As I was beginning my dissertation I met a lady who was finishing her own. Barb Orlowski was propelled into an area of research by unexpected life experiences. Not long after completing her work she recognized a need to publish her research and the book was released recently.

I contacted Barb to talk about her findings, and she graciously consented to an interview. This is Part I.

Q. When did you first conceive of the idea of researching this phenomenon of church leavers?

I needed a topic of research for my Doctor of Ministry project. My cohort pals each had a topic and were anxious to get started. I, on the other hand, did not have a topic idea for quite some time.

As our church went through an unsettling phase regarding direction there was reaction by the pastor and elders to those who resisted that direction. A pattern of behavior began to manifest itself among the elder board. Although we had been in church ministry leadership for a number of years and my husband had been an elder during the season of three pastors, we now were in the thick of a tempest. As things progressed the situation deteriorated and there was no reasonable way of resolving it.

It was during this distressing time that I began to search for an understanding of the church dilemma that our family was now facing. The leadership behaviors exhibited impacted our spiritual and emotional well being. We, as a family, had been involved in this fellowship for over sixteen years. Other couples in church leadership were distressed by what they were seeing. We were corporately dismayed by the fracturing happening in our church community.

As I reflected on this unfolding situation and the possible reasons for the fallout and emotional upheaval, the church malady of spiritual abuse rose in significance. I now had my research topic.

2. How could your research on spiritual abuse recovery inform our thinking?

Spiritual abuse is a complex issue and the devastating emotional toll upon exiting active church attendants beckons consideration. The concept of spiritual abuse in the local church may not be a familiar one. This research aims to bring spiritual abuse to the center of clergy and congregant attention and invites them to consider this very real dysfunction in the Church today.

3. As you began to talk to people and make your research known, what were your first impressions?

I was delighted when I began to receive enquiry emails from near and far. What this underscored was that this topic for research was well founded since there were a host of people responding to a single researcher’s request for participants.

I became aware that people were longing for their voice to be heard—for someone just to listen to their personal account of distress with church leadership in their home church. Another factor was that there seemed to be little or no help available from denominational overseers. So who could these congregants go to in their hour of need? It became obvious that there was not much an individual or a couple could do. They had no place for their voice to be heard, either in their church or within their denomination.

Doing a doctoral research project on recovery from spiritual abuse seemed to hit a nerve. This fact, conversely, was an indication that the current model for church leadership may be inadequate.

4. What were some of the findings that these participants were addressing? Was there a single factor that rose to the top and was of unique interest?

Participants verified that they had been under authoritarian and controlling pastoral leadership. Many also confirmed that they had been in a works-based belief system. Participants described why they had to leave their church, their negative and positive emotions, and how they coped after being disfellowshiped. What aided in their recovery was having a confidante, someone they could trust to help them process their emotional turmoil.

What people ‘had learned’ and ‘what they now looked for in a home church’ confirmed that they had reflected on their views about the local church and its leadership and a refreshed ecclesiology had arisen through the pain of their previous church experience.

5. What can you tell us about the findings of your research? How widespread is this phenomenon?

I continue to ponder the question of how widespread this occurrence might be. I prefer to use the term ‘occurrence’ rather than ‘phenomenon’.

I had a good people sample for this study. There were one hundred participants who fully fit the criteria. Adding in the spouse number of 68 raised the number of those affected by spiritual abuse in this study to 168. This number did not include children, teens, other family members, or friends and acquaintances–but these people were also casualties of spiritual abuse.

My statistics showed that 67 percent of the participants reintegrated into a healthy church while 33 percent did not reintegrate into an institutional church for Christian fellowship.

Those who did not reintegrate into a local church felt that they no longer had any interest in returning to that model of ‘doing’ church. Their Christian fellowship is now configured in a different way. Their fellowship practices includes worship, hearing the scriptures, sharing life together, and service in the neighboring community, but it does not include attending a church building with predictable programs or traditional liturgies.

6. Who was involved in this study and what reasons did participants give for leaving their home church?

The participants in this study were mainly from the U.S.A. and Canada, with a few from eight other countries. The age range was 20 to 75 years. There was an even distribution of men (42) and women (58). People were well educated; many had degrees in various fields. These believers had faithful and regular attendance in their church and the majority of them were serving in places of leadership. Basically, this group was in alignment with the goals and purposes of their church and had a high degree of involvement. They would not have been considered troublemakers, backsliders, or those in opposition to their church leadership.

My research centered on those who felt that they had been under authoritarian and controlling leaders and had been wounded under this type of leadership style. Participants verified that they had recovered from this experience and registered what factors helped in their recovery. Although forgiving their former leaders, one third were not willing to return to churches with the form of church governance that allowed single leaders to rise with the power to wound congregants. They were on a quest now for a different style of leadership and a healthier form of community. Two-thirds of participants reintegrated into healthy churches with caring/competent leadership.

7. What were the surprises as you began gathering data?

One of the delights, as a researcher, was how willing people were to share about their experience of spiritual abuse and how they eventually recovered from it. I began this adventure by posting the research information on various reputable websites. I had a feeling of vulnerability about putting my request for participants on the Internet.

As the first wave of questions about the study came in and people’s initial enquiries were answered, there was a positive and willing interest to participate. Any fears that I might have had about posting my study online were now laid to rest. People sincerely expressed their answers to the survey questions. The general response was an overwhelming number of available participants.

People wanted to be heard, they wanted someone to listen to their story, and many expressed a hope for closure through participation. People were deeply interested in this unique opportunity to alert those who train church leaders in the Body of Christ about the type of trauma that goes on at the local church level.

More information on the book can be bound on Barb’s website: Church Exiters.

Interview Part II

1 Comment on spiritual abuse – recovery

  1. Peggy says:

    Thanks for this interview, Len!

    And, Barb, I finally ordered my copy of the book today….

    I was happy to be part of the process of bring this to light and grateful to have been able to share my experiences with so many others.