One of the most important decisions that you’ll ever make as a Christian is choosing a church home. The church you choose to be a part of will either help or hinder your growth as a follower of Jesus Christ.
Although not perfect, the church you choose to attend should be healthy. But what happens when it isn’t?
What are the signs and symptoms of an unhealthy church?
Signs of An Unhealthy Church
- Lack of church governing board, or eldership team
- Senior leadership has no real accountability in place outside of themselves
- No discipleship or Christian Education classes
- Self-appointment of roles, titles, or church offices
- No budget/Financial Plan or Strategy
- Inappropriate male/female interactions, closed door meetings, trips, phone calls, etc.
- Leadership refuses to admit failures or mistakes. All fault is deemed as spiritual warfare and never as human error or incompetence
- Any negative report is deemed as persecution, demonic attack, or rejection but never as constructive criticism or feedback
- Leadership roles and positions are never changing, or always changing
- Meetings are top down monologues instead of transparent group dialogue
- Leadership is reactive rather than proactive (constant emergency meetings, phone calls, and messages)
- No training prior to ordinations or new ministry roles
- No calendar schedule or short and long goals
- Failure to start and end events during scheduled times
- Failure to follow through on plans, goals, or ideas
- Church members are always informed of decisions instead of being included in making them
- Leadership never asks for feedback
- Unverified claims and or preoccupation with being international, global, or worldwide
- Members who leave without the blessing of leadership are often the subject of gossip and slander
- Church’s Financial health is kept secret or unknown to contributing membership
- You are never informed on where your money is going or what it is being used for
- Continuous pleas for financial gifts or donations (outside of regular offerings)
- Bad reputation amongst outsiders
- Push to align with a certain political party or ideology
- No statement of faith or clear doctrinal beliefs
- No tax ID or (EIN)
- Issues obtaining giving receipts or tax statements
- Discrediting of other local churches or pastors
- Lack of Fellowship/Partnership with other local churches
- Lack of community engagement
Even more dangerous than being in an unhealthy church is being under spiritually abusive leadership.
Spiritual abuse for many is hard to detect because it often comes from leaders who are charismatic, intelligent, magnetic, and confident.
These leaders seem to embody what it means to be Christ-like and spiritually mature.
Abusive spiritual leaders usually do not intend to hurt people.
The minds and hearts of people are often the unintended casualties of a leader’s pride, ego, or ambivalence. In the name of fulfilling the “vision” or “assignment” God has called them to the congregants simply serve as stair steps leading to an eternal reward.
Signs of Spiritual Abuse
- Request to co-sign for houses, cars, or other personal expenses
- Requests that bank accounts, loans, or other church expenditures be placed under your name
- Requests that your rent, mortgage payment, or other money set aside for bills or household expenses be given or “sown” as a “sacrificial seed”
- Pastor requests that checks for the church be made out in his name, or that church donations be given to him personally
- Private solicitation of money from Pastor or other church leaders
- Failure to create contracts and agreements, insisting that work be completed in good faith or as a favor
- Pastor or church leadership requests that a church employee forgo compensation while they request more
- Told that your blessing is tied to the financial prosperity of your pastor
- Failure to give leadership acknowledgement or praise in a manner that they deem fit is considered as dishonor
- Leadership expects blind loyalty.
- Honest and sincere questioning is considered as being rebellious, not submitting to leadership, or even worse having a “Jezebel or Absalom Spirit”
- Requests that conversations be kept secret from spouse, family members, and or significant others
- Pastor or church leader repeatedly request personal favors or asks that you use your influence on their behalf
- Public or private shaming of women who get pregnant out of wedlock
- Mental illness is deemed as demonic or something that needs to be “cast” out
- Therapy or use of medication is frowned upon
- Lack of physical healing is equated to having a lack of faith
- Encouragement not to acknowledge or “claim” health issues, financial struggles, mental health issues, or marital problems
- Intense fear leaving. Told that you will not prosper if you choose to leave, or that you will miss what God has for you.
- Frequent us of terms such as “God said” or “God told me” in order to convey a final authority
- Not being allowed to take a break or sabbatical from your church role or position
- Asked to be a part of a private “inner circle” or group within a group
- Not being allowed to take trips, vacations, or celebrate accomplishments of family and friends due to church services or events
- You are told who you should or shouldn’t date or marry
- You feel afraid or uncomfortable asking questions
- Depression or anxiety prior to going to church
- Feelings of sadness, depression, or heaviness after leaving church
- Constant self doubt. Did you misinterpret or mishear what was said? Are you crazy?
- Breach of confidentiality. Sharing of personal emails, texts, or conversations without your consent
- Attempts to control the release of information or negative reports
I know some of these signs seem unbelievable but believe me they happen. I’ve either heard of, personally witnessed, or experienced every single one of these.
There is a psychology behind spiritual abuse.
It’s subtle, unassuming, it often happens over a period of time. It can take victims months, or even years to realize.
Ironically the profiles of victims of spiritual abuse are similar to those of cult members.
Those most likely to experience spiritual abuse include; young adults, college graduates, individuals from single parent homes, single mothers, individuals who’ve been abused in the past, women, and individuals living in poverty or low-income communities.
WHAT TO DO NEXT?
Don’t ignore the red flags. It is often hard to accept that you’ve been the victim of spiritual abuse. Being a victim of spiritual abuse does not mean that you are weak minded, unintelligent, or lack confidence.
On the contrary, spiritual abuse victims are oftentimes very intelligent as they often have to play mental gymnastics in order to convince themselves that the abuse is not real, or to turn a blind eye to what is right in front of them.
The only crime of individuals who are the victims of spiritual abuse is being loving and loyal. So, what should you do next?
6 Steps to Avoid and Escape Abusive Churches
- Pray: If you or someone you know is the victim of spiritual abuse or a member of an unhealthy church the first thing that you should do is pray. Be honest with God about your hurts, pain, and uncertainties. Ask Him what you should do. (Jam. 1:5, Ps. 32:8)
- Wait: Don’t leave the church until you have peace about your decision. Choosing to break fellowship with a church is a big decision and should not be made in haste or on a whim. (Phil. 4:6-7)
- Don’t Sneak Out the Back Door: As tempting as it may be to leave and never come back you at least owe it to your pastor, and or church membership a reason for your departure. Leaving without a conversation gives no room for repentance and possible reconciliation. All your times there may not have been bad. You likely have fond memories with many of the people at that church. If you are in a leadership role or employed by the church, ask the senior leadership if you can address your staff or volunteers. If your request is granted, use that time to thank those who God has allowed you to lead. Do not use your final goodbye as a way to bash the church, or air how you have been wronged.
- Pray Again: Pray for the church and its leadership. Pray that God reveals blind spots and brings awareness to any sin issues. Pray for others who may be experiencing what you’ve gone through.
- Talk to Someone: Leaving a church can be one of the hardest things you’ve ever had to do. Not everyone will understand. You may lose some relationships. The pain of leaving a church can for some be synonymous to a divorce or even death. You will likely go through a season of grief, depression, and loneliness. Talk to a trusted friend, counselor, or therapist. If you need professional help; get it! If you need medication; take it! Cling to the Word of God and know that God is not boxed in to only one form of healing. Your name may be defamed. Your motive and character may be called into question. Don’t worry about this, if you’ve walked in integrity God will fight on your behalf. The fruits of your labor and your good works will begin to cry out in the midnight hour and lay heavy on the hearts of men.
- Don’t Give Up on The Church: Although it may be tempting, refuse to turn your back on God or His people. After you’ve gone through spiritual abuse it becomes painstakingly clear why many people have chosen to leave the church and have vowed to never return. Unfortunately, as Christians we are not given this option. The Bible commands all Christians to be a part of a body of believers (Heb. 10:23-25, Acts 2:42)
Every believer should be a part of a healthy church where they, and their families can grow and thrive. No church will ever be perfect because it will always be filled with imperfect people. Although not perfect it can and should be a healthy place where you and your family can find peace and rest as you grow in your love and devotion to Jesus Christ.
“Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul” (3 John 1:2).