Recovering from abusive churches – some thoughts

michael reidMy time at the Stockholm conference brought me into contact with a number of people who had been members of high-demand groups, Christian and otherwise. Some were 20 or more years into the process of recovery while others had only recently left a group. For me it was easier to interpret the narrative of those who had been part of Christian groups because the language they spoke in was a familiar one. But whatever kind of cultic group was being spoken about, the dynamics of toxic belonging seem to have many similarities. I want to think further about some of the difficult experiences suffered by those who join and leave what are known popularly as ‘cults’. I want to begin to consider how this baneful influence on people’s lives may be gradually overcome. Because this blog is dedicated to the victims and survivors of Christian abusive settings, my comments can be read as a commentary on some extreme groups within the Christian orbit. In practice, the full toxic effects of the wrong kind of charisma are generally muted in many Christian groups that we would identify as cultic. It is, however, still worth painting a picture with its darkest colours so that readers can identify cultic aspects as they pop up in many ‘normal’ religious settings.

A typical cultic group will have at its head a strong charismatic leader. By charismatic I am referring to the quality of personality that attracts others to a belief, a hope or a vision. The charismatic leader will have the ability to persuade followers to follow him (normally a male) in pursuing a vision for the future. The relationship, particularly at the beginning will often be intense so that the acolyte or follower feels a sensation similar to that of being in love. The follower will have a sense that the leader knows the path to salvation or true knowledge. He alone understands the Bible or the sacred texts of the religion. With him is safety, a sense of being at the centre of the universe where final truth is being taught and revealed.

The expression of being ‘in love’ might seem a little strong for some but it does convey the intense attraction and fascination of charisma. Charisma is particularly captivating to those who are in the first stage of adulthood where self-identity is still in a state of flux. The group encourages the adoption of what the psychologists call a ‘cult-identity’. This is a kind of faux-personality which makes the follower feel incredibly important but it only ‘works’ as long as the follower stays close to the words or the physical presence of the leader. The follower has become so entranced by the leader that he/she wants to be like him in every way. The dynamic of this ‘followship’ is that the disciple’s personality in some real sense becomes a kind of an extension of that of the leader. Somehow the personality of the follower has become enmeshed with that of the leader.

This kind of leadership/disciple dynamic can be extremely dangerous. There may be for a time a deep contentment for the follower while he/she enjoys the attention of the ‘wise’ charismatic leader. But this bliss is, in practice, short-lived. The leader, because he is human, will tire of the adoration of one group of followers and want to move on to exploit another group. The state of enmeshment, while it lasts, is enjoyable and deeply satisfying for the disciple. In the case of female followers of a male guru or leader, there may be a sexual acting out. But however the relationship is expressed, it is of such intensity that a breakdown in it will cause the follower to experience intense emotional trauma. It is the recovery from a deep emotional involvement with a religious/political charismatic leader that is a major part of the cult recovery process. In some ways it can be compared with a divorce or breakdown in an intimate relationship but in certain ways it is more difficult. The follower has surrendered not only their affection to another person in an act of love, but they have surrendered many other areas of their life to the leader, their idealism, their self-esteem and their hopes for their entire future. To have all that taken from them in a moment is indeed traumatic and indeed emotionally shattering. Without the right kind of support it can lead to a nervous breakdown or even suicide.

The emotional impact of leaving a cultic group, Christian or otherwise, is devastating but there is another facet of leaving, apart from the feeling side. In every group there are always two sides to an individual’s attachment to a group. The one side which we have already looked at is the emotional aspect. The second side is the intellectual or cognitive side of membership. To belong to the groups, which we would describe as cultic, it is necessary to have taken on board distinctive sets of ideas, beliefs and intellectual content that belong to those particular groups. For a member of a Christian cultic group, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or one of any number of fundamentalist churches, the cognitive side will involve some strong beliefs in the inerrancy of Scripture. Each independent church will have its own idiosyncratic way of understanding the Bible, and different leaders will require subtly different intellectual responses to the Bible from their members. Some will have, for example, a deep suspicion of women in leadership while others will always be quoting the Bible to undergird the authority of the leaders. A claim to believe in the authority of the Bible seldom produces harmony and agreement between churches with all the leaders. There are, as we have noted before, as many interpretations as there are interpreters. Historically the proclamation of ‘Sola Scriptura’ has not proved a good basis for finding unity between different Christian bodies.

Real problems exist for people who wish to leave a church or cultic Christian group. They have to cut free both emotionally and cognitively. In some cases an individual can recover fairly on the emotional front while intellectually they are still in thrall to the group. This means that they still think in the binary way, the black and way of thinking that we have discussed in earlier blogs, even though they may have made good progress in freeing themselves emotionally. Another group of people may find it easier to let go of the intellectual baggage imposed on them by the cultic group, while still being in thrall to the aftermath of emotional trauma. In talking to any survivors of cultic groups, one seldom finds that the emotional and cognitive aspects of former membership have been completely dealt with. The emotional side may need lengthy psychotherapy while the cognitive side will require a period of readjustment and possibly a readiness to enter a period of re-education. Neither process is quick or easy. It is likely that there will be a two speed process. I mentioned the incidence of tears at the conference and I detected that below the surface of many stories there were real pockets of grief and pain yet to be completely worked through.

I shall come back to this topic of recovering from abusive religious organisations. In many ways I have here merely scratched on the surface of the problem but my time in Stockholm brought me once more to consider how much has to be done in helping people move forward after being in thrall to an abusive church group or Christian leadership. Clearly there is always a lot to be done, but precious few resources in this country to help people in this process.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. 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.

19 thoughts on “Recovering from abusive churches – some thoughts

  1. Though not a survivor myself, this analysis makes sense to me. One problem I suspect in the cognitive aspect is the subtlety of the doctrinal distortions one sees. Recovery can lead to throwing out the metaphorical baby (Jesus) with the bath water.

    1. I would not blame someone for wanting a rest from believing things, after being in a cultic group. How best to arrive at a healthy believing is a big question. Directly or indirectly this is the constant concern of this blog, suggesting that there are sane ways to go forward. My ideas for a healthy believing will not please everyone. For example I don’t think a watered down version of what they believed in the group is necessarily the right thing. There might need to be what I refer to as a ‘re-education’. How this is to be offered, I have no idea!

      1. I completely agree with taking a break to really sort things out. In fact, my exit counselor told me that it was healthy and that most people didn’t feel comfortable with any religious influences for about two years (in her experience). That gave me a lot of liberty.

        If you were coerced and forced to accept beliefs that were not of your own choosing, when you break away from that, I think that the mere vacuum that it creates in your life makes you particularly vulnerable to other ideologies that offer something similar. Well meaning people who follow healthy religion tend to push people who have just exited a group into a pattern that they believe is best, but in some ways, they are doing the same thing that the cult leader did.

        Recovering critical thinking must be done by exercising it after leaving a group, and though people desire to help, they cannot do it for an ex-member. Working through that process and examining the rubble of good and bad that was a part of the cult/spiritual abuse helps the person in recovery seize what was taken from them. A mature counselor or friend can be a good coach to encourage healthy behavior, but they do harm when they push their own preferences — even if they are good ones. It robs the former member of that part of the healing process.

      2. Stephen, you wrote: There might need to be what I refer to as a ‘re-education’.

        When I worked with a trauma therapist doing Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), they use a term of “maladaptive processing of information.” You learn maladaptive ways of dealing with the impossible situation of the double binds that the cult demands of you (or of whatever trauma you’ve suffered, and you internalize false beliefs that are maladaptive).

        My blood runs cold at the term “re-education,” as it sounds a bit like the original language of brainwashing. Perhaps a better alternative might be “adaptive reprocessing,” borrowed from the tradition of EMDR.

        1. I agree that ‘re-education’ is an unfortunate expression. It is a bit ‘Big Brother’. I wanted to convey the need to let go of the approach to knowledge which consists of thinking and believing exactly what someone else has told you to think. A new approach to learning is required, one that takes full responsibility for what one thinks and believes. Teaching people to think for themselves is a novel idea for many in high demand groups. Learning how to think ‘correctly’ is the normal pattern!

    1. English Athena,

      It just seems hard — and having been through it, I think it seems more daunting than it actually turns out to be. The rewards are worth the effort, and the anticipation of pain is worse than just taking the steps, one after the other, to get through it. It feels great after you get the hang of it — or at least that was the case for me. 🙂

  2. Just wanted to put on record this: Personally, I would go through any amount of, re – education, re – programming, just about anything that would give me back belief in a “Realist God” (As opposed to Professor Don Cupitt’s non realist god).

    The wasted years go into a wasteland of dread at the thought of nothing there?
    Nothing there, for all the souls that went through the agonies of bodily pain, mental hells, and highways of delusion?

    Any one think they can help? If there is an original thought out there I could use it right now? The way I feel is that to honestly really know that God exists is, the top of the hill.


  3. This may not help, I don’t know. I don’t think we can understand what heaven means, what it is really like. So, I’m misquoting my Gran. She had neighbours whose first child was mentally disabled. Some so and so told them that the her daughter would not go to heaven. My Gran said to her neighbour, “All I know is, heaven is the best place you could ever imagine. If it is necessary to your happiness that your daughter will be there, then she will be there.” So, in my mind, all the ghastly things that have happened to us will simply evaporate. Not that it will be “worth it”, but it won’t matter. Not one jot.

  4. Thank you EnglishAthena,

    You obviously have a heart for us ‘survivors’. The mental suffering of so many victims is so difficult to describe. For me it rests in the inability to get out of my brain the Totem pole ‘God’ of my evangelical past, with a God of pure unadulterated, unconditional love, and who also, ‘Allows?’ the vast amount of suffering in this world?

    The lust, (Don’t know a more fitting word) to get to this ‘Being’ before I snuff it, is an experience beyond addiction.
    Today, I think of many from the ‘Bible School’ days and wonder if they still seek? I also hope, with a whirlwind power of hope that the Samaritans’ are not engaged if they pick up the phone and dial in.


  5. If all else fails, God’s arms are always there. He understands, and if they end up in his arms too soon, he will be there. He is never engaged. The Samaritans are pretty good, too!
    Do you and Mary have children, Chris? It was when I had my first son that I understood unconditional love for the first time. Now, if you’ve any experience of children, you soon realise that is what they offer. They will love all the people in their life. That is why it can be so profoundly damaging if social services take them away. Even though that may be necessary for their safety. But that came later. I had an emergency Caesarian, so I had leisure to just lie there and stare at him. It was terrifying. I thought that if anything happened to that little scrap of humanity, part of me would die. I understood the phrase, “hostage to fortune”. What also occurred to me is that God loves me that way. And that blew me away. Total commitment, total obsession almost, with you, as a person. Caring about you every moment, thinking about you every minute of every day of your life. It’s quite something. If we can feel like that, he sure as heck can! Who made us that way?

    1. You might have gathered I’m under cover! So I’d rather not, sorry. The question was rhetorical, really.

  6. Having come out of a church cult and for years manipulation, control, guilt, condemnation, criticism; no freedom in all the brainwashing of an evil wolf, false shepherd hireling that is so unhealed himself and doesn’t even know what truth looks like because His God is money, control and power and will destroy anyone along the way. Why they even become Pastors/Priest I don’t know other than they found a way to make a living without really having to work and all expenses
    paid for; us stupid sheeple don’t research a matter (blind, leading blind concept). To not question why Bible=word, pray, true worship, really truly serving people, holiness, humility, repentance isn’t portrayed, taught etc but a dead mentally ill used type car salesman selling his dead religion. Worse, not to question where the money goes and who they help but rather being a self-serving organization that only helps themselves.
    Look at: Losing My Religion by William Lobdell, wow what a read and journey and outcome. I have tried different churches in my Exit and for years, those thoughts later. To sit under such abuse also for years, WHAT A WASTE OF A LIFE, and TIME.

    1. Thank you BOS for your comments. You make the point that these issues are extremely important. One person suffering because of Christians is one too many. I cannot deal with the emotional stuff that you have to process but I may be able to help you have insight as to what has happened to you. I have just written a piece on the way that leaders manipulate their followers and split families. This will apear in the next couple of days.

  7. Sorry BOS,

    If God is Love, one-day we will be healed? I pray that God of Love to, ‘restore the years that the Locus ate away’
    I think Hell must be on this earth, to be left serving under one of these enemy of the human race ‘leaders’?
    Peace my friend, Peace to you,


  8. Sadly, no-one can give you back the years the abuse took from you. But human beings are extraordinarily resilient. We do recover.

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