Can Christians recover from spiritual abuse? Can they learn to trust leaders again? And if so, how - what does it take to rebuild that trust? And for those leaders who are finding people turning up at their churches with stories of abuse, how do they sort out the spiritual fleas who simply hop from church to church causing irritation, and those whose stories of ill-treatment are genuine?

Discerning between victims and parasites ?David Lawrence was for many years the pastor of a large church near Bristol. He had experience of people who had suffered spiritual abuse who came to join his congregation. While some leaders believe that it is easy to sort fleas from the genuinely abused, Lawrence is far more cautious.

“There is no absolutely certain way that I have found of discerning what is in people’s hearts when they first arrive in your church family” (see his six tips overleaf for sorting out who is who). Those who come from abusive churches can, he found, take a long time to assimilate into a new church. “One couple who had been badly treated spent months just dropping in to see what we were like, often arriving late and leaving promptly to avoid talking to anyone,” Lawrence recalls. “However, once they feel that the church is a safe place to be, they are often very committed and loyal: after all, if they are seeking to engage with a church despite previous pain, they must want church badly!”
So how did he decide which were the fleas? “Two major categories of churchhoppers are those who do not get their ministry (as they perceive it) recognised in previous churches - or those who do not feel their pastoral needs were met by a former minister,” says Lawrence. “They seem, to me, to be more proactive in a new situation than those who have been hurt in some way: the former come looking for affirmation or support, the latter just come looking.”

Alan Bain, vicar of St Philips and St James in Bath, agrees. “Spiritual fleas show little commitment to anyone. The really abused are more like roe deer - they are usually quite nervous and have stopped a long time in the previous church, making many friends. Treat roe deer with gentleness; listen to their thoughts and experiences. Gently coax them through long sessions to debrief all the bogus Christianity and spurious claims. I always say to them ‘Just rest in our church for six months and get well again. Don’t do anything - just let us minister to you. Go when you feel ready if that’s right or stay if you want.’ When roe deer are well again, they become some of the best members of the church - active, aware and growing in faith." ??Clive Burnard, pastor of Christchurch Baptist Church, Dorset, considers that "only time will tell if people are genuinely hurt or not. Leaders do have instincts about these things, and some supernatural discernment can operate. But you have to give people the benefit of the doubt - at least initially. At the same time, leaders can’t afford to be naïve." ?Denise Shepherd is a church leader and a trained counsellor, who believes that helping abused people to settle into a church can often require counselling - and challenging, if they have picked up a lot of teaching that is not helpful. "I ask them to tell me the story, and challenge what I think was wrong in the way they thought of themselves… people pick up wrong teaching and don’t see themselves the way God sees them. When they start to realise that things are wrong, they have a lot of strong feelings, and it is then they need help to get the anger out - they sometimes need permission to do this. I often get them to write a letter, or to draw how they feel - to get the emotions out in a creative way.

??"Sometimes you find a pattern of abuse in their other relationships and if people are used to abusive relationships, it can mean that they don’t leave an abusive church because they are comfortable in it." Shepherd also looks at their relationships within their families, particularly with their fathers but also with their mothers and siblings. "But in all this you have to be sensitive to what people want to do - and you have to wait until they raise the issue." ??Welcoming churches? ?All this is very positive - but are churches ready to receive those who have been spiritually abused? ??Denise Shepherd thinks not. "It’s often hard for people to be believed. As a counsellor, I trust my intuition to gauge whether people really have been abused or if they are just church hopping. I do think leaders are more likely to think that people are the problem rather than thinking the church is the problem, unless they already know something about that particular church. The sad thing is that if people feel they won’t be believed, or are afraid they might not be believed, then they tend to keep quiet." Those who were in abusive churches are left with the question: ‘how much of their teaching should be jettisoned?’ ??Matthew told me; "I was so hurt and disappointed that I dumped everything, but I was concerned not to discard the baby with the bathwater so I devoured the Bible. Every day, for hours, I read and re-read scriptures that had formed the cornerstone of the church’s thinking.

Deuteronomy 28 had haunted me for years, it speaks of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. Then I discovered grace and mercy. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve, mercy is not getting what you do deserve. Jesus took the curse for my disobedience and I get the reward for his obedience. Then I discovered Psalm 103, ‘…He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.’ Oh the peace that flooded my soul! I shall never forget it. How long did it take? Perhaps a couple of years but I still regularly find scriptures that tear great holes below the waterline of their twisted belief system. Like Galatians 5… I had always been taught that we had to be good people; I had to pray, read the Bible, and be committed to the church in order to engage with ‘means of grace’. What does Galatians 5 say? It says we fall from grace when we try to be justified by the keeping of the law. My late wife used to say that our former pastor was the only person in the world who could preach for an hour on grace ... and still leave you feeling guilty!" ??Laura left her abusive church and quickly became a member in a new church - where she is very happy. But she hasn’t moved house and still sees people from her old church. These relationships remain difficult. "I feel as though I have left my friends in a sinking ship, that the church really isn’t a safe place to be. And although I think the leader had lost touch with reality, I still care a lot about him and find myself praying for him a lot. Emotionally I haven’t moved on - in fact, I’m not sure how much we should forget about those we leave behind," says Laura. ??Like Matthew, Laura is still dealing with attitudes that are not biblical but which are the result of the teaching she had received. "There was also a strong belief in the church that they were ‘special’ in God’s eyes. The Pastor even said once that God had said to him, ‘If I revived the rest of the church, I would be reviving a mess.’ That kind of teaching appeals to our pride - we’re God’s chosen church - and of course the other side of it was that we were told, implicitly and explicitly, that the rest of the church in this country were backsliding. Having moved to a church, which is very free and relaxed, a little bit of me can easily think, ‘They’re not very spiritual in this church!’ Yet then I look at the people who are becoming Christians, getting baptised and hear their testimonies about how God has reached them by His grace, and I realise all over again that God doesn’t have chosen churches, He has a chosen Body, and He cares about all of it. It isn’t just the teaching: the church had unspoken rules that I followed, and only really became aware of when I moved into a much freer atmosphere, where people are free to question what is going on openly without being reprimanded! I’m still getting used to the freedom. And it is not easy for a new church to assimilate someone who is as hurt and angry as I still am, a lot of the time."

??Rebuilding trust ?Building up trust is a huge issue for those who have been abused. Professor Andrew Walker, author of Restoring the Kingdom and a lecturer at Kings College, London, says, "The statistical evidence is not available, but many people, in my experience and based on my research, that leave abusive churches simply give up on faith and pass into unbelief." During my own research for this article, I interviewed three women who were no longer going to church - one of whom had given up her faith. She is so angry, not with the original abusers, but with those called in from outside to sort out the mess. Another woman would like to go back to church, but told me, "I’ve looked at various places but I get panicky". Geoff and Sarah have been part of two abusive churches - and while they are now settled into a new church, Sarah admits that she can trust the female leader but, "It’s going to take a long time to trust another male leader." Geoff adds; "I think you get over it but it is a very important lesson that we have learnt, that you don’t just trust. It leaves you feeling vulnerable. You can commit to a new church, you can function in a new church, but there’s a sense of, "If I get over this totally, what is to stop it happening again’?"