Some Sacramento-area faithful turn backs on pastors, 'spiritual abuse'

Sacramento Bee/December 11, 2009

It began with a compliment from the pastor and a desire to be obedient. It ended with Karen Sapp allowing the minister to control nearly every aspect of her life.

She had faith in the North Highlands pastor, promising she could change her life with honor and service. Sapp gave all her free time to the church.

She worked in many church ministries, including one for members to cook meals for the pastor's family. She donned the uniform she was asked to wear. Sapp said she called the church leader, his wife and children "The First Family" - as requested.

One day last year, Sapp and her family walked way from the nondenominational independent church.

Looking back on how the pastor expected members to ask him for advice on everything from where to shop to what to watch on TV, Sapp keeps asking herself the same questions: Why, and how?

"It's not as if you join a church one day and promise to do everything they say," Sapp said. "It happens slowly. I would have done anything for the church."

Sapp was wrestling with the fine line between obedience and what is called "spiritual abuse," in which congregants follow the demands of their faith leaders to the detriment of their well-being. The dilemma isn't new, but the increased awareness is.

Web sites invite those who believe they are victims to tell their stories, books are devoted to the topic, and some cases land in court. Last month The Bee chronicled details of a lawsuit against Radiant Life Church in south Sacramento, claiming that its leader, Tony Cunningham, compelled church members to honor him by giving him money and paying for his vacations.

Congregants from other local churches said they have faced similar demands from their pastors, while some members counter that this is what faith is: You adhere to a set of beliefs and submit to your spiritual leader.

Listeners have been calling "The Eric Hogue Show" in recent weeks, discussing their experiences of obedience and spiritual authority on the Christian radio talk show.

"It's incredible, the stories people are sharing," Hogue said. His weeknight show, which airs on KFIA 710AM, has received more calls on this topic than any other.

Some listeners defend pastors' requests that congregants honor them with time, money and gifts, saying it is biblical. Others say it is not and that these pastors twist the Bible to suit their own goals.

Hogue's view is clear: "As a Christian, it makes me mad that some so-called spiritual leaders use their position to manipulate people. Unfortunately, this is going on more than people realize."

He said believers should consult the Bible. "Jesus didn't say you have to cook for me or pay for my vacations."

Hogue said it is easy for a congregant who wants to be obedient to be manipulated by a pastor who abuses that trust. Hogue's former minister tried to control him - even telling Hogue whom he should marry. Hogue confronted the pastor and left that church.

That was two decades ago, but Hogue is still angry. "My wife and I married a couple of months after we left and moved on. … Afterward, we looked back and thought, 'Did that really happen?' "

Most people don't realize that it is happening. The transition from being obedient to being controlled by church leaders is gradual, experts say.

"Somehow, the pastor manages to convince you that being supportive of him equates to being supportive of God," said Jeff Van Vonderen, co- author of "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse."

"Then they won't question him."

He said most pastors are not abusive. In healthy pastoral relationships, spiritual leaders do not shame or devalue another person who has an opposing view.

In unhealthy or abusive situations, the pastor often tries to separate churchgoers from nonmembers, he said. Members are forbidden to challenge church leadership and are often told they will fall out of favor with God if they leave. Former members are shunned.

Holli Little belonged to a local congregation for 13 years before leaving 10 years ago.

"It took me two years to really recover from my experience," Little wrote in an e-mail. "I had a lot of regrets about the years I had spent working, serving and giving to that place at the expense of my own personal goals."

Sapp believed that, by honoring her pastor and church, she was "storing up treasure in heaven," she said. Whenever something at the church needed to be done - whether it was cleaning the building or participating in a carwash, she said church leaders would approach members and say, "God is telling me you would be great at this."

"How can you say no to that?" asked Sapp.

Sapp finally did say no and left the church after the pastor publicly rebuked her teenage son. "I believe in miracles," Sapp wrote in an e-mail to The Bee. "It may take one to get (her children) back into church after the bashing and verbal abuse they incurred."

Leaving isn't easy.

Many say the only friends they had - and their children had - were in the congregation. They worried that if they left the church, they would likely lose those friendships.

Jill Decker, her husband and their children had become close to another family in their Fair Oaks church. They became so close that when the Deckers wrote their will they said, that if they both should die, they wanted their four children to be raised by this couple.

In June, Decker and her husband left the church. They wrote a letter to the board expressing their concerns about church leadership, even though they knew criticism was not tolerated.

Soon afterward, the Deckers received a letter from the couple who had been their close friends.

"They called us cowards because we had spoken out. They deleted us as their friends on Facebook," Decker said. She and her husband will soon change their will. They are still hurt by their friends' behavior.

"They deleted us from their lives, really."

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