Not all churches and organizations are are led by spiritually abusive leaders. Actually, I would go as far as to say MOST of them are not. However, because spiritually abusive leaders DO exist in some churches and can be hard to spot, (especially by those inside their doors) I have been asked often to share some red flags to look out for and identify.
NOTE: Keep in mind that these are red flags for you to take notice of and get curious about. I’m not telling you to leave your church if you recognize a few of these, but I am telling you to pray about it and seek outside counsel from those you trust.
My hope is that in talking about all of this, if you find yourself in a spiritually abusive situation you will be reminded of these truths:
- You are not stuck. You are an adult. If you find yourself somewhere you don’t want to be, you can leave.
- You are not crazy.
- You are not “the problem” even though you may have been convinced time and time again that the reason you have questions or that things don’t sit well with you is because of your own heart or “pride issue.”
- You are not ordered to have undying loyalty to men, but to God.
- You are not alone.
Let’s continue this conversation through a lens of grace and compassion. Compassion for those who have long endured abuse that has been shrugged off and discredited, compassion for those who don’t know what spiritual abuse is, those who may be blind to it, and compassion for the majority of church leaders and pastors who are trying to do their best in following God’s calling on their lives.
All that aside, as requested, here are some red flags to help you identify spiritual abuse. 🚩
Red flag 🚩 #1
Questioning the leader or teacher is highly discouraged, and not only that, but it is often looked at as divisive and proof of a spiritual deficit.
It may or may not be a spoken rule, but if you get the feeling that you can’t get further clarification on a teaching or ministry decision, it is a red flag you should not ignore. You may even hear the leader speak about being “Christ’s mouthpiece” or claim that you don’t need to go home and pray about something if the leader has already told you to do it.
You should always be able to ask questions. The body of Christ is a safe place for questions.
If you notice this red flag, pray for discernment. Seek outside council from other trusted believers and listen to what they have to say. Ask your questions anyway and see how that is handled.
Red flag 🚩#2
There is no REAL accountability.
Leaders may speak about accountability but are vague on what that structure looks like. They may claim to have oversight but only speak to that oversight group in generalities, never providing a list of names or organizations.
If you notice this red flag, try to find out more details about the accountability structure and specifically who is a part of it, how decisions are made, etc.
Red flag 🚩#3
There is noticeably high turnover in leadership.
Often, there is a LOT of transition in spiritually abusive churches. Staff and key volunteers/leaders most likely continue to slip out the back door, and leave people wondering how seemingly committed people could just disappear.
If you notice this red flag, pay attention to how their exit is handled. Connect with those who left and ask them about what happened. They may attend a different church than you now, but they are still your brothers and sisters in Christ. They are not an enemy.
Also, pay attention to how they are talked about corporately. Often they will be the topic of the messages for weeks, even months. Though their names may not be explicitly mentioned, everyone will know exactly who is being talked about and who’s character is being dragged through the mud.
Red Flag 🚩#4
The leader seems to be hyper-focused on messages about submission and HIS authority.
The Bible is FULL of transformational stories and teachings… there’s a lot of material there, but spiritually abusive leaders will often keep coming back to the same thing. They will zero in on messages that are aimed at conditioning you and convincing you to elevate them to a higher level spiritually and authoritatively. They will constantly talk about submission to authority as a virtue and requirement.
Why? If a congregation is convinced that they are to submit to the pastor or leader as ultimate authority, they have been groomed to blindly trust and will likely not question that leader’s decisions going forward and much more easily comply with gaslighting.
If you notice this red flag, again, ask questions and seek outside counsel. Furthermore, be in the word yourself and do your own research on the context of scripture used in these messages. Context matters.
Red flag 🚩#5
There is a lot of definitive talk by the leader about God speaking to him or giving him visions/specific instructions. Yet again – no accountability when the leader goes back on the decisions he originally proclaimed God told him to make.
There is a lot of back and forth.
God doesn’t change his mind willy-nilly. He lets His yes be yes, and His no be no.
If you notice this red flag, again, ask questions, and see if they are received with humility or defensiveness.
Red flag 🚩 #6
People are urged and pressured to give financially, yet there is no transparency with the finances.
*Important to note that I 100% believe in tithing, but in institutions lacking accountability, there is often mishandling of funds.*
Spiritually abusive leaders demand that you give of your resources and that you never ask about how those resources are being used. They establish this rule from the beginning as to prevent questions from coming up later.
They will not provide anyone with financial statements if requested, and they may even tie in your level of leadership with the level of money you give each month.
At this point, you’re probably noticing a theme, but if you see this red flag, ask questions. Go back to checking on what systems of accountability are in place. Pray.
Red flag 🚩#7
People are commanded to serve and give of their time, and if they are not able to give 100%, their commitment to the church, relationship with God, and priorities are questioned.
There is no rest truly being modeled. Though Sabbath may be preached about, it is not actually an option to those serving. There is no grace for needing rest, only scapegoating and condemnation.
If you notice this red flag, check in on those who you can tell are burnt out. Ask them why they don’t take a break. Get curious. And yes, keep praying.
Red flag 🚩 #8
Spiritually abusive leaders claim that any negative thing that happens as a result of their actions is “Spiritual Warfare” and an “attack on the entire church.”
Anyone who leaves or speaks out about what they have experienced at the church will be accused of having “demonic or divisive spirits”, and using spiritual warfare as the reason will not be questioned by the church body, since the leader is the highest spiritual authority of the church. They will deliberately withhold any facts behind the issues because that could lead to their followers using reason to assess the situation. The spiritual abuser knows that using demonic and divisive spirits as the reason for the attacks prevents followers from using reason because they trust him when he says this attack is not of this world.
Also important to note that I 100% believe that spiritual warfare is real. But I also know that there are consequences for our own actions. And yes in case you are wondering, this is exactly what happened to me.
It’s odd hearing a rumor about yourself that, ahem… “Satan is in control of your life”, but it just shows how angry spiritually abusive leaders get when those no longer under their control dare to speak UP.
If you notice this red flag, continue to pray. Continue to ask questions and be curious. Observe how often the “spiritual warfare” card is used. Even better, pay close attention to how those the leader says is being led by a demonic spirit are now living their lives as time goes on… but also give them grace knowing that if it is a recent departure, they are very well in a vulnerable place of needing healing.
Often a leader will successfully convince his followers to discredit and shun a victim of abuse because the victim appears to be reacting dramatically and emotionally, therefore making it easy for others to shrug them off as a “sad situation”, and very difficult for the victim to effectively communicate what happened without hysterics.
This is because they have been hurt, abused, gaslighted, and made to feel crazy… and the wound is still fresh.
You’d act dramatically in this situation too.
If you have seen or noticed any of these red flags listed and have a check in your spirit about them, that could very well be the Holy Spirit speaking to you through your discernment. I highly encourage you to be sharing your concerns with a trusted believer not directly connected to the church/organization in question. Often those within a spiritually abusive congregation who have been submerged in the unhealthy culture are not a safe place for your concerns as they have been trained and conditioned to be loyal to the leader at all costs.
Other resources I recommend:
- Professional Counseling/therapy.
- My other recent blog posts on Spiritual Abuse: (Part 1) and (Part 2)
- Chuck Degroat’s book, “When Narcissism Comes to Church.”
- Prayer. Lots of prayer.
I hope this was helpful and informative. I hope you know that this is not what Jesus intended the church to be like, and that there are many, many churches that are not this way. Most importantly, I hope you know that the God that we serve is not this way and that any abuse breaks His heart.
Always feel free to reach out to me regarding this topic, whether to share your story or if you need advice from someone who has been there and still loves Jesus and His church. I am here for you.
The conversation continues.