Understanding Abuse in Missions

Is This Abuse?

There are a lot of behaviors that can be categorized as abuse. Some are more insidious than others, and this is what can make it so challenging and confusing when it comes to confronting suspected abuse.

Here are some red flags that may indicate that abuse is happening or has happened in your missions community or organization: 

  • Preoccupation with managing a good public image. Prioritizing the reputation of the group, organization, or religion over the health of people within the organization is the tale-tell marker of a toxic system.

  • Narcissism. Leaders who, when approached in conflict, won’t address the issues specifically, but instead make their feelings and their leadership style the focus of the conversation are prioritizing their ego at the expense of the health of the community.

While individuals can be narcissists, systems themselves can be narcissistic. According to Chuck DeGroat in When Narcissism Comes to Church, a system designed to perpetuate itself regardless of how many individuals are harmed in the process. Often the mission of the organization is used to justify the organization’s actions. Anything for the sake of the Gospel becomes an excuse to shame, scapegoat, and shun. DeGroat exoplains that leadership in narcissistic systems have many of these 10 characteristics.

  1. All decision-making centers on the leaders
  2. Impatience or lack of ability to listen to others
  3. Delegating without giving proper authority or with too many limits
  4. Feelings of entitlement
  5. Feeling threatened or intimidated by other talented staff
  6. needing to be the best and brightest in the room
  7. Inconsistency and impulsiveness
  8. Praising and withdrawing
  9. Intimidation of others
  10. “Fauxnerability”

“… when a group considers itself superior — more knowledgeable, more spiritual, and as holders of a special or unique mission. Church plants, new organizations, spin-off churches…. When you are part of the “we know how to do it better” group, then a leader must by definition be grander and greater than the ordinary. A special group demands a special leader, and vice versa. …Your superiority is proof of mine. We picked an extraordinary leader, and we will do exceptional things for God.”

Langberg, Diane. Suffering and the Heart of God. New Growth Press. 2015 (295)
  • Cover-ups and silencing any concerns or dissent as “gossip.” Requesting/demanding silence or threatening those who want to come forward with concerns or questions with consequences to their ministry, family, or status in the community is controlling and abusive behavior. It may even be illegal in some cases.

“In abusive spiritual systems, power is postured and authority is legislated. Therefore, these systems are preoccupied with the performance of their members.” 

David Johnson & Jeff Van Vonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse
  • Working to maintain the status quo. An organization or leader who is unwilling to make changes unless those changes serve to protect powerful members of the group or the reputation of the group is self-serving.
  • Punishing and isolating people who speak up. One of the most painful human experiences is social ostracism. Scapegoating those who have not fully conformed damages the one out-casted and serves to keep the others in the group silent, less they be subjected to the same treatment.
  • Shaming those who draw boundaries or speak up. Those who speak about their negative experiences with leaders or the the system are treated as bad or divisive group members rather than necessary critical voices helpful to the development of the organization and ministry.

“Each time an abuser was found or a scandal uncovered, the response was the same: Quietly dismiss the abuser. Hush it up. Tell no one.” 

Rachael Den Hollander, on experiencing abuse in a church as a child
  • Refusal by group leaders to listen when someone comes to ask for help. Leaders have an ethical obligation to address allegations of abuse. Leaders who say, “I can’t look at this,” when someone comes to them with abuse allegations of any kind are negligent, complicit, and potentially legally liable in any abuse that happens after they have been made aware. 
  • Using Matthew 18 as a justification for forcing individuals to be alone or to be in direct contact with their abuser in order to resolve a conflict. Interpersonal conflict and allegations of abuse are not the same thing and should not be managed the same way. An organization or leader who uses basic conflict management methods to deal with situations of abuse do further harm to the victims.

Is this group or organization a safe place?

While no community or organization is perfect, if your organization exhibits many of the red flag above, it may be time to raise questions. What happens if you begin to ask about what you’ve observed? Are there open doors for conversations with leaders about your concerns? Are they willing to hear feedback or answer honest questions without dodging or gaslighting? Are your efforts shut down and dismissed? A safe, healthy community welcomes dissent and works through difficulties in order to grow. A toxic, abusive community refuses to consider that there may be problems at all.

Also consider that your position may shield you from attacks because of your tenure, location, gender, ethnicity, or personality. However, someone you know may not be. It may be time to take the opportunity to stand in solidarity with them. Having a colleague or friend observe what has happened to you and name it as abusive can have an enormously positive impact on a victim’s healing process. Do not be afraid to tell those who are hurt by your organization that you grieve for them and that you recognize what happened to them as cruelty.

“A safe community gives people the freedom to say, “Something’s not right.” A safe community searches for understanding until what doesn’t seem right is clearly identified, named, and described. A safe community addresses what isn’t right, even if it means putting their own reputation on the line. And if the system itself isn’t right, then a safe community will consider whether its presence is part of the problem. A safe community gives no room for the language of abuse to spread, because it keeps the lights on. In that light, truth moves freely.” 

Wade Mullen, Something’s Not Right

I’ve experienced or witnessed abuse on the mission field. What should I do next? 

  • Learn More

If you’d like to read more, check out our resource page for books, articles, and podcasts from experts and stories from abuse survivors. Whether you are trying to understand what happened to you or what happened to someone else, understanding the dynamics of religious and spiritual abuse can help you name what you experienced and observed. Naming is the first step in understanding and healing.

  • Find Professional Support

A trauma-informed professional therapist can provide a safe and confidential space for you to process your story, to name what happened, and to pursue healing. 

An important tip: If the abuse you are experiencing is happening in an organizational setting, be sure to find a therapist who is not employed by that organization. It’s common for abusive organizations to require members to get therapy from counselors who will then report back to the organization. This is an unethical practice, and you have no obligation to comply. In some cases, it is also illegal for counselors to practice this way. Find a licensed professional who does not have a conflict of interest. If you need recommendations, drop us a line or contact one of the counselors on our resource page.

  • Report

Pursue an investigation into your church or organization if there is reason to believe that unethical or illegal activities have taken place. Some organizations have a whistleblower mechanism, which may or may not be helpful.

Pursue legal representation for yourself. Christian organization are no different from any other organization in that they are very interested in protecting their own interests and avoiding litigation. Some organizations have bullied former employees into non-disclosure agreements or into signing documents waiving their right to a lawsuit. Before you sign any agreements with your former missions agency or church, we recommend seeking the opinion of an attorney familiar with the employment laws of the organization’s state.

  • Connect with Others

It may feel like you are the only one who is going through the trauma of abuse on the mission field, but there are many of us! Find a support group, whether online or in person.

If you are a parent or a missionary kid, you might also want to reach out to the MK Safety Net and check out our Just for Parents page for more resources for kids and parents.

If your story includes sexual abuse, assault, or harassment, you can find additional resources through the (USA) National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline (facilitated by RAINN). Call or live chat with someone here.

  • Tell Your Story to Yourself

“If telling another is not something you are ready for, then, as I recommended earlier, consider telling yourself. Write down what you would tell someone if you had the opportunity. Writing your experience out on paper can be a courageous act of resistance and survival.” 

– Wade Mullen, Something’s Not Right