Spiritual abuse - the abuse of power by those in positions of trust within religious bodies - is widespread but under-recognised. It is not easy to define: Where do you draw the line? When does guidance become control? It can be experienced by anyone, including clergy and leaders. Through a combination of extensive research, years of hands-on experience through the work of thirtyone:eight (formerly CCPAS), and individual testimonies, Oakley and Humphreys describe clearly the nature of spiritual abuse, and the best ways of countering it. Understanding the characteristics of spiritual abuse is important simply so we can recognise it, but it is also the first step in allowing those who have experienced it to have their stories acknowledged. So, what are we looking for? Quotes from those who have experienced spiritual abuse help to explore the key features of this form of abuse. What is the impact of spiritual abuse on individuals, including the effect on the personal faith journeys of individuals and their sense of self? The authors detail the challenges faced in responding well to stories of spiritual abuse and draw on recent research where those who have experienced this offer suggestions for the best ways to respond to personal accounts. A road to recovery is possible. The journey through spiritual abuse is painful, and for many there is not a `quick fix' to recovery. Oakley and Humphreys explore how people have found their way to a positive outcome and the factors that make this more likely. They suggest how churches can support those who have had this experience. How do we prevent spiritual abuse in the first place? The authors explore the role of leadership in creating safer places as a preventative measure, and in creating clear opportunities for effective learning. What is the relationship between theological ideas and justifications for harmful behaviours? Effective communication plays a vital part in both good and bad leadership styles: how can leaders create opportunities for spiritual and emotional flourishing? Good health requires safety. What does a safer culture look like and how does this establish healthier contexts to work and worship in? How can leaders recognise and foster a healthy, safe environment and culture?
This book couldn’t have come soon enough; its wisdom and knowledge are invaluable, giving leaders and preachers tools not only to form an understanding of spiritual abuse but to implement structures to prevent it. It is not an easy subject, but it is one we must all grapple with, listening to those seeking justice, being patient with their anger, knowing they have been wronged and need grace as they grieve and come to terms with all that has happened.
The book explains that spiritual abuse is a form of psychological and emotional abuse, characterised by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour. It is hard to spot and can leave the survivor constantly doubting and double guessing if what has happened is real. An important aspect in creating healthy cultures and churches is the need for openness, where leaders can be challenged and are willing to enter into dialogues about concerns raised. This is perhaps the crucial test between those who hold unreasonable expectations and make unreasonable demands (i.e. removing choice) and those who treat people with dignity and compassion.
Leaders that listen with humility and respect will know when to take responsibility and apologise, offering the freedom for others to disagree along with a blessing to leave the church if needed. Leaders who live in denial often shift perceptions of reality so that incidents are twisted or retold against the one raising concerns or complaints, creating self-doubt, allowing patterns of control and manipulation to continue. Where silence allows spiritual abuse to permeate, and Scripture is sometimes used to reinforce coercion and control, speaking out brings healing and wholeness not only to those suffering but to the wider community.
Whilst the book focuses mainly on leaders who have misused their power, it is noted that other people within the congregation can also be spiritually abusive. Chapter seven offers a brilliant guide for churches to monitor their own structures and practices. I wholeheartedly recommend this book and pray that we would all learn and grow closer to God and one other as we journey to create and maintain healthy Christian cultures.
Preach magazine book review by Emma Ash
AUTHOR: Dr Lisa Oakley has researched spiritual abuse in the Christian faith in the UK since 2003. She was awarded a doctorate for this work in 2009. In 2012-13 Lisa conducted the Church experience survey with Dr Kathryn Kinmond at Manchester Metropolitan University. This investigated some aspects of spiritual abuse and results were disseminated via conferences, a journal article and the text `Breaking the silence on spiritual abuse' published by Palgrave MacMillan. She has written and spoken on this topic extensively. Notably delivering a keynote address this year at an Evangelical Alliance conference in Germany. Lisa is Chair of the Task and Finish Group for Spiritual Abuse at the Church of England. She is chair of the National Working Group for Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief. She is also chair of the learning group for the past case review in the United Reformed Church. In her role as Visiting Fellow at Bournemouth University she has developed further research into spiritual abuse in partnership with Justin Humphreys at thirtyone:eight. Lisa is an Associate with thirtyone:eight. Recently Lisa has acted as an advisor to an ESRC (European Social Research Council) project entitled Justice, Inequality and Gender Based Violence at Bristol University. She has also acted as external advisor for the `MA Understanding Domestic and Sexual Violence' at Worcester university. Until August 2017 Lisa was Programme Leader for the only undergraduate course in Abuse Studies in the UK at Manchester Metropolitan University. Lisa is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Justin Humphreys is Chief Executive at thirtyone:eight (formerly CCPAS); the first and only independent Christian safeguarding charity in the UK, established in 1977. His career to date has spanned over 25 years working in a variety of youth work, social work and related settings in both the statutory and voluntary sector, predominantly focused on children, young people and their families. Justin has also spent a number of years in local church leadership and governance in a thriving City church in the South West of England. He is currently the Chair of the Christian Forum for Safeguarding (a UK-wide, inter-denominational body of safeguarding professionals established by CTBI) and a member of the National Working Group on Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief. Justin is an activist and advocate for issues of justice and the protection of vulnerable people. His research to date has included Safer Recruitment Practices in the Christian Church (2014), Safeguarding Adults within the Christian Community (2015), Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief (2017) and Spiritual Abuse in the Christian Community (2017). He is also author of the UK Government guidance for the wider children's workforce - `Recruiting safely: helping keep children and young people safe' (CWDC, 2009). His writing interests include all areas of safeguarding practice in faith contexts and particularly the integration of good leadership and safer organisational cultures. Justin holds a Master of Science in Child Protection and Strategic Management, a Bachelor of Science (with honours) in Social Work Studies and a Diploma in Counselling Psychology and Psychotherapy.