ABUSE & VIOLENCE IN THE CHURCH, Blog Series - Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery, Recovery Process, Spiritual Abuse

Blog Series: Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery by Pastor Ken Garrett, Wk 3

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

Okay, we’re back to our ongoing series on spiritual abuse using excerpts from Ken Garrett’s dissertation on spiritual abuse, Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery. We will use excerpts from Ken’s dissertation as a springboard for discussion.

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

In the Introduction, Ken offers helpful definitions. Here is Ken’s definition for cult:

Cult – While most of the terms and ideas that I introduce are simple and easy to grasp, it is apparent in the project that I struggle greatly with the term cult in describing a Christian church. I will better explain and seek resolution to the struggle in subsequent chapters. But for a basic, consistent definition of the word, cult denotes a small, religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous.

While ideology and doctrine always have a role in the health or dysfunction of any religious group, increasingly a group’s status as a cult is derived solely from its actual treatment of its members, and not from its creeds, beliefs, and theology.

I agree with Ken’s definition and note that the treatment of members is key. When I looked at my church, the stories I read about Sovereign Grace Ministries, Doug Phillip’s church (Boerne Christian Assembly), Doug Wilson’s Christ Church, this is the pattern that has been explained to me. The people adopt a culture created by the cult leader, aka pastor. Not only do they adopt this culture, but they cultivate it, endorse it, enforce it, even to the extent that sometimes the pastor/cult leader doesn’t have to do all of the talking. He has raised his faithful devotees to model his expectations. Since all members are “on board” with this culture, any new person who comes to the group and questions it will be the odd man out.

spiritual abuse, Ken Garrett, Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery
Pic by Ken Garrett, taken on recent trip in Europe.

It does not feel good to swim against the tide, so there is pressure to join the group in their way of doing things. Next thing you know, that new person has become one of them and will also spread this culture and group think to additional new members, forgetting that at one time, they, too, had once questioned aspects of it.

The following excerpt comes from the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

What is a cult? What is an abusive church? Are they the same, or are there distinctions between the two that are important to bear in mind as the reader interacts with the issue of spiritual abuse in churches today? To introduce the word cult into a discussion regarding abusive, Christian churches often ends any meaningful discussion with survivors of such churches, as many Christians feel that the words cult and Christian are mutually exclusive. More than one survivor of a spiritually abusive church has told me, “I know I was not in a cult, because my church believed in the Bible, and the full deity of Jesus Christ.”

Through the years, I have come to wonder why it is that survivors of spiritual abuse in Christian churches draw solace from the notion that their church could not have been a cult, as if that assignation makes the abuse they suffered in their (allegedly non-cultic) church in some way less worse than what they actually suffered there.

When I first started blogging about my abusive pastor and experience, I did not call the church a cult, but rather, cult-like. Later, after much studying on the topic, I changed my wording to cult. Interestingly, I don’t remember Ken calling his abusive “church” a cult when we first met. Slowly, over time, he too, changed his wording to cult instead of church.

I remember when Ken asked me about the wording, and he shared with me how he had begun to use the word, “cult.” It seemed we both had had come to the same conclusion about the word and our experience on our respective personal journeys. (And this process also validated for me that even though we both have been away from our cults for years, the process of understanding what we went through continues. It was cool to be able to share those insights with each other.

It felt weird to use the word, cult, at first. In my mind, the cult word was reserved for Jonestown or David Koresh or The Moonies, you know, those weird groups. But in looking at the definition of the word cult, the behavior of the cult leaders and its members, there is no doubt that what we experienced was thought reform – the same kind of thought reform that people in cults experience. That was a tough pill to swallow.

Let’s talk. Here are some ideas for discussion:

Have you come to the conclusion that your spiritually abusive church was a cult or cult-like? What about the pastor? Do you think the pastor behaved like a cult leader?

If you use the word cult or cult leader, did you find it strange to do so? How has your response been when you tell people that you were in a cult or abusive church?

Do you notice that your thoughts about your abusive church/cult have changed as time has gone by?


115 thoughts on “Blog Series: Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery by Pastor Ken Garrett, Wk 3”

  1. Serving Kids in Japan, Thank you for all of your insights. Your comments are very, very enlightening. Such evilness. Thank you for sharing. I had no idea of the depth of evil to which some of these church authorities would sink


  2. Been There Done That,

    Very true, indeed. I am learning these concepts. Wow. Sounds like there is some truth to the notion that the devil you know is better than the one you don’t. Perhaps some of these folks jumped from the frying pan right into the fire.

    One of the problems I encounter is that when people learn that you are a registered GOP, they automatically assume that you think like these Bible-thumping evangelists. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth but you sort of have to carry them around your neck like an albatross. I wish there was a way to carve them out of the party. I wish they would form a group all to there own so the rest of us did not have to be lumped in the same basket. I am just so amazed by what I am learning here. I always knew these folks were bad news. I just never knew quite how bad they actually were. I am learning about a lot of abuse that I wish I never knew. The story of Shauna in a different post is just heart-breaking.


  3. LEB,

    Most people are good people. Yes there are totally crazy people like Debi Pearl who teach the kind of horrific ideas that cause serious damage. The rest of us stand against that type of abuse. We confront the Debi Pearls and expose their insanity.

    That’s why I’m still asking you to give us the benefit of the doubt.

    There’s a lot of good people of faith who pour out their lives to help others. Its totally unfair to blame everyone who believes in Christ for the craziness coming from the Debi Pearl type people.


  4. Avid Reader,
    Yes I try to keep an open mind but it becomes somewhat difficult when you read about these stories of abuse – like the Shauna story upthread – and the man on this forum who described how his father abused and humiliated him growing up – all in the name of Jesus. I am sure the historic Jesus would be horrified to learn of all the atrocities committed in his name.

    One way, I have learned, to pick out the evangelicals from the ordinary Protestant faith members is the “code words” they use when they meet you for the first time. I have 40 acres on which I have planted numerous fruit orchards. As you might imagine, I sometimes purchase scionwood to graft my own trees. So I purchased some scion wood from this man – a total stranger – and it was nice enough wood. We got into numerous conversations online about grafting trees. He kindly provided me with some of his expertise in grafting. I, in turn, sent him a unique and desirable apple tree – gratis – from my own orchard as a gesture of appreciation.

    Well, the next thing I know, totally out of the blue, he starts to include “code” in his emails to me. He starts speaking about his “Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” interjecting such words into sentences about apple scionwood where they have absolutely no relevance. It was completely inappropriate to the conversations we were having about grafting. I wrote him back saying that I was sure if God actually exists, he, she or it would also admire the fine scionwood he was producing and probably so would Jesus, if he actually knew about it.

    Well, that did the trick. He cut out the code language fast enough. I am sure the man was shocked and decided I was but a miserable heathen, shortly bound for eternal damnation. No doubt he felt that his scionwood was also damned by virtue of being in my orchard. Up to that point, he truly seemed like a nice enough man. I think they actually “test the waters” to see if you are one of them. When they discover that you are not so, they withdraw from association with you quickly enough…..which I suppose is all fine. There is no need for them to be in association with heathens who are but minions of the devil.

    It seemed the tree I gave him got destroyed also – by, of all things, domestic geese. I am sure he believes God sent the very creatures to root out the evil in his own orchard. I shared the story with my husband and we got a chuckle out of the whole thing. I do feel badly for the poor tree which perished, however. If I kept it in my own orchard, it would be alive today.


  5. Wow LEB, your story about the tree being transplanted into another religious orchard where the gaggle of domesticated geese nipped away at it’s healthy growth until it withered and died was such a vivid parable of what happens to the spirit of a person when they join these unhealthy religious organizations.
    Thank you for listening. Thank you for caring. Thank you for hanging in there through this challenging dialog. Being a witness and listening is the first and most important step to being a support. Sometimes all folks need to hear is that their trauma IS outrageous and that there are plenty of orchards that don’t harbor geese. Telling them to uproot themselves and to walk away when they know there are geese waiting to tear at thier roots the moment they are vulnerable is a huge expectation. Instead, saying, “I’m here when you’re ready” creates an island of safety they can rely upon when the moment of decision arrives.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Farelne, Yes you are correct. My initial approach was unrealistic and not helpful. I am glad to have been called on it so I can perhaps be of better service to folks who have been so traumatized. What you describe is precisely what did happen to the otherwise healthy tree. Worst of all, this man is an expert horticulturalist with a master’s degree and decades upon decades of experience. So what does he do? He lets some 30 some year old know-it-all from his church come in and tell him how to run his orchard and modernize his operations. She knew nothing of the orchard business. She introduced the geese as a means of “natural” weed and insect control for his garden. They ate up not only the tree I gifted to him but countless other trees causing widespread damage to his orchard. In short they wreaked havoc. He also told me that I was “very uncharitable” in my comments toward her suggesting that she had no business intruding herself – replete with her lack of expertise – into the orchard of a man with decades of experience and education only to cause havoc to the place. Many trees were destroyed by these geese she brought in. I was to forgive her as he has done which is all well and good….but it does not change the fact that I sent a tree in to be slaughtered.

    You are correct, it IS a good parable. Geese nipping away at a healthy tree which was yearning for life. Very powerful imagery which you picked up on. I never saw it until you described it but it perfectly represents how I feel about the whole thing. Great call. So now what is wrong with me that I can’t just outright forgive her the way he has done. Why am I still resentful. Many years ago when I was in my thirties I was involved with a man who covertly did drugs (I had no idea) and died of a drug overdose. My world was torn apart. I was emotionally destroyed; I could barely hold it together but I did. Seven or eight years later, I met and married a wonderful man and now I have a great life – better than I could have ever had with the former man. I love my husband and I love the life I have. It is better, in my opinion, than I deserve.

    So why, then, can I not forgive the man who died? I don’t dwell on it and it does not eat away at me or anything like that. It is long past – way back in 1986 and I have long since healed. But, if you asked me whether I ever truly forgave the man for covertly doing drugs and dying, the answer is no. Same with the geese lady. Of course neither ever asked to be forgiven so maybe that has something to do with it. Dead people can’t tell you they are sorry and I never met the geese lady. Have you done any better forgiving the people who hurt you? I can’t honestly tell you that I have.


  7. LEB, I am truly sorry that you suffered loss and betrayal of trust by someone you loved so closely. How hard that must have been for you to go through! I can’t even imagine the grief and hurt you felt then….even with it being so many years ago, I imagine it must still carry some pain. No wonder it has not been something you have chosen to forgive. I am so thankful that you have found some healing in the love of your husband.

    You asked how others have done in forgiving the people who hurt us: It has been hard. It is especially hard, as you already know, when it is someone who you have loved and trusted. I made the decision to make the long journey towards forgiveness in whatever form that took and however long it took because I learned so much about my own soul in the process. I made the choice of forgiveness not because the individuals who hurt me deserved to be forgiven, but it was a step towards being free myself. It is still an ongoing process. Here are some things that I learned on my journey:

    Forgiveness is selective and progressive. I get to chose who I forgive and it may take many layers before I feel that I am done. It may take days, years or a lifetime. It’s not as important that I arrive as much as it is important that I am on the journey.
    Forgiveness is not the same thing as trust. Just because I forgive, doesn’t mean I must spend time with the person who offended, believe that they are good people or give them an opportunity to hurt me again.
    Forgiveness isn’t about them. It doesn’t allow them to get away Scott-free from the responsibility of their actions. They must still face consequences. Forgiveness is about me. It frees me up more and more from the consequences of their actions.
    I envision my offender in jail. I’m standing outside and holding the key to the door. I have a choice about whether I will leave them in that prison or not and sometimes I’m all tied up in knots about what to do. But there is a 3rd choice. My other choice is to turn around and hand God the key to that door and walk away. God knows their heart better than I can ever know it. God knows when it is time to judge an individual or to set them free far better than I can know.

    I never want having to make that decision eat me up inside, and so I gratefully relinquish it and my heart is free. Sometimes I have to wrestle with that key more than once. Sometimes I sit outside that door stewing, but eventually I get tired of the kind of person that I am when I hang onto hate or resentment for long. I want to use my heart and thoughts for other better, more beautiful things.

    Forgiving isn’t giving something away to someone else who has already taken so much. It is bout me receiving something of grace. I must first receive before I can give anything away.
    Finally, forgiveness isn’t the “Christian” thing to do. It is the human thing to do. It is a central fixture in nearly every major religion (Satanism and Luciferianism excluded) I read once about a mindfulness prayer that came from a monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. He takes 3 breaths and then says to the moon, “I am aware of your beauty, and I sense your pain. And I am here for you” He believes that if everyone would do this with their spouses and families and friends and animals and even rocks and trees, the world would be a more peaceful place.

    So I began to pray that prayer for a pastor who hurt me very deeply. “I am aware of your beauty”: I had to peel away all the terrible things and identify the good things about his existance-not to excuse his actions, but to humanize him and make him not so horribly big and terrifying,”I sense your pain”: I began to try to understand the pain he faced in life and how hard it must be to do what he does. While it doesn’t excuse his actions and it does’t excuse that he was harming others, it at least gives context and meaning to them. I could understand him a little better, even though I did not agree with him. “And I am here for you.”: This one was challenging. How could I be here for him when he was toxic? At least, in this case, I came to the understanding that the one thing I could do for him was to pray for him…to pray for change of heart and wisdom so he wouldn’t harm others. To pray for God to bless him as he grew and changed and became more merciful. To pray for God to stop him if his ability to harm others grew.

    It is easier to shut it down and not face forgiveness. Forgiveness is hard, but I think it’s gotten a bad rap.I also think our definition of it is so skewed that we have to fix that first before we can even begin to face it. So many people wield the wrong definition of forgiveness as a tool to control others. That lie has got to be demolished.

    Most of us would rather embrace unforgiveness. I’ve personally experienced that unforgiveness can close me down to new relationships and prevent me from taking the risk of being my true self with others. As I opened myself up to forgiveness, the answer found me. I didn’t have to go looking for it. I now can appreciate the life accomplishments of the pastor who hurt me, but I see him as a whole picture. It”s a completely new light. I am deeply saddened by his limitations because of who he is. I see that he continually finds negative things to say about others. He almost never is celebrating others. What a sad existence that must be and he must be very lonely. I cannot image a world where one cannot honor others because of being so focused on finding fault…perhaps this is due to his own unspoken insecurities. I don’t feel that he has any power over me or my heart anymore. I don’t have to prove anything. But if he reached out in any way, I could respond without obligation or fear. In short…I feel like I am the one in power now.


  8. Falene, This writing is so beautiful. I am blown away by it. I also need to read it over several more times to fully absorb the content. One reading is not sufficient for material this profound and this deep. I like handing the key over part. For me it is more of a sense that, at times, I get a sensation of this person’s spirit around me, wanting to make amends. My reaction is more of “You and I have no further business together; it’s done, it’s over. There is no longer any path for us to travel together. I have nothing to offer you.” The problem is that it is sort of said with a coldness on my part or at least an indifference.

    There is not any warmth or understanding or gentleness which is usually how I would normally react to people. There really is no further or unsettled business between us – at least as far as I am concerned. I have no desire now to go back and revisit anything with him yet I feel this presence around me wanting to make amends. I can certainly say “I forgive you; I am fine now” but literally, said to say, I have no use for him anymore in my life. There is no longer any role for him. He checked out via misdeeds on his part (drugs). I have found another man. I have found another life. I am happy. I don’t ever want to go back to that life I had with him so I am at a loss of what to say or how to react when the spirit enters my awareness. I sound so cold and so unloving but truth be told, there really is no role for him in my current life and I really do have nothing to offer.

    I feel as though this coldness and this indifference is likely rooted in a lack of forgiveness but even if I did openly forgive him and embrace his spirit, there is literally no role or place for him anymore. I have another man in my life and I am very happy with my husband and the life he and I have. There is no place for this man to fit in anymore. I have no need or use for any other involvement of that sort in my life. I can’t use two such people in my life; one is more than sufficient.

    Some people say you hold back on forgiveness because you want to keep the spirit of the person around you. You want them to keep coming to you to make amends and if you forgave them, they would move on and go away. I don’t I think I feel that way. It is just that can’t think of anything I want or need from him. I really think it is just that I have no further business with him. This is all well and good BUT I am rather cold about the whole thing. That is the part I find disturbing. Being that way is very out of character for me. I don’t like who I am when I am that way. I am not a cold or unfeeling person. I suspect,then, it is because there is some hostility on my part but I can’t get in touch with it. I am wondering if the drug overdose has anything to do with it. I can’t imagine being this cold if the death were due to illness or no-fault accidental means. My brother died in an accident at work and I have no hostility toward him. My father died of illness and I have no hostility there either. I love my father and my brother very much both in life and after they passed on. There is no issue with abandonment with either of them. They left this world through no fault of their own and I have only positive feelings toward them.

    Did the pastor who spiritually abused you ever come to you and ask for forgiveness? I don’t know which is easier or which is more difficult. When they come around looking for forgiveness and you really don’t want to deal with them or when they don’t admit they did anything wrong thus they don’t even ask for forgiveness. Again, thanks for your long and inspiring post. I need to read it several times over.


  9. Falene,
    I love you. Thank-you for your post on forgiveness. It ministered liberty and freedom to me today, showing the power of God working in your life.

    Love it! Alleluia and Amen! God Bless you immensely.


  10. I was wondering if there is a part four? I know this doesn’t answer the above questions, but I am a survivor of spiritual abuse at Sovereign Grace Ministries and I haven’t found a church to attend, despite the many years since we left SGM. Unfortunately, my case seems complicated by the fact that I have complex PTSD and had found significant healing while in SGM. When I was excommunicated (after extreme personal attacks) I was thrown back into active C-PTSD and have trouble even walking into a church. My beliefs about God and the Church have changed and I need help. I would appreciate any resources you can suggest.


  11. Hi Kathi (I took out some of your last name in case you wanted a bit more anonymity).

    Thank you for your comment. Unfortunately, I have not added to this series. I’m a full-time student and have had difficulty keeping up with things. I probably will be adding to it once life settles down again. Please see the resources here: https://spiritualsoundingboard.com/spiritual-abuse-helps/

    I will be posting an article today or tomorrow that I know you will be able to relate to. Please feel free to jump in on the conversation and share your thoughts. There are so many connected with SGM who have had challenges getting back into church again. I’m so sorry that you went through that experience. It’s very difficult!


  12. I was part of a religious Catholic order called sisters minor of Mary Immaculate under mother Maria Elisabeth’s Patrizi. she was abusive and neglectful of her sisters. I was refused medical attention forced by patrizi to leave the hospital when I could not even walk. I was physically mentally spiritually abuse I witnessed abuse and neglect of other sisters in the order which gave me no choice but to leave. She even helped cover up priest abuse and tolerated and allowed sexual assault of her sisters by other sisters in the order by having a closed meeting with church official. Alcoholism was tolerated and patrizi would put unfit superiors into authority torturing sisters and breaking their spirits, souls, bodies and minds down, so as to make them submissive to do evil things. severe punishments were given, like beating, starving and imprisonment.

    Medical attention or going against doctor wishes was perpetrated by Patrizi and Theresa Kovacs and other sisters who were superiors. There was no charity and most of us sisters lived in fear not of God but of Patrizi and Kovacs. For some reason or other, the church allowed this for years because of her family name Patrizi which is tied to the Vatican. I have reported the abuse I suffered at the hands of Patrizi and Kovacs to my diocese in the past. I reported it in 2002-2004, so they know. They knew since 2004. There was racism in the order where an African American sister would be called a black dog frequently by her superior. She left. Other sisters were stuck in countries because their visas ran out and one particular sister was stuck in Italy.

    There was a death of an Italian sister who was imprisoned and not allowed to see her family she did not get medical attention and she had lung cancer. I found this out most recently Another sister who was Polish was put in an institution against her will she called me for help. Another sister nearly died because she was bleeding internally she is American and if it was not for her doctor she would not be here today. I found this out most recently. October 4, 2014, dated document from the Vatican was addressing patrizi that the order she founded and other orders she started were abusive and she no longer allowed to find another order.

    I am encouraging other members like me to come forward. I express Do not be afraid. I am willing to connect with ex-members of the order and other orders or those who were under the authority of Mother Maria Elisabetta Patrizi and Theresa Kovacs. I know that Only bringing darkness into light can the real healing begin. I also now have a masters in mental health counseling and specialize in trauma and abuse especially spiritual abuse. I do not do counseling. Truth sets everyone free. God bless

    I am letting you know because somehow charges need to be pressed and justice seek and those culpable in jail. I am disturbed by the information I found out. And shocked Patrizi is still writing theology books. Kovacs lives with her mom in New Jersey and that’s not good her mom is elderly and is cared by so-called Sr Jessica who has mental illness and unstable. I have experienced and seen horrible things and been told by ex-sisters and family members of horribly abusive things happening. I have a therapist I just don’t want this abuse to continue. There are 50 or more ex-sisters that are suffering from the order was disbanded by the Vatican. I just don’t want anyone ever under the authority of Patrizi or Kovacs and suffer what I and many sisters went thru.

    There was also coverup of Bridgeport diocese Conn. clergy abuse by Patrizi and Bishop Eagan who later became Cardinal Eagan. This was a deal Patrizi made because a sister who was sick was sexually assaulted by her sister superior the sister made a complaint to BridgePort Diocese Eagan and Patrizi had an agreement more like mutual blackmail. This included Patrizi would keep silent about the clergy abuse she knew was going on providing Eagan would not report the abuse in Patrizi order. One washes the other’s back.

    There is so much more I would like to talk with Cardinal Sean O’Malley because I think something should be done and really nothing has to validate the victims who have suffered. There have also been threats if we come forward a lot of victims backing out. I will bring this out thru the church or media it needs to come to the truth.


  13. The Catholic church takes no responsibility or accountability it’s like my problem and that’s it but it’s everyone problem how do we keep keeping a cult leader Sr M. Elisabetta Patrizi and St Theresa Kolvacs and serial abuser both with sadistic tendencies out of jail. The diocese does not care nor do the Vatican.


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