Last week, CT published an investigative report on allegations of spiritual abuse by Steve Timmis, who previously served as the CEO of the church planting ministry Acts 29. But long before assuming the leadership in 2014, Timmis was known for his model of intensive gospel community developed at his 120-person church in England known as The Crowded House and for his books like Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community.
But not everyone who was part of Timmis’s close-knit church community felt warmly toward the church leader. According to our report:
Fifteen people who served under Timmis described to Christianity Today a pattern of spiritual abuse through bullying and intimidation, overbearing demands in the name of mission and discipline, rejection of critical feedback, and an expectation of unconditional loyalty.
People in these environments aren’t always aware they’re being abused, says Lisa Oakley, the co-author of Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating Healthy Christian Cultures.
“Psychological abuse is not a one-off. It's usually a series of incidents which when told by themselves can seem minimal,” said Oakley, now an assistant professor for the developmental psychology team at the University of Chester. “It's when you put that story together that you actually start to see this pattern of control.”
Oakley joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss what people should do if they think they are being spiritually abused, how spiritual abuse can also affect pastors, and why it may be hard for people in close-knit communities to realize the unhealthy state of their church’s leadership.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #199
How would you define spiritual abuse?
Lisa Oakley: That’s a very controversial question because we have other forms of abuse, which have a recognized category, and spiritual abuse is not that. I would argue that is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. But it would only be honest to say that the terminology is controversial, and it's not openly agreed by everybody—although I think there is more and more use of it, and more and more people starting beginning to understand what we're talking about when we use that terminology.
So for us, we're talking about a systematic pattern of coercive, controlling behavior in the religious context. But where do the lines get drawn? And I think one of the things we've been doing some work on is looking at a spectrum of behaviors.
In many Christian contexts, the behavior is actually very healthy. We probably need to celebrate that more than we do, because we often don't tell good news stories. And then along the spectrum, it might become unhelpful—so something that isn't particularly helpful to us, but actually isn't harmful. And as you moved further along that spectrum, it might become unhealthy and it might become controlling and it might start to have an impact on individuals psychologically and emotionally.
And if you continue, and that becomes a pattern—systematic coercion and control over a period of time—that's where may then cross the threshold into abuse. And that would be the kind of spectrum that we would use if we were looking at psychological abuse, too. You would have to evidence of a pattern of controlling behavior over a period of time.
Is spiritual abuse just an abuse of power that happens in a church context? Is it important to have the word “spiritual” there as a separate category? What sets it apart from abusive power and other situations?
Lisa Oakley: Is it just in a Christian context? No. It's definitely across different faiths and different religions. I would say is a form of psychological abuse, but what we need to recognize is that there are characteristics of spiritual abuse, which actually means that it can't just be subsumed in that big a category of psychological abuse.
These characteristics include things like the use of scripture to control and to coerce. Or the use of divine position, so “God has put me here, and that's why you can't question me and you can't disagree with me, and you must do what I say.” Or even the use of God as complicit; “God wants you to do this, this is what you're required to do.” And these are spiritual threats.
I spent quite a lot of time working in this area, listening to people's stories. They’d been told that they won't go to heaven now because they've done this or that God bless them because they've done that. And that’s different from psychological abuse in other situations. Those added layers are different and need to be understood.
Is the work of helping people who have experienced spiritual abuse significantly different than helping people who've experienced other forms of psychological abuse?
Lisa Oakley: I think that some of the elements are definitely the same—understanding how it might have impacted their sense of self, how they think about themselves, how they think about the world. But some of the differences that we see here is the impact that it has on people's faith. And if that is a core part of who you are and how you live your life, for many people, they feel that they lose God within that experience.
We've done some work around counseling and looking at how to support people who have these experiences, and one of the things survivors often say is they need to be able to talk about the faith aspect of it. They need to be able to talk about a spiritual aspect and what it's done to them spiritually, as well as the other things that they may talk about in any form of psychological abuse.
You mentioned that this term newer. When did it first come about?
Lisa Oakley: I have a book by someone called Richard Buckstone, I think it's called The Reformed Pastor. It was written very, very early on, and in it he talked about manipulation. But more recently, we've had the term “heavy shepherding,” which many people will be familiar with. That was quite often associated with house churches. When the use of that started to diminish, in its place came the term spiritual abuse. There’s a book called The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by Johnson and VanVonderen, and that's one of the most well-known books where that terminology began.
So we sort of see from the early 1990s onward that terminology. But I would say that it was used much more in the States than it was in the UK until probably the last 15 years or so. And even here, I would say the last two or three years, it's been becoming used more and more.
Are there particular types of Christian environments that would be more susceptible to spiritual abuse?
Lisa Oakley: It’s something I’ve looked at in my work, and then certainly when I did my doctorate, the stories that I was offered were more from branches that believed that God spoke today or may speak in words and pictures today—so the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
However, we've taken stories from across all expressions of the Christian faith. And in the most recent piece of research we did, where 1,531 people completed the questionnaire on spiritual abuse, and they came from a whole range of denominations.
So I think for me, the big question is: What's actually happening here? And how do we create healthy cultures where these things are less likely to happen, rather than trying to pinpoint where they may or may not? Because then you might assume that something is safe and something isn't, but maybe what we want to do is look at the behavior and say, how do we create healthy Christian cultures where everyone flourishes and everyone's safe?
I definitely empathize with the not wanting to give people a false sense of security, but given that the particular example that we started with about happened in a really small church, what would you say are some of the ways that spiritual abuse can particularly manifest in a smaller community?
Lisa Oakley: I don’t think I’ve actually looked at it in terms of the size of the community. I think I've looked more at the characteristics of what spiritual abuse actually looks like—enforced accountability, requirements for secrecy and silence, control through the use of sacred texts.
There may be, if you're in a small group situation, more pressure on enforced accountability, etc. But I haven't looked at it specifically like that. I've certainly got examples in places that are quite big, so I'm not sure it's connected just to small groups.
The other thing I think is really important is to understand that spiritual piece is not just perpetrated by leaders. Many leaders will experience spiritual abuse from either of the members of their leadership teams or powerful members of their congregation, and I think that's even more hidden than the stories that we're talking about.
What does that look like when it's a congregation to leader spiritual abuse?
Lisa Oakley: There’s different forms of power. So you might have power because you're in authority, but you might also have relational power. So if you are a significant person in the congregation that many of the people listen to, your relational power in that setting gives you that influence. You might use texts and passages of scripture around servant leadership and sacrifice to manipulate and control your leader. And I’ve certainly spoken over the last few years to many leaders who are really broken.
Is there a special danger for smaller churches, where the community is closer, where there's a smaller group of people, or where there's more opportunity to be involved more than just an hour a week?
Lisa Oakley: One of the hallmarks of spiritual abuse is often the requirement for excessive commitment. What happens within that context is that you have less and less time to spend outside of that context. And therefore you have fewer options to speak to other people and recognize that what you're experiencing is not what might be considered to be a normal Christian life or healthy Christian practice. And you actually might be very tired as well if you're spending more and more and more time in one particular place.
One thing I would say is there are different structures. So if you are part of a broader denomination where there may be accountability built-in, there’s less risk than something operating independently, where nobody's actually speaking into that context.
However, my caveat on that would be that you can have a situation that looks like there’s accountability, but actually there isn't. So I think we need really good safeguarding structures that do allow people to raise concerns and raise issues when they have them. And many people who've experienced spiritual abuse will be very, very scared to speak out.
There are lots of scriptures that talk to us about how we should treat each other. There's two sides to this. There is the area of work around spiritual abuse, acknowledging people's stories, the hurt and the harm that's been done and working with them towards restoration. But there is also what prevention looks like, and that is looking at what does a healthy culture look like and what are the hallmarks of a healthy culture. And working towards a context in which everybody is nurtured and nurturing.
Is it tricky to navigate this cross-culturally? Is it trickier to parse out abuse in cross-cultural settings? How does culture fit into this?
Lisa Oakley: I think that culture is really, really important. There are actually some people who've done some work around power and culture, and obviously leadership can be connected to culture, but I think that there is a counterargument to that as well.
Yes, we have to take into account culture and it is really important to understand that because that helps us to understand what's actually happening in situations, but I also think there is a cultural value in scripture around how we treat each other, which is not bound by country lines.
So for someone who is feeling that the leadership of their church may be acting in ways that are unfair or inappropriate, but hasn’t necessarily considered the idea that it's abuse, what advice do you have for them?
Lisa Oakley: I think a lot of it depends on the context they are in. People are very, very scared, and when people are telling their accounts, there is a huge amount of fear. In the UK, there are organizations like Replenished and Thirtyone:eight that have hotlines that people can call. I don't know what you have in the USA, but there are places where people can go to get help and advice.
What I would say is that we need to have a much better understanding of this so that people who are in supporting roles have a better understanding to be able to support well, and we need more places and more organizations that people can go to.
In the stories that I've taken, there are so many common patterns and common messages. And actually, self-doubt is really, really big for people—partly because the terminology is still being debated. If somebody experiences a different category of abuse, they're not having to argue about whether this is real or not, and whether this is abuse or not. They're able to kind of go to the point of getting help and support.
The other thing that makes it very difficult is that psychological piece is not a one-off. It's usually a series of incidents, which told by themselves can seem minimal. It's when you put that story together that you actually start to see this pattern of control.
But we’re also in a context where we've got a national inquiry into child abuse, and religious organizations being looked at as part of that. And one of the participants in my very first piece of research said, “We don't want my world to think that the church that preaches love can’t be the out. So we just walk a long, lonely, misunderstood road.”
Our natural tendency sometimes is to want to talk to other people who are part of that community and say, is this just me? Do you advise people to talk to their fellow congregants?
Lisa Oakley: I wouldn't want to give out advice cause I would need to know the individual context. But, if you think about other forms of abuse, people are actually often quite reluctant and they might be at risk if they do that.
If there’s a safeguarding structure within your organization or denomination, then that is a way that people should be thinking about going and speaking up to. But there is a huge amount of fear.
It's my experience that people generally don't share stories while they're still in the context. It's usually when they’ve left. That's often because they might think it's only them or they might doubt that actually what they're experiencing is as bad as they think is. And so there isn't often that that speaking when they are within, it’s usually people who have left, and then people find each other afterward and share common stories.
Do abusive leaders and abusive communities have a similar trajectory? Is a cult trajectory similar to an abusive environment trajectory or are they really different things? Do we need to separate out kind of cult-like behavior from the manipulation and abuse behavior?
Lisa Oakley: I think it's an interesting question.
I actually wrote a section in my Ph.D. called “A Cult By Any Other Name,” and I think when you get to the very controlling end of spiritual abuse, I think it's actually quite difficult to separate that out from cult-like behavior.
One thing that I would say is that in both cases, things start off very healthily and when I mapped the process in my research, it's usually very positive at the beginning. But that is the case with a lot of models of abuse. So if you look at domestic violence, usually relationships are very positive at the beginning, and then they become more controlling as they go. This is where we talk about intentionality. Do people set out to control and coerce and spiritually abuse each other? And I don't find a lot of evidence that in the work that I do.
I do think we've got some serious questions to ask ourselves as churches, like how we set up leadership. We expect a huge amount from our leaders. We expect them to be all things to all people, and we have a system that says, you're only really successful if there's lots of people in your group. And then we put a lot of pressure on people to achieve, and then they can begin to control the people in order to meet those goals that have been put on them. That doesn't excuse that behavior, but I think we do need to look at how we do church and how we're doing Christian communities.
But I also think that where the litmus test for me is that when somebody is challenged—whether they are willing to be challenged, whether they are open to being accountable about their behavior, or whether the person who brings the problem becomes the problem. That for me is a real litmus test. So somebody might unintentionally be controlling, but when they are challenged about their behavior or they're told that somebody’s experience, if they can reflect on that and change that behavior, that's one thing. But if they are extremely defensive and not open to question and challenge, that would be a concern to me.
We know that pastors can be victims as well, but what would be a good way for them to check whether they have crossed this line, or they are repeatedly crossing this line into actual spiritual abuse behavior?
Lisa Oakley: I think it is about developing the ability for self-reflection. Even asking yourself the question: Can people ask questions? Is this an environment in which people can ask questions, in which they can discuss, in which they can disagree respectfully.
There's also questions about, who are you accountable to? Is there any kind of supervision? What does supervision look like for pastors?
When you're at the point in the spectrum, where your behavior might be unhelpful and erring into unhealthy, it's about being able to step back when people come and raise questions—thinking about the way in which you're responding to those. And there is an opportunity to change and address different behaviors, but once it becomes a pattern of behavior, or once you justify that with a spiritual rationale, then that's where it becomes problematic.
When people do decide to share these stories with others, what advice do you have for the people listening to them? How should they react or how should they not react?
Lisa Oakley: When I did my research, we asked survivors to tell us what good response looked like, so I think we've got some really helpful responses to that.
I think the first thing is to listen and to actively listen. You know when you're being listened to. Not to minimize what they're talking about—we wouldn't do that with other experiences of abuse. Not to be quick to defend the person or the church, because sometimes that happens at the detriment of the person. If you have safeguarding processes, obviously to follow those.
I think being really careful about prayer and the use of scripture in response. If that's been something that's been used to control you, it can be actually very scary to have that as part of the response to telling the story.
One of the things that came up quite clearly in the research was being really careful with Matthew 18: “If you've got a problem with your brother, take it to your brother.” If it's a low-level disagreement, you can sort that out between yourselves. But when we get into a situation of spiritual abuse, there’s a mismatch of power. Trying to get people together in a room at the beginning is not something you would do in other forms of abuse.
One of the other things is understanding that it might be difficult for people to make choices. So we often say, “Well, what do you want to happen?” But if you've been very controlled, you're pretty sure there's a right or wrong answer to every question, and your job is to find out the right answer. Just understanding that really, and understanding that people are generally very scared and confused.
If you are a leader trying to do some critical reflection on ways that maybe you have been manipulative or abused your power in some way, what is a healthy way to actually get some feedback that doesn't end up tainting itself by virtue of you being the one that trying to gather it?
Lisa Oakley: In the book I most recently co-wrote , Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating Healthy Christian Cultures, Justin and I wrote a chapter on leadership and another one on culture. And in there are a series of really useful questions that he's been using in leadership training that leaders can ask themselves. So that's a good starting place.
You have to think carefully about how to collect information and how that might best be done. And there are all kinds of different ways of doing that. It would be very unlikely that in a very spiritually abusive context that somebody would be asking for feedback. Generally, that doesn't happen.
But also just finding ways to take stopgaps. And actually ask people how things are working out? So in our own church context at the moment, we've just got a questionnaire that's been sent out asking for feedback on Sunday services, for ideas for developing those. So there are certain low-level ways of opening up a conversation that allows people to share.
One thing often happens after there has been trauma is that people suffer some version of PTSD. If you are a survivor of spiritual abuse, what might that look like?
Lisa Oakley: I haven’t specifically looked at PTSD, but I have taken accounts and looked at the impact of the experience more generally.
One of the things that we find is that distrust is a huge issue. Somebody said to me, “I was unsafe in the place that I should have been the most safe, and now I don't know who is safe and what is safe.” And so actually not being able to trust people is huge, and that might have impacts for counseling, it might have an impact on any kind of intervention, support, and understanding.
I think also recognizing the level of fear that people might be living with around the spiritual consequences of their actions, even of leaving. But people do talk about triggers as well. So there might be particular phrases that were used, there might be particular Bible passages that are difficult.
Some people may be quite scared of God now, and what God thinks about them. There’s a lot of self-doubt and problems with self-identity.
As we wrap this conversation, do you want to just give us a sense of what type of research and projects you're hoping can further develop this field?
Lisa Oakley: This is difficult stuff. And for me, as a Christian, it's a difficult area to look up, but it's so important because people have been harmed and we need to recognize that. But I'm also really wanting to look at how we create healthier cultures more generally. And that obviously addresses issues in abuse, but it also addresses how do we create cultures in which people flourish and do well, and leaders are nurtured and congregational members and nurtured, and it looks something like what church should be.
I think some of the work we're looking at now is creating resources that churches and small groups might use, and to have them reflect on their own culture and to build towards healthier cultures, as well as continuing to do it with survivors about what does good intervention response look like.
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