Healing the Toxic Church

As the title of this post may suggest it has become increasingly difficult to defend the almost obscene behaviour by some who are convinced they have a calling from God. I speak with confidence and conviction about the people I have had personal experience with over the last 30 years. I believe in Father God I believe his son Jesus died for my sins and I am continually challenged by his love and direction in my life. However, the reason I find it difficult to keep quiet any longer is the destruction I have witnessed by individuals who out of their own unresolved emotional hurt have conspired to convince others that it’s OK to lie, cheat and manipulate money and freedom from unsuspecting individuals and families.

I hope that’s about as angry as I’ll sound because the only way to defeat such behaviour is to continue staying healed yourself. I’ve given myself a word count as a boundary in order to be as creative in my response to my feelings as possible but the upshot is people who have been abused and hurt by a church and don’t recover from the trauma quickly generally have a deeper emotional injury, usually occurring in childhood, that has been prised open by the behaviour of the church they have attended.

The church for no fault of its own has become the “corporate parent” the unwilling parent if you like and in the majority of cases people are hurt by the church not being prepared for such need. This is a complex issue and the needs are deep and wide within the “global” church. Everyone both in the church and in the “world” have had either a positive relationship with their birth father or a negative one. The experienced relationship is key to the quality of relationship and understanding you will have with the Eternal Father. If you have witnessed your father being punitive and ungracious within your family then the likelihood will be that your unconscious expectation and perceived experience of God will be the same. The experiences within a church are not dissimilar. The person who has never been given any encouragement by his birth father will often look to the minister of a church for that affirmation. The minister generally has to deal with all this unconscious projection and if his own sense of father has been a negative experience then he is unlikely to be able to give an appropriate response.

I almost feel a knee jerk reaction in explaining that it is more than possible for a minister to become healed and prepared to take on the task. Unfortunately there are so many churches that have embraced people who are so in need of affirmation the church get blind-sided by the exuberance and energy from those that require approbation and love. The roles that need to be filled in church by strong resourceful and healed people end up being taken by those most in need of love and acceptance and in extreme cases these people can even start a church themselves. There you have a rather flawed overview of how “damaged” or ,the preferable, “unhealed” people end up in full time ministry. I use the term “flawed” by choice as I feel the need to author a book to explain in greater detail. If only I had the time.

The following case study tells a story which many may find some connection or resonance with. If we can recognise these people who perpetrate their injuries on others for what they are instead of what they have become we may end up with a ministry to those that need the most healing. Hopefully they will then recognise their own potential in God and thus reach heaven with the expectation of hearing the words “well done my good and faithful servant”.

Michael’s Story

I spent the first 19 years of my Christian life in a very sound church although it wasn’t a miss with problems over the years; something I’ve come to realise is simply life. The issues we had in this church were always addressed openly and the minister always made himself accountable to the body whilst he maintained an open office door policy. I’ve always felt this to be good practice and was something I felt held me in good stead in what to expect from a future leader.

I moved a considerable distance away and felt it was right that I also looked for a church closer to where I was living. I asked people I trusted for a recommendation they felt would suit me and being someone with a creative gift and a view to developing my skills for the Lord’s use, a like minded ministry was mentioned several times. I started to attend this exciting church and I genuinely felt as though I fitted in and was welcomed with open arms. The first Sunday I attended I made my self known to one of the core leaders and was placed in a home group the very same day.

The senior leaders were away for the first month and when they came back into the fold I noticed a very subtle difference to the meetings. The history of this story goes back almost 20 years. The couple who believed they were called into the ministry were known in the entertainment industry and had worked at the highest level. In my opinion at this critical stage they should have been in a discipleship / mentoring situation for the first several years of building a church. It was at this time the husband went away for a year to work. When he arrived back home and the church was in full swing he came straight back into the leadership role and regarded himself as the Pastor. Incidentally the role of pastor was something he always delegated because he appeared intolerant of most people and incapable of demonstrating any genuine love for individuals. The longer I stayed there the clearer it became that this man was an undiagnosed Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

I stayed at this church for 5 years and in that time met and married my wife and experienced some teaching I believed to be new and refreshing. During these 5 years things got progressively uneasy and people, both individuals and families, started to leave for different reasons. I learned much later that everyone who had actually left had either disagreed with the senior pastor, as he now called himself, or had tried to initiate a new ministry within the church. The senior minister had conspired to make them feel so angry that staying in the church became an impossibility. When the person or family left a new initiative would suddenly appear within the church as the senior pastor’s own idea or a divine revelation given to him to initiate within the body.

The senior pastor became more and more defensive about almost everything he was challenged on. The church was also a registered charity and they paid their staff ridiculously low wages. The senior pastors were paying themselves a wage most people would dream of and this was evident by looking up their annual returns on the Charity Commission website.

As people left the church the relationships they still had with each other were healthily maintained and everyone learned the true reasons for their respective departures. It became clear that people who had held leadership roles including the trustees had left or resigned their office because they had had enough of trying to maintain the integrity of their own faith. The trustees were persistently badgered to either buy items that could not be afforded or to sign checks to release money for reasons that appeared dubious. The senior leaders themselves would go shopping and purchase personal items which they would charge to the church. Holidays were taken abroad in the name of ministry and charged to the church. Personal businesses were run from the church and no charge was made for the use of the buildings. Someone had actually donated a whole music recording studio for the church’s use but no one was ever allowed to use it other than the senior pastor, which incidentally he used as a private source of income.

Being a Christian I find it difficult not to think of this problem in a spiritual dimension. It’s one thing being around a narcissist but when a demonic spirit tags itself onto the back of it and in this instance I believe it to be a Jezebel it appears to make everything so much worse. The senior pastor in his need for affirmation has an agenda where he builds the church around himself whilst Jezebel has a different agenda which is “I’ll destroy the church” and uses the personality of the senior pastor to do the job and in this instance remarkably well.

It’s been 5 years now since my wife and I left this church and we have both dealt with anger and frustration at how we see others being hurt and abused. The church at one time had a very strong membership of 350+ and now has a stronghold of around 30 people. There are those that often say “the Lord hasn’t told me to leave yet” which of course is denial of the most obvious kind. We continue to meet up with friends who also left this church and on reflection this has become a sort of peer supervision which has proved to be incredibly healing.

The saddest thing about this whole issue is that the senior leaders in this church have maintained long term relationships with other well known leaders and ministries that all have influence within the national Christian community and many of these have international standing. These relationships have themselves been used as a weapon to minimise their own failures and highlight everyone’s leaving as a problem. One of the most common things I ever heard this senior pastor say was “this is your issue, between you and God; it can’t possibly be with me” to whoever was challenging him at the time. This wording became somewhat of a catch phrase between the people who ended up leaving the church. Sadly we all used it to mock the situation.

I was recently praying about my own sense of judgement and feelings of forgiveness. The scriptures I have searched all command forgiveness and if one is unable to forgive then surely the command must become “get healed!!” in order that you can reach that place of forgiveness. I’m getting to that place now which is making life a lot freer and enjoyable.

Conclusion

The need within the unhealed is to ultimately feel loved and unfortunately their need is so great it is rarely understood by a congregation that requires love, acceptance and understanding themselves. Unfortunately it is the non-recognition of this human condition that gives the unhealed and the church in general a bad name. The condition which is mentioned above is the Narcissistic Personality. The only way to combat this is to continue in our quest to love and demand healing of ourselves. It is a continued practice which speaking as a therapist isn’t easy but is well worth the effort because freedom although costly is something demanded by the world in which we live.

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3 Responses to Healing the Toxic Church

  1. carol westerman says:

    Hi
    liked your article and subject matter!! i just sigh sometimes when i think of church and some of the things that are said to people as a christian counsellor i often pick up the pieces well done anyway for aproaching the subject if you google “Deep Release” you will find a training ministry that runs its own Toxic Church courses its run by Dr Chris Andrews and his wife Pauline they now run the counselling course BTI.

  2. Paul Tessal says:

    I have great admiration for anyone who is able to share, what is a very personal story. It is clear that your first intention is to help others who may have experienced a similar situation. However, there are two issues that I would like raise with you.

    Michael states that he “experienced some teaching I believed to be new and refreshing from the church”. However, I perceive the idea of being able to receive good teaching from a ‘possessed narcissist’ as a mutually exclusive concept. As the bible states, “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. Matth 7:17” You either retract your statement that the leader is a ‘possessed narcissist’, or you bite the painful bullet and realise that as well as the teaching being “new”, it was almost invariably wrong. For example, I know of no biblical quotation (I am prepared to be corrected) that speaks of a Jezebel spirit possessing people. It seems quite ironic to me that this Jezebel idea, which was probably fostered by the leader, is now being used against him.

    I think the main problem can be found at the beginning of Michael’s story, where he states that he was looking for a church that “suit[ed] me and being someone with a creative gift and a view to developing my skills for the Lord’s use”. It sounds like he was searching for a church that served his needs first, as opposed to looking for a church that served the needs of others. The fact that the church was primarily synonymous with anything other then loving his neighbour, should maybe of rang some early warning bells. As part of Michael’s own healing process, I believe he should be more willing to hold his own hands up and admit where he was culpable for allowing a culture of dubious behaviour to be cultivated. It is impossible that the leader of the church is the sole perpetrator behind its collapse.

    The example of the Gospels and the early church is simple – help your fellow man and place little importance upon worldly possessions. This is a hard example to follow and we can therefore allow ourselves to be easily distracted from this course. But the most ‘healing’ moments that I have ever experienced in my life have occurred whilst I was focusing on helping others.

    Yours sincerely

    Paul

    • Everyman says:

      Many thanks for taking the time to read “Healing the Toxic Church”. The time line for all the events that happened in this church may well be confusing. In Michael’s story he explains that the teaching he first experienced was certainly new and refreshing. The need to explain who was actually giving the teaching did not seem to be relevant. The teaching in the church in question was generally brought by other mature Christians and quite often from other ministries around the country and the world. The realisation that the senior minister was in fact a Narcissistic Personality did not come to light for years after Michael first joined the church. The narcissistic traits were incredibly well hidden for many years from all involved in this ministry. In fact this is something the senior minister would never agree with but the diagnosis does come from a professional understanding of such mental health issues.
      I agree that the first reason to join a church should be to first serve others but there has to be a subjective view for no other reason than we are all individuals and we see things from different perspectives. If we like a church would we not be more willing to engage with a ministry? Do you not think that the act of accepting Jesus into our lives in the first place is in fact an act of selfishness because we don’t want to perish? This final act of selfishness then enables God to diminish this act of the flesh? This then, in my view, gives way to Selflessness.

      You also allude to the point of not believing that a person can be possessed by a Jezebel spirit. There are many ministries that have taught on this subject. One such ministry that comes to mind is Jane Hamon. If you were to google her name there are CD’s and books available that will give you much more of a flavour and enlighten you I’m sure.

      I’d just like to finish by saying that I feel you are correct in that, all who attended this church have a sense of responsibility to own. We were all culpable even if we just attended the church we maintained the platform for this man to stand. The one thing that has really freed me is owning my own sense of responsibility and once that is dealt with and repented of one can truly move forward.

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