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Have You Been Spiritually Abused?

Did you know that one of my jobs during seminary was Liturgical Dance? Yep, I was a member of Carla DeSola’s Omega West dance company and Phil Porter’s Wing It! Performance Ensemble. The two groups couldn’t have been more different.

Carla is the grandmother of liturgical dance. In the 1960s in New York City, she founded Omega Liturgical Dance Company, establishing a studio in the crypt of the Episcopal Cathedral, St. John the Divine. Phil is a pioneer of improvisational performance art, weaving dance, storytelling, and music together simultaneously.


When I wasn’t dancing with a company, I was doing solo performances wherever I could. The performance gigs turned into teaching gigs in congregations. I taught classes, workshops, and congregational retreats, unlocking spiritual growth through the arts.

I worked with a lot of pastors, a lot of leadership teams. I even lived with them for multiple days in retreat centers! Can you imagine? Showing up at a retreat center you’ve never been to, facilitating a retreat with people you’ve never met but are suddenly roommates with?! It was strange, glorious, sacred work.


Over time, I began to notice commonalities between all of these different churches across various denominations. What would start as a simple movement exercise would become a ritual of healing from spiritual abuse and/or the resulting trauma. Not a single congregation was untouched by spiritual abuse - not a single one.


Spiritual abuse occurs when a pastor, elder, or other spiritual leader uses their power as a spiritual authority to intimidate, dominate, and manipulate others in order to accomplish biblical and/or spiritual goals. This includes sexual misconduct - pastors engaging in sexual activity with other staff or church members.

Bottom line: pastors, elders, and members can be bullies who abuse their power, causing lasting harm to individuals and the congregation.

Has this happened to you? How did you feel? What did you do? How do you feel about it now?

Christianity has a long history of using fear, guilt, shame and shunning as tools to get individuals to conform to the group's values, beliefs, and behaviors. Abuse is baked into the DNA of our faith tradition. It takes a massive collective healing effort to move into a different way of being church together. Over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing more with you about the difference between spiritual abuse and spiritual trauma, and ways to heal. I hope it is helpful to you in the wake of a traumatic pandemic year!