Question #5: What if you work for the church?
When You're Just a Member and Not an Employee
Spiritually abusive systems operate through authoritarianism in a way that deprives the member of reasonable personal rights. In Shepherding/Discipleship, many openly teach that Christians have absolutely no rights and must submit to every and any situation that comes their way that does not require them to sin in an obvious way. (Suffering works good character into the abused and supposedly carries an inherent, effective power which is said to convict then convert abusive sinners.) Some aberrant Calvinists distort the Doctrines of Grace (TULIP) in a similar way, interpreting those concepts to define a Christian as a hapless and powerless creature who can only get the meager crumbs that fall from God's table. It just so happens that, under hierarchy, the abusive leader's table represents God's table, and the rank and file members of the group are whelps who have not yet shown sufficient outward signs of humility and have thus not yet earned their seat. Devotion to the group leader and system qualifies a person as God's better child, granting them choice bread, but the member without power may only glean from the crumbs on the floor, along with the dogs (Matthew 15:21-28). The system appears to exist and likely reports to exist to help individuals, but in reality, the balance of power and primary gain rests with the leadership at the expense of the member.
In the early discussion of thought reform, one of the first publications describing a set system of manipulation and exploitation that manifests in cultic groups that foster an ideological connection with a group or leader described the process as “Deception, Dependency, and Dread” which became known as “DDD Syndrome” (Farber, Harlow and West). The lowly members who glean from the crumbs with the dogs in such groups are initially deceived about group dynamics and rules when they join, they become dependent on the system for guidance and discernment, and they are threatened with the woe of harm and loss (which may be eternal) when they leave or are dismissed from the group.
The Ambiguity of Informed Consent for Employees of Spiritually Abusive Groups
When you take a job with an employer in the United States, you're contracting with them to provide a service to them and they agree to provide you with a specific type of compensation about which you're informed in advance. You generally have some kind of written job description, but even if you don't, you've got a legally binding set of obligations which you owe to the employer and the employer owes to you. You're given a good idea of what will be required of you and what will not be, some of which is also determined and protected by civil labor laws to prevent the employer from exploiting the worker. Even if you need the job and have no other options, you're given informed consent about the job and have the freedom to accept it or decline it, based on the details. You might think that this extra information and the laws governing employment would offer a church member some additional protection at a meeting of confrontation. Guess again.
Unfortunately, there's the dreaded clause of “other duties as assigned” that can be used to broadly define a great deal of permissible abuse under the freedom of religious interpretation. Unquestioned compliance and submission easily falls under such a category for the person who is employed by a religious organization. Mixed with freedom of religion in terms of the law, submission as one of those "other duties" becomes license for a spiritually abusive employer to place their presumed right to demand unreasonable compliance well above the rights of an employee in the workplace. In other words, labor law and religious freedom compete with one another and are pitted against one another. Insubordination, viewed through the lenses of authoritarianism, takes on a whole new meaning when a person works for a church that manipulates its members and capitalizes on shame. Labor law goes right out the window.
Worse, Not Better
When a church member walks into a star chamber meeting with pastors and elders, under religious freedoms that we enjoy in this country, the church member has only the integrity of the ministers, the structure of the religious system, and the manner in which leadership interprets Scripture as a source of protection. For the church employee, very little protects him from this “higher law.” They're pressured if not required to presume a motive of virtue and self-sacrifice on the part of those leaders, just like a church member must. All of those standards in such a meeting tend to be fluid, especially under a type of leadership that uses their desired end to justify not so virtuous means. Rather than a workplace chain of command system and labor practices serving as a type of protection for the employee which might curb abusive behavior, the fact that the employee and church member fits into a formal chain of command actually gives leadership more liberty to be spiritually and psychologically abusive. Theirs is seen as a more intimate relationship that extends beyond a regular employment situation, so they feel greater liberty to do and say whatever they want. God's law and their position as God's anointed mouthpiece gives them the power of the highest authority. It becomes the abusive leader's means of avoiding accountability.
In a normal workplace setting, an employer would also never use tactics like deception, dependency and dread in the way that they're used within spiritually abusive groups to control members. Because of the ambiguity of open interpretation of religious ideas, an employer within a closed, high demand group will use deception, dependency, and dread to manipulate, almost with a sense of impunity.
I have a friend who works in a medical doctor's office that employs several techniques that qualify as Complementary and Alternative Medicine/Health Care (CAM). She actually encountered the dynamics of spiritual abuse within that setting while working for them. Managers used fear of ridicule and harassment from those in traditional medicine who oppose CAM to threaten employees into submission, requiring them to keep quiet about some of the more questionable behaviors that took place within the office. At times, practitioners there were directed to deceive clients, and they were not willing to do so, failing to see why it was necessary and also realizing that it put their own professional licensure at risk. Very much like the tactics that I've seen used in churches to get rid of their “problems” (pay cuts, lack of access to facilities, scheduling conflicts, etc.), this office used the same to manipulate ethical, non-compliant people into leaving their employment there. And much like many churches, the questionable behavior detracted from the very good work and legitimate resources offered at the facility. Was it needful? Did they really need to mislead clients, cut corners, and threaten their staff with fear? Apparently, they felt that they did, and it cheapened all of the truly good work that the clinic accomplished. It makes sense that greed motivated the actions of the medical office. It's not so palatable and easy to comprehend when the same behavior comes from a church.
Question # 6: Both secular and religious employers have used all of these tactics with me. I tend to think that, although the patterns were definitely there, my employers did not deliberately intend to utilize systematic mind-control tactics. Perhaps they were acting in patterns that were familiar to them based on prior experiences, or based their own trial-and-error learning of what works, but I seriously doubt they were schooled in such techniques or consciously realized they were using well-established manipulations techniques. Not that I put it past anyone to do so, nor do I think these particular individuals are too virtuous to be capable of intentional manipulation; it's just that I know them well enough to doubt they had ever been explicitly trained in such techniques. What are your thoughts on this?
Sometimes, People are Just Immature Jerks, or They're Having a Bad Day
Coming full circle on the idea that effective tactics of manipulation look the same no matter where or how they're used and that there are a fairly set number of tactics because human nature tends to be somewhat predictable, you can spot the same individual manipulation tactics used in a spiritually abusive group in any setting where you find human beings interacting with one another.
A good boss could take the low road on a particular day, using personal matters, shame, or unfair comparison as a means of gaining your compliance as opposed to earning your trust and cooperation. I myself have taken jobs that promised one set of conditions and delivered entirely different ones, all because the employer was willfully dishonest. And I've worked with and for some true manipulators. I've also had good managers who worked along with me for employers that were less than ideal, but I found the overall experience to be good because of the virtue of those working there with me.
People can choose to use the same individual manipulation tactics that can also be found at play in spiritual abuse, and they may use many of them, interpersonally or even in the way that they manage people within the workplace. Sometimes that just amounts to poor character and immaturity in only one person, or it might be what an executive requires of a middle manager. I spoke to an old supervisor of mine several years ago concerning an impossible workplace, and she said that she quit because the system was just so abusive. The hospital wasn't running a thought reform program, but they did need us to comply in order to do a job well with too few resources which put a burden on the staff. But they didn't meet the demands of thought reform or spiritual abuse, or more simply, they didn't operate by way of personal deception, dependency, and dread.
That's always the test: Does this group meet the criteria? They might, and they might not. Review the different lists of criteria that are used to define spiritually abusive groups and the dynamics of manipulation. This site lists only a few of them. Then, trust your judgment about whether the dynamics continue to manifest within your group. Decide for yourself.
That's actually part of getting free – exercising your own discernment and critical thought. It may be your first step out of a group, or it might just mean that your working for a jerk! Everyone has a bad day once in awhile, too. Or they might be good guys under other circumstances and just haven't learned good skills to use during the uncomfortable process of confrontation.