We are by no means experts on the subject of toxic churches and leaders.
All we offer here is a selection of strategies which helped and continue to help us come through this experience. You will also find much good advice out there on the internet. (Check out the links page!)
The vast majority of those who have come from a toxic church environment will advise you to LEAVE! In rare cases, it may be possible to change the system, but this is unlikely since huge upheaval would be needed to remedy the situation. It is not just a matter of the pastor 'repenting'. Every relationship with the leader of an authoritarian system would need to be re-established on a new footing--and every member would need to be willing for that change to happen!
We were aware that we would almost certainly need to leave. It was simply, in our case, a matter of getting the timing right. So we stayed for a season.
Being by nature non-confrontational people we abode by the no-talk rule--at least towards members of the congregation. This, despite being very painful, at least prevented an abusive situation becoming messier. Any accusations of gossip could not stick if we hadn't spoken to anybody! Other more outspoken personality types may not find this so easy. So if the accusations are already flying in your direction remember that any regrets of yours do not justify your pastor's abuse!
We found it immeasurably helpful to bounce our perceptions off Christian friends who were familiar with our environment but could view it from an 'external position'. Just having a listening ear was so helpful and wise advice was often given.
We had a meeting with the pastor and a well-prepared letter was read, outlining the causes for concern and stating an aim to continue working together for the benefit of the church. Many pastors live without knowing why members of the congregation leave. This, we believe, is an injustice and does not allow opportunity for the pastor to change. It is certainly Scriptural to 'go to your brother and show him his fault.'
It was, however, important for us to establish a 'bottom line'. In our case, we explained that we were unable to remain part of a church in which the pastor preached himself into a place beyond correction. We found holding this bottom line more helpful than any dispute we might have had over doctrinal issues. If your pastor fails to get this 'bottom line' there is no hope for other issues to be addressed effectively.
We were able to remain for nine months before finally leaving. While this was painful, it gave opportunity for the pastor to change or, alternatively, allowed the 'fruit to ripen'. What we had originally suspected as being abuse was eventually revealed with abundant clarity. Many more characteristics common to toxic groups began to be expressed during this 'probationary' period. When we finally left there was no doubt about the nature of our experience. The consequent shunning was, of course, the final confirmation.
We left silently. Those few people who needed a reason were simply told that the pastor had been given an explanation nine months previously. As it is impossible to leave such circumstances with a good reputation, we felt that any attempt at justification would be wasted.
During this nine month period we spent hour upon hour researching and reading all the material we could about spiritual abuse. This was vital for helping us maintain a healthy perspective. Our research began in complete ignorance wondering if, perhaps, it was our ex-pastor's dyslexia that was responsible for unwitting misinterpretation of Scripture . Dyslexia was clearly not the root of the problem, although his difficulties in this area should have led him to seek greater accountability in his teaching and perhaps contributed to his sense of feeling threatened by the 'educated'. It was the incidental links to narcissism that finally gave us an apparently accurate description of the real issues.
It is very important to talk to someone who has experience and understanding of this kind of environment once you leave. It is likely that you will feel alone. There are many blog sites which will hear your story, you will recognize similar patterns and owners can be contacted, if necessary! In our case, completing Dr Barb Orlowski's survey at www.churchexiters.com helped immeasurably with the healing process as did some friendly, wise support from Barb herself.
You may need professional help if you continue to struggle with feelings of anger or grief.
Whatever you do, keep talking. Get involved on the blogs. If possible explore other churches. You are free to come and go as you please and there is no pressure on you if you are just visiting. Appreciate the extra time you have now that you are out of your toxic environment and perhaps explore activities and hobbies that have taken a back seat. If your faith is still intact understand that God is fine with you 'as you are'. He is bigger than you think He is and perfectly capable of handling your 'spiritual inertia' at this time without condemnation!
We also found it helpful to document our thoughts and feelings as the process continued. Much of that material is now included in this website (building it was another constructive activity we could do with a view to helping others).
You will probably find that many of your long held views on many issues will change as a result of this experience. This is common. You may have once aligned yourself to certain churches, movements and doctrines and you now find yourself distancing from them and warming to views of groups you would not have entertained previously! This is likely to be a time of great change.
One positive is that you will also have gained much experience in 'sniffing out' abusive dynamics. Your story could be of huge benefit to others.
Barb Orlowski (researcher in Spiritual Abuse) would describe you as a barometer person.