2018-01-07 Understanding Spiritual Abuse in Christian Communities

UK Research Study

We have learned of an interesting research study. The summary below comes from the authors of the study.

Understanding Spiritual Abuse in Christian Communities

Dr. Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys

January 7 2018

There is growing awareness and interest in spiritual abuse in faith communities as a subject (Oakley, 2016). Existing work around this experience (which is characterised by a systematic pattern of controlling and coercive behaviour in a religious context), is still in its infancy, to the extent that there is not currently universal agreement about this as a term. There is some discussion about it being categorised as a form of emotional and/or psychological abuse, however, to date spiritual abuse is the most commonly used term and therefore the one that is used here.

What is clear, is that there is a distinct lack of research available on this subject in the UK, which is why this new research is being undertaken to respond to that need. With it, we seek to investigate current levels of knowledge and awareness of spiritual abuse in the Christian faith in the UK, to provide evidence to inform our understanding, and to develop effective responses, policy and practice.

This research builds on two earlier pieces of work in this area (both of which obtained ethical approval from Manchester Metropolitan university). The first comprised of narrative interviews with survivors of spiritual abuse to ascertain the main characteristics of this experience (Oakley, 2009). The second was the ‘Church experience survey’ (Oakley & Kinmond, 2013; 2014) which explored experiences of attending Church and included some discussion of spiritual abuse in the Christian faith community.

A mixed methods approach (Cresswell & Plano Clark, 2007) has been used to collect both qualitative and quantitative data via a questionnaire which consisted of closed and open questions. For respondents to be included they needed to be from the Christian faith and attend Church or belong to a Christian organisation. To answer the questionnaire participants needed to have heard of the term ‘spiritual abuse’.

The questions did not ask individuals to disclose their personal stories of spiritual abuse, although some respondents did incorporate their personal accounts into their answers. The section given to effective response was only available to those who identified themselves as having experienced spiritual abuse. As wide a range of respondents were invited to participate as possible. The research gained ethical approval from the Bournemouth University social sciences ethic committee in December 2016 and the survey was live for eight weeks from 30/1/17 to 30/3/17.

This research was commissioned by CCPAS (Churches Child Protection Advisory Service), the UK’s only independent Christian safeguarding charity. It is led by Dr Lisa Oakley from the National Centre for Post Qualifying Social Work at Bournemouth University. Who has completed the survey? In total 1,591 people completed the on-line survey. The results show that of these 1,002 identified as having experienced spiritual abuse themselves. (It should be noted that this was a self-identified sample and therefore cannot be verified). 69% of the total sample were female and 31% male There was representation from across the age range but the majority were aged between 30-69 years. Respondents came from a spectrum of denominational backgrounds, however, the majority were from the Anglican, Baptist, Independent and Pentecostal traditions. The category of ‘other’ is quite significant at 17.85%, with the majority of respondents in this category identified as Quakers. It should be noted that the numbers of respondents from Catholic and Methodist denominations were low and this should be taken into account when interpreting the results.

Among the findings:

  • 74% of respondents were confident they knew what the term spiritual abuse meant.

  • Key characteristics of spiritual abuse identified were coercion and control, manipulation and pressuring of individuals, control through the misuse of religious texts and scripture and providing a ‘divine’ rationale for behaviour.

  • The results show that there is a need for a clear definition of spiritual abuse and that defining this term is complex.

  • A key message was that leaders can and do experience spiritual abuse from those they are leading, and this experience needs to be recognised and responded to.

  • Respondents noted the important role culture can play in coercive and controlling experiences and the need to consider the hallmarks of healthy cultures.

  • 64% of participants were confident that they could respond well to a disclosure of spiritual abuse.

  • Features of responding well to a disclosure include: active listening, understanding and empathy, taking the disclosure seriously, not minimising the story or blaming the individual.

  • Respondents stated the importance of developing clear policy and procedure in this area.

  • Only 33% of respondents stated their Church or Christian organisation had a policy that included spiritual abuse.

  • 60% of respondents suggested they knew where to go for help or support with this experience. Respondents suggested that Church leaders, CCPAS, Family and friends and statutory agencies could be effective sources of support.

  • Only 24% of respondents had received training on 24 spiritual abuse.

  • Respondents requested training which included: definition and identification of Spiritual Abuse, effective responses and support, and a consideration of culture.

  • The findings suggest leaders should receive training on this issue both to raise awareness but also to equip them to respond to disclosures and recognise this behaviour if they are experiencing it.

  • Some respondents in the survey identified themselves as counsellors and requested specific training on this issue.

  • Conclusions: The results illustrate the necessity to develop work in this area, specifically to develop understanding of this experience, how to respond effectively and how to develop healthy cultures.

Oakley & Humphreys (2018) Understanding Spiritual Abuse in Christian Communities. For more information on this publication contact:




© CCPAS 2017. www.ccpas.co.uk CCPAS PO Box 133, Swanley, Kent, BR8 7UQ. Charity No. 1004490 Scottish Charity No. SCO40578. Compnay No. 2646487