There are many people who have been hurt in the name of religion and by religious leaders. There are also many people who have been hurt in spiritual groups and by spiritual teachers. And sometimes this hurt, this harm, this abuse has been really substantial and devastating to people. It’s easy to understand how the hurt and the harm can take place. People join these groups, these organizations. They participate actively because they’re looking to grow, they want to become better people, they’re hoping to find something that will be of meaning and value in their lives, and in that context, they’re encouraged to follow along, to listen to the teaching, and to do as they’re instructed, and to live in the way that that the teacher, the leader whoever it is is, suggests to them, and in that process, people become open and vulnerable, and with that vulnerability, it’s easy for someone who’s unscrupulous to take advantage of them and do things that are harmful and immoral and unethical.
Today I want to talk about spiritual and religious abuse and the harm that happens to people in religious and spiritual contexts. This isn’t a popular thing to talk about but I’m talking about it today, and while I’m talking, please subscribe to this YouTube channel as well as click the bell. So I want to be fully transparent to help you understand where I’m coming from and talking about this topic. I’ve been involved in church ministry for over 40 years.
I’m an ordained minister and I can tell you very honestly that the worst pain I’ve experienced in life has come from church people and religious organizations that’s been the root of it. Most noteworthy was when I was young and coming out. There were a number of religious people I knew and people I looked up to who said to me, “You’re a great person. You have a lot going for you. You’re this, you’re that, and the other thing, but if you continue to be gay, we can’t have anything to do with you.
” And they went further. They told me that it was for my own good that they were breaking the relationships with me. That was really devastating. As I moved further in ministry, I found that fairly often I reported to religious superiors I’ll call them, who were very petty and narrow-minded and who became jealous very easily, and often tried to undermine the good work that I did, and the good work other people did, because they didn’t have control. And so they could be really vindictive in that process.
As the pastor of several churches, I found that while many people appreciated me and my role as pastor, pretty consistently there were a couple people in every church who would do things and say things to me that I know they wouldn’t do or say to anyone else and when I would call them on it I always heard some version of, “But you’re the pastor! You have to forgive me!” And even though I would say it was mean-spirited, they didn’t really care.
So after 40 years of all of that, and realizing that my colleagues, other clergy were often really passive-aggressive with each other and not actually supportive, I decided that it was simply time for me to retire. So I opted for early retirement from active ministry. but I don’t want this to be about me but instead some of what I bring into this context. I realize that it can be painful.
04:24 - But what I’ve experienced is very minimal in comparison to what many other people have experienced. Of course, we all know from the news headlines about the multiple childhood sexual abuses that happened within religious contexts and they happen within spiritual contexts as well but don’t make the media as often. There are those who bilked money out of people: they want a new car, a new home, they even want an airplane – all manipulating people for financial gain.
There are those who manipulate in other ways to control people, to get adulation and admiration from them, and convey threats like you’re going to go to hell if you don’t do what I ask, all the while trying to build up themselves. Again, this occurs in a context when people are trusting and so they open themselves to these people. And while I mentioned the childhood sexual abuse, the sexual abuse also happens to adults and I don’t want to forget that of clergy taking advantage, and other leaders taking advantage of adults who are open and trying to share themselves in ways that will help them grow.
05:54 - Am I willing to say that religion or spirituality is the problem? No, but I know many people do and I understand why. I think the problem boils down to that too many leaders have no real ethical training in professional ethics the way other professionals do. Further, there’s a lack of supervision and accountability. We particularly saw that within the Catholic childhood sexual abuse scandal but it’s also happened within the Jewish community in other places where it’s unclear how many of these folks are held accountable.
And when it’s an independent group, there is even less accountability. So the lack of accountability, the lack of ethical training, all creates a situation where people who are open and wanting to grow and wanting to be their best selves get taken advantage of in a way it’s very diabolical. It’s harmful and we need to really consider how important it is, to be aware of the problems of the pain and the abuse that happen to people both in spiritual groups as well as within religious groups.
07:18 - A number of years ago I maintained a private practice as a therapist and some of the people who sought me out in that role were people who escaped from cults, who got away from cults, who left cults. I want to use them as an example sort of the far end, the extreme of spiritual and religious abuse. But the dynamics found in cults are the same essential dynamics that are found in smaller organizations where abuse and harm and hurt occur. So there was one woman who sought me out who belonged to what she described as a Native American cult.
This cult was not organized or led by anyone who was Native American. Instead, it was led by a man who co-opted random Native American practices that he picked up along the way, culturally misappropriated them, and then claimed that the spirit of some long-dead Native American medicine person spoke through him.
08:32 - He gathered around him a fairly sizable group of men, women, and families and he had very clear teaching and demanded obedience from them. And he also demanded sexual favors from those who wished to learn more secrets from this Native American medicine person who spoke through him.
08:59 - Something happened that caused this woman to realize that this just wasn’t right and she got out of it. And a few years later after going through some initial therapy, she ended up with me really wanting to sort out how to make sense of spirituality because she didn’t know if she could trust or what to believe in or what to do, and she missed having the sense of community that she found in the cult. It’s a very confusing experience for her, as you can well imagine.
There was another woman who was in a very different kind of situation. She began attending an independent church in her community that had no denominational affiliation, and she liked that it was a small church. The people were friendly and they took an active interest in her. The pastor was a man, but what she didn’t realize at first was that there was also another organization operating within the church that was led by a woman. It’s really where the heart of the cult was.
So people were taking an act of interest in her, and eventually invited her into sort of this inner circle of people, where in time she was being groomed for leadership, and she realized as this all was happening that in the background of all this spiritual teaching that had an overlay of Christianity and scripture. They were actually running drug trafficking and child trafficking and all kinds of other illegal activity. It took her a while to get out of that situation but she was so concerned about leaving and what they may do to her that she moved to another part of the country and changed her name and took on another identity a new profession and everything else.
11:02 - These circumstances happen because people are authentically looking for something positive in their lives. They’re looking for growth. They’re looking for hope. They’re looking for some meaning. And there are individuals there willing to take advantage of them. The two cases of the cults are on the extreme end, but consistently what happens in abusive religious and spiritual situations is that a leader is claiming to have a certain kind of truth and that you need to follow along to access that truth, to be a true believer and that if you don’t, there’ll be consequences.
Those consequences often have to do with spiritual consequences, like being damned, but I know that people have gotten caught in and I’ve worked with people who have gotten caught in some of these dynamics where they’ve undergone frequent exorcisms after they were told that they had a demon or that they’ve had to do all kinds of humiliating public penances for some minor infraction or made-up issue in the process. People get hurt sometimes. That hurt is more petty, other times it’s more serious.
It really runs the gamut, it runs a spectrum. The important thing to realize is that if you’ve been hurt in a religious or spiritual setting, that not only is it not your fault, you entered and engaged trying to do something good for yourself, but the people who hurt you are the ones who are responsible. In any situation, the person who does the hurting is responsible for the pain. So whether that was a more minor kind of incident and, I hate using that kind of term, but through gossiping or through other kinds of things that are hurtful, all the way up to sexual abuse, it’s the perpetrator who is responsible and part of the process of understanding what’s happening is separating out your own desire for something positive in your life versus what someone did to take advantage of you.
13:29 - So what does recovery from spiritual or religious abuse look like? It’s actually more similar to recovery from other kinds of abuse but there are some differences. The first step in the recovery process is to set a firm boundary, to get out of the situation so that you can begin to recover. That will probably mean leaving your group, your organization, whatever it is, and not continuing to associate with people who draw you back.
14:04 - Think about it this way: when a woman is caught in a situation of domestic violence, the first thing that people tell her to do is get out, get away from your abuser, get to a shelter, get to a friend, just get out. And the woman caught in that cycle will say things like, “Oh, but I know that he’s been going through a rough time, I know that he only hits me when he drinks. There was so much that I loved about him when we first met. I’m sure it will come back.
” There are all kinds of excuses that happen. Well, the same thing happens whenever people are dealing with spiritual and religious abuse. They focus on what was positive and try to allow that positive dimension to mitigate the harm they experience and that only leads to more harm. It’s important to break that tie and step out and once you’ve stepped out of the situation, begin to talk with trusted friends who are not part of the situation as well as with the therapist to sort through what went on for you.
You’ll have time to work on your belief systems and spirituality and what you hold dear. The first issue is really your safety, your physical safety as well as your psychological safety, with taking that step out and beginning to process what all occurred. There will be, down the road, an opportunity to sort out what it is that you still believe in. And with both of the women that I spoke with in the previous section, part of why they sought me out wasn’t that I was their first therapist.
They wanted a therapist who they could talk to about their beliefs. To that end, you may want to watch the video Your Spiritual Direction where I explain the process of spiritual direction. A spiritual director isn’t someone who tells you what to believe and what to do. Instead, a spiritual director listens and helps you come to an understanding of what you value about your faith, your beliefs, your practices, where you find spiritual connections in life.
So that a trained spiritual director, in this context, can really help you sort out all the conflicting things you’re experiencing after coming out of a hurtful experience from religion or spirituality. So that will be an important part of the process. Looking at the bigger picture, it’s important especially today to really look carefully at what situations we put ourselves into, whether they’re spiritual groups or religious organizations. Think about this: if you were going to have surgery, you would want to make sure that the doctor doing the surgery was qualified.
You’d ask about his background, how successful he’s been with similar surgeries. You’d want to know if someone were coming into your home to do home repairs, maybe you’re hiring a contractor, you’re going to want to check out that contractor and find out what are his qualifications and does he really come through with the work. All of these things are important pieces that we do in every other setting in our life. It’s important for us to treat religion and spirituality in the same way.
Find out – are the leaders vetted in some way? are they trained? are they credible? what’s their reputation? how do people understand them? what do you find out online? You know, if they’re part of a denomination, has that denomination vetted them or part of a larger organization? Those things are all important to help be sure that you are kept safe in your spiritual process. No, they’re not an answer to everything but they’re at least a bare minimum to begin to consider.
I’m truly sorry that anyone gets hurt in the context of trying to develop the spiritual dimension of their life and trying to sort out their religious beliefs and practice. It’s tragic. It’s a horrible thing, however it does happen and I hope that some of the things that I’ve said today will help you understand the dynamics that are at play in these situations and I really know that they’re complex I’ve had this situation, I’ve been in the situation where I’ve had to remove clergy from ministry because of their behavior and I know that that’s a very painful process, not only for the clergy person but the person making the charges, and the congregation.
It’s very divisive but it’s necessary and I don’t regret that I’ve been part of those processes but they’ve taught me a great deal.
19:40 - And I think that it’s important for us to be aware that this is the kind of situation that does occur and that we need to be vigilant about protecting ourselves as well as if and when we get hurt, we understand some things to do for ourselves. So if you’ve experienced hurt or pain in a situation from a spiritual group or a religious organization, why don’t you make some comments and share some things about that. If you know somebody who is dealing with the pain, share this video with them and share it with other folks so they become more aware of this issue.
And of course, like the video, subscribe to the channel. And really know that I appreciate that you took the time to be with me and listen today.
20:26 - Thanks!.