To Leave or Not to Leave an Abusive Church

LEAVE OR NOT TO LEAVE…

Walking AwayIf you are looking to leave an abusive church, know there isn’t a tidy checklist and it isn’t always easy.  If you think about it, you have a lot of spiritual warfare going on around you.  But  how ever you leave the system, the point is to move forward.   How you walk out of one season will greatly determines how you walk into the next.   Different people leave in different ways.   Some walk out, some are kicked out (or excommunicated or “dismissed”) and some burn out.  Others grow out.  Some people find out and learn things and decide they need to leave.  Some get counseled out.  I have seen people walk out angry during a Sunday service and never return.  I’ve seen others just decide they will never return again, and they don’t.  I’ve seen people wait and search for the leader to talk after an eye-opening, upsetting meeting.  He never came out to speak with them so they left a message for him to call them.  He never called and they never returned.  I personally fell into 3 areas…grown out, finding out and kicked out.  My kids and I were excommunicated from a church I served at full-time.  In the process of seriously leaning on Jesus and how to trust through everything I had “grown out”.  I also hit a “glass ceiling” (yes, it happens in churches, not just companies) and all I wanted was to serve the Lord and reach the lost without the drama.  I also fell under “finding out”.  I witnessed way too much deception, gossip, slander, double-talk, etc. from leadership.  I had really heard and seen just way too much and knew from being around incredible shepherd pastors there was too much that was not appropriate or in line with the character of a Christ follower.  And the “can’t talk” unspoken rule was heavy (see Characteristics of an abusive church).  By the time we were excommunicated the Lord was telling me where to go because I had passed a test and He was about to expand my territory.  He had revealed to me I would be going down a different path months prior and a few days before excommunication I knew I would be released.  Knowing that helped me walk through the process tremendously.  However, during the dismissal meeting the abusive control continued.  I can not even begin to put into words how the Lord’s presence literally wrapped all around me and I was very aware of Him around me.  I was so sheltered, so at peace, I’ve never had an experience like it or since then.  I could see what was going on around me clearer than I had ever seen.  The control and abuse continued as they attempted to “shame” me into silence and control me from talking to people about anything after I walked out the door that night.   Right after we left meetings were called from the leader to shun us.

Either way, I want to stress this more than anything because it’s the one thing that I hear discussed the most: The years you spent in the spiritually abusive system were not a total waste.  Like most abusive families, most spiritually abusive systems have both positive and negative qualities.   I personally learned so much at the church I had attended. Here were a few major positive things I learned:  First, not to believe everything I was told by someone who claims to be a spiritual authority.  I learned that while watching the leader lie on several occasions about things he said I said that I hadn’t said while I was standing there.  Secondly, I learned to test what they say is scriptural and study it myself because scripture was twisted and taken out of context.    But the biggest positive was I learned how to trust God in the valley, cling to Him, listen to Him and learn His heart for me.  I did come away with some awesome friendships.  These were people who were independent thinkers, knew my heart and my kids’ hearts.  They were willing to go against leadership and continued to keep in touch.  They were the ones who helped me get through the transition season and even now it’s such a pleasure to run into them or do lunch with them.  Looking back, it was the most incredible season and this is when my life became a life of prayer and I learned who my enemy truly is.  I love my prayer time and guard my walk and quiet time with everything.   That came during affliction, tremendous heart ache and pain during those years and I’m so thankful for it.  Sometimes you don’t realize that Jesus is all you need until you’re walking in the valley and He is all you have.

It really boils down to deciding one thing…fight or flight.  Ultimately, you have to pay attention to what’s going on around you and inside of you while asking some hard questions:  Who have you become while being there?  If you came for the first time today, knowing what you know now about the church system in place, would you stay?  Can you decide your own limits by yourself and stick with them?  Can you stay, and stay healthy, at the same time? Are you supporting what you hate (for example, the leader suggests he will take over a situation for you that involves lying and destroying people. Can you support that)?  Listen to what God is telling you to do.  Don’t listen to everyone around you, listen to Him.  If you are considering leaving, think carefully who you tell.  If you decide to stay, don’t be naive there will be tension and a fight…the biggest battle is inside of you.   If you decide to stay the question of going or staying will replay constantly.  Here’s some tips to help you if you decide to stay:  First, decide who you serve….God or man.    Second, keep telling the truth!!  I wish I had done this and I didn’t.  I let the lies about me, about others from the leader continue.  I did not stand up and keep telling the truth.    There is a lot of double talk in abusive systems.  There is freedom and strength in truth.  Hold fast to the truth.   Third, know who your enemy is!  People are not our enemy, Satan is.  (Eph. 6:12, 2 Cor. 10:4). People hurt you, not God.    Fourth, hang on to the Good Shepherd!!  Bury yourself in the Word and learn Him.  Bury yourself in prayer or just being in His presence in silence until He gives you the next step.  Read Matthew 10 and Isaiah 40 and never forget that God is your Defender.  The fight is His, not yours…always take the high road that represents Jesus best.  Below are the descriptions I named before:

WALK OUTS

These people simply get angry from the situation and leave.  Unless they have a renewing of the mind, shedding the mind control, clear through the lies they don’t realize they’ve been told and get grounded in their faith and learn who Jesus is, walk-outs may lead destructive or fear-filled lives.  Some adopt the attitude that since they couldn’t measure up to the system’s requirements, there isn’t any hope for them anyway.  Some develop patterns of living that they wouldn’t have chosen otherwise.   There is a good chance that they will find another abusive church.  I have friends that have walked out successfully, reached out to others who had left before them to gain some sanity and moved forward into a healthy church with complete restoration of the relationships that leaders had told them were “bad”.  As I type this they are doing MAJOR damage to hell.  I’m sure Satan can’t stand it and I love that!

KICKED OUT

These people are excommunicated or shunned for a variety of reasons, usually related to the fact that they failed to fully integrate into one or all four aspects of controlling (information control, thought control, emotion control and behavior control).  These 4 make up mind control.  People who are kicked out of churches are commonly filled with tremendous grief and guilt.  They are still very loyal to the group’s beliefs and its people, even though rejected by the group.

BURNED OUT

These people have been so abused spiritually, mentally, physically, emotionally and financially, that they are barely able to function on a normal basis.  They are usually very confused, perhaps even physically ill, unable to trust anyone.

FIND OUT

These are people who are given, or stumble onto information which explains the situation enabling them to leave the mind control (the act of turning one’s mind, soul and body over to the control of another human being) without fear and guilt.  These people usually take several years to work through the adjustment to normal living and attitudes.

COUNSELED OUTS

I’ve heard of this but usually God closes the doors while people are going through counseling to leave.  Also, those who are born and raised within a highly controlling church or group are often counseled out.

Transition…It’s A Season!

Transition is a topic that I love so I have to control myself here.  It’s painful and it’s exciting.  It’s like a spiritual rollercoaster where you want to puke one second and scream in fear the other and maybe 5 minutes later God does something wonderful and you’re on your knees weeping with joy.  Lance Wallnau said this about transition in a video that I hold close to my heart:

“Transition is when believers are trying to figure out how they are going to work out the call of God for the next season.  Truth is, God is inviting you to explore the transition, that is, the DESIRE that’s in your heart.” (for more on the Desire of Your Heart-Your Assignment click here)

Transition brings genuine grief and excitement at one time.  I personally swung between feeling angry, depressed, sad and excited about the next level. Sometimes all in 24 hours or over the course of a month.  Either way it’s the time when the dream of your heart is taking shape.  Think long and hard over the thing you’ve had in your heart…chances are it’s tied to that.  This is why I beg and plead with people who are depressed and struggle with suicidal thoughts during this season…DON’T  feel guilty, ashamed or hard on yourself. It’s all in how you look at the situation.  Are you focused on God or how you feel?  Are you focused on God or on what you lost?  This is a valley moment on the way to the mountain that God has invited you to.  Maybe you have a dream to do more and you couldn’t at the church where you were attending.  I know a woman who had a desire to be involved more in missions and couldn’t where she was at.  A young couple wanted to serve more but they weren’t part of the inner clique and so they weren’t used.   Maybe you have a desire to go further with worship ministry and impact more people but can’t be done where you are.  I personally had a dream of doing more with the youth and getting more into networking area pastors together and taking care of youth leaders. I have a HUGE heart for pastors. I couldn’t do either of those at the church I was at. I hit that glass ceiling.  So God took me from there while keeping the desire in my heart, and just like a lateral move I crossed over to a safe church home where the Lord sent me to do the desire of my heart that he put it in there to begin with.  He put into motion and I was in my sweet spot immediately.  Our small group had 15 students grew to 50 with 22 leaders.  About a year later the opportunity to start a ministry for local youth pastors in my area came.   If I had taken my focus off Jesus after my excommunication, gave into my flesh, called it quits and ended my life after being shunned none of this would have happened.  In fact, God is incredible…1 1/2 years later my kids and I had another transition to a newer church closer to home where God took the youth from 30 kids to 425 in 6 months.  Wow! What a huge honor that I get to do this and God trusts me and chose me to be part of what He is doing!  And my church is SO HEALTHY that the pastors trust the Jesus in each of us leaders to do what’s right and not control.  They DISCIPLE!   And rather than hide what happened to me it became my victory story, which is truly “HIStory” of His goodness as I give God the glory for all he’s done.  He truly will work together all things to for good to those who love him and trust him.

Transition is an ending at the beginning.  It’s really truly the valley at the bottom of the mountain. The process of going through the desert to your new beginning. The battle or warfare in the transition is usually us coming up against the spiritual power or principality that is currently occupying the territory of our new beginning.  The only way to enter is to go through the desert time and doing battle on your knees in prayer that removes the principality in our territory.  It’s God ordained  and so you can trust Him.   The key is to embrace the transition, hang on tight to the Lord and really expect the new beginning!!  Look forward to what God is doing!   If you’re in transition then there are exciting times ahead for you!

What does this ending involve?

Endings typically involve 4 things:

  • disengagement
  • dis-identification
  • disenchantment
  • disorientation

Endings bring disengagement; they break apart social ties. It is hard to imagine life and identity apart from these known people.  But, this is usually the path to real development.

Endings bring on dis-identification: In transition, we lose ways of self-definition. It feels like the end of me. We experience the feeling of “I’m not sure who I am any more”. I was a __________ (vocation, role, etc.), but in this new reality I don’t yet own an identity. No longer “being a young person” or “being near the person in power” and it can be source of panic. But, trying to hang on to old identities stand in the way of transformation and personal growth.  Hanging onto old mind sets, holding tightly to the things you were told from leadership at the prior abusive church is a major roadblock.  If you can let go and give it to God and give people a chance you may not have before, you’d be shocked at what God does.

Endings bring disenchantment. We carry around in us a picture of “the way things were”; revisionist history, or an “enchanted view”. Once this is dis-enchanted, we are left, in a process  to wait for something new to be born. We tend to view personal growth as purely an additive process, one that means gaining stuff, never loss. But to grow and change, we must confront the part of our old reality that “was only in our head”—and lose it. The perfect church, pastor, spouse, child or job never did exist. We created them as an inner cast of characters and then looked for someone to play the parts.  These and other misperceptions are the “enchantments” that were “sufficient for the old reality”, but insufficient now. Maybe we really did need to believe that “people are always trustworthy”, etc., because it protected us in our immaturity. But with real growth comes truer perception that can be tolerated with mature Christian peace.

Endings bring disorientation. The reality that is left behind in any ending was not just a mirage; some of it was real. To be out of that reality, but to have no clear sense of, or un-failing plan for the future can be disorienting.  It leaves us feeling confused and empty, stuck or lost in a non-world.  The familiar ways through which we structured our time and space are gone and nothing new has come forward to replace them.  Even decisions that you may have made with the help of the leader who you trusted to make decisions for you has changed and thinking for yourself is a new learning curve again.   This is a meaningful time of learning faith and trusting in God but a hard time nonetheless.

During an ending, particularly when leaving an unhealthy abusive church, the desire for the old and going back is a temptation.  It aborts the process of learning a new way of being in the world.  Often God is taking us through a classroom and we can’t go forward when were stuck in the past.   Before we can find a new something, sometimes we must deal with a time of nothing. No new time of life is possible without the death of the old season.  Spring doesn’t begin until winter ends.  I’ve never seen spring in full bloom during the middle of winter.  To gain, you must first give up.  Give up mind sets, give up things you were told before by prior leadership…in most cases you have to sort the truth from the lies anyway.  For me it was better to just start fresh and trust when God is speaking to your heart.  An ending clears the ground for a new beginning.  The ending of an outward situation thrusts us into a season that can seem up and down….we go down before we go up.  Being in the valley is that down but trust God through it.  Let go of an old way of being before picking up a new one. And before realizing it we are acting out in total faith, trusting God to see us through.

Please browse through the Spiritual Abuse category and check out the Freebies page for more resources…you can get through this season!!  Transition and a new season is a beautiful place to be!!  Looking to hear some great messages that will challenge you to grow while you search for a healthy church?  Click here to Victory World Church. All messages are available to view, download or subscribe to the podcast!  Praying for you my friend!!

12 thoughts on “To Leave or Not to Leave an Abusive Church

  1. I recently left an abusive church I had been in for 21 yrs..it was a difficult desicion… mix of relief and alot of confusion…alot of my identity was in God,church… not sure who I am,who God is and what my future is….not alot of hope

    1. Wow..21 yrs is a long time. It can shake up your identity in Christ but let Him show you your worth in this hour. This is a great time to study & learn who Jesus is to you too. Sometimes the best healing came in prayer times where I just cried. My heart goes out to you. I’ll definitely be praying that Jesus will comfort, restore, heal & send you to a safe & healthy body of believers.

      1. Well expressing my emotions about the situation hasnt been easy …Im either numb or angry.Dont feel close enough to God right now to do much praying …I force myself to go sunday morning because I have teenagers…otherwise I probably wouldnt go.

        1. I’m so sorry for what you’ve gone through. I saw your email and I really want to be sure to respect you and your heart so I’ll email you, if that’s ok. If it helps you at all you are not alone…sadly there are so many people in the same place you are. I’ll email you…

  2. When your Identity is wrapped up in who you are spiritually …..God , church, friends, and then not. Its hard to be interested in life. You just exist…. work …dishes…laundry…not much meaning …your just breathing….. It sucks

  3. Thank you for your very insightful post. I was in an abusive church for 12 years and went through much of what you describe. Part of my healing was research I did on the subject, and I have a blog on some aspects of this. Could I put a link in to yours? I know this would help many, and I’d like to help get your message out to hurting Christians.

    *** Service disabled. Check access key in CleanTalk plugin options. Request number 40e14e519cfa1909bcfc557f831d5457. Antispam service cleantalk.org. ***

    1. Yes please get the word out!!! I would be honored! What is your website so I can also recommend yours?

      There are so many hurting!! It’s heartbreaking. I’m so glad to hear of your healing & learning about it helps!!! Thankful for your heart for the hurting!!!

      1. Jennifer, my stuff is on blogger- http://red-flag-churches.blogspot.com/. I have added you to my list of links to online help for spiritual abuse. Looks like we recommend some of the same books- Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse and Toxic Faith, specifically. There is lots of help out there when you finally realize what you’ve been involved with. The problem starts with just simply realizing and acknowledging it.

        1. I agree, it’s realizing & acknowledging first. So many don’t know what they’re dealing with. When Satan is doing his best we will never know it because we are deceived. It’s worse if someone gets caught up in false accusations & trying to wrestle with it. It brings so much bondage until people can break free to see what is happening.

          I’m excited to see your site!

  4. Dear Jennifer thank you so much for sharing this article. I’m in the process of leaving an abusive church which I have been a member of for 22 years, sadly I had been wanting to leave for a long time but couldn’t as I honestly believed that I would be destined for hell if I did. Recently, just by chance I stumbled upon some serious sexual abuse and lies that had happened in the past. Knowing this has made it easier to leave but somehow I’m very scared about joining another church. I;m lucky that quite a few of my friends have also recently left.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *