How Pastor-Abusers Choose their Targets

In her 1998 novel, “Where the Heart Is“, author Billie Letts tells a dark story of two victimized women, Novalee Nation and her friend Lexie Coop. Both of them have suffered hardship and heartache at the hands of the  people closest to them. Novalee has been consistently abandoned by everyone. Lexie has been beat up by the men in her life.

In the climactic scene, Novalee gets a frantic call from Brownie, one of Lexie’s kids. When she arrives, she finds Lexie barely alive with the two older kids huddled in a back bedroom. She had been dating a good-looking man she met at a gas station. One afternoon, she got off work early and went home to be with the kids. She walked in on this man molesting her oldest son and daughter. In protecting them, she was beat into unconsciousness.

Days later, Lexie and Novalee are going over what happened that fateful afternoon. “How did he find me, Novalee?” Lexie gets out between sobs. “How do they always find me? Men like that somehow know that I will just invite them into my life and will let them hurt me and the kids. How do they find me?”

That is the same sort of question every victim of clergy sexual abuse has asked me.

It adds insult to pain when the victim of Clergy Sexual Abuse (CSA) realizes they were not chosen at random. The pastoral-abuser targeted them specifically because of certain characteristics. This thought weighs on the victim’s mind and often leads to anxiety and confusion. In many cases, it produces guilt and shame. “I must have done something wrong to cause this.” “What is wrong with me that he would do that just to me?” It also doesn’t help that other Christians ask the same question: “What did you do to cause this Man of God to commit such a sin?

Those questions are some of the forms of victim-shaming and blaming. It is still victim-shaming when the victim does it to herself.

What makes it worse is that some of the characteristics a narcissistic abuser is looking for are actually virtues. Other facets the abuser looks for are certainly weaknesses, but do not amount to sin.

In researching this, I found that there is a lot of consensus about how narcissistic abusers choose children as victims. There is less written about adult victims, and even less about the victims of Clergy Abuse. From the small amount that has been written, and from my own experience, here are the elements a narcissistic pastoral abuser looks for in his victims.

A Person Who is Kind or Nice

Carly liked to help everyone. She always volunteered first to bring meals to families with new babies. She never criticized anyone and always put her arm around those who had been crying in the church service.

The first time her music pastor invited Carly to help sort through all of the music sheets for the worship team, she assumed she would be working on this alone. She didn’t know he would be there with her. Even though he was the Worship Pastor, she assumed he had a lot of work to do and didn’t need to be helping her. It was a simple collation job, and she had done this kind of work for years.

Over the first few weeks of targeting her, he found a lot of small jobs for her to do. She never refused him. When he began to complain about how his office felt cramped and cluttered, she volunteered to overhaul it for him. When he started to tell her how valuable she was to him, it pleased her. From there he complimented her intelligence, creativity, and taste in clothing.

The night he first mentioned the beauty of her figure, they had been working late painting his office together. She felt uneasy about this kind of attention, but he laughed after saying it and she concluded he didn’t mean it. However, the rest of the evening, he found reasons to touch her and compliment her.

After several months of this, one evening he came up behind her in the office and hugged her from behind. She turned around in time to receive a kiss. She told me she didn’t know why she didn’t push him away. She meant to. Carly knew it was the right thing to do. But she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. So she let him kiss her. That led over the next few weeks to increased touching and fondling.

She continued to allow him, and as a result their relationship became sexual. The more sexual it became, the more he “love-bombed” her. This phrase refers to an enormous amount of affection, attention, and flattery. Its purpose is to knock down a victim’s defenses.

It worked with Carly. Almost before she was fully aware of it, she was embroiled sexually in an abuse situation with him that ultimately lasted for two years. By the time it was done, she was emotionally spent and depressed.

Why did he choose her? Nice or kind people are often empathetic. As such, they feel what others feel and tend to see the good in others. This makes them a wonderful friend; but it also sets them up for being the perfect victim. Whereas many people naturally distrust those who try and take advantage of them, kind people give them the benefit of the doubt for a long time. Some do it because they want to believe everyone else is nice. Some do it because they are making up for being treated badly in an earlier period of life.

Psychotherapist Christine de Canonville, when asked why an abuser chooses one person over another to victimize, said this:

Whatever it is that attracts the narcissist to you, most victims tend to have one trait in common, that is, their empathic caring nature. It is important to remember that victims are not random choices, the narcissist knows exactly who they want to snare.

The reader should note I am not implying there is anything wrong with being nice. Carly didn’t deserve the treatment she received. Her pastoral abuser had no legal or moral right to target her. What happened between them was a case of someone with supervisory authority using that authority to meet his own sexual wants and desires. He chose her because he was fairly certain she wouldn’t put up much of a fight.

Those Who Have Been Victims in the Past

You would think that someone who had been the victim of an abuser in the past would be guarded against ever being used that way again. That makes sense. But it is a wrong assumption.

Victims of narcissists have been trained earlier in life by another narcissist to think of themselves as “less than” their abuser. They were trained to look up to authority and to trust that others know much more than they do. No one fits those categories better than pastors. And no place attracts former victims as much as churches. Former victims constantly look for safe places they can go to ensure they will never be victimized again.

As we said in an earlier article, the pastoral profession is one of the jobs which attracts narcissists. It has opportunities to be loved and admired, gives license for extensive authority, fills the pastoral position with awe and prestige, as well as giving a weekly platform (i.e. pulpit) where the narcissist can perform.

Those who have been previously victimized rarely expect a pastor to act the way their abusers did. They rarely see it coming before it is too late.

People Who Have Limited Support Systems

Jake came out of a goth lifestyle and was kicked out of his house. He had already been expelled and had literally no place to go. He showed up one night at a Christian coffee house because a random teen on the street invited him to go with her.

That night, Jake surrendered his life to Jesus. In the following weeks, many of the church’s leaders helped Jake get back on his feet. But Jake’s family wanted nothing to do with him, even though he had “found religion”. Because he couldn’t go back home, one of the pastoral staff invited Jake to stay at his house for awhile.

Six months later, Jake walked into a police station and told a horrible tale of a homosexual relationship with the pastor he had been staying with. The details of this abuse are too brutal to share in this blog, but there is no question he had been targeted because he had such a limited support system.

Pastoral abusers often look for this from their younger victims. Occasionally, even older victims are “spiritual orphans”. This refers to that person who may be the only believer in their family, or the only one they know who attends this church. This means the pastoral abuser can isolate the person quite easily with few family members or friends to notice what is happening.

People Who Are Desperate to Be Loved and Accepted

Dr. William Glasser in his book “Choice Theory” claims that the need to be loved and belong is the key to each person’s self-identity. When this love/belonging need is not met early and often in life, the soul fails to thrive and can lead to a life of seeking to be accepted.

Narcissistic Abusers have a “nose” for this person. They can pick them out of a crowd easily and are often drawn to them. If this person is attractive, provocative, or vivacious, the pastoral abuser will single them out for special attention. They will love-bomb them much earlier than other victims. People desperate for acceptance will be overjoyed that a pastor pays attention to them. When the pastor also values them, compliments them, makes a special place for them in his life, this is overwhelming and is sufficient to break down any mental barriers they may have.

Each narcissist develops their own individual approach to people who desperately need to be loved. No two narcissists do this alike. Some use touch, while others stay strictly with verbal compliments. Some find ways of getting the victim to help in projects. Still others arrange to be alone with the victim. Certain skilled narcissists will read each person separately, deciding “on the fly” which approach will work.

I counseled a woman who had been involved sexually with a youth evangelist off and on for four years. This started when she was sixteen and she was not able to break it off until she was twenty. He only visited her church twice a year, but after he had groomed her for awhile, he began to call her his “girl friday”. She had come from an abusive home and was the only Christian in her family. Usually he arrived in a camper and stayed in their church for a month at a time. He would regularly send her to the camper for things. After meetings, he would ask her to the camper so they could “process” the event together.

She remembers that he used her willingness to help against her. Eventually, after asking for her help over many months, he revealed to her that his wife no longer had sex with him. Because of this, he felt his life was deteriorating. He explained that every man of God needed someone who was a “helper like Eve”. Without a sexual partner, he could not maintain the proper state of mind to conduct evangelistic meetings.

As a love-starved, abused, and lonely sixteen year-old girl, this made sense. She told me every time he came to town they would be sexual within a few hours of his arrival. By the second year, he became disgusted with her often and began to physically abuse her. When she would cry, he would comfort her and tell her that unless she was very good he would be displeased with her and so would God.

He knew she needed to belong so badly she would put up with anything.

Women With Long-term Marriage Problems

Samantha approached her pastor to explain why she would no longer be able to participate with the worship team. She explained her husband demanded she stay home on Sundays instead of getting more involved with church. As the pastor and Sam discussed what could be done, he began asking her to explain how the marriage had gone badly.

She admitted to him she started dating her husband right out of college to spite her parents. They were fundamentalist and ultra-conservative and she liked the danger of her boyfriend. During their dating relationship, she got pregnant and they decided to get married. His small drinking problem got worse after marriage and she had endured 15 years of hell with an alcoholic spouse.

The pastor and Samantha decided she should stay home on Sundays for awhile, but that she could do a private bible study with him during the week. He would review the message from the week before and then they could pray together.

She described to me a very long process of manipulation and control which began that first week. By the end of the sixth month, they began having sex. By the end of the year, he was talking about leaving the ministry, his wife, and moving to a different town so they could be together. However, when she would bring up the realities of leaving their spouses, he ridiculed her and got angry. He then would push her away for several weeks.

Finally, she couldn’t take it any more and she broke it off with him. I taught a seminar in their area on narcissistic abusers and she came to see me to analyze her situation. I knew her pastor personally, and I suggested she talk to this pastor’s supervisor to discuss how he might be held accountable for taking advantage of her.

This began a long and painful process. By the time his denomination was done interviewing people, six more women came forward to admit they had been having affairs with him. All of them had difficult marriages. One of the women was having sex with him at the same time as Samantha.

We suspect this man had done this to many other women, but by the time he had been removed from ministry, he burned all his bridges, divorced his wife and left the faith altogether. He left a swath of wounded lives, aimed primarily at women who had already endured bad marriages.

What Do You Do?

If you’re reading these categories and you fall into one or more of them, take some steps today to guard yourself against predatory pastors. Here are some simple steps I advise.

  1. Have a regular prayer partner with whom you discuss all of the challenging events of your life
  2. Have a spiritual mentor (female) who can walk you into a deeper relationship with the Holy Spirit.
  3. If you have been used by a pastor, talk to someone who does victim advocacy.
  4. Get the false idea out of your head that pastors do not do these kind of things.As Julia and I observed in an earlier article, narcissists are drawn to the pastoral profession. Pastors are up to 300% more likely to exhibit narcissistic tendencies than the average person. It can and does happen. Don’t let it happen to you.

12 thoughts on “How Pastor-Abusers Choose their Targets

  1. Really great article Mike! I would have liked to see a couple of edits around referring to the abuse (of trust and authority) as an “affair” in a couple of places, and also instead of referring to a “horrible homosexual relationship” something like “abusive” could be used (stats still indicate that by far the most male to male predatory behaviour is by heterosexual men, and we already know that it was a male did the attack). Thanks!

  2. Very informative article. I wonder if you could also provide insight on how narcissistic pastors/abusers manipulate everyone, such as elders, including those whom they do not ‘abuse’, but nonetheless use for their own ends. For instance, I have noticed that many of the elders in churches with narcissistic pastors are personally needy people,often men who were never ‘popular’ as youths, who have been groomed, love-bombed and manipulated into loyal defenders. This comes in so handy when the accusations begin to pour in. I need not add that christians are especially susceptible to manipulation, not merely because they are ‘kind’ or ‘loving’ but because they frequently are wounded, needy people looking for healing and support. Indeed, who isn’t, to some degree or another? The key to avoiding abuse, seems to me, to recognize these existing parameters and consciously evaluate the methods and practices in a church to ‘sniff out’ potential problems before they rise to the state of abuse.

    1. Truth Seeker…good questions. And that might make an intriguing and helpful study. I think the methods for grooming, controlling, and even selecting would be similar for those a narcissist wants to use for other things. Only the sexual component would be left out. Narcs do not discriminate; they find a way to use everyone in their life to their advantage. If they also have Machiavellian tendencies, they will become experts at schmoozing people to give them a false sense of love and acceptance. Very dangerous people; and many of them are church leaders.

  3. Reblogged this on emuseclub and commented:
    Get the false idea out of your head that pastors do not do these kind of things. Be aware when asking for help. People, unfortunately, can kick you when you are already down.

  4. This kind of abuse is devastating, and I’m grateful for the work you’re doing to shine light in dark places. But for the sake of right-naming, please don’t call what these men & women experienced at the hands of their abusers as “affairs.” An affair implies a consensual relationship, which is not possible when someone in a position of power abuses that power manipulating their victims. The stories you told here are clergy sexual abuse, one of the most devastating forms of abuse as it betrays some of our deepest trusts and interferes with victims’ ability to heal, find meaning in pain, and ever trust anyone in a faith community again.

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