"Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of spiritual authority, the purpose of which is to 'come underneath' and serve, build, equip and make God's people MORE free, misuses that authority placing themselves over God's people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly Godly purposes which are really their own." Jeff Van Vonderen
The primary purpose of this page is to allow those of us who have left Grace Valley Christian Center (GVCC) or another abusive church to share how we have, by God's grace, moved on and continued with our lives. It will include some basic accounts of events leading up to our departure as well as activities and resources that have helped in the healing process. (A separate wiki by this name is also being created. Feel free to visit!)
How the Honeymoon Became a Nightmare
(Many of the experiences below have already been shared on the experiences, talk, and allegations pages, so for detailed accounts we'd suggest you go there. Here we're simply going to briefly explain why we left. Due to fear, some have posted under a pseudonym. We invite anyone who has left GVCC to put their story here. Let the focus of this page be on recovery, so that if others follow, they may see that it can be done!) —RichLindvall
The Lindvalls: For five years we were members at Grace Valley Christian Center. When we first began attending Grace Valley we felt as though we'd "died and gone to heaven." We experienced an amazing sense of belonging to a life-long group of committed believers. It was only after we began inquiring about the inner group known as "flock" that we became concerned about the extent of control the leadership exerted over people. In a series of "progressive revelation" one-on-one meetings with the leadership, we were gradually brought to an understanding as to what joining "flock" entailed. As it was finally explained to us, if we were in "flock" every area of our lives would be "on the table" for the leadership to touch. And the clinching question: "Do you trust God enough to allow Him to direct you through us?" Yikes! We understand the Biblical concept of discipleship, but this was something beyond that! We also were becoming more aware of a pattern of public humiliation of members who were "out of sync" with the leadership. In 1992 we left GVCC over our concerns related to Spiritual abuse. To this day we continue to be shunned by our friends there. (A number of friends who once shunned us have since left GVCC and are now shunned themselves.) We found new friends at University Covenant Church. UCC was truly a place of refuge and healing for our family. In 1994 we moved to Oregon. Quite frankly, we didn't want to raise our children in a town where they were going to be forever shunned by people at GVCC. —RichLindvall
Brett Feld: I too have left this church in Davis because it has evolved to become a closed knit group of radical people who truly believe they are the only true Church in the city, county, and region. Their leadership is very authoritarian, orthodox and isolated from any authentic over sight from other presbyteries or bishops. Recently, some families have left and have been excommunicated, shunned by members, and despite many years of faithful service, malicious and slanderous information have been, and are continuing to be, communicated about them. There is a long list of other individuals, who have left the church over the years because they did not agree with the isolationism, the authoritarianism, the spiritual elitism, and the harsh treatment in counseling, just to name a few issues. They also were personally castigated, publicly vilified and maligned, and ostracized when they left. The most interesting experience for me has been the conversations I have had with teachers, coaches and Pastors I have known for many years in our region. They have ALL expressed great joy and relief to me for “getting out” of that terrible church. I have felt like NEO in the Matrix. Does everyone in Davis know about the extensive aberrations of GVCC and yet nobody has ever communicated these issues to the community at large or to the University? How can this be true? Should there be an official warning sent to students at UC where heavy recruiting of disciples takes place every Fall? The 5 or 6 lawyers on the church staff are lay ministers and perform legal work on behalf of the fellowship pro bono. I truly have fears of a lawsuit if I write an open letter to the editor concerning the issues I have brought up here. I hope the information shared here is helpful in warning the people and students of Davis about this organization's hyper orthodox position and the dangers they present to the authentic Christian community.
Clifton Burton: I joined GVCC way back when the church was first formed, in 1975, when it was called Davis Evangelical Church. I have written an extensive testimony of some of my more regretable moments in this church (see Clifton Burton's Experience at GVCC). In all fairness, there were many happy times and wonderful experiences that I enjoyed in this place as well, but these are not articulated in my testimony, because the positive experiences there were tainted and far out-weighed by many sad experiences and deplorable practices that I experienced and witnessed. After more than 25 years of faithful attendence, I wrote a family letter of resignation to the Pastor, summarizing why we had to leave: (see The Burton's Resignation Letter from GVCC). Since we left in 2004, our family has experienced real healing, renewal and joy in the Holy Spirit, and we are faithfully attending church elsewhere —CliftonBurton
"Watch out for false prophets. They come to
you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are
ferocious wolves." Matthew 7:15
Joyful Pilgrim: CAUTION! Grace Valley Christian Center (GVCC) is an abusive, authoritarian personality cult masquerading as an orthodox church. It presents itself as being committed to the Lord Jesus Christ, to the inerrancy of Scripture, and to the Reformed tradition. However, GVCC holds to many unbiblical practices for which it refuses to repent. For example, the pastor is considered a "prophet" worthy of extraordinary deference, service, and one who cannot be questioned lest you be labeled "rebellious" or a "hater of authority"; the leadership "lords it over the flock" by intruding into matters where Christians have liberty such as which car to buy, what person to date/marry, which job to take, etc.; members are sometimes publicly ridiculed; confidential files are kept on members; conformity with the rules are enforced through fear, shame, and public humiliation; many believers have been spiritually and emotionally abused in "counseling" and from the pulpit; believers who sign membership agreements are later told it is "the equivalent to a marriage covenant" and is considered to be life-long, unless asked to leave by the pastor; those who leave without the pastors' approval are shunned (think Jehovah's Witnesses) by all church members, even by members of their own families. The leaders often slander those who leave and the victims are unable to defend themselves or tell the real story. The leaders have been confronted in person, by letter, and by phone, and called on to repent of these unbiblical practices and sins but have refused to repent. In fact, those so bold as to bring these matters to their attention are vilified as "agents of Satan". The pastors of the healthy evangelical churches in the area can attest to the damage done to wounded believers who now attend their churches. Despite the church's efforts to promote its image, don't be deceived. GVCC is not a healthy Christian fellowship - GVCC is a place where Christ's sheep are beaten.
ChristianDemetrius: Hey, I used to go to Grace Valley and saw some pretty weird stuff. I saw people get humiliated and treated really badly. I also know from personal experience that once you're a member and decide to leave you will get shunned by pretty much all the people. I think JoyfulPilgrims' description is pretty accurate.
Dog Barf: I was married at Grace Valley Christian Center in September. (I'm not going to say what year.) A month after my marriage, my wife went to an appointment with the pastor and came home saying he and the elders of the church wanted to meet with me that Saturday. When Saturday came, I didn't know what was up. Were they going to congratulate me for something? When I went into the conference room, Pastor launched an attack. His first words were, "I have been counseling your wife to leave you." (What happened to "Till death do us part?") He then told me that I was like a dog who returned again and again to eat its own vomit. My crime? Having a job while I was in school, rather than quitting and being a full-time student! I was devastated, and told my wife I would never set foot in the church again. I stayed away from church the next day, but my elder called me Sunday evening and said that Pastor had simply lost his temper with me because he loved me. Unbelievably, I went back.
Let's face it, the dynamics of power are the same in every area of life: people fight to get it, then to keep it, then to increase it. It's the same in university departments, the workplace, politics and also in some churches. The reason it is so reprehensible in a Christian church is because it is a violation of the nature of Jesus, who "...did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45) So, if you were abused "in the name of Jesus," realize that you were horribly wronged. Some even call it "spiritual rape." Jesus isn't that way at all. In the words of the hymn "Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling..." Jesus says "Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28) Jesus still loves you as much as ever and he knows the pain you've been through. He'll walk with you through your healing. But it will take time. And lots of tears...
Recognizing Spiritual Abuse
In his article "Dysfunctional Churches" Christian Professor and author Ronald Enroth writes "If truth in advertising standards could be applied to religion, some churches would be required to display a sign reading: “Warning: this church could be harmful to your spiritual and psychological health.”
"What are the hallmarks of unhealthy, aberrant churches? The key indicator is control‑oriented leadership, ministers who have a need to “lord it over the flock.” Abusive leaders demand submission and unquestioning loyalty. The person who raises uncomfortable questions or does not “get with the program” is cast aside. Guilt, fear, and intimidation are used to manipulate and control vulnerable members, especially those who have been taught to believe that questioning their pastor is comparable to questioning God."
"Why does a pastor or priest sometimes turn into a spiritual tyrant? I believe it is because of the human desire to control others and to exercise power over people. Each of us has been exposed to the temptation of power, whether in the role of spouse, teacher, or parent. An excessive will to power, coupled with sincere religious motives, can lead to the misuse of spiritual authority."
"More than any other age group, young adults are attracted to abusive churches, their seemingly dynamic programs, and their “take charge” leaders. Such churches often target young couples during the crucial child‑bearing years. As a result, the energy needed by these young couples for legitimate family interaction is siphoned off into a high intensity cause. Family obligations are sacrificed, and children’s developmental needs are neglected."
"How can we recognize a healthy church? In addition to matters of appropriate doctrine, a healthy church is reconciling and restorative, not adversarial and elitist. Members of healthy churches seek to deepen and strengthen their family commitments. Legitimate leaders will welcome dissent and hard questions from members without threat of reprisal. Trustworthy leaders will encourage accountability, and they will establish checks and balances."
"Choose a church carefully and prayerfully. Remember, not all religion is benign, and not all church experience is beneficial."
All the earmarks of an aberrant and abusive church described by Dr. Enroth are found in Grace Valley Christian Center (see Grace Valley Christian Center/Allegations).
The Grieving Process
Leaving an abusive church is much like experiencing a death. You will undergo many of the same emotions. Understanding the stages of death and dying (e.g. Kübler-Ross's model) will give you a better understanding of what you're going through. Chief among the losses is that of your "forever friends" who are suddenly treating you as an enemy. How can it be that people you love, whom you've shared meals with, studied the Bible with, prayed with, are now crossing the street to avoid you, hanging up the phone, even shouting at you in anger? How can one man, claiming to represent a loving and merciful God, take away all your friends? It's like something out of the Twilight Zone! Yet, in the midst of your living nightmare, never let go of the fact that we serve a God who makes all things new! And that you've got friends in high places!
Talk, Talk, Talk
When you first walk away from an abusive church it's very important to be able to talk about it with someone. The more times you're able to "tell your story", the less of a nightmare it becomes. Other people who haven't shared in your experience will often find it hard to believe. So, it really helps if you can find someone who has been through a similar experience. Some of our most healing conversations after we left GVCC were with other former GVCC members who had left before we did and could relate to and share in our suffering. As we read in scripture:
"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God." 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
So, remember, it's not for nothing that God allowed you to undergo such terrible times. For, in the days ahead, by God's grace you'll be better able to comfort others who follow in your footsteps! And in Christ's hands the pain and hurt will look "less like scars and more like character!"
Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up?
If you've experienced spiritual abuse then your view of Jesus and God has been terribly distorted. Just as a child's view of a father is shaped by their own personal experience, so a Christian's view of God and Jesus is shaped by their experience with leaders in the church. The Bible uses the analogy of a shepherd caring for a flock of sheep to describe the relationship between a Christian leader and followers of Christ. The shepherd is to lovingly care for and serve the sheep—not to abuse them! But sometimes a shepherd DOES abuse the sheep. In that case it is critical for the abused "sheep" to recognize that, just as there are good and bad fathers, there are also good and bad shepherds. God is still good—all the time! If you've been hurt "in the name of Jesus" please take time to re-explore the father heart of God!
Another way that abusive shepherds wound the sheep is by reminding them of past sins. Well, according to God's word, "...as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us." (Psalm 103:12)
"He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms and
carries them close to his heart; he gently
leads those that have young." Isaiah 40:11
A Blessed Hope!
Some days as you're dealing with the grief and loss you may wonder if it's worth getting out of bed in the morning. Remember, we are not home yet! Someday we'll all be together, dancing with our father God in fields of grace. And we know the best is yet to come!
Our prayer for you is that you never give up on Jesus and that you cling to his promise that "he who began a good work in you will complete it." (Philippians 1:6) In addition, that you will trade your sorrows for the joy of the Lord! And one day, by his grace, you'll again remember that living for Jesus really is the great adventure! And along with the original disciples of the true shepherd, you'll be willing to live and to die for the sake of the call!
In the spirit of Philippians 3:13 "Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead" the following people have moved on from GVCC and are continuing to live victoriously for Jesus. They are trusting that, according to Joel 2:25, the Lord will "restore the years that the locusts have eaten." And they are experiencing the truth of 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God." If you have left GVCC or are thinking about leaving and would enjoy comfort from someone who knows what you're going through, please feel free to contact us!
Articles/Letters Written By Former Members
Abusive Churches, by Pat Zukeran
Abusive Churches: Leaving Them Behind, by Pat Zukeran
They Told Me That If I Left..., by Ron Henzel. One of the most insidious features of Spiritual Abuse ... is the state of terror in which it leaves so many of its victims.
Getting Out and Getting On, by by G. Richard Fisher. Dealing With the Grief Process Experienced in Exiting a Cult
Authoritarianism in The Church, by Steve Martin
WHAT IS "HYPER-AUTHORITARIANISM?", Identifying Abusive Leadership, By Steven Lambert
The Other Side of Discipleship, by Lawrence A. Pile
When Should A Christian Leave A Church?, by John G. Reisinger
Eastern Regional Watch Links to a number of articles on Spiritual Abuse
Overcoming Spiritual Abuse, by Maxine Pinson
Legalism, by Ray Stedman
The following articles by Richard Damiani are also available at the Recovering From Spiritual Abuse wiki:
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Recognising and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church, by David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1991
Soul Repair: Rebuilding Your Spiritual Life, by Jeff VanVonderen and Dale and Juanita Ryan.
Toxic Faith, by Stephen Arterburn & Jack Felton. Nashville, TN: Oliver Nelson, 1991.
Healing Spiritual Abuse, by Ken Blue. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1993
Churches that Abuse, by Ronald Enroth. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992
Recovering from Churches that Abuse, by Ronald Enroth. Grand Rapids,MI: Zondervan, 1994
Twisted Scriptures, by Mary Alice Chrnalogar. USA: Lazareth Projects, PO Box 8021; Chattanooga, TN 37414, 1996
Healing for Damaged Emotions, by David A. Seamands. USA: Victor Books, 1981
Recovery from Spiritual Abuse, by Dale & Juanita Ryan. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1993
Damaged Disciples, by Ron & Vicki Burks. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
A Tale Of Three Kings, by Gene Edwards
These presentations are part of a 10-part course entitled “Breaking the Silence on Spiritual Abuse”. In addition to Jeff VanVonderen, this series includes presentations by Dave Johnson and Lynn Heitritter.
Healthy and Abusive Spiritual Dynamics, (55 min)
The Abusive Religious System, (59 min)
How We Get Hooked, (60 min)
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2007-10-30 10:36:13 I think you need to define what spiritual abuse is in this article, I still do not fully understand it. —JamesSchwab
2007-10-30 11:44:10 I think "spiritual abuse" is a term used to describe emotional or mental abuse committed by leaders in a church or other "spiritual" group. —PxlAted
2007-10-30 11:47:03 regarding the line at the very top of the article....some would include atheism as a kind of spiritual abuse. —RocksandDirt
The definition requires that, "someone in a position of spiritual authority... misuses that authority ... to control, coerce or manipulate [people] for seemingly Godly purposes which are really their own." So, unless a particular atheist is doing that, I fail to see how atheism in general could be a kind of spiritual abuse. Atheists are rarely in positions of "spiritual authority" and are going to have a tough time pretending to do things for Godly purposes when they explicitly disbelieve in God. —CovertProfessor
Not simply to contradict, but I suppose the definition of Godly, especially so capitalized, kinda lends this to only include Jewish, Christian or Muslim faiths, I mean spiritual authority should be suitable enough as is. Having the definition so limited, there are too problems that lead to it failing. Firstly, this would mean that those not of Christian authority could control, coerce or otherwise manipulate people on basis of spirituality or faith, without it being the abuse it clearly is, as in the famous case of Socrates (legal precedent he was executed for heresy). Secondly, (and this gets interesting) it could be argued that those manipulating others as followers of God are not true followers of the god, and thus it is no longer abuse on those grounds, sort of a no true Scotsman argument. Though, if one takes the standpoint that there is only one true god, and that all divine worship should really be to Him, then it sort of nullifies everything by making everyone His follower (despite whomever He is), but this is all aside the point. Assuming that this isn't to include only these limited faiths, then why not atheism? could there not be some radical atheist leader who on the grounds of spirituality in the lack of god (perhaps he believes in a soul still or some other spiritual aspect?) that they must take some action, perhaps shunning the faithful? Just a thought.. ~Dave
Yes, it is certainly possible that an atheist could be a spiritual abuser; I don't think anything I said above rules that out. My main point was to say that if that were to occur, it would be that particular atheist who would be misusing his/her power, not anything about atheism itself, as RocksAndDirt seemed to be contending. And as a secondary point, I was trying to suggest that even if such thing is possible, it's unlikely, given the nature of atheism — most atheists don't believe in souls or spirits for the same reasons they don't believe in God. So, while of course anyone in a situation of power can be abusive, an atheist is going to have a tough time playing on people's spiritual beliefs in order to bend people to his/her whim. Indeed, many atheists not only reject God, but also organized religion, so the "followers" are going to be a hard sell. —CovertProfessor
I dunno... there are plenty of people who are cultish leaders who use a strong belief in atheism as part of their bag of tricks to pull in followers... which is pretty much how religion is used. I haven't seen any loudly atheist people abuse their resulting followers (unless you include Adam Carolla mocking his old Loveline radio callers). Of course, I don't think there's anything special about strident belief in religion or lack thereof that causes such abuse... strident belief in everything from breast feeding to the superiority of animé to the superiority of a human race or breed of animal all get cloistered cult followings where the leaders exercises abusive and/or petty control over the group. —JabberWokky
I agree that there isn't necessarily anything about belief in religion that causes abuse (in the strong sense that is meant here — having to go to a Catholic school against your will doesn't count), but I do think that it's easier for abusers to manipulate people as a consequence of those people's religious beliefs than it is for them to manipulate them on the basis of atheism, breast feeding, or anything else. You admit that you can't name any atheist abusers, only that atheists have followers — well, a lot of people have followers, including political figures, but the issue here are people who abuse others' trust in them to the point where life paths are derailed. Those who prey on other people's religious beliefs are able to take advantage of others who hold their beliefs very strongly and who are trying to follow what they see as the right path. The very strength of their convictions is what makes them so vulnerable, and it's what makes the abusers that much more condemnable. —CovertProfessor
2007-10-31 08:31:51 Admittedly, the focus of this page is on spiritual abuse in Christian churches. The dynamics of abuse, however, regardless of the setting (family, workplace, church, etc) are quite similar. Basically, it's how one in authority uses (or abuses) that authority over those beneath them. Whether Christians or not, we can all be agents of healing in the lives of those around us through listening, feeling "with" the other (extending empathy), even just providing a safe place to cry. In the Prayer of St Francis we find much of that summed up: "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace..." —RichLindvall
This is a fantastic entry, so much so (and so general purpose useful) that it might be a good idea to use it to create a wiki about the subject. At this point, it could also start gathering Davis relevance, but it could also blossom into a general community wiki for people all over the world to use. —JabberWokky
Just wanted to comment, good looking page, didn't look at it until now. It seems spiritual abuse would be a type of emotional abuse (could include physical, ethical, existential, etc), mostly concerning one's religious beliefs, typically perpetrated by an authoritative heirarchy within a religious sect or particular organization. Thus, it would be extremely hard for atheist organizations or people to be "spiritually abusive," but they could be abusive in other ways. I think the discussion got sidetracked from what RocksandDirt meant by saying: some would include atheism as a kind of spiritual abuse. - That the lack of a belief in a deity is itself spiritually abusive to people. Why don't we just make it easy and label the existence of other religions as spiritually abusive to each and every religion? Give me a break, Rocks. If anything, it's spiritual non-use, or the denial of anything spiritual, even.
Spiritual abuse seems difficult to define, particularly because spiritual itself is difficult to pin down, but I think this is a useful page for those who have been abused by a church authority. -KarlMogel
2007-11-02 22:31:07 I am glad to have found this page. I came to Davis a year ago, after having spent 13 years in a very spiritually abusive church in another city. I would say that there is no way for me to ever recover after so many years of controlling and rejecting treatment, but I know that God is bigger than anything I have been through. I am now attending (somewhat regularly) University Covenant Church, but have not been able to commit to the church or to tie in in any way. UCC seems really stable, non-controlling and "normal" - which is all very scary to me after so many years of bad religion. Some day I hope to trust again. I met the Senior Pastor, and he seems really kind and non-threatening. The congregation all seems welcoming as well. Maybe someday I will reach out and take a chance. Maybe try again...? —incognitoTA
2011-01-01 19:25:30 I was really abused by a few pastors in Davis. I left a spiritual group in Davis because of an abusive pastor. I told the pastor I was leaving. He responded by calling other churches in the area and telling them real horrible things about me and my personal confessions to them. This article has been very helpful in helping me. —Dozer
2011-01-06 13:32:04 Some helpful info for those addressing this type of issue. I have been there and I had to deal with a very difficult situation involving a former Pastor at a church I attended as a teenager. Churches have surrounding groups or organizations they are affiliated with. Contacting these groups may lead to pressure being exerted to help force reform or address the behavior of a specific church or even a specific person in a clergical position. I wish you that healing grace come to you in your time of need. —PeteB
2011-05-14 13:29:16 This was very helpful I got spiritually abused at UUC's group Catalyst and this article helped me come back from suicidal thoughts. Thank you so much for all your help. —Dozer