by Tracey Brewer
August is Clergy Sexual Abuse Awareness & Prevention month. This is an appropriate time to remind ourselves of the dynamics of abuse. It is important to understand the dynamics of abuse so that we can develop an appropriate framework for prevention and intervention.
The single most misunderstood factor pertaining to abuse, any kind of abuse, is manipulation. Quite simply, to manipulate means to unfairly influence someone. The tactics that are used to manipulate someone may be subtle but the effects can be devastating. There are several types of abuse including physical, verbal, sexual, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. In many cases, these types of abuse overlap with manipulation being the consistent, underlying factor.
Historically, the church was a place where slave owners could trust that their slaves would be manipulated into submission. During that time, it was common for clergy to use false interpretations of Biblical doctrine that reinforced racial inequality and submission to slave masters. The music of the period was written to motivate the slaves to work (field hollering) as well as to impress them with hope in a spiritual afterlife where they would be rewarded for their good deeds done on earth. The routine practices of singing, dancing, and shouting in the church environment felt good (I could elaborate more on how music affects your brain but that’s another article). In the setting of structured manipulation with inspirational music, slaves were manipulated to submit to unjust treatment. This is how historically the church culture cultivated a climate of abuse, all types of abuse. This was true 400 years ago and it remains true in many congregations today.
“Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support, or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.”
– David Johnson & Jeff Van Vonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse
Spiritual abuse effects your spirit and your mind. Without getting into semantics here, we are referring to the nonphysical part of your being, your truest self. It accommodates your thought processes, your emotions, and your energy. It is the part of you that was created to nurture your connection with God. After experiencing spiritual abuse, many people feel wounded and they are unable to seek healing in the place that hurt them: the church.
How does this happen?
It is natural to desire to nurture your spiritual self. It is also natural to experience spiritual conflict at some point in our lives. Life circumstances that can cause spiritual conflict and vulnerability include crisis, stress, illness, grief/loss, and having a history of sexual abuse. These conflicts often lead us to seek help from people that we deem to be our spiritual leaders. They are pastors, ministers, Christian counselors, and church leaders. An abusive leader targets people who are vulnerable. He/She views your help-seeking behavior and acknowledgment that you have a problem as signs of vulnerability. As a layperson, it is natural to assume that the person you are seeking spiritual counsel from doesn’t have the problem (or overcame it) and knows more about how to deal with it. Whether you know it or not, the manipulation begins as soon as the abusive person identifies you as a target.
Spiritual leaders can employ a variety of manipulative tactics to take advantage of you when you are in your most vulnerable state. As it pertains to clergy sexual abuse, those tactics can include:
• Gestures of physical affection
• Showing interest in you beyond pastoral interest
• Complimenting you on your appearance
• Asking inappropriate questions
It’s important to understand that sexual abuse is not about sex, it’s about the abuse of power. Your spiritual leader has the knowledge, authority, responsibility, and experience to influence you when you are most vulnerable. Power is the weapon used to abuse and sex is the means used to abuse.
What Should I Do?
If you find yourself in a situation with a church leader that makes you feel uncomfortable, scared, and/or isolated you may want to seek help from an objective resource such as a licensed, professional counselor outside of the church where you have been or are being abused.
It is not necessarily helpful to lash out publicly against the one who abused you, at least not initially. Take some time to process what has happened to you and allow healing to take place. Painful outbursts and impulsive reactions can work against you, delay your healing, and put you in a position to experience further victimization. It is a false philosophy that an abused person can simply “shake off” what he/she has been through. Healing is a process that is available to you. How healing takes place is different for every individual.
If you are feeling emotional in reading this, I challenge you to love yourself and reclaim your power today. Be afraid and seek help while you are afraid. Be confused and seek help while you are confused. The key is to do something while you are suffering. This is how you can empower yourself. Take a step today. Every situation has the potential to inspire genius, creativity, and purpose. Even the experience of abuse can push you to the place where you need to be. Just don’t give up now. Be empowered!
Online resources listed below are for adults. If you know of a child who is being abused, please call 911 and/or your local Child Protection agency immediately.
The Hope of Survivors http://www.thehopeofsurvivors.com/
National Sexual Assault Hotline 1-800-656-HOPE(4673) https://www.rainn.org/
Adult Survivors of Child Abuse http://www.ascasupport.org/
National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse http://www.naasca.org/