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Spiritual Abuse Is Real. Here’s How to Recover.

The moment I realized I had been abused, I was staring at my computer screen.

I’d been working on a book about reading the Bible without anxiety, and decided to include scenes from my high school youth group, at the church I still attend.

There, I’d made amazing friends, had my first heady experiences of fellowship, the Bible and evangelism.

All positive. Except for a gigantic caveat.

In college, I learned my youth pastor had sexually assaulted my best friend for much of high school.

Now as I typed, I held the good and bad in my mind, and tried to write down the middle. Only my memory wasn’t cooperating.

Instead of earnest spirituality, or teenage high jinks, all I could write was darkness. I remembered my pastor speaking poorly of other adults. Asking me to “pray” for the students who didn’t curry his favor or show up to every event. I recalled his weird involvement in my dating life and extracurricular activities, and the moment I thought he was going to kiss me while I shared a prayer request with him.

I’d known he was abusive. I just never recognized that he’d abused me, too.

He spiritually abused me.

In his book, Healing Spiritual Abuse, author Ken Blue explains, “Spiritual abuse happens when a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds.”

There at my desk, I finally understood how my friend’s abuse was possible. How our pastor isolated us from healthy adults, punished those who didn’t conform and broke down physical and emotional boundaries.

For the first time, I also understood my wounds: the anxiety I felt about spiritual practices. The strange cynicism I felt about pastors. My recent desire to stay as far away from church services as possible.

Maybe I wasn’t a backslider. Maybe I was grieving.

I felt sick as I wrote out my memories, but looking back, it was as if God handed me a key—a chance to be free from shame, darkness and my youth leader’s authority.

Instead of feeling ashamed of the negative feelings that have plagued my spiritual walk, I’m starting to understand them as remnants of mistreatment. As I’ve learned to be gentle with my spirit, I’ve begun to heal.

Here’s how:

Process the Past.

Over the years, I had thought I understood what happened in youth group. But not until I started writing down specific scenes and details did I see its abusive culture.

Writing allowed me to remember youth group with the wisdom of an adult. Many of the memories I glossed over for years seemed normal when I was a teenager. But as an adult with kids of my own, I recognized the twisted logic of my pastor.

I needed to go back in order to move forward.

Find Your Voice.

Once I understood what happened to me, I felt urgency about telling my story to others. Sometimes, that was private: telling my husband, prayer partner and my sister.

But it was also more public. I made appointments with safe leaders at my church to talk about their handling of the past, and their experience of it. I started addressing the subject on my blog and elsewhere.

Seeing my husband react to my story helped validate my anger and drew us closer together. Looking my senior pastor in the eye as he listened humbly to my anger and grief helped me start healing cynicism towards church.

Sharing my story is tremendously empowering.

Give Yourself Permission.

My youth leader pressured us to make the group our life and shamed us when we didn’t comply.

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Part of my healing has been giving myself permission to not be as involved in my church.

I’ve stepped down from leadership positions, and stopped going to church every Sunday. I tend to tune out sermons, and I don’t volunteer in Sunday school.

Saying no to constant involvement feels good.

I’ll be honest—giving myself permission to step down has been hard. I’ve gotten some pushback from a well-intentioned friend, and felt embarrassed that my kid’s Sunday school teachers can’t count on my help.

It’s worth it.

On the Sundays my husband takes my kids to church without me, I take long walks on the beach near my house. Once I recited a Psalm about the power of God as water slipped over my feet. With every gentle wave, I felt my youth pastor’s lies lose their grip on my spirit.

Expand Your Definition of Spiritual Disciplines.

For a long time, reading the Bible, prayer, or quiet times all caused me anxiety. I thought that those were the Right Ways to connect to God, and so I kept after them—even when they made me despair. Just like in youth group, I felt pressure to show up.

But now I’ve radically expanded my definition of spiritual practices.

I started deconstructing a Bible in a wild art experiment. I started thinking of questions and spiritual writing as forms of prayer. And when I abstained from spiritual activities that made me anxious, I realized it was a kind of fast.

I still seek out traditional disciplines, like liturgy, a prayer partner and a women’s small group. But I feel freedom in choosing to encounter God with creativity and joy instead of a heavy sense of obligation. I know now that He isn’t trying to control me like my youth pastor did.

There’s no right way to recover from spiritual abuse. But the more I listen to what my heart is crying out for, the more I’m able to reconnect to God. My youth pastor trained me to mistrust others—and myself. He trained me to tap-dance to earn approval. But now, God is empowering me to heal and to dance in wild freedom before His throne.

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