Why do some spiritual leaders abuse power?

The topic of spiritual abuse has been in the news of late. In looking at the problem of cover-ups of sexual abuse within the church, we can see that not only bodies are violated and harmed, but spiritual abuse also happens to victims, their families, and those in the community who know about the abuse but are coerced to remain silent and still. Of course spiritual abuse happens outside of sexual abuse. In fact, I would hazard a guess that most of spiritual abuse happens apart from sexual abuse.

As I defined it in an earlier post, spiritual abuse is: the use of faith, belief, and/or religious practices to coerce, control, or damage another for a purpose beyond the victim’s well-being (i.e., church discipline for the purpose of love of the offender need not be abuse).

Over at www.whitbyforum.com, Carolyn Custis James is blogging each Monday about the problem of spiritual abuse. You can see the first post here along with the topics she’ll look at over the next 6 weeks. Today, she will be raising some questions about the abuser and I may comment on her site as I can [note: this is written earlier and if all happens as planned, I am traveling in Rwanda today]. For those of you who don’t know of Carolyn, she is the author of Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women.

What Do We Know About Those Who Abuse?

The truth is we do not have empirical survey evidence for those who use spiritual tools to harm or manipulate others. But, we can say something about the kinds of reasons why someone might want to coerce and manipulate. We know things about this activity because we all have participated in coercive acts. We have used others for our own purposes. In the words of an old Larry Crabb book, we have chosen manipulation of over ministry to those we love. So, in this way, we can learn a bit about why some try to control others by looking at why we try to control others:

  • Fear. We fear losing control, having someone disrupt our plans. We worry that we will be left, abandoned, rejected. We worry that what is important to us will not be cherished and valued by others so we seek to control the outcome. Notice that much of what we want as outcomes are good things. In spiritual matters, it is not good for people to do things that dishonor God. So, we may try to force our kids or parishioners to do what they ought to do. But force violates the picture of love God gives us in the Scriptures. He does not force us to come to him. He draws and woos us.
  • Love of Power. We must admit that we sometimes control others because we like seeing the evidence of our own power. Ever had someone trying to do something to you and you wanted to prove that you could beat them at their game? Maybe you thought, “I’ll show you who’s the boss around here!” This is nothing less than a love of one’s own power. God gives us power. Power is not wrong. But the use of it to serve self (even if in the name of God) is an abuse of power. Spiritual leaders have power of words and these words can be easily used to glorify self.
  • Efficiency. Power works. It gets us what we want. If the outcome is good, then the means seem good. End of story. Spiritual abuse works. People fall in line. They remain orderly and do not disturb church leader’s good goals.
  • Ego. Self is part of why we treat others as objects. We think about self, needs, desires, wants, and expectations. The stronger the ego, the more confidence we have that our way of seeing the world, our expectations, our outcomes are the right ones. And the stronger our confidence, the deafer we become to other ways of seeing the world. Narcissism sometimes operates out of fear (see bullet point 1) but also operates out of arrogance and pride. We become blind to others, insensitive to needs of others. Ego in ministry is a worship of self in place of worship of God—a God who illustrates sacrificial leadership! 
  • Habit. I would argue that many of us engage in controlling behaviors without much thought at all. It is habit or learned behaviors from others. It is said, rather crassly, that starving people tend to starve others. It means that we who have been controlled or manipulated tend to learn the habits of controlling behavior (like tug-of-war, it is natural to pull back in the opposite direction). But in doing so we may become controlling ourselves. So, many are unaware that they may be attempting to control others. Spiritual abuse has been passed down in the name of godly leadership and so many are just doing what they learned from others.

 What Can We Do From Inside The System?

There is little that we can do to stop others who want to abuse, especially when they are knowingly predatory. However, much of the above motives do not fall into intentional abuse—even the love of power. In the cases of naïve or unthoughtful abuse, we can bring truth to light in a couple of ways:

  1. Validate: “What?” you might be asking, “Won’t that encourage them?” On the contrary, validation often opens the validated to conversation and dialog where bare confrontation leads to defense and counter-attack. So, if you see someone who is seeking a good end (e.g., obedient children) but using coercive means, try to validate the good goal even as you suggest alternatives or point out that the means seems to be control oriented or objectifying.
  2. Raise questions: What outcomes are you seeking? How do you think the manipulated person might be feeling? How might you convey concern for the person as well as the situation? How might a good goal become perverted in the intensity by which we seek that goal?
  3. Say ouch. Sometimes just saying, “I’m hurt” can signal to some that they have over-stepped boundaries.

Not all should stay inside an abusive system. But, for those who feel they can stay, these are some of the things they can do. I would love to hear what else others have tried.


Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, conflicts, counseling, Psychology, Uncategorized

8 responses to “Why do some spiritual leaders abuse power?

  1. Pingback: Why Do We Abuse Power? | Renewal Christian Care

  2. Pingback: For our children – what would you do for them? | Fairy Godsister's Blog

  3. Thank you for ideas on how to respond to spiritual abuse. In my experience saying “ouch” just exposes you to more hurt because they deny so strongly that they basically call you a liar for claiming you’re hurt – or should that be a sign that the person in question doesn’t really care about you and you should stay away? Also, when I try validation with an abuser they always end up taking a mile when I’ve given an inch. Again, is this also an example of something good to try first, but if it’s not taken well, it should be a warning that the abuser is even less rational than we thought?

  4. Pamela

    I wonder if there might be another factor driving this behavior: narcissistic personalities. An abuser’s lack of empathy for those they hurt/manipulate/shame could be a symptom of something deeper, could it not? Our denomination insists on intensive psychological exams for all who wish to be ordained (this was not true in my youth). I believe this policy helps protect the church from the exploitation of those compulsively seeking power (and admiration) via the pulpit.

  5. Pingback: The Many Faces of Spiritual Abuse | Missio Alliance

  6. I think your point about Habit is an important one. Yes, many folks engage in controlling behaviors without much thought at all. It is habit or learned behaviors from others.

    If men who control and abuse their female partners end up attending Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs, I have read that they universally start off saying that they don’t think they are abusers. After quite a while, the man may start to say “okay, that thing (x or y) I did was abusive. If they continue making progress, they realise that it wasn’t just a few behaviours they did that were abusive, it is their deep belief system— their belief in their entitlement and their superiority over women and their right to use them for their own selfish purposes— which is the problem. And they start to realise how they learned that mindset from other men and from the culture at large. Which is where habit comes into it.

    This is parallel with spiritual abusers learning from other spiritual abusers. I agree with you, Phil that spiritual abuse has been passed down in the name of godly leadership and so many are just doing what they learned from others.

    At the same time — and here is the tricky bit — the individual adult is always responsible for their own conduct. And if someone is a Christian and indwelt by the Spirit, or even if they are not a Christian but have an operating conscience, they will feel pricks of guilt when they abuse another person. The Spirit and the conscience convicts us with such pricks. So even if spiritual abuse is being modelled by many others, each individual person is responsible for choosing to heed, or disregard, the pricks of their conscience.

    And I believe the more a person disregards those pricks of conscience, the more they copy unthinkingly what spiritual abusers are doing, the more responsible they are for the abuse they do on others. And also, the more intentional and deliberate they seem to become in doing that abuse.

    Working out how much an abuser is deliberate and intentional is the tricky bit. Because the abusers who are quite witting and intentional in what they are doing are dangerous to confront, and confrontation almost never results in the abuser changing for the better.

  7. Pingback: The Perfect Storm | Carolyn Custis James

  8. Pingback: This Can of Worms Must be Opened! | Carolyn Custis James

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