Category Archives: trauma

Considering Criteria for Spiritual Abuse


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.[1]

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?

Check out this and this link for definitions of spiritual abuse.


[1] 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.

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, pastors and pastoring, Spiritual abuse, trauma

Free webinar on the impact of child abuse on adult mental and spiritual health


Consider joining me September 4, 2019 on a webinar hosted by The Partnership Center: Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives, US Dept of Health and Human Services. I will be presenting on the spiritual impact of child abuse on adult survivors.

Part IV: Mental Illness 101: Childhood Trauma and Mental Health Impacts

Wedneday, September 4, 2019 | 12:00 —1:00 p.m. EDT

Register at: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/437d661ca5d8d0c434538d7d4481ef37  

Trauma ― specifically trauma experienced as children or adolescents ― can significantly impact individuals across their entire lives. In fact, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (@NCTSN) notes that survivors of childhood trauma are more likely to have long-term health problems or are at higher risk to die at an earlier age than their peers.  With so many walking wounded souls in our midst, people are starting to ask, “How can I make a difference?” Our July webinar will focus on this important factor impacting many people who are struggling with mental illness concerns – untreated childhood trauma. Our goals are to equip local faith and community leaders with the signs and symptoms of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and provide the proven resources they can incorporate into their congregational and community outreach efforts.  Register today for our September 4th webinar, and invite a friend

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2019 Global Community of Practice Livestream


The 2019 Trauma Healing Global Community of Practice is fast approaching. The event will be held in Philadelphia, PA, USA from March 12-14th.

This years’ COP will explore the family’s vulnerability to trauma as well as family restoration. Attendees will hear from a wide range of global speakers while networking with peers from around the world. While registration is closed for in-person participation, we will be livestreaming the event and are looking for individuals to host interactive viewing parties. If you are interested in learning more about this opportunity, please click on the following link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/host-a-live-stream-viewing-party-for-the-global-cop-registration-55242162796 or email Lauren Popp at lpopp@americanbible.org. The eventbrite link above contains the schedule of plenary events. As you watch you will receive information on how to submit comments and questions. So, even though you may not be in person, you can still have participate!

Only a party of one? You can still access the livestream. Click on this link: http://thi.americanbible.org/cop-live

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Philadelphia area Healing the Wounds of Trauma Initial Equipping


Announcing the initial equipping training for those interested in becoming certified in the Healing the Wounds of Trauma curriculum. This will be offered at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, PA, July 18-21, 2018. There are three ways the course is offered:

  • Graduate credit (2 credits, with pre and post course work)
  • Audit (shows up on a transcript)
  • Continuing education (NBCC approved CEs for social workers and professional counselors)

Teachers will be Heather Drew and myself.

For more information, start here. If you are interested in learning this train-the-trainer model of trauma care designed to raise up safe faith communities, this might be the training for you.

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MOTB Presentation: The Role of the Bible in Prisoner Transformation


On June 7, 2018 (6-7p EDT), I will be participating in a speaker series presentation at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. I’ll be offering a brief response to Dr. Byron Johnson who is the main attraction. My focus will be on our trauma healing curriculum and program in jails and prisons. In addition, there will be a response by Prison Fellowship, International.

You can see the details here. I believe it will be aired on Fb Live.

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Live stream the 2018 Global Community of Practice conference, March 13-15


This year the Global Community of Practice is on the theme of generational trauma (and its antidotes). If you aren’t coming, you may wish to access the live stream link below and watch the main sessions. I believe the link will contain the means to text or type logo-thiquestions and comments to what you are seeing. A moderator will review the comments and questions to be included in large group discussions so your thoughts may well be part of the global discussion.

See Agenda flyer listing the program for the next three days. The times listed are Eastern Daylight Time. Be sure to note the time that Diane Langberg is speaking on Tuesday on “living with generational trauma” and her closing on Thursday afternoon. There are many other can’t miss moments: devotions by Rev. Gus Roman and Carol Bremer-Bennett; presentations by Dr. Michael Lyles, Carolyn Custis James, Rod Williams and many more.

Live stream link: abs.us/COPLive

 

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Filed under "phil monroe", Abuse, American Bible Society, Diane Langberg, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, ptsd, Race, trauma, Uncategorized

Questions about the APA Guidelines for PTSD treatment?


Check out this opinion piece (rebuttal) published in Psychology Today by Jonathan Shedler. It challenges the notion that randomized control trials (RCTs) are the “gold standard” to determine the best forms of treatment in the real world. While RCTs can answer certain questions, he argues they cannot answer the most important questions. As a result, the APA recommended treatments are all short-term treatments but will not be able to tell us whether those who undergo the treatment really get better and what options are available for those who drop-out of treatment (there is a significant drop-out rate with several of these recommended treatments).

For those interested in this controversy, I’d like to find out if you have (a) heard anyone challenging Shedler’s criticism and (b) what alternatives are offered by them. I’ve seen zero challenges to his piece to date.

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Trauma-informed Churches: Clinical, Pastoral, and Theological Support for Victims of Trauma


Today I will be presenting a one hour breakout at the 2017 AACC World Conference in Nashville, TN. If you are interested in seeing the slides, down them here.

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Spiritual Abuse and Toxic Systems: Therapeutic and Congregational Interventions


Today Dr. Diane Langberg and I will be presenting Spiritual Abuse and Toxic Systems in a 3 hour pre-conference seminar at the 2017 AACC World Conference. Take a look if you like.

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Belief that a rape victim is responsible for the assault misunderstands what rape is all about


This morning I was reading a journal article in the latest issue of Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice & Policy (vol 9:3, special issue on South Africa). In discussing rape of women in the context of South Africa, the authors report

In a recent study, 17% of the South African women agreed that rape usually results from what a woman says or does. (p. 310)

Does this number seem high or low to you? 

While 17% do not make up the majority of women, it is not a small number either. Without being able to see the original study, I had the following questions:

  • 17% of South African women agree that rape usually is the result of female behavior. How many more believe that it is sometimes true?
  • What are the numbers for what men believe about the problem of rape?

Lest we think that this is just a problem in less evolved countries (note: that perception is offensive and false), we have the same conversation debate here in the US about whether a woman is responsible for what happens to her if she drinks too much at a party or wears the wrong sort of clothing.

What is behind rape?¹

Rape by men requires two factors: aggression and arousal. First, the rapist is aggressive and uncaring about the experience of the other, willing to take what they want by physical, verbal, or psychological force. Often (though not always) the rapist experiences anger, both during and after the rape. And second, the male must be sexually aroused in order to rape. Normally, one would think that aggression and anger would extinguish arousal but this is not the case for those who engage in rape.

What enables this pairing? Several factors are clearly involved:

  1. Obsession. When someone is obsessed with sex or power or anything at all it has a tendency to shape a person and to increase self-focus and shape beliefs about what others think and want. Wants become needs become demands. “I want” becomes “I’m deserve.” This is even true for those rapes that appear un-premeditated.
  2. Fantasy. Coupled with obsession, a person must then begin to fantasize about getting the obsession. They may find ways to normalize what they want (e.g., the other person wants it in their fantasy). No one rapes without having practiced in their mind.
  3. Objectification. Others only exist as opportunities to solve the obsession. They don’t have feelings. They don’t have needs. They don’t matter. The best example of this in Scripture is Amnon’s rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13).
  4. Blame-shifting. The victim wanted it, asked for it, deserved it. Alcohol was the cause. They didn’t know it was wrong. They couldn’t help it. Any number of excuses may be at work to shift blame. In order to avoid the crushing weight of a stricken conscience, one would have to find a means to shift blame or deny reality.

Is there a culture of rape?

If a significant portion of a population believes either that victims of rape are responsible for the crime or that perpetrators are unable to stop themselves, then where do those beliefs come from? Culture can support these beliefs, either in an active or passive manner. Mostly commonly we see passive means at work. For example,

  • Failing to investigate he said/she said crimes and thereby failing to bring justice supports rape
  • Responding first to victims about their culpability
  • Promoting violence in media towards victims as normal and acceptable

Who is responsible for rape?

While we can say that sexual violence is multi-factorial (learning, culture, history, habits, opportunity, etc.) it is wrong to say that the victim has brought it on. In fact, a naked individual actually asking to be violated cannot succeed unless there is someone willing to respond. Drunken, flirty, scantily dressed women cannot cause rape (once again, a terrible perception that most victims fit these descriptors). Thus, the only one responsible for a rape is the one doing that act.

For Christians, this should be a no-brainer:

Luke 6:45. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

2 Cor 5:10. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

What can we do?

Simple acts are best.

  1. Notice and correct all “explanations” about causes of rape that do not put the blame solely on the perpetrator.²
  2. Notice and speak up about messages from the larger culture that make light of violence, especially sexual violence. In fact one special area is the sexual abuse of teen boys by female teachers. This is all to commonly treated as a win for the boy. It is not.
  3. Engage in community discussion about the shame tactics used to blame victims for their situation.

¹Rape is not only committed by males against females. And there are many reasons why men rape and many contexts in which it happens. This post is not trying to speak to all the types of rapists nor all of the contexts where it happens. It is only focusing on the rape of women by men as that was the context of the initial article.
²There is a time to discuss with both perpetrators and victims about aspect of the situation that may have contributed. A rapist may need to explore how family history or personal abuse history contributed to their acting out. A victim may also need to explore some of their own choices that may have increased their vulnerability to being victimized. The challenge is knowing when. While avoiding these conversations can be unhelpful, having them too early can be deadly to the soul.

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