I find it fascinating whenever I come across another list of traits of abusive churches or, perhaps better said, abusive church leadership.  Today, I found a list I had not seen before and, as always, as I read each of the characteristics, I was able to identify specific anecdotes from my previous church that fit the descriptors.  I believe this list is derived from Ronald Enroth’s book, “Recovering From Churches that Abuse.”

#1a) The leadership does not welcome questions, advice, or dialogue from those outside the inner-circle.

  • Since I was not part of the inner circle when I raised my concerns regarding the worship leader, I had immediately broken this cardinal rule.  When I was attacked for raising concerns, I began asking for an apology and questioned the pastor regarding his position on how I was treated and the decision of the personnel committee who had berated me.  

#1b) People who break the status quo and question earn negative labels.  They are often accused of causing disunity and being rebellious.

  • Though I begged to be told what I was being accused of, I was never told, though I know there were others who were completely aware of the labels I had been given.  One former leader told me that she was well-aware but that she could never tell me and that I would never be allowed to serve in the church again.

#2) The pastor has complete control and though there is an appearance of a governing board, it is a hand-selected group of “yes” men.

  • The governing board consists of the senior pastor, the business manager, the senior pastor’s brother, and a couple of close friends – at least one who has been close since childhood.
  • While the elders and deacons number in the 50-60 range, last I knew, they are not at all involved in the governing of the church and are given little to no information regarding the decision-making or inner-workings of the organization.

#3) Members who are singled out for guilt and blame suffer in their confidence as beloved children of God.

  • I was convinced that because the church did not find me acceptable, God also did not find me acceptable.  When I communicated this to the senior pastor, he cemented my thinking by ignoring my pleas for help and encouragement.

#4) Families suffer.

  • The leadership determined that parents and their pre-teen and teenage children had no need to attend services or worship together.  In fact, there was a time when pre-teens and teenagers were discouraged from attending church during the morning worship services, but to only attend the youth services that were held in the evenings.  

#5) Public image is paramount.

  • When we first met the pastor, he encouraged us to go elsewhere simply because the church was being seen as a “sheep-stealer” since so many people were coming there from other churches in the community.  It was more important to the pastor that this viewpoint be dispelled than ministering to us.
  • The church often spoke of offering help and resources to other churches in the area specifically to attempt to win their good graces.  We have heard of several times when churches approached them to take them up on this offer and were subsequently turned away.
  • On a more personal note, the leadership encouraged people to be transparent in revealing their brokenness, yet when I was broken by leadership in the church, they were affronted that I was transparent in sharing my story.  They were more concerned with their reputation than with healing the profuse bleeding of the wounds they had caused me.

#6) Member burnout.

  • I spoke several times with a custodian of the church regarding the difficulty the church has in getting people to volunteer.  He was very vocal in expressing his chagrin that so few are willing to serve and those who do have so much expected of them that they eventually quit entirely.
  • My husband and I logged over 420 volunteer hours in 2012.  That’s the equivalent of almost 11 weeks of full-time work.  When we announced that we were taking a break during the months surrounding our son’s wedding, we were shunned by church staff who oversaw one of the areas in which we volunteered, so we decided to remove ourselves from that particular ministry completely.  It was only a couple of months later that we were told not to return to the church, so apparently our value had declined with our volunteerism.

There are many other bullet points out there that are helpful in determining if your church/leadership is spiritually abusive.  These are just the ones I came across today that fit my particular situation.  If they have struck a chord with you, please leave a comment.  I hope to compile a comprehensive list that can be expanded and your contributions are most welcome.

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