Signs of Spiritual Abuse – Part 1

The first sign of spiritual abuse is that it’s not safe to question authority. This dynamic indicates that the fundamental understanding of authority within a group or organization is rooted in fear. Unhealthy leadership assumes that effective leadership must present an unquestionable confidence, which makes their confidence unquestionable. This is fear-based because such a projection of confidence ALWAYS serves to mask insecurity, and insecurity is ALWAYS about fear.

If my projection of confidence wavers, I will lose my power over you; and I fear losing my power over you.

There are several ways unhealthy leadership enforces this usually unwritten code.

The Aggressive Response
This leader will invade your space, raise his/her voice, and/or make threats against you to put you back in your place, under their control. They will often quote the Bible to beat you into submission, and have sometimes been known to threaten what the devil will do if you rebelliously move out from the covering of their authority.

The Passive Aggressive Response
This approach is fueled with exactly the same anger and fear as the Aggressive Approach, it’s just designed to avoid direct confrontation, truth telling and hard questions. Beyond that, it is designed to help the unhealthy leader avoid confrontation and accountability. Someone has dared to confront me! I must make sure they know that isn’t allowed while making sure that the way I let them know this is itself difficult to confront. What I withhold or delay relationally, emotionally or even practically might do the trick.

The Patronizing Approach
This response feels much healthier on the surface. They meet with you. They hear your concerns. They express appreciation for your honest feedback. They point out how safe it is to give such feedback and how much they desire to hear you. But you’ll notice that they own nothing; they change nothing. This approach is designed to feel like a response without actually responding. The unhealthy leader metaphorically pats you on the head to let you know how safe it is for you to express your concerns without ever taking your concern seriously.

Please note that the alternative to the above responses does not involve a blind ownership and full adjustment to every bit of feedback or critique a leader receives. But a healthy response to your feedback should include the following.

  1. You feel heard. You approached a leader with your questions and concerns and their response demonstrated their desire to understand your heart and a willingness to validate your experience.
  2. Your concern was considered. This doesn’t mean they fully agreed with your feedback. But they genuinely thought it through, attempting to do so from your perspective, in your shoes.
  3. They offer feedback of their own. This doesn’t mean an attack on you or a dodge to change the subject. No. This is when a healthy leader offers perspective and some view into where they are coming from that helps provide context to what you are experiencing. This feedback is something they offer. “Can I share my heart with you about that?” It’s not a bullying response that shuts you down.
  4. They demonstrate a willingness to own their junk. There is a humility on display in their response to you. They don’t seem to insecurely require that their infallible image be protected at all costs.
  5. Their healthy boundaries remain intact. A healthy leader who is open and responsive to feedback is not obligated to adjust any and every thing to whatever feedback is given.
  6. Appropriate action is taken. Adjustments are promised and delivered within the parameters of health and wisdom.

Pay attention to the leadership culture you are participating in. In our roles as leaders and followers, let’s give ourselves to building healthy leadership environments. This starts with creating a safe place for everyone to speak and respond to the truth.


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