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:
Valuing the Institution of Marriage Over the Individuals in the Marriage
One of the ways religious leaders can prevent this is by choosing to believe the victim, at least until there is substantial information to prove otherwise. If one member of the couple expresses that their partner is physically, sexually, emotionally, or verbally abusive, believe them. Even if the first responder is unsure about what is really going on or if the alleged abuser is an individual who has shown many positive attributes in the public eye. It is important to remember that those who harm victims do considerable work to protect their image in the public., M3ND provides tools to help first responders uncover, identify and interface with victims and abusers in a trauma-informed and compassionate manner that also includes accountability for the abusers. (See the resource section for more information)
The response is not always so clear when the abuse at issue is covert emotional abuse, because the individual being harmed may not identify their experience as abuse, even though it is as destructive as other forms of abuse. This is why it is so important for first responders to educate themselves on all forms of abuse and best practices for responding appropriately.. An individual in a complicated situation with covert emotional abuse may be depending on their spiritual leaders to help them gain the clarity they need to understand and navigate their situation.
They may want to physically distance from their partner through separation, seek individual counseling, and stop couple’s therapy. Whatever the scenario may be, the focus of leadership should be to come alongside the victim. Not to question, place demands, or ostracize them.
Punishing the Victim and not the Perpetrator
Many times, those within the organization may stop reaching out to the victim because they don’t know what to say or are worried that will make matters worse, but for the hurting victim, having imperfect support is better than having none at all. Small acts such as making sure to say hello, ask about how they are doing or express condolences for what they are going through can make an incredible impact and prevent them from feeling alone. Victims cannot heal in isolation. They deserve and need connection and support.
Refusing to Confront the Abuse/Abuser
Acting as if everything is okay or continuing to meet and greet the abuser during gatherings as if everything is alright before the abuse has been confronted only serves to give the abuser more power, leading them to believe that they can continue to get away with harming their spouse. The same abuse survivor who shared with us that she was ostracized by her faith community also revealed that they continued to treat her abuser with warmth and friendliness. This was deeply devastating to her and contradicted the doctrines of despising harmful behavior that her church claimed to champion.
Providing Counsel Where They are not Qualified
Some religious and spiritual leaders are unqualified to address abusive situations, mostly because they have never been trained in how to identify abuse or how to respond. It’s critical that these leaders refrain from inserting their thoughts or opinions concerning specific next steps the victim or the couples should take when they are unqualified The M3ND Project is dedicated to training any first responder group willing to learn.
If this blog resonated with you, please share it with someone who may need to hear it’s content. If you need training and support in your role as a spiritual leader, The M3ND Project would love to come alongside you and your organization to equip you to bring healing to the families in your care. In the meantime, check out our website and peruse the additional valuable resources below.
(1) The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, 20-21
M3ND’s Note to Faith-Based Organizations:
How to Confront Abusers:
Healing Model of Compassion: steps for responding to victims: