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How to recognise and escape spiritual abuse

bullyingThis week, I met Nataline Daycreator, a wonderful coach and author who works to help victims of spiritual abuse. She is herself a survivor of 14 years in an abusive Pentecostal community. She told me her story and the lessons we can draw from it.

Hi Nataline. First of all, how do we define spiritual abuse?

An organization called INAASA defines it as ‘a form of abuse that manifests when those in religious authority/leadership manipulate and use control tactics to undermine, disempower and subjugate those who look to them for guidance and advice in a religious capacity’. Most people who go into religious communities are trying to get close to God, not their leaders. Some leaders abuse their authority for power, money or sex.

What got you interested in this subject?

I experienced spiritual abuse for 14 years in a Pentecostal community in North London. I say community rather than church – a lot of places of worship may call themselves churches but often they’re not regulated by the Diocese of London or any ecclesiastical body. They use the term to validate themselves.

How did you become part of this community?

I grew up in Jamaica. Although I wasn’t brought up religious, growing up in such a beautiful place, I always had a sense there was some higher Being or orchestrator. My family moved to London, and I got pregnant when I was 18, and readily accepted the fact that I was a mother. I felt I needed support and God’s help. I thought if I got to know God He’d show me how to be the mother my child needed.

Nataline Daycreator
Nataline Daycreator

So I went on a quest to find God. I went to a shop near the Finsbury Park mosque, because I was interested in Islam, but the man in the shop was so rude and dismissive towards me that I walked straight out. Then I tried the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Whenever someone invited me to a faith community, I went, but I always asked questions – who was the Holy Spirit, who was Jesus? I had heard these terms but had no understanding of their relevance to who God was.

Most people answered these questions like they were trying to sell me a car. But I met one man, he was quiet, dressed rather shabbily, he answered in very simple and plain language. He seemed very humble and unassuming – they’re the worst ones! That was the pastor of the Pentecostal community I ended up joining for 14 years. I met his wife who was also a minister as an Evangelist, and I met their children. Then I went to hear him preach and talk. Initially it was just 12 people or so. We met in a church in Haggerston East London, the services were held there on Sunday afternoons. They rented the space from Haggerston church to have its sunday meetings, shortly after I had joined we moved to Edmonton Methodist Church, where again we hired the church on Sundays. This is common practice for smaller communities.

What did you like initially about the community and the services?

Well, I didn’t like the fact that they were quite long – it was usually from 2 until 5 every Sunday. But I loved singing in services and later started the choir. Though I was very new at learning this religious life, I had a sense of connection to God. And a sense of peace, in the early days, and of community, belonging and security, because you felt you were under God’s protection, and ‘in the right lane’. In hindsight I wish I had realised that connection was free and could be experienced anywhere, without terms and conditions.

Then, in my second year in the community, people started telling me what my purpose was, what my personality would be. I was given all these responsibilities – I was choir director, Sunday School director, the pastor’s personal PA. I wasn’t given any training, or  support or financial budget – I believed this was a part of my service to God and I paid for this out of my own pocket, although I was really struggling as a lone parent. Unfortunately these is not uncommon in some small unregulated churches.

Spiritual-AbuseGradually, I lost my sense of identity, my self, my passions and desires, I became a mechanism for the community. It felt like a treadmill, where I was always trying to please the pastor and his wife, so that I would win one of their public displays of affection and approval. For example, if you brought a soul ( a person you had invited ) to church, that would win you some public approval in front of the church, and everyone in the congregation would want that approval too. I was never praised for who I was, only for what I did for the ministry.

So you met your husband in the community. Was it an arranged marriage?

Not arranged, but it was certainly officially approved. We had a genuine connection, we were into similar things, we were both quite entrepreneurial. I don’t think the pastor and his wife liked the fact that, after marriage, I was more loyal to my husband rather than the church. So the first week we came back from our honeymoon, they gave my husband the Brotherhood leadership role. He was never asked, he was told that’s what he would do and he did it, with this came many responsibilities that drew him away from our marriage and further into ministry roles. They got their claws into him. Sometimes, when he got angry and lost his temper, I heard him repeating things the pastor had said to him.

Your husband was abusive, but the domestic abuse was closely connected to spiritual abuse by the pastor?

Yes. My husband was verbally and psychologically abusive to me and physically abusive to our children. But it was backed up by spiritual abuse. He and the pastor would twist scripture – they’d take a small verse like ‘the wife must submit to the husband’ and would leave out the rest ‘and the husband must submit to the wife’. If my husband was abusive, I would call the pastor (we could never call the police, who we were told were ungodly, worldly and secular – the advice of the pastor must come first), and the pastor and his wife would come round and tell me not to make my husband angry. His behavior was totally undermined as abusive, I was made to feel responsible for him and they would pray over us accordingly. I was warned to never call the police.

criticize-voltaire-550x414I believed if I went against the pastor, I was going against God. There was a sense that our religious leaders were higher than the state – higher than the police, judges or doctors. After five years in the community, I wanted to leave. But I was terrified that if I left, I was leaving God and would be open to demonic attacks. The pastor and his wife insisted that I was not spiritual enough, and if I had any doubts, it was the Devil trying to lure me away, and I should fast and pray until the doubts left. We were on an endless treadmill to win God’s approval and it seemed it only came through the mouth of the Pastor or his wife.

They tried to exert huge control over their congregants – the mind control was very extreme. They’d even say the Lord had given them power to come into our houses in the spirit, meaning their spirits would leave their bodies and watch what were doing in the privacy of our homes. Its seems crazy talking out loud about it now. When I think back now, yes some of it was sheer craziness.  We also gave contributions  to a trust to buy a church building, and were given permission by London Underground to fundraise at their stations but in fact, the money from the trust went to buy a house in the pastor and his wife’s names. But if you questioned any of this, you were giving in to the Devil and seen to be moving away from God.

Towards the end of my time there, I realized I really did know myself, the real me and that gave me a core of strength. I knew I couldn’t just leave physically, not yet, but I could leave mentally. So at services, I’d look out of the window at the seagulls. Or at worship, I wouldn’t try and win their approval. I’d shut down so it was just between me and God. I prayed to God that the pastor’s wife wouldn’t lay hands on me during prayer, and she stopped. I detached myself from the church, mentally, and realized the real truth that I wasn’t in danger of the Devil. I was building the strength to say no more.

Then one year I went to a Hillsong conference in Australia, on my own. I needed to get away from it all and have the space to think clearly. This was an act of rebellion in itself, as our ministry had a conference at the same time. At the Hillsong conference, I met a policewoman, and we talked and opened up to each other. She told me ‘you’re going through domestic abuse and spiritual abuse’. She gave a name to what I had been experiencing through all these years. It was an incredible wake-up. When I went back, my husband became angry over something. This time I told him to leave, I rang the police, and my husband rang the pastor. He left before the police arrived, and went to live at the pastor’s house. I never went back to the community after that. My ex husband wasn’t perfect, but I believe he could have got better if he’d got therapy. Instead, he only turned to the community and sought their approval.

But they made it extremely difficult for me to leave. They would turn up at a new church I went to and demand that the church give me back. I had to take out an injunction against the pastor. But I got out. I jumped ship, I and my six children, and landed on safe ground. I found freedom and peace and a stronger connection to God. I also read the Bible afresh, and before where I just saw condemnation and shame, I saw love shining out. When I was leaving the community, I was terrified of displeasing God. But I thought, if He’s really the God of Love, He’ll know I’m trying to do right.

How common is spiritual abuse?

Watchman+Profile+buttonIt’s extremely common. It happens in Christian communities, in Muslim communities, in Buddhism, Scientology, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses. I met someone from a safety agency, she said it affected perhaps one in four people in churches here in London. It’s very prevalent in African and Caribbean churches. In Nigeria, for example, Bishop Oyedepo, who runs a church with some 35,000 members, publicly slapped a girl in the face in the front of the congregation and called her a witch. In these countries, there are no women’s rights. And when these churches come to the UK, they often bring that culture with them.

What can be done about it?

The first thing is the government could introduce a national register of all places of worship. There’s a complete lack of accountability and regulation. Every Sunday, the most vulnerable people in London walk into places of worship – people with mental health issues, people who have been sectioned, alcoholics, people who are hurting immensely looking for some relief. And they’re placed in the hands of people who are not at all trained, qualified or accountable. The English judiciary also needs to be less deferential to ecclesiastical authorities in law cases – if someone has committed a crime, it shouldn’t matter if they call themselves a pastor. Finally, if people think they may be suffering from spiritual abuse, they can also contact me directly or organizations like the Family Survival Trust.

Did the experience put you off religion entirely?

I’ve redefined religion. It should have this meaning: something that brings well-being to the whole person. If it doesn’t do that, it shouldn’t be granted the status of religion. If it is intended to harm then it should classed and treated as an act against humanity. Personally, I have a very strong relationship with God, but I’m still wary of organized religion, and all these labels we put on people: Presbyterian or Pentecostal or Catholic or whatever. They just close people off from each other. That’s not who God is. Religion has taught me I that I carry that a sinful nature, while being in love with God has taught me that I carry the inherit blueprint of who He is. One of these beliefs sets me free, the other enslaves me. Religion led me to a life of beating up this self that God the artist carefully and mindfully crafted to be unique and diverse from my millions of kin, and yet still one with Him.

So you don’t miss the community of being in a church?

I have community that I fellowship with all over the world. Through Facebook, for example, I have developed a network of like-minded people, who have faith but are also free thinkers. It’s been very healing. I’ll still go to church too at times, when people invite me, and I enjoy it. I’m sure there are healthy churches, but I don’t seek it anymore, I am no longer led by fear.

Nataline is now writing a book about spiritual abuse, and can be contacted through her website.  She’s also on Twitter @daycreators

Three insights I gained from this weekend

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, hence no newsletter last week. I feel like I am spinning plates at the moment. Luckily I’m off to Cornwall tomorrow to take it easy with some good friends. In the meantime, here are three insights I have taken from this weekend’s wild adventure.

Bo3qukaCIAAVK7wThe weekend started with a flight to Madrid, on Thursday evening, for an AECOP conference – AECOP is the Spanish association of business coaches. I have never met a business coach before, but a member of AECOP, Winni Schindler, reads this blog and was kind enough to invite me to give a key-note. On Friday morning, I gave a talk about how we can use ancient Greek philosophy in modern life, to a room full of 150 business coaches. An interpreter translated my talk as I went along, but I was a bit over-caffeinated up so the poor lady was exhausted by the end of the hour!

The coaches really liked the talk, I think. For the last question, a lady asked me ‘how can we learn about your approach, where do you do courses, and how much do they cost?’ I replied ‘well…you can just read the books of ancient philosophy, they’re all free and easy to read!’ Then I sat down at my table, and this Israeli business coach shook her head at me in wonder and said ‘you just missed a huge opportunity’. It turns out I should have had a Philosophy for Life training workshop ready to pitch to the room of business coaches, and lots of them would have signed up. I realized then: I need a business coach to tell me how to make money!

I honestly hadn’t imagined that coaches offer coaching to other coaches! I wasn’t even sure what coaches did – do they offer one-on-one coaching lessons or do big workshops or what? It turns out that business coaches do all these things. You can hire them one-on-one, or go to a workshop of say 10 to 100 people, or sign up for one of their online courses. All of which I can do, and I could actually get paid decent money for it.

This is a remarkable discovery. I’m so used to giving book talks for free, in the hope I’ll sell perhaps 20 copies of my book, and get 7% royalties for each copy (which means perhaps 50p a book). It’s quite a slog, as any writer will tell you.

Yes, but…would it be selling out to offer philosophy life-coaching or business-coaching? Wouldn’t this be like Michael Sandel, who charges $30,000 to do talks about his book, What Money Can’t Buy? Perhaps one should offer this stuff for no money, simply in the service of humanity (while living in a cardboard box under the Hammersmith Flyover). I think it depends how you do it. Many is the philosopher who teaches life-wisdom but has absolutely no idea about how to make ends meet. It’s important to me that I can make a living, otherwise I end up asking for handouts from relatives or needing to churn out books every year. So I have no problem with making money for what I do.

Ryan Holiday, Stoic business guru
Ryan Holiday, Stoic author

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that ancient philosophies were not simply about ‘getting ahead’. They were counter-cultural spiritual philosophies.  An entrepreneur called Ryan Holiday has just brought out a ‘Stoicism for Entrepreneurs’ book called The Obstacle is the Way . He comes from PR – his last book was a Machiavellian guide to PR called Trust Me I’m Lying – and his latest book has been well-promoted and is selling great. Ryan’s success shows both the opportunity and the risk of taking Stoicism into business coaching –  Stoicism is not really about being successful in a conventional sense, it’s about being a good person. All of us doing ‘Stoicism for modern life’ need to be clear that the ancients didn’t think of this philosophy as a formula for conventional success.

So, here is the first of this weekend’s three insights:

I could do philosophy life-coaching for organisations and individuals, as long as I used the profits to subsidize work with less rich and more disadvantaged groups.

I think it’s OK to offer workshops on wisdom and philosophy within organizations – in fact, there’s a noble tradition of adult education within companies, like my ancestors the Rowntrees used to do. But philosophers have a moral obligation not just to cater to the affluent or the elite. And we need to be clear about the end or goal of the education. We should never teach wisdom with the end of ‘getting rich’ or ‘being a success’ – that would be misusing the ancients’ advice. We should only use it with the end they had in mind, of helping people build good characters. Even at Saracens rugby club, even the week before a big final, we still focused not on ‘winning at all costs’, but on building good characters. Which brings me to my next insight.

rugby_2927613bAfter the conference in Madrid, I went to the Premiership final at Twickenham, where the Northampton Saints were playing Saracens. I’ve been running a philosophy club at Saracens this month, which the Saracens coaches were kind enough to big up in a piece in the Telegraph last week. Alas, the team lost the final in the last second of extra time, having put their bodies through a brutal ordeal for 80 minutes. And this was just a week after they lost a similarly brutal European cup final. So having led the Premiership league for the entire season, and won the most points, they came away with nothing for the second consecutive season.

The players coped with the defeat with great integrity, applauding the fans and shaking the hands of the opposition. They didn’t even complain to the referee, although he awarded the match-winning try despite not being able to see if the ball had touched the ground. That’s admirable – to show character in the face of galling defeat. They had done everything right, all season, and they still lost. This gave me my second insight of the weekend:

Sport is cruel.

Unlike pretty much every other profession, there is a tiny margin between victory and euphoria, and defeat and heartbreak. All season, we have been practicing philosophy and the idea that it’s not just about externals, it’s about integrity, values and character. Which it is. But in sport, it’s also, inevitably, about externals – the external of winning or losing. This makes me glad I’m not a professional sportsperson – though I hugely admire these people who can take such a physical and emotional battering, and get up and do it again a few days later.

BpDBCXMIMAI6YS6-1OK, final insight. On Sunday I did a talk at Sunday Assembly, the ‘atheist church’, on ancient philosophy and how wisdom can help us transform our emotions and improve our lives. It went well – in general I think humanism can be a bit shiny happy optimistic, and philosophies like Stoicism offer it something a bit grittier, which is all to the good. I wanted to offer a similar talk in the church I sometimes go to in Kings Cross, but the vicar basically stymied the idea. I’m not sure if he (a) doesn’t trust me (sensible fellow) or (b) doesn’t trust Greek philosophy because he sees it as a rival to Christ and St Paul. What a pity if Christianity has become so existentially threatened, like modern Islam, that it sees every other philosophy as a threat, even one that did so much to influence Christian culture. If that’s the case, it’s destined to become a cultural ghetto, and to disappear entirely.

After the Sunday Assembly, I went to a Christian service at a church in West London. The sermon was by a visiting New York pastor called Pete Scazzero, about how he had set up a church in Queens, only to suffer a breakdown. He’d decided that he was utterly emotionally illiterate, and it was holding back his church. So he read widely, from Thomas Merton to Henri Nouwen (two psychologically-literate Christian writers), and studied contemplation techniques from Christian monasticism. And he eventually wrote a book, Emotionally Intelligent Spirituality, summing up some of his ideas. It is ancient wisdom served up for evangelicals – and is precisely what born-again Christianity needs.

the-emotionally-healthy-churchIt seems to me that evangelical / charismatic Christianity does some things well. It does worship and music well – although its music tends to be really upbeat, unlike the Psalms, which are two-thirds lament. It does community well, although its communities tend to be full of people saying ‘amazing!’ and ‘awesome!’ and ‘Jesus!’ rather than honestly talking about their difficulties. It does evangelism and mission well, although it focuses intently on the ‘moment I came to Christ and everything got better’ rather than talking honestly about the continued difficulties of the spiritual life after finding Christ. And it does passion / ecstasy / encounters with the Holy Spirit well, but unfortunately ends up over-relying on such full-on encounters, and desperately imploring the Holy Spirit to do more, more, more.

Well, we have our reason as well, don’t we? That’s a gift too! And we have the centuries of tradition of Christian prayer and contemplation. That’s a gift too. So why not use them, instead of relying totally on outpourings of the Holy Spirit to do all your healing needs.

So this is my third insight of the weekend:

The extravert thrills and spills of charismatic Christianity needs to be balanced by a revival of the interior stillness and silence of contemplative Christianity.