Naming it: Of Cults and Narcissists, Part Two

Another word that demands attention is the word narcissist. I just did a Google search on the word, which resulted in 58,900,000 results. That’s fifty-eight million. That’s a lot of narcissist.

Narcissism is a malignant personality type/disorder, long recognized by mental health professionals (it is found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), that is generally understood as the subject manifesting a chronic, controlling pattern of grandiosity, expressed in demands for admiration, respect, etc., and in a general lack of empathy. Outside of the formal, therapeutic world, there are many understandings and definitions of narcissism (I imagine that’s where most of the 58 million web hits regarding narcissism come from . . .). I have heard of pastors described by their (former) congregants as narcissists who I suspect were merely rude, arrogant, self-centered, and probably in the wrong line of work. But I have also heard, and hear with increasing frequency, of more and more pastors who genuinely present in ways that I believe any mental health professional would certainly diagnose as a classic narcissist. So there is the gamut—Narcissistic Personality Disorder in its official presentation, as diagnosed by mental health and medical professionals, and opinion of narcissistic pastors (and other leaders, certainly) who have savaged the very people they were supposed to care about, and lead as gentle shepherds would lead a flock of beloved sheep. But they didn’t.

Now, here’s the point of what I am writing: I have noted that when I drop the word narcissist, or, narcissistic to describe a pastor or leader that has hurt the person I am speaking to, my naming of their abuser often falls flat. They don’t know if their pastor was a narcissist—and, hearing me describe the narcissistic pastor of my old church–they often don’t view their abusive pastor as being anywhere near as corrupt and depraved as my old pastor (who now sits in prison for his crimes committed against the children of his church).

When people leave abusive churches, they are often in various stages of the development of clarity and conviction in their own assessment of the abuse they suffered. In the same way they are not ready to sign-off on calling their old church (as mean and nasty as it was) a cult they are also not prepared to call their pastor a narcissist, especially when the word if thrown out by non-medically trained people (like myself). After all, there is a well-known policy (though much debated) that it is unethical and unprofessional for psychiatrists to give opinions and make diagnoses regarding public figures whom they have not personally interviewed and examined. (It’s called the Goldwater Rule, and it’s a very interesting read, if you’re interested in looking it up!) Not all psychiatrists appreciate the Goldwater Law, because (they feel) you really can simply read and hear what a person has to say and have a clear idea of what makes her tick. I am the same way, and I suppose that idea is what makes it very tempting for me to tell survivors of abusive churches that their former pastors are narcissists.

I often feel I lose traction when I throw the word narcissism (along with cult) around—and find myself trying to make my case, defending my opinion, instead of simply hearing the survivor’s story, again and again, and walking with the survivor into a healthier future. I lose traction because I am trying to massage and squeeze their story into my own ideas about spiritual abuse, cults, and narcissists.

What does this mean for me, a survivor of spiritual abuse who took ten long years before truly believing he was in a cult, and his pastor a narcissist? I believe it means I should continue to engage and care for my fellow spiritual abuse survivors, but patiently give them the same freedom that I was given to sort through their experiences, and to choose how they themselves will describe what happened to them. There can be a lot of time between “This church is wrong, unhealthy, and the pastor is a bully—we’re leaving, now!” and “I was in a cult and my pastor was a narcissist.” Cult and narcissist will probably slip out of my mouth, often.

For all survivors of narcissistic abuse, know this: It’s your story, in your words, and we’re not in any big hurry to get to the final chapter.

Naming it: Of Cults and Narcissists, Part One

After leaving an unhealthy church in 1996, which I later understood to be abusive, and then later understood to be a Christian cult, I came to a point where I wanted to throw my hat in the ring and start helping others who were in unhealthy/abusive/cultic churches and Christian groups. I started speaking more of spiritual abuse in my preaching, writing a few blog posts about it, and earned a doctorate writing about spiritual abuse in Christian churches. I also joined the International Cultic Studies Association for access to their extensive research library, cult recovery experts, and support of former members of such groups. Along the way, I noticed a couple of very important conversations that are occurring among church leaders, counselors, academics and survivors regarding the use of the words cult to describe an abusive group (like my old church), and the use of the word narcissist to describe abusive pastors.

The cult conversation is the most active. Formerly, a cult was simply a destructive, aberrant religious group that abused and damaged its members through its totalist control of their lives. Christian churches that held to an historical understand of the Christian faith (e.g., deity of Christ, presence of miracles, inspiration of Scripture, resurrection of Christ, substitutionary atonement, etc.) really felt that it was quite impossible to ever be rightly called a cult. They reasoned that since their doctrines were orthodox, historic, and held by the most renown, legitimate churches, denominations, and seminaries, and most importantly, were “biblical,” cult was simply a description that could never be applied to them. However, recent studies, writings, and dialogue within cult-recovery groups, ministries, and writers has challenge that thinking, even within Christianity.

The word cult itself derives from the Latin word, cultus, which describes the care and service of deities, temples, and shrines. It was simply a word related to the traditions, habits, and disciplines of any of the many religions found in the Roman Empire. So, it didn’t describe harmful, abusive behavior, but simply the particular behaviors and rituals of religious systems. However, with the growth of the Christian church, and its eventual totalist control over the Roman empire itself, these other religions, and their cultic traditions, beliefs, behaviors, etc., were declared illegal, and were stigmatized and (eventually) largely abandoned. The Christian church, experienced in being declared an illegitimate, illegal religion in its early years, proceeded to inflict the same experience on its former rivals. I’m certain there is much more to the story than how I have just described it—but we can at least say, it wasn’t our finest hour when Christians decided to use the power of the government (which they now controlled) to harm non-Christian religions!

In time, the word cult came to describe any sect, group, church, movement, etc., that did not hold to the orthodox, historic beliefs of the Christian faith, especially its beliefs about the nature, identity and significance of Jesus Christ, or, its Christology. And here’s the catch—under that understanding of the word, any church with the correct belief system, especially the correct beliefs regarding Jesus Christ—simply could not be called a cult! It could act terribly, ruining the lives of its members through its manipulation, theft, abuse, control and punishments. It could separate families, ruin marriages, steal money, abuse children, refuse to allow members to seek proper medical care, withdraw from neighbors, cover over crimes, and act as if it were a law unto itself. No matter, if the church had a correct Christology, it simply could not be a cult. That’s where all that I’ve written begins to intersect with my personal experience. I joined a church with all the “right” doctrines, and most of the right practices of a normal, healthy Christian church. But in time, although the church stood solidly on its doctrines, its behaviors, especially in its pastors, violated every behavioral expectation and instruction of Christianity. Under the domineering leadership of its pastors, the church started hurting its members, deceiving them, ruining them, and stealing their money, time, and in some cases, their bodies, through sexual abuse.

And never, at any time, would we have agreed that we were a cult. All because of our dearly held, rarely applied doctrines. I imagine our true, applied Christology made Jesus weep.

Today, I think we are wise to wean ourselves off the word, or at least the ways we have used it. I have often heard it used in a malicious, critical way, to cast aspersion on another person, or that person’s church, so that the listener won’t be fair-minded and generous, but will be well-warned of the moral-spiritual depravity of the church in question. That’s not right. That’s how abusive churches talk about other people and groups and religions and churches.

If you are going to use the word (and I often do—old habits, you know. . . ) it is best to use it to describe a harmful, controlling religious group (be it Christian or not) whose leaders employ any number of the well-known devices and methods of coercion and manipulation to control people, and to gain control of their wealth, energy, loyalty, families, marriages, and even their bodies. If you simply follow the money, sex, and power footprints in any such group, you’ll invariably find the leader of the group. (Perhaps leaders, plural—but in my experience, most of the time it is a leader, singular. Bad guys rarely share power, at least not equally.)

My point is writing this piece is this: Christians coming out of abusive churches—ones that were just about as controlling, horrible, and damaging as can be, they have a hard time describing these abusive churches as cults. Their beliefs were orthodox, they believed what all healthy churches believe, at least on paper. To throw the cult designation onto them is like forcing them to wear an old, heavy, wet coat in the summer. It doesn’t fit, isn’t comfortable, and isn’t the right time to wear it, anyway. Asking survivors to call their abusive churches cults is often premature, unnecessary, and can even lead to a sort of bullying-by-expert. It is difficult for survivors to even think of themselves as survivors or victims, let alone former cult-members. For years, I did not research cult-recovery resources, simply because I did not believe I’d left a cult.

So, when I slip, and use the word cult in relation to a church or Christian group, what I mean is an abusive, unhealthy, coercive group (in my line of work, that group is usually a Christian church), that, while it may very well possess orthodox, historic, accepted beliefs regarding the Christian faith, abuses, mistreats, and infiltrates its members’ lives, seeking absolute, total control over every last cent, minute, decision, and idea, and relationship.

The word cult has impeded people from seeking help as quickly as they should, so I’m doing my small part to more carefully qualify my use of the word, or at least to broaden its meaning a bit.

Next. . . Naming it: Narcissism

October 5th: Spiritual Abuse Forum for Education


We will host another Spiritual Abuse Forum for Education on October 5th, 7pm, AT MCMENAMINS KENNEDY SCHOOL, on NE 33rd off of Killingsworth Blvd. (Note: we’re NOT meeting at the church–this is a new venue!) At this meeting we will focus on the personality of the abusive leaders, with a focus on narcissism in the Christian pastor. We’ll meet in the Community Room–there won’t be food and drink served to the room, but you’re free to come and go, and to grab food and drink at one of the pub bars/restaurants and bring it back to the room. I’m trying to build a meetup routine that includes some education (for now, me talking a bit) and comfortable sharing and friendship building. Please join us–all are welcome!

Please see our Event invite on our Facebook page to RSVP, if you’re able.

Thanks! Ken

Am I in an abusive church? Three Questions. . .

There is a growing number of excellent books and website today that offer the reader first-rate scholarship and discussion about abusive churches and cults. Most of them clearly describe the attributes of such destructive groups, and give some great information for those recovering from membership in them. In this short piece I am not intending to offer such extensive information, as much as to provide three, short questions to a person who is genuinely wondering if the church they belong to is a healthy church that is good for them and their family, or is perhaps a church that has become (or has always been) abusive, and is therefore a bad place to be. I crafted the following three questions as a means of helping member to think through their feelings and beliefs about the church, and perhaps gain strength to leave churches that are, in fact, destructive and harmful to their members.

What got you in? What keeps you in? and What would happen if you left? 

These questions form a pretty small launch pad for the discussion, but perhaps they can be a first step. I am a survivor of any abusive church, and believe the following three questions, though buried deeply in consciousness while I was a member, would have been very helpful to me had someone clearly, pointblank, asked me to consider them.

  1. What got you in?

Members of abusive churches did not join them with a full knowledge of the damage and pain that membership in the church would cause them.  Instead, they joined with some notion of good, blessing, or benefit that they expected to find in the church.  For some, it was the promise of quality, genuine relationships with other, and like-minded people. The culture around us can seem a very cold and superficial place, full of Happy Hours that don’t make anyone happy, Facebook friends whom one never meets face to face, and a perpetual stream of short-term, casual relationships that never seem to meet any deep needs.  Friendship in our world is often a moving target. To find a group of people that share one’s faith and values, and promise friendship and commitment—that can be a very powerful draw!

Others are drawn to a church because it promises to meet their desires for advanced growth in their faith, perhaps even to the point of vocational preparation for some form of Christian ministry. The abusive church that I joined as a young man promised me academic training greater than that of a seminary, along with the “character training” I knew I required if I were to ever succeed in ministry.  Along with that personal expectation, the church itself boasted of a plan to “plant churches up and down the I-5 corridor.” I envisioned my wife and I arriving in Salem, or Ashland, Tacoma or Seattle and starting our own church.

Destructive, abusive churches always offer something to the recruit that is attractive and personally desirable.  Such churches are invariably easy to join, and very difficult to leave. They promise to meet needs that have gone unmet in the recruit’s life so far—to have the “answers” he or she is looking for in life.

Therefore, a valid question to ask yourself, if you are questioning whether or not you are a member of an abusive church, is “What got me in to this church? What was the promise, agreement, or expectation that made it seem so good at the time? Is that promise or agreement being kept, as it was conveyed to me when I joined, or does it remain distant, future, or has it been altered or ignored, now that I’m a member?” In my case, the I-5 dream was exposed over time for what it was—simply a recruitment tool designed to appeal to young, idealistic, ambitious young people like me.  As I write today, that church, over 35 years old, has yet to train anyone for ministry anywhere other than in its own, tiny congregation—and has never come remotely close to planting a new church.

What led you to join your church, and how has it worked out for you today?

  • Did you expect to find friendship in a non-judgmental, free, relaxed church, only to find that friendship is based on your commitment to keeping the standards and rules of the church? Are the friendships you have in your church actually very conditional, despite what was suggested or promised to you when you first looked into joining the church? If so, it is likely that you are in an abusive church, or at least one that is very, very unhealthy. If you are willing to communicate with the leaders of the church, than by all means do so.  But, if you are simply to intimidated, hurt, or uncertain of their receptivity of your input, then it is best that you leave the church, at least for a time, so that you can heal and think through whether your church is a good fit for you.
  • Did you expect to receive a level of academic or professional training in the church that has yet to materialize, or to result in your placement in ministry?
  • Did you anticipate growing to a deeper level of spirituality and character formation, a level that you never seem to come close to attaining?
  1. What keeps you in?

People stay in harmful situations in many other areas of life than churches. Sadly, they remain in hurtful marriage relationships, family systems, jobs and schools that are clearly destructive. With abusive churches, members remain in them, despite the growing, negative costs, and diminishing returns—because they believe it too costly to leave, that leaving the church will prove to be more emotionally painful than the discomfort and joylessness of remaining.  Once a person has become a committed member of any abusive church system he or she has made significant investments in the church, usually on many levels.  He may have given much money to the church, expecting to be a part of its growth and gain. He may have passed up promotions and educational opportunities that would have enhanced his income and career, all to be more available for the programs and ministries of the church. His marriage may have become so identified with the church that his spouse may insist on staying in the church, even if he left it. His children’s best friends might be their fellow church kids. He may have lost many of his friendships and family relationships as he gave his preference, time, and emotional energies to fellow church members above all others.

My wife and I became so embroiled in the life of our (abusive) church that we hardly had any aspect of our relationship that wasn’t in some way affected by the church. We spoke of little else than church-related issues, and subjugated time, finances, even our child-raising practices, to the good of the church, and never our marriage.  In short, it seemed too costly, on too many levels, to leave the abusive church, so I stayed in it long after I became disillusioned with it.

What about you? Have you found yourself in the position of being held IN the church, rather than attracted TO it, as you were when you first joined? Do you stay in the church in order to keep the peace at home, to keep your friends, or to avoid the feared I-told-you-so’s of friends and family that may have shared their concerns about the health of the church? Are you staying in the church, despite growing, privately held concerns over its health, out of a hope that perhaps better days are coming, and needed repentance on the part of its leaders is just around the corner? Do you stay because you want to stay, or because you are afraid to leave?

Tough questions to ask, but if you are willing to at least consider them—even in the privacy of your own thoughts—you will be taking some of the first steps to freedom and genuine joy in your faith!

  1. What would happen if you left?

You might think that I’ve asked that question in order to argue that nothing bad will happen in you leave, and that your fears and pessimism regarding life away from the abusive church are all unfounded. That is not my desire at all. I would like to simply ask you to consider what you believe would happen to you if you left, and I mean what you really do believe. Abusive churches always have some sort of running narrative that promises varying degrees of failure, loss, and doom to those who leave them, or at least those who don’t leave in the “right” way, with the blessing of the leaders of the church. They keep their members from actively exploring leaving the church with doomsday predictions, along with their claims to be the best church, or the only church, or perhaps the only church that is God’s will for the member to belong to. After opening up the issue of my desire to leave the church, our senior pastor soon preached a sermon focused on exposing the “evils of leaving the place God has called you to for training” along with a vivid description of the horrible life that awaited such a “defecting disciple.” (The congregation knew exactly who that sermon was aimed at!) I imagined the mockery of my co-workers if I left the abusive church I was a member of: Looks like Ken’s a wash-out—and the religion he’s been trying to sell us for ten years is a bust! I wondered if I would be accepted by any other churches, coming from such a strident, abusive church. Would anyone understand? Would anyone want to include me in their church? And there were deeper concerns, too. Would my children be okay? Would they make new friends? Would there be anything left to rebuild my marriage on, since the abusive church had demanded such a role in it? Our pastor promised a life of meaninglessness, and zero impact for the kingdom of Christ, should anyone leave the church. Of course, I was wrong in every prediction I’d made regarding what I could expect if I were to leave the church.

But in posing the question, What would happen if you left? I am asking you to do something that is very serious and powerful.  You see, to begin to envision leaving, to the point of actively thinking through issues of what you fear life would be like, versus what you know life would be like—opens the door to imagination, possibility, and even faith and hope.

What would happen if you left?

  • Would you suffer loss in your marriage? (Have you spoken with your spouse about that?)
  • Would your children suffer? (How do you know that to be true?)
  • Would you be shamed by friends and family? (Why not ask them if that is true?)
  • Would you become irrevocably unhinged, a wandering, miserable spiritual reprobate whom God could never use? (Does that idea square up with how God treats His children, and with the broken saints Scripture who go on to be used by God in marvelous ways, as He heals mends their broken hearts?)

I don’t think anyone really has the answers to those questions before they finally leave their abusive church.

However. . .

To simply ask the question, and to work through finding honest answers to it—is in itself an act of spiritual empowerment, and opens a door for the Lord to speak to the soul in some powerful, private ways. Your willingness to simply ask these three questions, and to interact with your answers, can prove to be life-altering, and might even be the first step towards a deeper, more satisfying, healthy faith.


Pastor Ken



Breakfast on the back porch (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)

“If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.

A loophole is a condition or application of a law that allows for a person to subtly circumvent the law itself—all without formally breaking that law.  We’re pretty good at finding loopholes in our tax laws here in American, come April 15th!  But let’s put ourselves in the sandals of those to whom this text was originally written—the Jewish people of Israel, approximately 1400 BC.  Let’s pretend that we’re just finishing breakfast, and are preparing to head to our field to put in a long day’s work.  We look out the door of our small, stone house and see a poorly dressed man, standing.  He’s obviously waiting for us to come outside.

I say, “Oh, great.  There’s another one of them today.  What are we going to do?  We can’t become village lunch ticket!”

You say, “He’s poor, we’ve got to help him. ““If there is a poor man with you…””

“How do you know he’s poor,” I say.  “He’s got shoes on his feet, clothes on his back.  He walked here; he could just as easily have walked down the road to the next farm.”

You say, “But he’s a brother, like it says, “one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the LORD your God is giving you…”

“Let’s not get literalistic or fundamenalistic here!” I say.  “How do you know he’s a Jewish brother, or from this town?  And sure, God may have giving the nation this land…but we’ve worked it ourselves, and own it, and need to be good stewards of it, not giving its produce away to every guy that comes along looking for a handout.”

You say, “It’s commanded, “you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother.”

“Well,” I say, relieved and a bit offended, “you certainly don’t know my heart, do you?  This is an issue between me and God.  Remember, “Judge not!”

“Right,” you say, “…but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.

“Yes!  I’m glad you quoted that verse,” I say.  Lend!  Lend!  We’re supposed to lend him what he needs—NOT give, but lend!

“Yes, but—“

“But how can you lend something to someone who doesn’t have any way to repay it?  And how can you even know that he’ll be around to repay it,” I say.

“But you just said that you don’t know that he’s really poor.  You said, “He’s got shoes on his feet, clothes on his ba—“

“Right!” I say.  We can’t know, so how can we really apply this literally, without some sort of verifica—“

Suddenly, I don’t have your attention anymore.  You’re looking out the doorway.

“He’s gone now,” you say.

“Just as well,” I say.  But I’m thinking “Mission accomplished.

And I say, as if changing the subject, “Tomorrow, let’s eat breakfast on the back porch.  It’s nice and quiet there in the mornings.”

–Pastor Ken

Reposted from May, 2009.

What are Our Boundaries?

15 ‘You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly. 16 ‘You shall not go about as a slanderer among your people, and you are not to act against the life of your neighbor; I am the LORD. Leviticus 19:15-16

The boundaries of fairness and respect in our relationships are not to be determined by the external circumstances of poverty, wealth, or appearance. Instead, all people are to be treated with an equality that is based on our recognition of them as our neighbors.  We are not only to see that all are treated fairly in whatever dealings we may have with them, be it the PTA, Little League, the gas station, or simply the service counter at our local store.  And we are to practice fairness in our dealings with each other even when we are apart; we are not to slander our neighbor.  To slander someone simply means to speak of them in their absence in a way that is false, incomplete, or simply damages their reputation.  It stands to reason if someone isn’t present to defend themselves concerning what is being said about them, they aren’t really being treated fairly, are they?  In short, we are not to take any action, or utter any word, that detracts or diminishes the life of our neighbor.  Honestly, when it comes to dealing with living beings, we are simply not to act or speak against the life itself of that person.  “Who is my neighbor?” is a question once asked of the Lord Jesus by a man who wanted to draw some boundaries between the people he bore an obligation to and those he didn’t.  The Lord’s answer forever erased the lines people draw between those considered worthy of protection and those considered unworthy (Luke 10:25-37).  But let me put a different spin on the questions.  Ask yourself, “Who isn’t my neighbor…and why aren’t they?  Your answer will reveal your boundaries.

See you Sunday,

Pastor Ken



Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery

Perhaps we should stop dancing around the description of abusive churches that argues they are something other than  cultic. Yes, a church can be Christian, and a cult–a Christian cult.

I have recently completed a 7-year process of earning a Doctor of Ministry degree at Western Seminary.  My dissertation was a survey of Spiritual Abuse in the Christian Church, with a view towards understanding what spiritual abuse is, how spiritually abusive leaders act and speak, what are the marks of a spiritually abusive church are, and how healthy churches and pastors can be a part of creating a church community that welcomes the survivors of spiritual abuse, and helps them find healing for the abuse. I cover a lot of ground that others have already explored regarding this issue, but (in my opinion!) I think I do a small part to further an understanding of abusive churches that clearly defines them as cultic in their operations and ideology, even if not in doctrine.

Spiritual Abuse in the Church. Dissertation Final


Pastor Ken

Spiritual Disciplines @ GBC

Well…by the time you’re reading this you’ll know that I’ve by home fighting a cold this week, and it hung on for so long that I finally gave up the hope of going to church yesterday.  My voice was shot–preaching wasn’t going to happen for me.  (Thank you, Ben “Handyman” Sadler, for preaching at Grace!)  I was going to preach a sermon to simply review the seven spiritual disciplines of our church that we’ve introduced over the past couple of months.  Rather than preaching that sermon, this link will take you to its notes.  Review. The Seven Spiritual Disciplines of Grace Bible Church

Please be in touch, comment, FB, email, etc., with any comments, questions, or experiences you’d like to share about how these disciplines worked for you!

Thank you, Pastor Ken