He calls them “ministry crimes.” Kenneth Garrett pulls no punches in his book In the House of Friends: Understanding and Healing from spiritual Abuse in Christian Churches. Garrett suffered under abusive, manipulative leaders in the Christian Church. Yet when he would share his story with friends asking for advice, invariably the first question was about the church’s specific theology. If the church ticked off enough theological constructs, then it “couldn’t be a cult.” (As if listing correct doctrine on one’s website was all a church needed to prove it is not a cult.)
Garrett explains clearly and gently what a cult is. He explains how spiritual abuse sucks in its victims, and paralyzes them from leaving. He also shares vignettes from those who have been abused, and how they recovered. Finally, he offers simple steps for pastors (and chaplains) to care for the wounded, hurting people as they leave a congregation that had become family.
Garrett explains that abusers who are in church leadership are clever, intelligent and often well-spoken. They look for and groom people who will feed their need for adulation and loyalty. They are persuasive and market themselves and their churches well. As Garrett says, they “both promise heaven but deliver hell.” As I am ordained clergy, I could see how easily a church leader could fall into using these subtle manipulations to gain and keep followers. I have learned over the years how one’s ego and need for praise must be set aside… week after week… to preach and proclaim the Gospel.
In Chapter 5, Garrett suggests seven indicators of spiritual abusive churches. It was, by far, the most chilling chapter to read. In Chapters 8 and 9, the author provides some excellent resources for being a “safe shepherd” and how to grow and lead a “safe church.” These have a wealth of resources for clergy who find some of the “wounded sheep” coming to a new congregation. The receiving pastor is called to help them unlearn old expectations and abusive habits and grow in a new church that is, as Garrett says, “saturated with grace.”
With other books which I am reading beside Garrett’s book right now, he offers a swift and firm condemnation of the American church that craves power and bigger-than-life preachers as the everyday hero. Rather than focusing on spiritual growth of the individual member, abusive churches use marketing campaigns that focus on numbers, associations with famous people, and “the latest” in TV-quality production. This should give us pause.
There is a bibliography in the back of the book. I could wish for more sources which address abuse directly. Relationships in homes and workplaces often parallel the abuse found in the Church. In particular, he does not reference internet resources such as the National Center on Domestic Violence. Their “Power and Control Wheel” provides a graphic explanation of “why people stay” and how the abuse of power works. This would help situate the analysis Garrett brings within the body of knowledge on abusive relationships.
A major shortcoming of this volume is that Garrett does not bring the voices and perspectives of female, queer, and BIPOC writers and leaders. I suggest inclusion of sources from feminist and womanist writers writers such as Dr. Carolyn West, Roxane Gay, Monica Coleman and many others who speak to issues from the perspective of gender and sexuality. In addition, Dr. Christy Gunter Sim’s book on “Survivor Care” will round out Garrett’s volume and give additional steps and best practices for Christian leadership as they care for hurting people.
In the House of Friends: Understanding and Healing from Spiritual Abuse in Christian Churches, Kenneth J. Garrett. (c) 2020. Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher for review purposes. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”