How to Spot an Abusive Church

Charisma News Service/November 22, 2002

Thousands of Christians have given up on going to church because of the spiritual abuse they have suffered as part of another congregation, says a pastor who offers warning signs that a pastor may be too controlling.

In "Exposing Spiritual Abuse," Mike Fehlauer says that the problem is "rampant and more widespread than we have wanted to believe," and relates several horror stories of the way some pastors have exercised inappropriate power and control over their church members.

In his Charisma House book, Fehlauer tells of a West Coast family told off by their pastor after going on a vacation without first getting his permission. The rest of the congregation was ordered not to talk to the family for a period of time, during which the children were not allowed to play with other youngsters in the church.

In another church, a young woman was told that she should not date her boyfriend because he attended a different church, and a man was told that his wife had not been accepted for the worship team because she was too fat and did not meet the unspoken " 5-7-9 " rule, referring to the dress sizes acceptable for singers.

Such stories are "much more typical than any of us would like to admit," Fehlauer writes. "The sad truth is that many churches today struggle with varying degrees of control, which can lead to devastating abuse if not corrected."

That abuse has resulted in "untold thousands of wounded and disillusioned Christians who believe they've been burned by the one institution that was supposed to help them." Many turn their back on the church for good, he adds.

The pastor of Tree of Life Church in New Braunfels, Texas, Fehlauer outlines the key warning signs of an abusive church, including "power positioning" where the pastor starts to take the place of Christ in people's lives, the demand for unquestioned authority, and an atmosphere of secrecy.

Other "red lights" include an elitist attitude that discourages members from attending other churches, an emphasis on "performance," motivating members by fear, and difficulty in leaving on good terms.

Fehlauer observes how some controlling pastors bolster their position by opening their church to other well-known speakers. "Some... will have an influential minister behind their pulpit on the average of twice a month.

"Not only can this create the problem of the people in the church not really knowing 'who' their church really is, but it also creates the dynamic of shared credibility... those who are beginning to suspect that they may be in an abusive church are often left confused when they see a minister whom they admire behind the pulpit that belongs to an abusive pastor.

"A controlling pastor knows all too well that he is borrowing strength from his association with well-known preachers in order to maintain influence with his own congregation."

Fehlauer offers advice to those feeling they should leave an abusive church. He says they should guard against unforgiveness, speak to the leadership about their concerns, distinguish between the abuser and their actions, and be patient. Additionally, he says, they should avoid getting caught up in arguments, be loving and avoid "secret" meetings to discuss their grievances.

Fehlauer urges those who have left an abusive church not to become "missing in action." "There are far more healthy churches out there than there are unhealthy churches," he says. "God has a church for you where love replaces fear, a church where hope replaces dismay and a church where abundance replaces lack."

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