February 6, 2021

Clerical bullying and spiritual abuse: Are they the same thing?

This weekend it is one year exactly since The Christianity Today article was published that brought about the end of the public ministry of Steve Timmis, former CEO of Acts29 and founder of The Crowded House network of churches in the UK.

I played no small part in that article’s creation, although Timmis had been sacked by Acts29 the day before the article, so the article publication which coincided with his sacking, was not the cause of it. The article was one of the top ten articles for the year at Christianity Today, while the podcast I conducted with Julie Roys in light of it was her most listened to podcast ever.

Which tells you that the issue of bullying and spiritual abuse in the church are hot button topics at the moment. People are wanting to know what to do. It seems to be everywhere. And the issue is not going away.

In the year since that expose, I have been fairly inundated with phone calls, emails, PMs, all requesting help or advice on this matter. In fact during my two week’s vacation on the beach a couple of weeks ago, I received four calls within a twenty four hour period from people with significant concerns about bad clerical behaviour.

Two questions have come to the fore in this past twelve months.

The first question, as I have listened to harrowing tale after harrowing tale this year, is whether what we are experiencing is something unique to our times? Is there something different going on in the church now than has been going on in the past? The jury’s out with that one. Some say it’s always been like this, others say there’s something unique that is driving it in this late modern age. I oscillate on that one.

But it’s the second question I’ve been ruminating on. In the light of the use of the term “spiritual abuse” here’s been a push from some among our evangelical camp to pooh-pooh the very notion; dismissing it as an over-reaction, an overtly psychologised and therapeutic over-reach to something that is just plain old bad behaviour, bullying on steroids so to speak.

Besides, many say, there’s been a push by those in the affirming LGBTQI church scene, to label non-affirming churches with the term. There is clear evidence in theological articles that the term is being co-opted by revisionist theologians to push an affirming-only stance in the church. So why should we use it too? Doesn’t it just risk us being swept up in that debate?

Those are significant concerns, but I am not going to let go of that term “spiritual abuse” too readily. There is a real difference between the clerical bullying that I have had reported to me almost ad nauseam this year, and spiritual abuse, which unfortunately I have also had reported to me almost ad nauseam this year too.

I haven’t finalised my thinking on this by any means, but here’s a crack at what I see as the key difference:

Bullying – in this case clerical – is the action of a hard-headed, emotionally unintelligent person who has found themselves in a church leadership position which affords them the opportunity to have their own way, and in which there are few, if any, safety brakes to temper their excesses. They are not necessarily narcissists, but they are clunky and self-centred, with little insight into the cost of their actions on others, and love calling the shots.

The bully is primarily obsessed with controlling the office in which they work, so those who see the bullying behaviour are generally other staff and lay leaders who butt heads with them on matters of process and practice. In the end, staff leave exasperated or wounded, and the whole process keeps going, though often the church congregation can be unaware of all that is happening, indeed the ministry and pastoral life of the church on the ground can seem quite healthy.

I’ve heard a lot of these tales this year. And for what it’s worth I think that behaviour left unchecked is damaging many evangelical churches throughout Australia. I also believe that such an attitude disqualifies you from pastoral ministry, though it would seem that many a denomination has neither the will, nor the means, to deal with what seems to be an ingrained problem. That needs to be addressed. And I don’t think I’ve gotten to the bottom of the issue, so there’s more thinking to do around this issue. More to come for sure!

So now we come to the spiritual abuser. It’s hard to define the complete set of characteristics, but let me say this: when a spiritual abuser comes into a room full of people, particularly in a Christian setting, their first action is that of Arnie in the Terminator movie in which he arrives in the present and goes into a crowded bar.

The Terminator scans the bar, is immediately sizing people up, checking out their weaknesses, their points of connection that he can leverage, their possessions that he can use to his own advantage.

His immediate concern is “What can I use of these people and what they have to get what I want?” And what does he want? He wants control of these people. He does not want these people to have any sense that they might be in any area of life, superior to him, or more gifted.

The basic building block of the spiritual abuser is to leverage what he has to control people. Anyone who he cannot control is seen as a threat. Anyone. This is why the spiritual abuse that we see in a church does not simply stop at bad behaviour towards the staff, but goes all the way down. The spiritual abuser takes a perverse delight in snuffing out the faintest whiff of self-determination among even the least of the brethren.

My wife – who has heard tale after tale of abuse from her clients – pointed out to me that the term “spiritual abuse” is apt, and that we should not give it up quickly.

And her reasoning was simple. Whatever word you put in front of the word “abuse” is the leverage point of the perpetrator. So she has seen plenty of people suffering from financial abuse, in which their dominating partner, controls their bank account, doles out money in certain amounts for food etc; keeps them on the edge of poverty; refuses them disposable income for their own small gratuities; and hovers over them when the bills are to be paid, always making sure that receipts are kept.

Nothing must slip through. That’s financial abuse. The abused person cannot think about financial matters without the abuse, or the resultant punishment, or withdrawal of favour, dominating their psyche. It gets to the point that even if free from that abuser’s control, while they technically have control of their finances, they never feel liberated, they are always looking over their shoulder, uncertain that they are spending their money the right way, and feeling guilty if they don’t account for it all in a certain manner.

So too physical abuse. The perpetrator leverages their physical strength to ensure compliance, often pointing out in either obvious or non-obvious ways the sheer difference in physicality between him (and it most often is a him) and the one he is abusing.

You’re perfectly free to leave of course, the door is not chained, but you know that that is not true. You are dominated by the mere threat of the violence, even if the actual occurrences of them are rare. To dissent or resist is to challenge the very core of the abuser’s being. He has built himself as this person, and any resistance must be crushed in order for him to function properly.

And so on, with other forms of abuse, including sexual and emotional.

And so we get to spiritual abuse. The deep narcissism of a spiritual abuser sees the spiritual hunger of the church members who have come under his sway as something that can be leveraged to his own purposes, and for his own appetite to be sated. He is constantly scanning the room to see what can be manipulated to meet his own desires.

And while these desires might be stated publicly in terms of spiritual goals, all he has done is list the very things that the congregation values, and then used them to serve his goal of controlling people. The fact that such control may coincide with apparently godly goals is incidental.

The yearning for spiritual intimacy or the desire to be accountable and godly – these are not seen by the spiritual abuser as legitimate yearnings within the congregation to feed, but rather as weaknesses that can be exploited. And in church settings this proves most effective.

The next thing the spiritual abuser does of course, is systematise the abuse, forming leadership around him that both reflects him, defers to him and carries out his will. I have found that the guilt that many ex-leaders have, is that although the knew in their hearts as they went around to someone’s house to pull them into line (at the bidding of the abuser) they did it nonetheless.

Why? There was something deeper being controlled in them that made them fearful also. They did not believe in the abuser’s project as much as fear his wrath, or more to the point, his manipulative emotional distancing from them – if they failed to carry out his task. And once the abuser can get his charges to do the work that he would normally have to carry out, then the abuse is systematised.

As my wife often points out, spiritual abuse is most like sexual abuse, because it gets to the very inner core of who you are. It breaks an intimacy boundary deep within you. And my experience of speaking to people from various groups – including The Crowded House – this past year or so, bears this out.

Even after they have broken the physical contact with a spiritual abuser, (and this includes ex-leaders), they are constantly looking over the spiritual shoulders, unsure of themselves, wary of being involved in ministry, incapable of making decisions by themselves because they have no North Star reference to make it from. As you read the national safeguarding review that was put out in the wake of The Crowded House situation, you read story after story of shell-shocked people caught in the headlights of indecision, often sidelined and confused.

And not just for six months or so, but for a decade or more. A psychiatrist friend of mine told me just last week that many Christian who have suffered spiritual abuse can no longer open the Bible, not because they don’t believe it or have walked away from the faith, but because they get PTSD every time they do.

They are so used to be the Bible being opened in front of them in order to manipulate them, or gaslight them, and prove them wrong, or ungodly or sinful or “a law unto themselves” that they have an adverse reaction to the Bible, akin to a phobia.

When I heard that it struck me just how different the vanilla (but still toxic) clerical bully is, compared to that Terminator style spiritual abuser. The totalising dominance of another person – or a set of persons – for the sheer sake of controlling them feels like it is from the pit of hell, which of course, it is.

Now there’s much more to be said on this, and perhaps I’ve missed stuff that others can point out, but it has sure been a twelve month period in which I have heard some of the most awful stories of both bullying and spiritual abuse. I would never say to someone that their experience is better – or worse – than anyone else’s, but I’ve noticed a definite psychological experience and reflection between the two sets of sufferers.

I can definitely say that a lot of the dark stories have gotten to me. I’ve ruminated on some of these shocking stories for weeks. And I am so glad that we have a great Saviour, the Lord Jesus, to comfort us by his Spirit.

And what a Saviour of both those who have been bullied and abused. May I conclude with these refreshing words from Isaiah 42, to encourage you to lean into Jesus, the safest person you could ever be around:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged[a]
    till he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his law.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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