While continuing my own research into the prevalence of spiritual abuse in Scotland’s institutional and independent evangelical churches, I carried out a web search. To date I have located no fewer than 35 websites (USA, Canada, Australia and the UK) dedicated to the matter of spiritual abuse. It is quite clear that this type of abuse is a major problem in the church.
I was particularly drawn to www.churchexiters.com the platform for the work of Dr. Barb Orlowski a Canadian Christian who lives in Langley, British Columbia. A remarkable forthright and incisive lady, Barb’s doctoral research on the topic of spiritual abuse was published in a book called: Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Dynamic Research on Finding a Place of Wholeness.
Her book gives voice to those who have experienced spiritual abuse in their home church and how they recovered from this devastating experience. Her research gives insights into this complex and sensitive church ministry issue. Her book is a superb resource for caring church leaders and for those wounded by abusive and toxic churches and their leaders. I have personally found her work to be invaluable.
Professor Ronald Enroth’s definition of spiritual abuse is used by Dr Orlowski:
“Spiritual abuse takes place when leaders to whom people look for guidance and spiritual nurture use their positions of authority to manipulate, control, and dominate.... Whatever label we apply, spiritual abuse is an issue the Christian community must acknowledge and confront. It is far more prevalent and much closer to the evangelical mainstream than many are willing to admit.”
On the homepage of churchexiters website Dr Orlowski writes: “The spiritual abuse stories of people who have left their home church because of a negative and hurtful experience paint a picture of a widespread occurrence, which beckons consideration by church leaders and church congregants alike.”
Dr Orlowski then poses a series of highly pertinent questions which lead the reader to consider the health of their home church:
Are you grieving over circumstances in your home church?
Have you been hurt by the church-particularly by a church leader, like a pastor?
Do you feel like: you have no one to turn to in your church?
Do you feel like: you cannot talk about your church or leadership concerns or people will brand you as a gossip or a troublemaker?
Do you feel that: if word gets out to your leadership about your concerns, that you might be shunned or disciplined? Do you feel lonely?
Research reveals that some of the key elements in abusive churches are a lack of transparency and accountability by leaders.....pastor, elders and or deacons and an environment of bullying and intimidation.
Dr Orlowski asks the question: “Why don’t we hear much about spiritual abuse?
If it is supposed that it is the individual or a couple who ARE the PROBLEM, then this matter can be dealt with privately, behind closed doors. The individual takes the brunt of the situation, but the church leadership is never called into question and is seldom held accountable in any way. The organization and its leadership are rarely included as a factor that might need to be considered in these concealed situations.
Many times, others in their church have no clue what has just happened or why these members are no longer attending. When a tale is spun about the cause of the situation being some kind of sin (that no one talks about) and church members are warned not to associate with these people, then the issue cannot be discerned as being spiritual abuse, but is considered a matter of ‘church discipline’–though very little information seems to be available. The facts are hidden from view and the situation is now considered dealt with.
After an individual or couple have experienced harsh treatment by their leaders, they are usually so devastated that they can hardly grasp what exactly has happened to them. Their usual posture is to go into seclusion and to try to process the extreme grief and confusion that they are experiencing. Little support seems to be available to congregants by denominational overseers. Overseers tend to favour church leaders, while those wounded in the church are left to suffer in silence without any hope of remedy.”
Dr Orlowski’s research is extensive and although based on churches in Canada, chillingly and accurately describes what is happening in some Scottish evangelical churches right now.
As a former public servant, I am all too aware of the need for external regulation in crucial areas such as health, education, and law and order. Sadly in some parts, the church seems to be either unwilling or ineffective in dealing with spiritual abuse.
It is therefore time to consider bringing in a robust system of external regulation to promote transparency and accountability and to ruthlessly root out those ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’, actively engaged in harming good people. A regulator (government/local authority) could be called in to investigate abuse, and if proved, the church could be ‘named and shamed’, have its charitable status removed, and in the most extreme cases be closed down. The office of regulator could be financed by an annual levy paid by all churches and religious organisations.
Finally, a major component in all forms of abuse is secrecy. At present, churches, mosques, synagogues and religious organisations are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Politicians should make it a priority to extend this legislation to these organisations. This proposal should be welcomed by those who have nothing to hide.