Last week on the blog, we described ways in which some individuals spiritually abuse their partners. But spiritual abuse is not simply an issue between couples— institutional spiritual abuse can occur within any faith-based or religious organization. It can happen at the hands of leaders of organizations or within their congregation between members of community or accountability groups, Bible studies, spiritual, discipleship, or pastoral counseling relationships.
Ideally, spiritual institutions should be a safe haven for victims where abuse is not tolerated in any form. Church, religious and spiritual leaders and their organizations often provide, or are perceived to provide, a place for victims to feel safe, find solace, and receive physical, spiritual, and emotional support. Yet, many times, when victims courageously seek help from their faith-based community, they experience Double Abuse® in the form of spiritual abuse.
Institutional spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses their “spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being. . . . Power is used to bolster the ideals or needs of a leader, over and above one who comes to them in need.”(1) This form of abuse can happen when a person in a position of spiritual authority uses that position to compromise or undermine individuals seeking help. A hierarchical attitude can be used to covertly dominate or promote the advancement of the institution’s or leader’s agenda, personal prestige, or to prevent public disclosure of problems existing within the organization.
At The M3ND Project, we have heard of many instances of institutional spiritual abuse as a form of Double Abuse® by (faith-based leaders and supporters) at the point of a victim’s disclosure and throughout their healing journey. When spiritual leaders mishandle the victim’s disclosure of abuse, they cause further harm to the victim, exacerbate their trauma and give more power to the abuser.
For many victims, the pain they endure when spiritually abused by religious leaders can pierce much deeper than other sources of pain. This form of abuse is particularly complicated for victims to identify because the spiritual abusers are people in whom they have placed incredible trust and whom they expect will lead and help them to do what is right. Spiritual abuse can push victims into deeper oppression and self doubt. They never imagine their pastor or other spiritual leaders would exploit the tenets of their faith in order to coerce or compel certain behavior in the victim that makes everyone but the victim feel better or sanitizes appearances especially when the abuser is a member of the institution’s staff, volunteer teams or a significant donor.
Most often, harming victims is not the primary desire of the spiritual leader. Regardless, whether inadvertent or intentional, the harm is real and damaging. Through The M3ND Project’s work training first responders, we have come to understand that most religious leaders want to help those who are harmed as well as those who do harm, but they often don’t have the proper resources or training to know how to respond in a healthy way.. It’s crucial to become educated about how spiritual abuse happens in institutional settings to avoid its recurrence. This information is equally vital for victims, as it provides some tangible boundaries so they know what to expect and what to refuse when seeking help for their situation.
Here are some of the most common and problematic ways that spiritual institutions abuse survivors and those who harm them: