Headlines this week report a high-profile pastor who was removed after charges of abuse. The congregation is reeling. Some feel wounded, vowing they’re done with church, forever.

Across the country, another dismissed pastor, after spending a couple years out of the spotlight, announces he’s ready to return to church leadership. Has he changed his abusive ways? It’s not likely, according to experts.

These church leaders practice something that psychologists call spiritual abuse. This abuse occurs when people in positions of authority misuse their power and spiritual authority, in order to control or manipulate them for their own purposes. Abusers may be ministers and other leaders who abuse members–or the abusers may be members and lay leaders who abuse church staff.

Victims of spiritual abuse often feel shamed, manipulated, intimidated, and humiliated. Some actually suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. Victims typically place a high level of trust in spiritual leaders. And when that trust is violated, the wounds are deep.

Spiritual abusers often employ unspoken rules, secrecy, paranoia, and authoritarianism. They tend to be very image-conscious and averse to criticism.

Gregory Sammons specializes in counseling victims and perpetrators of spiritual abuse. He says spiritual abusers are typically very insecure people. “They depend on others to adore them, lift them up, and follow them,” he said. “They try to replace God.”

He said these leaders often deny they hurt people. “They deceive themselves,” he said. And, sadly, they’re not likely to reform. Sammons said few spiritual abusers ever seek professional help. They don’t feel they have a problem. “God can work miracles, but I’ve not seen a lot of people who are willing to give up that control,” he said.


How can spiritual abuse be curbed? First, do not revere, exalt or idolize those in spiritual leadership. Love them, care for them, treat them with respect, but do not “lead them into temptation” with the kind of adulation that intoxicates them with inappropriate emotional control over others.

And, if you’re a victim–or a perpetrator–of spiritual abuse, seek professional help. Spiritual abuse can be as harrowing as other relational abuses, such as incest. Counselors can help sort out the confusion and distress found in the context of relationships where someone is in a role of representing God.

For helpful insights on spiritual abuse, listen to my conversation with Gregory Sammons in this episode of the Holy Soup podcast.