Source: Healing from Institutional Abuse
By: Brian G. Chilton | June 9, 2021
A cabin was nestled near the top of a mountaintop in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. This cabin served as a vacation home for my family and me. The evening was humid and muggy. Thus, we decided to take in a show in Pigeon Forge rather than exploring the beautiful hills of eastern Tennessee. On this evening, I would suffer an emotional and spiritual panic attack. The catalyst of the event was various reports of institutional abuse. One report discussed alleged cases of rape that went unreported. Other reports mentioned accusations of abuse from a person who would be the last person one would suspect of such behaviors.
Admittedly, I have suffered from bouts of anxiety in the past. Normally, I can sense when a bout of anxiety is about to commence. But in this case, it was as if I felt an overwhelming case of sorrow and distress. After requesting prayer on social media, I was blessed by the numerous supporters offering their prayers and encouragement. Many friends contacted me directly, whereas many others offered support online. It was heartwarming to see how many people truly cared. But this event left me curious as to why I would suffer such distress while on vacation of all places.
It was not until a few days afterward that I realized that the pain I had previously suffered in the pastorate was still unresolved. I still didn’t understand why I felt the way I did. Drs. David and Marybeth Baggett reached out to me. I spoke to them about my feelings and what I believed to be the culprit. Marybeth suggested two books for me to consider reading. The first was entitled Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse and Freeing Yourself from its Power by Wade Mullen. The other was Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church by Diane Langberg.
Mullen’s book truly spoke to me. He mentioned a field of sociological research known as impression management. Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman described impression management as the “process of creating, influencing, or manipulating an image held by an audience.” Impression management especially becomes abusive and unethical when people are put on display to hide underlying problems that should not be hidden. Mullen further notes that “the chief desire of abusive individuals is to attain or retain power—most often the kind of power gained and held through deception.” Because of this, churches can become a breeding ground for abusers to thrive.
But why do religious institutions allow such abuse to transpire? Mullen offers a reason for this as well. He says that many institutions unknowingly permit systems that are conducive for abuse because of image. If people were to know the problems that a place faced, then others may not want to come and take part of what the institution offered. As I read Mullen’s opening chapter, I began to realize two things. First, I came to the realization that I had suffered a form of abuse. Speaking with numerous individuals who were concerned with my well-being, I met many who admitted that they were victims of various forms of abuse. They faced similar emotional and spiritual bouts, some of which were full-blown cases of PTSD. Their professed experiences were eerily reminiscent of my own. Second, I came to realize that institutional abuse, identified as impression management, was far more widespread than I ever considered.
The first step in healing is to first diagnose the source of pain. I cannot say that I am fully healed from the abuse that I encountered. But I do believe that I have taken the first step. Perhaps God permitted me to have this emotional episode to bring me to the place of genuine recovery. Whatever the case, I also believe that many others are facing the same issues but do not understand where their emotional and spiritual hurts derive.
So, where do we go from here? I will occasionally update you on my progress from time to time. But there are two suggestions I would make for the here and now. First, become grounded in theology and apologetics. As my good friend Jerry Bogacz said, apologetics becomes an anchor keeping one stable during times of emotional distress. While it is not understood why I endured some of the things that I have in ministry, all the while understanding my own faults—the goodness of God is a constant wellspring of hope and a constant source of comfort.
Second, cases of institutional abuse must be exposed and corrected. We can no longer stand idly by while innocent people are harmed by abusers hiding behind crosses and policies. The prophet Isaiah writes, “Learn to do what is good. Pursue justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17). Also, consider that Jesus told the Church of Ephesus that they must “Remember how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev. 2:5). While I have had an enigmatic relationship with the church throughout my life, I still love Christ’s Bride. If the problems of abuse in the American Church are not corrected, we should not be surprised if Jesus may eventually remove the lampstand from the Church of America. Be on the lookout for future posts as I discover more truths on my pathway to recovery. Continue to deepen your love for God and be kind to one another.
Brian G. Chilton is the founder of BellatorChristi.com, the host of The Bellator Christi Podcast, the author of the Layman’s Manual on Christian Apologetics, and a Ph.D. Candidate of the Theology and Apologetics program at Liberty University. He received his Master of Divinity in Theology from Liberty University (with high distinction); his Bachelor of Science in Religious Studies and Philosophy from Gardner-Webb University (with honors); and received certification in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. Brian is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Evangelical Philosophical Society. Brian has served in pastoral ministry for nearly 20 years and currently serves as a clinical chaplain and a Senior Contributor for MoralApologetics.com.
© 2021. BellatorChristi.com.
 Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York, NY: Anchor, 2008); Wade Mullen, Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse and Freeing Yourself from its Power (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2020), 9.
 Mullen, 12.
 Ibid., 15.
 Mullen calls this “dark secrets…facts a person or an organization knows and conceals because if they were revealed, they could damage the image of that person or organization.” Ibid, 17.
 By no means am I claiming that I was sinless in all my previous encounters.
 Unless otherwise noted, all quoted Scripture comes from the Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman, 2020).