For the past few days I’ve been doing some research on the internet on the subject of spiritual abuse. I stand with many who’ve fallen into the hands of an abuser and have spent years in pain as a result of this deception.
Spiritual abuse is a heinous crime. My counselor told me it takes an average of 2 to 5 years to get over it. I’ve settled into the reality that I must take things one day at a time, be patient with myself, and trust God to give me lots of grace to make it through. And He has been faithful. On this journey of healing He’s been giving me the knowledge that no matter what He isn’t going to leave me alone. He loves me very much and wants me to know it. He wants you to know it, too.
As I compare my story of abuse with others the main difference is my abuser was more kind outwardly. He didn’t come up with some theology on his own that he preached from the pulpit, nor did he demand blind allegiance or use threats to get people to do what he wanted. Rather, he used kindness, gifts, flattery and often manipulation. He had an air of authority about him, and I think overall he made members of the church feel safe enough to let him just run things.
Over the years working for him I saw that he had a way of getting what he wanted, because he was smart enough to know how to get it. However, my husband, though called by the pastor his best friend, went through a period of time of extreme discontentment with the pastor’s micromanaging everything. I don’t know what the other elders in the church felt, but it was clear that my husband believed his spiritual gifts were being squashed. The pastor had put him in a position to make maintenance decisions for the church, had built him up in his gifts in this area (he was wonderful with flattery), yet when things needed repair he wouldn’t call my husband, but rather a professional to fix it. This might not sound like much, but to my husband it was. This pastor built him up, gave him responsibility, but when it came down to it the pastor was going to call all the shots. My husband never stood up to him, but after a few years of feeling like he wasn’t a part of leadership he did step down as an elder. My husband grew up in an abusive home, and he like myself battles self-contempt. He believed he wasn’t worthy to be an elder and stepped down. Only after my unhealthy relationship came out did my husband realize that his spiritual growth was suppressed under the leadership of a manipulative, narcissistic pastor.
Diane Langberg talks about narcissistic leadership in the church and how to know it’s there. An obvious way is the narcissist pastor produces disciples like himself rather than Christ. I cannot speak for everyone at our church, but I know I clearly didn’t become more like Christ. Rather, I adopted my pastor’s way of living and I often beat myself up, because I wasn’t able to handle things as well as he did. It didn’t matter what was going on my former pastor seemed never to never panic or overreact. He would stay calm as a cucumber and tell me he trusted God to handle things. When I’d get upset I thought my faith wasn’t strong enough. He became my measuring stick rather than Christ. My husband certainly didn’t grow more like Christ, rather he was spent years under this pastor’s leadership feeling overwhelmingly depressed. Since the truth has come out about my relationship with the pastor my husband has felt a tremendous weight lifted off of him.
Dr. Langberg also says that the narcissist pastor cannot see what he is doing wrong. Rather, he believes it is right. This behavior was also obvious in my former pastor’s life. From the beginning in my relationship with him, his feelings for me were presented as a good gift from God. I believed this lie hook, line and sinker. My former pastor made the rules for the relationship. It’s OK to covet and dream of another time and place when God would allow us to be together. It was OK for him to show me what his love for me looked like in a kiss, but then say it was best not to do it again. I don’t want to go into anymore details, but clearly he had boundaries that crossed God’s boundaries, but in his mind were OK so long as we didn’t give into lust. He only beat himself up when his boundary lines were crossed. When he wasn’t in control. Then he excused crossing God’s boundary lines with just being human. And through all of this, he was my measuring stick. I came to believe it was OK to covet, so long as you didn’t think about it too much. It was OK to kiss, so long as you didn’t lose control, and it was OK to cross certain lines if lust became overwhelming, however it couldn’t become a habit. Control must be maintained. Only when his lines were crossed and there was a train wreck sexually were tears and prayers. It was all so incredibly stupid. But at the time because I didn’t want to lose him I tried to adopt his reasoning though it didn’t work for me and often made me frustrated and outright angry. And in my frustration and anger I’d pursue him sexually and walk away feeling like it was all my fault. Please know I’m not excusing my behavior. What I did was wrong. But not without manipulation on his part… And that’s why I’m writing this…not to excuse myself, but rather to educate anyone who might be in a similar situation, and also to see the lies and keep myself out of another situation.
Dr. Langberg says it is absolutely crucial that we know the truth so we will not fall victim of a narcissistic pastor. Her words remind me of Christ’s and the Apostle Paul’s.
Matthew 24:24-28 ESV
For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
Matthew 7:15-20 ESV
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
2 Corinthians 11:13-15 ESV
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.
Acts 20:29-31 ESV
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.
I knew these verses well when I walked into the church where my abusive pastor led. What I didn’t have a clear understanding of were the longings of my heart, and how they would be the doorway for abuse to enter in and take control.
One of the most desperate longings of my heart was for connection with another human being. As an adopted child I believed there was something missing from my life. I’d never felt a connection with the family that raised me. When I actually found my biological mother and didn’t feel a connection with her I broke off the relationship feeling confused and rejected. When I found my biological father the connection I had with him was so strong it terrified me because of the years of sexual abuse and I broke it off with him, too. My longings for connection had caused me a lot of pain, but I never stopped looking for someone to connect with. When I met my former pastor and he told me on the phone he had a strong emotional attachment with me he began to fulfill the longings of my heart.
My counselor, Sharon Hersh, talks about the connection between longing and addiction in her book, The Last Addiction.
The deepest relief that addiction provides is that it destroys our deepest passions. As addiction continues, it dulls the deeper passions of our hearts for other people and other things. Addiction opposes love. It nails the energy of our longings to someone or something – a person, place, substance, behavior, or belief..And the addictive object or central activity works; it provides relief from living in the midst of messy relationships, so we want more and more of it. But then it imprisons us in self-hatred.
Addiction opposes love. It nails the energy of our longing to someone or something. I developed an addiction to my former pastor, but it wasn’t love. When he told me about his attachment to me it was like something took over my mind. He was all I could think about day and night. He called what we had love. But it wasn’t love. It was self-serving, narcissistic and it drained me of all of my passion.
I remember a quote from Beth Moore years ago. She said an emotional toxic cocktail was when someone who was needy and someone who had a need to be needed came together. Thus was the case with me and my former pastor. He said our relationship was about love, connection, and a gift from God. But it was clearly about meeting a need for him. And I admit it was about meeting a need for me.
This toxic cocktail took on a life of it’s own. I ceased needing the Living Water Christ offered, because everything I thought I needed was in this relationship with him.
I’m learning something very important as I work through thinking about my longings, my addiction to my former pastor, and spiritual abuse in the church.
It’s that we all have longings…
longing for connection
longing for healing
longing for redemption
longing for deliverance
longing for meaning
longing for fulfillment
longing for purpose
Longing for hope
Longing for love
We aren’t alone in these longings. For scripture says that even creation longs for something.
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.
But what does creation do with it’s longings?
I think there is a message in this for me – for all of us. To wait.
Because Love is patient.
What got me into trouble was I didn’t want to wait, and in my desperate desire to fulfill my longings my narcissistic pastor gave me a substitute. And those deep passions in my heart that were intended to long for God were snuffed out for a time. My heart felt like it was dying in a long, cold winter. I’d never felt so empty, alone and needy. And I just kept going back to my pastor for relief. Relief that he couldn’t give. He was only a man – a seen and empty hope.
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”― C.S. Lewis