8 SIGNS OF A DYSFUNCTIONAL CHURCH

Characteristics of spiritually abusive behaviors within dysfunctional churches and high-control groups

ARE YOU IN A DYSFUNCTIONAL CHURCH?

Have you had a nagging feeling that something seems off? At first you enjoyed the sense of purpose and community which comes from being united with others in a shared cause. Your small group was wonderful. Worshipping at weekend services made you feel vibrant and alive. Network conferences and retreats were filled with incredible moments where you experienced God and the Holy Spirit in powerful, overwhelming ways. You felt a deep desire to give yourself to this new life. 

This mission.

As your time within The Network went on you became more and more involved in the life of the church. You poured yourself into your small group. Perhaps you became a small group leader or served in the kids program. You may have eventually quit your job and moved to another city to be part of a church plant. At every step up the rung in your service you conformed more and more to the image of what others have wanted you to be and became less and less the unique person God created you to be.

What was once a life-giving endeavor had become an all-encompassing loyalty, and the vibrancy and enthusiasm you once felt had been replaced by a growing emptiness.

Eventually your life decisions, from major ones like which job you took or what city you lived in to everyday ones like which friends you spent time with or which books you read, were dictated, not by the Holy Spirit, but by leaders in the church who were "speaking into your life."  What was once a life-giving endeavor had become an all-encompassing loyalty, and the vibrancy and enthusiasm you once felt had been replaced by a growing emptiness.

It's important to carefully consider whether the effects of any organization, even a church, is good and helpful for your life. Jesus is quoted in John 10:10 as saying that he came so you may have life, and have it to the full. Some churches, whether through intentional control or unconscious actions, blur or cross the line from spiritual shepherding and into spiritual abuse.

 


SIGNS OF DYSFUNCTIONAL CHURCH LEADERSHIP

The following article has been adapted from the work of psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton as well as the psychologist Michael D. Langone to help people determine if they are in a dysfunctional church or other high-control group.

Compare these patterns to the culture you are in (or in which a family member or friend is currently involved). This list may help you determine whether there is cause for concern. Bear in mind that this list is not meant to be a “cult scale” or a definitive checklist. This is not so much a diagnostic instrument as it is an analytical tool.

Click to navigate to one of the 8 signs:

  1. Information Control
  2. Mystical Manipulation
  3. Demand for Purity
  4. Confession as Leverage
  5. Sacred Science
  6. Loading the Language
  7. Doctrine over Person
  8. Control of Who Exists

1) INFORMATION CONTROL

This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large. Members are told what to read and who to listen to (and not listen to). Leaders teach distrust or avoidance of trained experts, counselors or therapists, bible scholars, or any other kind of higher education. Only doctrine which is approved by the leader or leaders can be shared.  Communication between members of the group may also be monitored to ensure the "right" story is told within the confines of the group. Negative information about the group is forbidden.

The ultimate goal of "information control" is called milieu control. Milieu control is a term which means the control of all information a victim has access to, including information within the victim's own mind. To this end dysfunctional church leaders will seek to change both the outer information a victim is exposed to as well as the inner thoughts which the victim allows in their own mind. "There is often a sequence of events, such as seminars, lectures, and group encounters, which becomes increasingly intense and increasingly isolated, making it extremely difficult—both physically and psychologically—for one to leave." (Robert Jay Lifton, 1987)

EXAMPLES FROM THE NETWORK:

  • Followers within The Network are instructed to change their thoughts to conform to the thoughts of their assigned leader in the organization.[1]
  • Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the organization and organization-related activities, resulting in increasing isolation from the outside world.
    • This manifests within the Network through membership agreements which mandate followers attend 20 hours of classes to learn non-public doctrine, participate in weekly worship services and monthly team meetings, provide free labor for the organization, and commit to private weekly "small groups" where they are assigned a leader[2]
    • Beyond required participation through membership agreements, members who become leaders are required to attend leadership conferences and retreats where they are taught additional non-public teachings
  • Loyal members feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to live and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even considered leaving) The Network.
  • Leaders and members are given specific sets of readings and urged not to read material outside the approved list. Making contact with experts outside the organization is discouraged. Leaders and members are discouraged from seeking professional counseling services from anyone outside the organization.
  • The Network became more and more secretive and paranoid as time went on. Network pastors stopped publishing their weekend sermons online for the public and instead made them only available to members with private passwords. Stories of pastors who left The Network over disagreements are whitewashed and spun into a narrative where the leaving pastor was in the wrong and was not given a chance to defend himself.
  • Even Steve Morgan's decision to not name this growing network of churches can be seen as  an attempt to keep a low profile for the purpose of avoiding any scrutiny.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Paull, Sándor. "Followers Should Obey Their Leaders in All Matters", June 2018, 0h:15m:00s.

[2] "Local Church Membership Forms". Network Church standardized forms, 2016, 2018

2) MYSTICAL MANIPULATION

The manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but are, in fact, planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or some exceptional talent or insight that sets the leader and/or group apart from humanity, and which allows a reinterpretation of historical events, scripture, and other experiences. Coincidences and happenstance oddities are interpreted as omens or prophecies.

EXAMPLES FROM THE NETWORK:

  • "Prophecies" and "special revelations" are presented by leaders during emotional and highly choreographed services at conferences, retreats, and team meetings to imply divine favor when the church needed money or resources for its continued expansion.
  • In a posture of passive submission, members are trained to “receive” prayer via laying of hands and words of prophecy among other members. As a result, the member is primed to accept and desire spiritual, mystical intervention by their leaders during times of prayer ministry.
  • Leaders who share "words of knowledge" and "prophecy" for followers later discard these followers after a disagreement and assert that these utterances "must not have been God after all." Followers are discarded even if they have made radical life changes (such as quitting jobs or moving across the country) to accommodate the leader's vision for their life.

3) DEMAND FOR PURITY

The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.

Any failure to succeed means impurity exists somewhere and will be searched out by those in control.

EXAMPLES FROM THE NETWORK:

  • Strict attendance is kept for small group meetings, events, and serving teams. Leaders are expected to attend conferences, and events. Those who are absent are met with suspicious questioning in the guise of “How can I help you get here on time?” or “What can I do so you don’t miss out on this important event?”
  • Many members are expected to get approval from their small group leader or pastor for major life decisions including who to date, who to marry, where to go to school, what degree to pursue, and what job to take. Decisions that take people away from the church are frowned upon. Members who accept job offers outside one of The Network’s “university cities” have his/her faith and commitment questioned.
  • Children of members are expected to choose colleges in towns that have Network churches.[1]
  • Leaders are subjected to "purity tests" where their commitment to their leader is questioned if they do not obey with specific acts of compliance (such as agreeing with pastors on personal medical choices, sending their children to certain schools, refraining from tattoos, forbidding cremation as part of funeral rites for departed loved ones, and etc). If members do not obey their leaders, they risk getting less attention from the leader as well as the loss of their position within the group.[2]
FOOTNOTES:
[1] Paull, Sándor. "Followers Should Obey Their Leaders in All Matters", June 2018, 1h:09m:00.
[2]"Week 4 - Relational Leadership", Small Group Leader Training, 2017, pp. 6.

 

4) CONFESSION AS LEVERAGE

Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor (small group leader) or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members' "sins," "attitudes," and "faults" are discussed and exploited by the leaders.

Discussion of inner fears and anxieties, as well as confessing sins, exposes vulnerabilities and requires the person to place trust in the group and their leader and hence bond with them. This effect may be exaggerated with intense sessions where deep thoughts and feelings are regularly surfaced. This also has the effect of exhausting people, making them more open to suggestion.

EXAMPLES FROM THE NETWORK:

  • The act of confession is often a one way street within The Network—members share their deepest secrets, anxieties, and hurts while their leader shares only surface level "sins." These confessions are then freely discussed with other leaders and pastors in The Network to ascertain a member's leadership potential and usefulness. If the person is found unsuitable, they are passed over for leadership even as they bond deeper and deeper with the group.
  • Staff pastors within The Network often subject future leaders to intense "inner healing" prayer and exorcism sessions where the member is pressured  to disclose past abuse and trauma and sin. The pastors are not trained therapists, and the information divulged in these sessions  is not confidential.
  • To quote Steve's own words when describing his leadership of a young man: “We decided that we should talk with _____ more on the phone about the immaturity issues and see how he responds. So I asked him hard questions about how he was doing personally and about his relationship with a woman he was dating. The transparency and honesty with which he spoke to me instantly persuaded me that he was willing to be led and that his heart was good. […] This is why we raise up our leaders from within rather than 'hire' them from outside.”[1] This story demonstrates how confession extracted via power differential (the confession was NOT mutual, Steve did not share as deeply as the young man did), was used as a determination of whether or not the man was "willing to be led." Loyalty was prized above all virtues, and the rite of passage was leveraged confession.
FOOTNOTES:
[1] Morgan, Steve. "Our Story and How We Do Church", Nov. 2011, pp. 72.

5) SACRED SCIENCE

The group's doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The dogma of the group is presented as scientifically correct or otherwise unquestionable. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or all humanity, is likewise above criticism.

EXAMPLES FROM THE NETWORK:

  • New doctrine is introduced to the group from leaders who claim God revealed to them how to interpret scripture in new ways. Such doctrine is unquestionable, and no outside scholarly work is referenced or made available to followers for further study.[1]
  • It is clearly implied that the methods for small groups, team meetings, conferences, etc are God-ordained, unquestionable, and the only way to fulfill the mystical "promises whispered by the Holy Spirit" which Steve Morgan has received.[2]
  • Despite being untrained as therapists or counselors, many pastors are encouraged to perform "inner healing prayer" for future leaders and those suffering from past trauma. Emotional responses during prayer and subsequent loyalty to The Network (and the leader) are taken as proof that the treatment worked.
  • As their loyalty to The Network increases church members become convinced that there is no life outside the context of the group. The decisions they make, the thoughts they have, are focused on what is best for the church and their leaders.
  • Leaders in The Network have a posture of skepticism of in-depth Bible scholarship. Seminary degrees and formal Bible training are scoffed at. Many pastors revel in their ignorance, interpreting the increasing number of churches in the network as a sign of God's anointing on their work and seeing no need for a broader understanding of Christianity. Young men are recruited as pastors and immediately put to work organizing ministries without education or having a grounding in the Bible.
  • Substantive doctrine and decisions are subject to change if Steve, the leader of the Network, wills it so. Theological shifts on gender roles, new teachings on supernatural spiritual gifts, and even church governance decisions are made unilaterally, then promptly rolled out to all churches despite the fact that Steve has no formal Bible training (and the overwhelming majority of pastors in the Network don’t either).
FOOTNOTES:
[1] Paull, Sándor. "Followers Should Obey Their Leaders in All Matters", June 2018.
[2] Morgan, Steve. "Planting Healthy Churches", 2012, pp. 16.

6) LOADING THE LANGUAGE

The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members' thought processes to conform to the group's way of thinking.

The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.

The meaning of words are kept hidden both from the outside world, giving a sense of exclusivity. The meaning of special words may also be revealed in careful illuminatory rituals, where people who are being elevated within the order are given the power of understanding this new language.

EXAMPLES FROM THE NETWORK:

  • Many phrases are used to stop objective reasoning within The Network:
  • “It's Biblical” is given as a justification for doctrine, regardless of whether or not the doctrine is understood to be "Biblical" by current or historic theologians. Dissenting views which disagrees with the leaders' positions are labeled as "unbiblical" regardless of whether leading theologians believe the view to be Biblical or not.
  • “Jump in and trust God will fill the pool” is a phrase Steve Morgan is fond of saying. [1] The purpose of this phrase is to influence people to take large risks (like volunteering for a long-term, high demand responsibility in the church, or moving across the country to be part of a church plant) without considering the consequences.
  • “Just stick around”  is used to counter any legitimate questions about leadership growth and to discourage people from having a plan for their own life. Members inquire about future opportunities or ways to grow, and are told  "just stick around." The phrase encourages people to attend as many services, small groups, conferences, and retreats as possible, and has the practical effect of creating hundreds (perhaps thousands) of on-call, directionless people waiting for a leader to notice them and tell them it's "their turn."
  • “Ruined for life” became a common saying within The Network. Pastors, staff, and members boast that they are "ruined for life" and will never be able to participate in the spiritual practices of other churches again. This phrase became an effective way to silence individuals’ dissent since any critical thought about the practices of The Network could be followed with a shrug of self-acceptance. "Where else could I go? I'm ruined for life."
  • “We’re Christians!” is often emphasized by Steve Morgan after expressing a form of extreme commitment to The Network, such as generous giving or moving to a new city. If someone is unable or unwilling to participate, the implication is that they are not “real” Christians.
  • “Accountability” is redefined by Steve Morgan in order to avoid the actual definition of the word. This redefinition serves the purpose of dispelling legitimate concerns about the lack of checks and balances within The Network's leadership structure and convinces board members to protect their lead pastors against all criticism from their congregations.[2] 
FOOTNOTES:
[1] Morgan, Steve. "Our Story and How We Do Church", Nov. 2011, pp. 68.
[2] Morgan, Steve. "Church Network Overseers Training", 2008, 0h:29m:44s.

7) DOCTRINE OVER PERSON

Members' personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group. Past experiences, beliefs and values can all thus be cast as being invalid if they conflict with group rules. Likewise, the beliefs, values and words of those outside the group are equally invalid.

The concept of "doctrine over person" can also be described as "gaslighting," a form of psychological abuse in which a person or group causes someone to question their own sanity, memories, or perception of reality. Leaders within The Network often employ tactics which break down a person’s trust in themselves and which increase how much the person trusts or depends on the abusive person.

EXAMPLES FROM THE NETWORK:

  • Staff members internally use the term "burping" to describe their tactic of listening to frustrated and abused members' complaints without an intention of addressing them. The underlying assumption from leaders is that members are fussy babies who need "burped" so they stop crying, and afterwards the leader can act as a parent who knows what is best and return to their regular routine. The practices of the group are held up as sensible and morally sound despite the lived experiences of those who have been harmed by these practices.
  • Older, more experienced Christians are labeled as "overchurched" and deemed as potentially dangerous people who could disrupt the system rather than bring wisdom and experience to the church.[1]
  • Men and women are not evaluated within The Network as equals. Regardless of demonstrated ability, married women cannot lead small groups and are subservient to their husbands. Pastors do not train women or give them equal opportunities with mentorship. Women who are natural leaders are made to stifle their giftings as second-class believers behind men. These practices are seen as God-ordained and unquestionable.
  • Members or former leaders who fail a purity test may be held in a state of perpetual “discipline,” unable to act or speak out without their leaders’ approval. The social and spiritual center of their lives is held ransom in exchange for absolute compliance, and as a result, the person is made to double down on all commitments in order to regain the favor of their leader and salvage relationships and friendships formed within the church.
FOOTNOTES:
[1] Morgan, Steve. "Planting Healthy Churches", 2012, pp. 11.

8) CONTROL OF WHO EXISTS (AND WHO DOESN'T)

There is a very sharp line between the group and the outside world. Insiders are to be saved and elevated, whilst outsiders are doomed to failure and loss (which may be eternal).

Who is an outsider or insider is chosen by the group. Thus, any person within the group may be damned at any time. There are no rights of membership except, perhaps, for the leader. People who leave the group are singled out as particularly evil, weak, lost or otherwise to be despised or pitied. Rather than being ignored or hidden, they are used as examples of how anyone who leaves will be looked down upon and publicly denigrated.

People thus have a constant fear of being cast out, and consequently work hard to be accepted and not be ejected from the group. Outsiders who try to persuade the person to leave are doubly feared. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility.

Dispensation also goes into all aspects of living within the group. Any and all aspects of existence within the group is subject to scrutiny and control. There is no privacy and, ultimately, no free will.

EXAMPLES FROM THE NETWORK:

  • The practical effect of the doctrine of "following your leader" and "having unity in all things" leads to leaders and members putting the church before their own families. Wedges are driven between Network members and their family members. Members of the church are instructed to be completely loyal to their leader and The Network over and above any other external commitment. Members are required to put these commitments in writing on their member forms.
  • Examples of unloyal leavers are made from the pulpit with enough specificity that others know who they are. Leaders and members are asked to cancel all interaction with leavers and delete them from social media accounts.
  • Leaders who were once held up as positive examples can be sidelined or discarded at any time if they fail purity tests from their leaders.
  • Pastors and staff are removed from leadership (or threatened with removal) because of non-church related decisions (such as their choice of which medical procedures or medications to use or where to send their children to school).
  • Pastors, staff, and leaders who are “removed” from their leadership positions (or outright fired) are either not acknowledged, or the vague explanation given to those they once led will be tightly controlled. This causes confusion and despair to those they once led, yet members are unable to express any relational hurt or confusion without fear of being labeled a gossip or untrusting of the church’s leadership.

 

FURTHER READING:

LEADERSHIP ACCOUNTABILITY: Steve Morgan, the Network Leader, has hiring and firing power over the men he has groomed to be members of his board and has created a structure where speaking truth to power is a conflict of interest for board members.