My Story of Spiritual Abuse -Updated

Eric Starkey Web

This post had been deleted from my blog for a few years. I have reposted this story to my blog because to “delete” this experience, is to deny who I am -and who I have become. This experience has profoundly shaped who I am and will affect me for the rest of my life. I do not say this with the mindset of a victim, but rather as a survivor who is a few years down the road of recovery.

Before I repost my story, here are a few bullet point thoughts I wanted to share:

I deleted this post because I was trying to divorce myself from my past.  I wanted to fully heal and I did not want others to judge me based on this experience or my response to it. Honestly, I did not want to be seen as a trouble maker and just wanted to put “distance” between myself and this season of my life.

While I strongly disagree with the theology and practices of this pastor and church, I forgive them. I am not bitter. I would be willing to discuss these issues with anyone from this church, including the pastor. I am at a point where I have recovered personally and am wanting to draw attention to the larger problem.

There are churches like this all over the country.  Some very large and very successful. While “my story” is personal to me, my disagreement with spiritual abuse and the twisted theology that supports it spans across multiple churches, denominations and even religions.

-Some people want to be a part of churches where spiritual abuse is openly practiced. While I do not completely understand this phenomena, I must accept that reality.  This is why spiritually abusive churches survive, and many even thrive.

-My wife and I have been away from this type of church for approximately seven years and our lives have not fallen apart. As a matter of fact while the road has been rocky at times, we have thrived since “leaving the covering” of our spiritually abusive pastor.  We openly disagreed with this abusive pastor and we are still here.  In other words, lightning did not strike us.

The pastor who I am speaking of in this post has never agreed to meet with me face to face to discuss my accusations against him. In fact, at the very end of our communication he actively dodged meeting with me.  The fact of the matter is if he would have responded to me as Jesus commanded, I would have never written the original blog post. We were very close friends for over 10 years, he was the best man at my wedding, I was one of his right hand men in ministry for over six years –and yet he never felt the need for us to engage in reconciliation.  However, I must admit that there is not much for us to say to each other at this point.  Our differences are rooted in our theology.  In short, we have very different opinions of what God looks like.  I believe God looks like and interacts with us like Jesus did in the gospels.  His views are a bit different.  This is a theological conversation / argument that has been raging since Jesus walked this Earth.  It is very highly unlikely that the two of us could settle it.  Years ago, my naivety gave me hope that somehow we could magically reconcile. Reality and a few more years of earned wisdom have dispelled my child-like naivety. Since then, I have focused my efforts on rebuilding my church life with those in which I am in theological agreement with.

I reported the spiritual abuse to the group of pastors who oversees the abusive pastor.  I supplied them with email documentation that clearly demonstrated the abuse and with references of other pastors who I was in relationship with.  They never spoke with me,  they never spoke with the pastors that I gave as references and they issued a letter basically telling me to “Shut up.”  In return, I washed my hands of the situation and voluntarily surrendered my ordination.  Spiritually abusive pastors will tell you, SUBMIT TO AUTHORITY!  However, I respectfully ask “What are we supposed to do when those in authority are a part of the problem? -or cover the problem up?”  Most, if not all, of the good revolutions and good reformations that have taken place would not have happened if we had blindly followed the advice of abusive leaders who stood in the way of positive godly change.

Below is the original version of my story posted four years ago. I updated a few details. However, the content remains the same and I stand by it. –This is my story:

My Experience with Spiritual Abuse  -originally posted 8/2012

Spiritual Abuse


Hello, my name is Eric and I was a victim of spiritual abuse.

Writing this post is one of final steps that I am taking towards the completion of my healing in this long and painful journey. The abuse started when I was approximately twenty years old.  I did not fully understand that I had been spiritually abused until recently -in the past 12 to 24 months.  I am thirty-five years old now and I have decided to openly share my story.

To begin to understand what spiritual abuse is and how it affects a person, we must first define it.  The following definition and description came from Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritual_abuse

Spiritual abuse is a serious form of abuse which occurs when a person in religious authority or a person with a unique spiritual practice misleads and maltreats another person in the name of God or church or in the mystery of any spiritual concept. Spiritual abuse often refers to an abuser using spiritual or religious rank in taking advantage of the victim’s spirituality (mentality and passion on spiritual matters) by putting the victim in a state of unquestioning obedience to an abusive authority.

Spiritual abuse is the maltreatment of a person in the name of God, faith, religion, or church, whether habitual or not, and includes any of the following:

-Psychological and emotional abuse

-Any act by deeds or words that demean, humiliate or shame the natural worth and dignity of a person as a human being

-Submission to spiritual authority without any right to disagree; intimidation

-Unreasonable control of a person’s basic right to make a choice on spiritual matters

-False accusation and repeated criticism by negatively labeling a person as disobedient, rebellious, lacking faith, demonized, apostate, enemy of the church or God

-Prevention from practicing faith

-Isolation or separation from family and friends due to religious affiliation

-Exclusivity; dismissal of an outsider’s criticism and labeling an outsider as of the devil

-Withholding information and giving of information only to a selected few

-Conformity to a dangerous or unnatural religious view and practice

-Hostility that includes shunning, (relational aggression, parental alienation) and persecution

Despite the comparative frequency of spiritual abuse, those types of behavior and actions which are today classified as spiritual abuse can be seen to be prohibited in the major texts and scriptures of numerous religious traditions. Indeed, in the Christian Bible, spiritually abusive behavior is condemned as being one of the worst forms of sin due to its capacity to diminish or even to destroy an individual’s relationship with God.

As I think back on my relationship with the pastor who abused me, I can remember what should have been one of the first “red flags”.  I was 19 years old and the pastor was around 25.  I had just surrendered to my calling into the ministry in the church that he was pastoring.  We were having a conversation regarding someone who he considered to be “a problem church member” that was not submitting to his authority. It was one of his extended family members, this made the situation even more difficult for him to handle.  I remember him telling me, “Paul should respect me; Paul should honor me!  I am the pastor!  When I tell Paul to jump; he should just ask me, ‘How high?’” Paul was a retired man in his early seventies; the young pastor was in his mid-twenties.

When I began to follow the pastor who abused me, I would have bet my life that something like this would NEVER happen to me.  I have always had a strong and independent personality and I was convinced that this pastor was a sincere man who really loved God.  I still believe that, in his mind, he still loves God and people. -In a way, he too is a victim of his own spiritual abuse.  I was a faithful follower for well over ten years.  During that time he was the primary influence in my life.  Furthermore, I believe that since he took me under his wing at such a young and vulnerable age, I was impacted by the spiritual abuse in a more profound way.  

For much of my time under him, I hung on every word that he said. In a lot of ways he began to control my life.  For most of those years I was on staff at a church we had planted and had the “honor” of being considered one of his closest confidants.  The fact that I got so close to him is what finally allowed me to eventually realize that he was spiritually abusing me, and others.  Over time, I began to have trouble reconciling his behavior with what he was preaching and teaching from the pulpit.  His sermons sounded so good…  and so right, but what I observed from the fruits of his life began to contradict his sermons.  Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them.”  Keep in mind, drawing a large crowd and growing a large church was not the good fruit Jesus was talking about.  There have been many, many people throughout human history who were talented enough to draw large crowds, but whose lives were not producing the fruits that Jesus spoke of.  

The contrast between his actions and the entirety of the teachings of Christ is what finally brought me to the point of understanding what was actually happening.  I must admit that it was a very long and confusing process.  I can still listen to his sermons to this day and be tempted to think that everything is “just in my head.”  This is just part of the deception of “spiritual abuse.”   I have wrestled with writing this blog post for some time; the deception that surrounds everyone involved in a situation like this is what finally motivated me to complete this post and make it public.

It is very embarrassing to admit this, but my mind really got messed up while I was under this man’s influence.  I remember really wanting to leave the church multiple times but slipping deeper and deeper into it all at the same time.  By the time I was in my late twenties, I began to question this man to his face in private meetings regarding the decisions he was making. Reasonable questions mainly regarding the diversification of church government and the simple fact that I wanted to leave the church.  Every time I would question him the conversations would get more intense. We could never agree to disagree; he was adamant that I always see it his way and conform to his way of thinking.  And He would make me feel like I was going against God when I questioned him.  I loved God with all my heart and the last thing I wanted to do was rebel against Him, so I would end up cowering to the abusive pastor every time.  

In the last few years that I was under him, there were many times when I was in emotional agony; there are simply no other words to describe how I felt.  I would go for long walks trying to sort things out.  I would lie in bed at night and wrestle with why things were the way they were.  I would work very long hours at the church attempting to prove my loyalty to my pastor and God.  I guess deep down, I was still attempting to seek acceptance from him.  I was looking for a “pat on the back.”  I needed a “pat on the back” from him.  It all sounds so “sick” now as I think back on those days.

I tried to leave the church many times, but he always was able to talk me out of it.  I had been on part-time staff working full time hours.  Between the church and my full time secular job I was working well over 80 hours per week some weeks.  I almost always worked 60+ hours every week. I remember just wanting out. By that time, I had a career outside of the church but somehow he was able to keep me in the flock.  I never understood how he managed that until I learned about what spiritual abuse is and how it affects the abused person.

Finally in 2005 after a major building project, I was completely burnt out.  I had run myself down so much physically that I was literally physically sick.  I remember staying sick for well over a month.  I approached the pastor and explained that I could not keep working the schedule that I had been working.  I still remember the meeting; he was so emotionless and cold as I described my condition.  He agreed to “allow me” to back off.  By this time I was not a stupid kid anymore; I knew that if I took my hands off of all the things in the church that I had been doing that it would begin to unravel.  So, I did. After just a few months things were beginning to unravel and he was forced to put me on staff full-time.  Well, he got my wife and I both full-time at the full-time pay for one person -without any benefits or health insurance.  I left a promising and successful secular career to become full-time at this church.  Why? I think that decision illustrates what spiritual abuse can do to a person’s decision making abilities.  Looking back on it now I think, WHAT WAS I THINKING!?!  –But at the time, it seemed to make perfect sense.  I thought becoming full-time at the church would solve all of the problems.  And the sick fact was that I did desire to be closer to the person who was abusing me.  Plus, there was the glamor of being in full-time ministry, right? Somehow in my warped mind, my wife and I becoming full-time at the church made perfect sense, so I quit my secular job.

Within a few months it was obvious that I made an awful decision.  After we became full-time, he thought he owned us!  The abyss between what he said from behind the pulpit and what I observed by watching him became simply un- reconcilable.  During this time, I began to lose respect for him. BUT, my mind was still warped.  I did not understand what spiritual abuse was and I was not aware of the dynamics that were happening inside the church and inside my own mind.  I was hurt, confused and in emotional turmoil.  But, I still felt a need to submit to him, to honor him, to be loyal to him and most importantly to protect and defend him.  –Even though I was beginning to lose respect for him.  Yes, I was a mess!

The breaking point was in a meeting in late of 2005.  My wife and I (and others) had worked our backsides off preparing for a harvest festival that was to be held at the church.  We had literally worked 70 to 80 hour weeks in the few weeks leading up to the festival.  It was a BIG production that required a lot of work.  In addition, the board members of the church had decided to hold a pastor’s appreciation dinner to honor the pastor on the prior Sunday.  The other associate pastor and I coached the board members through putting the dinner together.  All in all, my wife and I thought the dinner went well. The following Monday the pastor held a meeting with the other associate pastor and I. He verbally wore us out.  I cannot remember all of the specifics of the meeting.  I remember him saying that he wished we would have just given “him” a check for the money that was spent on the pastor’s appreciation dinner rather than having the dinner.  He also said that he felt “dishonored” by the dinner.  In addition, he scolded the other pastor and me for our work habits even though we were both working over forty hours per week.  Even my emotionally warped mind knew something was terribly wrong with this unhealthy church environment.  I had never been treated so poorly by a supervisor, much less my pastor.  I went home that day and told my wife we were leaving.  From that day forward I began to plot our way out.

I knew when the pastor found out that we were leaving that he would do whatever he could to stop us.  I also knew that when he realized that he was not able to stop us that he would do his best to cut us off from our church family and He did.  There were meetings held behind our backs.  He told the staff and the church board that he knew we were going to fail on our next ministry endeavor.  The night that it was announced to the church that we were leaving, we were not even allowed to be in the room.  STILL, my mind was warped; I did not fully understand what was going on. He did everything he needed to do to make our departure look “OK” publicly, but what happened in private was a different story.   I went along with everything and never uttered a single negative word against him to anyone in the church.  I “honored” him throughout the entire process.

This man who had called himself one of my best friends, and “my spiritual father” quickly kicked us to the curb.  When he found out that we wanted to plant another church, he gave me six weeks to get out.  As a matter of fact, I was vacated out of my office within a few weeks and forced to use the sound booth in the youth building for an office the last month I was on staff.  He would have kicked us out sooner, but he needed us to wrap some things up and train others to do what we were doing. We also had a big Easter drama planned and I was the only one who knew how to operate all of the sound and video equipment.  Keep in mind that I had faithfully served him for over six years in the current church working full time hours at very part time pay for over five of those years.  None of that mattered; I was no longer useful to him.  On my last day in the office, he did not even get up from behind his desk when I left. No embrace, no handshake, absolutely nothing but coldness. Even after everything that had happened, I was still absolutely stunned and deeply hurt. –But still making excuses for him.

Our way out of the abusive situation was church planting.  We moved 725 miles away to plant a church in Terre Haute, Indiana.  Moving away was the best decision we could have ever made. We decided to move because I did not want to plant a church locally.  I knew it would be a mess if I did.  I also just wanted to get away from the situation; there was so much hurt and confusion.  Keep in mind even at this point, I still honored this man.  I still defended this man.  In the year after we moved to Indiana, people from my former church would call me and complain to me about the things he was doing and I would STILL defend this pastor.  I would still make excuses for him.  The reason why I would never publicly address the situation or acknowledge the problems were because I still believed that God was using him and directing him.  I did not want to have a rebellious spirit.   I was also still praying and hoping that he would see his errors and repent.  I truly believed that he eventually would.

How did I come to the realization that I had been spiritually abused?  That’s a good question.  When we left the abusive situation, we had no idea we were being spiritually abused.  In fact, we did not even know what spiritual abuse was.  I guess back then, if someone would have asked me what spiritual abuse was, I would have thought it happened only in extreme cult cases like David Koresh or Jim Jones. Obviously our situation was not nearly as extreme.  I would have never connected myself to spiritual abuse.  I was too smart and too strong to be a victim of something like that.  Yeah, right…  My first clue was a conversation that I had with the pastor of the church in Indiana that “mothered” our new church plant.  I remember telling him in a conversation that he was my “new “pastor and therefore I was submitting my ministry and church plant to him.  (Not submitting to the church, but to him personally.) I remember the look on his face after I said that.  He had a puzzled look and did not quite know what to say.  We moved on to other conversation, but I remember that awkward moment; it stuck in my head for some time.

As with all of us who follow Jesus, I was not perfect either and God was leading me through a process to break my pride and arrogance and to bring me to a place of deeper surrender to Him.  He used my church planting experience to break me down and to deliver me from my arrogance and pride.  In the midst of that process, I began to build relationships with other pastors at God’s direction.  I began attending a weekly pastors’ prayer group, having lunch with other pastors and attending and then working in spiritual retreats called “Emmaus Walks.”  The more I got around more experienced and healthy pastors, the more I began to realize that things “weren’t right” in me and in my past.  I began to address these things as God brought them up in my spirit.  

During this season of my life, I wanted nothing more than to completely surrender my life and ministry to God.  As I began to deal with my own spiritual “unhealthiness,” it became apparent to me that I had learned these behaviors from my former pastor.  After all, he had started “mentoring” me when I was 18 and he had declared himself my “spiritual father.”  I addressed him on a few different occasions; once by phone and another time by letter.  My hopes were for repentance (on both sides) and complete restoration; the results of my attempts were completely the opposite.  My attempts at communication were private; his responses were made publicly from behind his bully pulpit.

Through this process I realized that I still had an unhealthy emotional connection with this man.  After everything that had happened, I still yearned for the relationship to be reconciled.  I realized that my emotions and my spirit had been damaged by this unhealthy relationship and church experience.  I did not know what to call it, but I knew something was not right in me.  It only took about thirty minutes of research one evening to learn the name of what had happened to my wife and me, “spiritual abuse.”  

At that point I began to stop making excuses for my former pastor and I began to look at the reality of the situation. That process did not happen overnight. It probably took me a full year to completely come to terms with the fact that we had been spiritually abused.  The reality is that we were taken advantage of.  Our love for God and His people was exploited by a selfish incomplete man who manipulates people to get what he wants.  He does not truly love the sheep; he uses the sheep.  He may say he loves them; he may even think that he loves them, but his actions prove different.  Love is not proven by words; it is demonstrated in actions –as Jesus did on the cross.

Our former pastor took advantage of two young kids who loved God and him very much.  The problem was that our relationship with God grew to the point where we were able to begin to see what he was doing, to us and many others.  When we became a threat, he had to dispose of us as quickly as possible.  –After the first time I seriously questioned him in a specific but very respectful way without backing down, (on the phone from Indiana) he never made a single attempt to communicate with me again. I was focused on restoration and he was worried about disposing of us as quickly as possible.  I was still defending him and he had already started assassinating my character to protect his.

Obviously, I have had to work though un-forgiveness and bitterness with this situation.  I must confess that I experienced a season of deep bitterness.  When I realized the full reality of what had happened, I was very bitter.  I felt like the bitterness was eating me up on the inside.  I have never had cancer before, but bitterness has to be something close to it, an emotional cancer eating away at your heart.   I knew it was wrong to feel that way; I knew it was sin, but the bitterness was there anyway and I had to deal with it.  Thankfully, God, in His sovereign grace, had surrounded me with a wonderful wife & kids and new friends in Indiana who really did love me.  God used those wonderful people in conjunction with a Christian counselor to help me work through the bitterness.  I will not say it was easy, but we got through it.  And I am soooooooo thankful.  It feels so good to be healed and free; words simply cannot express how good it feels.

Our lives have changed so much over the past five years; if you have read prior entries in my blog I think it is obvious. We are almost completely different people.  Here is a quick summary:

  • We have become spiritually healthy; we have never been closer to God.
  • We have become emotionally healthy; we have learned much better boundaries in our relationships.
  • We have become physically healthy; I have lost over 100 pounds and Amy has lost over 50 pounds.
  • Our marriage and family life has never been healthier.
  • We have become financially healthy; long story, but just trust me!
  • We are free to be who God created us to be; we no longer strive to conform to what people want us to be.
  • We are enjoying fruitful ministry, on God’s terms as He leads and we love it!
  • We are doing things that we never dreamed we would do!!! -I recently started an itinerate preaching and teaching ministry that is going very well and Amy is back in school working towards becoming a Physician’s Assistant. (Amy eventually felt prompted to return to teaching school in 2014 -after completing her pre-med classes with a 3.42 GPA.  I also completed my bachelors degree in 2014.)  *Education was not encouraged by our former pastor and church. -I wonder why???

So if everything is going great for us and we are no longer bitter, why write this blog post?

One of the primary characteristics of spiritual abuse is the fact that few people openly talk about it.  It is NOT a sin to talk about it.  It is NOT a sin to expose it.   It is NOT a sin to refuse to be abused.  It is NOT a sin to stand up for yourself.  The spiritual abuser is the perpetrator; not the person who is being abused.

I wrote this post because I wanted those of you who are struggling with this type of abuse to know that you are not alone.  My wife and I struggled with this, for so long.  We did not have anyone to talk to, for so long.  We thought we were the problem, for so long. We cowered in fear, shame and confusion, for so long. YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

The complication and confusion associated with this type of abuse is simply amazing.  As I said earlier, I can still listen to some (not all) of this man’s sermons and doubt that the abuse ever took place.  He is such a gifted preacher and he sincerely means what he is saying in regards to loving God and loving people.  However, there most definitely is a disconnect between his sermons and some of his actions. If you look closely, his ministry is littered with the broken relationships to prove it.

As my wife says, “Lies are still lies no matter how loudly they are being shouted from a bully pulpit and no matter how many people in the audience believe them.”  You are not alone and there are godly loving pastors and godly loving churches out there that will love you and minister to you in the way that Jesus instructed. They may not present you with a dog and pony show every Sunday morning, but they will love you and minister to you. If you are one who has been spiritually abused, is being spiritually abused or is at risk of being spiritually abused, my prayer is that you would realize just how much God loves you.  He loved you so much that he sent His Son to die in your place on the cross.  And, the God who loves YOU that much does not want you to be taken advantage of or spiritually abused by anyone.  Spiritual abuse is not God’s will for your life!

7 thoughts on “My Story of Spiritual Abuse -Updated

  1. Dear Eric,

    Thank you for your courage in talking about such a painful, soul-wrenching experience.

    It is NOT a sin to talk about it. It is NOT a sin to expose it. It is NOT a sin to refuse to be abused. It is NOT a sin to stand up for yourself.

    It’s also not a sin to feel angry or hurt about being abused, or to want some kind of resolution. Anger and doubt are natural responses to being betrayed, and this is what sooooo many apologists of abusers label as “bitterness”. They do this to discredit those who speak out, and invalidate feelings and experiences of victims.

    I’m that that you’re in a better place emotionally now, and that you’ve been able to let go of the need to resolve things with that man. But please don’t berate yourself if anger or depression should rear their ugly heads again. They’re not a sign that you’re “bitter”; they mean you’re human.

  2. Thank-you for writing this. The similarities to my story are uncanny. Mine was with my own parents and that certainly adds an element, but God has been so good to us.

  3. Thank-you for posting. My wife and I recently went through the same thing. Ours was complicated by the pastors being my parents. We also moved to Terre Haute to start over, and have had so much favor from the Lord since we were driven out and shunned. They meant it for evil but God meant it for good. Thanks again!

  4. I left a abusive church three years ago…Id been there for 20yrs….been in counselling for three. Still feel confusion and struggle with any kind of spiritual life.

  5. A sad, even harrowing story. I’m sorry you had to go through this. But I hope God turns it into a powerful ministry.

    One way I like to look at challenging feelings like bitterness is that, like all feelings, they are involuntary. They’re like the idiot lights on our car dashboard — they make us aware of a condition that needs to be addressed. I think we sin when we fail to address the condition. The feeling itself is neither sinful or not sinful; it just exists.

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