Interview: Studying Spiritual Abuse in an Academic Setting

Interview: Studying Spiritual Abuse in an Academic Setting

depressed-girl-150x150Kathryn Keller has served as a mental health counselor with the Counseling and Psychological Services Department at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. She is currently working toward getting a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Texas Woman’s University (TWU) in Denton. Keller has developed a study that measures “spiritual abuse” using a 49-question survey taken by hundreds of participants.

CFFP:   What is the nature of your study? What do you hope to learn from it?

KELLER: The study focuses on the religious experiences of people who were involved in a Christian or Bible-based church or group. I hope to learn more about the spectrum that spiritual abuse covers and develop a scale that will measure this kind of abuse and enhance researchers’ abilities to assess it.

CFFP:   How do you define spiritual abuse?

KELLER:   I use the definition offered by Johnson & Van Vonderen in their 1991 book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. The authors define spiritual abuse as the “mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support, or greater spiritual empowerment with the result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.”

CFFP:   You say that there has been little research in the area of spiritual abuse. What else motivated you to conduct this study? Were you inspired by personal experiences?

KELLER:   My conservative Evangelical Christian upbringing coupled with my professional experience as a licensed professional counselor led to my interest in learning more about spiritual abuse. When I was growing up, I saw a lot of legalism to the point that people felt they could not live up to the religious standards of particular churches or church leaders. The inability to meet unattainable standards can result in a lot of shame. I had an acquaintance in college who was raised in a strict fundamentalist household and later suffered from depression. She really struggled to fit into a world much different from that of her upbringing. It was then that I realized that spiritual abuse covers many spectrums.

CFFP:   You talk about Christians’ religious beliefs preventing them from being able to worship “freely.” What do you mean by that?

KELLER:  Worshipping freely means that individuals feel they are able to connect with God without restrictions placed on them. A good example are Christians who identify as LGBT. Often, they struggle with their spirituality because faith leaders and others in their faith community have told them that their lifestyle is wrong, and so they believe God has rejected them for being who they are. Another example are women who are prevented from holding authoritative positions in the church and feel they cannot serve God in a way that brings their lives meaning.

CFFP:   Would you describe the process for conducting this study?

KELLER:   This study is based on the responses of 535 participants who are at least eighteen years old and have been involved with a Christian group or church for at least one year. The type of questions contained in the study were created to capture the experiences of spiritual abuse, such as being in a controlling environment. In addition, the study looks at how participants were affected after the abusive experience, such as feeling stress in finding a spiritual community.

CFFP:   Why does the study cover only Christian-based abuse?

KELLER: I originally envisioned the study covering many religions with multicultural responses, however, the committee members on my dissertation board suggested that I narrow the study to only people who attended a Christian-identified church or group because the questions I created in the measure contained Christian-biased wording such as “God” and “church.”

CFFP:   What prevents participants from taking the survey multiple times and skewing the results?

KELLER:   I analyze and sort the data, looking at demographics of participants and the content of their answers. If there is data that stands out as being questionable, I exclude that information. Also, the large number of responses means that a few illegitimate surveys would have a minuscule impact. I will ultimately refine the scale and send the survey out for further data collection to make sure it has strong reliability.

CFFP:   Are you familiar with the pioneer of this kind of research, Dr. Bette Bottoms of the University of Illinois at Chicago? Do you see your study providing expanded insights from where Dr. Bottoms left off?

KELLER: Dr. Bottoms’ research is very relevant to the research I am conducting. She identified several important themes regarding the impact of what she called “religion-related child abuse” which includes physical and sexual child abuse. My research narrows the focus to the spiritual aspect of abuse, and I focus on adult participants who may have experienced this abuse at any point in their lives, not just in childhood. I am trying to expand upon the idea that spiritual abuse is its own measurable construct that can occur in conjunction with other kinds of abuse or independently. Because the academic literature on spiritual abuse is in the early stages of development, researchers—including Dr. Bottoms—have not had access to a valid and reliable scale to assess whether abuse was religion-related which I believe my study will offer.

CFFP:   How could your study be used to help survivors of spiritual abuse?

KELLER:  Researchers could use it to measure spiritual abuse in participants of future studies, and counselors could use my findings to better recognize and treat spiritually abused clients. For example, therapists could use the scale to measure their clients’ progress. Finally, the study could be revised and applied to other religious populations.