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Understanding & Overcoming Spiritual Abuse, Part II

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Understanding & Overcoming Spiritual Abuse, Part II
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Many times, those who have experienced spiritual abuse are retraumatized when they try to speak about what’s happened. They’re often labeled bitter, disgruntled, and gossips—and once again, wounded by Christians and the church.

In part two of Julie’s podcast with Justin Humphreys, they discuss how to help survivors of church hurt. How can church leaders and members promote their healing? And how can the church—the source of so much pain and trauma for these survivors—become what Jesus intended it to be, a place of safety and healing?

Justin and Julie also examine spiritual leadership. What does authentic, healthy leadership look like? And how does it differ from the toxic forms we so often encounter?

As CEO of Thirtyone:Eight and author of Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse, Justin has profound insights into these questions. And if you missed part one of Julie’s podcast with Justin, exploring the definition and stages of spiritual abuse, be sure to take time and listen now.

It’s our hope and prayer that these podcasts will help equip you to spot and deal with spiritual abuse.

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Your tax-deductible gift helps our journalists report the truth and hold Christian leaders and organizations accountable. Give a gift of $30 or more to The Roys Report this month, and you will receive a copy of "Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse" by Dr. Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys.

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Justin Humphreys

Justin Humphreys is CEO of Thirtyone:Eight, an independent Christian safeguarding charity operating across the United Kingdom and internationally. Established in 1977, the charity now supports in excess of 10,000 member organisations to create safer places for all.
 
He is co-author of two recent books Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating Healthy Christian Cultures (SPCK, 2019) and Just Leadership (SPCK, 2021). He is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Kent (Department of Religious Studies) and a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Chester (School of Psychology).
 
Justin holds an MSc in Child Protection and Strategic Management, a BSc. (Hons) in Social Work Studies and a Diploma in Counselling Psychology & Psychotherapy. He has been a Christian since the age of 11 and is married with three adult children.
Show Transcript


SPEAKERS
JULIE ROYS, JUSTIN HUMPHREYS

JULIE ROYS 00:04
Many times those who have experienced spiritual abuse are re traumatized when they try to speak about what’s happened. They’re often labeled bitter, disgruntled and gossips and once again, wounded by Christians in the church. So how should the church respond to survivors of church hurt? And how can we create cultures in our churches that are safe and healthy?

Welcome to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And in part two of my podcast with Justin Humphreys, we tackle these crucially important questions. And if you miss part one of my podcast with Justin, I encourage you to go back and listen to part one. in it we deal with the definition and stages of spiritual abuse. And as the CEO of Thirtyone:eight, the leading Christian safeguarding charity in the UK, Justin has profound insights into this unique form of psychological and emotional abuse. But in this podcast, we look at the aftermath of spiritual abuse. How can survivors heal? And how can the church the source of so much pain and trauma for the survivors become what Jesus intended it to be a place of safety and healing? We also look at spiritual leadership. We’ve discussed some of the ways that it can be abused. But what does authentic spiritual leadership look like?

We’ll get to my interview with Justin in just a moment, but first, I’d like to thank two sponsors of this podcast, Accord Analytics and Marquardt of Barrington. In your ministry or business your reputation is your most valuable asset. But what do you do when you suspect misconduct? Hopefully, you do the opposite of many of the organizations I report on. Instead of covering up wrongdoing, you investigate it, and Accord Analytics can help. In just 72 hours, their team of experts can scour emails, call logs and other records to produce usable evidence. They also can analyze your organization to identify specific threats and to suggest best practices. For free consultation go to ACCORDANALYTICS.COM. Also, if you’re looking for a quality new or used car, I highly recommend my friends at Marquardt of Barrington. Marquardt is a Buick GMC dealership where you can expect honesty, integrity and transparency. That’s because the owners there Dan and Kurt Marquardt, are men of integrity. To check them out, just go to BUYACAR123.COM.

Well again joining me for this podcast is Justin Humphreys, CEO of the Christian safeguarding group Thirtyone:eight. Justin also is coauthor of the book Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse. We pick up our conversation, as we’re discussing what happens after you leave a spiritually abusive church.

Part of navigating your way after you’ve left one of these systems is dealing with the emotions. And I think it’s especially difficult in Christian environments, because some of these emotions, we’re told we shouldn’t have, that they’re wrong, that spiritual people shouldn’t feel this way. And of course, they’re always called bitter or disgruntled or, you know, all of these disparaging words. But speak to the person right now who’s feeling these emotions, very powerful, real emotions of anger, and betrayal and mistrust.

JUSTIN HUMPHREYS 03:25
Can I firstly speak to the word you used, gossip? Because so often, an accusation of gossip is made towards the individual who just needs to vocalize what they are seeing and experiencing. To be told that that’s gossip is hugely destructive. I mean, it’s a weapon, it’s a threat that is used. It is a beast in itself. So destructive. So, I guess, I would say, don’t be persuaded to think that sharing your concerns is gossip. Clearly, we’re not necessarily in the early stages, at least if we can discern and intervene at an early stage, that sharing that concern with somebody appropriate is anything other than a good thing to do. And we’re not talking about shouting it from the rooftops. Although sometimes I guess we feel that that’s the only way. But deal with things that are low level if you can. You know, we talk about the hallmarks of healthy culture. And it’s really difficult when the culture is not safe and it is not healthy. The opportunities to deal with things that are low level are really they’re seldom there. So, taking a step back, taking time to reflect on what has been the buildup of low level concern. If we can challenge it early enough to prevent those issues from becoming embedded and entrenched and more deeply rooted, then we may have a slightly easier escape. I don’t say that with any sense of glibness because I’ve seen the damage. I’ve seen the damage. So I guess I’d want to say to your listeners, Julie, I’ve heard you. If your experience is what we have been talking about, I’ve heard you. You need to know that there are people who do understand who do believe, who would want to get alongside you; those people when you’re in the middle of it may not always be the easiest to find. But we’re out there.

JULIE ROYS 05:44
When the victim or the survivor of spiritual abuse, many of them don’t want to ever reenter a church again. I shouldn’t say many, some. I thought it was very interesting, and actually, my last interview with a cult experts said that often survivors of cults, they do return to a church that has a similar theological structure. Because you can’t unbelieve what you believe, you know, and especially when it happens to be rooted in the word of God, and you know it’s true, but it’s been twisted.

So, they come back to church. And often, the churches don’t know what to do with them. Just don’t know what to do with them. Because, and I think we often tend to ostracize them, because their emotions make us feel really uncomfortable. Really, really uncomfortable. I thought you made a great point about the process when someone begins to open up. Speak to that and speak to the person, and this is why, and I’ve heard this, I heard from one pastor who sent his entire staff to our Restore Conference last year. We’re having another Restore Conference in June. And I just really, really encourage people, whether you’ve been in abuse, whether you’re abuse survivor, whether you’re just a member of a church, whether in leadership or lay member, if you just want to be helpful to the survivors that come in, because there’s so many refugees out there right now, spiritually speaking, who are coming into your churches. But I heard from a pastor who said he sent his staff. And he said, wow, wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be. But it ended up being better than I thought it was going to be. And they have come back with a tenderness and a sensitivity, that they couldn’t have come to without hearing firsthand from people what happened. So yeah, speak to this process, speak to church leaders and church lay people about what they need to do and to be for these survivors that walk into their churches.

JUSTIN HUMPHREYS 08:03
I think, possibly one of the greatest challenges for church leaders, is to reach out and reach in, despite your fear. So, there will be so many occasions, like you just said, Julie, where church leaders and others come on our training, and they say, we really just wanted to find out what all this is about, and why you spend so much time talking about it. We expected to hear one thing and we’ve come away experiencing something very different. And there is almost a change of heart, you know, to enter the room defensively, expecting that they are going to need to challenge left, right and center. Oh, well, this can’t be right because and when you can’t say that, because and that’s not true, because and actually find, wow, this has actually resonated with sometimes my own experience, you know. So, it’s not unusual for delegates to come to our training and be confronted with the reality that they have, at some point in their journey been a part of a spiritually abusive community. And when the reality of that dawns hearts change. This is not about attacking God. This is not about attacking Christians. This is not about destroying the Church and its ministry. This is about shining a light into some very dark places, acknowledging that it happens more than we might like to believe., and that actually, there’s something that needs to be done here, you know.

So I think I would just encourage church leaders to particularly, if you are going to have people enter your church who have been in harmful, abusive, damaging circumstances, some of them spiritually, how are you going to address them and meet them in their place of need if you have no understanding of what they’ve experienced and come from? So, reach in , reach deep, confront your own fear, I think is probably one of the key things that I would say. Don’t be persuaded that what you’re doing is destroying God’s church. Because actually, God is big enough, powerful enough to protect himself and do his own business. He just chooses to use us. And I love that you said that when someone default is what happened to them, we tend to think, Oh, this is an important conversation, which it is, but we don’t realize this is a process. This is just the beginning. And we really don’t need to say a lot. We just need to be a safe space, right? and validate their feelings, validate what they’ve been through, and don’t pass judgment. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Just enabling somebody to come and be, to watch to listen to, in a sense, rebuild what they had before the sequence of events took place. And if you have somebody who is perhaps reacting in a way that seems, you know, unexpected, or disproportionate, just take a moment to ask yourself why that might be.

JULIE ROYS 11:40
Exactly, yeah, trauma victims act like trauma victims, and yet they often get shamed for it. I love that because they really need a space to be able to be reactive for a while. And who of us wouldn’t be good grief? Yeah, I appreciate that.

Let’s talk about creating healthy church cultures. I love that you, it reminded me of you know, Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight, Laura Behringer. Their book is so good on trying to create that environment. First, let’s talk to the leaders and to authentic leadership. Because, as you note in your book, I mean, it can be that abuse happens, sort of along people of equal spiritual footing, you know, or authority from lay person, lay person or can even happen from lay person to a pastor or a board member or something like that. I mean that’s possible. But I will say of all the reporting I’ve done, that is really, really small. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen; I have heard from pastors that just got ganged up on horribly unfairly, and that does happen, but most often, it is from someone, and they’re able to do it because they have this position of power. And there is this question of, okay, I’m exercising spiritual authority. Where do I know, where’s that line? Like? When is, you know, appropriate spiritual authority? And when is it becoming control and then abuse? You know, where are these lines? And how do I know as a leader where those are? And how do I lead authentically in the body of Christ?

JUSTIN HUMPHREYS 13:25
And these are the million-dollar questions related to coin an overused phrase, but it is. You know, going back to Mark Stibbe, he talks in a piece that he wrote for the Church of England newspaper back in 2018, that it is so difficult to chart the transition between exhortation and coercion. When do we move from one to the other? How do we know that that’s happening? Is there a red line over which once you’ve stepped, you’re well and truly the wrong side of it? Well, I’m not sure that often there is. I mean, sometimes there are some clear marks and there are clearly some behaviors which apart from anything else may be criminal or legal but outside of that this huge expanse of gray in that area and how we, how we hold ourselves accountable, how we take time to self-reflect on our own behavior, on the responses of others to the things that we have said and done, and are prepared to when necessary, self-regulate, to say there’s clearly an issue here. I clearly stepped over somebody’s line. Somehow. I need to understand where that line was, why it was there. Why did that person take such offense, why did they respond in the way that? And can I do? Should I do something different? You know that passage in scripture where the psalmist says, search me and know me God. That actually means that we’ve got to be brave enough as leaders to say, you know the worse of me, God. I need you to help point that out for me, I need to be able to root that out, deal with it, so that I’m not causing harm to other people. But is there a distinct red line? Not always, it’s really tricky. And we see what we call a spectrum of behavior. Lisa Oakley, my colleague has been working on this in recent months. And it depicts a progression, a journey from what is healthy, into things that are unhelpful to things that might be unhealthy, and ultimately, things that are harmful. And we need to understand that often, we see people moving up and down this continuum. But we need to be alert to the indicators of when we’re stepping into the right-hand end of that spectrum. And we’re starting to look at an unhealthy and unfortunately, sometimes harmful behaviors, and that we’re prepared to bring challenge and we can hopefully pull that back, rather than let it become embedded and entrenched. There’s a huge amount to do.

JULIE ROYS 16:26
And all of us misuse our authority at some point. I remember talking to Diane Langberg, who has written so just I mean, her books are, they’ve just opened a whole new world, I think, for understanding spiritual abuse. But she said to me, I remember, if you’re a parent, you’ve misused your authority at some point. All of us have done this. And I think you make a good point, you know, it’s how do you respond often? And what are your motivations? Like, are you there to lead? Are you there to serve? Because Jesus said that, that those who would want to lead would be the greatest servants of all, and I think our whole leadership movement, I did an entire podcast on this with somebody wrote the book Unleader, fantastic. I love this podcast, because he’s like, Yeah, everybody’s concerned about leading, nobody’s concerned about serving, even though that’s what the Bible talks primarily about. But can you give an example of something that might be you know, just to kind of make this a little more concrete of something that might be just sort of unhelpful, and then, where it might move into, like this unhealthy or abusive category?

JUSTIN HUMPHREYS 17:28
We often talk about unhealthy patterns. So, when does bullying become bullying? Is a single offensive comment bullying? Is two bullying is three bullying? Often we find that it is a repetitive pattern. It may increase in its severity or its impact. But as soon as we have moved into something which has become a repeated event, then we are seriously at risk of it becoming at the very least unhelpful and sometimes harmful. You know, we’re not talking about the person who says, Well, I asked my pastor if I could preach on a Sunday morning, and he said, No, I think he’s spiritually abusing me. Well, how long have you been in the church? Six weeks. You know, I say that slightly tongue in cheek, but it’s not those disagreements, it’s not those misunderstandings, not those differences of opinion as such. But when they become repetitive, and when they become more serious, often, then we know we’ve got a problem. And particularly when challenge has been brought and the challenge is rejected, then we’ve often got a problem.

JULIE ROYS 18:51
Well, let’s talk about that, because you talk about kind of these different hallmarks of safe and healthy churches, and one of them is, you know, how do you respond to your negative stories? When you hear a negative account, as a church, when somebody brings up maybe something that happened that you don’t feel so good about as a church like this was not a good thing? Is there an openness to discuss it? If there’s a criticism, do we take that criticism well, or do we punish the person and shame the person who’s brought the criticism? I mean, talk about some of these hallmarks of healthy churches that stand in contrast to the dysfunctional ones and the abusive ones.

JUSTIN HUMPHREYS 19:37
Yeah, it’s a really good point. And I think much of the situation that you’ve just described about how willing is a church or a leader or leadership to acknowledging its past failures or negative elements, all rooted in this sense of humility, you know. So, in Philippians, if you remember there’s this passage that’s often in various versions titled imitating the humility of Jesus. And it talks about preferring each other, each other’s needs. It talks about servanthood it talks about a complete reversal of, you know, the expected norms around leadership. And that humility that actually is able to say, I am not going to get it right all the time. In fact, I can guarantee you, I won’t. But when I don’t, I welcome your feedback. I welcome your constructive challenge, because I want and I need to learn. You know, when we see an open, humble posture being taken by a leader in that regard, then we can have some confidence that our ability to bring our challenging narratives might not be quite as hard as it would be elsewhere. It’s one of a whole number of things that we might look for. You know, how we listen, and listening well as leaders got to be the place to start. Now going back to talking about how we, as leaders going to deal with those who come to our churches who have had a spiritually abusive experience elsewhere, what if we’re not prepared to sit with them and listen? Well, we’ve got right off on the wrong foot is so important.

JULIE ROYS 21:31
Judson University is a top ranked Christian University, providing a caring community and an excellent college experience. Plus, the school offers more than 60 majors, great leadership opportunities and strong financial aid. Judson University is shaping lives that shaped the world. For more information, just go to JUDSONU.EDU. And you talk about messaging and symbolism, and I thought this was good. You talked about a church that has like an old, faded poster about how to report you know, if there’s abuse or something, and that that communicates something. That you can’t put up a poster that looks sharp, and that looks fresh, and it says this is important to us. And if you see anything, this is how you report it. I mean, do we need to as churches, to put in our programs, you know, or to put up on the screen every now and then or to have posters, saying if you see a problem, here’s how you report it in the staff manuals, very clear reporting structures, and safeguards that you’re not going to be retaliated against? I mean, what do churches need to do to tell their congregants this is a safe place?

JUSTIN HUMPHREYS 22:46
So many different things, you know, ranging from what is public, what’s on the wall, the posters then being up to date that, you know, they’re not being the dog eared things that are covered by a million and one other things have got pinned onto that board. You know, the messages that are taught from the platform, and the fact that we need to communicate messages appropriately to different audiences within our congregation, community, whoever it is, including our children, young people. How do we talk to and teach our children, young people to contribute to their own safety, safety of their peers?

So I remember having a conversation, I was leading a seminar at a large Christian gathering in the UK a few years back, and it was a bunch of 50 or so church leaders. And I said, How many of you have either preached or heard a preach on a safeguarding related issue or the importance of the biblical mandate, if you’d like, for us to be creating safe places? Well in the room of about 50, about 3 hands went up. Come on people! What is going on? We either believe this or we don’t! You know, sort of messaging and the communication is so important.

JULIE ROYS 24:09
And I would say if you’re sitting in a church, and you repeatedly hear messages on gossiping or on social media and things that are said and basically vilifying people who speak up, wouldn’t I mean, that I would get up and walk out, right at this point, you know. If I heard that in a message, I’d be ready to get up and walk out. I have once, once in my life been in a sermon where a pastor pointed out, here’s whistleblowing. And you know, it’s interesting, not only did the whistleblower blow the whistle on wrongdoing, he named names.

So many want to talk about Matthew 18 about going privately you know, which has been so abused. So few want to talk about publicly exposing somebody who needs to be held account and Good grief, don’t expect the vulnerable victim to go one on one to the abuser. I mean, we need to be communities where it’s said from upfront, and it said across the board and it is safe to say, we stand with victims. And if you report something, we’re going to take it seriously, and we’re not going to vilify you. I have, I have yet to hear, you know, I’ve heard one sermon where that was said and alluded to, but a really strong message. I mean, pastors, I would really encourage you that if you’re listening right now, do that on Sunday. Do that, especially with all of these scandals going on, get up there and make an example and say, we will be different. And if I’ve done something like this, if I’ve grieved you, or the Holy Spirit, please come tell me. It’s so badly needs to happen in our cultural context. And I’m thinking of two, there’s a revival going on, supposedly, you know. That’s what people were calling it, whether it is or it isn’t, I don’t know. But we have students meeting 24/7, at a Christian college here in Kentucky, Asbury University, and a hallmark of that is repentance, repentance, and the church owning and people finding healing for some of these, you know, the church hurt, at least according to reports, that’s what’s happening. Well, how refreshing would it be?

And could there be revival in our countries, and over here in the US across the pond there in England all around, if Christians will begin repenting, Christian leaders repenting, and churches saying we need to do things differently? We need to see reform. And so let me go this gets me to my last question. And it is with all this abuse and scandal going on. You know, I hear it a lot that people feel despairing. I felt despaired. You know, at times I felt despairing. Is this a move of God where he’s cleaning up his church, though? I mean, should we be encouraged that sins that have happened and persisted for decades, are finally coming to light? Is this a move of God? What’s your opinion on that? And here’s the other thing. How long is it going to take? I think some people are like, Oh, we thought we were done. Oh, my goodness, there’s more? There’s more? And so, I would like your take on this. Well you know what, I’m going to withhold what I think I want to hear what you think, on this on this point and then I can share mine, although I wouldn’t be surprised if ours are similar. So how do you respond to that?

JUSTIN HUMPHREYS 27:38
Julie? Emphatically yes! This is a move of God. I have no doubt in my mind. I was having a conversation with a dear friend of mine, who I become to know because of these sorts of situations. But we were talking together about this ministry, this call to be a part of shining a light, shining God’s light into some very dark corners, a prophetic ministry. Because the way I see it, Jesus wants to return to his bride. He wants a Pure Bride. There is so much impurity in the church, so much evil doing. And I do believe that there is a period that we have entered into, and I don’t know, maybe to preempt the final question. I don’t know how far in we are, and I don’t know how far we’ve got to go. But I know that we are in the middle of doing something, being a part of God’s great clean up. You know? And as difficult as that is, and I hear you, Julie, you know, the despair, you know, the sense in which we could be gripped by hopelessness, if we did not keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. We will not let that overcome because there is work to be done. And as tough as it is, it’s a privilege to be used in the way we are. And there’s lots to be done.

JULIE ROYS 29:42
Amen. I just think of the scripture where Peter was told that the gates of hell would not overcome the church. On you I will build my church again. Not you, as in Peter as the Catholics may think, but on this statement that you are the Christ. But on you I will build my church and the gates of hell will not overcome it. We have as much as we believe in Jesus, we have to believe in His Church too. And that he will accomplish his purposes in it. And I do think, you know, we want a quick escape. I remember somebody saying to me once about somebody that was in the midst of counseling, and I so desperately wanted to see healing for this person, and they said to me, you know, Julie, it didn’t take this person a month or even a year to get into this problem. It’s been persisting for a long time, it took a long time to get in, it will take a long time to get out. I think we need to have some stamina as Christians. We’re in a pruning, we’re in a really hard season. And this season isn’t going to be a year, it’s not even going to be five years, it might be decades of God doing and dismantling and exposing, but that’s what we’re in for, right?

And it shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus said, Watch out for the wolves in sheep’s clothing. He said, Watch out for the false prophets. And yet, we’re so thrown when we see them. But I agree with you, God is doing something. Every time I report an investigation, I sit there and I just I look at it. And every time I see God delivering information into our hands, so that we can report it. And not because we were so brilliant at doing our jobs, but because God brought it to somebody and convicted them that they need to report this and they bring it to us. And so, such a privilege. And it is a privilege to be a part of what God is doing. And so I encourage people and I said this at a talk I did, actually in 2019, at the Restore Conference, that God gives each of us like he gave David one smooth stone that we can use, and every single one of us can be a part of what he’s doing. And so just encourage everyone listening, God is using you, God will use you, don’t lose heart, and He will accomplish his purposes.

Justin, we could talk for a very, very long time. And I say this to so many of my guests. But it’s so true, because I only talk to people I want to talk to and then when we get into discussions, it’s so rich. But it has been rich, and I so appreciate you. And so thank you, thank you for your work. Thank you for engaging so deeply in this discussion. And God bless you and what you’re doing. Thanks, Julie. And you too, amazing work. Let’s keep on keeping on. Amen. Again, thanks so much for listening to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And just a reminder that we’re able to do this podcast and all of our investigative work at The Roys Report because of support from people like you. And right now we’re offering Justin’s book Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse to anyone who gives a gift of $30 or more to The Roys Report. To give just TEXT22525 five on your phones and the word REPORT. Or to JULIEROYS.COM/DONATE. Also, just a quick reminder to subscribe to The Roys Report on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts or Spotify. That way you’ll never miss an episode. And while you’re at it, I’d really appreciate it if you’d help us spread the word about the podcast by leaving a review. And then please share the podcast on social media so more people can hear about this great content. Again, thanks so much for joining me today. Hope you were blessed and encouraged.

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4 Responses

  1. This was so good and timely. Thank you especially for the perspective on “gossip” versus sharing your story. I think we’re so conditioned that any talk is always gossip and it is just not true.

  2. Thank you so much. This is really helping me. I was spiritually abused and kicked out of a church when I was 17 because of my unplanned pregnancy. I wasn’t able to be accepted into a church for 19 years after that. It has been a painful process but this past year I have finally found a church that has accepted and embraced my son and I. I have been carefully navigating my interactions and trying to deal with conflicts at a “low level”.

  3. So much of my life experience resonated through these two podcasts. Thank you for sharing and for speaking up for so many. I am currently, at 49, finally in a place where I can begin to process a life of abusive and cultic spiritual experiences. From my own life’s struggles, I can say, if this is ALL you know of spiritual faith, expression, and fellowship? You will likely only feel “at home” in places like this or even impose impossible expectations on yourself because you aren’t following God unless you are exhausted, burnt out, over-extended and taken advantage of… A mindset I am still struggling to overcome.

    Thank you again for your words and your voice. I feel like I am discovering God all over again and gaining persective on grace that I’ve never experienced before.

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