Reader Question #14: Spiritual abuse, maybe. How is a church like a high school Dungeons & Dragons game?

Dear Captain Awkward:

I appreciated your advice regarding being open to the possibility that two siblings can grow up in the same home but have completely different experiences and interpretations of the environment.

As I was reading I found myself identifying with the sister, whom the question-asker describes as still being stuck in the abusive situation but not seeing it as so.  Last year our small and close-knit church community went through a very painful split, with a handful of people leaving with claims that the head pastor was spiritually abusing them.  It’s a very (VERY) long and complicated ordeal, but I found myself wondering what sort of advice you might give to the “sister” who is still connected to the parents (or in my case, authority figure/pastor) whom other people have experienced as abusive.  In my personal interactions with this pastor I’ve actually felt very well cared for and respected.  He did our premarital counseling and has provided a great deal of encouragement, mentoring and advice to my husband and I in the first 4 years of our marriage.

Because my experience of him has been so different than theirs, I find myself really struggling to know how to connect with them in a healthy and productive way.  The feeling I get from these friends who’ve left is that the only version of reality they accept is their own, and any other possible explanation is just a symptom of the abuse.  In their eyes I am a naive automaton, enabling an abusive and evil man.  It’s really quite insulting and saddening.

Any advice for the other side of this question?

The Other Sister

Dear Other Sister,

Intern Paul and I have been Googling spiritual abuse, and it’s taken us to a dark and scary part of the Internet.  Can you help us define the concept and be a little more detailed about what your friends say happened?

Dear Captain:

The definition of spiritual abuse that you will find probably covers a REALLY wide range of stuff. I even took a class about it afterwards because I was so shocked by the term they used.

The working definition that I’ve got of spiritual abuse is when “a person with spiritual authority (pastor/religious teacher/parent) uses their power to get their personal desires/wants met.”  This can be as “crazy” as cult stuff on communes where people give up their financial and personal freedom, or can be as “mild” as a pastor/etc using their power to get their own psychological needs met.

The claims of abuse my friends are making fall on the “mild” range (per definition).  One couple refuses to even share examples because they don’t want me to share those examples with the pastor.  Because of my relationship with him (he’s a trusted mentor) I would want to fact-check/confront him with anything specific, since that’s what I’d want someone to do if another person were accusing me of something this serious.  The other couple claims that the pastor had “written them off” as bad people and never took the time to invest in them, which they feel influenced several other couples in our church to keep them “out” of their social circles as well.  I know that they had several conversations with him regarding their feelings of being rejected and mistreated and that his response was always something along the lines of, “I’m sorry that you feel that way, that’s not my intention, if you find it difficult to get past those feelings then you’re welcome to find a church where you do feel cared for.”   In his explanation he meant it as a “feel free to leave with our blessing.”  In their explanation of it they heard it as “if you have a problem why don’t you just leave.”

The crux of the situation, for me, has been feeling drawn to be in the middle and mediate the whole thing.  I came to a realization a few months ago that this role is a left over from my family system, and was my main role in my relationship with this friend, who has a history of feeling slighted and wanting me to be on her side about life.  We’ve known each other for six years and in that time there have been 5 different friendships/work relationships/etc that she’s come to be about and expected me to be on her side over.

Thanks!  Let me know if there are any other things I could clarify. 


O.J. Simpson
"But I'm way too good at sports to abuse my wife!"

I’ve been sitting on this one for a little while.  Not because of your specific situation, Other Sister, because I think you’ve handled things pretty well.  But advice columns are the last refuge of the Categorical Imperative.  And countless people in human history have been abused by powerful, charismatic, kind, friendly, charming, handsome, influential, fun-to-hang-out-with, religious, generous, charity-donating (insert your favorite positive quality here) people.  Many abused people have found the courage to tell someone they trusted what happened, only to be told  “But he’s always been so nice to me, he would never do that!”  A lot of people would do that and have done it, and they have done it to outsiders, vulnerable people, people on the margins, unpopular people – in other words, to people who are less likely to be believed when they come forward.

O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
Meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.
-Hamlet Act 1, scene 5, 105–109

I don’t have direct experience with spiritual abuse, though it exists to a truly horrifying degree in the church of my upbringing. People who oppress and abuse others and people who cover it up can always tell themselves some story about “the greater good” and they are always aided by people who would rather countenance horrors than put themselves through some discomfort.

It could be not true, it could be a misunderstanding that can be cleared up, it could be a sign of attention-seeking, it could be malicious, it could be something fairly benign that accidentally triggers memories or recreates old patterns of abuse, it could be a matter of perception, it could be like in the 80s when Satan opened all those day-care centers – but if someone comes to you to say “I’ve been abused,” your job as a human being is to stop, listen, and accept that they might be telling the truth.

Imagine a world where what they say is possible, free of your own prejudices.

Hear them out without interrupting, judging, or cross-examining.

Don’t try to argue someone out of their own feelings.  You can investigate and weigh the facts and motivations later.  Even if the accusation turns out to be totally false and ridiculous, the person’s pain is real to them.

Think of the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. The way Aesop tells us, the boy cried “Wolf” out of boredom and for the pleasure of seeing the villagers run, and it’s a parable about lying.   But to me this is also a story about loneliness and feeling ignored and powerless and doing something bad in order to get that attention and feeling of power.  The boy who cried wolf is the saddest person in that village. People go about getting their needs met in a host of dysfunctional ways. The actions may be wrong but the feelings are real.

Okay, Other Sister, we’re back on.  And it looks like you did the right stuff:

  • You took the allegations seriously.
  • You asked people to be specific about behaviors – What actually happened? – and sort out facts from feelings.  This situation has very few facts and a whole lot of feelings.
  • You got an outside opinion by taking a class to educate yourself about spiritual abuse so that you could have an outside reality check about what’s going on.
  • You looked closely at the patterns of behavior and motivations of the people involved (including your friend’s history of laying grievances at your door vs. the pastor’s history as a level-headed guy).
  • You’ve admitted your own blind spots (your own history of being in the middle).

I shared your description of the dynamics in your church with my friend Commander Logic, and she said “It sounds more like a Geek Problem than a Church Problem.” She reminded me about the extremely classic, true, and hilarious Five Geek Social Fallacies, by Michael Suileabhain-Wilson.  Go read it, I’ll wait.

See anything familiar? Because I’m pretty sure you guys are Geeks for The Lord.

The aggrieved parties are carrying a combination of GSF1 (Ostracizers are Evil), GSF3 (Friendship Above All, which turns relationships into a series of loyalty tests), GSF4 (Friendship is Transitive – all my friends must be friends with each other, and all friends of my friends must be friends with me), and GSF5 (Friends Do Everything Together).  In addition to all the usual hilarious-sad-stressful ways these fallacies combine in friend groups, the church has an identified leader or social director who can be blamed for everything that goes wrong, i.e., your Pastor.

Dungeons & Dragons
“If I roll a 20 will you go to prom with me?”

Your weekly D&D game fell apart because the Warlock asked the Cleric to prom and she said no.  Your Wizard suddenly got a popular girlfriend and won’t hang out with you guys anymore because boobs > fighting goblins.  All of you got together and bought tickets to the midnight show of Tron on a night when your Fighter was grounded and had to babysit his little brother, so he’s mad that you saw it without him.   Half of you are eating lunch in the library instead of the cafeteria. Everyone blames the Dungeon Master, which led to a bloody nose and some crying during yesterday’s dodgeball game in gym class. You’re the middle-child Paladin who is trying to make everyone get along again, but you don’t have the power or the authority to fix the situation, so you spend your time listening to people complain and trying to make them see the other person’s point of view because you just want to play some D&D and eat Doritos with your friends.

So you asked me how to deal with your friends.  Suileabhain-Wilson describes one possible way:

Less commonly, people form a sort of counter-fallacy which I call “Your Feelings, Your Problem”. YFYP carriers deal with other people’s fallacies by ignoring them entirely, in the process acquiring a reputation for being charmingly tactless. Carriers tend to receive a sort of exemption from the usual standards: “that’s just Dana”, and so on. YFYP has its own problems, but if you would rather be an asshole than angstful, it may be the way to go.

Captain Awkward suffered a moment of painful self-recognition when she read that, but eh, what can you do?  As long as you are aware and as considerate as you can be to everyone’s feelings, I don’t think it makes you an asshole if you fail to internalize their problems as your own.  In that sense, your Pastor’s response of refusing to get into the business of making people be friends with other people (which would definitely be a misuse of authority) and saying  “I’m sorry you feel that way, I don’t want you to keep being unhappy, why not go where you will be happy?”  sounds kinda healthy.

This is going to sound familiar if you’ve been reading other stuff I’ve written here, but here goes.

  • If your friendship is based on actually liking each other and having things in common (vs. belonging to the same church), you can heal it in time by focusing on what you enjoy about each other.
  • If it’s not, you can’t and that’s your answer.  Begin the slow fade away, deploy the African Violet if necessary.  They might decide to stop being friends with you if they feel that you are colluding with someone who abused them.  Fair enough – they need to protect themselves from further abuse, you need to protect yourself from constant negativity.
  • Get out of the middle.  Decide that it’s not your job to make this right for everyone. Who pays your pastor’s salary or governs your church?  Refer your friends up the chain of hierarchy.  You don’t have to carry everyone’s (including your Pastor’s) emotional water.  Lay down your burdens, Middle Child.
  • Become a one-woman no-gossip zone. Don’t let people “vent” to you behind other people’s backs.  This is particularly useful with work situations and coworkers, but can apply here.  “I don’t feel comfortable talking about people that way when they’re not around.”  Do not pass on information between the different sides.
  • Change the subject.  Caring Platitude + Question = Hope of Social Harmony.  You want something that acknowledges their hurt and anger but focuses on the future and on what they (not you) will do?“I know it’s been a really hard year.  Do you think you’ll find another church?“This is a painful subject for both of us.  I want to honor your feelings, but I need us to talk about something else.  How is _____ going?”

Finally, I’ll end with a short quiz that covers today’s material, on the theme “Time Will Tell:”

Several years ago, two friends of mine went through a wrenching and terrible breakup.  I wanted to stay friends with both of them, and to that end refused to discuss them with each other.  I met Friend 1 through Friend 2, when they became a couple, so was closer to Friend 2 at the outset.

Friend 1 and I went to brunch and plays and movies and dinner parties developed an amazing friendship based on shared intellectual and professional interests and mutual respect.  I think it was about 2 years before Friend 2’s name even came up in conversation, in a very natural “Oh, the people we dated when we were younger, they had their good points” sort of way.

Friend 2 made our entire friendship, which had before included a love of Slings & Arrows and Homicide: Life on the Street and theater and long talks and walks in parks, into a treatise upon how (s)he had been deeply wronged by Friend 1 and required both my loyalty and my assistance in seeking amends.  Friend 2 would not respect my requests not to discuss the matter. Friend 2 was in pain and deserved justice and would not talk about anything else, and I was not a true friend if could not see that.  I owed it to the friendship to hate Friend 1.

Guess who I’m still friends with today?

If something like this happens over and over in your church, it might in fact be the Pastor – you’re taking care of yourself if you stay watchful for repeating patterns.  If something like this happens over and over in your friends’ lives, sadly it’s probably your friends.

4 thoughts on “Reader Question #14: Spiritual abuse, maybe. How is a church like a high school Dungeons & Dragons game?

  1. Man, the geek fallacies is probably one of my fave pieces of internet literature ever. (is that even the right word? whatever) Think I’m going to read it again. I know there are things I identify with, and that other people also identify with as well. Geeky social circles are ever evolving…

    Playing the mediator is one of my ‘jobs’ too… it’s so emotionally exhausting!

    1. The mediator role is a double-edged sword: exhausting and annoying, but it makes us feel important and like we’re in the know. It’s a hard one to relinquish.

  2. Been reading back through here and it made me think of this. The Boy who cried Wolf is a problematic tale indeed:

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