Spiritual Abuse - Lesson 3

Shepherding Insights: 7 Things to Do

When you are encouraging someone as a friend who has experience spiritual abuse, there are specific elements of your relationship that can be helpful.

Gerry Breshears
Spiritual Abuse
Lesson 3
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Shepherding Insights: 7 Things to Do

Shepherding Insights: 7 Things to Do

1. Be trustworthy

2. Hear their story

3. Keep confidentiality

4. Help them express their strong feelings

5. Help them name their experience as abuse/p>

6. Help them sort through all their feelings

7. Learn how to trust again, but only trustworthy people

  • Spiritual abuse exists when a person or group of people with religious authority use their position of spiritual power to control or dominate another person in the name of God, church faith, etc., taking advantage of the person’s vulnerability to gratify their own needs in areas like power, intimacy, prosperity, sexual gratification, etc.

  • It can be difficult to recognize spiritual abuse because you often don’t realize that it's happening. One sign of possible spiritual abuse is a change of personality in a negative direction. Many abusive situations will undermine and devalue family relationships of the members to exploit them and increase control over them in the group. They will emphasize church loyalty to the exclusion of family loyalty. 

  • When you are encouraging someone as a friend who has experience spiritual abuse, there are specific elements of your relationship that can be helpful.

  • When you are encouraging someone as a friend who has experienced spiritual abuse, there are 6 elements of your relationship that will be helpful to avoid. 

  • Untwist Scripture passages and model a healthy relationship.

  • Dr. Breshears responds to questions that are commonly asked about the subject of spiritual abuse.

How to recognize spiritual abuse, important steps to take to recover and what you can do to walk with someone as they recover.

Spiritual Abuse

Dr. Gerry Breshears


Shepherding Insights: 7 Things to Do

Lesson Transcript


What do you do when you're helping somebody who has been a part of an unhealthy or abusive situation? They may be in it. They may be getting out of it. They may be wrestling with how to deal with stuff. Some I just call them shepherding insights that I found helpful as I worked with these people as a pastor, as a friend to start with, I do be trustworthy. I mean, it's just it sounds so simple, but it really is true. What you say must match what you feel and do. You've got to be trust. Another reason this is authentic. If you're upset, say you're upset, but be gentle about it. What you can't do is just be out in front and have all kinds of stuff going inside. Clarify your intentions. Constantly tell them what you're there for. People have been in abusive situations, are really good at reading nonverbals way better than you are. And if you're trying to hide what's going on inside, you just won't work out. You've got to help them understand what you're thinking and feeling on the inside. Otherwise, they will many times put false answers that point. So be trustworthy, be authentic. Let what you say and what's going in inside be congruent because any incongruity will really both things badly. A second thing do hear his or her story. The one who has been abused really needs to tell the story and they really don't want to do it because they've been told they have to keep the secret. In many cases, their entrance into heaven is dependent upon keeping the secret. And again, for someone known if we confess our sin and that our sin is a simple possessive, we usually read that as our sin, as sin that I have done.


But possessive, that can be seen done to me. We're going to be seeing this done. That impacts me. So when we confess our sin, that sin that I've done it, sin done to me, or it's sinden in my context that defiles me. If we confess our sin, it's not only sin done by me, it's been done to me. And sinden my context that defiles me. And a survivor needs to tell that story. And a lot of what they're doing is not sin that they've done it. Sin that's been done to them. But it becomes then because it's done to them and impacts them deeply, they need to tell that story. They need to talk about that. They need to talk about the abuse. They need to break the secrecy. They need to talk about what they felt in the process. Oh, they need to fuck their culture for sure, but they also need to talk to somebody who's not a counselor. There's a counselor has to make it a one way relationship. A pastor, a friend can make it a two way relationship. I can speak to them as well as hear from them. So I want to listen. Caring. I want to listen actively. I want to ask questions and interact. I want to ask the questions come up. But I always want to keep the focus on their story. I want them to be able to tell her story. I need to support them so they can break the secret. I want to be able to have that spot where they can confess. Talk about what was done to them. And the point isn't to meet their needs. But the point is for sure, to help them tell the story, encourage them to keep on talking when the shame and horror just overwhelming when they begin to realize what's happening.


It's hard to do. This is where for people who are not good at this active listening, I encourage you. Take a look at Egan's The Skilled Helper, the classic book that just gives you it tells you how to be a skilled listener. The skilled helper, Timothy Egan is a very helpful book just to learn better at that. Or you can go to YouTube and watch videos on active listening. It's a skill that can be good for your marriage, to learn how to be a good listener. So be trustworthy. Do hear the story. Thirdly, do keep confidentiality when the one who's been abused tells you what's happened. That information belongs to him or her. It does not belong to me. I have to keep the confidentiality of the experiences are his or hers to share. They're not mine to share. I she. He. The one who's been hurt is the one who needs to break the silence to other people. I can encourage him to do that. I can go with them when they talk to family members or church members. But they have to be the one who do it. I can't break the confidentiality. Now what can happen is the one who's been hurt can ask me to go talk to somebody. And that's not breaking confidentiality. If I'm doing it with the support and encouragement, but then I give very specifically what I'm going to say and make sure that I have their complete confidence in what's going on. I, I can't I can't I can't break their trust by sharing things that are not mine. And I really try to help them do their own work. But I will go and talk to people and investigate what's going on. But only if I have their full support in doing it.


So keep confidentiality forth. Do do do help him or her express his or her strong feelings. And what will happen is, as the survivor is telling their story and they begin to realize what's happening, almost inevitably you'll come out with high levels of anger. In many times very inappropriate things will be said. They've got to be able to do that. They've got to be able to do that. Do not do not do not correct bad attitude or factual misstatements as they're telling the story. Even if he knows bad attitude and factual statement, that's not the time to do it. There is a time to do it, but they've got to be able to express their feelings. And these feelings can be extremely negative when they begin to realize what's been done to them. And you have to let them do that. You have to let them do that. Don't get to the spot where you are. Wait a minute. That anger is not appropriate. No. Let the anger come. Later on, they can begin to assess what's happened and they will begin to realize, well, I'm overreacting at that point. But at the time, there has to be the freedom to let that come out because the are the statements. I mean, when you realize what's been done to you, the anger is going to happen because the pain is so deep. They've got to have a space, safe space where they can talk about that and let the strong feelings come out. A fifth point, encourage, do help him or her name, his or her experiences abuse. It's amazing, amazing, amazing how hard it is to use that word. Because you've been in a situation where the person who's abusing you is your spiritual authority.


They have been the channel for God. They have been the priest to the Lord most hi to you. And now you're turning around and saying at least some of what they did was abuse. It was done in order to dominate and exploit me as a vulnerable parishioner. That's a really hard thing to come to. That's really, really hard to come through in. What will happen so often is they'll minimize what's happened or they'll take blame for what happened. I wasn't properly submissive or something like that. They've got to be able to name it as abuse. They just have to. And this is a goal that I have as a helper is to help them come back in and name what happened and then support them. And this is the sixth thing. Do help them sort through all their feelings. Do help them sort through all their feelings and what will happen at this point. At least in my experience, is as they go through the feelings they will want to go. They want to hide it. It's just too painful. They need somebody that will support them as they go into the pain and the agony that's associated and the sense of failure when they realize, oh, my gosh, I let this happen to me. And you've got to be able to help them sort through all those feelings, but they need to sort through them. They need to learn the difference between disappointment from abandonment. No, let me think with just a little bit on that. I can disappoint my pretty wife without abandoning her. She may feel abandoned. I mean, I'll tell you a real story. I was at a spot where a seminary student had been involved. His wife had divorced him.


She'd gotten involved with somebody else. And he saw his entire ministry career go down into failure. Because in this this divorce situation, in his own view, he was not disqualified from ministry. And he felt terrible because he had failed God by not taking care of his wife properly. Not nobody abused him, but he had been raised in a very unhealthy environment that he took full responsibility for everything that had happened wrong. So as I was talking with him. I had to help him sort out failure because he had worked more in his job, in his schoolwork, in his ministry context, and he had neglected his wife. He had. But though that was his sin. And which he needs to be able to deal with. What he needs to be helped not to do is take responsibility for his wife's decision to abandon their marriage and go to her lover. So in that kind of sorting out, that's hard to do. But that's what we're talking about. You've got to be able to sort through those kinds of feelings. We've got to differentiate in more healthy relationships. Now, when somebody says no to you or I don't agree. How do you sort that out from your bad? Because you don't agree. Sorting out and differentiating. No. Or I don't agree from your bad or your submissive. That's the kind of thing that comes out. The difference in anger and hatred. When I've been hurt. Anger is an appropriate response. Hatred is not. So how to sort those feelings out. Now, that's not an easy thing to do, but it's an important thing to do. Oh. When I ask somebody for help and they say, I can't. Can I sort out? I can't. From. I don't like you.


These kinds of things are what I'm talking about here. Is to sort out those feelings, to express them and sort out. And that's that's later in the process. That's not the beginning of things, But I've got to help them sort that out. Another thing that helps is they have to learn how to trust again, but only trust trustworthy people. In. What happens with people who've been spiritually abused is when they're in the system, they give unreserved trust to the spiritual authority. And that's how they get abused. When they realize what's happening now, they tend to overreact and come back. I can't trust anybody. Hey, come back to a spot where you begin to trust again. Because trust is never complete. Trust is never complete. But somebody has been abused deeply. It's extremely hard for them to trust. So to try to do is put them in very finite situations and say, okay, we're going to close this time in 5 minutes. I know you still got stuff done, but we'll get together tomorrow at 3:00. I want you to trust me that I care about you, but I do have to go to another appointment. See, I'm deliberately putting that in. You need to trust me that I'm finished. We're ending the session even though we're not done. But I'm promising you will come back to it tomorrow and then you do it. Seeing that simple kind of thing is an exercise in trust. I'm helping them sort through their feelings of abandonment. I still need more talking. And you're leaving me for this other appointment? You don't like me, you're abandoning me. So those are the kind of reactions that happen from somebody who's been abused. And I get it. But I have to help them learn how to differentiate those kinds of things.


So six kind of do things. You got to be trustworthy, very authentic. You have to help them tell their story. All of it. And there are many layers to these stories. And you got to stay with that. You've got to keep the confidentiality. You've got to help them express strong feelings that may be very inappropriate at the time. You've got to help them name the experience for what it is, abuse. And you've got to help them. And then at the end of this thing to begin to sort through their feelings to what's appropriate and what isn't. But I'm not telling them. I'm helping them discover it for themselves in a big thing I'm trying to do is help them discover I can trust some people some of the time to come back to that spot where I can have a more trusting relationship. That's hard to do. But those are the kinds of things that I encourage people to do. When you're helping people who have been out of unhealthy or abusive church situations or religious situations. It's a skill to learn. I tell you what, when you do these kinds of things, you learn so much about yourself and your own junk. It's a great way to grow as you help other people and you discover your own inadequacies. And then you go to somebody and say, Hope. It's a great prayer.