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!

What Some Christians Have in Common with the Ancient Greeks and Trojans

troy-3

Am I writing a blog post that compares modern day christians to the pagan Greeks and Trojans who worshiped false mythological gods?  Why yes, I sure am.

Last night, my wife and I watched the movie “Troy” for the fist time.   For various reasons, we are not typically drawn to movies like this, but due to boredom, sleeplessness and curiosity we decided to watch it.  I found it intriguing when I noticed a few similarities between some of today’s christians and the ancient Greeks and Trojans -as portrayed in the movie.  Here is what I observed:

-Buildings, statues and other objects were held in very high regard and often worshiped as the gods themselves.

-There was no concept of “personal relationship” with the pagan gods; therefore determining the “god’s will” was simply a guess made by the priests, often with catastrophic consequences.

-The rulers used the gods to manipulate the armies and people in order to get what they wanted; more power, treasure and territory.

-When something bad happened because of the leader’s own stupidity, selfishness or poor leadership abilities, it was explained by saying, “It was the will of the gods.”

-Terrible things occurred, -and was justified in the gods’ name.

I am sure I am missing a few other similarities.  I was not actively looking for them while watching the movie. These are just the glaring ones that I remember as I reflect for a few moments.

If this post unsettles you a bit, good.  Maybe it will cause you to think about how people in today’s culture view Christians.  Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”  This means that His Kingdom looks nothing like our pagan worldly kingdoms.  If what we sometimes call “God’s Kingdom” can be so easily compared to “pagan kingdoms,” perhaps we need to stop, reflect and ask God to search our hearts in order to make a few adjustments.  -After all, we are called to be DIFFERENT.

As always, I would love to hear your comments.

How Do I Recover From Spiritual Abuse???

Spiritual abuse is happening in churches all around us and it needs to be exposed.  After all, part of the reason it happens is because people do not recognize it or openly talk about it.  –However, for their own good, spiritual abuse victims must “move on.”  Victims must get on with theirs lives.  If they don’t, they have allowed their abusers to take everything from them.  If you are a victim reading this, please do not get upset with me.  I am trying to help you get “your life” back.

When I read about spiritual abuse or correspond with “victims,” I have found that a lot of people seem to be “stuck.”  This really bothers me.  I have decided to write this post in order to share what I have done in the past and what I am doing now to get my own life back. 

First off, please do not think I am telling you to forget your bad experience and move on.  We all wish it were that easy.  I liken spiritual abuse to a very, very bad stomach flu in which the effects last a very, very long time.  It takes you by surprise.  It makes you really sick, very weak and let’s just be honest and say that you are not that fun to be around.  When you first begin to realize that you are sick you ask yourself, “How did this happen to me anyway? How did ‘I’ get infected?”  As the realization of your condition sets in,  your body’s begins to fight the virus.  The best way it knows how to get the foreign pathogen out of your system is to “eject” it by using your body’s natural systems; there are two ways your body does this and neither one is fun.  However, your body must perform these operations in order to rid you of the destructive microorganisms that are causing you to be sick.  Eventually, after much “ejecting” (the length of time depends on how sick you are) you begin to feel “a little” better.  BUT, the recovery process is not over.

You must now begin to put nutrients back into your body.  Have you ever wondered why beverages like Sprite and Gatorade make you feel so much better when you are recovering from a stomach flu?  It is because they are supplying your body with simple sugars that are easily digested and transformed into energy, thus you “feel better.”  As you continue to place nutrients back into your system, you feel better and better.  BUT, the process is still not over.  You must now rid your home of all the items that might have been “infected” with the virus.  You go on a cleaning spree and wash all clothing that could have been exposed to that pesky contagion. At last, you get all the trash out of the house that was associated with your “bad experience.”  THEN… you move on.  You get on with your life.  Who wants to stay sick anyway?  Who wants to keep an intimate relationship with a nasty commode? Who wants to wallow in sell pity and puke?  NO ONE WHO IS HEALTHY, that is for sure!  -So you go back to work, you go back to school, you hang out with friends, you love on your spouse & children and you continue pursuing your passions; you enjoy this amazing gift called life that God created for us!

While crude, the analogy of recovering from the stomach flu is much like recovering from spiritual abuse.  I will list the steps to my recovery below using  the steps of recovery from a bad case of the stomach flu:

#1 You have to admit you are sick.  You must come to the point where you say, “I was abused.” -This step took me years; it was a very complicated process for me.   I had no idea what spiritual abuse was.  My actions were skewed during those years.  After all, I was sick; I needed to stop and admit it so I could begin recovery and get better.  *I remember finally stopping myself and thinking, “Something is wrong with me and I need to address it.”

#2 Allow yourself to throw up.  I HATE throwing up when I am sick.  There have been countless times when I have laid still in the bed, and stayed sick as a dog, because I did not want to throw up.  -But after I allow myself to throw up, I always feel better.  Begin to acknowledge and opening talk about your abuse with those close to you; you need to throw up.  Believe it or not, it is a natural healthy reaction to sickness.  If you have limited access to others to talk, try writing about it.  Writing about my experience was very helpful for me.

#3 Find a friend or counselor to “hold the bucket” while you vomit.  It is very important that you do this.  *DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DEAL WITH THIS ALONE! You need a support network.  Ask God to show you how to find your support.  I know this is tough for spiritual abuse victims.  If you are unable to locate anyone local to you, at least visit some of the online sources and make connections.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who share your experience; find some who are further along in recovery than you are.  For me, my wife was my primary bucket holder; we held each other’s buckets.  In addition, I sought counseling from a professional christian counselor and a few older pastor friends.  God used each one of those people to advance me through my recovery process.  I do not think I could have made it alone.

#4 Allow yourself to get angry and “grieve” your situation.  It’s OK to get really pissed off!!! You were hurt; you were abused.  Allow yourself to remember and “process” what happened to you.  Stop making excuses for your abuser.  You may find yourself bitter.  Remind yourself that bitterness is a sin and ask God to help you work through it. YOU WILL NOT WORK THROUGH THE BITTERNESS OVERNIGHT; it is “a process.” Do not put pressure on yourself.  The Holy Spirit will let you know when it is time to be done with your bitterness once and for all.  Keep asking Him for guidance and help and He will lead you.

#5 Get extremely honest and blunt with God.  If you are hurting, tell Him.  If you are angry, tell Him.  If you are bitter, tell Him.  If you have questions, ask Him.  God is the God of the Universe; He is completely capable of handling anything we can say or ask.  He loves us and wants us to recover; he also knows we are hurting.  Rest in the grace and goodness of God and ask Him to help you, but be honest with Him and tell Him how you are feeling.   I believe my blunt honesty with God was a key aspect of my recovery process.  I was mad, and hurt, and confused, and angry -and I let Him know it.  My being honest with Him did not take Him by surprise, but boy it sure helped me.

#6 Allow yourself to take a break and get some rest; do not try to be superman. Just chill out with your family and other people who love you.  If you are a leader, DON’T BE.  Take a break and get some rest.  Give yourself time to recuperate.  Discuss with your counselor or close friends what your recover process might look like.  I was pastoring a church plant during this season and stepped down.  I can not stress how important it was for me to take a step back from ministry. When you get really sick,  your body needs time and rest to recover.  Recovering from spiritual abuse is no different.

#7 Allow yourself to throw up some more; make sure all the “crap” is out of your system.  You may need that friend or counselor to “hold the bucket” again.  As you detox from the spiritually abusive atmosphere, you will begin to remember more and more.  You will also begin to “connect the dots” as you think back on certian experiences.  The more you detox, the more you understand what happened to you.  As you undergo this process, you WILL need to throw up again.  It is OK, let your recovery run it’s course.  GET THE “CRAP” OUT OF YOUR SYSTEM; do not wallow in it. –You do not want to keep and intimate relationship with the toilet forever!

#8 Get some “nutrients” back into your system.  Take it slow, but be deliberate in getting those nutrients -so you can get your strength back.  Begin to re-enter “safe” spiritual atmospheres.  Ask God, your friends and counselors to help you find them.  Begin reading your Bible again; not to find scripture in order to prove your abuser was wrong, but for your recovery.  I personally recommend the Gospel of John and the book of James.  I also recommend a very readable translation like the NIV or NLT.  Remember, you are not doing any intense Bible study. You are simply reading God’s Word and allowing “Him” to speak to you. His Word will bring healing to you.

#9 Rid your house of anything that could still “carry” the virus.  Divorce yourself from all spiritually abusive atmospheres. ***DO NOT RETURN TO THE ABUSIVE CHURCH!!!***  There will be times where you will want to; resist that inclination.  Stop listening to anyone affiliated with the abusive ministry.  Limit contact with those who are “still drinking the Kool-aide.”  You are not strong enough to rescue anyone right now; you need to be protecting yourself from re-infection.  *Many people recovering from an abusive church actually return to the same abusive church or find another one.  When they do, their likelihood of getting out becomes even lower. I have seen this with my own eyes.  BE CAREFUL!!!

#10 Consider forgiveness. Yes, it is that time.  You will never be able to totally recover or “move on” without forgiving those who hurt you.  I know, I know, this is a tough one…  –BUT IT IS ESSENTIAL.  No one can make you forgive, not even God Himself.  Your recovery must progress to the place where “you” want to forgive.  This is a big step, but it is also a very liberating step.  Continue to seek God and let it come naturally as He works in your heart.  *There is so much more I could say here.  If you would like further teaching and explanation in this area, please visit this link:  Forgiveness Teaching

#11 Eat some solid food and continue to build your strength back.  Well… you have finished puking, been drinking clear liquids for a day or so and you finally got the house cleaned up.  You are “feeling better” and beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.  Continue to build your strength back.  Examine your relationship with God.  Make sure your life revolves around “Him” and not the “institution” of a local church.  Never let anything be a substitute for your relationship with God.  Study the Bible for your self.  Have your own prayer life. Know what “you” believe, not just what some pastor or church tells you to believe.  Work towards becoming a “mature” christian.  -Then look for a healthy church, if you have not found one yet.  You need to be around healthy people.  You need to be in a healthy atmosphere. You need to be planted in a medium where you can grow and get strong.  Ask God to show you how to do this, and he will!

#12 Refuse to take on the “victim” mindset.  Refuse to surrender your life!  You “were” a victim; do not “remain” a victim!!!  There will be a temptation to “be a victim.”  RESIST!!!!!!!!!  God has sustained you.  He is healing you. He is bringing you to a place of recovery.  DON”T YOU DARE GIVE IN TO THE VICTIM MINDSET!  God has a purpose for you -and it is not to be a victim. Acknowledge your past, but also acknowledge that with God’s help and the help of others you are overcoming your past.  You do not have to be a victim of spiritual abuse for the rest of your life, but “you” have to make the choice not to be.

#13 Engage in life. What are ” your” passions? What are “your” God-given dreams?  What do “you” want to do with this precious gift called “life” that God has given to you? Wrestle with those questions and figure them out.  If you were in the abusive atmosphere for long, you might have never asked these questions before.  Don’t rush wrestling with these questions; it might take some time.  However, when you figure the answers out, PURSUE THEM!

#14 Allow God to use you to help others.  Help others heal and get on with their lives.  The truth is, if you have made a full or nearly full recovery from serious spiritual abuse, you are in the perfect place to help others who have been abused.  You have experienced something that cannot be described with words. – And you just don’t know what is feels like to be there, -unless you have been there.  I feel those of us who have recovered from spiritual abuse have a responsibility to help others.  You don’t need to be a pastor or counselor; all you have to do is “hold a bucket,” be a friend, remind a precious soul that God is still there or just sit and just be an expression of God’s love to someone who is hurting.  After all, isn’t that what the Church is supposed to be about anyway?

Following the Breadcrumbs: how we escaped an abusive pastor and church -and a roadmap to escape for others

My heart is torn when I write on this topic.  There is a part of me that just wants to move on and attempt to forget that any of this ever happened to us.  Then reality hits me. These experiences helped make me who I am I.  –And honestly, I think I actually like who I am now…

I also feel an obligation to help those who might find themselves in the situation that my family and I were in.  Jesus had a few things to say about helping the weak… -And if you have found yourself mixed up in an abusive or unhealthy church, chances are you are beat up and in a emotionally weakened state.  So, for those that have found themselves in such a situation, I pray that God uses these words to give you strength, comfort and direction.  You CAN escape; just follow the breadcrumbs.

A common conversation had between my wife and I is in regards to our bewilderment at how people will remain in spiritually abusive churches, despite the abusive and deception that is so obviously taking place.  I thought it would be helpful to others if I took a few minutes to recollect the factors that eventually helped us escape our experience.  *Keep in mind, Amy and I had been “under this pastor’s wing” since I was eighteen and she was sixteen.  We were young, we were naive and we had grown extremely loyal. We were also surrounded by others who were loyal.  It was not until we were in our early thirties that we finally and completely broke away; our “escape” was a long and painful process.  Below is an incomplete list that helped form the breadcrumb trail which facilitated our escape:

  • By having our own personal relationships with God  -independent of the pastor or any other church leader.  It was through our own relationships with God that He began to show us that “something just wasn’t right.” Our relationships with God were deeper than what happened at our church on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights.  In addition, our pastor did not serve as the mediator between us and God.  Fortunately, we had realized that Someone else had already gotten that job.*I find that most people stuck in spiritually abusive situations do not have their own “independent” relationship with God.
  • By knowing basic Biblical teachings -for ourselves   The actions of the pastor and church began to conflict with basic Biblical teachings like: helping the poor, servant-hood (outside of the church structures,) authentic Christian love, etc. Again, “something just wasn’t right” in the church. These were not things we actively looked for; they just “stuck out” over time.  By the end of our time at the church, they became glaring red flags.
  • By constantly submitting to God’s Word -independent of the teachings of the pastor.  As my own relationship with God developed, I began to realize that there were times that my submission to God’s word and will conflicted with what my pastor had said God’s will for my life was.  What my pastor said I should do and what God was leading me to do were in conflict.  If I followed God’s leading, I was going against my pastor’s authority.  The saying in our church was not, “What would Jesus do?” but, “What would Pastor ‘Bob’ do?”  Once again, “something just wasn’t right.” I found myself in constant conflict.
  • By attempting to reconcile the “actions” of the pastor to God, His nature and His Word   Over time, I began to attempt to reconcile the actions of my pastor with God’s Word, specifically with the simple teachings of Jesus.  No one is perfect, but there were areas where I was very concerned.  At first I gave my pastor the benefit of the doubt; in the early years I was actually his strongest advocate who came to his defense.  But as time expired this position became more difficult. Almost everything he said from the pulpit sounded right and rooted in sound Biblical teaching, but his actions could not be reconciled with Truth.  As time progressed, I observed more and more secrecy in the church.  I had the reoccurring thought, “If we are not doing anything wrong, why are we  hiding it?”
  • By aspiring to have a healthy relationship with my spouse and children  My loyalty to the pastor and his church hindered my relationships with my wife and children.  He did not value my family time and he did not value my relationship with my wife.  There were various conversations we would have where he made it a point to tell me NOT to tell my wife.  It was like he wanted me to keep secrets from her. –I always saw this as a major red flag, again more secrecy. In addition, the time that my loyalty to the pastor and church required, greatly hindered quality family time.
  • By loving God and my family more than my position in ministry   As my eyes began to open, I knew I would have to give up my staff position in the church. Our church plant had grown to one of the largest and fastest growing churches in the area. I had to love God and my family more than my position. This was a simple but very fundamental realization for me.
  • By coming to the understanding that great worship music, entertaining preaching and a large crowd -alone, do not make a healthy church family   As a matter of fact, they can make for a very unhealthy twisted group if godly relational principles are broken. You can find great music, entertainment and crowds in lots of atmospheres; those characteristics alone do not make those venues healthy churches.
  • By beginning to ask very difficult questions and being willing to question everything I believed.  I learned that God can easily handle any tough question that I asked Him; He never got freaked out or offended by a single question! BUT, leaders in abusive churches cannot handle tough questions, they get offended and defensive very easily.  Those who ask questions are labeled as trouble makers very quickly.  I found that the process of asking tough questions, while painful at first, made me a much stronger person and ultimately increased my faith while bringing me closer to God.  Again, in a healthy spiritual and relational environment, we should not be afraid to ask any questions.
  • By beginning to listen to godly people that I crossed passed with, who were outside of the abusive church  God strategically placed precious godly people in my life that He used to facilitate my escape.  As I reflect, it is simply unbelievable how He caused me to cross paths with the perfect people at the perfect time. People who gave me wise counsel and offered a different perspective on the situation inside of my church.
  • By realizing that good people, who loved God, who I loved very much, could be easily deceived   It took me a long time to finally realize this but it is the truth.
  • By beginning to be honest with myself about what really happened to us   We had to lose our pride and admit that we had been led down a deceptive path.  –And we had to admit that “we” choose to walk that path for a season in our lives. We had helped build and served in leadership in an abusive church. There was a time where “we” were a part of the problem; we had to “admit that” to ourselves and repent of “our” sin before we could fully escape and begin to heal.
  • By being willing to face confrontation and lose relationships   For me, I think a big part of my emotional escape was due to the fact that I decided to confront and expose the abuser.  (I am speaking very transparently here.)  It was not that I was bitter; I knew if I was not careful bitterness would eat me up like an emotional cancer. It is like I needed to take my voice back, -like I am still in the process of taking my voice back.  And I needed to take my identity back; the abuser had stolen it.  The abuser had stolen my voice and identity with his counterfeit authority and bully pulpit.  I needed to confront him and tell him that what he did was wrong.  –And I felt the need to warn others about what was happening, -whether they listened or not.  That type of confrontation is tough.  I found that Jesus was not kidding when He talked about “losing your life” and “taking up your cross.” I lost relationships with people who are very dear to me; I still grieve the loss of those relationships.
  • By wanting something different   *I believe that the point that an individual realizes that they are in an abusive or unhealthy church is just “step 1” in the escape process.  “Step 2” is actually making the painful and difficult decision to leave.  “Step 2” is the more difficult step in the process.  I believe that many people realize that they are in abusive churches but simply are not strong enough to leave.   -Or they choose not to leave due to lost relationships, lost position, fear, etc. We got to the point where we wanted something different. We knew no church was perfect, but we wanted something closer to what the Bible describes as a healthy church family.
  • By wanting to be healthy and whole   Over time, we began to realize that we were not spiritually or emotionally healthy.  We were not “whole.”  I would not have used those exact words seven years ago, but deep in my heart I knew something was wrong.  As I began to wrap my head around and “unpack” that unpleasant truth, I realized that we needed to distance ourselves from unhealthy relationships and unhealthy people -especially those unhealthy people who thought they were healthy (those are the most dangerous.)   I wanted to be “whole,” I wanted my wife to be “whole” and I wanted my children to be “whole” -or at least give them every opportunity to grow up to be “whole.”  And “wholeness” was not being modeled in our abusive church.  Despite the state of the art facilities,  the appetizing children’s and youth programs, the produced worship experience, the very entertaining preaching and the large crowd that came to observe the Sunday event that we called “church,” I was left wanting something more, something that could not be found anywhere within those characteristics alone.  So, I led myself and my family down a new path to find it.

*If you would like to read some of my other thoughts on Spiritual Abuse, please follow this link: Eric’s Posts on Spiritual Abuse

Living Life with Blinders On

Living Life with Blinders On

A few weeks ago as I was enjoying a walk around my neighborhood, I heard intense screaming and yelling coming from one of the homes. The screaming was so loud that I clearly heard it from the street. My family and I routinely take evening walks and I had never heard yelling and screaming anything like this in our neighborhood. Something was happening inside of that house.

My first thought was to just keep staring straight forward, up the street. I did not even look towards the house. – I didn’t want to be a nosy neighbor. I then thought to myself that I needed to tell my children to stay away from that part of the neighborhood for the evening, -just to be safe. BUT, the yelling and screaming troubled me. It continued and was really loud. I also thought that I had heard some “thumps” coming from the home as well; I wondered what the thumps were. As I attempted to continue my stroll, I wrestled with rather or not to do something. Many questions ran through my mind: Was there some type of violence happening in that house? Was someone being hurt? Was an innocent person being taken advantage of? Or, was I just overreacting and needed to just “mind my own business?”

There are times in our lives where we are faced with dilemmas like this one. And it seems that, in the moment, there is no clear answer. No one wants to be the nosey neighbor, busy-body or the tattle tale. I sure don’t want to be. So, most of the time we look straight ahead, with our blinders on, and move forward. We just say, “It is none of my business.” After all, that is the easiest, simplest, safest and least painful path to take –well, at least for us.

The problem with looking the other way is that, by our own lack of action, we potentially allow others to get hurt. You and I can facilitate the “hurt” and “victimization” of “others,” when we refuse to take action. Our lack of action might be the easiest thing to do at the time, but it is only the easiest thing for us. It is only safe for us. It is only less painful for us. Our choice to take the path of least resistance could potentially permit the construction of mountains of pain and grief for others.

I have never been a huge follower of Penn State or Joe Paterno. Of course, I knew of the school and the coach -and I thought that Joe Paterno’s career was remarkable. But, I never had a reason to follow either one closely. When the Sandusky story broke, I was drawn to read about it because my heart went out to the victims AND because I wondered, “How could something like this happen on such a large stage?” I couldn’t help but wonder, “If the allegations are true, how could Sandusky have gotten away with this for so long?” As we see the true story unfold, we are beginning to be able to answer those questions. And one of the key answers is: there are bad people in this world and horrible things can happen when “good” people like you and me live life with blinders on and just look the other way.

I do not want to be a nosey neighbor, a busy-body or a tattle tale. But, I have made a decision to do my best to protect the weak and to speak out when I see wrong being done to others around me. In short, I have taken my blinders off. Some might think that the blog posts that I have written in the past are too critical of the Church or of events from my past. I am not bitter; I am not seeking revenge. I really do not have an agenda –other than to share my experiences with the hopes that others can learn from them, protect themselves from unsafe situations and grow closer to God in the process.

There is a lot that I could say about the Sandusky, Joe Peterno and the Penn State situation. There are a lot of parallels that I could point out in regards to spiritual abuse: thoughts about how we protect “a man” because we think he is someone who is exceptional, thoughts about how we protect “an institution” because we want to be a part of something bigger than us, thoughts about how we protect “a legacy” and thoughts about how “we” allow people to be victimized as “we” protect these things. I could remark about how an oblong piece of leather became more important than young boys. I could expound on how the roar of the crowd on Saturday afternoons drowned out the cries of various young men. I could attempt to rationalize how all the “good” people who knew wrong things were happening could possibly just keep their mouths shut. And yes, I could point out other things but wisdom dictates that I refrain from that line of thought. –Well, at least in this post.

That evening I decided to NOT keep my mouth shut. I decided to take the risk of being called a tattle tale or a nosey neighbor. I called 911 and explained to the dispatcher what I heard. They sent a patrol car out to check on everyone in the home. I never found out what was actually happening in the house that day. All we know is that the yelling, screaming and thumping stopped. –That outcome was enough to satisfy me –and my conscience.

I pray that the next time we are confronted with similar situations; we will all be brave enough –and wise enough, to take the proper actions.

What Does “Healthy” Look Like?

Okay, I have not written a post in a while and have “lost” a lot of good ideas for posts because I have been pretty busy and fighting a STUPID sinus infection; -hence the inspiration for this post.  Be warned! If I ramble, do not make fully coherent statements or talk about “the pretty colors” I am seeing it is because I am heavily medicated on antibiotics, steroids, and my own personal concoction of over the counter meds to keep me going.

I am physically sick.  I know something is not right in my body; to be specific, something is not right in my sinus passages. I can continue to take over the counter meds to mask the pain, I can hop up on caffeine to keep me going and I can even strong arm my doctor into giving me more steroids and antibiotics to help keep the condition in my sinuses at bay.  –But the problem is; there is an infection in my body that has been there for over three months now.  It makes my head hurt.  It makes me feel fatigued all the time. It makes me irritable.  It makes me less productive at work.  –And frankly, it makes me NOT FUN to be around; just ask my wife, my kids and my coworkers.

The fact of the matter is my physical condition greatly affects me & it affects those around me.  So… rather than continuing to attempt to cover up the symptoms with ineffective measures, I drove to Indianapolis this morning and visited with a nice man who just happened to be an ENT doctor. He introduced me to some nice ladies who then placed me in a big sphere with flashing red lights that performed a CT scan. I was told by a another very nice lady that sometime in the next 48 hours someone with a few more zeros than her in their paycheck will evaluate my CT scan and hopefully we will get to the bottom of my problems and do whatever ever is needed to permanently resolve my issues –well, at least my sinus issues.

It was a real pain to go to Indy today.  I could have easily given multiple reasons (excuses) why I could not go.  First, I just hate going to doctors.  Second, I have been really, really busy at work. Third, we have major medical insurance and today’s activities will go a long way towards cleaning out our HSA for this year; as we all know, those nice people in the medical profession do not work for free.  -But still, I had a problem that was not going away until I dealt with it.  And in addition, I realized that I could not deal with it alone; I needed outside help.

By now I am sure you are wondering, “where are you going with this Eric???”    You see, I took these actions because I know what it feels like to be physically healthy, to be physically “whole.”  I know what it feels like to wake up in the morning and have energy.  I know what it feels like to “want” to go to the gym and workout in the mornings.  I know what it feels like to be at work in the afternoon and “not” feel like I need a nap.  I know what it feels like on the weekends to “want” to go do something fun with my wife and children.  And I know what it feels like to “NOT” have to take a handful of pills every morning just to get through the day. –I know what “healthy” feels like, so it drives me to deal with my sinus issues and become healthy again.  It is just that simple. *Knowing what good physical health feels like drives me towards taking actions to become physically “whole” when I am sick.

So here is the sermonette:  This morning as I thought about my physical sickness while waiting for my test, I began to think about emotional sickness and relational sickness and spiritual sickness.  I asked myself this question, “Do we even know what healthy looks like?”  In today’s western, money driven, individualistic, superficial success oriented culture, does the average Joe even know what it “looks like” to be emotionally healthy?  Or relationally healthy?  Or spiritually healthy?

Amy and I have a pet-peeve. We dislike being treated by medical professionals who are not living physically healthy lives.  Our rationale is, “why would we want to receive medical treatment from someone who is not doing their best to live a physically healthy life?” –Someone who is “not” a good “model” for healthy living by making healthy choices in their own lives.  In this age of prescribing meds to treat almost anything and everything rather than advising patients to make lifestyle changes, we think that this is a very valid point.  Sometimes medications are prescribed simply to counteract symptoms of other deeper problems that could be remedied with “other” changes.

I am not writing this post to attack the “heathens” of our society; they already have enough problems.  I am writing this post to challenge my fellow Christians, my friends who are pastors and church leaders and the Church as a whole.  We are supposed to be the ones with all the answers.  Or, we at least we claim to know Who the Answer is…  Are we emotionally healthy?  Are we relationally healthy?  Are we spiritually healthy?  Do we even know what “healthy” looks like?

If we cannot answer those questions with a clear conscience and peace flowing out of our hearts in the presence of our Father, I suggest that we take radical action as I did with my chronic sinus infection.  I admitted my condition, I refused to live on pain relievers and other Band-Aids and I humbled myself and sought outside help from those who had the ability to guide me on my journey towards healing and wholeness.

How can we be “salt” if we do not have any flavor? How can we be a shining “city on a hill” if most of the lights are dimmed? And how can we be models of emotional, relational, and spiritual health if we ourselves are sick? We all know the answers to these questions… we cannot, and it shows.

Laying Down Our Stones and Learning to Forgive

Have you ever been hurt by someone you loved and trusted? Have you ever been so hurt that you became bitter? Have you ever been so bitter that you felt the bitterness eating away at you like a cancer? Have you ever refused to forgive that person who wronged you? Have you ever wanted to forgive someone, but felt that you could not?

This sermon is a very frank and practical teaching on forgiveness. It answers questions like: Why do we have to forgive? How do we forgive? And, how do we trust again? The content of this teaching originates from both biblical principles and my own personal experiences. My goal in this message is to thoroughly explain why forgiveness is such an important part of the healing process as well as a vital component of healthy relationships.

This sermon can be listened to or downloaded with the links below:

Laying Down Our stones and Learning to Forgive -to download .mp3 file

Laying Down Our Stones and Learning to Forgive -to download .pdf of sermon notes