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Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse, Part Three

By Mike Fehlauer
Pastor, Author, Director of Foundation Ministries - - Performance Emphasis

Opportunities to minister are abundant in most churches. Yet in a controlling church, individual areas of ministry are no longer opportunities to serve. They become necessary in order to prove one’s commitment to the organization. Whether it is faithful attendance to worship services or working in some department, proving one’s loyalty becomes the key.

Obviously church attendance is vital to our spiritual growth. But if we find ourselves attending church so we can win favor with the pastor or to earn his trust, then we have missed the point.

Galatians 2:16 tells us, “A man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.” We cannot earn heaven or God’s love. The message of God’s grace doesn’t cancel the need to serve – it just exposes the “why” of our service.

Even though we are instructed to engage in certain disciplines in the Christian life, these disciplines are not a means of gaining God’s acceptance. They are meant to be a celebration of His unconditional love and mercy.

Fear Motivation

When a pastor tells his congregation that those who leave his church or disobey his authority are in danger of God’s wrath, you can be sure this man is operating in a spirit of control. He is attempting to sue fear as a carnal means of keeping people in his church. The line usually goes like this: “If you leave our church, the blessing of God will be lifted from your life, and you will miss God’s will.” Another version says, “If you leave our church, you will be in rebellion, and Satan will be free to bring havoc into your life.”

Fear is the motivation behind such comments -- not love. You can be sure that this type of reasoning is not from God. Jesus never motivated men out of fear. In a controlling church, fear is a form of manipulation. Instead of motivating people through love and servant hood, a controlling church tries to motivate through manipulation. Motivating people through fear is a direct contradiction to 1 John 4:18, which says, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.”

Painful Exit

In a controlling church, it is impossible to leave on good terms. Because the pastor’s sense of worth is usually based on the control he is able to exert over the congregation, when someone leaves, this insecure leader considers it an affront to his leadership. Therefore he often takes it personally. As a result, when people do leave, they are labeled rebellious, or the rest of the congregation is given the explanation that they left because they had become offended.

In an unhealthy church, there is never a good reason why anyone should leave. Regardless of the situation, the people who leave are always the “problem.”

This truism present in abusive churches applies not only to members, but to church staff as well. In one particular church, each time a staff member left, the senior person did his best to cast a shadow over that person’s reputation in the hope that it would destroy any chance of that person succeeding without him someplace else.

Tyrone was a youth minister at a church like this. One of the first conflicts he had with the senior pastor took place after a special youth outreach that Tyrone headed up. It was a skateboard outreach. Tyrone went over the idea and details with the senior pastor, informing the pastor that the outreach would require bringing in a guest speaker.

Once everything was given the OK, Tyrone proceeded with the outreach. It was a bigger success than anyone had anticipated. Approximately two thousand kids came for the different skateboard rallies that were held over a period of three days.

But instead of being excited about the results, the senior pastor became angry. He told Tyrone that he was unhappy with the even because “it took over the whole church.” Tyrone suspected that the pastor felt upstaged by the response. “It was the talk of the church for some time,” Tyrone said.

Tyrone went on to clarify, “I came on staff there not only to build a successful youth ministry, but also to be mentored in the things of ministry.” Tyrone continued by saying that this position was his first ministry position, and he knew he had a lot to learn. But he was willing to do so.

It soon became apparent that the pastor had a different idea concerning Tyrone’s position. Tyrone discovered that his job description also involved shoveling the pastor’s drive, picking up his dry cleaning, starting his car for him in the winter and cleaning out his pool in the summer. “I didn’t mind doing any of that,” Tyrone said. “I was just expecting more input from the pastor in the area of ministry.”

Tyrone continued by explaining, “A lot of the conflict was due to our differing perspectives concerning my position as well as our views about ministry.” After about one year, it was mutually decided that it would be better if Tyrone resigned in light of “philosophical differences” between the senior pastor and himself.

Tyrone told the pastor that after resigning, he would be moving to Kentucky. He asked the pastor if he could use him as a reference when he applied for another position. The senior pastor assured Tyrone that he would give him a positive recommendation. However, before Tyrone and his wife moved to Kentucky, a staff member of the church delivered a statement typed out on the church’s letterhead. The statement was an explanation as to why Tyrone was “discharged” from his position as youth pastor.

Tyrone and his wife were shocked. Based on their previous conversation, Tyrone was under the impression that they had reached a mutual decision that being there at the church just wasn’t a good “fit.” The statement described all the things that Tyrone had done wrong while he was at that church and stated that the senior pastor didn’t believe Tyrone was “ministry material.” It also said that Tyrone did not have a servant’s heart and that the pastor even seriously doubted the validity of Tyrone’s relationship with God.

Shortly after Tyrone and his wife arrived in Kentucky, Tyrone heard of a job opening in a church in their new city. He applied in person for the position and left the pastor his resume. Within a few days, they met with the pastor of this new church. He informed Tyrone that when the church board called the previous church about a recommendation, his former church sent the same letter they gave Tyrone before he left. Based on such a poor recommendation, the pastor informed Tyrone that they could not consider him for the position.

Shortly after this incident, Tyrone and his wife started a church in Kentucky. Ten years later their church is thriving and healthy.

Many times in an abusive church you will hear the pastor declare curses over the lives of those who have left. Accusations are made against their character, and other members are strongly discouraged from having any contact with the former members. I heard one pastor, while preaching, refer to a former staff member as a spiritual “whore” because he left and took another ministry position in another state. It is true that many people leave churches for the wrong reasons. But in a controlling church, rarely – if ever – is anyone truly blessed by the leadership as they leave.

What Can I Do About It?

How should you respond if your church displays one or more of these unhealthy traits? Here’s some advice:

Talk with your pastor or someone else in leadership about your concerns, keeping in mind that if he is truly motivated by a spirit of control you may encounter some manipulation during the conversation. Stay in a humble attitude rather than getting angry or defensive.

A controlling church leader will discourage you from speaking with anyone else about your concerns. However, the Bible says that “in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). Seek counsel from a mature, objective leader in another church or another mature Christian. It is possible that what you have perceived as a controlling attitude may be genuine concern – so pray for discernment.

If after receiving counsel you are convinced that your church is in the grip of a controlling spirit, then you are free to leave. You are not responsible for anyone else who is still loyal to the church, so don’t try to rescue them. Pray for those people to discern the situation.

At first you may feel that you can’t trust another pastor again, but resist those thoughts and find a healthy church where the life of God is flowing, where the Bible is preached without compromise and where love is evident.

One couple went through the process of leaving an abusive church. The pastor did everything he could to discredit them and malign their character. Initially, they both were frightened that they would be blacklisted from every church in their community. At first, they wanted to defend their character. It seemed that this pastor continued to have control over their lives even after they left. They wondered if they would ever be able to escape his influence.

Finally, they realized that God was their defense and protection. Instead of defending themselves, they decided to pray for their former pastor. The more they prayed for him, the less threatening he became in their minds. The anger they first had toward the pastor was replaced with compassion. As time passed, they realized that he didn’t have as much influence as they had initially thought. Because they had kept their hearts pure, they were able to find another church and to continue to grow spiritually.

There is life after spiritual abuse. You may be tempted to feel that you will never escape the controlling grasp of an abusive leader. Satan will cause you to think that the controlling leader’s influence is greater than it really is. Don’t give in to Satan’s intimidation. Trust God to be your strength and your defense. Keep your heart tender. Pray for those who have used you, and bless those who have cursed you. If you will do these things, you will discover a sure path that God has prepared for you as well as His destiny for your life.

God has a healthy church for you. The Good Shepherd is fully able to lead you into a green pasture where you can grow in your relationship with Him (Ps. 23:2). As you allow Him to lead you, He will also anoint your head with oil, healing any wounds you encountered in an abusive environment (v. 5).

Order your copy of "Exposing Spiritual Abuse" by Mike Fehlauer

Related articles:

Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse, Part Two

Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse, Part Three

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© 2001 Mike Fehlauer. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Mike Fehlauer's book, Exposing Spiritual Abuse. Mike Fehlauer is pastor of Tree of Life Church in New Braunfels, Texas. He is also the founder and director of Foundation Ministries. He travels extensively throughout the United States and the world, sharing God's message of love, hope and restoration. More from

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