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-- © GodSpeak International 2006 --
-- Do not republish without written permission from <copyright@godspeak.org> --

Author: Teresa Seputis <ts@godspeak.net>

Prayer-School Course #36

Ask Teresa

By Teresa Seputis

Week 19 Question
Is It Spiritual Abuse??

Dear Teresa

We have been a member in good standing and leaders in our church for many years. About two months ago, the Lord began speaking to my husband and myself that it is His will to move us to a different Church. We have prayed about it and fasted, and the Lord has confirmed this to us.

We spoke with our Pastor to let him know what the Lord laid on our hearts and to discuss what we should do. We need to be released to follow the Lord to whatever home church He would lead us, but we wanted to leave in a responsible way. We offered to stay as long and serve in our current ministry roles as long our pastor needed us while he looked for replacements.

The pastor would not hear us out. He interrupted my husband to say he did not believe God was leading us to leave his church. He said that if God wanted us to leave, He would have told the pastor first. He called us childish and immature and told us to mark his words that things would not go well for us because of what we are doing. He accused us of not loving the people in our church since we were unwilling to stay there and suffer with them. Then he got up and opened to the door of his office and told us to leave.

That visit went so poorly that we are not comfortable to talk to him privately again, and would prefer that the Church elders be present for any future meetings. We communicated that to him, but he refused in a rude and attacking way. We wanted the chance to stay until we could train others in our ministry positions, but he told us that he didn't want us to. We have seen the reputation of others who have left the church dragged through the mud, and we are pretty sure that will happen to ours as well.

My heart is broken because we have served under this ministry for years, being faithful through some very difficult times. I hate to leave on bad terms, but I am concerned that if we try to stay longer, it will only get worse. What should we do?

--Broken Hearted

Dear Broken Hearted

Let me start by offering my most sincere condolences for what I know is a very painful situation. I can speak from personal experience on this, because I have been though something very similar myself. I know it is very painful, because you are trying hard to do the right thing, and leadership is treating you as though you are the one in the wrong. This is a form of manipulation and control, and there is no way you can convert it into a "win-win" situation. The pastor's behavior sounds very defensive and controlling to me, and there is no real way to part on good terms with a leader struggling with those particular issues.

Your pastor feels betrayed that you are leaving them and you have become "the enemy." The best thing you can do is to keep a godly attitude towards them. Be quick to forgive them because you are grateful to Jesus for forgiving you. Be careful not to complain about them or speak negatively about them to others. Don't focus your attention and energy on them (no matter how tempting that may be). Don't reply the encounter over and over in your head. Don't look for the thing you wish you'd said/done when they treated you that way. Let them go, release it to God and try not to get tangled up in mentally replaying what they did to you over and over again. Focus your thoughts and attention on God and where He is leading you, instead of pondering where you came from and how hurt you felt when you tried to leave there.

There are pastors who (mostly from their own brokenness) manipulate and control others. They bully people and they use threats. If you try to leave their church, they usually speak a curse over you or treat you like you are a criminal. These people see the sheep as serving them instead of seeing themselves as being there to minister to the sheep and to train/equip them. They have somehow forgotten that they will have to give account one day to Jesus for how they shepherd the Lord's flock. Pastor's with these characteristics can be guilty of spiritual abuse. They are nice enough when they get their own way, but they can get nasty when they don't. Fortunately, these people are the exception and not the rule. Most pastors are not like that.

In all fairness to the many excellent pastors out there, I should mention that there are a lot more demanding/abusive sheep than there are abusive pastors. There are people who assume that just because a person is a minister, they are obligated to do certain things for that person. For instance, I get emails all the time from total strangers who think I am obligated to spend hours praying for them or seeking a word for them just because they sent me an email. I get total strangers sending me dreams that are 8 or 9 pages long and they expect that I should drop what I am doing to interpret their dream just because they asked. Of course, they also expect me to do that for them free of charge and immediately (regardless of what else may be on my schedule.)

Some people think that they can be as rude as they like and I am obligated to be nice to them and to like them just because I am a minister. The abuse can go both directions. Most of the people who read this email list would never do the types of things to a minister that I describe here. But there are a lot of very wounded, self-centered, demanding people out there who act that way. They seem to come out of the woodwork for pretty much every minister floating around. You are probably not aware of it, but chances are that your pastor has to deal with some of these type of people on a regular basis. This is so common that ministers have developed a term for it...we call it "sheep bite."

The reality is that most of the time neither the pastor or the parishioner is abusive. But at times, there are personality conflicts or flawed interpersonal interactions. In addition, not all ministers have good people skills. (I know that I personally don't have as good of people skills as I feel I need, and I am constantly working on that.) Other ministers may be it he same boat. If you catch them wrong, you may get a seemingly defensive response and wonder what happened. You may say something that you think is perfectly innocent, but maybe your communication skills aren't quite perfected yet either, and it comes across as attacking to the pastor. His response may seen a bit defensive or harsh to you, because you don't realize how you came across to them. Or maybe you catch them on a really bad day and their coping skills are not up to their usual level and the encounter goes very poorly. Any number of interpersonal things can go wrong and feel like "abuse" (to either side) when they really are not. Sometimes imperfect human beings interact imperfectly with each other.

Having said all that, I would like to comment a bit further on your particular encounter. I realize that you cannot help but be a bit biased, you are going to see this from your perspective and it is not possible for you to be 100% objective. But there are some elements you describe in his response that sound like classic pastoral abuse to me. Certain things raise red flags for me.

The fact that your pastor thinks that God would speak to him about your spiritual destiny/directions before He spoke to you is a giant red flag. That screams of manipulation and control. Every pastor knows that their role is to help facilitate you to grow in your own personal relationship with God. The goal is not for him to hear God for you, it is for you to learn to hear God clearly and directly for yourself. If the pastor thinks that he should be directly involved in life-decisions that belong between you and your husband and God, that is an inappropriate level of control going on. It is a danger sign. That in and of itself would be a reason to consider leaving that church.

The fact that he personally attacked you when you informed him of a decision is another red flag. Your pastor may disagree with your hearing, but he has no business turning that disagreement into a personal attack. That is a classic method of operation (MO) for a manipulator. The MO is to "reward you" when you do what they want and to punish you when you don't. A personal attack is a form of punishment, designed to intimidate you into doing what he wants instead of what you decided to do. Pastors should not manipulate people, not even if they think they are doing it for the person's own good.

A third red flag is the fact that he feels a need to 100% dictate the terms. He is basically saying that it needs to be his way or not at all. That is another classic manipulator technique. He wanted to hare follow-on meetings with you, but privately in his office where he is free to treat you however he wants to. You explained why that was unacceptable to you and offered an alternative, which was to have some of the church elders sit in on the meeting. He stated that your alternative was unacceptable, and he insisted on his way or not at all. If your suggestion was problematic for him for some reason, he should have offered another alternative (one that both you and he might find acceptable). Instead of doing that, he choose to attack you on a personal level. Again, that is a classic control/manipulation technique. It is a classic sign of spiritual abuse.

The fourth red flag is that he spoke a curse over you for leaving. He said that if you leave it "won't go well for you." (You need to treat that like a serious curse and break it.) It is clearly against the Bible to speak curses over people, and no godly pastor would intentionally do that to a member of his flock. However, a manipulator/controller would, because he wants to punish you for leaving him.

I feel that what you describe has many "classic" symptoms of pastoral abuse. The best thing you can do with a spiritually abusive leader is to get as far away from them as quickly as you can. Don't try to leave on good terms, just leave.

You tried to do the "right thing" and you tried to be responsible in training replacements. But he would not let you. You have been released, so I recommend that you go quickly, before he sinks his claws back into you and pulls you in again. It sounds to me like the Lord had a very good reason for telling you to leave that church.

-- © GodSpeak International 2006 --
-- Do not republish without written permission from copyright@godspeak.org --

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