International Journal of Cultic Studies Vol. 2, 2011, 79-81

Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Dynamic Research on Finding a Place of Wholeness

Barbara M. Orlowski

Reviewed by Reverend Richard L. Dowhower, DD


Barbara M. Orlowski, of Langley, British Columbia, Canada, submitted the manuscript of this book as her dissertation for a Doctor of Ministry degree to the Associated Canadian Theological Schools, the Graduate School of Trinity Western Seminary in 2008. Previously, she had received two master’s degrees from the same institution, one in Christian Studies in 1998, and the other in Religious Education in 1995. As she states in the book, she is not an ordained pastor. Married, with two adult children, she “spends her time teaching, discussing, and ministering on this topic” (back cover). She writes,

This book aims to bring spiritual abuse to the center of clergy attention, invites them to consider this very real dysfunction in the Church today, and asks them to decide whether they and their church community can be part of the solution to this malady, rather than part of the problem. (p. 1)

Her other stated intentions for researching and writing this book include the following:

The goal of this research was not to open old wounds, but to allow those who healed over time the opportunity to give voice to their previous suffering as well as to gain understanding as to how they recovered… This book aims to help people who have been wounded by spiritual abuse. (p. xi)

This book is an act of faith and devotion: 

Finally, my thanksgiving goes to our Great God—the Father, the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I appreciate heaven’s faithful oversight in gently guiding a curious young woman into the delightful and fulfilling realms of theology and biblical studies and ultimately helping her to complete this project for him. (p. ix)

The whole book is a homily, albeit quite theologically sophisticated, with hundreds of footnotes.

Orlowski’s definition of spiritual abuse comes from one of her primary sources, Ronald M. Enroth’s 1992 and 1994 publications, Churches That Abuse and Recovering from Churches That Abuse: “Spiritual abuse takes place when leaders to whom people look for guidance and spiritual nurture use their positions to manipulate, control and dominate…bringing devastating results” (Enroth, 1994, p. 7).

In addition to Enroth’s two works cited, Orlowski’s primary resources include The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen (1991); Healing Spiritual Abuse, by Ken Blue (1993); and Wounded Warriors, by Kirk E. Farnsworth (1998). Other than Enroth, the only author she cites with whom I am familiar is Robert Greenleaf, for his much heralded 1977 work, Servant Leadership. Other writers she cites frequently are Marilyn Cudmore, Thomas Oden, Gorden D. Fee, Gilbert Bilezikian, Larry Crabb, Peter Scazzero, and Alan Jamieson.

With most of her published sources 10 years old or older, it appears that “Dr. Barb,” as she calls herself on her Web site, www.churchexiters.com, is revisiting territory deemed by many to have been adequately researched and reported some years ago. The need for this research, she claims, lies in the existence of “a gap” in the existing knowledge 
of how the spiritually abused actually do recover. She asserts,

…there has been little testing whether such prescriptions [for recovery] for individuals who have experienced wounding in their local church [are effective]. This research seeks to fill this gap and will provide an understanding of the processes by which people discovered a positive path through their spiritual difficulty. (p. 21)

Orlowski’s field of inquiry is limited to three types of Christian congregations: Evangelical, Charismatic, and Pentecostal (ECP). Early on, she identifies her own family’s abuse trauma in a charismatic congregation as a motivation for this work, but she never returns to it or goes into enough detail that we may see how it influences her life and work.

Unique to Orlowski’s research is how much of it she did on the Internet. She sought out, identified, and acknowledged more than 30 Web sites authored by and for the recovering victims. The sites have names such as Emerging Grace, Christians for Biblical Equality, and Decompressing Faith. Most of the 110 respondents to her survey (ages 20 to 70 from 10 countries) did so by email, as did the seven clergy who participated in a second survey.

Although her bibliography lists works by Steven Hassen, Janja Lalich, Margaret Thaler Singer, and Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center online, there is no reference made to the International Cultic Studies Association/American Family Foundation or any of its publications, or to Michael Langone and any of his written or online works.

Her research orientation is thoroughly integrated with her theology and Biblical interpretation. 

She opens the chapter “What Does the Bible Say?” with “Many problems in congregations arise because of unbiblical theological beliefs and leadership malpractices that result from these beliefs” (p. 77).

The extent of congregational abuse in Orlowski’s field of vision seems limited, by and large, to the offenses most of us in parish ministry experienced in the 1950s and 1960s, prior to either the extremes of cultic abuse or of priestly sexual abuse. It came from those who came to us for help adjusting to their broken relationship with their former congregation.

Throughout her early chapters, three important dynamics in clergy abuse seemed to be ignored: (1) the clergy credentialing process of a church body; (2) the role of denominational supervisors who are responsible for congregational life, especially conflicts; and (3) established means of grievance and conflict resolution. It was respondents who identified the denominational overseers and methods for conflict resolution as factors (page 155), but the few who did make such references indicated dissatisfaction with both. No one seemed to care that approval for service as a pastor might require some attention in dealing with these clergy abuses in these three denominations/fellowships.

I understand that the congregational autonomy of Evangelicals, Charismatics, and Pentecostals explains much of this ecclesiology, as does their dependency upon spontaneous inspirations by those who claim to be possessed by the Holy Spirit of God.

By comparison, my mainline structured Lutheran denomination has a vigorous judicatory candidacy committee system by which, in coordination with its theological seminaries, there is established a careful process designed to approve for ordination only those healthy, mature, and spirit-motivated candidates who can shepherd the flock effectively. While hierarchy is distasteful to Orlowski, there is a history of effective interventions and mediations by bishops and their staffs. A mandated committee in every congregation is called “Mutual Ministry,” based on the theological conviction that the ministry belongs to the whole congregation; and together with clergy and other staff, such cooperative activities as grievance and conflict resolution, as well as annual job performance evaluations, are done.

But did Dr. Orlowski indeed perceive a real gap in church abuse recovery knowledge and fill that gap with this study? In her conclusions, she affirms (1) the crucial role in recovery of a single trusted confidant, often not a professional counselor: (2) the helpfulness of published and online resources for practical advice; and (3) that

Participants were enabled by the Spirit to grow deeper in the Lord through this crisis as He provided comfort, gave wisdom, renewed, refreshed, stirred up the need to forgive, created compassion for those caught up in error, and finally, guided them in a renewed and healthier spiritual direction. (pp. 202-203)

And there are, she concludes, more gaps to be filled by further research:

1. Corrective church discipline and the ministry of restoration; 2. Impact on second generation people who have suffered the devastating effects of spiritual abuse as children of parents who went through this upsetting family situation; 3. Emotional consequences encountered by church leavers; 4. Correlation between local church denominations and the patterns of spiritual abuse encountered by their congregants; and 5.The relation between legalism (dogmatism) and pastoral abuse. (p. 224)

She may be plowing new ground for Evangelicals, Charismatics and Pentecostals, who seem to be her best audience; but much of her list of unfinished business seems to me to have been addressed for years by the resource she ignores/is unaware of—namely, the International Cultic Studies Association.

International Journal of Cultic Studies Vol. 2, 2011