The Minimum Barrel

mbOne of the topics that keeps surfacing here on this blog is spiritual abuse. This is a topic that has garnered growing attention in recent years among American churches. In fact, many recently took time to acknowledge the problem with “Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week“, complete with a Twitter tag #ChurchSurvivors. One of my friends pointed this out to me and asked that we discuss this here on ubfriends. This article introduces the topic by reviewing two excellent blog articles about spiritual abuse and how to identify it.

What does spiritual abuse look like in a church?

Here are some excerpts from a Rachael Held Evans article. (source: “Don’t Talk About It” by Kristen Rosser)

I was in college, living in an ex-fraternity house made over into a Christian boarding house for members of Maranatha Campus Ministries. It was 1983 or 84.

The leaders of Maranatha, Bob Weiner and Joe Smith, had come up with another new revelation that they said was from God. They took their text from John 15:8:

“By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.”

Bob Weiner and Joe Smith said that by “bearing fruit,” Jesus meant “making converts.”  This meant, they said, that the more converts to Christ you made, the more you had “proved to be His disciple.”  Therefore, those of us who had never made a convert were not really disciples of Christ.  Oh, we were saved all right, and we would go to heaven when we died, but were were all a sort of lesser follower of Jesus.  Not bearing fruit.  Not proving ourselves.  Not quite measuring up.

Here are some definitions from the same article:

An enabler is a person who by their actions make it easier for an addict to continue their self-destructive behavior.

It is possible to become addicted to authority. A person who is so addicted will uphold his or her authority at all costs, even at the expense of those whom their position of authority was created to serve. And the person who is addicted will encourage his or her followers in enabling behaviors, to make it easier to hold onto his or her authority.

When religion, God or the Bible are used to encourage enabling, in ways that bring shame, harm or misery to the enablers, this is spiritual abuse.

How can we spot spiritual abuse?

This articles provides ten concrete and easily identifiable trademarks of a spiritually abusive person or organization. (source: 10 Ways to Spot Spiritual Abuse)

Spiritually abusive ministries will…

1. Have a distorted view of respect. They forget the simple adage that respect is earned, not granted. Abusive leaders demand respect without having earned it by good, honest living.

2. Demand allegiance as proof of the follower’s allegiance to Christ. It’s either his/her way or no way. And if a follower deviates, he is guilty of deviating from Jesus.

3. Use exclusive language. “We’re the only ministry really following Jesus.” “We have all the right theology.” Believe their way of doing things, thinking theologically, or handling ministry and church is the only correct way. Everyone else is wrong, misguided, or stupidly naive.

4. Create a culture of fear and shame. Often, there is no grace for someone who fails to live up to the church’s or ministry’s expectation. And if someone steps outside of the often-unspoken rules, leaders shame them into compliance. Can’t admit failure but often searches out failure in others and uses that knowledge to hold others in fear and captivity. They often quote Scriptures about not touching God’s anointed or bringing accusations against an elder. Yet they often confront sin in others, particularly ones who bring up legitimate biblical issues. Or they have their circle of influence take on this task, silencing critics.

5. Often have a charismatic leader at the helm who starts off well but slips into arrogance, protectionism, and pride. Where a leader might start off being personable and interested in others’ issues, he/she eventually withdraws to a small group of “yes people” and isolates from the needs of others. Harbors a cult of personality, meaning if the central figure of the ministry or church left, the entity would collapse, as it was entirely dependent on one person to hold the place together.

6. Cultivate a dependence on one leader or leaders for spiritual information. Personal discipleship isn’t encouraged. Often the Bible gets pushed away to the fringes unless the main leader is teaching it.

7. Demand servanthood of their followers, but live prestigious, privileged lives. They live aloof from their followers and justify their extravagance as God’s favor and approval on their ministry. Unlike Jesus’ instructions to take the last seat, they often take the first seat at events and court others to grant them privileges.

8. Buffer him/herself from criticism by placing people around themselves whose only allegiance is to the leader. Views those who bring up issues as enemies. Those who were once friends/allies swiftly become enemies once a concern is raised. Sometimes, these folks are banished, told to be silent, or shamed into submission.

9. Hold to outward performance but rejects authentic spirituality. Places burdens on followers to act a certain way, dress an acceptable way, and have an acceptable lifestyle.

10. Use exclusivity for allegiance. Followers close to the leader or leaders feel like insiders. Everyone else is on the outside, though they long to be in that inner circle.

Follow-up questions:

Do you see any of these things in your UBF chapter? If you do see these things, will you be a silent enabler or take some kind of action? Is a healthy church always and continually growing? Is it healthy to gauge your ministry health using the “minimum barrel rule“?

[Admin note: The picture in this article and title were inspired by slide 7 “Healthy Church” in this presentation.]


  1. #7 To be fair, I think that most, if not close to all UBF leaders do not live extravagantly.

    #8 really bothered me why UBF has to always “protect the UBF leader” as though the leader was some kind of weakling. It also shocked me when I began to experience being maligned and marginalized when I began to voice objections to “the leader,” even by some UBF leaders who have known me for over a quarter of a century. Suddenly overnight, after >25 years of commitment and loyalty to UBF, I literally went from “prince” to “pariah.” For the record, it’s a whole lot more fun living as a pariah!

    • …because the pariah is still greatly loved by his Prince of Peace.

    • Ben, the word extravagance in #7 does not not apply, but the main statement of #7 “demand servanthood of their followers, but live prestigious, privileged lives” applies very well. As I mentioned earlier, our chapter director did nothing of the things he required from us and the “ordinary” missionaries. He really lived a prestiguous, privileged and convenient life compared with the others. He would let the others do all the work for him, including all the office work like printing, xeroxing and typing messages, though he was the only one who actually got a salary, lived in the center and did not need to have a day job. Same for Samuel Lee. Being the “general director” is really a prestigious thing, isn’t it? We all know how much honor he got in UBF. Even after his death they celebrated “founders day” every year. (Btw, is it still celebrated this year?)

  2. Ben, #7 applies directly: “7. Demand servanthood of their followers, but live prestigious, privileged lives.” For an American or others, extravagance=money. But for a Korean, extravagance=honor. The “extravagant” lifestyle is rampant in ubf, but not in terms of money and cars (usually, but I think Germany may be different). The extravagance is seen in the pomp and circumstance style celebrations of power, authority and honor.

  3. MarthaO

    ” Oh, we were saved all right, and we would go to heaven when we died, but were were all a sort of lesser follower of Jesus. Not bearing fruit. Not proving ourselves. Not quite measuring up.”

    I think many of us in ubf or those who left, can relate to the above quote since we have lived according to very similar teaching of trying to measure up.

    The greatest freedom comes when we realize that this was a performance based teaching that left us completely empty, and not the true gospel. That we are not a lesser disciple when we feed less sheep or a greater disciple when we feed many more sheep. But the freedom comes when we realize that Jesus delights in us,His children regardless of performance. There is great freedom in the Grace of Jesus and the chains fall to the ground.

  4. @Chris, @Brian, granted. Without condoning it, I realize that it is just a spontaneous natural cultural default for those from “old style” Korea to cling to their sense of honor unto death. Perhaps, the new generation may be getting away from that.

    Without disagreeing with you, I have always grated that most of our UBF missionaries and chapter directors do want to love Jesus and preach the gospel and raise disciples.

    They just seem to be so inward focused and unwilling to listen to or embrace or learn from indigenous people, that they came across as being quite condescending and arrogant because of their overweening nationalistic and imperialistic sentiments.

    • Yes, I think we agree, and if not, that’s not a problem with me (you won’t be de-friended from me for disagreeing :)

      I’ve never doubted this, and I’m not a conspiracy advocate: “I have always grated that most of our UBF missionaries and chapter directors do want to love Jesus and preach the gospel and raise disciples.”

      My issues are:

      1) is this their prime directive? Clearly no it is not Those things are probably in their top ten goals, but KOPHN is usually #1. The world-wide business network is often higher priority as well.

      2) those terms have been re-defined to fit into the ubf ideology and bound with ubf heritage to create a religious system that is supposed to produce “disciple product”. The historical meaning of those Christian terms has been lost in ubf.

      3) even those who do understand those terms correctly almost always apply them in spiritually abusive ways, even without knowing it.

  5. @Brian, I do not entirely disagree with your three issues (I think I have spoken out against them on numerous occasions).

    Don’t you think your three issues can be explained in the last paragraph of my last comment that some old school UBF missionaries “just seem to be so inward focused and unwilling to listen to or embrace or learn from indigenous people, that they came across as being quite condescending and arrogant because of their overweening nationalistic and imperialistic sentiments.”

    Sorry for liking the way I phrased my long sentence that I just had to copy and re-paste it! How ego-centric can you get…

    • “so inward focused and unwilling to listen to or embrace or learn from indigenous people,”

      Yes I would agree that is at the heart of the reasons why my three issues are manifest so often.

      So at least part of the solution seems obvious: become outwardly connected and self-aware, and listen, embrace and learn from the host people (i.e. be a Christian missionary).

  6. Missionaries from any country should go to a foreign country as a guest. Sadly, many if not most UBF missionaries have gone to foreign countries as hosts with a spirit of superiority, elitism and exclusivity.

    Their attitude is to teach (and impose upon) the inferior ignorant natives the Bible, which is skewed by their own cultural (mis)understanding and expression.

    Often they regard contextualization (humbly understanding and embracing the indigenous culture) as compromise, relativism, and sin, which is quite unfortunate.

    • Quite unfortunate indeed. The 50th anniversary “blue book” describes the host cultural influences as “waves of sin flooding into the church” :/

      This is unfortunate because God has done marvelous work in spite of such weaknesses. But the fruit has been left to spoil on the vine for the sake of finding new fruit. I don’t fault ubf directors for their evangelistic efforts to bear fruit. I fault the directors for failing to care for the fruit that did grow.

  7. @Brian, I think you understand that their “focus on new sheep” at the cost of ignoring, blaming and caricaturing exUBFers is likely complex. It really gets to the very heart and core of the sinful nature of all those influenced by Confucius. Only the gospel can release them.

    Finding new sheep, as you said, really solves nothing, except to validate themselves while ignoring their own deep inner unresolved core issues.

  8. MarthaO

    @Brian, I don’t fault ubf directors for their evangelistic efforts to bear fruit. I fault the directors for failing to care for the fruit that did grow

    well said. Until we stop and evaluate our practices, we will keep doing the same mistakes. every 4 or 5 years you will continue to see an exodus of people leaving because their “wells” have run dry.

  9. big bear

    It all begins with family unit. Too rigid and starts at the top. My chapter director told me to stop seeing my son used Abraham offer as Isaac as example. I cried much and questioned his theology and he taught me to be selfish to raise disciples. Whenever I confronted a problem, he told me to trust God and never helped me to work through this and never shared anything about his parenthood with us. His children were never really envolved in our minstry and I thought this to be strange. On looking back I see that he was more like a drill sergeant than a shepherd so I learned from him. I see many of these minimum barrell tactics were used. I did not question because he was the Pastor. He was God.

  10. Mark Mederich

    “head trip” multiplied by God factor (mental delusion); exclusive elite feeling; fear/shame (emotional bondage)

    Romans chapters 1-2 now make sense: sin doesn’t cause spiritual problem, spiritual problem causes sin; glorifying God (praising his almighty power) & thanking God (as source of all good) allows God’s Spirit to work in mind/heart;

    over-glorifying/over-thanking man (self/other) leads to human bondage & all kinds of sin

    this religious humanism must be absolutely condemned/rooted out of followers & leaders not just in ubf but where ever found; it is the core problem, the source of all sin;

    glory & thanks to God alone is the solution, then Spirit will help overcome sinful addictions; trying overcome sin by willpower doesn’t work (backward approach)

  11. big bear

    Mark…I agree with your assessment…all glory goes to God..He alone should be praised and chapter directors should stop trying to fix people instead they should learn to love and accept all God’s children and deeply understand families are not for them to manipulate or to tear apart so that they can feed more sheep or increase their numbers at the cost of tearing up the family…UBF has this all screwed up..I have been through it and I see the misery of the children of UBF directors and the complaints…there is no love of God and they are right

    • big bear

      again I am not here to bash UBF..but I want a stop to this family abuse in the name of raising disciples and I know God is not pleased…and I know the Holy Spirit is working on this in UBF and I believe if I can speak out and if anyone is willing to listen I only know what I have seen and heard with my own eyes and with God’s mercy in the last 29 years…God had to wake me up…God gave me a wife who spent 18 years under communism and is a very faithful Christian and lover of God…she sees the similarities between UBF and the communist regime…when the director of UBF in Cincinnati pointed his finger at her and treated her with contempt and ordered her to pray with the other woman I was truly shocked…we both saw how mean he was after we went to join their worship service..I went in faith and I was literally judged and it was not by God but by a man who just has gone to far in his importance…God is still the ruler…Amin

    • Mark Mederich


  12. big bear

    Nobody wants to speak out because they are afraid they are dishonoring God or that they will get rebuked or they will be labeled “Satan Agents” but this is why it continues…we need a few Martin Luther to make a stand…we need to post the 16 theses on the doors of every UBF Center in America and the world…I will not shut up until the love of God returns to the families in UBF and that families will be built up instead of weighted down with with rules and works and families are not pressured to finance the UBF machine instead they should be happy not depressed and feel neglected…I know God is going to do something to save the families…this is more important than feeding starts in our own there love there…God is love…

  13. One thing that I would add to the list that is not fully present in the enumerated items: an uneven, unbalanced, single-sided friendship. I was explicitly told, “Do not become too friendly with your sheep, and don’t let them know too much about yourself. If they get to know you too well as your friend, then you won’t be able to influence them anymore.” This has an abusive element in it as well, because it abuses the good faith shown by the junior when he or she opens up genuinely, but the senior won’t reciprocate. It also treats the person not as a genuine friend, but as a “sheep” who needs to be influenced according to a set program. I found that while many shepherds are quick to open their homes, their wallets, and their kitchens, many are very slow to open up themselves, all the while expecting the junior to be completely open in the minutiae of the daily life. It remind me of lyrics from a Keith Green song: “I don’t want your money, I want your life.”

    • I chuckle as I remember how this uneven approach toward personal openness sometimes showed up in long, awkward silences during car rides to and from a conference. No doubt some of it is fatigue, but generally, if there is any genuine heart-felt conversation, it is mostly restricted to being one way. Personally, I can recall some instances of sitting through literally 6-8 hours of silence!

    • Very true and a Korean missionary can always hide behind culture and age to diminish this point. Opening your home, wallet and kitchen is a formality that has been interpreted as serving. But in the long run it cannot replace actual love and care in a true relationship between friends. Friendship goes beyond that and most often if any sheep confronts their shepherd for that kind of bond they are rubuked and told to pray, because Jesus replaces such human relationships. As for the long car rides – haha – no comment… ’tis true.

    • Joshua, you’re right, the understanding of what is a human relationship is at the root of the problems. In all shepherding/discipling movements, relationships are allways “1 over 1”, never “1 to 1”. You can never speak honestly. The one on top must always either “encourage” or “rebuke” the one below. The one below must always “obey”, and “accept” and “thank”, and never criticize, never really discuss anything with the one above. Discussions were considered evil per se (often 1 Tim 6:4 was quoted here). Even if you didn’t have a direct shepherd-sheep relationship, you still were sorted somewhere in the internal ranking based on whether you were seninor or junior, Korea or native etc. There was nearly always some kind of “slope” in the relationships that made it impossible to talk freely as friends. But if you believe that UBF is about friendship (as the name suggests – in German the “F” is even translated as friendship!) you’re on the wrong track anyway. It’s all about manipulating and changing and subdueing people and creating an organization that brings honor to its leaders.

  14. There needs to be a recall on annual reports from the very first one. Instead of the testimony ‘report’ of chapter directors and exclusive leaders who contribute there needs to be a recognized contribution from everyone who has been and gone. In essence what I am saying is the family portrait is not beautiful. It is ugly.

    The variables for change can be so great. Big Bear comments on the family – and with very deep personal experience. Many people leave UBF and then the need for new sheep becomes first priority. Leadership training has not really changed. Maybe in some places it has been toned down, but it has not changed. Why does the general leadership instill fear and not love? It is like an employer who has no idea how to aim/market/run their business and bullies their employees instilling a constant fear of insecurity for they may be fired. Similarly, measures often push people out for many reasons already stated by others above.

    For those that remain: Can we be silent? Can we speak up? Should we just leave? Atmosphere between chapters can vary, but the general atmosphere remains the same – just look at the last article – how were serious questions answered/were they answered?

    At this time we can all change how we do things, but in the general action/mandate of UBF it still has a long way to go. So, when a leader says, “I did not know that happened to you,” it is inexcusable. Whether you knew/did not know was not the primary question. The question is, “What are you going to do about it?”

  15. Mark Mederich

    speaking is helping, staying if possible is helping; a sick system won’t get better by periodically purging “the wounded”, it will get worse; like medicine (“cod liver oil”) noone likes the taste but it is necessary to taste bitter substance to get healing effect..

  16. big bear

    Joshua so right. My oldest daughter told me the truth. Dad, God is love, where is love in Ubf…..relationships are superficial and when you grow in ubf this carries over to your children but you are so caught up in doing the business of raising diciples you dont see it…I am currently trying everything to restore the demage done by Ubf and spending time to develop deeper relationship with family….I dont know how ubf is getting away with this…I pray for Ben, Joe, Brian and others in and out of ubf who are trying to make tom better for the families

  17. big bear

    Thanks for the are right. Was there in Germany at the very place Luther put the 95 theses on the door and visited place where he raised disciples…sorry about the number…