A pastor and theology student analyses in a research paper the health of Spanish evangelical churches and their leadership regarding spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse is an uneasy subject, and as such, approaching it and studying it requires courage.
Esteban Ramón Moreno, a student at the Spanish Baptist Union Theology Faculty (UEBE) and current member of the pastoral team of the Baptist church in the Spanish city of Xàtiva, had a difficult personal experience that prompted him to study the issue more deeply and to contribute to raising awareness of the needs that evangelical churches in Spain may have.
For his study, he has prepared an anonymous survey in which he presents questions focused on both the leadership and members of evangelical churches who wish to contribute to his research.
Moreno has been involved in business management of family business since 2003. He has been serving the Lord since he was young, especially in the musical area.
In 2016 he decided to start a degree in theology, which he will complete this year with a research paper on spiritual abuse. He is married to Sandra, and they have three children.
Spanish news website Protestante Digital talked with him about his study on spiritual abuse.
Question. Why were you interested in the subject of spiritual abuse, to the point of wanting to study it in Spain?
Answer. My concern arose from a personal experience a few years ago. I suffered spiritual abuse in a church other than the one I come from. The damage from the impact of spiritual abuse was significant, both in my life and in my close family environment.
After my experience, I thought it would be interesting to finish my degree in Theology with a paper that tried to reflect on spiritual abuse in Spanish evangelical churches.
Q. Do you think it is a taboo subject in our evangelical environment?
A. I don't think it is a taboo subject, but it is a subject that needs greater visibility and awareness, whether the spiritual abuse is exercised from the pastoral or leadership towards the congregation (that is the focus of my work) or whether it is produced in the opposite direction, because spiritual abuse from members of the church or from church families to the pastor or leadership itself also exists.
Although we generally do not consider the subject taboo, we do tend to see it as necessary for others, but never for ourselves. As in most evils, we tend to see the speck in the other's eye, but we do not see the plank in our own eye.
Q. Are congregations aware that they may face a situation of spiritual abuse?
A. Usually a church with an abusive ministry or leadership becomes, almost unnoticed, an abusive system. The church gets used to the toxic environment, and ends up justifying and normalising the abuse, disguised as "light".
This process is often slow and subtle, which is why it is difficult for this awareness to exist within the congregation itself (and those who do are soon excluded).
When pastoral care is healthy, everything changes. Here there is usually a greater awareness and openness to the issue.
Q. Are there protocols to ensure that such abuses do not occur? If they occur, what can be tonde to correct them?
A. In general terms in Spain, I think we are far from having protocols to help detect abuse in our congregations. I propose to start with something more basic: it would be a step forward if every pastoral team, along with the leaders or deacons, receive basic training on the subject and reflect on the issue on an annual basis, for example.
I also believe that the Pastoral Colleges of each denomination can contribute to these protocols or prevention measures.
To mention some basic material, the Pastoral guide for the prevention of spiritual abuse, published by the Spanish Evangelical Alliance in 2016, can help as a "start" for a protocol.
Just by reviewing, from time to time, material like this (or similar), we would go a long way in the prevention and detection of abuse. We should see warning signs in any leadership or church that finds such questions unhelpful.
Q. Are there teachings on leadership that can lead to a situation of spiritual abuse?
A. Of course there are. Depending on our understanding of spiritual authority (or pastoral authority), we are more or less likely to fall into this sin.
Any leader, or any person in the congregation, can be in a position of influence or "power" which, if misused, becomes authoritarianism. The pastor, like any other person in the community, must recognise himself as a servant and not as a spiritual dominator or dictator.
As I point out in my paper, failure to recognise the limits of that spiritual authority will be the gateway to spiritual abuse: a misunderstanding of certain biblical texts is the breeding ground for abuse. This is not a simple issue.
Q. Are you looking for a specific profile to complete the survey?
A. The survey is for anyone aged 14 or over who attends or has attended an evangelical church in Spain, whether they are regular or occasional attendees, and whether or not they are pastors or leaders.
Q. Would you recommend any book or material to go deeper into this subject?
A. A classic that I recommend is "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse" (1991) by Johnson and VanVonderen. Recently the authors Mireia Vidal i Quintero and Noa Alarcón Melchor, have published "Genealogies of trauma: abused bodies, reconciled memories" (2022, Spanish). In the book they have devoted a good section to this topic.
I also highly recommend a recent publication by Oakley and Humphreys entitled "Escaping the maze of spiritual abuse" (2019).
You can see the survey, which will be open until Mach 19, here (in Spanish).