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Abuse in Ministry

By Patricia Fouque.

Abuse in the church is a reality: a reality which must be faced. In this article we shall look at abuse with its issues of power and responsibility. We shall explore some of the unknown areas of our own lives which lead us sometimes to be in the role of victim, and sometimes in the role of persecutor or abuser. We shall listen to the voices of survivors of sexual abuse. And we shall look at some of the ways in which we can minimise the risk of abuse in our churches.

Reality of Abuse

How do we know that abuse is indeed a reality in churches?

In 1992 the Christian Reformed Church of North America commissioned a survey to determine the prevalence and nature of abuse throughout the denomination. Of the 65% of members who responded, 28% had experienced at least one form of physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Tentative American and Australian figures about clergy misconduct estimate that 10-15 % of clergy are involved in sexual liaisons with parishioners. Although there are no comparable statistics for the UK, the 1992 Safety Net survey of adult Christian survivors of sexual abuse found that 31% of the abusers were known to be practising Christians, and 10% of these were leaders or clergy.

Who are the victims? How do they feel? What are their needs?

The church is full of silent survivors of abuse, many of whom have suffered horrific experiences as children or young adults. The acceptance and understanding which they need is rarely available in the church, which is generally ill-equipped or unable to minister to them at the depth of their pain. Some cannot ask for help, and when they do, what is offered may be so lacking in empathy and understanding that they are left feeling responsible and abused yet again. For some, the difficulty is increased by factors such as: the real or imagined pressure of being a Christian example to others; the anxiety about what people may think; the belief (still so common, yet mostly untrue) that if you have been sexually abused, you will become an abuser yourself; the sense of failure; the feeling of isolation; the worry about confidentiality.

What are the long-term effects on survivors?

The legacy of sexual abuse, with its fundamental betrayal of trust, pervades all areas of a person's life, from the physical (panic attacks and phobias) to difficulties with sexuality, emotional attachments and relationships. The effect of sexual abuse by clergy is profound, leaving the victim feeling 'spiritually raped' and often suicidal. Our human experiences deeply affect our feelings and responses and these are reflected in the survivor's struggle with faith and freedom to relate to God.

This legacy, part of which festers in the unconscious, may also drive survivors to repeat old patterns of taking the role of victim by unconsciously putting themselves into potentially abusive situations and relationships. Abuse, involving as it does the use of power by a stronger individual to force another into submission to unacceptable treatment or activity, often leaves adult survivors with an unconscious expectation of being powerless in all relationships. The complexity of relationships within the church frequently leads to the blurred boundaries and degree of closeness in which abuse dynamics flourish.

Pastoral Implications

The effect of abuse in adult survivors has serious pastoral implications. All too often, we put the responsibility on to the person, who is seen as 'difficult'. We expect hurting people to 'take it to the Cross', to forgive, to repent of their anger. We cannot understand why, if they are really 'new persons' in Christ, they are still stuck in their negativity, in their doubts, in their relationship difficulties. We respond to them from the defensive position of not wanting to know, protecting ourselves from seeing our own pain in the mirror image before us. This judgemental response stems from our own unrecognised prejudices and projections, and from those omnipotent parts of ourselves that need to stay powerful.

But if survivors are to find safety and healing within the church, they need to experience non-abusive, non-authoritarian and accepting relationships. When there has been severe damage to trust at an early stage of a child's life, future relationships will be constantly tested out, and defensively controlled to keep them safe. It is crucial for their healing, therefore, that the minister or counsellor establishes a new pattern of relationship, free from punitive rejection, in which firm boundaries allow a replay and restructuring of past distortions, without any elements of blame or condemnation. Survivors need leaders who, recognising and integrating the needy parts of themselves, can enter into healthy, adult relationships.

Abuse of power

Power does not have to be abused although it often is. There is nothing wrong in being powerful; there is nothing wrong in exercising power in a leadership role; it is only the abuse of that power which destroys relationships and hinders the work of the Gospel. Richard Foster, in his book, 'Money, Sex and Power' (1985), shows how insidious power can be and how quickly we may, when in positions of leadership, lose all perspective. No-one acts out of exclusively pure motives: each of us has a 'power shadow' which influences our actions in both positive and negative ways; we all have those primary needs to feel special, to be seen as competent , and to be praised. In their book 'Churches and How to Survive Them', Holloway and Avery tackle the tension for Christians of living in two dimensions: of the world with its cultures, pressures and prejudices; and of the Spirit. The book attempts to address the question of how Christians allow their humanity, with all its abuses, to impede the work of the Holy Spirit within the church.

The church contains both perceived and hidden power, widely invested in the hierarchy, in the Minister and in the dominant image of male headship. The inherent power of the Minister comes from his learning and knowledge, and from the often projected message that God is on his side. In conflict situations, therefore, he needs to discern whether he is speaking with the real authority of Scripture and of God, or whether he is reacting from his hidden feelings, and his own need to be right or to control.

Leadership offers power - implicit power to set boundaries, to make judgements and to instigate change - which can either be used wisely or abused . 'Churches need leaders but not leaders who need power'. Firm but flexible boundaries provide containment and the safety in which members can grow, but where there are strong discipline and rigid boundaries, the membership will react defensively. Some will satisfy their own unconscious power drives either by identifying with the leader and increasing the power block, or conversely, by engaging in a power struggle with the leader. Some will respond from their early patterns of good behaviour, and because 'Daddy must be right', accept everything submissively, even if they feel uncomfortable or misunderstood. Others will argue, rebel, and maybe 'leave home'.

All groups can be powerful and may be powerfully manipulated by a single individual or by a few people - so powerful that they frequently and successfully get rid of the victims. The cycle of abuse then lies dormant until there is another threat or challenge. People who then leave the church in hurt and anger carry with them not only their own rightful responsibility for the breakdown of the relationship, but also the projected sins of the others who remain. Thus, in scapegoating the victims, the group is relieved of its own guilt and responsibility which has been projected 'out there'.

We can usually recognise this process clearly when members resign and defensively project all their anger on to the church, but we tend to see it less clearly when we, unaware of our own processes, defensively blame the ousted member, or the estranged minister.

So, we may all abuse: ministers and leaders can abuse their churches; groups and individuals can powerfully abuse their ministers.

Abuse by churches

I think it is relevant to note the high exit figures from the ministry. In Australia, for example, where there are 10,000 ex-pastors, a cross-denominational survey showed that the most significant reasons for leaving were conflict, and issues of self: an awareness of inter-personal weaknesses, loss of self-confidence, and an inability to cope. One third of Baptist ministers specifically cited conflict with their church members and/or leaders (Croucher 1994). It is not known what the figures are in the UK but of ministerial students who graduated from one college during the period 1955-1985, an estimated 25% are no longer in any form of Christian ministry (Beasley-Murray 1994).

Although the reasons for leaving, despite what presumably was intended to be a life-long call to ministry, are varied, we are left with a serious question about possible abusive processes which these ex-ministers may have found in their churches, or which they may have unconsciously initiated themselves.

The focus of this paper is abuse in ministry (ie by ministers) but we also need to acknowledge that abuse within the church is two-way. Very real abuses are experienced by ministers and leaders, and also by their families. Children of the Manse or Vicarage carry heavy burdens, and when there is conflict in the church or their father is dismissed from post, they have to face not only a change of school, friends, church, but also their parents' pain. Many are left with a deep sense of betrayal and struggle well into adult years, with feelings of bitterness, resentment and anger.

How leaders abuse

Mandy belongs to Safety Net, an evangelical self-help network for Christian survivors of abuse. She was abused by the church youth leader, five years after he had brought her to Christ. Like many young people, she suffered in silence until years later, when a leader herself, she heard that he had abused again. When she finally spoke to the minister, she was asked to tell her story to an all-male diaconate. Their intrusive questions left her feeling humiliated and abused again. Although the youth leader eventually went to a neighbouring church, he returns from time to time.

Mandy has been told that it is her lack of faith which still causes her so much distress when he comes back. She has been forbidden by her minister to see a professional counsellor, and she knows that he also disapproves of her current Christian counsellor because 'the counsellor's view of God differs from his own'. She continues to feel not only abused, misunderstood and judged, but also guilty because she sought the help she needed. Although Mandy has struggled to overcome old patterns of acceptance and submissive behaviour, she still feels very vulnerable in this church with its overt and male dominated hierarchy.

Leaders abuse if they do not recognise their limitations, especially when confronted with emotional or relationship problems; they abuse and leave people feeling powerless and controlled when they refuse to 'allow' members to receive help outside the church; they abuse when they create false guilt; they abuse when they fail to recognise the process of healing; they abuse when they are intrusive.

This authoritarian and directive approach leaves people feeling blamed, responsible, angry and very hurt. Insensitive assumptions deny the validity of the long and painful process of healing which may be necessary, and authoritarian direction often repeats a familiar abusive cycle. So, for example, forgiveness may be essential for both spiritual and emotional healing; but when enjoined upon the survivor at the wrong time, it may be experienced as an impossible demand from yet another authority figure. The familiar dynamics of placing responsibility on to the 'victim' are repeated yet again.

Leaders also abuse by 'standing on the Word rather than under it' (Beasley-Murray). Mandy illustrates this very clearly. In her own words, 'I am just beginning to see a completely new and loving God who is very different from the judgmental parent boding ominous warnings, that I thought was God in his entirety. You see, in our particular Baptist church, there is good solid preaching of the Word which my minister takes very seriously. Each week I hear how sinful, terrible and wicked I am (well, I am), which even now, on a bad day, reinforces within me that, even if the abuse was not my responsibility, I am so sinful that I must be partly to blame for my situation'.

We also abuse when we touch and hug others without asking permission. Sexual abuse survivors often have a horror of being touched by both men and women. When Jane asked for prayer, several hands were placed on her, leaving her extremely distressed. Later, an elder told her that this showed she needed deliverance ministry.

Leaders abuse when they mis-diagnose emotional trauma as demonic possession. They leave people with very frightening feelings of intrusion and powerlessness, unable to challenge their authority and control. Of the Safety Net members who had experienced deliverance, 45% perceived the experience as actually harmful. Comments included: 'deliverance was like my insides being pulled out'; ' I was paralysed with fear' ' I felt overwhelming panic' 'I felt awful when I was delivered from my father's spirit of adultery'; 'it left me worse than before'; 'I hated being touched'. Deliverance was found to be helpful, however, when it had been initiated by the survivor, not the helpers.


So how can we prevent these abuses within our churches?

1. Code of Ethics.

Most professional bodies adhere strongly to an ethical code. Clear guidelines for all church leaders: pastoral visits to people of the opposite sex, automatic police checks on all youth leaders, limits of responsibility etc.

2. Training in pastoral care and counselling:

Self-awareness and counselling skills training in our Bible colleges to help future leaders to develop empathy with others and to acquire skills to communicate that empathy.

Educational and skills training at all levels within the church.

3. Courses for serving ministers:

To stimulate professional and personal development. A minimum number to be completed between appraisals.

4. Appraisal system for all clergy:

Newly retired clergy could be a tremendous resource.

5. An appeals procedure for all ministers caught in conflict

6. Emotional support for ministers:

More available and accessible than at present. A confidential support system to be developed.

7. Clinical supervision:

For all ministers who counsel individuals in their churches.

8. Accountability:

To main denominations on the part of all Ministry Teams who lead workshops, seminars, healing weekends etc.

9. Setting up of working parties:

To investigate the nature and pastoral implications of abuse within individual denominations.


It is because of the unconscious aspects of our projections and drives that we find within the church all the abuses characteristic of society. We cannot split off abuse 'out there', deny its reality within us, and then expect to remain a healthy organism. We must see that the sin from which we want to rid the world is also the sin deep within us in the church. The great split between abuser and abused, so powerfully manifested in the holocaust, is continually reinforced if we deny it. We are as guilty as the world - and we fail to recognise it.

If we seriously want to heal the split then we must become more self-aware. We need to face these unknown parts of ourselves, our hidden motivations, and to free ourselves from any idealised, perfect, wise and loving images which we may cherish, or which may be projected by church congregations.

If we can allow psychological insights to work with the Holy Spirit to show us some of our deep shadow areas, then the church will be a place of encounter where we will find the reality of God. It will be a place of true healing, of forgiveness, of grace; a place where wounded people can receive deep ministry and be unconditionally accepted and understood. And it will be a church waiting patiently and sensitively for all to reach forgiveness, healing and wholeness at their own paces.


Allan, Patricia: Report on Overseas Study of Clergy Misconduct: Sexual Abuse in the Ministerial Relationship. New Zealand 1992.

Beasley-Murray, Paul: A Call to Excellence. Hodder & Stoughton, London 1995.

Christian Reformed Church: Synodical Report on Abuse Situations, Christian Reformed Church in North America. CRC Publications, Grand Rapid, Michigan 1992.

Fouque, Patricia: Power Dimension of Counselling: Impact of Christian Biblical Counselling on Survivors of Sexual Abuse. Unpublished Masters Thesis, Surrey University 1993.

Foster, Richard: Money, Sex and Power. Hodder & Stoughton, London 1985.

Hall, Anne & Tully, Jan: Violence and Sexual Assault in the Church. Project Anna, Victoria, Australia 1992.

Holloway, Richard, & Avery, Brice: Churches and How to Survive Them. HarperCollins, London 1994.

Patricia Fouque is a counsellor in privste practice, supervisor at a counselling centre, and a counselling trainer at Brooklands College. She specialises in counselling adult Christian survivors of sexual abuse and is deputy director of 'Safety Net', an interdenominational Christian network for such survivors. She attends Carshalton Beeches Baptist Free Church.

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You are reading Abuse in Ministry by Patricia Fouque, part of Issue 10 of Ministry Today, published in June 1997.

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