When It’s Time to Get the Heck Outta Dodge

When It’s Time to Get the Heck Outta Dodge

Have you tried to leave an abusive church or religious system?  If you have, you’ve probably run into great difficulty and no small degree of pain.  There’s a reason for this.

Painful Exit

“In a controlling church, it is impossible to leave on good terms.” observes Pastor Mike Fehlauer.  “Because the pastor’s sense of worth is usually based on the control he is able to exert over the congregation, when someone leaves, this insecure leader considers it an affront to his leadership. Therefore he often takes it personally. As a result, when people do leave, they are labeled rebellious, or the rest of the congregation is given the explanation that they left because they had become offended.

In an unhealthy church, there is never a good reason why anyone should leave. Regardless of the situation, the people who leave are always the “problem.”

This truism present in abusive churches applies not only to members, but to church staff as well. In one particular church, each time a staff member left, the senior person did his best to cast a shadow over that person’s reputation in the hope that it would destroy any chance of that person succeeding without him someplace else. “

Frightening Prospects

It takes a lot of guts to leave an abusive church.  The backlash can be tremendous.  That may be one reason some people choose to cling to an abusive church or religious system that’s sucking the life out of them and suffocating their souls.  It may be killing them, but at least it’s familiar.  “Making a break” and “leaping into the unknown” are frightening prospects.

“Many times in an abusive church you will hear the pastor declare curses over the lives of those who have left. Accusations are made against their character, and other members are strongly discouraged from having any contact with the former members. I heard one pastor, while preaching, refer to a former staff member as a spiritual “whore” because he left and took another ministry position in another state. It is true that many people leave churches for the wrong reasons. But in a controlling church, rarely – if ever – is anyone truly blessed by the leadership as they leave.”

What Can I Do About It?

How should you respond if your church displays one or more of these unhealthy traits? Here’s some advice from Mike Fehlauer, Pastor, Author, Director of Foundation Ministries:

A controlling church leader will discourage you from speaking with anyone else about your concerns. However, the Bible says that “in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). Seek counsel from a mature, objective leader in another church or another mature Christian. It is possible that what you have perceived as a controlling attitude may be genuine concern – so pray for discernment.

If after receiving counsel you are convinced that your church is in the grip of a controlling spirit, then you are free to leave. You are not responsible for anyone else who is still loyal to the church, so don’t try to rescue them. Talk with your pastor or someone else in leadership about your concerns, keeping in mind that if he is truly motivated by a spirit of control you may encounter some manipulation during the conversation. Stay in a humble attitude rather than getting angry or defensive.

“Be brave enough to be an outcast.” You may find the following video helpful – Toxic Faith: Surviving Spiritual Abuse, Part One by Dr. Steve Arterburn: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siE2JKPNX_4&feature=related

A Word of Caution

Finally, be careful.  It can be grossly unfair and potentially defamatory to label a spiritual authority – priest, pastor, elder, etc. – “abusive” over say, a disagreement or a “personality clash.”  However, if, for example, a disagreement or difference of opinion results in the authority misusing his/her position, influence or power to advance their own agenda while maligning, impugning, unjustly condemning or castigating another such that their personal worth and dignity are shredded, “abuse” may indeed be the correct term.  This is especially true if the “spiritual authority” tries to make him/herself “look good” by making the other person “look bad,” and if such machinations are accompanied by duplicity, heavy-handed authoritarianism or a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, explicit or implicit.

If this is the case, leave.  And don’t look back.  It may seem like a heavy price to pay and may cost you some relationships.  It may seem unfair.  But the alternative – continuing in an abusive environment – is infinitely worse and far more unhealthy – mentally, emotionally, psychologically, physically, socially and spiritually.  Again, “Be brave enough to be an outcast.”  God has something better for you.

Just us next time for “There’s Hope!” (aka: “You CAN recover from spiritual abuse.”)


2 Responses

  1. Thank you for posting this…my husand and I experienced this and so much more when we finally left an abusive church. It’s true…Be brave enough to be an outcast..God truly did have something so much better for us!

    • You’re welcome. We had a similar experience. It took us far too long to leave but when we finally did, the avenues and areas God opened to us were awesome! How kind of God to be so patient – talk about “amazing grace”!

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