Going Back to Abuse: What In the World Just Happened?

One of the great [supposed] mysteries of abusive relationships is why a victim continues to return to their abuser? What is it that drives a survivor of domestic violence back to the scene of the crime multiple times?

One survey of domestic abuse survivors discovered that on average, victims return to their abusers 6.3 times.

“How Survivors Have Left an Abuser for Good,” n.d., https://www.domesticshelters.org/articles/escaping-violence/how-survivors-have-left-an-abuser-for-good.

Why does she do that?

We might be asking ourselves a similar question:

Why do we do stay under abusive leadership in Christian organizations?

There is a significant difference between being married and serving under a toxic boss in the workplace. But, for those who serve in Christian ministries, there may be some similarities that make it particularly hard to leave an abusive leader behind.

The following are some of the reasons given by domestic violence experts for why a victim returns to her abusive partner. And for each, how these same reasons pop up within the toxic workplace.

Number 1

  • “The victim feeling that the relationship is a mix of good times, love and hope along with the manipulation, intimidation and fear.”[2]

There are at least a couple ways to look at this when staying with a toxic leader.

First, we know that the Lord turns evil into good on a regular basis. He is gracious in that way.

Unfortunately, we sometimes stick it out, living in fear and suffering because we have a false understanding of suffering for Christ. We might think we are “suffering for Christ” and thinking we have a duty to stay.

It is important to remember firstly that when God’s people are told they may suffer for the Lord and should remain in that place of suffering, it is normally in the context of having no other option.

  • Being a Christian means we do not deny Him to the world…and that can bring persecution and suffering. (2 Tim. 2:12) We cannot leave the world and so must suffer for Jesus because we are His people.
  • Also consider Peter’s call to slaves in 1 Peter 2:18f. Peter tells them to hang in there with a good attitude. Where did they have to go? They could not simply quit their jobs. In addition, Peter goes on through the end of his letter talking generally about suffering as a Christian. Again, this suffering was unjust and due to being stuck in their circumstances.

An employee of a Christian organization is not stuck in his place like a slave or a Christian in the first century suffering under a government that outlawed Christianity. Just as Jesus, Paul, and Peter provide examples of fleeing from suffering, we have that option when facing off with a toxic leader. [See Jn. 12:36, Acts 9:23-25, 12:6-17]

Secondly, many feel that the good times outweigh the bad. They continue to look back on their ministry with rose-colored glasses and see all the good they believe they have done. They fail to see all the trauma that it is causing them in the now. They may not realize that every spiritual and emotional wound they suffer carries a bag full of physical effects – negatively changing neural pathways, creating unfounded fears and illnesses from the stress. [See this blog]

It is like the frog who is being boiled. It starts out cold and the progressive increase in temperature is so gradual it is imperceptible to the frog. In the end, he boils to death. So, the one who continually looks back or forward through lenses that make it impossible to see the evil being done to them and others.

Unfortunately, over time, those who remain committed to these toxic leaders find their spiritual, emotional, and physical lives chipped away. Often, when they finally jump out of the pot they despise missions, Christian organizations, the church, or even Christ.

Number 2

  • Nowhere Else to Go. In a survey on DomesticShelters.org, 43 percent of respondents said they returned to an abuser after finding out their local domestic violence shelter could not accommodate them. Lack of having somewhere to go (e.g. no friends or family to help, no money for hotel, shelter programs are full or limited by length of stay)”

The variation on this for the employee of a toxic Christian organization is that they have no other job prospects or they fear the shame of returning from the mission field.

This, combined with number 1, can be deadly to the Christian.

It is scary to step out of what you have become accustomed. It was maybe your dream job when you got it, and to admit seeming defeat is frightening.

Be assured, joining a Christian organization is almost always a shock. The red flags are not always visible and rarely are we particularly open to seeing them when looking for a job. It is extremely hard to believe that Christian leaders can be so wicked.

My own parents saw the toxins much sooner than I did in our Christian ministry.

It is important to remember that the Lord has taken you, led you, and provided for you in the past and He can in the future. If this job is causing mental, spiritual, and physical health problems, then trust the Lord and get out.

Number 3

  • Fear...Domestic violence is rooted in a desire to control another individual through coercion or threats. An abuser may tell the survivor that if they don’t come back home, the abuser will find them and harm or kill them, their children, their extended family or their beloved pets.” 

This is really a variation on number 2. Employees feel trapped in that they know they will not receive a good reference if they leave the organization. Again, they fear being back in the chase for a job…and do so without a good reference from their abusive boss.

Unfortunately, this can be a real problem. Yet, again we have to remember who is in control of our future. Does the Lord know the mess you are in? Yes. Does He care that you are in that mess? Yes. Can He rescue you and bring you to a land of milk and honey? Absolutely.

Trust Him. Get out. Quick.

Number 4

  • Psychological Control or Brainwashing. Many abusers use these tactics, which may also be called emotional abuse or coercive control, in order to convince the survivor that the only person who can truly love them or keep them safe is the abuser.”

One toxic organization variation on this one is the development of image. Common to most toxic organizations is the leader’s image building. The leaders will go to great lengths to build up the image of the organization in the minds of anyone who will listen.

And it is likely you have thirsted for that koolaid in your pride of ministry. You wanted to hear how great your ministry was…especially compared to other ministries. You soaked up their boasts.

Leaders say such things as, “We do ministry the best of them all” or “God has specially blessed us in ways other ministries just don’t have” are said over and over until they truly believe their own press.

And you have likely believed the press as well. I remember coming to that realization after six years with our organization. I found myself constantly comparing our wonderful ministry with others.

But, remember, a toxic organization is not particularly blessed. Nor does it do ministry the best of them all. In fact, they are the worst. There really are organizations out there that practice love and integrity with all their stakeholders.

Wouldn’t you rather be part of that?

Get Out. Now.

I can say this because I finally did. But, I know how difficult it really is.

It took me years to get it. I didn’t listen to others. I found great pride in my organization. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Each of the above reasons why a survivor continues to return to her abuser were true of me staying in my organization.

But, it is not too late. Honestly evaluate the benefits of the trauma you are facing and horrendous witness to Christ your organization is displaying.

And get out. Now.

NOTES

[1] “How Survivors Have Left an Abuser for Good,” n.d., https://www.domesticshelters.org/articles/escaping-violence/how-survivors-have-left-an-abuser-for-good.

[2] “NCADV | National Coalition Against Domestic Violence,” accessed March 7, 2022, https://ncadv.org/why-do-victims-stay.

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