Safeguarding charity Thirtyone:eight is encouraging UK churches to take part in Safeguarding Sunday this month. But how do we build healthy cultures that protect against spiritual abuse?
What does a healthy church culture look like? That’s the question we should be asking in order to protect our congregations from spiritual abuse, says safeguarding charity Thirtyone:eight.
The question has never been so important. Spiritual abuse has sadly made headlines recently with allegations against well-recognised names like Mike Pilavachi, Ravi Zacharias and former Vineyard pastor Alan Scott.
This has heightened awareness of the need for greater transparency.
“It often takes a tragedy for people to put measures in place to stop things happening again,” says Peter Wright, the charity’s Head of Communications and Membership.
“Our focus is on what healthy Christian cultures should look like and what role leaders and congregations can play to build them.”
One of the first steps to achieve this is being aware of what such cultures look like, he says.
“If we think about places where we feel safe, listened to and have a sense of belonging, that helps us to assess if there is something going on that we need to address.”
So what does a healthy culture look like and how does it function?
One big focus area is accountability for leaders, says Peter.
“Spiritual abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse which is characterised by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context. It’s misusing positions of power and authority in places where people feel involved or invested in a community and fear being separated from it. It can have a deeply damaging impact on those who experience it.
“Where you have organisations or churches with a central figure who is put on a pedestal and looked to for leadership, that creates an environment where the risk of spiritual abuse can be heightened.”
To protect against this, it’s important to have mechanisms for accountability and self-reflection in place, he says.
“Most people go into ministry because they want to do good and transform lives, but we need safeguards to prevent abuse.”
Another area is creating an environment where people who have been impacted by abuse feel safe to speak out. The cases that have made headlines have gone some way to enable this, says Peter.
“When you have survivors who are brave enough to come forward and say ‘this has happened to me’, particularly with some of the famous cases, it gives people confidence to open up and share things they might not otherwise have felt able to.”
The impact of spiritual abuse is wide-reaching, Peter says, both for those who have experienced it personally and those who have been affected by revelations of it.
“In some cases, people who have been impacted positively by a particular individual or ministry, for example, can find themselves asking, ‘If I went to these events or experienced ministry under these people and had a positive experience, what does that mean for me? Is my faith or my experiences flawed?’”
If churches are to respond well, they need to create safe places for people affected in this way to talk, access support and feel assured that they will be listened to.
“Another vital part of a good response is showing people who have experienced abuse that they will be believed,” says Peter.
“Quite often we’re talking about people in high-profile public or church settings who are loved and respected. When someone has the courage to come forward and say, ‘This is what they did to me’, there can be a tendency to disbelieve them, to say ‘That’s not my experience, that person is fantastic’.”
Instead, churches need to start from a position of believing that what is said is possible, because the person in question is still a human being.
Linked to this is having people and policies in place that enable a timely and effective response. On the one hand, that means selecting people to be responsible for safeguarding who are trained, equipped and recognised as such by the congregation.
On the other hand, all church members have a part to play too, and this comes back to churches fostering an atmosphere where it is safe to speak up.
“Are you in an environment where challenge or questioning is invited and accepted?
“If you would feel fearful about raising concerns about an individual or the way things are done, and feel you would suffer consequences for doing that, it can often be an indicator that things aren’t as they should be.”
Peter’s final piece of advice is to always speak up to your church’s Safeguarding Lead or to someone else that you trust if you have concerns.
“You might be bothered about a certain person or situation; you might just have questions. Whichever it is, don’t just let those things niggle away at you. There are lots of sources of support if you have concerns.”