Excerpts from an interesting article…

January 13, 2008 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Recently, I’ve been in contact with Dr. Ronald Enroth, a professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, and author of Churches That Abuse and Recovering From Churches That Abuse.  He was kind enough to send me a packet of articles on the subject of abusive ministries.  Many of these articles were published some years back and are no longer available.


But I do think these articles contain some interesting observations that apply to the experiences AS DESCRIBED by many of this site’s readers. 

Here are some excerpts from an article by Barbara Milligan.  As far as I can tell, this article was originally published sometime in 2001, in a newsletter called Steps, which was put out by The National Association for Christian Recovery.

Barbara Milligan describes her own involvement with a ministry which she and her husband later came to recognize as abusive (although she also is also clear to state that they received many good teachings and had many good and spiritually uplifting experiences at this church).  After the couple had discovered that their pastor was engaging in authoritarian practices and dealing with his people in questionable and inappropriate ways, she says,

“Stunned by what we were discovering, we tried to communicate with a few people who had left the church.  But we were disappointed when they wouldn’t talk to us about their reasons for leaving or their feelings about it.  We soon woke up to a startling realization:  We had become members of an oversized dysfunctional family, governed by the unspoken rules Don’t talk, Don’t trust, and Don’t feel.”

Later in the article, Mrs. Milligan goes on to describe some of the things she and her husband learned as they healed from their church experience.  She says,

Breaking the ‘Don’t Talk’ rule is vital to recovery.  When John and I left the church, and for a long time afterward, we had an aching need to talk with others who had had similar experiences in our church.  So we were disappointed to find that those who had left before us were still reluctant to talk, that the few friends we tried to talk with who remained in the church didn’t understand, and that those who left after us were in such intense pain themselves that they had no energy to respond to our pain.  We were angry at this situation, but not at any of them.  We felt deep sorrow that, just as siblings from abusive homes are often alienated from each other as adults, we had discovered barriers between ourselves and others that extended beyond the abusive system that most of us had escaped from.  The ‘Don’t Talk’ rule is not easily broken.

Thank God that John and I at least had each other to talk with!  Nearly every day for several weeks we shared what we were feeling and thinking in response to the abuse.  We didn’t do it because we were trying to become spiritually healthy; we did it because we couldn’t NOT talk.  And of course, the emotional safety that was already built into our relationship gave us the freedom to talk.

Yes, our conversations were often difficult, because they caused us to feel again the pain of the abuse.  But talking helped us identify exactly what had happened, who had done what, and what was hurting us.  it helped us sort out all our mixed feelings – the shock, the anger, the confusion, the sadness, the disappointment, the grief, and the occasional guilt feelings over not asserting ourselves sooner.  And it helped us realize that we weren’t crazy, that the abuse was as bad as it seemed, that it was truly abuse, and that there was a reason we felt so much pain.  In addition, we found great comfort every time the other person listened and understood.  And with each experience of comfort I think there was a measure of healing, perhaps too small to be noticed at the time.

That is not to say we never felt bound and gagged by the “Don’t talk’ rule.  Whenever we talked with anyone else about our spiritual abuse experience, both before and after we left the church, we wavered between two concerns:  a healthy concern that we not gossip about, or speak disrespectfully of, [pastors’ names], and an UNhealthy concern that perhaps we shouldn’t be talking about them at all.  While we felt compelled to warn certain people of how [Pastors’ names] were hurting others, we often recognized a vague, dark fear that we were doing something bad.

I still experience a remnant of that fear now, years later, as I write these words.  Something inside me says, ‘You’re making too much of this.  Just wait.  It’s going to get you into trouble.’  An important part of my personal history lies bare, for all the world to see and perhaps judge.  But I know now, as I knew then, that talking about the abuse, with others, and with God, was the best thing I could do to recover from the experience.  In fact, I have always found that as I talk with God about that fear and then, desite the fear, choose to talk with others about the abuse, my fear about breaking the ‘Don’t talk’ rule either disappears or diminishes.

Grieving our losses is also vital to recovery.  Grieving is a process, and processes take time.  John and I spent months, even years, grieving.  We’re probably still grieving to some degree.  We grieved the loss of relationships with people we cared about.  We grieved the loss of the joy of worsihping with those people.  We grieved the loss of our satisfaction in participating in their lives and in watching many of the ways God revealed himself to each of them.  And we grieved the loss of our dreams about enjoying a long, fulfilling history with our church community.

Grieving wasn’t only a matter of identifying our losses.  Having identified them, John and I needed to allow ourselves to feel the pain of those losses.  For me, that meant not distracting myself with a project or with other thoughts when the pain resurfaced – that is, whenever I was in a safe, private place and I wasn’t working against a deadline.  Because I knew I needed to grieve and I rarely was in a safe, private place with time on my hands, I had to build that time and place into my schedule.  So during my regular time of prayer, I often invited God to help me feel the pain and to help me grieve.  He did.

Feeling pain rarely has short-term benefits.  I recommend it only because the long-term benefits far outweigh the pain.  When we grieve our losses related to spiritual abuse, when we feel the pain of those losses, we tell ourselves the truth.  The truth that what happened was abuse.  That it hurt us.  That we’re not crazy.  That the problem was not with us.  That the losses we grieve were truly valuable parts of our lives.  As we keep telling ourselves the truth, sooner or later we start to grasp it.  And with God’s loving help, the truth sets us free.

We cannot be entirely free from our spiritual abuse experience until we forgive our abusers.  This also took time.  In my case, no sooner had I told God that once again for the eleventh time I chose to forgive [Pastors’ names], then God showed me yet another reason why I was angry at them.  But it was wise of God to respond to me that way; my forgiveness would not be complete until I was aware of all the ways they had hurt me and hurt my husband.

Forgiving our abusers does not mean that what they did to us was OK.  It does not mean that the abuse didn’t matter or that we will overlook it and forget about it.  It does not mean that we should resume the relationship or that we should trust our abusers again.  What it means is that we refuse to stand in judgment of our abusers.  We give that responsibility back to God, placing them in His hands.  And we ask Him to have mercy on them just as He has had mercy on us.

As John and I reached a point where we could begin thinking about forgiving our abusers and praying for them, God gave us – through Scriptures, mental pictures, and even dreams – images of [Pastors’ names] as two needy, broken people whom God dearly loved.  Placing them in God’s hands, and forgiving them repeatedly as the hurts resurfaced, was one of the most important steps we took as we moved forward in our recovery.”

Thoughts, anyone?

© 2008, Kris. All rights reserved.