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There are no words to describe my joy of having finished my new book, Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through the Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse.
I wanted to write the book, and the personal reflections journal in the back of the book, because I felt that outlining the actual stages of recovery from this form of abuse had not yet been done in the genre. There are other books that do a wonderful job of telling a survivor’s personal story and sharing their experience in finding healing. A few other therapists have also written on the topic, but Healing from Hidden Abuse is unique as it outlines the process that people navigate through regardless of whether the abuse took place in a relationship, family, friendship, work, or church/ministry.
Within the pages of Healing from Hidden Abuse, the reader walks through the six stages of recovery.
The stages are:
The book is currently on pre-sale in Kindle and paperback format. The book will be released August 30th!
My counseling business name is Southlake Christian Counseling. As you can imagine, I get all sorts of inquiries about what exactly does the Christian part of my business really mean. People wonder, and more often worry, that they are going to get yet another heavy dose of religious guilt by seeing a counselor with the word Christian in the business name. One of the best compliments I get is when clients say that they were nervous to see a Christian counselor but have had a great experience and never, not once, felt like I was finger waving at them in shame.
Why is it that a lot of people are cautious about things that have to do with Christianity, even Christian counseling? Well, I think it’s because there are far too many pastors and church/ministry leaders out there running amok in the name of God and doing a lot of harm in the process. Harm to people who are trying to find God in the blur of modern life and harm to the terms Christianity and Christian. Now let me pause here and make sure every reader knows that I am not saying all pastors or church leaders are awful. I am saying that some, if not many, are miserable examples of the wonderful character qualities of Jesus. How do I know this to be true? I have been in the culture of Christiandom for twenty-one years and I have seen a lot. A lot.
I have been on church staff, I have been on ministry staff, I have been a member of churches and I have been a member of ministries. I have witnessed the best of Christianity and the worst. For the last eight years, I have been counseling under the umbrella of Christian counseling. I truly think this season has taught me the most about what works beautifully within churches and ministries and what qualifies as spiritual abuse.
Yes, men and women are being abused in some churches and ministries. More light needs to shed on this area not so that embarrassment can come to the collective Church but so that healing can come and no one again experiences abuse in the name of God.
What qualifies as spiritual abuse? Good question! I recently did a five day series on social media highlighting some of the major forms of abuse that are happening:
1) Spiritual Abuse: When scripture on forgiveness is distorted to keep someone from setting healthy boundaries with a toxic person.
Boy, isn’t this a doozy of a one. I see more clients, men and women, who have sought solace and help from a pastor or ministry leader regarding an abusive/toxic relationship and instead, the survivor was given a long lecture about forgiveness and extending grace to the abuser. Ultimately, will any survivor have to walk through the process of healing and in doing so, qualities like forgiveness and grace will surface? Absolutely. But I assure you, that when a survivor initially seeks guidance from a christian leader, they need help setting healthy boundaries with an active abuser. They do NOT need a leader reinforcing the concept that the abuse is the survivor’s fault. That is precisely what happens when instead of teaching boundaries, the leader lectures the survivor to take more abuse but under the guise of misapplied forgiveness and grace.
2) Spiritual Abuse: Using religious guilt to keep a person in a toxic relationship when the offending person shows no true attempt in changing their behavior.
Here’s how this form of abuse works in a practical sense: Let’s say a couple shows up at a pastor’s office for marital “counseling.” By the way, I have a hard time calling it counseling when the work is done by leaders that are not trained mental health professionals. We wouldn’t expect a pastor not trained in dentistry to perform a root canal right? I wrote on this topic if you should wish to peruse it: I Got A Root Canal At Church.
Anyway, back to the couple and the pastor/leader offering marital help. When one spouse isn’t really interested in changing his or her ways, they often do a wonderful job of deflecting responsibility and they might also be highly skilled manipulators. If this is the case, then not much authentic change will come from that person. Pastors and leaders will then need to focus their attention somewhere else in the room and that usually ends up on the spouse who is willing and able to be self-reflective and capable of personal growth. You can probably guess what happens next. The victim of abuse becomes the identified asset of change and religious guilt is used to keep that person trying harder to make an abusive relationship not abusive. At that point, a truly vicious cycle has begun.
3) Spiritual Abuse: When wives are religiously shamed for not praying enough for their toxic husbands, but the men are held to a lower standard.
Let’s continue with the same couple as above and now make the wife the survivor and the husband the abuser. Pastors and leaders who spiritually abuse in this way do so by placing the responsibility on the wives for praying their husband into the godly man he was created to be. She is expected to have the patience of a saint, constantly be turning the other cheek and endure abuse in one or more of its forms (psychological, sexual, emotional, physical, financial). What is the husband expected to do? Not much. Oh sure, there may be discussions about actions the husband needs to take but things don’t really change. While in the pastor/leader’s office, the husband may even wholeheartedly agree that he has areas to improve. But no actually repentance and lasting behavioral changes occur in the husband. Yet the wife is religiously shamed when she brings the double standard up or heaven forbid, she starts to speak about not wanting to take the abuse any longer.
4) Spiritual Abuse: When good men are held to an unreasonable religious standard of personal responsibility for being in and fixing a toxic relationship.
When a good man is in a toxic relationship, he is often told that as the head of the household and the spiritual leader it is his duty to continue to serve his abusive/toxic wife. Is it possible for women to be abusive? Absolutely. Some are physical by punching, pinching, slapping, pushing and other aggressive physical contact. Good men don’t want to be that guy who fights back and rather, many will attempt to defuse a volatile wife through humor or distraction. Good men want to shield their children from physical combativeness. Our culture seems to downplay the impact that verbal abuse can have on people and especially when the perpetrator is a woman. The hurtful, stinging words of toxic women harm those around them just as much as if they were spoken by a man. A good man also wants to shield himself and his children from a psychologically and emotionally abusive wife and mother. Unreasonable religious standards are often placed on men to keep the family together at all cost and love their abusive wives as Christ loved the church. Wow. What a religious burden to place on a man who truly wants what’s best for himself and his children. Sometimes getting away from an abuser is the only way to be safe physically and emotionally.
5) Spiritual Abuse: When church leaders refuse to recognize relational abuse in all its forms and further the abuse by falsely blaming and shaming the victim.
Now here is where the true issue comes to light. There are many trained mental health professionals who struggle to initially recognize insidious relational abuse. As a therapist, it’s hard sometimes to truly sort through the issues that a couple or family present. We have the education and spiritual discernment to help us and it’s still a challenge at times. As mental health professionals, we are trained to know the full depth of relational issues and yet, we can miss the early signs of some forms of abuse. Hopefully, as counseling continues, we hone in on the true core issues. If a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath is a party to the counseling, the entire dynamic shifts and we have to fight to sort through the layers of chaos and confusion intentionally spun by the toxic person.
Many pastors and ministry leaders do not have adequate training to spot relational abuse and therefore, in their ignorance, re-victimize the victim. Other times, a pastor or ministry leader may simply not believe that abuse comes in forms other than physical. If this is the case, that pastor or leader is going to do extensive amounts of harm to a victim who is suffering behind closed doors. Imagine the intense isolation a victim must feel when they are abused at home or from an extended relative and are told by their religious leaders that the abuse does not exist. It will leave a victim feeling “crazy” and desperately alone. Where was God and His leaders when the victim needed both?
Whew. That’s a whole lot to take in, isn’t it? Those are the five main areas of spiritual abuse that as a counselor I see from my specific perspective. Are there more? Most definitely. But I wanted to share at least the ones that seem to be happening the most within churches and ministries at this time in our culture.
What should you do if you or someone you love is being spiritually abused? Keep seeking a safe place to talk about what is happening both in the church or ministry and the original issue of being in a toxic relationship. I often say that people go into a pastor/leader’s office with one problem (an abusive relationship) and end up coming out with two problems (abusive relationship and now spiritually abused). That simply must stop.
Again, I want to say that there are amazing pastors and ministries doing really excellent pastoral care. There are people being incredibly strengthened and encouraged by the spiritual leaders in their lives. That should always be the norm. Until it is, folks like myself and others will continue to shed a spotlight on an area of life as a Christian that needs to change. The change will better reflect the character of Jesus and better reflect living with true love, hope, joy and peace.
– Shannon Thomas, LCSW-S
Imagine walking into church and in the lobby, you see a sign-up area for getting a tooth extracted or a root canal. You go up to the counter to learn more and the pastor of Family Ministry says “Hi! Want to sign up to get your dental work done right here at church?!” You might be somewhat excited about this because you hate going to the dentist’s office so you ask more questions. The pastor assures you that even though a licensed dentist will not be actually performing your procedures, the church has a real dentist on staff. He has done training classes for some of the pastoral staff and a core group of peer leaders on how to take out teeth and perform other dentistry functions so have faith that you are in good hands. What?! Are they serious? Your interest in receiving dental care at church might be waning at this point. We could even exchange the dental service at church with cancer treatment. Instead of a dentist on staff teaching pastors and peer leaders to pull teeth, the oncologist that is employed by the church is showing people how to mix just the right chemical cocktails to treat a few well known cancers. This way, the church can positively impact more people “for God” and hold a group class where everyone who has cancer can come, each get hooked up to a medication drip and the church is serving a great function, right? What could possibly be wrong with this picture? It’s actually very scary isn’t it?
Do these scenarios sound outrageous? They shouldn’t at all because this is precisely what is happening in churches regarding mental health. Open up some church bulletins and you might see classes offered such as “Freedom From Depression,” “Inner Healing From Anxiety” or “Learning to Stabilize Your Moods.” You see friend, there are church leaders across the country who have no formal training in mental health or how to recognize risks, and yet they are offering to treat mental illness. Depression, anxiety and mood disorders are not just some fad words that should be taken lightly. I would imagine that the recent death of a beloved actor and comedian might have served as a spotlight for the general public that depression has at times very serious risk factors associated with it. Those of us who have made assessing, treating, diagnosing and evaluating mental health as our profession are reminded every day that depression can be dangerous.
Churches need to be taking mental health issues as serious as they would take physical health issues and stop advertising that they are equipped to treat these conditions.
In a church setting, where does the responsibility and liability fall when a dental extraction, chemo session or depression treatment goes badly? I can guarantee you that for those churches who are advertising that they treat mental health conditions, if something goes wrong, church leadership will be very quick to point out that they are not in fact licensed professional counselors. Back away, back away, back away. That’s what happens in churches when they overreach their skill set by offering to treat mental health issues and bad things happen. That’s just wrong. As licensed professional counselors, we can’t just wash our hands of a “mistake.”
With my own ears I have heard church staff members literally say “Why do people call the church office like we are some suicide hotline?!” Yep. My mouth dropped open too. Well, when churches advertise that they treat mental health issues, people are going to assume they treat mental health issues! It’s pretty simple actually.
What does a church do who genuinely want to help their congregation members live better lives and want to offer group classes in order to reach the most people? Call the classes something like “How To Enjoy Your Life More” or “Changing Thoughts Changes Feelings” or “Learning To Live Stress Free.” See, not one of those titles implies a treatment for a mental illness. Big difference. Churches should be a place for folks to gain Bible based encouragement of how to overcome life’s challenges. The moment church staff start to believe they can treat depression, anxiety or mood disorders, they might as well put up their booth for root canals and cancer treatment because they have gone too far.
What is my point of this blog? People who need help are getting hurt in churches that are trying to treat mental health issues with pastors and peer leaders who have no formal counseling education. It’s unethical.
I have no doubt that I will hear from people who have gone to a Freedom From Depression class or Inner Healing From Anxiety and they will tell me how much it changed their lives. I will not deny that some good truth is being shared in these sort of classes. The bottom line is that no church should be offering to treat depression or anxiety unless the leader of the group is a licensed professional and the group standards are those that meet ethical licensing guidelines.
Through the recent suicide of a famous actor, I hope that there is a collective understanding that mental illness should not be taken lightly. I hope churches across the country will start re-evaluating how they address these issues within their congregations because people are getting hurt by ill-equipped leaders. Those of us in the mental health profession see it on a regular basis. We see how people’s faith is called into question when they are dealing with depression, anxiety or even abuse.
We hear when people are told that if they are grateful enough, they won’t deal with depression.
We also see how inadequately trained leaders are digging through people’s personal history without the skill set to keep that history from imploding in on the person. Many individuals deal with trauma in their life story and untrained church leaders have absolutely no business unraveling hurts they do not know how to therapeutically manage.
We also see that people are advised to not take their medication because God will heal them. We see that spouses in unsafe homes are spiritually abused into staying where it is causing more emotional and physical harm. We are seeing it all because after folks leave a church class or pastor’s office and have been hurt, guess where they go next? Christian counselors who are trained professionals and can help put together the mess that has been created. We are hearing and seeing the aftermath.
Please know it is not escaping our notice.
Have you been hurt in a church setting regarding your own challenges with depression, anxiety, mood disorder or abuse? If so, what helped you move forward and not allow the wounding within the church to affect your relationship with God? Always remember that the works are men (or women) are very different than the grace, unconditional love and hope that are the promises of God.