Research Survey on Spiritual Abuse – Preliminary Report

Michael D. Langone, PhD 


ICSA’s Spiritual Safe Haven Network (SSHN) consists of individuals and religious institutions (churches, synagogues, campus religious organizations, etc.) that want to offer those who have experienced spiritual abuse a "safe haven" providing spiritual solace, information, and community. See http://www.icsahome.com/spiritualsafehavennetwork.

SSHN has designed a questionnaire to investigate mainstream religious organizations’ experience with and attitudes toward spiritual abuse. This report summarizes data collected from a pilot survey from four churches in Massachusetts. Rev. Robert Pardon, Director of MeadowHaven, approached the pastors of these churches to ask if they would give their congregants the paper survey reproduced below.

Results: Overview

The total population of the four churches in this pilot test is 565. 55 members of the congregations completed and handed in the survey – slightly under 10%. Given this response rate, one may conclude that the prevalence figures represent minimums, since individuals within the 90% of non-responders may have been victims of spiritual abuse or are concerned about family members. Our figures on attitudes toward education, however, may distort views of the total church populations, since those who are concerned about the subject may be more likely to complete the survey. Nevertheless, given the high levels of concern among respondents, religious organizations should pay attention to these figures, for 10% is a sizeable percentage of a congregation.

Respondents included 23 males and 32 females. We do not know the male/female ratios of the participating churches, so we do not know if there is a greater tendency for one gender to complete the survey.

The most important question for this report is the number of people who believe they had been “affiliated with a group, organization, or individual that you believe was spiritually abusive.” 13 of the 55 respondents (24%) said “yes,” with 4 of the 13 saying they had been affiliated with more than one spiritually abusive environment. If none of the 90% of non-responders have had experience with spiritual abuse, then at least 13 of 565 congregants in the four churches (2.3%) have been affiliated with a spiritually abusive environment. This figure is more than double what prevalence studies of the general population’s cult involvement have found (see http://www.icsahome.com/articles/prevalence). Of course, the actual figure could be higher because some of the 90% of non-responders may have answered “yes” had they completed the survey. This is a significant finding because some religiously oriented persons mistakenly think that believing “correct doctrine” immunizes against abuse and that their church is immune because it advocates “correct doctrine.”

The 13 people who said they had been affiliated with a spiritually abusive environment rated these environments 3.31 (between moderate – 3 – and severe – 4) on abusiveness.

4 of the 13 said the abuse had occurred “in a mainstream church denomination.” 1 said the abuse occurred “in an aberrant church within a mainstream denomination. 4 said it happened “in an unaffiliated or nondenominational church.” 5 reported that abuse took place “in a cultic group.” 2 chose “other” for the site of the spiritual abuse. (The totals add up to more than 13 because some respondents reported more than one experience of spiritual abuse.) It is noteworthy that, though spiritual abuse is often associated with cultic groups, most of these respondents reported that the abuse happened in mainstream or nondenominational churches.

Two questions relate to SSHN’s goal of building a network of safe haven religious organizations to which spiritual abuse victims could turn for support.

“Do you believe that your church should provide a “safe haven” where spiritual abuse victims may find understanding, support, and information on spiritual abuse resources?” Respondents rated this question from “0” (not at all) to “6” (very much). 51 persons gave the following ratings: 0 (n=1); 1 (n=0); 2 (n=0); 3 (n=3); 4 (n=10); 5 (n=11); 6 (n=26). The average rating was 4.9, indicating a strongly affirmative answer to the question.

“Do you believe that the members of your church can benefit from education about the needs of spiritual abuse victims and the availability of resources?” This question used the same rating scale as the preceding. 47 persons gave the following ratings: 0 (n=1); 1 (n=0); 2 (n=0); 3 (n=2); 4 (n=14); 5 (n=10); 6 (n=20). The average rating was also 4.9, the same as the average rating for providing a “safe haven.”

The responses to these two questions are encouraging to SSHN. Subjects’ answers suggest not only that these church members want to help spiritual abuse victims but that they view themselves as needing to learn more about the subject. Both of these are goals of SSHN.

The results of this pilot test of SSHN’s survey suggest that:
  1. Churches and other religious organizations may have more spiritual abuse victims in their midst than they realize. 
  2. Though spiritual abuse may occur in cultic groups, it also takes place in mainstream religious organizations. 
  3. Church members want to provide a welcoming, understanding haven of safety for victims of spiritual abuse. 
  4. Church members realize that they can benefit from education about spiritual abuse. 
Details

Rock Village (n=9; one appears to have been a visitor from Christian Fellowship Center)

Approximate population of church = 35. 9 respondents (20%).

3. Your Gender: 
2 male; 7 female

4. Have you ever been affiliated with a group, organization, or individual that you believe was spiritually abusive?
3 yes, one; 2 blank; 4 no

5. If you were involved with an abusive group, organization, or individual, please rate the level of abuse.
Very severe (n=1); moderate (n=1); very mild (n=1)

8. Where did this spiritual abuse occur?
In a mainstream denomination (n=2); in a cultic group (n=1)

9. Has a family member or close friend ever been affiliated with a group, organization, or individual that you believe was spiritually abusive?
Yes, one (n=2)

10. If “yes” to (9), where did this spiritual abuse occur?
In a mainstream denomination (n=1); in a cultic group (n=1)

11. Are you aware of individuals (other than you or your family/friend) within your congregation who have ever been affiliated with a group, organization, or individual that you believe was spiritually abusive? If not, enter “0.” If so, please enter the number, approximating if necessary.
0 (n=8); blank (n=1)

12. Are you aware of members of your congregation (other than you or your family/friend) who are concerned about a loved one who was/is involved with a group, organization, or individual that you believe was spiritually abusive? If not, enter “0.” If so, please enter the number, approximating if necessary.
0 (n=8); blank (n=1)

13. Do you believe that spiritually abused persons can benefit from educational or therapeutic support to deal with issues related to the abuse?
6-very much (n=7); 5 (n=1); uncertain (n=1)
Average of those giving a rating: 5.88

14. Are you concerned that members of your congregation may be vulnerable to groups, organizations, or individuals that are controlling or domineering to an unwholesome degree?
0 (n=5); blank (n=1); 1 (n=2); 2 (n=1)

15. Do you believe that your church should provide a “safe haven” where spiritual abuse victims may find understanding, support, and information on spiritual abuse resources?
3 (n=1); 4 (n=2); 5 (n=2); 6 (n=4)
Average of those giving a rating: 5.00

16. Do you believe that the members of your church can benefit from education about the needs of spiritual abuse victims and the availability of resources?
Blank (n=1); 3 (n=1); 4 (n=3); 5 (n=1); 6 (n=3)
Average of those giving a rating: 4.38

Dartmouth Bible Church (n=13)

Approximate population of church = 300. 13 respondents (4%).

3. Your Gender:
2 male; 11 female

4. Have you ever been affiliated with a group, organization, or individual that you believe was spiritually abusive?
2 yes, one; 4 yes, more than; 7 no

5. If you were involved with an abusive group, organization, or individual, please rate the level of abuse.
severe (n=4); moderate (n=1); moderate, severe (n=1)

8. Where did this spiritual abuse occur?
In a mainstream denomination (n=2); in an unaffiliated (n=2); in a cultic group (n=2); other (n=1)

9. Has a family member or close friend ever been affiliated with a group, organization, or individual that you believe was spiritually abusive?
Yes, one (n=2); yes, more than (n=3); no (n=8)

10. If “yes” to (9), where did this spiritual abuse occur?
In a mainstream denomination (n=1); in an aberrant church (n=1); in an unaffiliated (n=1); in a cultic group (n=2); other (n=1)

11. Are you aware of individuals (other than you or your family/friend) within your congregation who have ever been affiliated with a group, organization, or individual that you believe was spiritually abusive? If not, enter “0.” If so, please enter the number, approximating if necessary.
0 (n=11); 2 (n=1); 7(n=1)

12. Are you aware of members of your congregation (other than you or your family/friend) who are concerned about a loved one who was/is involved with a group, organization, or individual that you believe was spiritually abusive? If not, enter “0.” If so, please enter the number, approximating if necessary.
0 (n=11); 1 (n=1); 2 (n=1)

13. Do you believe that spiritually abused persons can benefit from educational or therapeutic support to deal with issues related to the abuse?
6-very much (n=11); 5 (n=1); not at all (n=1)
Average of those giving a rating: 5.46

14. Are you concerned that members of your congregation may be vulnerable to groups, organizations, or individuals that are controlling or domineering to an unwholesome degree?
0 (n=4); uncertain (n=1); 1 (n=2); 2 (n=2); 4 (n=2); 6 (n=2)
Average of those giving a rating: 3.12

15. Do you believe that your church should provide a “safe haven” where spiritual abuse victims may find understanding, support, and information on spiritual abuse resources?
0 (n=1); 3 (n=2); 4 (n=1); 5 (n=3); 6 (n=6)
Average of those giving a rating: 4.62

16. Do you believe that the members of your church can benefit from education about the needs of spiritual abuse victims and the availability of resources?
0 (n=1); 3 (n=1); 4 (n=3); 5 (n=1); 6 (n=3)
Average of those giving a rating: 4.38

First Congregational Church (n=18)

Approximate population of church = 80. 17 respondents (21%).

3. Your Gender:
10 male; 7 female

4. Have you ever been affiliated with a group, organization, or individual that you believe was spiritually abusive?
2 yes, one; 15 no

5. If you were involved with an abusive group, organization, or individual, please rate the level of abuse.
moderate (n=1); very mild (n=1)

8. Where did this spiritual abuse occur?
in an unaffiliated (n=1); other (n=1)

9. Has a family member or close friend ever been affiliated with a group, organization, or individual that you believe was spiritually abusive?
Yes, one (n=4); no (n=14)

10. If “yes” to (9), where did this spiritual abuse occur?
In a mainstream denomination (n=1); in an aberrant church (n=1); in a cultic group (n=4);

11. Are you aware of individuals (other than you or your family/friend) within your congregation who have ever been affiliated with a group, organization, or individual that you believe was spiritually abusive? If not, enter “0.” If so, please enter the number, approximating if necessary.
0 (n=13); 1-2 (n=1); 2 (n=3); 3 (n=1);

12. Are you aware of members of your congregation (other than you or your family/friend) who are concerned about a loved one who was/is involved with a group, organization, or individual that you believe was spiritually abusive? If not, enter “0.” If so, please enter the number, approximating if necessary.
0 (n=15); 1 (n=1); 1-2 (n=1); 2 (n=1)

13. Do you believe that spiritually abused persons can benefit from educational or therapeutic support to deal with issues related to the abuse?
6-very much (n=14); 5 (n=4);
Average of those giving a rating: 5.78

14. Are you concerned that members of your congregation may be vulnerable to groups, organizations, or individuals that are controlling or domineering to an unwholesome degree?
0 (n=4); uncertain (n=2); 1 (n=5); 2 (n=2); 3 (n=4); 6 (n=1)
Average of those giving a rating: 2.25

15. Do you believe that your church should provide a “safe haven” where spiritual abuse victims may find understanding, support, and information on spiritual abuse resources?
uncertain (n=1); 3 (n=1); 5 (n=4); 6 (n=12)
Average of those giving a rating: 5.59

16. Do you believe that the members of your church can benefit from education about the needs of spiritual abuse victims and the availability of resources?
Blank (n=3); 4 (n=4); 5 (n=3); 6 (n=8)
Average of those giving a rating: 5.27

Trinity Community Church (n=13)

Approximate population of church = 150. 16 respondents (11%).

3. Your Gender:
9 male; 7 female

4. Have you ever been affiliated with a group, organization, or individual that you believe was spiritually abusive?
2 yes, one; 14 no

5. If you were involved with an abusive group, organization, or individual, please rate the level of abuse.
severe (n=1); moderate/severe (n=1)

8. Where did this spiritual abuse occur?
in an unaffiliated and cultic (n=1); no reply (n=1)

9. Has a family member or close friend ever been affiliated with a group, organization, or individual that you believe was spiritually abusive?
Yes, one (n=2); no (n=14)

10. If “yes” to (9), where did this spiritual abuse occur?
in an unaffiliated and cultic (n=1); in an unaffiliated (n=1)

11. Are you aware of individuals (other than you or your family/friend) within your congregation who have ever been affiliated with a group, organization, or individual that you believe was spiritually abusive? If not, enter “0.” If so, please enter the number, approximating if necessary.
0 (n=11); 6 (n=3); 10 (n=1); 50 (n=1);

12. Are you aware of members of your congregation (other than you or your family/friend) who are concerned about a loved one who was/is involved with a group, organization, or individual that you believe was spiritually abusive? If not, enter “0.” If so, please enter the number, approximating if necessary.
0 (n=15); 6 (n=1)

13. Do you believe that spiritually abused persons can benefit from educational or therapeutic support to deal with issues related to the abuse?
6-very much (n=14); 5 (n=1); 3 (n=1)
Average of those giving a rating: 5.75

14. Are you concerned that members of your congregation may be vulnerable to groups, organizations, or individuals that are controlling or domineering to an unwholesome degree?
0 (n=7); 1 (n=1); 2 (n=3); 3 (n=1); 4 (n=2); 5 (n=1); 6 (n=1)
Average of those giving a rating: 1.81

15. Do you believe that your church should provide a “safe haven” where spiritual abuse victims may find understanding, support, and information on spiritual abuse resources?
4 (n=5); 5 (n=4); 6 (n=7)
Average of those giving a rating: 5.1

16. Do you believe that the members of your church can benefit from education about the needs of spiritual abuse victims and the availability of resources?
Blank (n=1); 4 (n=4); 5 (n=5); 6 (n=6)
Average of those giving a rating: 5.2