Recovering from Christian Abuse

religious abuseIt was recently suggested that this blog does not address the issue of how to help people move on from the experience of being abused in a Christian setting. I want, in this post, to address this problem and suggest that every post which analyses and discusses this topic is, in fact, a potential tool for healing. I feel that Chris will agree with the statement that it is of vital importance to have a traumatic experience interpreted and understood as the first stage on its way to being healed.

My role as an Anglican clergyman over forty years has left me with competent pastoral skills but I am, of course, aware of the specialist training that is needed by therapists to help the thousands of people who want to recover from cults and cultic experiences. Such training is more likely to be offered in the States than in the UK. Of the people that I spoke to at the Washington cultic conference last July, almost all of them appeared to be therapists who had themselves been former members of abusive groups. Being able to offer therapy to other sufferers appeared, for this group, to be a help in dealing with the trauma of their own cultic involvement. I am probably over-estimating this preponderance of therapists, but there seemed very few who, like myself, were concerned simply to understand more about these issues without a background of former cult membership. Whatever my reason for being involved in this whole area, I have been made me realise that my own role is different from the therapist role. My path, and I believe the task of this blog is, first of all, to try to make people in the wider church aware that this is an important issue. It has to be addressed theologically, pastorally and politically (in a church context). This can be done in a very small way by feeding relevant information and opinion into this blog. I also have a role, in a very small way, to help sufferers that I encounter to know that their pain is understood and normally falls into a recognisable pattern. This is the stage in the healing process that this blog addresses. The various therapists that I have met at my conferences would be, I believe, grateful for any help they can receive in offering their clients fresh levels of interpretation and understanding. What I offer and have offered, is not therapeutic in the ordinary psychological sense, but it is therapeutic in that it offers, hopefully, fresh understanding and insight – the first stage in the healing process..

In writing this, I am reminded of a phone call that came to me in a roundabout way from someone who wanted to come to terms with a bad experience in a cultic church in Sussex. At the time I was in the process of writing an article about the way that the charismatic culture is often infected by leaders who have what is known as a narcissistic personality disorder. As my caller began to describe the antics of the minister of his church, I interrupted in a way that would be totally inappropriate for a professional therapist. I said to him, ‘let me try and complete this description’. I then reflected back to him the classic description of a narcissist in charge of a congregation that I was putting on to the page. You could hear the excitement and pleasure in his voice as I, without being told, seemed to know exactly what was going on in his church. The further comments that I went to make were practical ones and the whole conversation probably had little formal therapeutic content. My caller was, however, enormously empowered by realising two things. First I understood what he was describing about his experiences in his church. Secondly the dynamics of the church he was describing fitted into a predictable pattern. I remember him describing the way the minister of his church had an inner circle of ‘groupies’ who surrounded the minister and had special access to him. These inner circle members then became distant to the ordinary members of the congregation. I was able to indicate that this was merely a method of enhancing control by the leader. The inner circle group were given privileges and in return they protected the leader from having to engage with the mundane day to day matters of the congregation. His messianic status needed by his narcissistic personality could thus remain undisturbed.

Empowerment through understanding is, I believe, one – indeed the first – part of healing. What comes after that will depend very much on the situation that the abused sufferer finds himself in. Some will need intensive therapy, others will gradually recover through being part of a middle of the road congregation where one or other of the abusive practices that we have identified in previous posts do not occur. While being part of ‘ordinary’ non abusive churches, one hope is that the abused individual may meet a pastorally competent minister who will be able to teach once again the basic attitudes required of a Christian. These would include the ability to love, the capacity to forgive and the readiness to grow in prayer and to learn. The most important thing is that none of the experiences of abuse are repeated in this place of safety. English Athena referred to parishes for abused clergy where they were safe. Finding a safe place ranks alongside the acquiring of new insight and relevant information as the vital prerequisite to real healing.

I would like to think that this blog is one place of safety for those who have been through bad experiences of Christian abuse somewhere in the past. It cannot by definition provide a personal place of safely as my readers do not necessarily make themselves known. The most vulnerable and battered are probably the least likely to comment publically. But it is my hope that the task of healing can begin through reading material that shows understanding of the issues. If the intellect can make sense of events that have taken place in the past, then the emotions have a better chance to recover. In the past, my small part in the process of healing for abused individuals has been to say to them after a conversation. ‘This event that has left you demoralised and damaged, does fit into a predictable pattern. It makes a lot of sense. Now that you have some handle on what has happened to you, you can draw on this new insight. When you go to a pastorally competent person or a professional therapist, you can explain to them coherently what has happened to you. They will understand and they should be able to take you on to the next stage in your healing.’

The healing needed after an encounter with Christian abuse can never happen through a web-site or a blog. What a blog can do is to suggest patterns of understanding and interpretative tools to make sense of things that used to make no sense. That is what this blog tries to do. In these posts, based on my reading and my experience, some clarity may possibly be found which may be of use not only to the abused but to those who want to help them. That is my earnest hope.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Cumbria. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

12 thoughts on “Recovering from Christian Abuse

  1. Spot on, Stephen. You can’t yourself do the therapy, or recompense or whatever that may be needed. You can make people feel more normal. That it is not wrong at some level to be hurt and angry. Often the response of those one speaks to in person dumps back on the victim. I mentioned in an earlier post that often the church requires you to forgive when the abuse has not stopped, and is not likely to. All of this is great. What I would like, personally, is perhaps guidance in the kind of language you can use. But how, in any case, do you persuade someone who might be able to help you, to listen to you, instead of only talking to your abuser? Which is what has happened to me in my new place. The counsellor I was packed off to see, (instead of being offered the normal pastoral care I wanted, and have never had) said that since it was the institutional church that had done this, it was the institutional church that needed to put it right. Absolutely. But how do you go about achieving this? There’s nothing you can do here, Stephen, except perhaps by outlining from time to time what is best practice when there are allegations of abuse. Like, don’t talk to the abuser, do talk to the victim! Like, don’t assume that the most valuable person (clergy, in a church context) should always be believed (usually without asking for evidence) and the least valuable person (the victim, of course) should be assumed to be lying (also without evidence). And why act as though there is nothing between doing nothing at all, and a court case requiring a full forensic investigation? Balance of probabilities can be acted upon in all sorts of ways. A couple of discreet phone calls, and then have a word. Without doing the equivalent of saying “You’ll never guess what (s)he just said about you!” The handling of some very general comments I made has been inept at most charitable, and downright unkind if you’re not feeling charitable. The laity do “get it”. “You must feel as if the same things are happening again”, said one lady. But the laity have no power. And neither of course, do the retired priests who are supportive.

  2. There are people who are hell bent on insisting that those of us who have been in a cult are very hurt, very angry, need help, need counseling, need to recover, need this and need that, etc etc etc. To be honest, I find them tiresome and frustrating to say the least. These people are forcing us to wear a badge. What if we don’t feel that way? Please please please, if it is not you, don’t don’t don’t own it. It is bad enough to have been involved in a cult, they are trying to pigeon hole us, smash us to pieces, make us crumble – NO! Don’t put a label on us! Not all of us need help! That is the last thing some of us need. We need to live as normal life, we need to know what normality is, we need to carry on normally. Don’t let them pull you down by telling you what you are not. Fight them! IF IT IS NOT YOU, DON’T OWN IT PLEASE. FOR YOUR SANITY – PUSH THE LABEL AWAY AND STAND YOUR GROUND !!! We are sick of the label. Don’t let it stick

    I don’t need help, I don’t need help, I don’t need help. You are looking for a counseling job/career. Get lost!!!

    1. It’s a recognised danger. Some people seek out those in trouble, and some seem to make the trouble in the first place. And as you say, some falsely identify trouble, and then rush in. If you’re “in the business”, you should be alert for this. A friend of mine used to call it “foul weather friends”. Of course, during foul weather, you need your friends, but it isn’t a career!

  3. Thank you Anon 9.57 and 10.05. I think you will agree that in my piece I was in no way implying that everyone who passed through a cultic experience needed counselling. The two things I emphasised were understanding of what had happened to them and a place of safety. Even if they do need professional help, there are virtually no places in the UK that can offer post-cult support. So let us hope Anon you are right in the majority not needing either labels or professional help. The problem is however that not only do the professionals not understand the problems particular to cultic exposure, but very few Church people. They live in a cocoon where such things never happen. That is why this blog is needed as well as Nigel’s blog which focuses on a single church. The outcome of the Commission at Brentwood is very important not only for that individual church but also for all who see the problem of bullying and abuse in churches brought into the open and talked about.
    English Athena you raise too many questions for me to respond to them, even if I knew how. Because I am not a counsellor, least of all one trained in the specifics of religious abuse, I cannot really do more that set out the problem and describe it. There is, as you would agree, a lot that can be said about the problem before offering solutions to individuals and their issues. The two principles that I mentioned to Anon still apply, a place of safety and understanding. That is more than most people in fact get at present. There are lots of people whose only ‘safety’ is to retreat back into their homes and not talk to anyone about what they have suffered. That is the opposite of healing.

    1. Not really expecting you to have all the answers, Stephen! But I do find I don’t really know how to explain what I mean. Especially in the atmosphere where these things “couldn’t possibly be true”.

      1. And the way things are going, the only safety for me will be not to go to church again. It’s not really a good option.

  4. I need help. Need it very much. When everything that you formerly believed is taken from you, i.e. belief in God and belief in people, you are left in a limbo state of nothingness that is desolate (Words fail me here). I would do anything, go anywhere to have that knowledge back, the knowledge that we live in a meaningful universe. But I don’t. I Thank Stephen Parsons for all his efforts on my behalf. Chris

    PS No one gets out of this alone.

    1. Time and just chatting to friends, or slamming doors(!), will help many, if not most people. People heal. And no-one wants to be called a basket case. But there is no doubt at all that some people are more damaged than that, and usually for very good reason. You’re not inadequate because you have been hurt. (I mean, no-one is) The same number of kicks can kill some people, while another person gets lucky and the boots didn’t catch some vital organ. The person who is taking longer to get better is not at fault, nor is the person who is making a good recovery superman. Just lucky.

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