"abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior or interaction within a group"
Mostly the reference is applied to family. But let's apply it to a religious group such as a church. It is ironic that many dysfunctional religious groups usually refer to themselves as a family and the followers are 'birthed' into it. Leaders become paternal and to those of us who have dysfunction in our familial histories not only find ths familiar but appealing. They are the parents we always wanted. As such, abuse has more potential to manifest itself and as the leadership is revered as paternal, it morphs into something more lethal. It becomes messianic in nature where the paternal leadership becomes papal in its form. There is no other way to God but through the paternal leaders.
Any study of the Holiness and Pentecostal movements in the past 100 years will reveal these patterns (see my post 'Caught in the Rain').
In researching for my own welfare, let's call it renewing of the mind and healing, I have done a good bit of research on the subject of social organizations that enter into a toxic state. Please be advised that such groups do not enter into this state quickly but gradually. In my observation it has to do with spiritual pride and the unhealthy perception that there is 'something special' God has done with this group that sets it apart.
So what are some earmarks of a dysfunctional religious group. ?
K.M. Porterfield in her work "Blind Faith - Recognizing and Recovering from Dysfunctional Religious Groups" has a good summary of some of the key indications.
If you see these in your current group they should be warnings to you:
1> A powerful charismatic leader who claims divinity and infallibility - Ok, so quite a statment but let's bring it down a little bit: Ask yourself if you hear things from the followers or perhaps leadership such as elders, ect. like "whatever 'the leader'
2> An Authoritarian power structure - There is a total assumption of power. How is this most often manifested? In the be-littling of the followers: i.e. the self-worth of the followers is always in question. Ironically, this is not necessarily manifested by the leadership but by the followers themselves. One is left questioning one's own abilities. Total dependence on the leader for guidance and the way of salvation is substituted in place personal direction and even the direction from the Lord Himself. In other words, we question ourselves and mistrust ourselves. This is re-inforced by the leadership in a mostly passive sense. They provide the instruction and teaching and these become the meter upon which one measures themself. Validation is sought by the follower from the leader much like the child the seeks approval from a dysfunctional parent. The fruit of such a life once played out is devastation of the inner self. Once extricated, the devastation continues given all sense of self-worth is evaporated. The tragic part of this whole scenario is that it is the predictable outcome from a dyfunctional relationship. Perhaps a type of relationship we started as children and yet were able to continue in the religious group. More than likely the leaders themselves are products of such an upbringing. It is well documented that leaders of such groups suffered various kinds of parental abuse as children. Their own desire for a fully controllable environment is born out in the group that they have created. They were never healed from what they came from and as such they unwittingly proffer it in their own organization.
3>Intrusion and blurred personal boundaries - This perhaps is one of the most important because it preys on the very desire of the follower to serve the Lord that saved them. Our own love for Christ is leveraged against us. In some sense people need permission to abuse. In a well-balanced and healthy mind, the permission is not granted. The line of personal boundaries is set in a wholesome sense. When intrusion upon the person is made, the boundary insulates the potential prey. For those who come from dysfunction, this boundary is 'soft'. This is due to the person being exposed to intrusion by authority figures prior to entering the group. The person with such orientation allows intrusion to continue because that is what they have always known and it is familiar to them. In fact the same dynamic is employed. The 'parent card' is played and so the ground of acquiesence is familiar: the person learns helplessness. How is this played out in a dysfunctional religious group? Well mostly others are held as examples of non-compliance. Leaders enter into counseling not for the purpose of reconciliation but compliance. Everyone is held to a code of conduct and the stragglers are well known by all and held as examples of what not to do. Fear of being called on the carpet keeps the dysfunctional follower in line. In this way there really are no personal boundaries and so the leadership has full access to the mind and soul of the follower. The individual is confronted with the 'herd mentalilty' and their difference to it is magnified to bring them back into line. This is all under the guise of discipline and proper shepherding.
4> Degradation - related to #3. It is the interplay between the membership and the leadership that is manifested in private and possibly public humiliation. This is used to immobilize the follower. A key element of this humilation is removal of positive self-regard. This is seen as rebellion, sin and so a major impedement to spiritual growth. When followers manifest positive self-regard (i.e. personal integrity), they are scolded or labeled as being deceived. Any question due to exercising self-regard is perceived by leadership as signs of rebellion and a reprobate mind.
5> Monopoly on Truth - This usually is an evolving process. It is not built in a day or year but the fruit of the seeds sown will be evident in the end. It can even reach a point that current teachings are on the level of the canon and may even go as far as the current leadership understands more about spiritual truth than the apostolic founders. What perhaps came and was received as a blessing now has devolved to elitism and sectarianism and the other ancilliary branches of the body of Christ are seen as enemies. Followers that leave the group - voluntarily or forcibly - are seen as damned by those that stay.
6> Total control over members' lives - History well documents this. In a practical sense the job, the spouse, the clothes, the entertainment and the location one lives are all under the approval of the leadership.
7> Rigid Institutional Boundaries - Inter-action with the outside world is minimal. Relationships outside the membership are monitored closely - especially those where family ties are involved. This is the lethal nature of the circular relationships that have been constructed. More contact with the outside breeds more isolation with the outside. Those who embrace outside relationships - especially with family members who are opposed to the group are not held in favor with the leaders. Moreover those who cut off outside ties are held as examples to the rest. The martyr complex is in full play: 'Just look at so and so and how much they have given up for the cause..." This is re-inforced by the follower who practices such estrangement. In the end is a separation from the support-systems God has ordained to help us in life -- and left them in the hands of their leader who has only their own agenda and to which the follower is a means to some personal end.
8> Secrecy and non-disclousure - This has many faces through-out the organization. For potential members, much is not disclosed to them until the proper time. There are little requirements and much validation of that person. Then as the potential member enters into group, the belief system that they held to that time is systematically replaced with the teachings of the group. This too is re-inforced through positive validation by the leadership. At this point the member has been oriented to the group and now begins to make their way. Gradually, the follower is further brought under influence by usually a series of confrontations that periodically happen during their tenure with the group. Each confrontation tests their adherence to the leadership and the teachings. When compliance is manifested, the person is praised and so conditions them to accept further 'guidance'. Basically, this is a surrendering of oneself to the leadership. Yes, it may be cloaked as a surrendering to Christ but in essence it is compliance to the groupthink. If one leaves the group -- either voluntarily or forcibly -- they are labeled as deceived or rebellious yet the disclosure of the details for such allegations are rarely revealed. This is usually in the name of discretion when infact perhaps it would expose the inconsistency of the leaders and the lack of evidence of any spiritual failure on the count of the ex-member. When it is done, it is to re-inforce the compliance of those who remain.
9> All for the cause - This is the driving force behind it all. Anything and anyone is fodder for the proffering of the cause. Basically, this can be explained in the difference between a zealot and a disciple. While they might look the same they are vastly different. Ironically, if we were to line up a zealot and a disciple when it comes to who is a true follower of Christ, we would more than likely pick the zealot. Why is that? It is because they appear to be more of what we would define as a follower of Christ. They are usually more dedicated. Yet the question must be asked as to 'what' are they dedicated? They are dedicated to the 'cause' not the Christ. Their motive and goal is to above all else forward the cause at any personal cost. Infact, they are conditioned as such by the leaders to give up their their family, their livelihood, their future to serve a cause. Usually when they have given it all, in the end they are left bankrupt and all that they have given is taken from them. Disiples do not take, they give. The ones who are targets of their affection end up with more than what they had originally. Ask yourself the questions: "Of those that left, are they still serving God?" and "After what I have experienced, can I fully recommend to those on the outside the group of which I am a part?" These two questions reveal more than might first be thought: Any group which truly reflects the mission and heart of Christ never leaves casualties in its wake. We cannot be the army that shoots its own wounded. Secondly, most of the groups eventually manifest a siege mentality i.e an 'us versus them'. As such, evangelism becomes non-existent and if the truth be told in the deepest part of one in such a dysfunctional group the members would not choose to be there. They perhaps unconsciously shield others from the group who might be candidates. This causes two things: The winnowing of the group into what is left are zealots and the increase of spiritual abuse in the name of the cause. This leads to the most lethal of the characteristics, the final point.
10> The Ends Justify the Means - In other words anything for the advancement of the cause. This can include financial mismangement and lack of accountability, lying to members (for their own good of course!). All final say is held in the hands of the leadership. There is no code they have constructed that cannot be bent for their means. This can include a constant pilfering of the assets of the group, re-location of persons to fulfill duties for leadership, divorce so that members can be separated from their spouses on little grounds more than a lack of compliance to the leader of the offending spouse. When these inconsistencies are presented by members to the leadership, the tables are turned where the one questioning such manifest behavior is being tested in their loyalty and that they cannot see all the ends.
In summary, the dysfunction of the group feeds on two things: Those in the group that enter in with dysfunctional baggage from their past. They see it all so familiar and the hope is to finally realize the validation that they have always sought now that the 'right' person is in charge. Secondly, if those who were not exposed to dysfunction in their previous experience, it is foreign to them and so they lack the skills to counter it until it is usually too late. Basically, they look at the solidarity of the group and so begin to do what they have never done, question their own ability to make decisions. In either case, the boundaries are surrendered unwittingly. What appears as a shepherd is actually a wolf and they are prey.