I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say that few clergypeople, ministers, or spiritual leaders intentionally inflict spiritual abuse on people in their community (or, at the very least, they believe what they are doing is loving, even if from the outside it is objectively abusive.) But despite best intentions, abuse does happen, and it happens in ways that are sometimes very hard to identify from the inside.
As both a former victim of this type of abuse, and as someone who hopes to help to stop these cycles in faith communities, here are a few things I have learned about supporting someone who has experienced harm in and by their religion:
Victims may be likely to jump ship.
It’s not uncommon for victims of spiritual abuse to flee their faith communities, and burn their bridges along the way. The trauma and desperation that results from being harmed by people you trusted with the most intimate parts of your soul can cause a person to want to run far away and never look back.
For some people, this means ghosting – vanishing from the faith community entirely, cutting off connections to people in that community, etc. This tactic can happen overnight and leave supporters baffled and saddened.
In other cases, this exit can be a gradual process, wherein victims slowly retreat from their community, removing themselves from one relationship at a time as they discover which relationships make them feel safe and which seem to only compound the hurt.
How you can show support:
If you have had a close relationship with the victim in the past, this can be very painful. Trying not to take this distance personally can feel impossible. What results in a loss of community for the victim can also result in a loss of friendship for people in the support system.
Keeping an open hand with regard to relationships can be invaluable for victims of this type of abuse. Try to communicate to the person you wish to support that you are willing to give them the distance they need, but that you will still be there for them if and when they return.
Some of the worst damage that is done in the aftermath of spiritual abuse comes as a result of the support system abandoning the victim they claim to love. It’s not easy, but hang in there. The initial implosion doesn’t last forever.
Victims of spiritual abuse often lash out.
This is a tough one to address, because no amount of abuse is excuse for bad behavior. Just because someone has been the victim of spiritual abuse does not give them license to turn around and abuse others.
That being said, victims of spiritual abuse often feel understandably angry at the systems that contributed to their pain. Expressing anger towards those institutions is a natural reaction. Unfortunately, what is meant as an attack on systemic issues might feel very personal to those still in the faith community. As the saying goes “the personal is political.”
Victims who express anger or distress toward an organization can unintentionally target their frustrations at the people within the system. This is part of the nature of religion: spiritual beliefs are inextricably tied to personhood and identity, and it can be very difficult for victims to name their abuse without causing those who subscribe to the offending religion to feel personally attacked.
How you can show support:
As with the last point, not taking it personally is a good first step. Communicating when you feel personally targeted is important as well. If the person you are trying to support is attacking you directly, say so. Draw attention to ways in which you feel like their anger may be misdirected.
Sadly, some victims cannot – or should not – reconcile with individuals inside an organization that has caused that much harm. If you find this to be the case, taking a step back from the relationship may be a good option for both of you.
Sorting out the difference between systemic failure in religion and the individuals that are perceived as promoting that failure is a very tricky and often painful business, both for victims and for their supporters. Have patience with yourselves and each other through this process.
Victims of spiritual abuse may never return to their former faith communities.
This can be a difficult reality for many advocates and supporters. If you have a healthy relationship with your faith, it is very natural for you to want to direct victims to the aspects of that faith that bring you comfort, healing, and safety.
However, a return to a culture that has caused harm may be an unrealistic hope that only causes further damage between you and the person you wish to support.
How you can show support:
Put your evangelistic tendencies on the back burner as much as you possibly can. Particularly in the early stages, it is very easy for victims of spiritual abuse to develop a Stockholm Syndrome-like reaction to evangelism.
Fear of being isolated, of losing one’s community, or of being ostracized can lead victims to false or forced engagement in faith communities. This is counterproductive to healing, and ultimately drives even bigger wedges between victims and their communities.
Allow victims of spiritual abuse to be honest when they need distance from their former faith. Assure them that you are willing to walk alongside them without expecting any sort of conversion or compliance with your religious beliefs. If their journey leads them back to their former faith, great. If it doesn’t, your respect and unconditional friendship will make a big difference in their healing process.
At the end of the day, victims of spiritual abuse need what victims of any type of abuse need: unconditional love, respect, and patience. If you have chosen to engage with someone who has been harmed by religion, you can be either their biggest support or their worst nightmare. Choosing respect is the most important thing you could possibly do for a person who needs your support.