Kari Benton Shares: Spiritual Recovery after a Lawsuit and Spiritual Abuse

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Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery


Spiritual Abuse, Recovery, Pastor Ken Garrett

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Pastor Ken Garrett and his beautiful wife, Sharon


Now this is a great story! Some long-time readers will probably remember how I met Pastor Ken Garrett, a good friend of mine and of SSB. After I got sued by my pastor in 2012, I received an email from another pastor in Portland. This guy was Pastor Ken Garrett. My suing church was Beaverton Grace Bible Church. Ken’s church: Portland Grace Bible Church. So similar!!!

My story was broadcast in the Portland news, nationwide, and internationally. Some people mistakenly thought Ken was my suing pastor. His blog site had an increase in hits and he received nasty phone calls condemning this man who sued mothers and their adult children. Poor Ken!

Ken sent me an e-mail to let me what had happened (after a good laugh), and then shared about his experience with spiritual abuse. We became fast friends and have met in Portland from time to time discussing the topic that has greatly impacted our lives, spiritual abuse.

When I first got to know Ken, he mentioned that he was going back to school for his doctorate. I’m thrilled to share that Ken has completed his doctorate. His dissertation is entitled: Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery.

This is a topic that has not received much press, but one which has affected many lives. I hope Ken’s work will benefit many, especially pastors, church leaders, therapists, and frankly anyone who wants to understand and support those in this kind of pain.

There is a link to Ken’s dissertation here. I hope Ken’s work gets distributed far and wide and is a great help to the church and the spiritual survivor community:  Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery.

Bravo, Ken!

When You are Done with Church

How Do You Respond When Someone Talks to You About Your Lack of Church Attendance?

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Kathi here. For many years my family and I attended church. We faithfully went to Sunday service, Wednesday nights, gave our money and spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours volunteering. At one point, though, we realized that we were exhausted and disillusioned with “doing church,” so we decided to leave. We found our Sunday mornings to be more relaxing and stress free. It’s been nice.

Even though we do not attend a church, we have never lost our faith in God and we have found that the church is not confined to Sunday mornings in four walls. We now have relationships with people that we never thought we would because we no longer spend our free time with only church people. Actually, we never really left church. Church is different for us.

But that’s not enough for some people. Because I live in the same town where I used to go to church I inevitably run into someone that I spent many Sundays with. And, after chatting for a few moments I am always asked, “So where do you go to church now?” Which leaves me telling them, “nowhere.” Which leads them to saying, “Oh, you should try our church,” or “That’s too bad,” or “The church is really different now. You should try coming back.”

Then, I explain this blog, how I have met so many people here and how we are a church that supports each other. I am told that it’s not the same. And. they’re right. It’s not the same, it’s just different. You know what? I’m okay with different. I know that no matter how much I try to explain why we don’t go to church, I will never be understood.

If you are someone who is done with church, how do you respond when someone asks you about why you no longer go? Do you find that it is a source of contention between you and someone you know or love? Have you ever had to explain that your salvation is not dependent upon whether or not you go to church?

Photo credit – Kathi, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow, Russia

Pastors Tullian Tchividjian + Bob Coy + Sexual Sin + Church Leaders Who Protect Immoral Pastors = A Broken Church

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Emotional Chaos after Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse can leave damaging scars, some resulting in real difficulties, including anxiety, PTSD, panic attacks, etc.

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Loss of Perspective: The Cost of Enduring Abuse

Do individuals suffer harm when they remain in verbally or emotionally abusive relationships?  Cindy Kunsman illustrates the effects through an account of spiritual abuse.

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Crumbling Foundation: How Do We Move on after Doug Phillips and Bill Gothard, our Spiritual Leaders, Have Failed Us?


How do we move on spiritually when we have based our lives around the teachings of spiritual leaders like Doug Phillips or Bill Gothard who have fallen?

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Finding Refuge from Religion: Forever

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Many people who have been hurt by religion want to escape from it.   We’ll take a look at an organization that is offering a refuge from religion, Recovering from Religion.    Is this the answer?

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What Does Non-Institutionalized Church Look Like?

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We’ve spent the last several days discussing a variety of issues stemmed from Brenda’s very important topic of institutional churches failing to meet the real needs of their people who are suffering abuse.  Quite a bit of the conversation shifted to the subject that church as an institution is the root problem as boatrocker suggests here:

For me, what I believe about the ekklesia is not based upon how the traditional church paradigm is run, but whether it should exist at all. I’m not one who was hurt by “bricks and mortar”, though I attended for 47 years, very regularly and with much involvement, as had my family for generations.

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Why Do People Get Involved in Unhealthy Churches or Cults?

Stephen Smith from Liberty for Captives blog quoted comments from some of you and added more of his own insight. It’s excellent. Let’s keep talking! This is good stuff!!


Liberty for Captives

Cults are bad even when they lead you to Jesus.

I came to know God in a church which turned out to be a Bible cult.

I was raised in this church and I stayed until I was thirty years old. Early on, I had no other experience of what church could or should be like. By the time I visited other churches in college, my worldview was steeped in the teachings of this particular group. In this unhealthy church I had a genuine conversion experience and was taught the Bible. In this church, the pastor sometimes acted with apparent patience, kindness, and love. He rose early and stayed up late in order to conduct the affairs of the church. He forsook vacations and seemed to eschew worldly praise. He gave money to congregants who were down and out. His words sounded spiritual—they seemed to float in calm, sanctimonious sunbeams…

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Going Back to Church? Some Thoughts to Consider

Admin note:  An earlier post (Happy Tears),  we discussed going back to church after abuse:  what helped, what to look for, what to avoid, etc.  The list was compiled and so I am posting it here (in order to have a link) and will also post a link to it in the “Helpful Resources” tab at the top of the page.   A big “thank you” to those who contributed.   Feel free to add more and we’ll keep this list growing.  What worked for you just might be the thing that works for someone else!  Please share! ~ja

PS – Special thanks to a new friend and blog reader who volunteered to compile this list into a much easier-to-read list,  highlighting the most important points that were posted in the comments and tied it all together beautifully.   I appreciate this help!

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 Going Back to Church?  Some Thoughts to Consider

EN suggested we explore other traditions, check out different kinds of churches. She found solace in liturgical services and found a church that met that spiritual need.

wallflower, after leaving BGBC visited more than 10 churches until she found the right one for her family. wallflower’s advice: “Keep trying, dear ones.” You will know you found the right place by the grace and understanding and compassion and utter freedom in Christ that is evident there.

Beloved in Recovery wrote, “Many years ago, I used to be judgmental of the “church hoppers” who couldn’t settle. I was taught to scorn them by those in leadership. I suppose it kept others from doing the same, because we didn’t want to be scorned. I used to think “it was them.” But now I stand with them and say “It wasn’t us … it was YOU!!!” …the leadership in these abusive churches.”

Even though Penny Holgate was so hurt and betrayed by her last troubled church she still recognizes her need for fellowship and is praying for healing and asks for the prayerful support of others as she embarks on finding a good church home. Prayer is essential.

Holly encourages us, “Please don’t stop looking for a church. There are plenty of good, healthy ones” out there.

Shirley reminds us that “church is not about some building or organization or programs.” We are the church by nature of being born of the Spirit into the Body of Christ.

Carol makes a great point: “Maybe REAL church, the one that makes you feel complete and full of love and wonder is where you least expect it to be… Sometimes the most spiritual, peaceful, and deeply moving experiences happen in Nature.”

Stalked Blogger
recognized the need for moving slowly, the need for wisdom and discernment. SB wisely and quietly left a second church when (she?) fell victim to their judgmental spirit. Because of the ever prevalent tendency for many to misunderstand and judge wrongly, I believe SB’s advice is for us to wait and observe, to wait until others get to know your character before sharing your past experiences of abuse.

futuristguy recognized that survivors make good “spiritual barometers” for our experience has matured us and taught us how to measure “the environment of safety and healthiness there.” We can be assets to the church for we have “had [our] senses trained to discern between good and evil” (Heb 5:14). What may appear on the surface to be good weather, may actually just be a bright and sunny covering for some foul darkness beneath. Church “leaders would be wise to listen. They can’t build healthy ministries if they don’t understand how things can go desperately wrong. We are walking testaments to the dark side of church life…”

futuristguy continues, “The discipline of discernment is a sort of spiritual investigative reporting. We must do a lot of work to accomplish it. But it’s not all up to us. In biblical discernment, we rely on the Spirit to give us insight continually as we gather facts and make observations, analyze the material and develop tentative perspectives, and pray and process with others and refine our interpretations.

“Did you catch the phrase that said, “process with others”? If we consider discernment as a communal practice instead of simply an individual procedure, I think we will come up with better insights, fewer gaps in our perspective, and a more balanced and timely approach to our responses.”

When we come out into the shared light of the faithful ones the darkness loses its power over us, the lies begin to dissolve. Instead of bondage and self-condemnation we embrace the self-affirmation of the faithful and the life-giving freedom we have in Christ.

mustang sally recognized the value of this website that affords us all an opportunity to tell our stories and to read about the experiences of others. She writes, “it helps to know that I am not the only one who has been ‘through it’.. for a while I thought that ‘I’ was the problem; I now see that was not so.”

Jeanette Altes
reminds us that when we walk away from an abusive church, this is not a walking away from God. Quite the opposite. After twenty years of not be involved in church, she tried again. But failed for some time to recognize the “brainwashing and mind manipulation” of the church she settled into. She confessed, “Because of my abusive childhood, I was all too willing to accept the blame and responsibility for anything the seemed wrong. Must be me.” The sick, controlling Pastor would not permit her to leave.

This is a reality that must be recognized, there is a spiritual bondage that paralyzes and blinds. Once you’re free of it, you ask yourself, What sort of spell was I under? Why did I allow myself to be so deceived and controlled?  Jeanette tells us, “unless you have been under that level of mind manipulation and spiritual twisting, there really is no way to explain. The fear of “being out of God’s will and losing our salvation” was very real.”

The truth of the gospel is that once God has taken us as His own we can never loose our salvation. For Scripture tells us,

“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31-39 ESV)

Nothing can separate us from the love of God, no one, not even our selves. We are eternally secure in the One who died and lives and intercedes for us to the end that we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Jeanette speaks for so many of us, “I know I need fellowship, and let’s call that “church.” But I am not really sure what “church” is supposed to look like. And I have to wonder if God is cleaning house.”

Craig adds:  Look for self criticism. As the leaders describe past conflicts do they quickly acknowledge their own mistakes and sins?

Listen to how other churches are described. (JA note:  some churches present an elitist attitude and talk down other churches – not good!)

If there’s a conflict between a member of your church and the leadership, how did you go about resolving that conflict in a Biblical manner?

Ken:  I think the best shot at not being abused is to prayerfully observe the church, its leaders–and note how people act, and how they are treated.

Look for humility, brokenness, and a deep fear of God and love for all people in a pastor. Listen to how he speaks of those who disagree with him, his church’s doctrine.

Does he smirk at doctrinal systems that he does not agree with, and present them as silly, unbiblical, even satanic, etc., as compared to his system (which, of course, is perfectly clear, biblical, etc.!)

Does he speak of gays as if there are none in the room–and they wouldn’t be welcome if they were?

Does he spend much time criticizing other churches, and those who claim to be brothers and sisters in Christ, such as the Catholics and Orthodox?

Is he critical of mission/evangelistic organizations with whom he disagrees as to their style and such, and does he encourage you (his loyal church member) to also be critical? Is it hard to be a divorced person, or an addict in recovery, or a relapsing addict, in his church?

Does he bad-mouth the local and federal government a lot, and disrespect governmental leaders?

Finally, a couple of BIG things that I would observe: Are the women in his church confident, assertive, and respected, regardless of the church’s views on the egalitarian/complementarian debate?

Are the children “normal”? (By that, I mean, are they free to do the goofy, messed-up things that ALL kids do, or are they so “locked down” that they live in fear of failing and displeasing their parents and pastor?)

And, last but not least–do your family and friends (who know and love you) see this church you’re looking over as a good place for you, and for your relationship with them, or do they have reservations about it, and about how it makes you treat them?

What is your policy when you become aware of physical/sexual abuse in the members of your church?

Wise words from Joy: The problem with asking questions of wolves in sheep’s clothing is that they will answer as sheep. It is only through their actions that they’ll be outed as wolves.

An Attorney reminds us: Has the church ever shunned anyone and how was that decided?

Commenter Asks: Is Church Safe Anymore?

A few admin notes first:

When I first was served the subpoena, I reached out to people on the internet who had dealt with spiritual abuse for help.  One person was Barb Orlowski who reads and comments here.  Barb put me in contact with a group of people, some who have gone through tragic stories of abuse themselves, and others who have become experts in the field of spiritual abuse and are writing books, counseling, maintaining spiritual websites offering resources, etc.   I am so grateful that these people have reached out to me in my darkest days.   Lois found me when someone posted our story on her Facebook wall and then contacted me.  It’s great to be a part of this wonderful caring and supportive network of friends who are trying to help people recover from the insanity that is going on in some churches.

I’ve read a lot of personal e-mails – some only a paragraph or two, others pages long.  I feel so honored that some of you have trusted me with your story – perhaps the story that you may not have told anyone before.  That is so powerful.  I make it my top priority to respond to each e-mail, but because of time constraints, I may not be the best support person for you.

Please utilize this site in the comments section as well.  This really can be a virtual support group.  When you see someone reaching out and posting their painful story, be sure to respond and give encouragement.  Others will do the same for you.  I’ve said it before and now have witnessed it in my e-mail box – the most powerful thing someone who has gone through spiritual abuse is to tell their story.  It’s interesting how someone will send me their story, intending it to be only a couple paragraphs, but then apologize at the end of the e-mail by saying they didn’t mean for it to be so long and they haven’t ever told anyone this before.  That’s powerful – all of those emotions and stories had been penned up and now they are free.  Beautiful!  Keep talking, friends.

Oh, that brings me to another thing.  So many of you are using the Anonymous option when commenting.  That’s fine.  I want you to feel completely safe without having to disclose your identity here.  But I want to let you know of another option.  You can remain anonymous in your comments by creating a pseudonym.   This way, we can attribute your story to you without you giving away your true identity, but you and your story won’t be lost in the pool of “Anonymous” posters.  I’d greatly appreciate it if you could do this.  I don’t care what you call yourself:  Fred Flinstone works 🙂  Here is what the comment screen looks like.  Just click on Name/URL.

After you click on Name/URL, you will see this screen:

Just type your new name:  ie, “Fred Flinstone” and then leave the URL field blank.  Ta-da!  You now have an identity.  I have no way of knowing who you are.  Blogger does not disclose ISP or any kind of personal identifiers to me.

Ok, this is what I really want to discuss.  I read this comment from RB earlier this week and it’s a comment that tugged at my heart:

Julie Anne: I have meditated on this post and the responses, as well as studying the Book of James as sets forth many benchmarks in this area.

The retaliatory actions by Beaverton Grace Bible Church against you and your family, and to significant numbers of members of other Christian churches who have been arbitrarily and harshly “disfellowshipped”, “excommunicated”, “shunned”, sued for alleged defamation, and mentally abused by totalitarian-focused church leaders, have deeply troubled me.

I will not deny that your story, compounded by dozens of other stories of church abuse that I have begun learning about, has left me very worried about the possibility that my own church – which at this time seems to have a relatively “sane” approach to member relations – could at an unknown point in the future be “taken over” by devotees of ecclesiastical totalitarianism (which would be my polite characterization of the governance practiced at BGBC).

I have actually started losing sleep at night lately worrying about the proliferation of extremely radical, dogmatic, in-your-face theology in American churches that underscores the notion that the decisions and teachings of a pastor and church elders cannot under any circumstances be questioned or challenged.

Frankly, the whole topic of “abusive churches” is starting to raise some painfully difficult questions for myself, as to whether any Christian faith community is a “safe place” for learning and practicing basic discipleship skills as taught in the Bible.

Maybe I’m over-reacting, but just had to get this off of my chest. -RB

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Matthew 9:36

RB, I think you are raising valid questions and thank you for sharing what you’ve been thinking about and losing sleep over.  I get it and I know my friend Michelle does as well.  We’ve been talking a lot behind the scenes with others and we are wondering the same thing.    How can people find a good church?  It used to be that we primarily focused on doctrinal statement (true story, I did not read the doctrinal statement of my former church, but left that to my husband).  Having been a military wife with a lot of moves, we know that time is precious and always tried to settle in a new church quickly, so there were things I would look for.  Now, thinking back on that list, they were superficial issues – my I’ve learned much along the way.  I think we can all agree that there are no perfect churches.  But . . .

Are there any safe churches?  How can we find them?

What do we look for when trying to find a good church?

How can you determine if the pastor is a godly shepherd?

How do we know if our pastors are even aware of the problem of spiritual abuse?

Are they concerned about it?

Is there something we can do to help our current church be aware of this growing problem?

Are their safeguards in place to keep pastors/elders accountable?

Are you feeling the same way as RB?  How are you working this out in your life?

If you have more questions to add, please post a comment and I’ll keep adding to this list of questions, but most importantly, let’s talk.

For the record, I currently have a church home.  My pastor is keenly aware of spiritual abuse (and told me some of his background and connections with a legalistic church) and my case.  I’m sure I will have more discussions with him.  I was dropping my kids off for their standardized testing this week and he came up to me and asked how things were going.   I’m liking him more each time we meet.  He has jokingly said that he is going to keep an eye on his church’s Google reviews and I jokingly asked him if he had a hidden recording device in his plant on the bookshelf.  I didn’t see any 🙂

* * * * *Last-Minute Update!!!!

It looks like my former church has done more changes on the church website – this time on the press release.   I didn’t notice this change, but another blogger did.  Read about it at the FBC Jax Watchdog site.  Good detective work, Watchdog!

Trying Church Again

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My kids have been having fun this week tracking their mama around on the internet and have been greatly amused that they can type “Julie Anne lawsuit” in their Google search field and see their mama.  I’m not sure what I think about it.  Not only has the mainstream media picked up the story, but other groups as well:  civil rights, atheist/agnostic, Huffington Post, liberal groups, women’s lib, etc.  We’ve been reading through many comments.   There are a lot of people who say:  why not just go find another church.   Many, many on these more liberal sites expressed:  “And this is why I left the church”.

I find it interesting that the man who accused me of profanity against him and the church has publicly accused me of waging war against God and the church.  Really??   I’m waging war against God and the church?   No, people are abandoning churches because of hyper-authority and spiritual abuse . . . . some never to return.  Now tell me who is waging war?

 think about that thought for a little bit . . . . . . . !!!!

Those who have commented:  “why not just go find another church”.  They are thinking in very simple terms – if you don’t like the church, move along, without understanding that it can have similar psychological issues as someone in an emotional, sexual, or physically abusive relationship.  The end result is sometimes the same.   Universally,  abuse survivors will tend to have trust issues and control issues they will have to work through.

This reader expresses the problem so well.  What now?  How do you find a new church?  How can you trust a new pastor?

AnonymousMay 18, 2012 6:45 AM

I disagree that when you are in an abusive church, you never go back to one. Some of us take more than one hit to realize you walked right back into it, and be careful not to do it again. I think it has something to do with the dance of a narcissist. They can turn on the compassion, and tone down the abusive rhetoric.
In my last situation, I knew of this Pastor’s reputation, but didn’t see it displayed. I thought “we all learn and grow – he’s probably changed.” Nope. And yes, now I am afraid to try another church. We are home churching for now, with the group who left. And I don’t think there really is a church here (I’ve lived here all my life and I know what’s out there) that is OK. One very near me – I love the Pastor’s wife, but feel uncomfortable with the Pastor.
There is something about every church that I have issue with, whether it’s their doctrine, or name it claim it, or finding glitter on their hands (It’s a sign!!) and crowing like a rooster, or pastor seems to not look you in the eye when he talks to you but seems fixated on other areas (even when you’re dressed modestly and not particularly curvy), another pastor seems wayyyy too interested in the children and raising red flags all over the place, I could go on and on and on. I have to be careful that I’m not taking on the attitude of the abusive church that said “we’re the only place” but be discerning at the same time.
The church is a mess! And I am hurting and have no idea who or what to trust any more. My main prayer is “Lord, help me… help us … help our family.” I have a son who doesn’t know if he believes any more. It is heartbreaking. The one thing *I* know is that God is there … and He knows right where I am.

Anonymous speaks for so many people in that comment.  And please note once again – the son is obviously having a crisis of faith, too.  People . . . . . this is happening in churches?!?!!!!!

It is very difficult to find a church after spiritual abuse.  Let’s open it up for discussion here.  What are signs of a good church?  What do you look for in a pastor?  What do you look for in the congregation?  I think the opposite is good to point out, too:  signs of an unhealthy church, spiritually abusive pastor (although I probably have a lot of that listed in the blog, but if you think of others, please post a comment).  Let’s talk.   After we get a good list going of both positives and negatives, I will save the list on the blog.  This is something very practical to do and can help a multitude of people who are struggling at this point.  Who wants to go back to an abusive church?  Some people may not be able to risk it emotionally.

I want to let you know that each week, Pastor Wade Burleson offers an eChurch  – a pre-recorded church service which is posted each Saturday at the Wartburg Watch blog.  Take a look at the new service here.    There are praise songs, prayers, and a video sermon.  I’ve watched two services and found them very good and uplifting.  Wade Burleson has a blog and has posted about spiritual abuse and pastors who abuse their authority.  He has a sensitive heart for people like us.  If you are one who has no desire to go to church after your experience, give this a try.  It could just be the balm to soothe your soul for this season of healing.

I have been so touched by the personal e-mails of support and especially for those who have reached out to me to tell me your personal story.  Some of you have not told your story to anyone before and for you to reach out to me shows great strength and a desire to get healed.   I’m honored that you trusted me.  Keep telling your story.  Make up a name here and start telling your piece by piece as things come to your mind.  We will rally around you and offer support.  The stories of abuse are all so similar whether in my church on the West coast or someone’s church on the East coast.

And there are also those who have e-mailed me telling me that you have contacted our former pastor.   Good!  We must speak out when we see wrongs being done.  Thank you for being proactive!