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Spiritual Abuse, Churches, and the Spiritual Safe Haven Network

What is spiritual abuse?

One definition of spiritual is “Of, concerned with, or affecting the soul.”  “Soul” may refer to the nonmaterial aspect of a person’s existence and/or to his or her “vital core.”

Spiritual abuse, then, is injury to or mistreatment of the soul, of the deepest and most intimate aspects of a person’s being.

In a practical sense, spiritual abuse results when individuals are deceived and or otherwise manipulated in ways that cause detrimental changes to core elements of the self, including:

·       one’s relationship to God,

·       religious/philosophical beliefs,

·       self-determination,

·       the capacity to think independently, and

·       one’s relationship to esteemed spiritual authorities, such as clergy or pastoral counselors.

Though often associated with cultic groups, spiritual abuse may also occur in mainstream religions when clergy or others misuse their authority or when individuals violate the ethical boundaries of pastoral counseling, proselytizing, or other kinds of influence situations.

Why should your church care about spiritual abuse?

·       Spiritually abused persons, including former members of cultic groups, may seek community, solace, and guidance from your church.

·       Members of your church may be perpetrators of spiritual abuse, even if unwittingly.

·       Members of your church may be or may become victims of spiritual abuse and/or cults.

·       Many clergy and parishioners do not understand spiritual abuse as well as they should.  Consider the research findings below.

Do churches do enough?  

·         Studies suggest that  approximately three million persons have had at least a transient involvement in a cultic group or abusive church.  Prevalence research on abuse in professional relationships (e.g., clergy, psychotherapists) range from one percent to as high as 12%.

·         Estimates based on such research suggest that in the USA alone about 50,000 people enter and leave abusive churches and cults each year.

·         Many Christians at least temporarily lose their faith after having been spiritually abused.  In one study, 67% of subjects were Protestant or Roman Catholic before their involvement in a cultic group or abusive church, but only 39% still identified with these religious groups after abuse.

·         Eighty respondents (42%) in this same study sought help from mainline religious organizations.  This finding shows that churches are an important resource for the spiritually abused.  Well over half were open to receiving help from churches.

·         But 40% of those who sought help found these services to be not at all helpful, while only 21% rated the services as helpful or very helpful.

·         Research suggests, then, that each year in the USA about ten thousand former group members who would be open to help from religious organizations do NOT receive such help.

What is the Spiritual Safe Haven Network?

·       The Spiritual Safe Haven Network (SSHN) consists of individuals and religious institutions (churches, synagogues, campus religious organizations, etc.) that want to offer those who have experienced spiritual and/or cultic abuse a "safe haven" providing spiritual solace, information, and community and that want to offer preventive educational services.

·       Website for articles, guidelines, FAQs and other information: 

Why do spiritual abuse victims probably attend your church?

·         Deception lies at the heart of all forms of spiritual and cultic abuse.

·         Therefore, these abuse victims often do not identify themselves as such.

·         Instead, victims tend to blame themselves, e.g., they were “failures”; they have been “abandoned by God,” or their faith was not strong enough to stay in the abusing situation.

·         Those whose abuse reached the level of trauma often rely on denial, suppression, or “compartmentalization” to manage life.

·         Experts who have spoken in churches will often find that a significant percent of their audience either is an abuse victim or has a family member or friend who has been victimized.

What Can You Do for Victims of Spiritual Abuse?

·       Be patient.  Give them space and time to feel comfortable with you.  If they rebuff you or show ingratitude, keep in mind that their response may be related to sometimes horrendous abuse of which you may have no knowledge.

·       Be gentle - avoid high expectations, but do not patronize. Many abuse victims continue to be very hard on themselves.  Encourage them to be gentler and more forgiving with themselves.

·       Earn their trust through patience, kindness, and understanding.

·       Listen to them.  Encourage them to talk to you, rather than to listen to you. 

·       Encourage, encourage encourage! The self-esteem of an abused person may be at rock bottom. You have the opportunity to foster a more positive self-concept via encouragement.  If you must criticize, be tactful.

·       However, do not pretend that difficult problems can be easily solved.  Recovering from an abusive experience often takes much time.

·       Encourage them also to get information and assistance from resources that specialize in this area, e.g., ICSA.

·       Encourage them to ask questions. Help them find their own answers.  Respect their views, even when you disagree.

·       Laugh with them. Encouraging and joining former members in humor can be a great antidote for their experiences because in many groups and spiritually abusive situations humor may have been forbidden.

·       Be confidential. Former members of some abusive groups have often been hurt by those who misused personal information.  Be sensitive to this fear.  Do not share information with others unless the spiritually abused person knows and approves.

·       Let go!  However good their intentions, helpers should be vigilant about how their own needs may sometimes cause them to hold onto a helper-helpee relationship when they should let go.  Spiritually abused persons may begin a relationship as emotionally needy; however, if they have been genuinely helped, they will become independent and self-confident.  Helpers should be careful not to deceive themselves and unintentionally try to maintain a relationship that has come to bring more benefits to the helper than the helpee.  If you've done your job, you should let go and permit the helpee to go on with his or her life.

 What can your church do?

·       Contact SSHN:; 1-239-514-3081.

·       Visit 

·       Continue to learn more about spiritual and cultic abuse by taking out an institutional membership in SSHN.

·       Ask SSHN to organize educational programs on spiritual abuse and cults for your congregation, especially for youth.

·       Make sure that staff and key members of the congregation learn enough about spiritual abuse to make your church a safe haven for spiritual and cultic abuse victims.

·       Put SSHN periodicals and other materials in your church library.