Religious groups, churches and faith communities are an important and significant part of life for many people. Members often find comfort, community and hope through these organizations.  While these are certainly welcoming and healthy aspects of faith-based organizations, sometimes these seemingly attractive aspects of religion mask very unhealthy and toxic components.  

The same religious groups, churches or faith organizations can be places where significant damage is done to people.  There are often a set of rules, guidelines, do’s and don’ts and doctrines that members are not only expected to agree with, but are often coerced and manipulated into compliance with.   

Spiritual abuse is a specific type of abuse that can involve abuse of power by a religious leader, abuse within a religious organization, or abuse involving faith and doctrine. Often you’ll hear the term spiritually abusive” used to describe a toxic church, faith organization, or pastor / clergy member.  All of these describe spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse can often be subtleSpiritual abuse occurs when faith, spirituality or religion is used to gain or maintain power or control over individuals. Spiritual abuse harms, manipulatesexploits, and otherwise disempowers individuals 

Spiritual abuse occurs when faith, spirituality or religion is used to gain or maintain power or control over individuals.

Spiritual abuse can feel confusing and crazymaking. Because spiritual abusers are typically in a position of trust and authority, a victim of spiritual abuse can feel isolated and often questions whether what they are experiencing is real, or if it’s only their perception. Adding to the confusion, abusive leaders use religious authorities, such as sacred texts (aka, the Bible), elder boards, supernatural events, and calling and giftings to back up their actions. A spiritual abuser may not be purposefully intending to abuse someone, and it can be hard for a victim to come to terms with their experience as spiritual abuse because of their one-time affinity for the leader. However, abuse doesn’t require intention, and the trusted relationship is what creates the opportunity and environment for abuse. 

Signs you might be experiencing spiritual abuse:   

  • If you Feel at odds or in conflict with your pastor or spiritual leader  
  • If you are blamed for being the problem  
  • If you are criticized for having priorities or goals that are not the pastor or leaders agenda  
  • If you are belittled for voicing an opinion, questioning hypocrisy or expressing concerns regarding leadership 
  • If you were isolated from others that were not ‘like-minded’ including those outside of your specific denomination 
  • If your needs or feelings were trivialized or made light of  
  • If your gender is devalued or diminished 
  • If you’ve been denied a position of leadership because of your gender 
  • If your sexuality is shamed or rejected  
  • If your organization or it’s leaders are dismissive of emotional needs or mental health  
  • If the leaders expect your time and energy to be spent only on the church or church activities, even at the detriment of your personal life or family 
  • If a pastor or leader has little to no accountability other than ‘yes men’ 
  • If a leader or organization dictates what you wear or do  
  • If a leader or organization gaslights you. 
  • If your pastor or leader is domineering, authoritarian, narcissistic, manipulative or controlling 
  • If your pastor or leader uses bullying or threatening to get their way  
  • If your pastor uses the Bible to shame, threaten or justify abuse 

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