive churches always have some sort of running narrative that promises varying degrees of failure, loss, and doom to those who leave them, or at least those who don’t leave in the “right” way, with the blessing of the leaders of the church. They keep their members from actively exploring leaving the church with doomsday predictions, along with their claims to be the best church, or the only church, or perhaps the only church that is God’s will for the member to belong to. After opening up the issue of my desire to leave the church, our senior pastor soon preached a sermon focused on exposing the “evils of leaving the place God has called you to for training” along with a vivid description of the horrible life that awaited such a “defecting disciple.” (The congregation knew exactly who that sermon was aimed at!) I imagined the mockery of my co-workers if I left the abusive church I was a member of: Looks like Ken’s a wash-out—and the religion he’s been trying to sell us for ten years is a bust! I wondered if I would be accepted by any other churches, coming from such a strident, abusive church. Would anyone understand? Would anyone want to include me in their church? And there were deeper concerns, too. Would my children be okay? Would they make new friends? Would there be anything left to rebuild my marriage on, since the abusive church had demanded such a role in it? Our pastor promised a life of meaninglessness, and zero impact for the kingdom of Christ, should anyone leave the church. Of course, I was wrong in every prediction I’d made regarding what I could expect if I were to leave the church.

But in posing the question, What would happen if you left? I am asking you to do something that is very serious and powerful.  You see, to begin to envision leaving, to the point of actively thinking through issues of what you fear life would be like, versus what you know life would be like—opens the door to imagination, possibility, and even faith and hope.

What would happen if you left?

  • Would you suffer loss in your marriage? (Have you spoken with your spouse about that?)
  • Would your children suffer? (How do you know that to be true?)
  • Would you be shamed by friends and family? (Why not ask them if that is true?)
  • Would you become irrevocably unhinged, a wandering, miserable spiritual reprobate whom God could never use? (Do you believe that, really?)

I don’t think anyone really has the answers to those questions before they finally leave their abusive church.

However. . .

To simply ask the question, and to work through finding honest answers to it—is in itself an act of spiritual empowerment, and opens a door for the Lord to speak to the soul in some powerful, private ways. Your willingness to simply ask these three questions, and to interact with your answers, can prove to be life-altering, and might even be the first step towards a deeper, more satisfying, healthy faith.

Blessings,

Pastor Ken

 

 

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Breakfast on the back porch (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)

“If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.

A loophole is a condition or application of a law that allows for a person to subtly circumvent the law itself—all without formally breaking that law.  We’re pretty good at finding loopholes in our tax laws here in American, come April 15th!  But let’s put ourselves in the sandals of those to whom this text was originally written—the Jewish people of Israel, approximately 1400 BC.  Let’s pretend that we’re just finishing breakfast, and are preparing to head to our field to put in a long day’s work.  We look out the door of our small, stone house and see a poorly dressed man, standing.  He’s obviously waiting for us to come outside.

I say, “Oh, great.  There’s another one of them today.  What are we going to do?  We can’t become village lunch ticket!”

You say, “He’s poor, we’ve got to help him. ““If there is a poor man with you…””

“How do you know he’s poor,” I say.  “He’s got shoes on his feet, clothes on his back.  He walked here; he could just as easily have walked down the road to the next farm.”

You say, “But he’s a brother, like it says, “one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the LORD your God is giving you…”

“Let’s not get literalistic or fundamenalistic here!” I say.  “How do you know he’s a Jewish brother, or from this town?  And sure, God may have giving the nation this land…but we’ve worked it ourselves, and own it, and need to be good stewards of it, not giving its produce away to every guy that comes along looking for a handout.”

You say, “It’s commanded, “you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother.”

“Well,” I say, relieved and a bit offended, “you certainly don’t know my heart, do you?  This is an issue between me and God.  Remember, “Judge not!”

“Right,” you say, “…but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.

“Yes!  I’m glad you quoted that verse,” I say.  Lend!  Lend!  We’re supposed to lend him what he needs—NOT give, but lend!

“Yes, but—“

“But how can you lend something to someone who doesn’t have any way to repay it?  And how can you even know that he’ll be around to repay it,” I say.

“But you just said that you don’t know that he’s really poor.  You said, “He’s got shoes on his feet, clothes on his ba—“

“Right!” I say.  We can’t know, so how can we really apply this literally, without some sort of verifica—“

Suddenly, I don’t have your attention anymore.  You’re looking out the doorway.

“He’s gone now,” you say.

“Just as well,” I say.  But I’m thinking “Mission accomplished.

And I say, as if changing the subject, “Tomorrow, let’s eat breakfast on the back porch.  It’s nice and quiet there in the mornings.”

–Pastor Ken

Reposted from May, 2009.

Hurricane Harvey Aid

 

hurricane-harvey-rescue-3-ap-jt-170827_4x3_992Please plan ahead to contribute to the relief efforts for the citizens of Texas, after Hurricane Harvey.  We have dedicated our entire offering on 9/10 to hurricane recovery efforts. Please plan to give generously.  I’m not sure yet exactly where we will send our contribution–I’ve been looking over some sites on the web, including Charity Navigator Our leadership team is open to input regarding this, so please feel free to contact me (Pastor Ken) or the church with any suggestion you might have regarding that issue!

Meanwhile, let’s keep praying for the citizens of South Texas and Louisiana!

Warmly,

Pastor Ken