Today, I will be making two presentations here in Fort Wayne, Indiana at the Look Up Conference on Faith and Mental Health hosted by the Lutheran Foundation. For those interested in the slides, here they are:
I’ve read a lot of discussion recently about the difficulty defining spiritual abuse of adults by faith leaders in positions of power. It seems most debates center on whether to believe victims who report such abuse and whether there is a culture of victimhood. Behind these discussions is the question of whether we can operationally define spiritual abuse.
For some, since there isn’t consensus on a definition, then there is little to no value in discussing its reality. “It is too subjective and can’t be known.” For others, “too many good leaders will be hurt by false allegations” is reason enough to doubt an accuser’s experience.
Permit me two small historical sidebars to give context on these kinds of debates. 15 years ago I gave a lecture at a denomination’s general assembly on the problem of child sexual abuse. In the room were 300 or so pastors. The very first question asked from the floor was whether it was biblically proper to accept a child’s report of abuse against an elder if there wasn’t a second witness. The second comment from the floor was a statement expressing concern that false allegations would ruin the ministries of many good pastors. The third question amounted to, “Why do we call it abuse, can’t we just call it sin?”
My second historical point goes back a bit further. In the mid-1800s doctors did not routinely wash their hands or instruments after doing cadaver work. As a result, when they delivered babies, mothers and infants died at alarming rates, especially when compared to mortality rates of mid-wife deliveries. When the medical community began speaking about microbes and the need to wash, doctors often resisted. The renowned Dr. Oliver Wendall Holmes was castigated for speaking about the need for better hygiene and some New York doctors wrote letters expressing that such practices would harm their business and the public’s trust of their guild.
In both examples, the primary concern seemed to be to protect the guild, much like our current discussion.
Two criteria for determining spiritual abuse
Consider the case of child abuse. There are two accepted criteria used in defining child abuse that can be helpful here: 1. Actions that result in abuse, and 2. Impact on victim. For example, refusing to take a sick child to the doctor may be found to be abuse/neglect whether or not the child recovers. Or, in another example, one parent routinely expresses paranoia that aliens are trying to hurt them. One child appears resilient and unbothered while the other child becomes suicidal. The impact on the second child is what may lead to a finding of abuse. Note that intentionality is not a criteria for whether a finding of abuse is valid.
So, try on some of these action words for size. How do they fit for criteria of spiritual abuse? Rejecting…terrorizing…isolating…ignoring…corrupting…verbally assaulting…over pressuring.
Let’s apply to a specific case. A man pressures his wife daily for sex and when she does not comply (she often does) he gives her the cold shoulder and refuses to speak to her. When he does talk to her, he quotes bible passages and tells her she is sinning and may be responsible if he looks at porn. This woman comes to her pastor for help and to tell him that her therapist has encouraged her to leave to preserve her emotional safety. In this hour-long meeting, the pastor asks no further questions about her experience even though he does express some empathy for her pain. Because he does not ask questions, he does not find out that she being raped, that she regularly wakes up in the night to find her husband trying to penetrate her. Instead, this pastor tells her to be wary of leaving as it will lead to divorce and potentially harm the husband’s reputation as head of a Christian non-profit ministry. He also wonders aloud if her therapist is giving Godly counsel. As the meeting ends, he asks her to come back next week to talk further and gives her homework to identify the log in her own eye. She leaves confused, sad, afraid, and wondering if she is the problem in her marriage.
Now, has the leader committed spiritual abuse? Quite possibly. Is talking about sin and divorce spiritual abuse? No. But, it also is naïve and poor spiritual leadership. As far as actions go, he ignored her pain, he implicitly isolated her by questioning her therapist, asking her to stay, and showing undue concern for the husband’s reputation. She leaves feeling he has rejected her concerns.
If they continue to meet and he continues to emphasize her need to bear up under this burden and to examine her own heart, then he is likely overpressuring (aka coercing) her. Let’s assume the pastor does not want to harm the wife and believes his counsel is helpful. There is no intention to commit spiritual abuse. But, using his spiritual position and wrapping his counsel in biblical and doctrinal language, the pastor has indeed begun to spiritually abuse his parishioner. The abuse could be averted with some basic education if the pastor was open to learning. But ongoing mild to moderate use of these actions would constitute spiritual abuse for this woman. Another woman might just tell the pastor off on the first visit and walk away. In this case it wouldn’t be spiritual abuse. It would be incompetent pastoral care. But in our imaginary case, this woman stayed because (a) she had been raised to always trust pastors, (b) her husband’s chronic belittling had convinced her that she was in the wrong, and (c) she was already rather isolated. What was incompetent care becomes spiritual abuse due to action AND impact.
Why call it spiritual abuse?
Recall the question posed at the beginning of this essay: Why not just call it sin (or bad care in this instance)? Why call it (spiritual) abuse? I would argue that this question comes from a cultural sense that abuse label means the person who committed it is an ABUSER and therefore unable to change and worthy of being cast out of society. Sin feels better because it can be just a “one off” misbehavior. The problems with calling it sin are several. It reveals we are likely far too comfortable with sin. It denies patterns that need attention. It favors the one who has done the wrong and minimizes the impact on the victim. We seem more focused on propping up the careers of those with certain leadership capacities than recognizing the numerous examples in the bible of how God handles those who misrepresent him (e.g., Job’s friends, bad shepherds (Eze 34), blind guides and white-washed tombs, false teachers in Jude).
Labeling certain behaviors as spiritual abuse helps us focus on those actions that crush spirits. Just as labeling the failure to wash hands may cause infections. Identifying spiritual abuse and its impact helps us focus on consequences rather than intentions.
Want to read more on defining spiritual abuse?
 This essay concisely describes the action and impact criteria for child abuse. Some actions are not per se abusive but create a negative impact. These behaviors, if not stopped, could however be labeled abusive in the future if the parent does not respond to corrective education.
With COVID cases rising yet again, families are again needing to evaluate whether to spend the holidays with family. Even if plans are set, there may be tension in the air as news, politics, and opinions also rise with the rate of infection. This means that children listening in may experience more anxiety in the coming days. Here’s an Op Ed piece I contributed for the American Bible Society and published in the Christian Post: Helping Children Cope with Anxiety During the Holidays.
Most of us say, “fine” even when we are not all that fine.
Check out this op ed in the Christian Post written by me. What would you add as additional things we can do to thrive in seasons that can be very hard?
Are you thriving? How would you know?
May is Mental Health Awareness month and so it is a good time to talk about how the church can be a place of safety for the millions of Americans who are facing emotional and mental health challenges, whether a result of COVID or other chronic conditions. Did you know, when individuals are part of supportive faith communities, they tend to recover more quickly than those who are isolated and alone?
Join me as I talk with Rev. Dr. Nicole Martin and Toni Collier about improving how we care well for wounded people. I’ll be unveiling some brand new, easy-to-use tools to help Christians bring healing and hope to their communities
This Thursday, May 13, 2021, 1-3pm EDT. $15 for registration but you will receive a copy of JR Brigg’s book mailed to you. To register, click here.
If you are like me, you experience life now as an ongoing season of upheaval and distress. Between the pandemic’s staggering death count and losses and the racial wounds and ideological rifts we face each day, who doesn’t feel the crushing weight of pain? Yes, the outcome of the George Floyd trial and the success in vaccinating millions of Americans is a move in the right direction–and yet, even successes can trigger more grief. Just ask anyone who lost a loved one. When a new positive event takes place, it can sometimes trigger a shockingly deep wave of grief and loss. There is a lot of evidence that the way of grief and loss is just now really breaking on us like a tidal wave.
Have you ever wanted to an audience with God to tell him of your unspeakable pain? You are not alone. Job did. The Psalmists did. Jesus, the son of God, even did. We have their complaints and laments recorded for us to read and emulate. And since they are recorded in Scripture, we can accept that God invites us to make these cries known to him and to our neighbors.
If you want some help in writing a lament to express your pain to God and to your friends, consider using this new tool just created by the Trauma Healing Institute at American Bible Society. I want to point out a simple and free download where you can do this. Hear how the creators describe the need to lament:
In moments when human dignity is being diminished and violated…When safety and justice feel forgotten or impossible to find…When we feel like we cannot take another step…
Our pain is not a burden to God. God is present.
In times such as these, we here at the Trauma Healing Institute have just launched the new, free, easy-to-use Trauma Healing Basics resource: How to Lament.
This resource is a blueprint for honest prayer in times of great turmoil. God is waiting for us to pour out our hearts. Crying out to God with honesty in times like these is a form of worship; instead of turning away, we open ourselves to God. This little tool explains how to do it.
Just finished listening to Krista Tippett interview Bryan Doerries in her latest On Being episode. Well worth your time if you have the chance to hear it. The discussion centers on the need to speak and name suffering, especially that suffering which leads to moral distress and feelings of shame. To tell without “whitewashing” requires both teller and listener to talk about things they would rather not discuss. Honest telling and honest listening are necessary. Blinders and self-deception of both teller and listener must fall to the ground without defensive response. The telling that leads to healing is not merely voicing pain–though that can be helpful–but having the audience be impacted and to acknowledge their own action, inaction, blindness in situations that led them to feel similar feelings as the one who was narrating the story.
We begin to hope when we see we are not alone. We begin to hope when we do not need to shrink back from the ongoing pain in our lives.
Bryan is the creator of Theater of War, a production company and public health initiative that brings together Greek tragedies and town hall discussions exploring social challenges of today. He reveals how he ended up working with Greek tragedies to create space for people to talk about things they normally hide. He spoke of the death of his girlfriend,
…when she died, the thing that actually hurt the most wasn’t her loss, it was the fact that nobody wanted to talk about it. And the more I tried to talk about all these things I had observed and experienced, not just in her dying but in the months leading up to it, the more people seemed to recoil. And it took me about a hundred performances of Theater of War and some of our other projects to realize that, at a very core level, the work that I’ve been doing for the last 12 years has been about creating the conditions where people will talk about it.Quotation from On Being interview, published April 2021
One of they key learnings from my work with the trauma healing program is that when communities lament together, when they allow for specific naming of pain suffered by part or the whole of a community, something changes in that community. Bryan articulates the same in his understanding of the purpose of Greek plays,
[The purpose of Greek tragedy is] to communalize trauma, to create the conditions where — the word “amphitheater” in Greek means “the place where we go to see in both directions.” “Amphi-” — I see you, you see me; both directions. “Theatron” — the seeing place. So we go to the amphitheater in the fifth century, B.C., to see each other, to see ourselves; to see that we are not the only people to have felt this isolated or this ashamed or this betrayed — not just because it’s being enacted onstage, but because people around us in this semicircular structure are all validating and acknowledging the truth of what we’re watching.
What is it that is unnamed that needs naming? Doerries identifies the trauma of betrayal as most salient,
...betrayal is the wound that cuts the deepest. You can call it whatever you want, moral distress, moral injury, but really, it’s betrayal — feeling abandoned or betrayed, or betraying oneself and one’s sense of what’s right.
There are many kinds of betrayals. I’ve written on this site about betrayal trauma that comes with spiritual and sexual abuse and so will not discuss those now. But, one other way we betray each other is to attempt to over-simplify complex and painful experiences of others. Bryan and Krista talk about allowing frontline workers in the pandemic to name their moral distress without responding with a whitewash of hero talk. In recent months I’ve talked with individuals who have expressed guilt/shame over their treatment of sexual minorities in their religious communities. It would be easy for us to offer quick responses depending on our own belief systems. “You were doing the best you knew how, but now you know better.” Or, “You are only feeling this way because a vocal minority is shaming you.” Neither response allows the person to name their pain. And neither response acknowledges that every listener has had similar experiences that they too have not wanted to name.
Creating spaces for tragedies to be told
What can we each do to support the telling of tragedies? We may not be able to put on theater productions or start town-meetings but we can be better friends.
- We can ask questions that invite someone who seems to want to tell their tragic tale to continue speaking
- What did you feel when that happened? How did what happen change you and your perspective?
- What did you wish your friends knew or would say/do when you were going through that suffering? is there any part of the story you have always wanted to tell but were afraid to do so?
- When have you felt understood, less alone, even if only for a second?
- Without being superficial and without interrupting with your own story, notice where you have felt similar feelings. Where have you felt shame? Betrayed? Isolated? Conflicted? In moral distress? Guilty? Don’t try to erase their feelings but sit with the reality that you too know of what they speak. Don’t rush to change the feelings?
- Before your conversation is over (or in another future conversation if more appropriate), ask a couple more questions
- How have you survived? What is one trait of yours you wish others could see more clearly?
- How would you like our community/church/setting to respond to you? (Don’t look for solutions and don’t press for action)
- What if anything gives you encouragement today?
Look for signs of life. Remember that communal healing happens when those who were wounded experience healing and then begin to bring healing to broken systems. The healing of a community does not happen because the healthy do the work. It is because the sick become the healers. Isaiah 61:3b-4 reminds us that when the God heals the broken and the blind,
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
Is trauma healing effective for those in prison and jail settings? Sign up for the webinar and the data reveal
On April 6, 2021 at 7 pm EDT, the American Bible Society’s Trauma Healing Institute is hosting a webinar where we discuss recent research examining the effectiveness of Bible-based trauma healing with incarcerated individuals. Representatives from ABS, Baylor University, and Good News Jails & Prison Ministries will walk you through the project of bringing trauma healing groups to this population and will reveal some amazing and moving results. You may not think research can move you but I challenge you to come to this and NOT be moved.
Register for free here. If you can’t attend but want to view the recording at a later time, sign up.