Engaging Stories of Spiritual Abuse

Join Dan and Rachael as they continue last week’s discussion about spiritual abuse. This week, they shift their focus to the healing process, exploring the challenges of naming and reconciling our experiences with spiritual abuse, particularly the difficulty in trusting others with our stories.

Spiritual abuse casts a shadow, creating a landscape of distrust, fragmentation, and isolation, often cutting us off from the very thing that can help us heal – one another. Drawing from years of conducting Story Workshops, Dan and Rachael underscore the transformative power found in the collective sharing of our stories. It is this understanding that has led to the creation of the Story Workshop for Spiritual Abuse & Healing, which is designed to serve as a safe space for sharing, grieving, and hopefully, discovering more of the goodness of God within your own story.

If you’ve felt the impact of spiritual abuse and are seeking a supportive, facilitated community to navigate the healing process, consider joining this transformative Story Workshop, happening March 15-17, 2024. You can learn more about the Story Workshop for Spiritual Abuse & Healing here.

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Episode Transcript:

Dan: We know it’s inevitable that we are going to know some degree of harm in the systems that we’re part of. And in that, I don’t want to make it so common like, well, you’re going to get hurt. No system is pure, no systems neutral. Every system at some level, to some degree is working to its own advantage or to the advantage of certain ones within it, et cetera, et cetera. On the other hand, we’ve already talked about how it’s so easy to just get cynical or despairing and step away, but I’m so grateful that you have been focusing, leading, and about to offer a new engagement with regard to story and spiritual abuse. And I want you to take us into what you’re hoping for, but as we do this, to begin that process of saying what’s required to deal with systems that have brought harm, and oftentimes that’s in the context of a church or a parachurch, but can just be explicitly a person who has spiritually abused you. So we’re talking systems, but we’re also talking persons where there has been significant spiritual harm. So what are you planning, dear friend?

Rachael: Yeah. Well, you may have seen, but we are hosting our first ever Story Workshop for Spiritual Abuse and Healing the weekend of March 15th through 17th, virtually. And again, it’s a Story Workshop, and we have a story workshop we host every year that’s more broadly open to just any stories of harm. We have a Racial Trauma and Healing Story Workshop that happens annually. I think this will be the fourth year that that’s been able to happen for people wanting to engage stories of racial trauma. And so this is our offering to try to make space for stories that explicitly are engaging spiritual abuse. Now, the trickiness of that is everything that we’ve just been talking about that can involve systems, it can involve people. It’s always in some ways a conflation of the two. So I know a lot of folks are going, well, what stories constitute spiritual abuse? And for me, what my hope is is that we can create a space for people to get some teaching that is exposing more some of the realities of spiritual abuse, but also the impact of spiritual abuse. But that people in small groups with a facilitator and other people who are bringing similar stories can actually step into the particularities of their story because it’s in those particular places that harm took uproot in particular ways. And I am a huge believer that although it’s really tempting to just split off our harm or split off the parts of us that were harmed, that there’s also really beautiful things that we need from those stories. There’s an excavation process. There are parts of us and our story that need to be grieved, that there are places we need to experience the righteous anger of people in our midst that bring the kind of honor we’ve been longing for and a kind of clarity we need to understand in some ways what’s some of the setup for us? Nothing is formed in a vacuum or happens in a vacuum. And so I wanted to create a context and a space for people who have stories of spiritual abuse and with a caveat that you can have a story that you would say, yeah, this is sexual abuse, but maybe the work on it you want to do this time around is that that sexual abuse happened in the context of a relationship with someone in spiritual authority or with a parent or teacher that utilized God’s power to manipulate you and to groom you. So in some ways, the aspect of the story you want to get some care around is how this has shattered something of your spirituality. So that’s the basics.

Dan: Well, again, it’s not the only way to put it, but you are offering a kind of in-storied spiritual direction that exposes spiritual misdirection that has oftentimes been subtle, or at least we at some level would argue that it was. I had a conversation last year, but not that long ago where a friend said to me as we were talking about this particular workshop that was being offered and said, do you have specific moments where you would say that you knew spiritual abuse? And I responded by saying, no, not really. And this person said, well, that’s odd because you write about it in a book called Leading With a Limp. And I went, what? I’m not much of a reader of my own work. So I totally forgot, in the book, I spoke about a situation as a young man in a church where I was working as an assistant pastor and the pastor who I viewed as in some ways a real parental surrogate. We played tennis and finished, and he said, I’ll see you at the elders meeting 30 minutes from now, literally enough time to go home, shower, grab something and get to the church. And 35 minutes after that moment, he announces to the elders that I need to be fired. And I wrote about that and my friend says, did you forget about it? And I’m like, yeah, I guess I did. I mean, I wrote about it, I remembered it, but it’s been many years since I read that. And he’s like, how’s it possible? When I asked you the question, if I asked you a question, have you a history of past sexual abuse, you’d be able to answer pretty quickly, wouldn’t you? And I’m like, yeah, well, how come what you wrote about you don’t remember? I just think this is such a tender, tender and again, spiritually powerful issue that intersects so much of the other forms of abuse that in some ways it’s the culmination of some of the deepest harm we have known. So you are tackling a desperately deep, significantly crucial area. Do you not feel the weight of that.

Rachael: Yeah, the amount of times I’ve said, let this cup pass from me. Jesus, pick someone else to talk about this or care about this. And actually there are many, and I’m grateful that there’s a chorus of people beginning to do research on the impacts of this and offering places to pursue healing. I think I just have to be faithful to steward the gifts I’ve been given in the sense of so much of my training is pastoral training, and I just have deep convictions that evil does not get to rob us of our intimacy and relationship with the Spirit. I mean, we just got done talking a few episodes ago about the need for containment and if there’s a time in which we need to know the presence of God is with us and for us and working on our behalf, oh my gosh, we’re desperate for that. And so I just feel if I can with other people, set a table that says, you get to take these stories seriously and you get to have a place to pursue. And again, not an only place, this is just an opportunity to come do some deeper healing work that doesn’t have an agenda to replace one fundamental system with another one. But to bring honor to places where you’ve been harmed were something of your own capacity to trust you and your personhood and your perception and your own in some ways, intuition and inner compass where God speaks to us. If there’s any possibility that there could be reclamation or restoration there, then I don’t have any choice but to say “yes” because I’ve known such deep healing in places where I just did not have imagination that restoration could come. And I feel very fierce about this because I think the spirit of religion and just religiosity in general is so wicked and so intricately tied up in our systems in our world, and so it’s so much a part of the water we’ve been swimming in our culture. So yes, I feel the weight of it, and I also feel like I also have a lot of humility around what’s my role in my place in this is just to say yes and to come together with people and see what’s possible. I just think a lot more people are coming. I mean, there’s just been a lot more exposure to not just people who are spiritually abusive, but then also the systems they’ve helped create that are spiritually abusive. So I think about the documentary Shiny Happy People. I didn’t grow up in that particular movement, but I know so much of the culture, Southern Baptist culture I was raised in was certainly being impacted by Bill Gothard. And I know Bill Gothard was being impacted by all the waters of white supremacy and patriarchy and Christian nationalism and the way that was all coming together. So it triggered something in me around my experiences, even though I don’t necessarily share the particularities of that experience. So I think people are also waking up to realities of harm that they’ve felt, but maybe didn’t feel permission to name as true. So, there’s need. There’s great need.

Dan: Well, we’ve known from doing Story Workshops for what feel like several hundred years that we need a witness because there’s something in our own suffering that we have tried to control without true containment, we’ve not entered the depths of the lament that’s there, and it isn’t that one does. And then once done. Nonetheless, having other people enter their story oftentimes opens the door to seeing more of the impact of the reality that we have not honored in our own lives. But then being able to care and hold the stories of others. We know that healing in all forms involves some degree of mutuality, that there is something healing and joining the healing of another. If you won’t look at oneself, but only the other, no, that’s not what I’m talking about because then it’s not mutual. But when there is this shared engagement in the heartache and harm of story where there can be grief, one of the strangest things that people find when they come through a Recovery Week for sexual abuse or a Story Workshop is a lot of times there is just as much laughter as there are tears, not as an escape, but as an entry into something of the wonder of what and who we have become even in the midst of this harm. So being able to hold one another’s stories, I’m beyond excited for what you will lead and what our facilitators will invite people to. But if we make a little shift, but again, not a shift like here’s the answer, but when you think about some of what we’ve already put words to that, the reality of pressure and threats and the enticement of privileges often lead to both systemically, explicitly or implicitly some of the harm that people have suffered. How do you and how will the week together, weekend together, what will it engage with regard to that interplay of pressure, threat and privilege.

Rachael: Well, it’s that conundrum that when I am on the other side of eternity, it will be one of my first questions to God. It’s that conundrum that in order to really heal, we need connection with others. We need community. We need witnesses, we need honor, we need blessing, we need recovery. And yet the impact of spiritual abuse is such that we don’t trust other people. We don’t trust ourself. We don’t at least certainly don’t trust God. We’re not fond of the parts of us that long for connection. So there’s an inherent bind to the healing process. And so in many ways, I think some of that just has to start being named. What are some of the particularities of the way in which spiritual abuse brings fragmentation. In some ways, what’s some of the impact of the shattering and therefore, how do we begin to have an imagination? What’s disordered in our imagination and what’s possible? What is it that we’re wired for and we’re meant for, and how can we honor that while also growing in discernment and wisdom of when something is parading as good but actually intends to harm, having a place to take stock of what are maybe the stories underneath the story that would have made us drawn or vulnerable to a certain kind of community or drawn to a certain kind of rigidity or our parents, right? Because oftentimes our introductions into religious systems, we might actually have to deal with our family of origin. So kind of what you said, wanting people to have more understanding and clarity of what has the fuller impact been, how has it shaped you? And also what are some of the other stories then that you might be invited to continue working on that are just as important and just as connected. But ultimately, I think to really begin to heal from spiritual abuse, there has to be an engagement with the body and the harm and the distrust of the body, both ideologically that’s brought, but also again, all aspects of abuse when we’ve in some ways been drawn to something because there was something good being offered. We don’t trust our body being drawn to good things. So that’s part of the bind, right? You can’t really go around it. You kind of got to go through it. So it’s my hope that people would have a different experience of kindness being offered, but being offered in a way that doesn’t have a hidden demand behind it, and also honors choice and personhood and autonomy and authority. Ultimately, I also hope people encounter something of the true Spirit of God and get to taste what that feels like. Not that they haven’t, but just reinforcing their own internal compass of being able to discern what’s truly good food and also what’s food that they don’t have to eat, they don’t have to keep coming back to. So…

Dan: Well, and again, you’ve underscored to me two really crucial categories. One is there’s always more story than what we’re aware of and linking those stories, connecting them that almost all forms of spiritual abuse involves some degree of pressure, which if we just think about literally being pressed down, if pressed hard enough that there’s no question you’re going to begin to fragment or shatter. And in that you’re talking about the power of manipulation that inevitably when you’re under someone’s pressure, there will be fragmentation. But in the manipulation there is again, almost a promise they will cohere you. So in other words, the spiritually abusive person creates the context of harm and then offers virtually in the moment a solution to it. If only you are compliant to this view of scripture, to this practice in the church or to decision making that I impose on you as the true will of God. So you see this craziness of you’re being harmed, but you’re also being helped. And all you have to do is relinquish, surrender, sounds like some biblical concepts. And so the very nature of you’re under harm, you’re offered help but through a means that has this spiritual language like surrender, trust, believe in all things, et cetera, et cetera, which then ends up no wonder you doubt your body.

Rachael: Or doubt God because in some ways then that really becomes the story of God, right? I can help you, but in order for me to help you because if the way to help is this contortion and this, and if there is explicit abuse on top of the spiritual abuse and being violated, but then I’ll rescue you and I’ll put you back together. And there’s really good things I’ll give you once you go through the gauntlet. For a lot of people in certain spiritual contexts, that’s actually how the gospel is articulated. So not only are you experiencing a leader or someone in power or a parent or a teacher with authority and power over you, the way God is being imagined or kind of described mirrors that. And so who would want that? That also sounds pretty awful.

Dan: So helping people engage their story in and with what their body suffered now. And then oftentimes it requires something of group work to be able to invite a person to in one sense be seen, but experience being seen in the midst of what we often don’t want to see. I mean, for my friend inviting me back to my own harm, you know me well enough, I was dismissive. I didn’t want to talk about it. And he asked a number of other questions, and I found he finally said, you don’t want to talk about this, do you? And I’m like, no, but thanks for asking about what Rachael’s going to be doing. But no, I don’t want to talk about it. So the reluctance is the reentry into what feels like it can’t be resolved. There is no good that can occur, but I think that’s where we begin to intersect this pressure, fragmentation, manipulation, to the threat that there is a threat that was there. But again, we’re dealing with spiritual matters, which means we’re dealing with spirits. And there’s an ongoing threat against you, even if these events happen 10 or 20, 30 years ago, that there are spirits that do not want your heart to be reclaimed in a way in which the religious spirit, which I want you to take a moment, define what do you mean by that? When you talk about the religious spirit, you’re certainly not talking about the Holy Spirit. What are you talking about?

Rachael: No, I am talking about, well, I’m really probably talking about the evil one I think, we have this language of parading as an angel of light? But to me it’s a sense of a spirit of religion to me is one of the most toxic and deathly and death-dealing because it presents itself as righteous. But every single aspect of what’s being invited is death-dealing, binding, dehumanizing, and whether it’s dehumanizing you or inviting you to dehumanize another. And so we see this kind of religiosity play out throughout our story in the biblical text and the Spirit of God, God, the Spirit of God, Jesus constantly confronting you can say all the right religious things, you can practice right, religion and still not love. And actually, I could say depart from me. I never knew you. And so, yeah, to me, I think of it as an actual entity, but I also think of it as a structure that invites us to feel like we’re living out God’s will following Jesus, but we’re actually upholding systems of power that we’re not meant for and actually don’t bring out the Imago Dei in the way that we’re meant for. So they’re like anti-gospel antichrist, but they appear to be very godly.

Dan: Yes. So we’re really saying a lot of compliance to the religious spirit ends up being at best dutiful, but in essence deadly in that it increases a level of dogmatism, therefore judgment of others, but also leaves you with a sense of both entitlement, a sense of arrogance. I’m better. I know more. I have the truth. You don’t have the truth. That kind of religious spirit, you can say is kind of one of the cores of denominationalism. So right there, the fragmentation into an almost infinite number of different ways of engaging God has at least some effect of the religious spirit because dogmatism and arrogance and judgment of others is always the fruit of the religious spirit, along with a sense of dutiful pressure to perform, which then leaves you either empty and failing or succeeding and more arrogant and so…

Rachael: Well, and more split and more split, more cut off from true parts of yourself, which is when things go real sideways, which is what we’re seeing with a lot of these leaders who have lived this shadow life that’s horrible and violent and degrading to others, but they’ve been perceived as the most righteous and righteous because at some point you have to leave huge parts of yourself at the door.

Dan: And so that splitting always has at least some degree of fear based engagement. So rather than in one sense, what the Spirit of God brings is the confirmation that we are adopted, that we are heirs of the promise versus that we are either entitled or that we’ve got to labor for the delight of God. So in that sense, you’re exposing in this work, where manipulation has occurred, where fear has actually been instituted as in many ways the primary motive for engaging good things and yet good things that are actually consuming you rather than enabling you to flourish. But I think the hardest to talk about is where pressure and threat, where you have “succeeded” in complying often gives you access to being in the ingroup access to contact with powerful life-giving so-called presences. And that’s that sense of privilege, which I think is maybe one of the hardest factors in the whole process of dealing with spiritual abuse.


Rachael: Yeah, I mean, I’ve said this on the podcast before in other contexts, if you’ve been in spiritually abusive contexts, likely you’ve perpetrated spiritually abusive culture to other people, or you’ve maybe been somebody else’s spiritual abuser through mentorship or through a kind of buying in full sail to whatever the structure is or whatever the behavior is, or even the way it feels good when you’re chosen and how we want to be able to justify being chosen and other people not being chosen as like it must be something of their failure or their inability to be faithful. Again, those are very broad sweeping terms, and nothing is that simple. I just think it can be so hard to face ways we’ve participated in the culture, the community that we’re coming to own, how that harm has shaped us, and then to think about maybe I’ve harmed others that way, or I complied to this. What’s wrong with me? Why did I do that? How again, how could I have been so desperate? How could I have been so foolish? How could I have been so blind? How could I have been so stupid? Whatever the accusation is, how we turn against ourselves when we wake up to the reality that we perceived we had choice. And I think that that’s so much of the work is understanding the power of the system and the power of grooming. It works to undermine your sense of true choice. And maybe you do still have choice, but what are you up against if you choose differently? And I think so much of the work of story work is putting language to the powerlessness that we actually feel in these moments. But that’s hard work, and you do need good care in the midst of that work because it’s terrifying and it’s a lot easier to just turn against ourselves because then at least we maybe don’t have to be as powerless. And so yeah, that work is hard on multiple levels.

Dan:  Oh, yes. I mean, again, the parallel for me is to how a sexual abuser virtually always assures that their victim feels even 1% some degree of arousal, some degree of pleasure. Because in that moment there is the sense of complicity you are part of. And as you put it, well, oftentimes systems require that you perpetrate the same harm you’ve endured against others. And it obviously is not going to be usually spoken that directly. And yet the reality that I have used the same structure of guilt to motivate others as it was used against me. But further, I think that notion that I want to be part, I want to be honored and seen and my gifts enjoyed. And oftentimes the abuser is aware that we don’t have a long history of honor and delight. And so when the pressure comes, the threats are there, we perform well. We are honored with a certain crown that we have longed to wear. That feels like the shame that the spirit, the religious spirit is brilliant in bringing and exposing. And so the difference between the religious spirit, which is brilliant at shame versus the Spirit of God, which has born shame on our behalf. So systems that inculcate that utilize some degree of making you feel small and stupid and inadequate. Our system’s really under the influence of the religious spirit, not the Spirit of God. So this is the hard work you’re inviting people to engage.

Rachael: Yeah, it’s not for the faint of heart. However, it is my hope that we’ll get to do good work together. And it’s not an end all be all kind of work. It’s an opportunity to come together and enter stories that we need good care and we need more clarity, and we need more witnesses too. And so if that’s something that appeals to you, please check it out. You can find it on theallendercenter.org/offerings Just go to workshops, can find out more information. You can reach out to our enrollment team just to get more clarity around the details. But I think some of the most powerful healing I’ve experienced has been in the presence of other survivors who know something of the nuances and the complexity, even if we have radically different stories, and especially survivors who have said enough, I don’t want to be bound by this anymore. I don’t know what healing is possible, but I will say yes to this opportunity. And so I hope you’ll think about joining us. If this sounds like something that could benefit you and the healing journey that you’re on.

Dan: Well, we know that the goodness of God will shine. And that phrase is so central, at least to my understanding of life. I would’ve despaired if I did not believe that I would see the goodness of God in the land of the living. And what I know about you and about your work and about the team that you have brought to play, there will be a taste to the goodness of God and it will not take away the harm, but it will also create a context where your defiance need not be bound to losing the sweetness of what you have known to be the possibility of the presence of God, not the pressure of God.