Ronald Enroth, Ph.D.
It is common practice for churchgoers in American society to refer to their own congregation as their “church family.” Students away at college make reference to their “home church.” Church people sing hymns about being part of “the family of God.” Parents often employ family imagery to convey spiritual content to their children.
As behavioral scientists remind us all too often, that most basic of social institutions—the family—is increasingly subject to frailty and failure. The label that is currently popular for unhealthy families is “dysfunctional.” Unfortunately, sociologists of religion (as well as many ex-members) know that some churches are also dysfunctional, even to the point of being spiritually abusive. If truth in advertising standards could be applied to religion, some churches would be required to display a sign reading: “Warning: this church could be harmful to your spiritual and psychological health.”
Farfetched? Not if my own research of the past few years has any validity at all. Sadly, spiritual and pastoral abuse is more prevalent than most people believe. Like child abuse, it often goes undetected, or else it is strongly denied. Spiritual abuse is inflicted by persons who are accorded respect and honor in society by virtue of their positions of religious authority and leadership. When such leaders violate the sacred trust they have been given, when they abuse their authority, and when they misuse their ecclesiastical office to control their congregations, the results can be catastrophic.
What are the hallmarks of unhealthy, aberrant churches? The key indicator is control-oriented leadership, ministers who have a need to “lord it over the flock.” Abusive leaders demand submission and unquestioning loyalty. The person who raises uncomfortable questions or does not “get with the program” is cast aside. Guilt, fear, and intimidation are used to manipulate and control vulnerable members, especially those who have been taught to believe that questioning their pastor is comparable to questioning God.
Why does a pastor or priest sometimes turn into a spiritual tyrant? I believe it is because of the human desire to control others and to exercise power over people. Each of us has been exposed to the temptation of power, whether in the role of spouse, teacher, or parent. An excessive will to power, coupled with sincere religious motives, can lead to the misuse of spiritual authority.
More than any other age group, young adults are attracted to abusive churches, their seemingly dynamic programs, and their “take charge” leaders. Such churches often target young couples during the crucial child-bearing years. As a result, the energy needed by these young couples for legitimate family interaction is siphoned off into a high intensity cause. Family obligations are sacrificed, and children’s developmental needs are neglected.
How can we recognize a healthychurch? In addition to matters of appropriate doctrine, a healthy church is reconciling and restorative, not adversarial and elitist. Members of healthy churches seek to deepen and strengthen their family commitments. Legitimate leaders will welcome dissent and hard questions from members without threat of reprisal. Trustworthy leaders will encourage accountability, and they will establish checks and balances.
Choose a church carefully and prayerfully. Remember, not all religion is benign, and not all church experience is beneficial.
Ronald M. Enroth, Ph.D