Spiritual abuse is defined by WebMD as “any attempt to exert power and control over someone using religion, faith, or beliefs… Spiritual abuse can happen within a religious organization or a personal relationship.” We found that the leaders in our church were ignoring spiritual abuse, and in some cases, joining in the abuse. Here’s how we responded.
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Table of Contents
Full video transcript
NOTE: I have made minor edits to this transcript to improve readability. In some cases I have added additional clarifying information, marked by [square brackets in italics].
When my dad made his apology for saying what he said in Bible study, and I said, “I forgive you but I don’t trust you…”
At that point I also set in place several boundaries for my interactions with my parents. Because they were not willing to be careful and consider the fact that I was in recovery from childhood sexual abuse and from lots of other… you know.
I’ve listed in the other videos all the things I was trying to sort through. And my family was just treating them like it was nothing. Treating me, really, like my feelings didn’t matter to them at all.
Boundaries with my parents
So with that kind of behavior I set some boundaries in place.
No private communication
I set the boundary that from, going forward, any emails or texts or any things like that, needed to also include my husband Brian in them. I didn’t want my parents sending me texts or emails anymore that I was the only one in. Because they interacted different with me than they did with the two of us together.
No showing up unannounced
Another thing—boundary—I set was that they were not allowed to come over. They lived right next door at the time and we had moved next door them on purpose about five years before because we wanted to have a close family relationship.
But what we had found is that it was being taken advantage of. My parents [my mom in particular] weren’t considering how them just showing up at all hours would impact our day as a homeschooling family and would disrupt things. They weren’t considering that.
They were just doing whatever they felt like they wanted to do and showing up at all hours. So I told them that I did not want them showing up anymore without letting me know. And that I would let them know if they were, if it was a good time for them to come over or not. But no more showing up unannounced.
No individual conversations
And I also did not want my parents to have any conversations with me at that time without my husband being present.
Because, again, they were taking advantage of me when I was by myself, and trying to push on me, and break boundaries that I had set with them. Or trying to manipulate me, or guilt me, and they didn’t dare to do it when my husband was also present.
So those were boundaries I set in place. And over the next six months, along with all the preaching that we got about forgiveness, and how we were being bitter, and prayers for “the family rift to be healed” from my brother and my dad and—during church meetings, public church meetings!
Along with all of that there were several times where they tried to break these boundaries, where they tried to push them. Where they would try to have a conversation with me by myself. Or they would try to text or email me without including Brian.
It just was clear that that was not okay with them and they weren’t going to be able to respect that.
Spiritual abuse continues
After about six months of passive-aggressive preaching and praying from my dad and from my brother at our local church gathering… Where my dad is one of the ministers and my husband is also one of the ministers…
So about six months of this. Talking about how we’re being bitter and unforgiving, in preaching, in prayer… All sorts of passive-aggressive stuff that everybody is noticing and even my children are noticing!
I’ve started to have regular panic attacks after church particularly on Wednesday nights. Probably because it’s a smaller group, and so my dad and brother feel freer to make those kinds of passive-aggressive, spiritually abusive statements in a church setting.
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Time for a change
Anyway so about six months after this, my husband and I were talking and I told him… He wanted to know why I wasn’t taking walks anymore in our neighborhood.
And I said, “Because I’m afraid I’m going to run into one of my family members by myself, and they’re gonna do something rude and it’s gonna trigger me.”
And he said, “Then it’s time for us to move.”
Proximity and history are powerful
Because we lived next door to my parents at the time. And I had run into my dad as I was leaving the house to go places sometimes. I would see, you know, if they were working in the yard and the look he would shoot me would be enough to trigger me.
Because nobody can trigger you like someone you’ve grown up with!
And so anyway my husband said, “Okay it’s time for us to move.”
Abuse at church
But in the immediate, we decided to stop coming to church on Wednesday nights. My husband wasn’t being bothered by it. He’s used to dealing with people who are abusive on a regular basis. And of course it wasn’t his family, so it didn’t trigger him in the same way.
But he didn’t feel comfortable continuing to attend. And we were all attending over Zoom, but we didn’t feel comfortable being there anymore. He didn’t feel comfortable coming because I was uncomfortable being there.
Keeping things quiet
We also decided we’re not going to attend on Wednesday nights anymore. We’re just gonna not go to the Zoom meeting.
And we did not tell my parents this. We simply stopped showing up and we started the moving process. Didn’t tell them either of those things.
Pretending to be ignorant
Within about three weeks of stopping attending, um, we got a note from my parents asking us, “You know, we noticed you haven’t been out recently on the Wednesday night church, and we want to know if there’s anything we can do to help with that.”
Meanwhile, they’re the reason we’re not there!
And so I just level with them. I’m like, “The abuse is getting to me. It’s giving me panic attacks, and anxiety, and I can’t manage it anymore.
And we’ve heard complaints from other people who are saying that the quality of the meeting is going downhill because of this sort of behavior. So we’re just not going to come.”
They have also found out now, by this point, that we are moving. Because of course, they’re next door, so it’s kind of hard to hide that process!
Finally, a direct response!
But anyway, after I’ve told them very directly that their behavior is the reason I’m not coming anymore, and they see that we’re getting ready to move…
I get a message from them, and they say, “Oh well, we realize there’s things wrong with our relationship and we’d like to, you know, meet together to talk about it and see what can be done.”
Well, I’m in the middle of moving with six kids!
Too little, too late
I don’t have time for any more drama at that point. I am not gonna stop and give them the attention they’re looking for at this point, at the cost of my family’s health and ability to do stuff.
So I say, “Look, we’re in the middle of moving! I can’t do this with you right now. I’ll have to schedule something after the move is complete.”
So of course they didn’t like that, but, you know, what were they gonna do at this point?
How church leaders responded
We also met with two couples who, the husbands were elders of the church. One was someone who knew my dad since childhood, and the other was someone closer to our age.
And we met and we explained to them why we weren’t coming to church anymore, midweek meeting, and that we were moving. Both of these were because of the behavior that my parents and my brother had been displaying in a public setting regularly, in addition to what we were dealing with privately.
“Keep ignoring spiritual abuse”
And both couples expressed that they were sad that we weren’t going to come anymore on Wednesday nights. And that they… and they advised us to try to ignore the behavior but they didn’t feel any need to do anything about it.
They said they would pray. That they were sad that we were feeling that way… we were suffering, but also they didn’t necessarily feel a need to do anything.
Will a move be enough?
So we told them very straightforwardly that we are going to try moving. And see if giving us some distance from my family will give us the change that we need to not be dealing with all these panic attacks, and the, you know, the results of abuse, frankly!
But we weren’t sure whether it was going to be enough.
So we looked for a place to move, and we moved about an hour away. But we were still planning on continuing to commute up to our church and having an active role there. Because, of course, my husband was a minister and that was his job.
And so our plan was just, okay, we’ll commute in. And we’ll have an hour’s drive safety and distance from my family and hopefully that will be enough for us to manage.
Physical impacts of spiritual abuse
I’ve talked a little bit in some of my other videos about the physical impact that emotional abuse, from my in-laws—manipulation and emotional and spiritual abuse—from my own parents and from my brother.
@dinkumtribe It takes a lot of concentrated effort to start recognizing your own needs, after years of being taught to ignore them, or minimize them. @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe #ChildhoodAbuse #AbuseRecovery #SpiritualAbuse #childhoodtrauma #ChildhoodNeglect #Migraines #MedicalNeglect ##religiousabuserecovery##ReligiousTrauma##migrainesufferer ♬ original sound – DinkumTribe ADHD family travel
I’ve talked about some of the physical impacts that that’s had on me. But one of the things that I noticed, while we were in the middle of trying to move…
So we were selling our house, we were buying a new house, packing up our six kids to move…
Worst migraine EVER!
And during that time I had a migraine that went on for about six weeks and nothing would touch it.
That was the level of stress I was under. Nothing would touch it! None of my medications that I was taking, none of the ones I take as a prophylactic measure to protect against them. None of the ones that would usually give me some relief. I was getting no relief.
@dinkumtribe How I started to recognize my own needs after years of medical neglect and childhood neglect. @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe #ChildhoodAbuse #AbuseSurvivor #AbuseRecovery #migrainerelief #migrainesufferer #MedicalNeglect #emotionalneglect #HealingJourney ♬ original sound – DinkumTribe ADHD family travel
It was the worst migraine I’ve had ever, and nothing would do anything for it.
And finally after a couple of weeks of just not being able to get anything to work, I went to the doctor and to the Urgent Care. And they gave me an injection of toradol and that gave me 12 hours of relief, and then the migraine came back.
[It finally wore off completely once we closed on our new house and were actually leaving my parents’ neighborhood]
The body responds to abuse
So when people talk about how emotional abuse and spiritual abuse, they don’t leave physical scars like physical abuse does…
They do leave physical scars. It’s just that so often it gets missed because the symptoms aren’t directly traceable, usually.
Other physical symptoms
And that was something I observed too. That, you know, several of my kids developed panic attacks and anxiety during this time. And I had that terrible, terrible migraine.
So there were symptoms, but it wasn’t, like, bruises and blood, that is easy to see in a physical abuse situation. So I just wanted to share that.
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As a, you know, stomach indigestion… I mean there’s so many you can actually look this up and see. But so often symptoms that people assume are illness can be from the constant stress that your body is under if you are experiencing emotional abuse, emotional manipulation, spiritual abuse, mental abuse.
So we completed our move at the end of April 2021. And we get into our new house and it was finally…
Oregon’s COVID mandates
Oregon lifted the masking and the social gathering laws around COVID so that we could actually go and meet with people at our church again. They’d had other regulations in place and so some churches were meeting and then they left it to people’s discretion.
So there were churches that were meeting normally at that point but most people in our church didn’t feel comfortable doing that until the laws lifted specifically.
And so we finally were going to be getting off the Zoom calls that we’ve been having, all of this happening, last year and a half, and finally able to meet together in person.
First time back at church
So the first week we were able to do that was towards the middle or end of May 2021. So we loaded up our family of six [plus adults] and decided to go to church in person for the very first time, after like, close to two years of not being able to.
Since 2020, okay, full year, full year and a half… So it might have been less than two years, but it just it seemed like forever because it was!
So we’re finally gonna get to go to church in person. And one of the things we had decided on was that we weren’t going to be dressing up for church anymore. We’re just going to go in our regular clothes.
A lot of people in our denomination tend to still tend to dress up in fancier, dressier, business-type or you know, traditional Sunday Dress-type wear to go to church.
And it wasn’t a rule, it was a unspoken expectation that you would dress up to be at church and something different than what you usually wore unless you had a really good excuse not to.
But our conviction as parents was that that was silly, because we want other people—guests—who come to feel comfortable. And so we want to dress casually so they can come however they are. So that’s what we decided to do.
Panic attack again
We got to church, and we got ready to sit down, and my, one of my daughters went into a full-blown panic attack.
So here we were, first day back at church, and I spent most of it out in the car with my daughter because it was an hour’s drive home. So I just went out to the car and sat with her while she felt her way through that.
When I asked her later what had happened she couldn’t remember anything specific. But she said that my dad had given her kind of a dirty look as she came in—an angry look as she came in. So we think that’s probably what triggered it.
Disappointed and discouraged
It was supposed to be, it was going to be a really happy day because we were all finally back together again.
And instead it turned out to be a really crappy day because she got really badly triggered, and I’m pretty sure it was because of my dad. He excels at making angry looks at people, and she has always been very good at picking up on subtleties that other kids might miss.
And so of course she totally picked up on that and that was… Pretty sure that was because she came in shorts and casual clothes like the rest of us did, and she just happened to catch his disapproving glare.
More spiritual abuse
So that was our first week back after COVID, and after we’d moved, and after we tried to find space. So we were discouraged but we said, okay, well, we’re going to keep going. We could manage that, it’s only once a week.
So we went back the next week and the next week things seem to go pretty well. My family happened to be out of town making a visit elsewhere.
And so we were all at church that day. And the other elder who is most, was responsible for most of the teaching and preaching, (along with my dad and my husband) he got up to speak.
When preaching becomes an attack
My husband got up to speak. My husband spoke out of the book of Jonah, and preached about something out of the book of Jonah. Just standard, you know, what he felt God put on his heart to preach that day.
The other elder got up afterwards, and preached a short message out of Hebrews. About keeping the peace, and being peacemakers and trying to get along with everybody else.
And in his message—it was probably less than 10 minutes—he used at least four very specific turns of phrase that he had also used with us when we were talking about how my family was being abusive when we had asked him for help.
He had used four specific phrases there to encourage, as he encouraged us to ignore the abuse, and to just hope that it would go away if we ignored it.
How abusive people hide it
And I—it was like stab wounds, um, to me. Because I immediately, of course, picked up on them. Because that’s how abuse works.
Frequently, other people don’t notice it, but the person being abusive knows what to say, and how to say it, so that the victim that they’re shooting for perceives it.
And that was successful and that’s exactly what I felt. I felt betrayed. I felt shocked. I went into shock.
Processing the reality
On the drive home I finally was able to recognize that that was really what had happened with this elder. His message, in his message, he used those specific phrases, and so we knew it was targeted at us.
And we recognized that, “Oh. It’s not just my family being abusive anymore.”
Others are now joining in to heap abuse on us. So that we will be quiet and stop talking about how my family’s being abusive.
Even though it’s all public. Everybody has, and people have verbally acknowledged that my parents and brother are being abusive to us, and being inappropriate in church.
Ignoring spiritual abuse and adding to it
We finally realized the other elder, and others in leadership, were unwilling to do anything. And now they were even joining into it to try to get us to let go of this. They were making us to be the problem, instead of seeing that we were stating there was a problem.
So my husband and I talked. And that day when we got home we decided we were just gonna need to leave.
Our only option
And we were gonna need to, and that meant we were gonna be leaving our job as ministers. And the denomination that I had grown up with for my entire, nearly forty years in life at that point, which my husband and I’d been in since he met me.
We couldn’t continue to put up with abuse. It was literally, physically, killing us, aside from the emotional impact. And it was starting to really damage the kids and so we knew we needed to leave.
Letter of resignation
So that day we went home, and my husband wrote a letter of resignation from the church that we were part of, and from being ministers. Because we knew it was just killing us.
So we wrote that letter, and we sent it within a couple of days because we couldn’t… We could have waited. We didn’t have to.
Acting with integrity
Nobody knew what we were thinking inside of our head at that point. So we could have waited, but we didn’t feel right doing that because we were receiving money from other people as part of ministry.
We were being paid as ministers [not a salaried position, but based on freewill offerings from the congregations we served]. Being given love gifts as ministers, and we didn’t feel right accepting those kinds of gifts if we knew we were not staying anymore.
Ignoring spiritual abuse = incalculable loss
So we wrote the letter. We sent the letter and we left we just never went back to church after that.
Not to that church anymore. We took a week off and then started looking for churches in our new local area that we had just moved to.
But it just all became really clear that we were not going to be safe at the church anymore because of what my family had done.
Next video in series: Protecting ourselves and our kids.
©️ Copyright Jennifer D. Warren, 2023.