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Submissive Volunteerism versus Spiritual Abuse

Jesus defined the elements of volunteerism in Mark 10:42-43 and Matthew 23:8. There is only one Master, the rest of us are servants of whom the least will be the greatest. Problem is, when it comes to highly visible ministries such as the church’s web page, parties involved tend to forget that Christ is the Master, and being the least does not mean being a door mat to bullies and blow-hards.

It’s been almost 12 years since I involved myself in any study of spiritual abuse. No need to since I was helped out the door of a church suffering said ailment in the form of pastoral worship. Here’s the short story:

  • A pastor of 39 years gets the heave-ho by the deacons, and is soon replaced with a new, charismatic personality guy pastor arrives
  • I teach a Sunday school class where I generically warn the 10th graders to test everything, including a pastoral message
  • I get a note on New Year’s Eve telling me I’m no longer a teacher, a week later followed-up by a ‘lay staff’ member, also a Secret Service agent by day, who explains to me that I’m not qualified as I insist my students bring their Bibles to Bible study (he, NOT noting that I gave free Bibles at my own expense to those who didn’t own one &/or were still equipped with a ‘kids’ version).
  • I’m told I need to change my attitude. Others are similarly given the boot for equally bogus reasons.
  • Later it comes out the pastor has a past in the form of an SEC investigation and a personal bankruptcy.
  • Pastor gets up in pulpit and divides church with “those who are with me come forward and show your support” … pastor of singles ministry takes note/names of those who don’t go forward.
  • Five years later, the Washington Post reports said pastor resigns, something about a very, very large sum of money missing due to a tuition scandal/scheme involved with the church’s Christian school.
  • Going back in hopes to see if thing can be healed, I’m excoriated along with others as being the cause for the pastor’s demise.

So when I read a comment regarding volunteerism being an issue of authority – understand that while I agree one must have a servant’s heart – on the other hand one must be careful of church and charity organizations that exhibit some of the following qualities based on Jeff Van Vonderen’s book, ‘Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse:’

Out-loud shaming
basically belittling born out of “something is wrong with you” if you don’t step into line with your attitude.
Focus on Performance
how important you are is based upon earning favor w/those in charge, rather than by administering God’s Grace
Manipulation
relationships and behaviors are manipulated by very powerful unspoken rules that facilitate shaming messages
Idolatry
focus on performance is facilitated by impossible-to-please judges who distort the image of God to get their goals
Preoccupation with Fault and Blame
responsibility and accountability are not the issues here: Fault and blame are the issues. The shame-based system wants a confession in order to know whom to shame.
Obscured Reality
if you’re thinking critical about those in authority – even if it is based on truth, then something is wrong with you, you need to change your attitude bub; this starts by ignoring and/or obscuring the actual truth.
Unbalanced Interrelatedness
rules take the place of people that feeds upon one’s fears and need for structure in the form of placing the burden of all problems on your shoulders, making you feel selfish and guilty for having needs, not submitting entirely to pastoral authority and/or noting that anything is wrong.

Note – I’m not asserting that said commenter implied any of the above, but rather their comment jogged my mind into putting the topic of volunteerism and spiritual abuse together. A topic which I could write and speak about for hours, but for the sake of brevity – there are three simple solutions to overcoming spiritual abuse masquerading as volunteerism:

  • Scripture
  • personal boundaries
  • technical specifications

One need only read about Christ’s interaction with the authority figures of His time to see how ancient the problem of Spiritual Abuse is – and how a single Master, servant-hearted Body focused on loving one another by Grace will get around said problems;

I might start with Matthew 23, where Christ defines some serious boundaries so the volunteering of your time and technical talents isn’t turned into an opportunity to shame and guilt you into adding animated gifs, auto-loading audio, and a huge image worshiping the pastors proboscis on the front page.

I’d then do some reading on how to structure a software design description (SDD); the IEEE 1016-1998 has always been my favorite. Having such a formalized process – and an established timeline – will further keep glory seekers and self-appointed ‘experts’ in check, while protecting you from enslavement to never-ending feature creep.

I’d also then consider reading my post entitled “Mr. Zeldman meet Mike Boyink, one of ‘The New Samaritans’” – and realizing then the need to structure your relationship with your church as you would with any web project and client; even if it means running it like a business. Trust me, the alternative only provides the evil-one with opportunity to ruin your walk, and divide your church.

There’s more on the topic, much more on this topic that can be found at Watchman.org – starting here:

Some other useful URLs on this topic as well:

Again, let me make it clear that I do not interpret last night’s comment was from the spiritual abuse camp, I don’t interpret it that way. It just merely made me think about the topic of where a good servant attitude ends and where spiritual abuse begins; and how perhaps some good old fashioned technical specifications might help avoid the whole mess.

Yes, please feel free to discuss this topic freely here – disagreement in love is always welcome here!

5 Comments

  1. Dean – excellent post and one I have to agree with. Whilst I haven’t been in your situation I have been in one where the pastor utilised the charisma he had to get somewhere else – that’s very cryptic I know but I’m not into talking down another man because of human foibles.

    I think your final paragraph says it mostly …”of where a good servant attitude ends…”

  2. I can’t believe I’m reading this. You just gave a term to something so many, including myself, have experienced.

    Now, on the surface, you just sound bitter. It didn’t turn out like you wanted, you were misunderstood, had a problem with authority, etc., etc.

    The problem is servanthood. Jesus gives the picture to those infighting, influence-seeking disciples of his–”If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35, NAS).

    The problem I have? That’s what many authority figures desire in a volunteer, but not what they emulate themselves. That’s grounds for spiritual abuse.

    The Master we serve, Jesus Christ, is the standard for all character and living. Anyone who won’t humble him- or herself to His standard of sevanthood should be shrinking in your rearview mirror.

  3. I am currently suffering through many of the same issues with my church. As a board member, I stated from the beginning that my covenant was with the congregants of our church. I have found that this was more than a little impossible mission given the construct of the church.

    I have worked hard over many months to work towards defining our goals and our organizational structure into a healthy, wholesome and nurturing environment. This goal became more and more threating to our Minister and finally burst out in a conflict with myself over a pronouncement from the pulpit that put them in clear opposition to a board decision which they had agreed with previously. No one on the Board knew the Minister was going to do this.

    But meeting just once a month does not give your board much power and limits their ability to reach out and react to ecclesiastical excesses or even abuses (as I was to learn).

    Today, after 5 weeks of sheer hell in which I and other active members of volunteer committees were repeatedly told that we were “not coming from a spiritual place” by our ministers. Where the President of the Board, even after being advised of these abuse and seemingly worked as a mole for the ministers, while assuring me they were working towards resolution, brought a small measure of vindication for myself and others who have held tightly to the spiritual truth that “all of us” are created by and within God.

    The Board removed our ministers from all committees and forbid them from EVER exerting spiritual authority over our congregants ever again. There will be more corrective action to come but what a huge cost these ministers have exacted in their dysfunctional rampage to consolidate their power.

    For me, I have watched good, active volunteers be drummed out the church with spiritual abuse from our ministry, even my own spouse resigning from her committees today. I remain for I do not feel led “yet” to abandon my original purpose, which was to assure that our church was a safe and loving community that brought spiritual nurturance to our congregants.

    I will continue to press forward for a committee composed of 2 ecclesiastal, 2 board members and 2 congregants that will have OPEN DOORS for congregants to report concerns and abuses within the church. And that committee should be empowered to engage in making recommendations for correction to our board.
    I NEVER want to see what I saw happen in our church occur again. But it took 5 weeks for our Board to take action.

    Where this is all going to end up, I don’t really know. But what I do know is that when your ministry or your church structure can allow the purposeful abuse of congregants, it’s time to go to the drawing board. I did that and I am meeting with the Board to set an entirely new organizational chart in place that puts checks and balances in place. It also dissipates the “power” of the clergy. WHY would your clergy need “power” in the first place if they are there to “serve” their congregants?

    Ministers who sit on every committee, who use their greater “spiritual” authority as their “reason” for dysfunctional or destructive behavior, need counseling and a good dose of boundry limiting decisions from their Board. I as a board member am there to serve my community, NOT the Church of XXXX! And that is my testament to my spiritual integrity.

    What has been painful for me was my absolute inability to stop the assault on myself and others using the existing rules. So we will be changing the rules to make sure that this sort of abuse never occurs again without quick redress for those subjected to it.

    Unfortunately, for me, the cut may have been to deep for me to remain in my church. I will see once I have helped my Board put into place safegaurds to assure that situations such as have occurred over the past 5 weeks, NEVER devolve to the place where congregants must leave to find peace & safety from the very place where they should be receiving comfort.

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