When I tell people the areas that I work with in counseling, I usually say, “anxiety, mood disorders, male mentoring, and spiritual abandonment.” The last one is the area that many people don’t understand. I define spiritual abandonment as, “any action on the part of a spiritual leader or institution that leaves a member of the same faith feeling forsaken, worthless, or without hope or meaning.” By “spiritual leader” I mean any person with the same faith who has a position of authority in a person’s life. This position may include someone as magisterial as a pastor or as personal as a parent. I suppose that spiritual abandonment can occur among people without a religious faith, but my experience in that level is quite limited.
As someone who tries to practice Christian logotherapy, I am concerned with the meanings that people have in their lives. This may be simple daily meanings (feeling purposeful or needed) or ultimate meaning (a search for a connection with God). When someone experiences spiritual abandonment, one feels that her meaning is questioned, that what he believed about God may not be true.
Sometimes, the abandonment can be cured by restoration. Both parties can come to an understanding, the relationship can be restored, and both parties can walk away having grown in their personal meaning about God.
However, sometimes when the abandonment starts because a leader or institution is afraid of confrontation or the legal entanglements they feel may result from the confrontation, they are resistant to sit down with the hurt individuals. They would rather simply cut the person off and put them away than to meet with them privately and discuss the reasons there is a problem. The more I meet with people who have gone through spiritual abandonment with a church or Christian organization, the more I find that the leaders are scared of meeting with people under them. They hate conflict. Because of this revulsion, they simply want the problem to go away. If this involves rejecting a person without giving support or a sense of hope, so be it. They are fearful of resolution because they are afraid it may mean not getting what they want. With legal concerns looming over them, it is better not to speak than to show vulnerability. I have met people who were cut off from members of their church or even fired from positions within Christian organizations with leaders who simply would not explain why they were committing their actions.
What we who have done mediations know is that sometimes mediations are not pretty. Sometimes there is crying or even screaming. Shockingly, people act humanly. Hurt may pour out of the person feeling abandoned in a variety of ways, most of them stemming from childhood fight, flight, or freeze reactions. If the leader responds with kindness and understanding–even if she must stand her ground and hold her position–there can still be restoration, a grace between two people who must “agree to disagree.”
The problem is that leaders of organizations are often choleric (they operate on power and want their own way even if they have to bulldozer people) or phlegmatic (they operate on peace and see conflict as an avoidable evil). Melancholy leaders (those who operate on the basis of perfection) may cut off those they feel don’t meet their standards without taking time to listen, and sanguine leaders (those who operate with the desire of popularity) are often afraid that approaching someone with negativity may make them disliked.
Without resolution, a person who has been spirtually abandoned must search for their own meaning. With the help from God, he can forgive without the other party asking forgiveness by asking, “If she were to ask me for forgiveness, would I be willing to forgive her?” Through time, prayer, and counsel, the door can be closed, and the abandonment healed by the only One who will never leave us.
Hey I just read your article on “Spiritual Abandonment” and I had some thoughts. You talk about people who have been clearly and specifically hurt by a particular “spiritual leader.” But what about people who have just been worn down, little by little, by many spiritual leaders in their life? People who can’t pinpoint a specific person or relationship they need to “reconcile”, but the culmination of relationships and leadership has caused them to feel spiritually abandoned?
Thank you Jeff. The antithesis to spiritual abandonment is the grieving process. The more we give ourselves permission to feel our pain, the more freedom we experience.