Spiritual Abuse: Unspoken Crisis by Shawn Nelson A Book Review

Posted: February 18, 2015 in Uncategorized, When Church Hurts
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Shawn Nelson has written a free eBook entitled Spiritual Abuse: Unspoken Crisis that you can read here: http://geekychristian.com/spiritual-abuse/.

I was sent the link to this book by a pastor’s wife whom I befriended over the past few years.  She has read my story and messaged me saying, “I was stunned by the similarities to your experience.  God bless you!”

My husband and I read this short book together and, once again, found ourselves shaking our heads at how my experience could have been a case-study validating the author’s conclusions.

From the very beginning when Nelson explores the definition of spiritual abuse, he quotes Merriam-Webster: “Abuse in its broadest sense is using or treating something in an improper way.” (pg. 6) Mishandling the Matthew 18 process, breaking confidentiality, disregarding my requests for help, having staff whom had never spoken to me deliver directives, giving no explanation for judgments and persecution were just a few of the issues that would qualify for “treating something in an improper way” in my story.

Early on (pg 9), Nelson points out that there are four major reasons that the abused fall prey to a “spiritually abusive environment.” These include trust, loyalty, not wanting to cause or be a problem, and the investment we have in the church.  For my part, I was very trusting of the senior pastor.  As time passed and the level of wounding that I experienced increased, I continually declared my trust to the senior pastor.  I so wanted him to be the man of integrity I imagined him to be.

Also, having been abused at a previous church (part 2 of my story), I came to this church determined to “get it right” – by being loyal and obedient.  I never wanted to be a problem – I wanted to help solve a problem.  I was accustomed to being respected as a professional and had no idea that my experience and education were of no value.  My only value was to do everything in my power to make others look good – by covering for them, doing their work for them, stroking their egos, etc.

We were very invested in the church with our time, money, physical labor, and friendships (or so we thought).  And we had a desire to “get it right” – to be patient, kind, good, faithful, long-suffering.  We believed God would eventually work everything together for good.  As Nelson points out on pg. 11, we were also afraid to leave.  I was terrified that if we left and went anywhere else, there would be a smear campaign to sully my name and keep us from ever being accepted at another church.  As the abuse continued and escalated, I began wondering and then believing that I was tarnished.  So badly, in fact, that if the church didn’t want me, then God, I reasoned, must not want me either.  I was “only getting what [I] deserve.” (pg. 11-12)

Nelson also recognizes that larger churches are often seen as having a greater measure of God’s blessing (pgs. 12 and 25) which can make them more prone to spiritual abuse.  Our church had grown to 2500+ and the people saw that as a move of God.  Both the senior pastor and a lay leader have said to me over the years, “We may not do everything perfectly, but we do it better than everyone else.”

People also hang on the senior pastor’s every word.  His preaching schedule was often kept a secret because if people knew he was going to be gone, attendance and giving would plummet.  The first service of three each Sunday, was aired on the local radio station.  We knew several people who would tune in to the first service and if the senior pastor was not preaching that day, they would not attend.

Nelson points out on page 13 that churches are being run more like businesses with pastors functioning as CEO’s.  When the governance was changed at our church so that only a small group of “yes men” were on the executive team, the pastor’s title changed to CEO.  There must have been some backlash, though, because this title was quietly dropped from the church literature and web site.  Page 13 also mentions pastor’s offices being in an “executive suite.”  At our former church, the pastor’s office is ensconced behind a tall counter and has four secretarial cubicles between the counter and the pastor’s outer office where he holds meetings.  His inner office is further behind where he cannot be seen, let alone accessed.

Pages 14 and 15 describe the “thirst for more money . . . people . . . expansion.”  Several years ago a children’s ministry staffer resigned after a short time saying that every meeting was a discussion of how to get more money out of people and that numbers were too important.  The current building was built in three phases.  When planning for the first phase, the decision was made to not build unless the money was raised beforehand.  The church believed that if God was in it, the funds would be there – and they were.  When the second phase came along, the principle was the same – the funding needed to be in place for the project to move forward – and it was.  But the third phase was planned after the governance was changed to a small executive team.  This time, the money did not come through before the project was started.  But the executive team decided to go ahead anyway.  This was at the beginning of the recession.  Instead of the planned three years to pay for this addition, it took more like eight years to pay off the loan.

Nelson addresses two types of abusers: the insecure leader and the narcissistic leader.  While reading these sections, my husband and I concluded that our former pastor is a combination of both.  Page 17 – 18 speaks of “insecure leaders [who] typically build a protective structure around themselves to keep themselves safe.”  Followers of my blog know that the senior pastor never handled conflict.  Instead, lower level staff and leaders were assigned to deal with “problems” while the senior pastor did all that he could to keep his hands clean.  These “yes men” were honored to carry out his wishes, often believing that they were “doing the right thing.”

Nelson also mentions the “BHAG” – a “big, hairy audacious goal” which narcissistic leaders often endeavor to carry out.  The BHAG was a big thing for a while in our former church.  And over the years, while the title “BHAG” was dropped, the principles were continued.

The senior pastor often proclaimed to the congregation that he is “highly educated” and that his primary spiritual gift is prophecy.  As Nelson states on pages 19 and 20, making this clear bolsters the pastor’s public support.

Page 20 also explores the fact that abusive systems operate with role reversals – ministers and staff are to be served rather than to serve.  It became clear to my husband and I that the staff was to be served when we were volunteers in the church cafe and as servers at special events such as special services (Easter, Christmas Eve) and conferences.  At these events, staff always got better food than the rest of the people volunteering or attending.  For example, staff got strawberries dipped in chocolate, special cakes, cheeses, sauces, and breads, while congregants and volunteers got donut holes.  When I realized that even the servers were not getting “thanked” by having special treats, I began to provide them myself, which the staff person in charge could not understand.  And if ever there were “left-overs” after these events, rather than offer them to the volunteers or find a needy family to give them to, they were stowed away in the church kitchen for staff to enjoy throughout the following week.

Page 20 also addresses “those who do not support the pastor’s mission are ignored, or worse, cast out” and “may go through an official shunning process.”  The beginning of my story at our former church describes how I was supposed to make the worship leader look good which in turn would make the pastor look good.  When I refused to continue working with the worship leader (as a volunteer), I was “cast out” and no longer allowed to serve.  I believe we are now officially being shunned.  I have described a few of these incidents in blog posts over the past year, and just a few days ago we ran in to a couple from the church at an event in a distant city.  They turned their backs and walked away into another room when they spotted us only five feet away from them.

Pg. 21 speaks about pastors who are able to “break free from accountability.”  This, again, happened when the governance structure changed from an elder/deacon board to a small executive team of “yes men.”

Nelson goes on to identify abusive leaders as having “no feelings of remorse.”  The senior pastor first told me over ten years ago that when he stands before God he will have nothing to apologize for.  And, again, for those who have read my blog and/or my story, you know that we were tossed out of the church when my husband insisted that there be a sincere and deep apology made to me.

These abusive leaders’ followers (pg. 23) are dependent on the leader for their own self-worth.  There are several people in the church whom I considered people of integrity and high character until we were thrown out. It was then that I realized those “friends” would ever and only side with the leadership in order to maintain their own position in the church.  “If and when a leader shows signs of abuse, people who derive their sense of worth from the mission may willingly overlook the red flags.  They may rationalize blatant inconsistencies in conduct and even excuse sins directly committed against them by the leader.” (pg. 24)  Oh, how true!  We recognized several years ago that those who are raised up in leadership in the church proved their commitment by the amount of money they had and gave.  The senior pastor even told me that he pays attention to little old ladies who give a majority of their retirement income to the church.  “Gag orders” are mentioned on pg. 28.  I and two other women were all told that we were not to tell what was happening to us.  Of course, when I told, I was tossed.

Another way that the roles are reversed is described beginning on page 28.  “People’s needs go unmet; the church’s needs are more important.”  This explains why when we had family deaths and physical emergencies, no one made any attempt to visit or call.  Rather than care for the hurting, the emphasis was always on how much people were giving.  The pastor often spoke about people throwing “a few bucks” in the offering plate – and he would pull out a dollar bill, wave it in the air, throw it across the platform, and at least once, he tore it up.  He also often declared, “Show me your checkbook and I will tell you what you treasure!”  We were especially taken aback when we received an itemized list of donations we had made for the church landscape for tax purposes and saw that the list had been cc’d to the senior pastor.  The only reason he would be interested in what we had donated was because the value of those contributions were indicative of the value he would place on us.

Also on page 28, the high turnover rate of staff is mentioned.  While we attended the church for over fifteen years, the turnover rate was astounding.  Especially noticeable was the months surrounding when the governance was changed.  Several high-level staff people left.  It was a well-kept secret as to whether most of them were encouraged to leave or if they made that decision on their own, but basically, other than the senior pastor, nearly all of the upper level staff moved on.

Over the years, the church became more and more obsessed with appearance, hiring professional worship leaders and displaying a message that those in leadership were on a higher spiritual plane than others.  There was never an invitation to the general congregation to go to out-of-town or out-of-state conferences.  These events were attended only by upper level leaders and were invitation only.  No one else even heard about them.  (page 29)

The “inability to discuss concerns” is brought up again on pages 30 and 31, noting that “people who raise concerns are labeled ‘divisive.'”  Many a sermon was preached over the years about unity and it was made very clear that everyone was to keep their mouths shut.  The pastor often invoked, “If you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all.”  Nelson points out that “discipline is not out of love for the goal of restoration; rather it is a means of protecting the interests of the church and/or controlling people.” (pg. 31)  The abuse that I suffered looked very much like discipline, though it was never formally addressed or called that.  And it definitely was not for the purpose of restoration.  It was to shut me up and to hope that I would just go away.

Nelson concludes his eBook by addressing what one should do if in an abusive situation.  “If victims chose to stay and confront the issues directly they must be prepared for a prolonged and arduous battle . . . resistance should be expected. The victims will likely be vilified and possibly shunned” (pg. 32).  My battle was definitely long and arduous – over a decade and I was certainly vilified and shunned.  Page 33 sums up my story best: “Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for abusive leaders is to leave them.”

Shawn Nelson’s eBook is a very well-written, hit-the-nail-on-the-head synopsis of what spiritual abuse is and how it plays out in many churches with many pastors and leaders.  If you are wondering if you or someone you know is or has been spiritually abused, this is a great free resource and is very validating for those of us whose claims of spiritual abuse have been called in to question.  I hope that those who are looking for help and healing find a measure of it not only through my writing, but through Shawn Nelson’s, as well.

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Comments
  1. Reblogged this on quixoticfaith and commented:
    Remember how I said I won’t let a bully stand? Blogger “When Church Hurts” shared her experience with spiritual abuse and compared it with Shawn Nelson’s free e-book A Unspoken Crisis. Reading Nelson’s book was like ripping open an old scar. The wound had mostly healed but was still itching. I had to re-examine my experience and ask myself again, “Was this spiritual abuse or am I just an highly sensitive rebel?” This took up a large part of my day. I remembered the attacks from my then-pastor and I searched the internet wondering if his ministry was still striving. His hero and mentor had been Mark Driscoll and we all know how that went down. Many people had left my church complaining of spiritual abuse that had damanged them so much they needed therapy. I found my pastor’s response to some who criticized his church on the internet: he accused those leaving on being too church dependent and said they were expecting those in leadership to be their parents. What a weird thing to say. I felt so dizzy and confused, like being caught up in a tornado. For several hours this affected me. I couldn’t figure out which way was up. I realized that my former pastor was most assuredly a narcissist and that he was bullying his parishioners. When my husband gently and kindly tried to confront him on it (after going first to our peers, then his son-in-law the youth pastor) he attacked us in such a vicious way that it left us reeling. We were naive to believe anyone calling themselves a man of God could ever do such a thing. He has never repented and I wonder if one day he’ll fall from grace just as Mark Driscoll did. It seems likely. I don’t want him humilited; I just want him to realize what he’s doing and STOP IT. It is unacceptable to me that he has no real accountability and is allowed to continue this nonsense. Lucky Otter explained to me that in narcissistic abuse these people are referred to as “flying monkeys” just like the monkeys in the Wizard of Oz. They do the narcissist’s bidding and are often also abusive to others and use them as scapegoats. There is more to this story, but I had to get this out. Right now I am reeling. I have never really healed from this.

  2. […] When Church Hurts shared her experience with spiritual abuse and compared it with Shawn Nelson’s free e-book A […]

  3. Wow, this did a number on my head. It brought up so many memories. This book and stories like yours make me realize that I am *not* crazy and that these things *did* happen and that they *were* traumatic. Hope it was okay that I reblogged your post without asking (eek!) I figured you wouldn’t mind, but if you do let me know and I’ll take it down.

  4. Wow, thanks for sharing this story and book review. I’m sorry for those who have experienced this kind of spiritual abuse. I didn’t even know it really had a name.

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