Ministries Behaving Badly: DARVO and the Persecution Complex
I’ve had a suffocating week, digging through old emails in service to writing my upcoming memoir. I’ve had a chance to observe some of the inner workings of a ministry that caused a lot of emotional damage to me and mine (which I have written about in my other Medium stories), from the advantaged, more objective viewpoint brought about by the passing of time.
In recent years, the concepts of being trauma-informed and even survivor-led have become more popular in the layman helping professions, as people have realized that the gap between those with theoretical knowledge about what might be helpful in recovery from all kinds of mental health conditions and those with the lived experience to know firsthand, has been exposed.
But it strikes me that even those helping professions for whom the desire is sincere, many institutions want to utilize those buzzwords without any *actual* idea what they mean.
Specifically I have seen this happening in the Christian ministry world, where people who believe any wound can be healed by God — with the help of a skilled minister, of course — and are doing pseudo-therapy with trauma survivors under the guise of inner healing prayer. Sometimes leaders in these circles may have some formal education (e.g. a Bachelor’s in Psychology) to give a “pretence of competency” as Matthew Remski of Conspirituality calls it. Indeed, a pretence of competency in psychology plus a pretence of competency in Biblical healing matters — which, as Mr. Remski points out, is often just a sly cover-up for a double incompetency in either area. And by referencing a pretence of competency in Biblical healing matters, I’m not suggesting that these people do not know their Bibles; they usually do. They can usually quote them at great length and they usually imagine themselves to be very clever at studying and discerning what certain passages mean using the original text (iykyk).
But when it comes down to messy situations with survivors, where the ministry leader is called upon to actually live what they say they believe, that is where what they actually believe and want is made clear — by the way they handle it, not by what they’ve said or continue to say from behind a podium.
For example: a lot of ministries seem to think that equality and power-with for survivors during the trauma healing process sounds really Christlike and makes them look credible as a religious institution or ministry, but they don’t actually employ any principles to make this a reality. This is true generally not only for the entire length of time the survivor is being ministered to, but also in the event that the relationship with those doing the ministry goes sideways.
You see this in the response when a ministry or church is confronted for harming a survivor with their lack of true knowledge of how to help someone recover from trauma, or when other churches or ministries that they like are being called out for something similar. Everything from anger and defensiveness to stonewalling to the flavor of diplomacy that pretends it’s looking into the claims but is actually doing nothing of the sort (except for stalling to wait and see if the whole thing will just die out on its own).
I mean, how dare these ungrateful survivors accuse someone of harming them who is trying to help them? How dare they interpret something done by the ministry as anything but God’s divine will as per the role that ministry is supposed to take in their life?
When this does happen, most — if not all — ministries don’t have enough actual knowledge of what a trauma-informed OR survivor-led approach to conflict resolution might look like. So they themselves, as institutions, do the classic fight, flight, or freeze in the form of gaslighting/ attempts to discredit /legal threats/ NDA’s, or intentional disengagement from the survivor and anyone associated with them, or sometimes an initial response as if they have every intention of engaging but then they just…never follow through.
Many Christian churches or ministries have enough financial and social clout that they don’t really have to engage in conflict resolution with those they profess to serve if they don’t want to. And virtually none of them want to. They act as if ministering to people — specifically trauma survivors and specifically in a pseudo-therapeutic sense —in a way that doesn’t reproduce the same type of abusive power dynamic the survivor already survived just isn’t necessary to their overall vision; a belief that is as arrogant as it is ironic. They put the burden of conjuring a better ministry environment and social culture on the survivors to create for themselves, or go find it elsewhere if they dare not to like the one presented by the ministry.
The fact that all of this is compounding the harm already done to the survivor they are claiming to want to help does not occur to them, or if it does, they consider it the fault of the survivor and not their church or ministry.
I have not personally seen anywhere where churches or ministries intentionally come together to discuss instances (or cultures) of harm unwittingly inflicted on their patrons, in efforts to combine resources and figure out how to do better. Maybe they do exist, and I’m just not privy to them. (I’m aware that there are plenty of meetings that happen privately in attempts to figure out how to silence survivors who are speaking out about mistreatment and protect the institutions’ assets.) In this way, churches and ministries really have no means by which to share resources, offer or receive support in order to learn a better way to center the experiences of survivors, or even lovingly confront each other about their blind spots. One of the main underlying reasons is fairly obvious: all churches and ministries are, to a greater or lesser degree, in competition with each other. So why would they want to do any of the above?
In that light, churches and ministries are not benevolent sources of compassionate help and support, but just another industry where survivors are being taken advantage of — and then discarded — all in the name of making a profit.
Further, since survivors are mostly excluded from any conversations about how ministries inadvertently cause harm, the power imbalance continues. People who are likely to harm others out of the echo chamber of their limited knowledge are given a lot of prestige, and automatically given the benefit of the doubt whenever a story of harm surfaces.
In my case, Denise has employed the classic DARVO response to my allegations of harm which I’ve written extensively about since my failed attempt to have a constructive conversation with her about it. (Even following their own rules for conflict resolution, as set forth in their Bible, they would not afford me even one conversation.)
DARVO=deny, attack, reverse victim and offender
While I am not able to see what Denise has specifically said about me personally (I’ve been blocked from all their accounts for years now, and Denise differentiates between what she posts publicly and privately on social media), I can well imagine, based on the types of information she espoused about people like me throughout our years of working together. It would not surprise me if she has circulated the idea that I — as a multiple and trauma-based mind control programming survivor — might be acting out of a pre-programmed template to attack and discredit their ministry; that I am mentally unwell and therefore misunderstood and am now misrepresenting what happened between us, etc, etc. The idea that some sort of trauma-based mind control program has been initiated — that I’m not “in my right mind,” not acting out of the sincerity of what I actually believe to be true — is a handy scapegoat in this situation. It’s multi-purpose. It allows them to maintain their position of superiority as the ones who are right and the ones who have the answers.
It would also be easy for them, and less painful I’m sure, to believe that I’m not acting out of my own conscious will in what I’ve been saying and doing in regards to their behavior these last four years. This would help them avoid (and continue to deny) the reality that I’m not under the influence of any programming, but this is actually just what I think about them.
At any rate, the denial of the board of directors, the refusal to admit the possibility that anyone did anything immoral or unethical in the four-year relationship between Denise and me, that it was all a misunderstanding on my part, wasn’t enough. There is also this little gem from Denise’s most recent book.
She casts herself as the victim of “slander” — which also casts me as the offender. Too bad the definition of slander is really different than someone just stating inconvenient truths (with receipts) to a wider audience since the actual offender refused to listen privately — which is what I’ve been doing.
Slander is “false and damaging statements about someone.” My statements were not false, though whether they were damaging or not is a matter of debate since Denise is still doing what she’s always done; running a ministry, making six figures. Her loyal followers have only circled the wagons. Not one single church affiliated with her or her ministry responded to my letters. Meanwhile I had to move out of state to avoid being found and revictimized by my traffickers — a cost upwards of $9,000 absorbed by myself on a single mother’s income, and my dad, who aided me. (A small GoFundMe campaign also helped.) This doesn’t touch the emotional and physical toll taken on me and my three small children who were forced to move yet again for reasons they won’t be old enough to understand for many years.
But yeah, Denise is definitely the victim in this situation.
I actually don’t have any answers for addressing the problems in Christian institutions where they utilize a pretence of competency to feign expertise and then subsequently harm their target clientele and then throw them under the bus. There are people who are way more brilliant than I am who probably do. (Also, it’s not my job as someone who was harmed to figure out how to fix the niche culture that harmed me, period, but also especially when they don’t want anything to change.)
My own personal solution was to divest from religion, and that has eliminated roughly 50% of the repeated stress and harm in my life. So yay for that. But I also fervently wish people like Denise could be held accountable in tangible ways, and I have no solution for that. She’s been teaching about codependency, agape Christian love, boundaries, and healing for 20+ years while putting none of it into practical action (only the veneer of appearance without substance); particularly when confronted about abusive, problematic behavior. That, to me, warrants interventionary action. But it’s action that can’t be taken singularly, and I do not have the social power to drive any sort of collective action that would matter to her. She has spent decades building a following using what I call “the cult of personality,” and now she can use those people she’s charmed into loyalty to her by way of her charisma and smooth talk into being shields to keep her from truly being held accountable for harm done within that same community.
Denise is what @yourbodyisgood on IG would call an “Altruistic Narcissist” as defined by these slides:
On the surface level, she’s good. She’s spent a very long time cultivating this image, and done well at it. But underneath the surface, the double incompetency in knowing how to ethically work with trauma survivors and applying Biblical concepts to her functional life have left a trail of wounded people in her wake.
Even people from within her social circles have messaged me, saying they felt similarly or were treated similarly but were afraid to say anything because they had too much to lose. That tells me all I need to know.