What is spiritual coercion and mistreatment? And what can we do about it?
Hurt at church is more complicated than other hurts, because it brings fear and insecurity into the context of personal spirituality.
Number eight on the list of "Experiences We Don't Have English Words For Yet,"by Brianna Wiest is:
"The parenting style that consists of trying to punish, embarrass, scold, and oppress children into being functioning, kind, successful members of society."
How would you sum that up in a word? Now imagine adding another twist. Imagine attempting to punish, embarrass, and scold a child into loving God or being "spiritual." And what if it's not parents we're talking about, but fellow church members, teachers, and/or leaders?
Summing this up in a word (or two), has been a struggle. "Spiritual Abuse" is too strong, "hurt at church" is too ambiguous and weak. The phrase that keeps coming to my mind is "spiritual coercion." But when I say that, I usually get a blank stare. So, "spiritual mistreatment?" Even though others don't always understand what I'm talking about until further discussion, for me these words have been like turning on a light in the dark.
“Spiritual coercion” and “spiritual mistreatment” are words that have brought understanding and healing and, ultimately, freedom to live my life. I have come up with the following definition, based on my personal experiences.
Spiritual coercion is attempting to "force faith" or faithful actions. It includes manipulating others into complying with religious teachings through the use of anger, threats, humiliation, punishment, guilt and/or fear.
When it happened in my church growing up, my parents tried to address it, but they also didn't have words for what was happening. Once, after an incident of shaming during an all-school worship service, I remember my father trying to help me see my worth, but I was left with the feeling that I must be "bad." In my seven-year-old mind the clergyman involved represented God, and God was telling me that I had failed Him. I thought my mistake was unforgivable.
Repeated religious experiences like this during developing years, impacted my personal spirituality. As an adult, I had confusing ideas about God, unhealthy compulsions for pleasing others at church, and I suffered from crippling social anxiety at church. Since I wasn't an "anxious" person, and was actually pretty social, when the situational anxiety hit it was really confusing. When my children became teens, things got more confusing. I was experiencing triggers when my teens were shamed by other church members, while at the same time, being strongly tempted to coerce my teens into "faithful" behavior. Like my parents, I didn't know how to respond to any of it. I didn't have words for what was happening or what I was feeling. I just knew that whenever I saw my teens experience that kind of hurt at church, I completely fell apart.
If the concept of spiritual coercion and mistreatment is still foggy, the following are two very specific personal examples:
Or, if that's all too much, here's a great abbreviated start to understanding spiritual coercion and mistreatment:
“...when we are in a position to lead others, (or are being led by others), do they feel edified, strengthened, and encouraged by our influence? Do they feel their agency has been honored and expanded? Or do they feel belittled, bullied, manipulated, compelled, coerced, intimidated, discouraged, browbeaten, trapped, or even obliged?" ...
"...Do the people with whom we interact... feel moved to action only to avoid further unpleasantness from us or because they genuinely desire to do what they now understand to be right and necessary?”
- From "Persuasion and Love Unfeigned:” The Exercise of Agency, Influence and Principle by Jeffrey S. O’Dricoll and Hal B. Gregersen, BYU Religious Studies Center Website
So, what can we do about spiritual coercion and mistreatment?
Whether our sphere of influence in our faith community is small, or we assume a larger role, there is a lot we can do to identify and root out spiritual coercion and mistreatment at church. Something to keep in mind is that while spiritual abuse usually includes very overt behavior, spiritual coercion and mistreatment (its closely related cousin), can be:
Difficult to identify.
Interwoven with good and positive experiences.
Unintentional, and come from a place of "good" intentions.
How to respond to someone using coercive tactics at church? Clearly identify the behavior and why it wrong:
(Name incident) “This is shaming and not an appropriate way to influence spirituality.”
(Name incident) “That was hostile, there’s no place for that at church.”
(Name incident) “That's a threat. It's not okay to try and force faithful behavior.”
Here is an article with more ideas for responding to bullying amongst church members. If coercion is being used by a church leader, this should always be reported. Physical and/or sexual abuse should always be reported to authorities immediately; not just clergy. No matter who it involves.
If you are experiencing the confusion and hurt that comes with any of these things, don't give up on God. Our Savior wants to be involved in our lives, even when we are dealing with things that seem to take us far from Him. His hand is not shortened to redeem (Isaiah 59:1).