What Is Spiritual Abuse

There are numerous sorts of abuse, but spiritual (or religious) abuse is one you may not be aware of. Most examples of spiritual abuse, if they are acknowledged at all, involve a church elder or faith leader abusing members of the congregation, frequently by creating a poisonous culture within the church or group by shaming or dominating people with the power of their position. Spiritual abuse, on the other hand, can happen in a romantic relationship.

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Spiritual abuse isn't restricted to one faith or denomination. Spiritual abuse can be perpetrated by anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, and it can also be perpetrated by anyone. Intimate relationship spiritual abuse manifests itself when an abusive partner:

  • hinders one person from following his or her religious or spiritual beliefs
  • manipulates or shames their partner's religion or spiritual beliefs
  • requires the children to be raised in a faith that neither couple has agreed to.
  • religious texts or beliefs are used to justify or diminish abusive acts (such as physical, financial, emotional, or sexual abuse/marital rape).

Spiritual abuse is just as hurtful and difficult to bear as any other form of abuse since a person's spiritual life is so intimate. However, because many victims are unaware that they are being mistreated, it can be difficult to detect. Furthermore, the abusive partner may argue that any challenge to the mistreatment is an affront to their religious liberty.

What is spiritual trauma?

Spiritual trauma is the result of a person's reaction to a belief system that dismisses and degrades them on behalf of a deity or a set of deities. More information can be found here. Christians are frequently encouraged to recruit for their religion, and losing a Christian friend or family member can be devastating.

How do you address spiritual abuse?

Serving as a leader is a fantastic honor that comes with a lot of responsibilities. Ministry leaders provide direction, assurance, encouragement, and hope to the people they serve. Ministry leaders wield a great deal of power, and they must use it wisely.

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Crossing the line from leading with authority to acting in an authoritarian manner is one area where persons in significant ministry roles can cause harm. This is commonly referred to as “spiritual abuse” in ministry circles.

Here are three methods for recognizing and addressing this growing concern among ministry leaders.


First and foremost, it is critical to comprehend what spiritual abuse is not. The authoritative proclamation of Biblical truth, strategic management, and the enforcement of institutional ethical norms are examples of things that do not come under the rubric of spiritual abuse. Appropriate exhortation, rebuke, and punishment are also not considered “spiritual abuse.”

Having stated that, it is critical to have a working definition of the problem. Authors David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen write in their book “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” that this type of abuse is “the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support, or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person's spiritual empowerment.”

When authoritarianism rises to the surface and leaders behave from a position of power rather than humble influence, spiritual abuse happens.

  • Without proper rationale and/or relationship, rules are accepted and implemented.
  • Unspiritual disagreement is labeled as such because it lacks a restorative spirit.
  • Substantive criticism and adequate reporting relationships are shielded from leaders.
  • The organization's and/or key leaders' public image is sanitized to an unhealthy degree.
  • When inquiries arise, side subjects are introduced to divert attention away from more pressing ones.
  • Select personnel have access to funds with no protections in place to ensure responsibility.


Leaders can be agents of change to counteract the detrimental consequences of spiritual abuse once an unhealthy dynamic has been detected. Managers who are wise create clear boundaries for personal accountability. Modeling prudent financial management and an open-door policy are other key traits to emulate.

Moreover, despite fears to the contrary, servant leadership demonstrated by individuals at the top of the org chart improves the work environment and can be suitably integrated into even high-output, strategic settings.


If you're dealing with spiritual abuse in your workplace, start with a grace-filled reaction. Even though it seems contradictory, when your leadership is questioned or criticized, take a step back and evaluate the purpose behind what is being stated.

Rather than becoming bitter or spiteful while furious, try to de-escalate the situation. Make every effort to maintain open channels of contact with people at all levels of the organization, especially those with whom you disagree or with whom you lack chemistry.

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Work hard to establish an environment where genuine communication may take place in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Consider verses like Romans 12:9-21 in the Bible. Consider the consequences for the glory of One in your life and ministry.


Our A.S. in Biblical Studies and B.S. in Ministry Leadership degree programs will give you the knowledge and skills to recognize spiritual abuse, lead with positive authority, and respond in grace and truth. To learn more about this intriguing program, contact an enrollment counselor.

What does emotional abuse involve?

  • Gaslighting is when someone manipulates the truth to make you doubt your own feelings and thoughts, and even your sanity. Visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline for additional information on how gaslighting works.
  • Calling you names or telling you that you're stupid, publically embarrassing you, and blaming you for everything are all examples of put-downs. Public humiliation is a type of social abuse as well.
  • Isolation: restricting your freedom of movement and preventing you from communicating with others (such as friends or family). It may also prevent you from engaging in your usual activities, such as social activities, sports, school, or job. Isolation and social maltreatment are two different things.
  • Controlling or withholding your money, stopping you from working or studying, and stealing from you are all examples of financial abuse. Domestic violence can sometimes take the form of financial abuse.
  • Bullying and intimidation occur when someone says or does things with the intent of hurting you.

What does religious trauma look like?

Confusion in thinking (black vs. white, right vs. wrong), conflicts with people in your community or religious teachings, inability to make judgments, inability to trust yourself, and a constant search for clarification

Isolation, relationship issues, sexual difficulties, socially stunted and awkward conduct, being hyper-aware of others' emotional state and emotions, being hyper-aware and feeling responsible for others' internal state and emotions

Symptoms of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may also be present. This can include flashbacks, insomnia, nightmares, restlessness, a lack of enjoyment in activities you used to like, hypervigilance, avoidance, and other symptoms.

What causes religious trauma?

When a person struggles to leave a religion or a set of beliefs that has led to their indoctrination, it is known as religious trauma syndrome (RTS). Breaking free from a controlling environment, lifestyle, or religious figure is a common traumatic experience. Religious trauma can have symptoms that are similar to those of complex post-traumatic stress disorder in some situations (C-PTSD).

How do you get rid of trauma spiritually?

True story: I'm a cancer survivor, a reformed shopaholic, and a burnout victim. Trauma manifests itself in different ways for different people, owing to the fact that each person's life path is unique. Even modern-day mystics, such as Seeress Deborah Hanekamp of Mama Medicine, have suffered from burnout. “I was working 12-hour days 6-7 days a week to support my slacker partner.” In order to survive, I had to drop practically everything at once… It took me a year to get back on my feet.”

Similarly, it took cancer for me to see how harmful my lifestyle was to my mind, body, and spirit. But I'm sure and comfortable in the knowledge that my soul picked this road for me. “You had to have that since you had survived such a terrible vibe.” It was medication for you because you needed to let go of something. To heal, you must engage with the energy that exists naturally within you,” Hanekamp added, but that's easier said than done. What is the best way to fully heal? What is the best way to fully cleanse? What do you do first?

Now that I'm a cancer survivor who aspires to live a “balanced” lifestyle, I'm always on the lookout for remedies, rituals, and techniques to spiritually cleanse my being and my surroundings in order to go forward — even if it's just a fast mental reset after a long week. I spoke with Mama Medicine on how to spiritually cleanse your life following a trauma and heal yourself from the inside out.

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Does spirituality help with PTSD?

Historically, there have been disagreements between scientists' and healthcare practitioners' beliefs and the general public's. According to one research (2), only 66 percent of psychologists claim to have “believe in God.” These disparities in attitude may contribute to the paucity of spirituality study. Practitioners' views and training experiences may also have an impact on whether and how spirituality is included into therapy.

Relationship of Trauma to Spirituality

Trauma appears to have both beneficial and bad consequences on people's spiritual experiences and perceptions, according to evidence (1). Depression and loneliness, for example, might cause emotions of abandonment and a loss of confidence in God. As time passes and a person moves away from the acute period of trauma healing, these consequences may shift. On the plus side, some people report increased appreciation for life, a stronger sense of connectedness to God, a stronger sense of purpose in life, and improved spiritual well-being after traumatic situations like disasters and rape. Others may experience loss of faith, decreased engagement in religious or spiritual activities, changes in belief, emotions of being abandoned or punished by God, and a loss of meaning and purpose in life as a result of trauma.

Even when trauma survivors acquire psychiatric problems like PTSD or depression, spiritual aspects are linked to beneficial results. Healthy spirituality has also been linked to fewer symptoms and clinical difficulties in specific trauma populations, according to research. Anger, rage, and a desire for vengeance in the aftermath of tragedy, for example, may be moderated by forgiveness, spiritual beliefs, or spiritual activities (5).

Spirituality has been suggested as a pathway by which survivors of traumatic events could improve their recovery trajectory.

Spirituality may improve post-traumatic outcomes by: (1) reducing behavioral risks through healthy religious lifestyles (e.g., less drinking or smoking), (2) enhancing coping skills and helpful ways of understanding trauma that result in meaning-making, and (4) physiological mechanisms such as activation of the “relaxation response” through prayer or meditation (6). The social support of a spiritual group may alleviate feelings of isolation, loneliness, and sadness associated with sorrow and loss. Being a part of a spiritual community connects survivors with caring people who may offer encouragement, emotional support, and even practical help in the shape of physical or financial assistance in times of need.

Making meaning of the trauma experience

Spiritual beliefs may have an impact on a trauma survivor's ability to make sense of their ordeal. As a result, the meaning derived can have a substantial impact on the symptoms and functioning of the survivor. Several studies have linked negative beliefs or attributions about God, such as “God has abandoned me” and “God is punishing me,” as well as being angry at God, to a variety of undesirable clinical outcomes (1). According to research, these kinds of thinking are linked to poor physical and mental health, as well as increased substance use. Negative religious coping and a lack of forgiveness were both linked to worsening PTSD and depression symptoms in a study of Veterans receiving PTSD treatment (19).

Changes in thinking, participation in meaningful activities, or rituals experienced as part of religious or spiritual activity can all help people rediscover meaning in their lives. Traumatic events, according to some academics, frequently test one's underlying beliefs about safety, self-worth, and the meaning of life (7). Traumatic occurrences may raise issues about the underlying nature of the relationship between the creator and humanity for people whose core values are spiritually based. When the innocent are subjected to severe victimization, survivors may question their faith in a loving, all-powerful God. In this way, horrific events might serve as a springboard for exploration of the various ways in which survivors interpret “faith.”

Guilt and moral injury

Furthermore, in some traumatic experiences, such as war, a person might be both a victim and a perpetrator of trauma. For example, while serving in a battle zone, a soldier may be exposed to the injury and death of others, be injured, and have a role in the enemy's death. Two basic parts of a person's worldview, such as patriotism and faith, might also be in conflict, leading to doubt and indecision regarding the best course of action. These encounters can sometimes result in long-term spiritual and moral dilemmas (9, 3). Loss of faith, greater shame and self-blame, and separation from others and God may be the result. Individuals may feel a gap between their childhood beliefs, their expectations of what military service would be like, and their actual wartime experiences.

Grief and bereavement

Grief and loss are difficult topics for survivors to deal with following a traumatic event. Spirituality is commonly used in American society to cope with tragic death and loss. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, researchers found that 90% of people used “prayer, religion, or spiritual feelings” as a coping method (17). Spirituality and grief healing for survivors of catastrophic loss appear to be linked in general, according to study (20). Spirituality, according to researchers, provides a framework through which survivors can “make sense” of their loss (14). Survivors may also benefit from the supporting interactions that spiritual communities frequently provide (10).

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Learn about trauma and PTSD

It might be difficult to provide spiritual counseling after a traumatic occurrence, but pastoral workers can stay up to date on the newest research and therapies for Trauma and PTSD.

Providers who are aware about the effects of trauma can better serve those seeking help. Pastoral professionals can direct traumatized people to the following resources:

This brochure explains what is typical and what indications to look for that suggest more serious issues, such as PTSD.

Collaborate with and refer to mental health care providers

Consider directing someone under pastoral care to a mental health care professional if he or she has a history of trauma exposure and appears to be struggling. See PTSD Screening and Referral: Get Help in a Crisis for more information. Tips for Health Care Providers on how to make the survivor more likely to accept your referral.

If the victim feels suicidal, it is very critical to get help. For further information, read The Relationship Between PTSD and Suicide.

Assess spiritual beliefs and needs

Trauma survivors may benefit from adding a spiritual dimension to their healing, depending on their beliefs. Following disasters, a quick review of the impact of trauma on spirituality and the role spirituality might play in rehabilitation has been suggested (16). These questions are probably a good place to start for survivors of other types of trauma.

  • Has your religion or spirituality played a role in how you've dealt with this? If so, how would you describe it?

Providers who want to analyze these issues more thoroughly can utilize a quick questionnaire developed by the National Institutes of Health to assess many domains of religion and spirituality (6).

Collaborate with and refer to pastoral care professionals

Spirituality may have an impact on a number of key PTSD symptoms. On the best methods to incorporate a survivor's spiritual beliefs and practices into treatment, mental health care practitioners may want to contact with a pastoral care specialist. You could also encourage the survivor to speak with a pastoral care provider directly.

Spirituality may have an impact on critical clinical difficulties for PTSD patients, such as:

  • Isolation and withdrawal from social situations. These symptoms can be addressed immediately by defining spirituality as a connection to the divine and encouraging trauma survivors to seek out supportive, healthy communities.
  • Shame and guilt. Guilt and shame are regarded as essential psychological concerns, despite not being part of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Spirituality can lead to self-forgiveness and a focus on self-compassion.
  • Irritability and rage. Anger and persistent hostile attitudes that lead to social isolation and bad interactions with others can be addressed via forgiving beliefs and practices.
  • Anxiety, hypervigilance, and physiological arousal Spiritual practices that focus inward, such as mindfulness, meditation, and prayer, may help to alleviate hyperarousal.
  • Loss of interest in activities and a truncated future The rediscovery of meaning and purpose in one's life could have a significant impact on these symptoms.


Spirituality appears to be a resource related with resilience and rehabilitation for many trauma survivors, according to research. However, the circumstances of the trauma may cause some people to doubt essential and previously held beliefs. This might lead to spiritual difficulties or even faith loss. It's critical for helping professionals to feel at ease asking about how trauma has affected spirituality and what role spirituality plays in the recovery process after trauma.


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  • C. L. Park, C. L. Park, C. L. Park, C (2005). In dealing with life stress, religion can be used as a framework for creating meaning. 707-729 in Journal of Social Issues.
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How do I know if I have religious trauma?

Religious trauma can present itself in a variety of ways, and no two people will have the same experience. However, there are a number of common signs and symptoms in adults who were exposed to religious trauma as children, including the following:

  • Avoidance behaviors are a form of avoidance (i.e., avoiding any thing, person, or place that reminds you of the trauma)