November 7, 2017

Does Your Church Have a Spiritual Spacey?

Does your church have a Spiritual Spacey?  Yes, that’s right, not “a spiritual “space”, but  a “Spiritual Spacey”. A Spiritual Spacey is the type of leader or influencer who, in the manner of the now shamed actual Spacey in the area of sexual abuse, is spiritually abusive over an extended period of time. And they get away with it for all sorts of reasons, often because they get stuff done, are popular in the wider setting, or are a success in their field?

Sadly, experience tells me there are far more Spiritual Spaceys than we hear about. It’s a growing trend among churches. Sometimes that’s among those that have less governance and are independent, though it’s not restricted to these.  It can be a church plant thing too, especially when the plant is built up around a charismatic personality. But I am sure there are plenty in established church settings within large denominations too.


Now one Spiritual Spacey would be bad enough, particularly when we think about what Jesus was like and the direction to Jesus’ under-shepherds in 1Peter not to abuse the flock of God under their care.

And I know too that the church also has, alas, too many actual Spaceys; sexually abusive leaders who either have forgotten that they will have to stand before the judgement seat of Christ to answer for everything they have done in the body – and to other peoples’ bodies, or don’t believe that they will.

But the Spiritual Spacey is a particularly slippery customer.  And the reason for that is that often, by dint of having a zealous, almost narcissistic personality the Spiritual Spacey presents as a clean skin – at least in terms of the big icky sins.  It’s as if nothing will stick, nothing anyway from the list of bad that evangelicals in particular have an open eye for.

Evangelicals with their oft-publicly stated concern about all things sexually grey among ministry relationships, have their magnifying glass and deer hunter’s hat at the ready for any whiff of such impropriety.  But the abuse of power?  Well in that regard, it’s a bit like Hollywood really, as long as it doesn’t get sexual, it can be tolerated.

The result is that far too many Spiritual Spaceys blithely sail under the ecclesiastical radar and damage people, often finding themselves rewarded for it because they get the results; the influence or numbers that, sadly, so many crave.  And that merely emboldens them.

Now I’ve written about this type of thing in the past, and will continue to do so as long as I watch as people turn a blind eye to spiritual abuse by leaders of God’s people who do not qualify for that role by dint of their behaviour.  And I do believe that a time is coming when that same Age of Exposure that has outed the actual Spacey, will flow on to the church and its Spiritual Spaceys.

And not before time either. There’s going to be a generation in church, or even a micro-generation (that’s a thing these days), who will start to call it out.  And not only that, we’ll start to make actual reparation with people who have been so abused.  Don’t hold your breath, because I believe that’s still some distance away, but it will come.

And it will likely come when the cultural pressure on the church is tighter than it even is now.  After all, if you’re going to be the brave ones who stand up against the aggressive or manipulative culture, you’re likely going to have the spine to stand up against the aggressive or manipulative leader.

My wife in her role as a clinical psychologist sees the results of Spiritual Spaceys on a fairly regular basis with clients, and here are some reasons why they continue to get away with their abuse:

1. Power Differentials

Spiritual Spaceys get away with it because of power differentials between themselves and the people they engage with.  When actor Richard Dreyfus’s son explained how Kevin Spacey had sexually molested him when he was young, even while his father was in the room, he didn’t say anything as it was happening not because he didn’t want to, but because he felt he couldn’t.  Spacey was a powerful man, with a lot of influence and he felt able to do what he wanted because of that power differential.

So too Spiritual Spaceys.  They are often leaders who command a lot of respect simply because in their setting they are the top dog by a long way.  Who is going to challenge them?  Who is going to say “no?”  People who are spiritually abused often report how they couldn’t break that power differential, even though they knew in their minds they could just get up and walk away.

2. Who Would Believe You

Once again, think of the young Dreyfus.  When a well known, acclaimed actor puts his hand on your thigh and then moves it up to your crotch, what are you going to say?  Who are you going to say it to? Both Sexual and Spiritual Spaceys rely on the fact that you will be too embarrassed to say anything because no one will believe you.  Why do you think no one will believe you?  Because it’s so out of the question that that person would do that. It’s so shocking what they did, that it’s not possible they could be doing this on an ongoing basis and be getting away with it, right?  After all, they would have been outed before that if they’d done it to someone else, right?  It must be about you. It must be something about you that caused it.

You can see how someone with a sensitive conscience, who follows a strong church leader who abuses them spiritually could come to the conclusion that it’s their sin, their problem that is leading to the abuse.  And, since we’re all more pious than Jesus in this area, we don’t say anything because no one else has said anything, and we assume it’s just us.

3. The Abuser is Praised Publicly

Every awards night, every gong, every reward, every wonderfully written review for Kevin Spacey  would have stuck in the craw of every person abused by him.  And when that is layered on over the years, the decades, it’s not hard for someone so abused to simply believe that the public loves this person and would hear nothing against them.  So you say nothing.  The smiles, the photographs, the red carpets all add up to a plausibility structure that the abuser hides behind.  And it emboldens them.

It is the same with Spiritual Spacey – especially if they are a little bit gifted, a little bit of a good orator, a little bit of a minor Christian celebrity. Or even a lot gifted, a lot good at oratory and a major Christian celebrity.  When their books are in the bookshop.  When their books are on the very topics and subjects in the church for which they are, in your own experience, woefully inadequate to speak on, then what more can you do than shrug your shoulders.

4. Group Think

What’s most obvious about Spacey is that Hollywood knew.  The Old Vic Theatre in London probably knew.  But everyone turned a blind eye.  That is until the er, house of cards, came tumbling down.  And then everyone started to distance themselves from the abuser as quickly as they could.  Then everyone came out with their stories.

But not before then.  No one dared to break the wall of silence until that point.  A dam wall was waiting to burst, yet no one dared to be the first person to speak out in case they turned around and no one else was following them or backing them up.

When churches break down because of spiritual abuse, what you find is the chorus of “I knew this was happenings” that result. It’s a bit like a game of Ker-Plunk; once the marbles start to fall they can’t stop falling.  In the end the final fall from grace is shockingly, and mercifully, swift.

Mind you, for many people who have been spiritually abused, that’s never the end of it. It can take years to recover. Many abused Christians just don’t darken the door of a church again, or at least they walk with a pronounced emotional limp when it comes to all things church for some time.  Most end up in a holding room, unable to fully commit again due to the pain it caused.

5. Hypocrisy

The biggest charge against Hollywood is the sheer hypocrisy of its stance.  Sexual Spacey is not on his own in Hollywood.  There’s Sexual Weinstein and a whole bunch of others too – probably more to come.  In fact everyone has known about it for years.

Yet at the same time as that was going on, Hollywood – including these figures themselves – has been pumping out, if not dozens of films, then at least dozens of virtue signals, that its goal was to empower women, provide equal opportunity, champion the rights of the downtrodden and abused.  Hollywood has made a big show against that other sexual scoundrel Trump, yet all the while cheering on the likes of Spacey, Weinstein and Roman Polanksi.

Hollywood has been at the forefront of sexual liberation – pointing out the obvious failures of the church in many sexual areas in many a movie.  Offering the new post-Christian ethic as the way forward for the world, as the path to liberty.

Now?  Everyone realise Hollywood’s hypocrisy.  And Hollywood is desperately trying to change the narrative and present itself as the solution to the problem of its own making.

How much more is the church hypocritical when it lets Spiritual Spaceys have their sway.  Proclaiming servant leadership needs to be backed up by, you know, actual servant leadership, and a commitment to rooting out any leaders who abuse the sheep spiritually.  And it’s not just your career that could tank, or the brand, or the next big summer flick – it’s a question of last day judgement.

Evangelicals are very good at scanning the horizon for heretical wolves, either who come into the flock or spring up within it. But the bullying big sheep? The rough shepherds who the Old Testament condemns so fiercely, who say all the right things, but trample down the sheep for the sake of their own gain?  Not so much.

And often when they do do something about it, the charge of hypocrisy is there for all to see.  The very ones who turned a blind eye when it was convenient, now thrust themselves forward as the solution to the problem they helped create.

As the culture squeezes the church harder, as the role of the church becomes more pronounced – and more scrutinised – it’s time to stop  the Spiritual Spaceys who wreak havoc among the sheep.  For if we don’t do it in this Age of Exposure, the Chief Shepherd will in the New Age of Exposure on the last day.

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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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