Why do so many spiritual leaders take advantage of their power and position? When abuse is discovered, why are there so many apologists for those who use their position of spiritual authority to hurt others?
It seems that every week there is a story in the news, whether it is pedophile priest or an evangelical preacher indulging in prostitution. These stories are so commonplace we hardly comment on them anymore.
There is a great deal of concern in the Christian community about the weakening of ranks and the swelling of the “spiritual but not religious” community. Many church defectors seem to claim their disgust with church leadership as a reason to seek out new ways to express and understand their spirituality.
The sad news is that abuses also exist in New Age, Pagan and spiritual-but-not-religious communities.
Imagine going to a Reiki healing circle and being hit on by one of the healers.
Imagine attending a sweat lodge to later discover your sweat lodge leader was a registered sex offender.
Imagine your yoga instructor touching you inappropriately while helping you master a pose.
Imagine your reader at a psychic fair inviting you to a private room for sex.
I have personally witnessed all of these things, and more, in my years in the New Age community. I still believe there are fewer abuses in our community than have plagued Christian churches over the years. But I also believe that any abuse is too much. In this regard, we need to be above reproach.
Back to the original question – why does this happen? I think in some cases the answers are the same for both Abrahamic religions and the New Age community
One aspect that is the same in all communities is power and ego in leadership. The dangers of creating spiritual leaders who feed on ego and power cannot be overstated. This happens everywhere, from pentacostal churches to Wiccan covens. The sad thing is that the followers of the leaders feed into this destructive cycle.
How do we feed the cycle? We all want someone to admire, someone we can put on a pedestal. Instead of simply looking for a facilitator or a teacher we look for someone to tell us what to do. We relinquish our power willingly to those who would abuse us. We want to believe there are people in the world who are better than we are, not just in a particular field of study, but actually better at being human.
Something else that happens in religious and spiritual communities across the board is the tendency to shoot the messenger. There has been a lot of talk about whistle-blowers recently. Within most communities, people who speak the truth about internal abuses are generally not looked upon with favor. This is a sad state of affairs. That organizations hide their dirty laundry creates the atmosphere where abuse can happen, and hurts our standing in the community at large.
Another commonality is an overblown sense of entitlement that comes from believing we are somehow “chosen,” or more enlightened than others. We see this everywhere, from Prosperity Gospel Churches to those who misunderstand the Law of Attraction. Sometimes those who believe they possess greater knowledge and truth than everyone else feel they deserve more than everyone else, even if that more comes at someone else’s expense.
One area where the spiritual community diverges from the monotheistic community is in the discussion of sex. In the Abrahamic religions, sex is still a bit of a taboo subject. Many recovering Christians seek out the New Age community as a place to claim their sexuality in a healthy way.
That’s a good thing, and there is a lot of opportunity to do that. But we must be clear that this also sets up a potential dynamic for abuse. A person who is just learning that sex is a spiritual act and that sex isn’t a sin is easy prey for a coven priest with an agenda. Sometimes we are told that if we say no it is because we are still dealing with our puritanical hang-ups. We need to support each other in telling our leaders that we know the difference between a puritanical hang-up and a lack of sexual attraction.
For all we work to help each other heal from those feelings of guilt and shame, we also need to be teaching each other how to have good boundaries, and how to not let people take advantage of us in the guise of spirituality.
Just because someone is a revered leader does not mean we want to have sex with them or stroke their egos in other ways. And, if they suggest we should, they are no longer worthy of their position – end of story.
The abuses within spiritual communities are not just sexual. There is often arrogance and competition to a level that is disgraceful. The Pagan community even has a name for it – “Witch Wars.”
If we can’t cooperate with each other we don’t deserve the leadership position or the faith that people have put in us.
Every human community has human issues. Ego, power and abuse exist everywhere. It is our responsibility to choose good leaders, to speak the truth and to have boundaries that work for us.
Those of us who are leaders have a special responsibility to be in service to our community. The more we focus on service, the less we are caught in the trap of ego and power.
The more we strive to teach others in an effort to replace ourselves, the stronger our communities will be. Our egos want to hold on to status and position. Our higher selves in service seek to empower others.
Perhaps, at the end of the day, leadership that serves without ego is the goal for which we all must strive. Community isn’t there to serve the leader. The leader is there to serve the community.
Community is a circle, not a pyramid.