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.)
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.
PROLOGUE: A HOUSE OF MIRRORS
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.