you accept that the potential for a problem exists.
You can't properly address a problem unless
you understand how and why that problem exists.
Awareness Page Outline:
- We Shouldn't Tolerate Abuse in the Church
- Wolves in Sheep's Clothing
- Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the Church
- An Abuse of Power
- What about the Victim: Listen Carefully
- But Not in Our Church!
- Abusers Should be Held Accountable
- Awareness and Knowledge are Key to Prevention
- Additional Resources
We all sin. We all have available to us the mercy and grace of God for forgiveness of our sins when we confess and repent of those sins. But some sin goes beyond what should be tolerated in our churches, especially in church leadership. Unrepentant sin is never healthy for the church. Dealing properly with sin is important for the health and safety of the church. Several passages in scripture tell us we need to deal sternly with unrepentant sin and not tolerate those who claim to be believers in Christ but continue in sexual immorality, idolatry, drunkenness, cheating others, or defying the teachings of Christ and His Apostles . (Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, 2 Thessalonians 3:14, 2 John 1:10-11, Revelation 2:14, 20).
While repentance and reconciliation are always desired within the church, there are sins that cause harm to others that make reconciliation difficult, if not impossible in some circumstances. This type of sin is too often tolerated, covered up, or improperly dealt with in the church. This type of sin is abuse. To abuse means to wrongly or improperly use, or misuse; to hurt or injure by maltreatment; to force sexual activity on, rape or molest. Abuse is most often thought of in terms of physical violence, but it has many forms including verbal, emotional, psychological, spiritual, sexual, and physical. Any form of abuse is hurtful and damaging to the victim of that abuse; and the emotional, psychological, or spiritual damage caused by non-physical abuse is as destructive as physical abuse.
Abuse is the polar opposite of what Jesus taught and modeled for how we should treat one another.
All abuse is anti-Christ, whether verbal, emotional, sexual, or physical. Verbal and emotional abuse are just as egregious and ungodly as sexual and physical abuse. Yes Christians can have bad days and say and do things at times that are contrary to the Spirit of Christ, but if a pattern of that behavior persists without correction even after rebuke, then there is something more serious going on that needs to be addressed. Because hidden abuse will often not be apparent to the bystanders, it is important to listen to the ones who may be experiencing it and treat their reports of any kind of abuse seriously, even if they initially sound trivial, or outlandish, or if you just think they are over-reacting.
All abuse causes injury to the soul and spirit of the victims. Most victims of abuse suffer in isolation and silence because it is hidden from others and it leaves victims trapped in fear, shame, and self-blame. Because most abusers operate in a covert, or hidden manner, especially within the church, they can appear to be good people, even good Christian leaders, much of the time. But to their victims, the targets of their abuse, they are anything but good. Because most abusers operate out of habitual patterns of abusive behavior, often the result of personality disorders, they cannot be left to normal expectations of confession, repentance, and reconciliation with their victims or with the environments in which they operate, such as the church.
We all need to know that there are those within the church community, in the pews and in the pulpits, who claim to be Christians, but in their heart they are self-serving, self-promoting, and self-protecting, at the expense of and to the detriment of others. There are narcissists who manipulate the community to believe they are good and righteous while at the same time they are abusing select targets to feed their egos and sinful desires for power and control. They are toxic to those in close relationships, either because they resist their manipulation and control, or they are the targets of their manipulation and control. They deceive to maintain community standing while they abuse individuals to break down and destroy self-esteem and sanity in order to facilitate compliance to their control.
This site focuses on toxic and abusive church leaders who engage in emotional and spiritual abuse while engaging in sexual misconduct with their congregants or coworkers over whom they hold positions of authority and power. Other forms of abuse such as child sexual abuse or domestic violence are significant problems occurring in church communities and leadership as well, and there are a number of other very good organizations and websites dealing with these issues. We will refer to these other sites where appropriate. Note that even though not addressed directly in the descriptions of abuser's personalities and tactics on this site, abusers engaged in all types of abuse share similar characteristics.
For an excellent overview of abuse in the context of church communities, listen to the following conference sessions from Diane Langberg.
Church as a Refuge Conference: Session 1: Understanding Power and Its Abuse
Our churches should be communities of repentant, redeemed followers of Jesus who truly love the Lord and live out the fruit of the Holy Spirit. All our relationships should demonstrate love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control ( Galatians 5:22-23). We should not tolerate in our church community the unrepentant, habitual practices of abusers who do emotional, spiritual, or physical harm to the body of Christ.
Jesus Warned Us
Don't be so surprised. Jesus warned us there would be wolves in sheep's clothing within the Church (Matthew 7:15-20). Jesus calls them false prophets. We might be tempted to think Jesus is only talking about people who speak untrue prophecies of the future. But in general terms, anyone who claims to speak on God’s behalf or represent God to others, such as a teacher or preacher in the church, is a type of prophet. So in the broadest sense, a false prophet could be anyone claiming to be a Christian that is not truthfully representing God in words or actions. In the expanded context of Matthew 7:12-23 it can be clearly seen that a false prophet would include a pastor or church leader that is not speaking and acting within the will of God. Matthew 7:21-23 confirms that there will even be wolves who will claim to have done, and will appear to have done, great works for the Lord, but Jesus will disavow knowing them and they will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Those who abuse others are far from representing the love, grace, and mercy of the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ and throughout the Bible.
In this warning about wolves that look like sheep, the Lord also tells us that we can know who the wolves are by their fruit. Many today may think of this fruit as being material success such as careers, finances, popularity, articulate preaching, large churches, large ministries, etc., but there is no context in scripture to support that these material attributes are the good fruit that Jesus was talking about. There are however many references to the fruit of the Holy Spirit being the expected pattern of behavior and evidence to show who are the true followers of Jesus (Luke 8:14-15, John 15:2-5, 15:16, Romans 6:22, 7:4, Ephesians 5:9, Philippians 1:11, Colossians 1:10).
Discernment is Required
Jesus taught us that we should love one another with selfless love (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27), but the root of all abuse is just the opposite – a self-love and selfishness that exalts oneself at the expense of others. These wolves are very good at acting the part of a sheep or a shepherd, but their fruit of self-love, self-protection, and self-promotion will give them away if we look closely enough.
With a discerning eye, a wolf can be identified by the lack of Holy Spirit fruit in how they interact with others in their lives. Personal interactions and relationships with others should be mostly characterized by love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. If a pattern of selfishness, rudeness, impatience, anger, bullying, inappropriate talk, or inappropriate behavior is being witnessed by anyone with close contact (spouse, friend, ministry participant, coworker), then it is likely there is a wolf at work. But it takes careful discernment because most covert abusers are also very skilled at projecting a good image, or positive public persona, when they are trying to impress. They can easily deceive the majority around them that they are not the kind of person who would, or even could be abusive. They are also very good at confusing and controlling the ones they abuse such that their victims don't realize they are being manipulated and abused at first. By the time they do realize it, they are likely trapped in guilt and shame and self-blame such that they will have difficulty revealing to others what is happening to them. Even so, as much as the wolves try to appear good, elements of their brokenness will come through in close and/or long term relationships. In fact, they will likely have difficulty maintaining meaningful long term relationships outside of family or select dedicated friends or followers, who typically will be under their spell of deception.
Wolves are Dangerous
The most brutal of these wolves devour (destroy) the sheep they target, all the while looking much like the sheep they are preying on. A wolf can appear to be a good Christian on the surface, but in their heart and in their actions within certain relationships, they use and abuse others to accomplish their selfish, sinful desires, and in the process they tear apart and destroy emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually the target of their abuse. If you haven't experienced it, it may be easy to minimize or misunderstand the damage that verbal, emotional, or spiritual abuse can do to the soul and spirit of a victim. Listen to and trust the survivors, advocates, and therapists who do have experience. It is very real.
The wolf can be a church member abusing their spouse, or a ministry leader abusing their ministry participants, or a church pastor abusing a congregant or staff member. The target of abuse can be a child, a young adult, or a mature adult.
A common denominator with these wolves is narcissism – a personality trait, sometimes a disorder, that results in their ability to hurt and abuse others for their own selfish purposes, with no remorse or true empathy for the damage they cause others.
Self-Esteem versus Narcissism
Jesus taught us that the second greatest commandment after loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind, is to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39). In order to properly love others, we have to properly love ourselves. This healthy version of loving ourselves is having good self-esteem. However, too much self-love is called narcissism. Here are some key differences between self-esteem and narcissism...
Narcissism encourages envy and hostile rivalries, where self-esteem supports compassion and cooperation. Narcissism favors dominance, where self-esteem acknowledges equality. Narcissism involves arrogance, where self-esteem reflects humility. Narcissism is affronted by criticism, where self-esteem is enhanced by feedback. Narcissism makes it necessary to pull down others in order to stand above them. Self-esteem leads to perceiving every human being as a person of value in a world of meaning.
(excerpt from “Self-Esteem Versus Narcissism”, by Lisa Firestone Ph.D.)
Supports compassion and cooperation
Enhanced by feedback
Perceives everyone as having value
Encourages envy and hostile rivalries
Affronted by criticism
Pulls down others to stand above them
Overt versus Covert Narcissism
Narcissists have a grandiose sense of importance, a preoccupation with success, a belief that they are special and unique, they are exploitative of others, have a lack of true empathy, are arrogant, and jealous of others. Narcissists believe they are superior to everyone else and they have few boundaries when it comes to achieving their desires, whether they involve power, recognition, self-centered success, or the manipulation and control of others. A long term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by these traits is considered to be Narcissistic Personality Disorder. However, not all narcissists display these traits in an overt manner…
There are two types of extreme narcissists – overt and covert and some are easier to spot than others.
Overt narcissists are more common and much easier to spot, they externalize their arrogance, are outwardly demanding and display extreme character traits and their confrontational communication style does not go unnoticed!
Covert narcissists by contrast, are wolves in sheep’s clothing and are the most tricky and perhaps most dangerous sort so let’s focus on them. Covert narcissists are underhanded, deceptive and act behind the scenes. They pretend to be lovers, givers, altruistic, loyal and kind. These individuals are projecting to the outside world a calm and patient mirror but on the inside, they are as deeply selfish and as narcissistic as overt narcissists.
(excerpt from “Covert Narcissism – Know Your Emotional Abuser” by Tatiana Michelet)
More common and easier to spot
Externalize their arrogance
Demanding and difficult
Display extreme character traits
Confrontational communication style
Wolves in sheep's clothing
Tricky and dangerous
Underhanded, deceptive, & act behind the scenes
Pretend to be lovers, givers, altruistic, loyal, and kind
Project calm & benevolence, but are deeply selfish & uncaring
It is this covert version of narcissism that is most often found in the church and it is what allows these wolves to appear as sheep to most people most of the time, and yet be so diabolical in the abuse of their targets. They project an image of a good church member or leader by saying and doing the right things in public venues, but covertly they are grooming and manipulating all the inferior players around them in their non-stop mind games to prove their superiority to themselves. They are cunning and calculated in the execution of their manipulation tactics such that those caught in their web of deceit rarely know how they are being manipulated. In extreme cases of Covert Narcissistic Abuse, these wolves can be very dangerous emotionally and spiritually and sometimes physically to those specific targets of their toxic abuse as they prey on the very ones they should be caring for and protecting. To these “wolves in sheep’s clothing” the church represents an easy source of power, attention, adulation, financial gain, and sometimes sexual gratification.
Narcissists and Empaths
The target of choice for a Narcissist is the empath; Empaths are hypersensitive people who experience a high level of compassion, consideration, and understanding towards others. Their intense empathy creates a tuning fork effect, wherein the empath seems to actually "feel" the emotions of the people around them. Empaths are everything the Narcissist is not: kind, caring, emotionally aware, supportive, in control, able to have relationships and make friends. The Narcissist covets things they do not have and endeavors to take them from anyone who does have them (or at least ruin them so that no one has them). The Empath gives freely of themselves, making them a glowing beacon for the Narcissist. The Narcissist senses an emotional source they can leech off of nearly indefinitely, like a battery that never dies. They can take and take and take, and in return the Empath will give and give and give. This is the nature of the relationship between the two and it will never change.
Read more about narcissists and empaths in the following articles…
“The Toxic Attraction Between an Empath & a Narcissist”, by Alex Myles, Elephant Journal
"The Narcissist and the Empath: A Toxic Attraction", by The Little Shaman, Paired Life
"Empaths and narcissists make a 'toxic' partnership", by Lindsay Dodgson, Business Insider
"How Narcissists Conduct Psychological Warfare: The narcissist's most lethal weapon--and why it creates chemistry with an empath",
by Erin Leonard, Ph.D.
"Empaths: How to Shield Yourself Against Narcissists" by Kim Saeed
The Toxic Results
Unfortunately, because of their covert tactics, it can be difficult to identify a covert narcissist; unless you are interacting with them on a regular, long term basis, or when they target you with their manipulation tactics. For this reason it is very important that vulnerable personality types, particularly the empath, be aware and educated on how narcissists operate. Without this knowledge, many empathetic persons end up falling prey to the narcissist's cycle of abuse - idealizing, devaluing, and discarding. There are many variations on what this cycle looks like and experienced abusers will adapt their tactics to be most effective for the vulnerabilities of the target they are focused on. Most discussions of this abuse cycle you find in books and on the Internet will be in the context of a romantic relationship. However, this cycle can also take place in a working relationship, such as with a boss and subordinate or between coworkers, and it sometimes can lead to some type of sexualized activity (verbal, visual, or physical) as the ultimate demonstration of control. When narcissists commit sexual harassment or abuse with their targets, it has little to do with meeting sexual needs, but is actually more about exercising power and control over another person.
Covert Narcissists in the church will ultimately create a toxic environment for those who are in close relationship with them. It may be a community group, a ministry team, or the church office staff. This toxicity may manifest in the narcissist being demanding and difficult to work with, being verbally and emotionally abusive to others, often bullying anyone who doesn't comply to their demands, and in many cases of pastors or ministry leaders with this personality type, they will manipulate and coerce their targets into inappropriate sexual activity. In cases of abusive spouses in the church, their primary target may be the spouse while everyone else in the community will be deceived into believing the abuser is a good person. Remember that abuse has many forms - verbal, emotional, spiritual, and physical - so while domestic violence is often part of spousal abuse, it doesn't have to be. The abuse could instead be a non-physical form that can be just as serious and damaging. If domestic violence is involved, that is a criminal matter for local authorities to handle. Note also that sexual abusers often have multiple targets in some stage of the abuse cycle, so part of their toxicity may be overt flirting or inappropriate sexual remarks, even harassment. Covert Narcissists get bored easily and seek challenges in who and how they manipulate and control, sometimes just for entertainment. Because they willfully manipulate and coerce others to have their way, all the while being unaffected by any conflicts they cause or damage they do, the narcissism should become apparent to anyone who knows and understands enough about it. Covert Narcissists need to be identified early by their visible toxic behavior. They need to be dealt with effectively to avoid the damage they will ultimately do if left to operate without accountability. If they are unable to stop their toxic behavior, which will likely require professional help and close oversight, then they must be removed from positions of authority and/or access to potential victims.
Sadly, the narcissist in most cases will be unable to admit to the abuse they engage in or the brokenness that enables it, so they will not be able to self-correct or get the help they need to change. They will likely remain toxic as long as they stay in the position they operate from. They may appear to confess and repent to their wrong doing on occasion, but it will not be genuine and they will soon go right back to their toxic, abusive behavior. Most experts recommend getting away from a narcissist rather than trying to “fix” them. This will require either removing the narcissist from their position in the community, ministry, or staff, or ensuring strong boundaries and support for those who are vulnerable that remain in proximity to the narcissist. If the narcissist is not removed from their position of authority or opportunity, then the only remedy for potential targets is to take the initiative to get out of the relationship and leave the environment where the narcissist is operating.
Why Wolves in Sheep's Clothing are Narcissists
As mentioned at the end of the section above, a common denominator with these wolves in the church is narcissism. While narcissists can be found anywhere in society and in nearly any profession, they do tend to gravitate to professions that give them inherent authority, advantage, or superiority over their potential targets, including teaching, clergy, and ministry leadership positions. Yes, it is an unfortunate reality that church leadership positions attract people with high levels of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder. See the sections below for further discussion and statistics on this reality.
The Abuse Cycle - An Unusual Addiction
The process of luring and trapping a victim in abusive behavior is referred to as the abuse cycle. It begins with grooming. Grooming is an intentional behavior someone uses to manipulate others over an extended period. The purpose is to wear away any defenses the victim has against being manipulated which then allows the abuser to control the victim’s behavior moving forward. The process of grooming is very specific to the target, circumstances, and environment, and throughout the process the abuser is very calculated and cunning in orchestrating things to enable access, break down defenses, maintain secrecy, and gain compliance. Following successful grooming, the abuser will be able to employ a cycle of idealizing, devaluing, and discarding that will effectively trauma bond a victim to the abuser and the abusive behavior. It does sound strange, but this process results in psychological and biochemical changes in the brain that literally causes an addiction to the abuse cycle. The victim ends up in a fog of confusion where they may not clearly and rationally understand the situation they are in or be able to make logical and healthy decisions in responding to the ongoing manipulation tactics of the abuser. At this point the victim is addicted to the cycle and even though they may begin to realize that what is happening is very wrong, they will feel trapped in guilt, shame, and self-blame, thinking that they are somehow responsible for what is happening to them.
Mike Phillips is a pastor and therapist who has worked with victims of authoritarian abuse for over 40 years. In this series of articles at his website "Listen Carefully" linked below, Mike provides a thorough description of the grooming process and techniques used by predator pastors to manipulate targets into sexual activity.
The Grooming Behavior of Pastoral Predators – Part 1
The Grooming Behavior of Pastoral Predators – Part 2
How Pastor-Abusers Choose their Targets
Here are couple of illustrations of the abuse cycle and the addiction it creates for the victim (from Julia Dahl @jdahlmd on Twitter).
Idealize, devalue, discard AND repeat again – but NEVER a real relationship...
Power and Control Phases of Narcissistic Relationships
What is a Narcissistic Abuse Cycle & How Does it Work?
Communities and Churches are Groomed Too
The process of grooming is also used by abusers to manipulate and deceive the community to enable them to operate covertly. Abusers strategically manipulate the victim, their family, and the community to hide their deviant intentions and avoid detection. Abusers in the church can spend years developing and perfecting their grooming techniques to build a good reputation and a positive social perception of themselves as trustworthy spiritual leaders. This makes it all the more difficult for victims to be believed when they do find the courage to come forward and report abuse. It also often leads communities to easily minimize, excuse, or forgive the abuser such that they are enabled to carry on with abusing others, at worst having to find a new community in which to operate.
The following article at Christianity Today by Kimberly Harris provides a more extensive examination of how sex offenders groom churches...
Sex Offenders Groom Churches Too
There is also a great deal of information available on the Internet... just search for narcissism, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or Covert Narcissistic Abuse, and then try adding "in the church" to the search phrase. Below are a few examples of what you will find...
23 Reasons Narcissists are Drawn to the Church
A Sensitive Topic: Personality Disorders in the Church (Part 1 of 5)
Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the Church
Seven Traits of a Narcissistic Pastor
Chuck DeGroat: How to Recognize Narcissism in a Church Leader
Signs in a Congregation That a Leader Has Covert Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Biblical Perspectives On Narcissism
A Personal Note:
If you don’t quite believe all this is possible in the church or in church leadership, I can understand as I would probably have been right there with you before the toxic results of it crashed into my life. If only I had been aware of and understood how narcissism manifests in working relationships, and had known that it was even possible for my wife’s boss, our pastor, to have an extreme degree of it - I would have done things differently. I would have listened differently to the frequent complaints my wife was making over the years about how she was being treated. I would have taken her emotional confusion and pain more seriously. I would have stood up for her and insisted things change at our church, and if they didn't I would have insisted she find a new job. I could have kept her from experiencing years of covert emotional abuse that led to sexual harassment and abuse by her pastor-boss. I have seen first-hand the emotional and psychological damage an emotional abuser can do to an empath. I have lived with a victim, now a survivor, coming out of the fog of the long term grooming, manipulation, and control that a predator pastor uses to abuse. I have seen the tears of trauma that flow for days and days as the survivor slowly realizes the many ways, over many years, she was emotionally manipulated and then coerced down an inappropriate path away from God by the very one who should have been encouraging and leading her closer to God. Recovery and healing are possible, but it takes time and educated support and professional counselling. This website was born out of our trauma and abuse recovery process. See more about that on our Mission and Healing pages. Our story is not unique. We have seen many, many others telling their stories on blogs and social media, and the problem has been in the church for many years.
Unfortunately, the ignorance, arrogance, and pride that leads other church leaders, and often the church body in general, to mislabel, victim blame and shame, and terribly mishandle such abuse engaged in by their peer is also a common problem in the church. This causes even more hurt and pain to the victim as well as anyone else who was abused to lesser degrees by the behavior of one who should have been a shepherd and not a wolf.
To anyone who doubts the seriousness of what happened to my wife, to us, I would just like to say:
- It was unethical, immoral, & illegal.
- It was a man in a position of power over his female subordinate – a boss/employee, pastor/assistant power differential.
- It was evil conceived in the cold dark heart of a false prophet, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
- It was long term emotional and spiritual abuse that trauma bonded an empath to her covert narcissist boss.
- It was a trauma bond that led to manipulation and grooming and coercion that the victim was unable to escape and felt she had no option but to comply to his demands.
- He manipulated and deceived a good heart into questioning the reality of her goodness, faith, and character to the point of obsessing over trying to say and do just the right things to win approval in her job and avoid the wrath of a monster of a boss.
- It was made possible by a church community of victim-enablers that didn’t know or understand or want to admit the reality of the many forms of verbal/emotional/spiritual abuse that are engaged in by wolves in sheep’s clothing.
- It did great damage to the spirit and soul of a vulnerable sheep that no one else could understand without experiencing it themselves, yet for which there were many signs and cries for help that the community around her ignored or excused away for years.
- This great heartache and pain she and her family experienced was caused by one who should have been a moral and spiritual example of leading others to safety and comfort and strength in Christ - a pastor and elder of a Christian church.
- To deny this truth, this reality of hurt by a wolf enabled by all who ignored, excused, or dismissed the inappropriate behavior of a pastor and boss, is to deny the true confession and needed repentance required to experience Christ’s forgiveness and healing.
- But out of this trauma, in spite of the damage done by the church family, has come Christ’s true comfort, healing, and restoration, as well as a passion to help others learn, heal, and be safe from the wolves who prey on the vulnerable within the Church.
It's Not An Affair
When narcissist church leaders use their positions of authority and influence to manipulate and coerce those under them for their personal/sinful desires and benefit, they are abusing their power. When pastors or ministry leaders groom, manipulate, or seduce congregants, coworkers, or ministry participants into inappropriate sexual activity, it is not an affair or an inappropriate relationship; it is an abuse of power and clergy sexual misconduct. The legal, ethical, and moral responsibility for the misconduct rests solely on the pastor or ministry leader. When there is a power differential between a pastor and congregant or between a ministry leader and a member of the staff, the integrity of the relationship is always the responsibility of the person in the position of greater power. These pastors and leaders who abuse their power this way are predators preying on the ones they should be protecting.
Diana Garland, dean of the Baylor University School of Social Work, led a nationwide study in 2008 on Clergy Sexual Misconduct in American churches. Findings from this study reveal that clergy sexual misconduct is more prevalent than many people believe.
"Many people – including the victims themselves – often label incidences of Clergy Sexual Misconduct with adults as 'affairs,'" said Garland. "In reality, they are an abuse of spiritual power by the religious leader."
The Baylor study overview can be found here... Clergy Sexual Misconduct, Baylor School of Social Work
A few key findings from the Executive Summary of the studies discussed…
- More than 3% of women who had attended a congregation in the past month reported that they had been the object of CSM at some time in their adult lives;
- 92% of these sexual advances had been made in secret, not in open dating relationships; and
- 67% of the offenders were married to someone else at the time of the advance.
- In the average American congregation of 400 persons, with women representing, on average, 60% of the congregation, there are, on average of 7 women who have experienced clergy sexual misconduct.
In 2016 Stephen de Weger submitted his Masters by Research thesis at Queensland University of Technology titled “Clerical sexual misconduct involving adults within the Roman Catholic Church”. The abstract is as follows...
“This thesis was an exploratory study into clerical sexual misconduct within the Roman Catholic Church. It sought to describe the experiences of women and men who, as adults, had experienced this form of professional misconduct. The findings were that clerical sexual misconduct involving adults is an unacknowledged, misinterpreted and harmful event, one involving the abuse of power and which leaves lifelong scars. Contrary to common thinking, these events were not affairs between equals, but violations of professional and religious duty. Survivors are seeking transparent and genuine acknowledgment of this reality in order for their lives to fully heal.”
The many stories of Clergy Sexual Misconduct now being told as a result of the #metoo and #churchtoo social media movements are also confirming that the majority of church communities, particularly the leadership, view CSM as moral failures, affairs, or inappropriate relationships and treat victims as equally, sometimes even more, responsible for what happened. These stories reveal that abuse involving children, teens, and adults being committed by spouses, ministry leaders, and pastors is happening at epidemic rates, largely because the body of Christ is unaware of or apathetic to the reality of this problem and much of the church leadership is choosing to remain silent about it. Abusers are being shown inappropriate grace and allowed to move on and abuse elsewhere, while victims are being ignored, silenced, or even run out of the church as false accusers.
Sexual Abuse in Christian Organizations by Diane Langberg, PhD (Board Member at Grace)
Pastors Don't Have Affairs - Ashley Easter
Why It's Not an Affair - AdvocateWeb
Clergy Sexual Misconduct Information & Resources
Soul Stealing: Power Relations in Pastoral Sexual Abuse - SNAP Network
Sex With a Pastor: An Affair or Abuse? by Cameron Altaras
When it comes to accusations about a spiritual leader involved in misconduct, please listen carefully to the accuser, and to the information on this site. Very few accusations of this nature turn out to be false. It takes great courage and the overcoming of a number of emotional obstacles for someone to come forward with an accusation of misconduct. Even those who do come forward, or perhaps are discovered as involved, will often quickly regret the exposure and sometimes will even recant their accusation.
Click here for a description of some reasons why victims are reluctant to come forward.
The victim in most cases will not have a clear or logical understanding of how they ended up in the activity they were led into by the one they should have been able to trust. Nor did they likely intend for any of it to happen. They will be and have been in a great deal of confusion, guilt, and shame about it. Yes they may have ended up engaging in sinful activity themselves, but it is not a question of innocence, it is a question of responsibility and fault. The legal, ethical, and moral responsibility for the misconduct rests solely on the pastor or ministry leader. Don’t make the victim's pain worse in the process of bringing the sin and abuse to light by engaging in sin-leveling, blaming, or shaming.
Please refer to the 'Caring for the Victim' page for a discussion of the following summarized points.
- Victims are already filled with shame, self-blame, guilt, and remorse, so don’t add to that by treating them like a “sinner”, "adulterer", or “the problem”.
- While all sin is equal in God’s eyes in the context of grace and forgiveness, all sin is not equal in earthly terms of responsibility, fault, consequences, and repercussions. Assigning equal responsibility and fault between the spiritual leader and the victim of their misconduct by calling it an affair or an inappropriate relationship is considered sin-leveling and it causes further hurt and emotional damage to the victims and is very unhelpful in facilitating true confession, repentance, and healing for all parties involved.
- It's important to understand that victims of abuse, even if they think they participated voluntarily, are traumatized. Exposing the sin and abuse of the pastor/ministry leader is Biblical (see below), but calling out the victim publicly only adds to their shame and guilt and sets a precedence that discourages other victims from coming forward.
- Victims need to be treated with dignity, respect, and compassion.
Not listening and thereby responding poorly by denying, minimizing, or mislabeling the abuse can result in more harm than good. It can cover for the abuser and leave the entire church more vulnerable to future misconduct and abuse. See the following Letter to Church Leaders for a description of what the wrong response communicates to the church.
You wouldn’t think emotional abuse and clergy sexual misconduct, or really any kind of abuse, would be a problem in the church because we are part of God's redeemed family and we should all love one another as Jesus taught us. Yes we all still sin, but hurting others by engaging in intentional toxic and abusive behaviors just doesn't seem possible for someone calling themselves a Christian, pastor, or ministry leader, right? You may be tempted to think it could never happen in your church. But the reality is that abuse occurs in the church membership and leadership at alarming rates in every denomination all across the globe. Unfortunately, more and more reports of these abuses in the church are coming to light in the news and all over social media due to the #metoo and #churchtoo movements.
There aren’t a lot of studies available in this area, but the ones that have been done show that abusers can be found in the church community at equal if not higher rates than the general population. The church provides loyal followers, often fanatic admiration, inherent community status, and implied spiritual authority and power to its leaders, and this actually makes the ministry profession an attractive vocation for those with personality disorders such as narcissism. Ignorance and apathy about this reality are a big part of what enables these abusers to begin and continue to operate in the church. They know they can easily manipulate and deceive the trusting, grace loving sheep who will quickly forgive and excuse their misconduct as common sin. Often, even if they are caught in terrible acts of abuse, they will be shown inappropriate grace and are able to go on covertly abusing the vulnerable either in the same church or often by relocating to another church that is not told what they have done.
Not all narcissists are sexual predators and offenders, but the anecdotal evidence seen in survivor, advocate, and therapist experiences paints a very clear picture that that narcissist tactics of grooming are a very common element in abuse of all kinds.
Regardless of the root cause, Clergy Sexual Misconduct is a significant problem throughout the church, across all denominations, and has been for many years.
The following page documents a range of statistics related to the ministerial profession, including the Clergy Sexual Misconduct stats shown immediately below...
- 51% of pastors say that Internet pornography is a possible temptation for them
- Approximately 20% of the monthly calls to Focus on the Family’s Pastoral Ministries Division are because of sexual misconduct and pornography
- More than 30% of pastors are functionally addicted to Internet pornography
- More than 15% of pastors engage in sexual behavior that they consider inappropriate
- 10-14% of pastors have sexual contact with someone other than their spouse while employed as a minister
- There are an average of seven victims of clergy sexual misconduct per affected congregation
Grace Fall > Ministry Professionals > The Statistics
In reference to the Baylor study discussed in the section above, Diana Garland says "We knew anecdotally that clergy sexual misconduct with adults is a huge problem, but we were surprised it is so prevalent across all denominations, all religions, all faith groups, all across the country". Again, the overview of the Baylor study can be found here.
It is a difficult reality to believe if you haven't experienced it or know someone who has, but even Child Sexual Abuse is being committed by ministry leaders at an alarming rate. The article linked below was published in January 2018 and discusses child abuse in the protestant church. The data shows that out of 328 male offenders studied, 34.9 percent had the title of pastors, 31.4 percent were youth ministers, and the rest were in various ministry roles including worship pastors, deacons, Bible study leaders, volunteers and church members.
Child Sexual Abuse in Protestant Christian Congregations: A Descriptive Analysis of Offense and Offender Characteristics
(Andrew S. Denney, Kent R. Kerley, and Nickolas G. Gross)
The World is Watching and Noticing the Problems
Sexual misconduct and criminal abuse is occurring in the church at unacceptable, unbelievable rates, across all denominations and faiths. This just further reinforces the reality that the modern church has a problem with wolves that we are not properly addressing, and in many cases are not even willing to admit is our problem to deal with. Sadly it is often the secular world that is seeing, reporting, and judging the church on this problem. Following are a few examples of the ugly truth we so often are unwilling to see…
Freedom From Religion Foundation - UNIQUE STUDY REVEALS EPIDEMIC
Huffington Post - The Protestant Clergy Sex Abuse Pattern
The Guardian - Protestants can no longer dismiss abuse as a ‘Catholic problem’
NPR - Protestant Churches Grapple With Growing Sexual Abuse Crisis
The New York Times - Data Shed Light on Child Sexual Abuse by Protestant Clergy
Report: Protestant Church Insurers Handle 260 Sex Abuse Cases a Year
Crimes Must Be Reported to Authorities
First and foremost, if abuse involving a crime comes to light (child abuse, domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, etc.) it should be reported immediately to the local authorities. The laws against such abuse are in place for a reason and the local authorities are the best equipped to deal with such crimes. Do not ever explain or excuse it as just sin that the church can deal with. Trying to deal with abuse via church discipline or by keeping it quiet while the abuser is allowed to continue in the current community of believers, or move on to another community, with no accountability, will only further endanger the victim(s) and/or result in more victims in the future.
A Just Response
Even if criminal activity isn’t involved, with any type of misconduct in the church, God has given His Church the authority and power to act to stop toxic and abusive behavior by anyone claiming to be a follower of Christ. Micah 6:8 tells us that God expects us to act justly while we love mercy and walk humbly with our God. Passages like Matthew 7:15-16, Matthew 18:15-20, John 20:23, Romans 16:17-18, and 1 John 4:1 tell us that we have the spiritual authority to judge the authenticity and sincerity of those in the church, and we can bring justice to those who are unrepentant abusers by removing them from their positions of opportunity. Certainly the desire would be repentance and correction to the toxic behavior, but at some point we must realize when behavior patterns do not change and any words of confession and repentance are only words. Toxic and abusive behavior, including everything from verbal and emotional abuse to sexual misconduct, must be viewed as anti-Christ and addressed at its earliest detection. Ephesians 5, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, and 1 Timothy 5:20 tell us that the evil of sexual sin and abuse should be exposed publicly as a warning to the whole church, for all to see the standard of righteousness that is expected and as an example of public justice such evil doers should expect. Any toxic behavior in working environments or community groups should not be tolerated, and the toxic person must be held accountable to improving the behavior or be removed from their position of opportunity.
Requirements for Church Leadership
Titus 1:6-9 provides very clear and stringent qualifications for the shepherds (pastors/elders/ministry leaders) of the Church. 1 Timothy 5:20 tells us that these shepherds who are sinning should be called out and corrected in front of the whole church as a warning to others. The implication of these two passages is that a pastor or elder caught in misconduct has disqualified themselves from continuing in their ministry and their misconduct should be identified publicly as a warning for others to guard against further misconduct. There is no suggestion that confession and repentance is a factor in allowing the ministry leader to remain in place or resume in ministry elsewhere.
No Tolerance for Unrepentant Sins
Matthew 18:15-17, Luke 17:3-4, Romans 16:17-18, 1 Corinthians 5, Ephesians 5, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12, 1 Timothy 5:20, Titus 1:6, and 1 John 1:5-10 all tell us that unrepentant sin should not be tolerated in the church, particularly sexual sin. True repentance requires an honest confession of wrong done and a sincere demonstration of a change in behavior over an extended period of time. Abuse perpetrated by supposedly already repentant, redeemed Christians should not be treated as ordinary sin that can be quickly forgiven by the mere words of an insincere or generalized confession. True confession and repentance of abusive behavior requires that the abuser be able to recognize and acknowledge the hurt and damage that has been done to the victims. Sincere and meaningful apologies to victims, to the satisfaction of those victims, should be expected before any forgiveness or reconciliation can even be considered. Abusers should never be allowed to continue in their positions of authority or opportunity to abuse, and may never be able to return to such a position even after adequate demonstration of repentance. Forgiveness does not mean the elimination of consequences. Forgiving and restoring an abusive person to the environment where the abuse occurred will only encourage the abusive patterns to resume and likely embolden the abuser. Restoration to a right relationship with God or with the persons sinned against through confession and repentance does not mean a restoration to a position of spiritual authority is appropriate. No secular business leader with any degree of moral or ethical integrity would tolerate toxic and abusive behavior in their working environment, so why would churches so easily forgive and allow an abusive person to remain part of their church or ministry?
Read the following article for another viewpoint on the inappropriate grace that is often shown or expected to be shown to abusers.
Grace (and the abuse of grace) for narcissists and abusers by Chuck DeGroat
The current #metoo and #churchtoo social media movements are showing that hidden abuse is widespread and has been going on for a long time, even in our churches. As a result of the stories now being told, both of recent occurrences and of some abuse occurring many years ago, we should be realizing that abusers have been allowed to remain in the church with no accountability for far too long. Not only has there been egregious misconduct and criminal abuse engaged in by pastors and ministry leaders, but many of these occurrences have been covered up or quietly mishandled by the elders/deacons to whom the abuses were reported. Too often the abuser was allowed to escape necessary justice while feigning repentance and then continuing on in ministry, only to repeat offend sometime later. Because of the brave souls who are finding the courage to tell their stories, abusers are finally being called out and in some cases justice is at last being served.
Covert Narcissistic Abuse, Clergy Sexual Misconduct, Domestic Violence, and Child Abuse are deeply hurtful offenses to those being victimized, as well as to victims’ families, friends, and communities. Those who willfully engage in such activity while posing as good Christians or good Christian leaders should have no place in the true community of repentant and redeemed followers of Christ. These wolves need to be identified early before they do significant damage to even their first victim. These wolves need to be identified and removed from the flock as quickly as possible.
It is the sacred duty of every good shepherd to protect his or her flock from these wolves.
The first step in preventing this problem of abuse from continuing in our churches is awareness and knowledge on the reality of abuse and how the abusers operate in churches. Your church leadership needs to be actively educating the church and staff on how to identify and report abuse whenever they suspect it. If your church leaders do not think they need to address this in your church, that may be a red flag that there is a problem already there. Your church needs to understand the damage that is done to victims of abuse and how to help them heal from it. Your church needs to actively engage in spiritual warfare to be able to discern the presence of wolves and ensure they do not feel comfortable operating in your church.
Signs of Emotional Abuse at Work (and How to React)
The Shocking Truth About Emotional Abuse in the Workplace
When Conflict In The Workplace Escalates To Emotional Abuse
20 Subtle Signs of Bullying at Work
How to Spot a Narcissist in 3 Steps
Leslie Vernick - Five Indicators of An Evil Heart
Why Adult Victims of Clergy Sexual Abuse Are Not To Blame by Mark Scheffers
FaithTrust Institute - Abuse by Clergy FAQs
The Silent Majority: Adult Victims of Sexual Exploitation by Clergy
The Hope of Survivors -Support, Hope, & Healing for Victims of Pastoral Sexual Abuse
Emotional Abuse in the Local Church
Diane Langberg Christian Counseling
Take Courage - Confronting Collusion with Abuse in the Faith Community
6 Warning Signs of Bad Pastors and Spiritual Abuse by Stephen Altrogge
Understanding Sexual Abuse by a Church Leader or Caregiver
The Sin of Silence - The Epidemic Denial About Sexual Abuse in the Evangelical Church by Joshua Pease (Washington Post)
The Imbalance and Exploitation of Power - A Recipe for Abuse by Boz Tchividjian
Understanding Sex Abuse: An Interview with Cyndie Randall MA, LLPC by Kristy Bermeister
How Narcissists Play the Victim and Twist the Story by Darius Cikanavicius (Psych Central)
Can Malignant Narcissists and Psychopaths Change? Why You Shouldn't Count On It by Shahida Arabi
9 Secret Signs of Narcissism You Can't Miss Once You Notice Them by Kim Saeed
How Narcissists Play the Victim and Twist the Story by Darius Cikanavicius
Narcissist or Psychopath: How Can You Tell? by Joe Navarro, M.A.
Narcissists Use Trauma Bonding and Intermittent Reinforcement To Get You Addicted To Them: Why Abuse Survivors Stay by Shahida Arabi
How Narcissists Really Think by Joe Navarro, M.A.
Adult Grooming by Out of the Fog
Abuse of Adults in the Church: What You Need to Know
Surviving Narcissism YouTube Channel
The Subtle Language of Abuse: A Catalogue
Domestic Violence in the Church:
Domestic Violence Resources
Child Abuse in the Church:
Child Safety Resources
We welcome input from all who have experience or expertise in dealing with abuse in the Church. We would love to include quotes, reference material, or links to your work. Please contact us with any suggestions.