Thursday, March 01, 2007

How to Ruin a Church

The questions I hear most frequently among people who recently left our CLB (church left behind) are "How could this happen to our church?" and "Why can't our friends who are still there see what is happening?"

If there is a point to this post, it is to show that deception can happen among mature believers in a fairly healthy church. Hopefully, I can explain some of the dynamics involved that allow deception to take root in a community.

Let me describe for you how a relatively successful church became cult-like over a span of several years. One of the reasons it could happen was because it was gradual enough that otherwise intelligent, spiritual people were slowly lulled into accepting the deception.

A little background first...

Many of the families at this church attended for many years. It was a tight-knit group of people who had been in community through many seasons of life. The church itself wasn't perfect, but they had navigated successfully through several leadership changes over the years.

At the time the current pastor came on staff, the church had dwindled significantly due to the most recent leadership transition. However, the charismatic renewal and prophetic teaching brought new life, excitement, and growth to the congregation.

Behind the scenes, we soon discovered that the pastor with the wonderful pulpit personality was not only insecure, but incredibly calculating and manipulative. Within a few years he had rewritten the bylaws to his advantage and coerced resignations from the elders who sometimes opposed him.

Then an apostle entered the picture. He promised to provide direction, relational accountability, and support to the senior pastor. At this point, the pastor was in crisis on many fronts, emotionally and relationally, so it seemed like a good idea.

Through this apostle we were introduced to more extreme teaching concerning authority. As I said, the shift was gradual and most people were unaware (and some still are unaware) that the church they have aligned themselves with has become something significantly different than what they believe it is.

The leadership has used the social and relational strengths that already existed in the church to create an environment that influences people to accept things that they normally would not accept.

The upfront picture has always been about how happy we are together, what a wonderful group this is to belong to, and how important we are to the kingdom of God. When you first attend, you would be drawn into the close-knit friendships that are there. It is a wonderful and loving group of people.

But what about life within the group? It is difficult for people to grasp that the reality is drastically different from the idealistic picture that they want to believe is true.

Now it has become more of a pseudo-community. The teaching emphasizes the necessity of unity and being like-minded. Disrupting corporate unity will hurt one's social standing in the group.

This produces the attitude that in order to be accepted, you must get with the program. The fear of losing relationships silences questions and keeps people in line. They have seen that if you disagree or leave, then you will lose your friends.

Flattery is used to nurture people's feelings of inclusion and importance. Prophetic words are given to reward those who perform well and to lure back those who appear to be wavering.

New titles and positions have been fabricated to reward those who want to move up in the organization. These positions add requirements and standards of commitment to prove who really is a team player. Compulsory meetings keep the members involved to the point that most of their time and relationships revolve around the church.

This creates an environment where people are eager to prove their commitment to the leaders and afraid to be seen as disagreeable. One way of proving loyalty is to be an informant to the leadership, letting them know of anyone who is questioning or struggling. Often thoughts shared in deepest confidence are reported to leadership.

Bill Kinnon describes this kind of church very well:

Too many churches of my acquaintance demand loyalty to the institution/leader over and above anything else. "Team player" language is used to command & control, and mavericks are to be removed.

People caught up in this world will not stand for any questioning of the leader or the institution - often exhibiting cult-like responses. They are desperate for the leader's approval and will do just about anything to get it - and would love to move up in the organization to be as close to said leader as possible. And these folk will defend near criminal activity on the part of the church leaders - as their leaders apparently "hear directly from God."

Why would people go along with this? Because they have been taught that the leaders do hear directly from God. Under the teaching of delegated spiritual authority, they must be in submission and obey these leaders who hear from God. The leaders themselves actually believe that they speak for God.

Elitism is another subtle form of control. When a group claims to have a better understanding of truth, it is implied that to leave the group will cost you your opportunity to be successful in what God is doing. The evidence that this is at work is in the attitude taken toward those who leave. Are they still viewed as brothers, or is it implied that they have fallen away?

It has been said that those who leave are not true disciples. This both diminishes the leavers and elevates those who stay in their exclusivity of being the remnant.

It is hard to understand why a group would go along with the idea of members being asked to leave simply for disagreeing. Yet under the teaching, these people are portrayed as a serious threat to the corporate ideal. They are painted as people who hurt the effectiveness of the team. The character assassination necessary to accomplish this is extremely hurtful to those who are targeted.

This is a good example from cultwatch of how character assassination works:

"One plus one equals three", says Ford.
"No I don't think so," replies Arthur.

"Arthur I have been a mathematician longer than you. How dare you disagree with me! You are obviously a very smug and prideful person. I think you are disagreeing with me because you are jealous of me, and your rebellion has really hurt me and a lot of other people too," stated Ford his face intimidatingly close to Arthur's.

You see Ford didn't answer Arthur's argument, instead he attacked his character. Character assassination is a powerful way to exert control.

Because of this tactic, no one raised an eyebrow when the police were called to keep a member from attending. The next person asked to leave resulted in half of the church also leaving. However, those who remain believe that these members were deserving of the treatment they received because they were not exemplary team players.

It is hard to imagine that things could become so bizarre, yet some really solid, spiritual people are still involved. The degree of deception is amazing. Even though they have now lost half of their church and are struggling, this is justified as being part of God's process, refining those who are willing to be a remnant.

Because of people's belief that they are involved in something special and important and their desire to be included, they have come under voluntary oppression to leadership that could be described as totalitarian or authoritarian. It demands allegiance without question or exception and becomes extremely hostile when confronted with a refusal to play along.

How long will this unchecked political power continue? When will people realize that they are free to break away from the bondage?

Things continue to unravel. Sometimes I think, "what a waste!"

The real loss will be in relationships that are destroyed, including marriages.

I remind myself that, in the end, none of this will hinder God's purposes in the lives of those who love Him.

Idolatry of community has been shattered. A great group of mature Christians are now scattered. The group remaining will learn some valuable lessons.

In the end, perhaps we will all be more prepared to do church differently.


Bill Kinnon said...

Would that yours was the only example of this - but this kind of nonsensical (in the true sense of the word) behaviour on the part of leadership is endemic in the evangelical and charismatic churches. It's as if the shepherding movement heresy went underground to reappear as thousands of controlling leaders. All telling us not "to touch the Lord's annointed."

I think Robbymac's Post-Charismatic book will help us all understand what's going on. (It helped me immensely when the first iteration was up on his site.)

Your blog is a very important part of the church leadership discussion. Thanks for writing this.

Anonymous said...

ohh man, I never knew it was that bad. I feel so sad about that kind of abuse. I've never experienced it.

Rob said...


I'm with Bill -- if only this were an isolated incident...

I hope you can be a source and resource for your friends who are just now beginning to realize what has happened to them.

Not the best way to gather Journeymates, but that's often the way these things go.

Pastor Astor said...

Hi Grace!
I quoted and linked to your post at my blog. There is a fundamental flaw or blind spot in the view of leadership in all discipleship focused movements based on the sheparding movement. It keeps producing the same outcome, yet the flaw is very rarely is addressed. The thought that you follow me as I follow Christ combined with a strong emphasis on authority produces a very unhealthy leadership environment that no earthly leader is fit for. It turns good people to monsters, and attracts not so good people. When the basis for discipleship isn't trust or love, but blind faith, people are bound to get hurt.

Cindy said...

this is just the kind of specific description those of us outside this movement need in order to understand. thank you.

When i did encounter this kind of spiritual brainwashing, the leader was not in a pastoral or official church position, so it was less traumatic. But even so, I can still feel the pain and sting of her prophetic words being used against me. Especially this comment from another woman who was accusing me based on the "prophetic" woman's council: "I don't need any biblical basis, I have HER words."

Anonymous said...

Grace, I've responded in longwinded format, but thanks for this... keep it coming. It's helpful to work through this stuff in writing (and hey, it's a pseudonym, go for it). Your insights on this will be helful to many others who are in this or trying to get past it.

My own reaction? deja vu-doo.

Pastor Astor — good call on the Shepherding movement (and don't get me started!). I heard a preacher wisely say once that if you're going to choose a person whose example you're going to follow, choose a dead one, because you know how it turns out and won't follow them into error.

Anonymous said...

If I didn't know better I would have thought you went to the CLB I went to in California. I think about how some one can become so deceived and not realize what is going on. You are so correct about how it happens almost subtlety. I would have never considered myself deceived and when my best friend said "I think this church we are going to is a cult." I about had a heart attack and drove off the road. She was right, but I didn't want to admit nor see what was going on. I was too afraid that I was going to miss God and that I was going to touch God's anointed. Thanks for the posts. They are helping me go through the process of forgiving and detoxing.

Lily said...

Grace - Thanks for sharing this. It's encouraging for me.

It is very similar to my CLB - it was maybe a little more subtle there - but the same problem - controlling leadership. Just like Bill said - the shepherding movement gone underground.

Can I ask just out of curiosity, how big was this church? My CLB was around 8000, just wondering if the abuse is just a little less obvious and severe in a larger church - with the power just a tad more diluted.

Anonymous said...

I think I feel sick now :-( This raised one too many painful memories.

Your post made me wonder if different types of churches (eg charismatic, Baptist) use what is distinctive about their theology to be the weapon of choice to abuse each other? For example, Baptists aren't going to use the apostle card, but they will manipulate each other in congregational meetings.

Anonymous said...

Great post Grace, I'm with john. I do a lot of ecumenical stuff, and quickly discover...they all have different tools for manipulating...or what they like to call cultivating.

Pastor Astor said...

that is a very interesting observation! I have been in baptist congregational meetings that could just as well have ended in blood shed, but I had never connected the dots quite like you; different power structures, different ways of abusing each other.... I will have to give this some thought.

Linda said...

Yes, Robby's post-charismatic project was very helpful in understanding the history of the dynamics involved. I'm looking forward to getting the book. I think the best way to expose the false nature of this kind of leadership is to hold up a more accurate picture of what true leadership looks like.

The saddest thing is that those fully immersed in it really cannot see that it is wrong.

So true, not a great way to have journey mates. However, it is nice to have people speaking to us again, pathetic as that sounds. Standing alone was lonely.

pastor astor,
I agree that it produces an unnatural relationship that is harmful for both the leader and the follower. In the end, I think the greatest damage may actually be to the leader.

I see this kind of character assassination as actually the complete opposite of prophecy, taking what should be a gift of naming and calling forth God's identity in a person and instead using it to curse them.
I should post about that sometime. ;)

brother maynard,
Thanks for the link.
deja vu-doo :)

For this post, I was especially thankful for the pseudonym. That is the reason I use stat-counter, to make sure no one from my state is reading. Amazingly (or not) I've only had a few times that someone from my state visited this site, and they weren't from near my town.
Not that I'm paranoid!

What I have noticed with my friends leaving is that their understanding of the situation grows as they distance themselves from the church. It is very interesting that most people can't see it while they are involved. I'm glad this was helpful to you rather than triggering.

The church was about 250 members, about 300 at its peak. I can't even imagine attending an 8000 member church. I think the smaller size and the small community make the relationships more inbred.

Sorry to make you sick! Yes, as pastor astor said, whatever the setting, it is ultimately about the abuse of power.

I have heard that in baptist congregations, it is often an elder board wielding their power over the pastor.

Thanks! Controlling, competing, manipulating, are we talking about church?

Linda said...

PS: I meant to thank those of you who read all the way through this megapost!

Anonymous said...


Baptist churches--as some other denominations--have congregational government. It means people vote on significant--and sometimes insignificant--decisions.

So it doesn't matter if you're in leadership or not, everyone hypothetically has equal "say". But most of my experience in this setting has been that people who aren't leaders run the show, and use "members meetings" to run their show.

It's hard to paint an accurate picture in a blog comment. But it is often very toxic.

Maria said...

I agree that the same toxic stuff comes in different flavors ... your posts raised a lot of memories, which prompted a post on my blog. Thanks for your clear-eyed account, and also for the hope that we can do it differently.

Linda said...

I think that I understand. Sometimes those with an agenda and influence aren't necessarily in roles of leadership. I can imagine this sort of public power struggle could be especially nasty and humiliating for the person targeted.

Great post!

"Mostly I learned that criticizing others to manipulate them or control them has no place in the church."

Sometimes the best lesson we learn is an understanding of how things should not be done.

Rob said...

Pastor Astor,

For what it's worth, I saw the exact same dysfunctional control & power trips in leaders who are part of the seeker-sensitive movement as well (the ones I've met have been Willow Creek acolytes).

They use terms like "mentor" and "coach", but it's the same issues of hierarchical control and power over others.

Sometimes makes you want to scream, 'cuz it seems to be just everywhere.

Or, as Grace says, perhaps we're all just paranoid (and maybe rebellious and not under a proper "covering")...

Anonymous said...

In SOOO many many ways, this is an accurate reflection of what happened to us at our church down in TX. We lost our close friends completely.

...And we realized after we left just how many of the, "prophecies," and pastoral messages were designed to manipulate, to reward, to chastise...from man to man, not from God to man.

It *was* Delegated Authority----that's exactly what it was that allowed all of this to happen (and allowed me to enter the trenches of full patriarchy without any hesitation).

It was that idea that God speaks through His delegated leaders, that if I am not under their covering, then I am in terrible danger, that pointing out any flaws is pointing the finger at God's anointed, etc...

Smart smart and gifted people, who otherwise would NEVER have put up with a philandering leader, turned their eyes away and pretended not to see (just as Noah's good sons did to his faults, right), and quickly shunned those who did not. The leader was never in the wrong----the people who pointed out his wrongs were.

Anonymous said...

I’ve waited & thunk awhile before saying anything about this post…reason? Minus the mass exodus this could be my (soon-to-be) CLB. I could echo all you’ve laid out here but really I just want to center in on one part…pseudo-community. IMO this is one of the biggest components that keeps people in a cult-like group is the illusion of community. (Side note: Really many of these groups are sects – they still hold to orthodoxy.) Services three times a week and early morning prayer services keep the elite busy while outreaches and training meetings keep the extra-elite occupied, but they all take so much time that you only get maybe once or twice a year to actually fellowship (none of this “fellowship of the Word” [aka Sunday am service] nonsense). And the idea of “going up” with information usually shared in confidence or at least shared thinking that it was just between friends, absolutely destroys any opportunity to share your lives together. If you add to the mix the eldership only fellowshipping with other elders (relationships between elders and non-elders are only basically counseling sessions since you are submitted to them as delegated authority) and the idea that since “familiarity breeds contempt” you never actually see the Pastor in his everyday life all combine to create a sense of togetherness but without any real bonds. This is seen when someone leaves the group…friendships that seemed committed get ripped apart, even the ones who get “sent out” have their once treasured relationships slowly cut off. I believe most people recognize that they don’t have any/many true friends, but the fear of losing even the relationships (many with family members) causes most people to around even if they wanted to move away or just go down the street. Everyone (who has been there awhile) knows what happens to people who leave and it isn’t pretty. Truly these friendships and committed relationships were only alliances based upon conformity to a common goal. It’s also very interesting that most families that have remained committed to my CLB have been apart of it for at least 10 years – it takes awhile to introduce a teaching. The others who have come in more recently have either been new Christians eager to learn (that can be dangerous) or re-committed screw-ups who were (genuinely) helped out of their mess and took in everything as being from God since they were helped so much.
Anyway, just my thoughts, sorry for the long comment.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I noticed a few spelling mistakes in my post above.

I meant to say,"...the fear of losing even those relationships causes most people to stick around even if they wanted to move away", and, "...most families that have remained committed to my CLB have been a part (not apart) of it for at least 10 years".

Anonymous said...

ksg said,
" screw-ups who were (genuinely) helped out of their mess and took in everything as being from God since they were helped so much."

Molly replies:

I was coming out of a full-fledged crazy world...sang for a loud alternative band, tattoos and piercings, vegan, drugs, hurting from childhood and openly bitter about it, etc, all these things that a traditional church would have freaked out over....and this church in TX took me in and honestly LOVED me, looking past the way I looked and into my heart...there was genuine goodness there, and I met Jesus there in ways I probably wouldn't have at most church gatherings...

So, yeah, I just assumed the rest of it was right on too, especially as it's true---you learn it little by little by little, so that like the frog put over the bunson burner, you don't even realize that the initially-cold water is about to be boiling.

David Cho said...

Great post, grace.

The appropriate expression here is - the Titanic has hit the iceberg, but the music is still playing.

Everything you describe here can be attributed to a " solid Bible centered" Evangelical church. If you do everything in obedience to Scripture, not to man, you are gonna be alright.

the pastor with the wonderful pulpit personality was not only insecure, but incredibly calculating and manipulative.

You nailed it there.

But as I am reading this, and also the accounts of "Bible centered" non-charismatic churches going belly up, I have to ask - why does the Holy Spirit allow this in a church that seems to be or claims to be in tune with the Holy Spirit?

Linda said...

ksg and molly,
The issues that you both hit on are what really complicates things. There are genuinely good things that happen to people even in these toxic systems.

While I was at my CLB, I experienced some of the deepest relationships I had known. That is why the idea that these were not true friendships was so shattering, because they were real to me. How could some of the closest friendships I had known vanish practically overnight?

While I can understand it better now, I will continually rail against a system that produces such conditional relationships.

It's great to see you again. How have you been?

I think the Holy Spirit continues to work in the lives of individuals as they yield to him.

In the case of the leaders, anointing and gifting can continue even without the ongoing presence of the Spirit.

Corporately, I think that sometimes we just continue down a familiar path without even realizing that the life of the Spirit left our meetings long ago.

Lord Veritas said...

Hey Grace - great post. I have been thinking similarly of recent and have read a bit on what Dr J I Packer thinks on the topic also. When will the gullible start to become discerning?

BrokenandGrateful said...

When I was at my CLB I too experienced the "family" I thought the church should be. I was happy an fulfilled until I disagreed.

It's very comforting to know I am not alone. I still am healing and mostly struggle with trusting GOD and people. I doubt myself and wonder sometimes if I really am as bad as they have painted me. Why? because these were my dear friends who I loved and raised my children around. They know me...don't they?

Loss of identity is another issue. Who am I? What is my real self and what was only a personna I took on in the created community? I'm working on that. When the personna is completely stripped, you're left to figure out who you truly are and if you like yourself anymore. Sadly, sometimes I miss my personna and the role I played...because I'm still 'emerging" to be the true person GOD loves and intended me to be.
Broken and Grateful

Linda said...

Thanks Lord Veritas. The degree of blindness that can occur in a crowd mentality is scary.

Broken and Grateful,
I am glad that the articles were helpful to you. It is too bad that so many others have experienced the same kind of pain.

I would just encourage you, that in spite of what "they" have said, that is not how the Lord sees you. Even in our most broken condition, he sees beauty and value.

It is incredibly painful when people who have really known us can turn away without a second thought. It just doesn't make sense.

In the end, I hope that we will all find others who can see us the way that God sees us and encourage us in what He intends us to be.

I love the name you have chosen. It is how I see myself too.

Anonymous said...

Just reading your site for the first time, my answer to the question of having friends still in an abusive church, is how can we sit by if they really are our friends? I have a friend in Australia, mentally ill, still going to the same church, got conned by a certain married man in leadership (need I say more), he got restored, and when she went to the church to get food she was told by three different people on three occasions that they didn't give food to people like her. I get so mad, I have just answered my own next question, she is definitely in an abusive church relationship, isn't she? We left that church because we got sick of the quarter hour tithe preach,moved countries (back to New Zealand)then left a purpose driven church. We are now blessed beyond our dreams in a congregation of elderly, faithful, mature, loving Christians, who have taken us under their wings. I see the last church as a bunch of hired hands, two of our children are 'lost sheep' and they won't leave the 99... The previous pastor made a snide remark about our current church's youth group - mainly consisting of the pastor's children - I was very glad to inform him that our teenage son had got up on the morning after his first time at the new youth group and done the previous night's dishes without being asked!!! (Now that's what I call God working in his life!) Any way, I hurt for my children, I hurt for my friend (sister) in the abusive church, I get angry over the way she is treated, she has enough problems of her own without the abuse. I really get upset when she is so full of guilt over every little detail of her life. Quite often she starts something good, only to quit half way through in a blaze of guilt. I suppose that is another symptom? Anyway, thanks for being out there, I think I am a product of My convict ancestors, 'rebellious', so I don't take very kindly to being told what to do... Linda G from New Zealand...

jul said...

Wow, sad story, thanks for sharing it. We left a church about a year ago that I believe is on a similar path if nothing changes. It's much more subtle there(but getting increasingly more blatant), they have some ingenius 'doctrines' in place that make it almost simple to control and manipulate people. The first year out was hellish, trying to deal with all the legalism in our marriage, parenting, and relationship with God--I was severly depressed and suicidal at one point. But God showed me grace (again) and put us in relationship with people who loved us and prayed for us. Some of our friends have already left and we continue to pray for all those who haven't.

K. said...


I missed this one the first time around. The details are excruciating. Thank your for sharing. I continued to be encouraged by your journey.

As far as being paranoid... I understand trying to stay anonymous. My ex-pastor has been reading my blog for I don't know how long, and I just recently found this out, via statcounter.


Anonymous said...

As I read all these posts on how-to-ruin-church I felt like someone was reading my mail. Everything that you say here, is what I have experienced. Including the shunning. It is a horrible
way to run a church. People with friends from years before, shutting people out who disagreed with the Pastor or Elder who were abusive. I have found no accountability for Elders, Pastors, or Leadership. To them no one is right but the ones in leadership and all the rest are to bow their knees to them, and swallow the lies told to them or else leave.
I was told to just move on. That they would no longer accept any prayer requests from me, and to never email any of the people in their church again.
This I believe is high handed.
More manipulation and control.
All leadership get off scot free.
I do not believe this is what God wants.
This goes on in 90% of the churches, whether denominational or non-denominational.
It is the little people who take the brunt of things. I confided in a woman who I thought was my friend and she sent all my emails to the Pastors without my knowledge.
It is in comprehensible that these practices are common place in most all the charismatic churches. They feel that those leaving will taint the rest of them and they will leave if they hear what the others tell them.
I was glad to leave, but miss my friends, who are not aware of the real reason I left.