Recovering From Emotional Abuse
Why would those to whom we have ministered, sacrificed, prayed, counseled, and encouraged turn against us?
By Don Detrick
Maybe abuse is too strong a term; then again, maybe not. Perhaps you have been force-fed the bitter pills of caustic comments and behaviors from those whom you trusted to protect you from them. Perhaps these encounters left you feeling debilitated, disheartened, and disillusioned with ministry in general, and certain people in particular. You are not alone.
Emotional abuse happens too often in the church. Leaders abuse their position or power, sometimes unintentionally or even unknowingly. They make remarks that irritate and infect resentment in those God has called them to serve. Even more appalling are those who intentionally inflict sarcastic or critical poison on their victims — poison that eventually drains enthusiasm and vision from a person who has potential. At other times laypersons seeking position and power attack leaders who stand in their way. Others try to bolster their own insecurities by destroying the self-image of others. If you have suffered such abuse, you know it does not feel good.
“Why can’t you do anything right? When I was your age, I never disappointed my parents. You won’t ever amount to anything.” Tears filled the young man’s eyes, his face burned with shame, and his heart seethed with anger toward his critic. Why couldn’t his father accept him as he was and see his good points? He tried hard — he really did — but he was only 12. His most valiant efforts to please his dad were usually met with, “Is that the best you can do?”
Even though most sons his age would have ceased to expect anything other than criticism and harshness from this kind of father, deep inside Jason hoped that someday his father would accept him. He longed for his father to express praise or appreciation for his accomplishments. Even though Jason kept trying harder, the affirmation he hoped for remained an elusive dream. This led to further disappointment, resentment, and self-loathing — a vicious cycle.
But that was more than 30 years ago. Why did his mind keep recalling that incident and many others like it? Should he not be able to accept the fact his father was the loser, not him? Should he not be over it by now?
“Pastor, we are ready for you to come back into the board meeting.” Eileen served as the church bookkeeper and was the lone female member of that group. Her words interrupted his melancholy reminiscence. He had been waiting in his office while the church board met in executive session. They had convened for their annual review of his salary and job performance.
Faith Community’s track record of 10 pastors over the last 25 years did little to boost his sagging spirits. In the past the board had fired pastors when its members felt things went awry. Jason had convinced himself he would be the exception to the rule. The board had been specific about wanting to change their dysfunctional patterns and implement change to facilitate growth and reach their community. Bob, the senior deacon, had been influential in recruiting Jason. At the beginning of his ministry at Faith Community, Bob had made a special effort to encourage and compliment his leadership. Recently, however, Jason had noted Bob’s compliments came less frequently. At times Bob even seemed irritated with him. Lately when Jason brought proposals for implementing significant change to the board, these were met with open resistance, and at times, downright scorn — even from Bob.
These factors converged on Jason’s mind as he faced his annual review, feeding his heightened sense of anxiety and insecurity. Despite his best intentions, he felt anxious because his yearly evaluation reminded him of his adolescent interactions with his father. Although he had done well the past 2 years, Jason feared the board would cite the lack of congregational growth and other negative factors as reasons to forego a salary increase.
He could sense the tension as he took his seat among the church’s elected leaders. The board had selected Bob to convey their deliberations. “Pastor, we love you. We have concluded, however, that you do not seem to have what it takes to move us forward. We cannot ignore what has been happening in our church. Some families have already left, and we have spoken with others who are threatening to leave unless there is a change in leadership. This is difficult to face. We have voted and believe it would be best for you to resign. To make the transition as easy as possible we will pay your salary until the end of the month.”
Many pastors have experienced similar scenarios and feelings. I have heard their stories, felt their pain, and prayed for their healing from emotional abuse. These anguished stories are not exclusive to one generation or gender. Although circumstances differ for each pastor, most have experienced some level of emotional abuse from colleagues, family members, or those to whom they minister. Often negative past experiences exacerbate the emotional upheaval of the present.
Senior pastors sometimes abuse associate pastors by being overly critical of their behaviors or ideas — or they marginalize and devalue them when they refuse to listen. Some ministers abuse their spouse or children by taking out their frustrations at home instead of resolving their frustrations by interacting with the people with whom they feel frustrated.
Like Jason, many ministers suffer abuse from those they serve. Other ministers feel abused because of thoughtless comments or practices related to their ethnicity or gender. Similar to a family, church dynamics create an environment for relationships that are either fulfilling or painful.
To address recovery from emotional abuse, I interviewed nearly 30 ministers concerning their recovery. I have also drawn on my 35 years of ministry as a staff member, counselor, senior pastor, and denominational official. I sum up my findings by quoting one minister who has experienced emotional abuse: “I think recovery from emotional abuse is multifaceted and probably different for each person. Rather than a series of six easy steps to recovery, it seems more appropriate to consider recovery as a matrix, with a diverse group of behaviors or action steps, all of which contribute to a healthy recovery.”
What follows are not steps that guarantee recovery, but several suggestions that may contribute to emotional health and recovery from abuse. Some have a negative connotation; some, a positive one. I do not offer these as the only components of a healthy emotional recovery matrix. Instead, they can provide perspective and a good starting point for living an emotionally healthy life.
Do Not Be Paralyzed by Fear, Guilt, or Shame
Have you ever awakened in a cold sweat from a nightmare in which you were in a terrifying situation, but unable to move? An abusive confrontation can leave a pastor in a state of emotional shock. If he is unable to rationally process the event, the circumstances may paralyze him. He feels powerless to face the abuser or even acknowledge the abuse.
When a pastor tries to minimize his pain by telling himself he should not feel this way, it only multiplies his emotional suffering. He can compound the abuse with his own feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment. He may think, If I were a good person, this would not be happening to me. It must partly be my fault. It is commendable and biblical to take ownership for your contribution in any conflict. A pastor, however, must remember that no one deservesabusive treatment. Avoid accepting more responsibility for the situation than rightfully belongs to you.
Take Steps to Move Forward
Remember Romans 12:18 while trying to find resolution with an abusive person, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Paul extends grace to help Christians understand that it may not be possible to live peacefully with everyone. If an abuser is unwilling to acknowledge or change his behavior, the healthiest resolution might be to accept this and stay away from that person. This is particularly true when you have done your part to bring about a peaceful resolution.
A pastor can begin to move toward a healthy recovery by acknowledging that his emotional feelings are valid and facing them head-on. While a pastor needs a medical expert to make an official diagnosis, many ministers exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their church experiences. Ignored emotions do not disappear, but may lie beneath the surface. These emotions may reappear when a pastor least expects it, robbing him of emotional energy. The steps he needs to take to move ahead may be different for each person. These steps often begin, however, with determination to recover and discover solutions.
Get Help Dealing With Past and Present Issues
A minister may be able to separate himself from an abuser or an abusive situation, yet the memories and emotional effects often linger long beyond the painful events. If he finds himself obsessively and unintentionally rehearsing traumatic memories, he needs to find a trusted confidant or counselor to help him process his distress. Ministers do experience emotional and psychological challenges, and they should not feel ashamed to admit this or seek professional help.
In the past some church leaders disdained or even vilified counseling as either unspiritual or exhibiting a lack of faith in God’s delivering power. Such an either-or perspective, however, can cause emotional pain and suffering, and in extreme cases be abusive. In his book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Peter Scazzero lists several symptoms of emotionally unhealthy spirituality. These include:
- Ignoring the emotions of anger, sadness, or fear.
- Denying the past’s impact on the present.
- Dividing our lives into secular and sacred compartments.
- Spiritualizing away conflict.
- Covering our brokenness, weakness, or failure.1
Proactively Shield Yourself and Your Family From Abusers
In his book, Antagonists in the Church, Kenneth C. Haugk identifies the characteristics of an antagonist. In many cases, an antagonist would be synonymous with an abuser. He states: “Antagonists are individuals who, on the basis of nonsubstantive evidence, go out of their way to make insatiable demands, usually attacking the person or performance of others … tearing down rather than building up, and are frequently directed against those in a leadership capacity.”2
In Psalm 41:9, David described his abuse at the hands of his associates. “Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” People who are often quick to connect with a pastor or adopt a new idea eventually move from ally to aggressor. At times, they change overnight from advocate to opponent. Perhaps this is because the pastor did not exercise caution in making the person a confidant, or the former ally has an attachment disorder or pattern in his life. Whatever the reason, the pain of betrayal and abuse triggers strong emotional reactions.
David was perplexed, and often so are pastors. Why would those to whom we have ministered, sacrificed, prayed, counseled, and encouraged turn against us? This question has no plausible answers. We cannot expect to understand their bizarre or abusive behaviors, but we can forgive and move on. We can also take appropriate steps to protect ourselves from further damage from these people.
A pastor also needs to watch for abusive tendencies in his own life. Since hurting people tend to hurt other people, be particularly sensitive concerning how you react emotionally to challenging circumstances. This is especially true with your own family. Enlist their help by giving them permission to signal you if you begin to move beyond healthy emotional boundaries with them. Through open dialogue before a problem surfaces, you can prevent this possibility.
Develop a Healthy Perspective on Trials and Your Response to Them
Ministers sometimes view every difficulty through the lens of spiritual warfare. While a pastor should not ignore the reality of Job’s experience or Ephesians 6:12, it is a mistake to read too much into our own circumstances. Pastors often suffer because they live in a fallen world among fallen people. To live a conflict-free life in a conflict-ridden world is impossible.
A pastor should never trivialize his or another’s suffering. A pastor’s subjective analysis often places a higher level of importance on the undeserved nature of his suffering while trying to provide objective analytical reasons for the suffering of others. He is often tempted to exhibit his battle scars and share his most excruciating tales of self-martyrdom. A pastor, however, must avoid a misery-loves-company pity party while recognizing that conversations with others who have experienced pain and are on the road to recovery can be healthy and therapeutic. By granting the grace of listening to others, a minister can experience healing.
Part of a healthy recovery lies in recognizing that one’s future is in the future, not in his past. Past memories and experiences — both good and bad — influence everyone. But a pastor must realize that his past does not necessarily represent his future. He can have a more hopeful vision of the future by focusing on God’s purposes and His intervention in his life. Jeremiah’s prophetic words provide pastors a compelling vision: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).
Intentionally Make Space for Joy in Your Life
When a pastor spends his emotional energy simply trying to exist, there is little room for joy. Emotional abuse can rob a minister of his sense of humor, optimism, and trust in others.
A pastor needs to learn to budget his emotional energy by limiting activities and interactions with people who rob him of strength and leave him feeling empty. He may find comfort in journaling his experiences, particularly when he looks back and views his emotional pain from the safe haven of recovery. He will then recognize the Lord’s goodness in bringing him through a horrific experience.
A pastor can replenish his depleted supply of joy by starting with the little things he can control, not the big issues he cannot control. He can cultivate appreciation for the small, good gifts he is able to enjoy, such as glimpsing a colorful bird or enjoying a favorite food. Once he is able to focus on small snapshots of joy, he will find it easier over time to regain enthusiasm for the big picture of life.
Ministers need to nurture healthy relationships, find a hobby, and find ways to have fun. The key word is action. Start an exercise program. God created a correlation between a person’s emotional, mental, and physical health. Pastors can consider doing something that has brought them joy in the past, or that they have often dreamed of doing. As much as possible, pastors need to surround themselves with cheerful, optimistic people who share a hopeful vision of the future and can encourage their faith in the Lord.
Do not ignore the truth of Proverbs 17:22: “A cheerful heart is good medicine.” Usually, people in ministry who have suffered emotional abuse are not bitter people. They have chosen to take the necessary steps to recover from their emotional abuse and cleanse the bitterness from their hearts. The sweetness of Jesus is the best antidote for recovering from emotional abuse, and it tastes much better than a bitter pill.
1. Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 24.
2. Kenneth C. Haugk, Antagonists in the Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), 59.