ABUSE & VIOLENCE IN THE CHURCH, Abuse Systems and Transformation Tools, ABUSERS & THEIR TACTICS, Blog Series - Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery, Leaving the Church

New Blog Series: Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery by Pastor Ken Garrett

Spiritual Abuse, Pastor Ken Garrett, Spiritual Abuse in the church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery


As I was reading through Ken Garrett’s dissertation, I had to stop and soak up what I had just read. It took time to process and I felt like if I continued reading, I might miss something. It made me want to reflect on how his words matched my spiritually abusive experience.  Mind you, Ken and I have spent hours talking/texting about spiritual abuse, how it has affected us and others. So, his words were nothing new to me, but they made me stop and think. We both have a heart to take what we have learned to help others. It dawned on me that Ken’s dissertation might be great for a series here, so I asked him if this was something we could do here at SSB, and he graciously agreed. (I knew he would because that’s the Ken that I know.)

Pastor Ken Garrett, Spiritual Abuse, Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery
Pastor Ken Garrett – Somewhere in Italy on vacation recently after submitting his dissertation: Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery, and earning his DMin.

So, my goal is to do a post once a week, using portions of Ken’s dissertation as the jumping off point. It was in reading blogs about spiritual abuse that I realized I was in a spiritually abusive church. Reading personal stories that mirrored my own story made me feel like I was not going crazy, that what I was experiencing was real, and it was harmful. Ken’s dissertation is perfect for this venue. He’s a spiritual abuse survivor, he’s studied spiritual abuse in an academic setting, and he’s also a pastor downtown Portland, Oregon.

If you know of someone who has been harmed in the church, please pass this post along. If you know of church leaders who could benefit from learning about spiritual abuse from someone who has done academic research and is a pastor, this might be good for them as well.

Spiritual abuse like other forms of abuse doesn’t just go away. It becomes part of who we are. Does it mean that we have to abandon our faith? No! But it might look different than it was. And we will discover that that is okay.

The goal of this series is to interact, to learn from each other, to support each other. We’re going to start off with the Prologue from the dissertation. If you want to read ahead, feel free to do so. You can find Ken’s dissertation here.

~Julie Anne


With the demise of old-fashioned amusement parks, we are seeing the disappearance of Houses of Mirrors. These houses were comprised of maze-like passageways where the customer walked, becoming increasingly disoriented and set off-balance by the mirrors that surrounded them, as the mirrors functioned as the actual obstacles in the maze. Distorted images made it nearly impossible to be sure that what was seen was . . . real, and not a mere image.

The mirrors were of all shapes and sizes. However, what they all had in common was that they all lacked a flat surface, as found in any normal household mirror. Instead, they were convex, concave, bloated out, and punched in, so that they did not yield a true reflection of their subject. Instead, the image they produced was distorted.

Walking through a House of Mirrors, people saw distorted images of themselves. The reflections ranged from comical to grotesque. One mirror might portray its beholder, instead of his true, 6 ft. height, as being only 4 feet tall—and three feet wide! Another one might present the body’s frame as resembling an upside-down bowling-pin. Another might take a 210 lb. man and slim him down to what appeared to be a solid, lithe 175 lbs.

To add to the experience, a person often saw his companions’ images in the distortion of the misshapen mirrors. Nothing, and no one, was actually, what they appeared to be in the House of Mirrors.

Once a person finally completed the journey through the House of Mirrors, stepping into the daylight of the real world seemed a bit disorienting. Were buildings truly flat and solid? Was the ground moving? It often took a couple of minutes to gain one’s bearings and return to the world of trustworthy, solid images.

Many experiences in life leave us feeling that we have spent time in a House of Mirrors. The military, college, a cross-cultural experience where close relationships are formed in the forge of challenge, or perhaps danger— experiences like these can be dizzying, and even difficult to describe years later, when we have moved on with our lives.

As a former paramedic I am intimately familiar with the experience of sharing the challenges and danger of a complex call with my partner and fellow rescuers. The world tends to flee from view during such intense, seemingly unreal minutes, leaving only the immediate threats to address and tasks to accomplish. It was often difficult to re-adjust to normal life after those calls.

People stumble out into the brightness of daylight out of other, darker, mirrored mazes. Abusive marriages and relationships, drug and alcohol addiction, sexual degradation, and other intense, often dangerous conditions of life, leave us disoriented, dazed, and vulnerable—even when we leave them.

Likewise, people who belong to abusive religious systems are living in houses of mirrors. Reality is distorted, twisted into a confusing, off-balancing existence that, sadly, becomes normal for members. In this spiritual maze of mirrors, leaders appear to possess more power and authority than the rest of the world would ever accord them. They become giants, towering over those they control. In every direction one turns in the spiritual House of Mirrors, pastors and leaders are ever looming, ever providing their own, personal explanations of truth, and demands of loyalty and behavior. They appear in every mirror, whichever way one turns—large, intimidating, and ever watchful. There seems to be no escape.

In contrast, in every mirror the member sees herself as small, distorted, frail, weak, and needy—every mirror, without exception, for the leaders are themselves the architects of these spiritual houses of mirrors. Moreover, just as a house of mirrors is designed and constructed to make escape mildly difficult, these spiritual houses of mirrors are not constructed for the member to find it easy or comfortable to leave. Rather, a person must stumble out of them, sometimes knocking over a few mirrors on the way out, simply resolving that you will . . . keep . . . following . . . that sliver of brightness that has invaded the soul’s darkness. All of one’s hopes are pinned on the belief that there is a true Light beckoning. But the artificial light of the House of Mirrors must be abandoned to live in that Light.

Abused members are not as bold as their leaders’ think they are, when it comes to leaving the spiritual House of Mirrors. They often feel as dead as stones. They wonder if there is truly another world that even exists out there, and if that world will allow, welcome, or embrace them back into its light. They are, finally, people with nothing left to lose, and many are eventually willing to take risks to escape the House of Mirrors.

As one who has survived an abusive church, I have found that when people do finally leave they often remain in a state of disorientation and confusion regarding their faith, the church, the Bible, Jesus, God, prayer, marriage, children, careers, food, and traditions. The list is long and it grows as more people who escape abusive religious groups share their stories. Like the guests of a house of mirrors who have stumbled out its back door, blinking in the sunlight and unsteady on their feet—those who leave the dark churches often remain in a state of spiritual funk, and dizziness, and uncertainty for a long time. They wonder if they have just wasted months, if not years of their lives. By the grace of God, they haven’t.

They wonder if they can ever trust any church, or leader, again. By the grace of God, they can. They wonder if their marriages and families can ever, possibly, recover from the assault and trauma endured. By the grace of God, they can heal. They wonder if their lives will ever seem put together again, functional and healthy. By the grace of God, life will come back together. They wonder if up will every truly seem like up, and down truly seem like down, and if they can ever trust their ability to judge truth again. Parents wonder if they will ever be able to effectively lead and protect their families again. Children wonder if they can trust their parents and if they will forever bear the stigma of belonging to a troubled church, not of their own choosing, but of their parents’ choice! Again, by the grace of God, by the grace of God, by the grace of God. . .

If you are in an abusive church or religious system today, ask God to rescue you, and look for a small crack of Light from the back of the room, where an unseen Friend has left the door ajar for those who will to leave. I still squint at the magnificent, healing Son in my own eyes.

22 thoughts on “New Blog Series: Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery by Pastor Ken Garrett”

  1. Thank you, Julie Anne! I hope my project might serve to help out people who are struggling to understand the phenomena of abusive churches, esp. those with supposedly “sound, orthodox” theology–but who abuse their members.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I hope so, too, Ken. There is much to be learned about this often dismissed subject. Most of the atheists I have spoken with left the church or abandoned their faith due to some form of spiritual abuse. This should be a wake-up call.

    I hope your trip to Europe was fun and relaxing. You worked hard, friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My daughter stumbled out of the “house of mirrors” and ended up abandoning the faith. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say she was ejected out… by excommunication… for leaving an abusive marriage. It is so heart breaking, and the church seems so clueless.


  4. Mary, it is heartbreaking. I, along with so many others can relate with having a loved one abandoning the faith. There is so much that can be done to help these survivors. I know some pastors who are so grieved at this and would do anything to build bridges with those who have been harmed.


  5. Wow. You nailed it. Restores a glimmer of hope in ecclesiastical humanity that a pastor can recognize, and acknowledge, this phenomena without blaming the recipient.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thank you for such an accurate visual! I wandered in my house of mirrors from 1969 as a young girl till 2002. It took a work of grace, the prayers of some dear homeschooling friends, and a supportive husband to get us out. Something inside of me would not let my daughters endure what I had for years.


  7. Hi Julie Anne,

    I’m a lurker who reads here. 🙂

    You wrote:

    Most of the atheists I have spoken with left the church or abandoned their faith due to some form of spiritual abuse.

    For myself, spiritual abuse was the catalyst that sent me further into study and research that eventually led me to realize I simply no longer believed as I once did. Yes, spiritual abuse was directly responsible for me leaving the church. Thankfully I got out. One could say spiritual abuse was indirectly responsible for me leaving my former belief system. And that topic alone is a whole other journey of dealing with further abuse. Not easy.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. . I, along with so many others can relate with having a loved one abandoning the faith.

    I just watched the Keepers (which deals with catholic church abuse and coverups) and people losing their faith, or if not their faith certainly their faith in church (which might not be a bad thing), was discussed. And now the Archdiocese is doing ‘keeperstruth’ stuff on twitter.

    What’s amazing is that so many people trusted their church, their priests, their pastors, etc to do the right thing. Which isn’t even complicated. Protect children. Punish evil doing. Don’t lie. If you can’t trust the church to do these very basic things, what good is it?

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Hi Zoe, I’m so sorry you have dealt with spiritual abuse. It’s time that people take it seriously. It sounds like you’ve had a difficult journey. I’d like to hear more of it if you’re willing to share. I think you might find this series helpful in processing what you went through. You are most welcome to join us and there is certainly no prerequisite to be a Believer. This is a safe place for you.

    I’m always happy to finally meet a lurker! Thanks, Zoe!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow, Rina, that’s a loooooong time! I’m glad you listened to something inside of you and were able to get out!! Thanks for sharing 🙂


  11. Hi Zoe,
    I think you’ll find that JA is a very supportive and open-minded individual – it’s just how she rolls! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Wow were you inside my head?!? I’ve been blogging recently as an outlet for my confusion and you nailed exactly what I have been trying to say! It is very scary when you get out of a spiritual abuse situation and you are so disoriented, you don’t know what to think or how to trust yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I love​ the distorted mirrors analogy. Very accurate.

    In regaining my equilibrium after leaving abusive churches. I landed on atheism. I find it interesting that I am more saddened over the loss of Church community than I am about losing belief in the existence of God.


  14. Hi Karma,
    Thank you for your comment. I’m sorry that you experienced harm in church. Losing a community is a pretty big deal. Do you maintain contact with anyone from your Christian past? Many of my daughter’s friends abandoned her when she left Christianity. I don’t understand that.


  15. Many of my daughter’s friends abandoned her when she left Christianity. I don’t understand that.

    I know it’s no help to say ‘they weren’t really her friends’ but its the only thing I can think of when this sort of thing happens. I don’t understand it either.

    Carmen, I’m reading over there. The social community thing is real. I left church (although not Christianity) for a long time, and there is something nice about coming back. I do think the article paints a false dichotomy between finding joy in church and finding joy in something like a bike ride (or rollerblading I guess). I do both.


  16. Most of us/them once did too, Lea.

    And that’s fine, but I think it was presented as if people can’t do both. That’s silly.


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