Anglican Watch

Exclusive interview: Benningers speak out on spiritual abuse

In a recent USA Today article, the newspaper covered the harrowing story of spiritual abuse that Dominique and Megan Benninger and their family experienced when they blew the whistle on pastor Donald Foose, who had been convicted and jailed following charges he sexually molesting an underaged relative.

Stripped of his teaching license by state education officials, Foose nonetheless became pastor at Oakwood Baptist Church in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. 

Subsequently, Foose became superintendent of the church’s school. Fully aware of his past, church officials took no action to ensure the safety of children at the school, despite multiple complaints from school personnel that Foose was inappropriately familiar with children. Indeed, it appears that church officials took at face value his assertions that he had been falsely accused, despite the criminal conviction. Even more seriously, they failed to disclose this information to parents, thus depriving them of the opportunity to make key decisions involving the safety and well-being of their children.

When the Benningers learned of Foose’s past, they did all the right things. They tried handling the matter quietly, working within the system. The results were underwhelming, with Foose eventually making a statement and Resigning from the church.

When they later discovered Foose was preaching at another local church that had not notified its congregation, they again tried to get church leadership to notify the congregation themselves. Seeing no results, the Benningers, with five children of their own, warned church officials that if they didn’t notify parents about his background, they would.

At the eleventh hour, church officials went public with the information. The results were underwhelming, with Foose simply no longer attending the church. Hardly the sort of response that promotes accountability or reassures parents.

Meanwhile, officials equivocated, while minimizing the situation. As church leaders preached a false gospel of “forgive and forget,” seemingly in order to protect the organization, members began leaving, resulting in a church that today is less than half the size that it was before the scandal broke.

And while denominational officials talked a good game, their actions didn’t align with their words. Time after time, the Benningers were told, “We support your efforts,” only to find that their concerns were ignored, brushed off, minimized, are treated as the angry actions of troublemakers. Yet when one area church finally, under pressure from the Benningers, went public with information about Foose, it was SBC state denominational officials who took credit for the disclosure!

Today, the Benningers are long gone from Oakwood. They’ve lost whole circles of friends, many of whom they loved as family and trusted completely. And they’ve come to question the very roots of their faith as they struggle with a sense of betrayal at every level. 

Dominique is working to overcome the pain and find a home in a new church. Megan hasn’t attended church in more than a year. While she initially struggled with that decision, today she’s at peace with her decision.

But what lessons have the Benningers taken from their long and arduous experience with spiritual abuse, which they now realize predated the hurt and betrayal they experienced at Oakwood? Below are their thoughts on these and other issues, as well as comments from their college-aged daughter Anya. Their observations, including those about the duplicity of denominational officials, will sound painfully familiar to those who have experienced abuse in the church.

Anglican Watch: What are the effects of spiritual abuse? How has it affected you, your family, and your friends?

Megan Benninger:

I had panic attacks when it started getting bad at Oakwood. As a result of the spiritual abuse that happened to us in our college cult, I am extremely sensitive to spiritual abuse of any kind. So when the pastors at Oakwood started preaching about forgiveness and gossip, I started having panic attacks during the services, and would have to leave the sanctuary. I can’t stand the thought of being controlled, ever again. And now that we faced it yet again in a totally different church setting (an SBC church), I can’t imagine ever trusting another church leader. After reading a lot of Wade Burleson’s writings, I don’t believe that church leaders (as we know them today) are even scriptural, or what God intended. I don’t think church leaders are supposed to have power over other church members. I don’t believe I need any spiritual authority figure to approve my words, beliefs, or actions. 1 Timothy 2:5 “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.” And Matthew 23:8-12 “But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your [c]Teacher, [d]the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself will be [e]humbled, and he who humbles himself will be [f]exalted.”

Anya Benninger:

I think it’s like emotional abuse in some ways. Like unless it’s a full-out cult and tied with other forms of abuse people tend to brush it off. And really, you never know it’s happening to you until you’re out of the situation. You just take the things they’re telling you for granted because you trust them, and it fits into the framework of the rest of what you believe (which they also taught you). And once you get out of that it’s like leaving an emotionally abusive relationship. You’re constantly plagued with guilt because you’re not going to church. And even when you see how wrong they were, you’re still struck with terror that maybe you’re “straying from the faith” because you’re outright rejecting what they called “truths.” 

You also have to relearn just about everything from scratch, which is honestly daunting. I know the big thing I’ve been starting to push back on is the idea of Total Depravity, and I’m realizing more and more how much that idea messed me up. I remember being cheered on in youth group for telling everyone there was nothing good in me. Even until a year ago I got so confused when advocates would speak out against this kind of thing, because “isn’t everyone inherently broken?” So all that to say, you’ll be surprised at just how much you have to rethink, and even more surprised at how much it ended up affecting you outside of your awareness.

Dominique Benninger:

I think spiritual abuse targets deeply held desires and longings that are common to people within a faith community. It then exploits those desires in order to change the victim’s beliefs (what’s right/wrong, good/bad, normal/abnormal), with the ultimate goal of modifying their behavior. At its simplest level, spiritual abuse is grooming: the victim’s sense of what is “normal” is changed by the abuser, so the victim can be used to meet the abuser’s wants or needs.

In my own life, I can see how my beliefs were modified with spiritual abuse in the cult I experienced in college so the leader could get more of my money. We were given bible verses and sermons to make us give more extravagantly (you sow what you reap), and to give out of fear of divine retribution (shall a man rob God?). At one point at a church we attended following the cult, we were pressured to join a financial accountability group where another couple reviewed our finances to make sure we were “good Christians” who gave a minimum of 10% of our gross income to the church. This abusive approach most certainly financially benefited the abusive leaders – but only led us deeper into debt. At Oakwood, there was deep congregational unease following the sudden departure of a very well-respected senior pastor. We were groomed with spiritual abuse to act like stupid, docile sheep who couldn’t comprehend the big important things shepherds were up to behind closed doors. And so the spiritual abuse started with a trickle, and ended in a flood. We were given bible verses and sermons designed to make us more compliant, quiet and docile, so the abusive leaders could keep doing whatever they wanted. The leaders used bible verses to create an elaborate social game that only they could win: Just to play the game meant you already lost. I believe that at the very root of the conflict among leadership was one pastor’s questionable past and present behavior with underage children. This was fleshed out in the USA Today article. But more than one of the five pastors had questionable past behavior that would have disqualified them from the ministry. And so, instead of demonstrating transparency and repentance, they resorted to spiritual abuse. Behaviors like silence, compliance and praise (for the pastors) were rewarded and correlated with being “good Christians.” Voicing our concerns or asking questions was dissuaded and correlated with things like “not loving God” or “being divisive” or being “easily offended.” The bible was used for behavior modification, until we were drooling like the proverbial Pavlov’s dog by keeping quiet. This served the needs of church leaders – they could keep the respectable pastoral jobs that they most certainly did not qualify for.

Anglican Watch: What do you think it would take to trust a church leader again?

Dominique Benninger:

It’s funny how I’ve been around spiritual abuse most of my life – and yet I still keep trying to find trustworthy church leaders. I know enough of myself by now to realize that I keep seeking out a father figure who can guide me towards right and wrong. I was a latchkey kid in a single parent home – during my formative years of age 11-18, I had to raise myself. At my core, I’m vulnerable to spiritual abuse. Spirituality has always been what grounds me and makes sense out of the chaos around me – I crave it like some crave drugs or strong drink. I’m a magnet for spiritual abuse, I seem inexorably drawn towards abusers. They smell my desperation for inner peace, and are more than happy to offer direction towards that goal, if only I offer them what they want in return. It’s a perfectly symbiotic relationship. No wonder studies indicate that such a high percentage of spiritual leaders are narcissists. Sheep are so easy to dupe – we are all so predictably after the same thing. Abusers in the church are shooting fish in a barrel.

I’m kind of like the guy in the old REO Speedwagon song – “Should I follow my head? Or follow my heart?” It seems like I am perpetually unable to trust church leaders (head), and yet am powerless to stop trying (heart). While I’m getting better at spotting predators within the church – and there are a crap ton of them – there are always better camouflaged wolves that keep me on my toes. What would it take to trust a church leader again? Sadly, if I’m honest with myself it takes precious little for me to trust a church leader again. Just a tiny peek into a corner of their spotless dining room, and I assume I know what’s in their attic. It creates the illusion that I really know a church leader, warts and all, and can relate to them. In reality, every single time I’ve only ever been given just enough transparency to create the illusion that I know who a church leader is as a person. I could certainly relate to the minuscule wart they were comfortable revealing, and loved them all the more for it. But I only knew the persona they presented for the very brief time they had my attention on Sunday morning and Wednesday night. It’s kind of like Bill Cosby – we all loved him whenever we saw him on TV. But the rest of the time, he was allegedly a monster. And when that monster emerged, it was painful to see how we had so easily been duped. That Bill Cosby analogy sums up my relationship with church leaders: in the back of my mind, I think look out, they could be dangerous… but I just can’t resist the pudding pops.

Anglican Watch: And what will it take for the church as a whole to heal?

Dominque Benninger:

I think that as long as there is a hierarchy between clergy and laity, there is no real hope for the church to completely heal. Until we are all equal before God like Paul said in Galatians, there will always be those who use their position to abuse those “underneath” them. There should not be anyone underneath us to potentially abuse. Perhaps that imperfect tension (though certainly not the abuse) is the very design of God for those of us left on this earth: it makes us long for that which is perfect on the other side of this earthly veil. I will say that I have found incredible healing through the acceptance and grace from the massive global community of discarded sheep – those who have, like me, been abused and discarded by abusers within the church. I have found fellowship, common ground, and a shared suffering that binds us together more tightly than gorilla glue. One of the greatest sufferings in recovering from spiritual abuse is that feeling of isolation and abandonment when the faith community turns on you for not conforming. In this day and age, where two people on opposite ends of this dusty rock can converse in real time across the Internet, why would I feel the need to go back into an organized religious setting? Through them, I have found true believers who are following God. We encourage each other, pray for each other, comfort each other, even study the Bible together (perhaps more voraciously than most seminary students). And most precious of all, we show a deep level of kind, patient, loving mercy and acceptance to each other that is incredibly rare among the churches. Sadly, these days churches are more like little bubbles of evangelical conformity. As long as you speak the same lingo as everyone around you, you can stay in the bubble. Remember that Christian poster at every Christian book store about that one super-bold Godly Christian fish that swims against the Godless flow of the worldly fish around him? In actuality, there is an entire school of conformist Christian fish, all swimming in the same direction. Step one fin out of line from THAT evangelical school of fish, and you’re not applauded for going against the flow. You become a punch line in next Sunday’s sermon, and wake up one morning drowning in tartar sauce as a fish stick.

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