Friday, August 23, 2013

Some of My Saga: My Attempt to Find Counsel After the Cult

A Good and Godly Man?
My Attempt to Find Counsel After the Cult.
Cindy Kunsman


I would very much like to revise this document.  I wrote the bulk of one section of it in 1999, largely expanded it in 2008, changed some of it when I posted it on line in 2009, etc.  The material is deeply emotional, and I find that this emotional material is harder for me to communicate -- and I also make more grammar and typing errors.

I had occasion to re-read it this week, and I realized just how much growth I've experienced since I wrote the first section, then added to it, and even since I first made it available online.  There are typos and several poorly explained elements -- such as my APGAR score of "2" at my birth which sent my family out to buy my burial plot on the day I was born.  That is what drew my mother into the Charismatic Renewal where she "got saved."  I was actually four -- and I was five when I prayed the sinners prayer.  I don't make clear in this narrative just why that is all so significant for me and why Word of Faith became such a strong element in my history.

I also noticed that, in revisiting the scandal involving the pedophile pastor that I used a term that I don't use in real life, quoting what I understood were formal charges against the man, and even some of those details didn't convey well in what appears here.  It's a "Biblical term," but in today's English, it is offensive and pejorative.  The man's denominations of record deemed homosexuality as sexual sin, according to what Paul wrote specifically and clearly in two sections in the New Testament.  I think the worst thing about it for me is this:  The man chose to disregard those beliefs to pursue his own gratification, and he misused children and his own authority to do it.  I still have mixed feelings about the whole event, and it's a tough topic in general.

I also posed some rhetorical questions at the end of this tome that I didn't answer very well concerning the man at my church who "cursed" me when we left.  I point out that many of the specific things he said would happen to me actually happened to him within about five years of that conversation.  I think that what I wrote leaves the impression that I think that he did call these things on himself, reaping what he sowed.  Honestly, I know that the Bible says that, but I am not so superstitious, but I was at one time.  I really don't know.  If someone asked me why this man suffered these things, I would say that life is painful for everyone, and we all suffer losses and griefs like this, and I don't think life is always that direct.  Only God knows whether he did "reap what he sowed" or whether it was just what happened.

Because that was such a troubling thing to experience, and considering how much I still love that man and his family, it troubles me that it happened at all and was certainly not anything that gave me a sense of satisfaction.  I was more deeply grieved, actually.  What I do hope and did pray when I learned of what happened was that perhaps these events might have made him and others at the church regret saying these kinds of things to people.  If they believed that they had a duty to shun people, that's one thing, but I don't see anywhere in the New Testament where even apostates should be specifically cursed.  This is a thought reform technique that they use to control people and is not found in Scripture.  My rhetorical questions were motivated by my hope that these people will reconsider their beliefs as a consequence of the tragic things they've experienced themselves.

I'm also considering a revision that makes this more accessible to people who are from different traditions.   At the time, I prepared it from a pretty fundamentalist perspective purposely, and I intentionally fashioned it to appeal to a certain group of fundamentalists.  Some of those aspects sound almost harsh to me now.  I like the idea of making this more accessible to more people from different backgrounds who might relate to it better if it were less "fundie" sounding (whatever that term really means).

Until I revise this and make it more readable, I will leave it here.  I have undergone much healing and therapy that helped me work through these things, especially since the section I wrote in 1999 and didn't alter much when I transposed it here.  Reading it today, I have some regret over how some of these things were stated.  I could have conveyed many things more effectively.  I am growing, so looking back at this I see my growth and many things I'd like to change.

Thank you for your patience and understanding.  

While at a recent apologetics conference, I was asked by Dr. Paul Martin of the Wellspring Center to write a bit about the experience that I had when I tried to find good counsel after I left the cultic church I attended in the Baltimore/Annapolis area. It was very discouraging, at first, until I found a compassionate, expert counselor without whom I would not have made it through the process. Dr. Martin said that she was one of the best, and I became ever more grateful to God for her and for His care of me.

When I phoned my exit counselor recently, she said that using the term "godly" to describe cult leaders and spiritual abusers is so frequently used because it is very effective. She said that she heard it often, in many cultic groups that were Bible-based and many that were not. I emerged from a group that believed in Biblical Authority, had a sound and conservative statement of faith, and a sound and solid presbytery, otherwise we never would have joined. It’s the informal and unwritten statement of faith that proved to be problematic for the group we attended that had every outward appearance of being a sound, conservative group with a solid foundation in the Word of God.

Background and History

I will attempt to give the most condensed church history of my life. I was healed as a newborn from certain death, and sent home (perfectly normal) two weeks later with my moral but non-evangelical parents. This started my mother considering my unexpected recovery, what the late director of pediatrics in our town called a miracle. Eventually, she became born again in a Pentecostal church when I was five years old (circa 1970) where she would spend only about a year. She learned some different twists on Scripture there including "Touch not mine anointed and do my prophets no harm" interpreted as "never criticize a pastor" or question what they tell you. 

At a disallowed, private prayer meeting (an unapproved meeting without a church authority present as a "covering" at someone's home), the young, male assistant pastor showed up and confessed to this small group of believers from the church that he was engaged in a homosexual affair with the pastor. All the families represented there that night left that church(including my mother, the new believer) , feeling like they’d left some sort of utopia when they departed from the church. My mother hand her friends always spoke of the church as a some type of paradise lost.

I grew up attending an Assemblies of God church where we retreated, where I soon "gave my heart to Jesus" as the familiar cliché rings. There I learned that my rock and fulcrum in this life was the Word of God, and this has sustained my faith and life through all things. I suppose that’s why it was so difficult to realize just how many Scriptures I learned with a skewed and twisted interpretation. Recently, I looked on Charles Simpson’s website and saw that they have scanned in old copies of the "New Wine" magazine, and it felt like the earth dropped out from under me as I recognized many magazine covers and articles very vividly. I realized that this literature had been in my home and I read much of it as a school-age child. I had school phobia, and in eighth grade, my parents put me into a Christian school at the largest "spirit-filled" church in town. It just happened to be my mother’s paradise lost, the utopia where we once attended. (My father became a born again Christian a year or two later at the AoG church.) 

The year I graduated (in a class of 7), the truth about the pastor and his near 30 year history of sodomy and pedophilia became public knowledge (the official charges brought against him years before when dismissed from another denomination). There went my peer group! Scandal and division tore this apart and has made further contact with most from my high school years very difficult, as we all must tiptoe around the elephant of history that sits in the middle of the room. And about 5 years ago, this Christian school that I attended at the peak of the Christian school movement closed for good. 

I milled in and out of church after that, before and after a period of severe depression and abandonment of church. I developed an interest in the Word of Faith movement which had always been an interest but on the periphery of my religious experience in the Assemblies of God. I was disillusioned as a result of the events at my Christian school, the realities of life, and everything seemed jaded. I also had some abuse issues that had never been resolved (remember the school phobia), so I was always given to shame, easily manipulated. My experiences and indoctrination taught me that one should never question authority figures, yet my personality seemed to put me in that position all the time.

I was quick to doubt my own perceptions as a result, particularly when encountering religious authorities. I was taught to count my understanding of truth concerning religious ideas as secondary to any evangelical Christian religious authority, no questions asked. My parents feared pride, confusing satisfaction and competency with pride, so I was taught to approach religious matters with an assumption of my own fault and error if ever there was any conflict with a perceived evangelical religious leader. They taught me to suspend all critical thought in these circumstances, though I was also expected to "be a Berean" (a group of people described in Acts Chapter 17 as those who were willing to believe God and have faith but who wanted to do so responsibly by first examining the new message that Paul preached to them).

After I married, my husband and I attended a Word of Faith church (after a brief and very disappointing experience in a Southern Baptist church in the Deep South where we lived at the time), and I believed that I would lay hands on the sick and they would recover as I had always dreamed. I had shame issues about having been healed from sure death or severe, profound vegetative disability secondary to birth trauma (read more HERE and HERE), and I’d hoped that God would use me as a vessel of healing for others, as I surely didn’t merit the healing I received. (This describes a Shame-Existence Bind.)

Paul’s statement about the "lowliness of mind" that "of esteeming others as better" took on a whole different meaning for me which required self-deprecation. I wanted to share that with others as a demonstration of God’s glory so that many would be drawn into the Kingdom of God, but I did so from a position of shame. As a critical care nurse in a facility that treated a high indigent population, I had plenty of opportunity to work this out with a very ill population of people, and my mere status as a very human person like everyone else left me quite disillusioned.

When we moved about a year and a half later for my husband’s first job out of graduate school (away from the Word of Faith church in the Bible Belt we had attended), we never found a church we liked at our new home – a place where we really felt like we belonged and were embraced by the congregation as vital part of their church. Both my husband and I worked long, long hours, so our church participation opportunities were quite limited because of shift-work and overtime, and we watched much Christian TV programming. During that time, I also began reading some Presbyterian literature to temper my "name it and claim it" issues (R.C. Sproul, Sr.), and found some answers to the dilemmas that this view held for me. I developed a more balanced view of God’s sovereignty and providence, yet still retained my beliefs in divine healing. We lived there for only 18 months, but we longed to find a church home where we fully participated in a church where we felt as though we belonged and contributed.

"Official" Introduction to the Shepherding/Discipleship Movement

When my husband seized the opportunity to work with a highly reputable lab for the Armed Forces, we moved to Maryland and desired to find a church. We settled in and I popped open the phone book to find a very nice church advertisement that caught my eye. It read "Christ-centered, Bible-Believing, Family-oriented church. Amen!" and I was interested. 

We were love bombed, invited into an outer region of their "inner circle" (elite leadership) immediately, and they put us both to work because we "pressed in" to the local ministry. ("Pressing in" was loaded language describing the behavior of those who were found acceptable and usable by leadership. No one really understood what this meant exactly, and functionally, it meant showing up at every church event, looking like a model citizen.) They preached salvation! They loved one another! They even had a huge homeschooling community and cared for families! They embraced the gifts of the Spirit also, but they were not central to the sermons at all which taught the Word of God. (I’ve found that the Word of Faith churches preach primarily only that which concerns divine healing or eschatology with a magical thinking twist.)

(What we did not learn until long after we left that this church system was founded under the direction of one of the Fort Lauderdale Five aka Christian Growth Ministries and followed the aberrant doctrines of the Shepherding/Discipleship movement which employed a well-developed plan of manipulation to retain their membership.)

Were very happy for about two years, and then we had two years of troubling, escalating conflict which became increasingly more difficult during our last year there. Though we were careful to the utmost about examining the statements of faith and belief and history and even asked about the church’s presbytery before we joined, we were not told of the many unwritten rules and doctrines that church leadership held in addition. Many doctrines concerned women and there were problems related to this the likes of which I had never seen before in the Assemblies of God, what is now termed an "egalitarian" denomination. The leadership would pull out Gothard’s "red book" (the text from Bill Gothard’s IBLP course) either before or right along with the Bible to find a reference for a problem or question. Gothard was NEVER formally mentioned, however, yet his literature on the pastor’s bookcase proved abundant. 

Though this was a "Charismatic" church with ties to Christian Growth Ministries (who published "New Wine" magazine), the shepherding/discipleship teachings went hand in hand with Gothard’s teachings on submission. It was odd, because they did not preach his content from the pulpit or teach it formally. These doctrines were just understood somehow, and you would hear them only in private or personal counsel. I would have remained largely ignorant of how frequently the leadership used Gothard had I not been so involved at the church and seminary. We left after 4 years of membership, after 2 "star chamber" experiences (my husband's term for an intimidating meeting with the elders employing shame and appeal to authority) for voicing our concerns. (Keep in mind that this is the very short version of our troubling experiences there.)

By this time, I realized that the stories I had heard about women, abuse and church discipline matters were true. A friend of mine was locked in a basement when I was filling in for the church secretary one day, and I figured that I had "heard the pastor wrong" when he explained the reason why she had called several times for him that morning. A few months later, she told me the truth of the matter, as her husband pushed her down the cellar steps, locked the door and left. (There was a phone in the basement, so she called the pastor to intervene. He did nothing, telling her to wait for her husband to deal with her.) 

The leadership also supported a husband who was involved in internet pornography and infidelity, trying to discipline the wife to submit, tolerate his behavior and "let love cover the multitude" of his sins against her as his wife. They said to love him with "ooey gooey love." Also, members that had left against the will of the leadership were said to have suffered terrible things, though this is one of the many unwritten rules that I just figured that I could only have only misunderstood. So often I would think, "That can’t be what they really mean. No Bible-believing Christian would believe such a thing." Then it happened to me.

"They Told Me If I Left…"(also the title of an excellent essay by Ron Henzel)

My husband wanted to leave a year earlier, but I finally relented that if the leadership was not on their faces before God repenting by a certain date, we would leave. That day came and went, and my husband had basically withdrawn from activity with and duty to the church, though he kept teaching at their small, affiliated seminary. I phoned the one elder who supported us and had admitted to me that I was right in my protests, though he said that he could not support me before the other elders because he would lose his standing with them along with all he had invested. 

On the phone with him one evening after this admission when I called to inform him that we were leaving the church, he told me that I could not just leave. We would have to "get the elders’ blessing." I said that I didn’t want their blessing, as by now, some had lied to me and all had demonstrated a serious lack of integrity concerning these women and many others. The elder told me that this was not a matter of my choice (??), so I asked what all this entailed. He said that my husband and I had to appear before the church on Sunday morning and have the elders all lay hands on us and bless us. (This, of course, would only take place if the elders prayed about it and felt that it was God’s will for our lives to leave.) He also said that he did not believe that they would agree to our leaving, so this demonstrative blessing before the congregation might not even be an option for us anyway.

I said that I had never heard of such a thing, and stated that I did not want any of those men to touch me. I certainly refused them the opportunity to lay hands on me from a position of authority as they had lost that privilege with me through their questionable actions. I wish now that I would have ended the conversation, for what followed next felt like poison, injected into my brain and body through the phone. That elder said that this was a serious matter and that I could not just leave without their blessing. I was told that terrible, terrible things happen to people who left without their blessing. I can hear him as plain as day. "Why, people have lost their jobs and had car accidents and gotten cancer. Some people have left and their children have died." 

I can’t remember much of what was said after that, other than a vague reminder that these were the consequences of rejecting the elders’ authority and "care." (The "care" word I remember very well.) It all goes dim after that, for my head was screaming a fragment of a verse that Paul wrote saying, "But you have not so learned Christ!" Simultaneously, I felt the sickest, most empty feeling fill my abdomen and chest. I felt as though I had been pulled apart inside. I was angry and sick – righteously indignant and full of nothingness at the same time.

The Quest for Viable Help and Good, Christian Counsel

The next day, I started calling around for help. This teaching was not supported by Scripture. I had not so learned Christ, and if anyone else learned so, it was not Christ! We bless our enemies, and I certainly did not qualify for treatment as an apostate, just because I couldn’t submit to a group of recalcitrant men in willful sin. I did not call anyone within the small denomination or the supposed presbytery (that turned out to be merely a group of local pastors that met for lunch every few months). So I called nearly every other Evangelical church in Baltimore in addition to some Anglican churches, trying to find a good pastor who could help me work out these discrepancies. 

I had never heard doctrine like this that I couldn’t believe was true until it was directed at me. (In retrospect, I recalled this doctrine being discussed at the church throughout our involvement there, but I always believed that I had to be mishearing or misinterpreting what was stated. I would tell myself that I "must have missed something." No Bible believing Christian would ever believe such a thing. And I heard this mentioned for four years and never believed it until it was applied to me.) I knew the Word of God as well as many pastors, yet I had been pulled into something terrible and I knew that I desperately needed help. Good help.

Well, I was not prepared for any of this. I set out to find pastoral counsel, seeking a pastor that could discuss these issues, especially the misuse of Scripture. I pulled out the Baltimore phone book and the Christian Yellow Pages and started on my quest. The people that I spoke with fell into two categories: those who had knowledge of my pastor (either through personal contact or by reputation) and those who did not know his name or the church. Those who knew him or the church comprised the largest group, and most were reluctant to talk to me at all until I divulged the pastor’s name. And I know that I called over 20 churches, as I lost count after that. (I did not call those churches in Baltimore that I knew would know who I was talking about, so not every option in the phonebook was available to me.) I received a variety of responses, all of which provided me with a single alternative – to be reconciled with the Lord, I had to be reconciled with my pastor. (I didn’t believe until that time that I was not reconciled unto God. ??? ) I heard the word "submit" that day more than on any other day of my life to date.

The responses all came down to this point in some manner or form, though they varied a bit (Please note that I did not identify the church or pastor unless I was asked):
"I know Jxxx and he is a good man."
"I know Jxxx and he is a godly man."

"It’s inappropriate for you to take this outside of your church."

"It’s inappropriate for you to speak this way about your pastor."
"I know your church, and you need to go back to submit to your pastor.
"I know your church, and it is a good church with godly leaders."
"You must go back and submit to/repent to your elders."
"You must submit to your pastor."
"What did you do to fall out of favor with your church leadership, because you can’t be telling me the full story?"

My resolve dwindled down to nearly nothing by the time I gave up calling. At first, I explained that I was neither interested in that church at all, nor the pastor. I only wanted to discuss the things that had happened to me for my own sake and, most notably, the strange consequences for leaving that had been held over my head like "curses." The fact that I had been cursed did not matter to anyone. No one. 

When I said that I refused to submit to men who behaved in such a way, particularly after I had essentially been "threatened," I was told that I had no other option. It didn’t matter that women were locked in basements and that deacons and elders had problems with hitting their wives. It did not matter that they allowed men to sin with no consequences and blamed all sins of men on the failure of their wives. I mentioned the lies and the winking at the abuse of women that the leadership demonstrated. That was definitely a taboo topic. Eventually, I stopped offering any rationale for why I could not do what these pastors I’d called for help expected of me. I had NO options in within Christianity. 

(Keep in mind that the internet was very new at the time. I know that it’s hard to imagine, but it’s true. We didn’t have internet access at home in 1996 -97. The one person that I knew that did use the internet attended our church and had a husband who was using it for porn and to arrange his sexual encounters, essentially with my church’s blessing.)

I left messages at only a few other churches in Baltimore, and I did not receive any responses. (Most of the places I called had someone who could briefly speak to me at the time of my call.) I then resorted to calling a few Evangelical churches in Northern Virginia and DC that next day, and I didn’t get to talk with anyone knowledgeable. There were fewer people in the DC churches available to take my call at the time I called, so I left many messages on that day. Part of me was relieved, because I almost didn’t have the heart to hear "submit!" again. I did get one call back, and I never returned it. By the time they did, I just could not bear to hear the same advice that I’d heard from so many others.

After a week, I was terror stricken, not really sure why at the time. I prayed for God to take my life all day long. I did not believe that terrible things would happen, but I was just a nervous wreck and more depressed than I can ever remember. I worked on an ultra-part-time, contractual basis as a hospice nurse, and I took a few weeks off because I felt so sick. A friend who went to church in Rockville called me and invited me to her home so I could go to a weekend of revival services there. I told her of the events, and she was like an angel to me. She approached the counselor on staff at that church who told her that he "knew of my group" and that they were dangerous, but he did not agree to see me.

I was, however, referred to an intern who volunteered at the church, working on earning her certification contact hours. I think I went to three visits with her, by then feeling very "sick" in body and mind. I had been molested as a child, and I started having repetitive dreams about these long buried memories, with my pastor’s face superimposed on the body of my original abuser. I was filled with more disturbing emotion than I could understand, let alone articulate safely. I was uncomfortable going to a secular counselor because I would have to explain Christianity and my Christian beliefs as well as the situation. I was first sent to the Dutch Reformed church’s "deliverance" team for prayer, and I will never go back. I have been to many services where there was that kind of deliverance ministry, but these people were especially histrionic and bizarre. My husband and I went together, and he didn’t want me to return. I did go back for counseling, however. The counseling intern posed the deliverance session as a prerequisite for her work with me.

This counseling intern was fascinated by the molestation issue, but she could care less about my immediate concerns about my former pastor, the church, my sense of doom and the cursings. (I’d lived well with the memory of those events of my molestation, at that point for more than twenty years.) She wanted me to work through the book "The Wounded Heart", a Christian book that dealt with childhood sexual abuse. I was told to find a new church immediately to get that kind of support. [How and which one? One pastored by those who told me I had no option but return to a person that my mind now identified as someone who had "molested and raped" me spiritually?] 

I kept redirecting things to just how I was supposed to find a church, how to not fear getting thrown out for not submitting to my last church and how to get my pastor’s face out of my dreams. Walking through the doors of a church flooded me with sheer panic. I kept redirecting the conversation to how angry I was and how I could not fathom how I was going to obey God and forgive these men because I wanted to be obedient to the Word. I just could not fathom how I ever could, given the pain of my fresh wounds. The counselor glibly said from across the room and with a tone of condescending paternalism as if I did not want to seek forgiveness, "Well, you know you have to forgive them." I wanted to lunge across the room at her and choke her to death, at that point. 

And the cap came off all the directed, repressed anger I had denied most of my life which was responsible for much of my situation. I was taught to ignore unpleasant feelings and to supress my critical thoughts or thoughts of self-interest in the name of faith and humility. She was uncomfortable with the degree of anger that I expressed that had begun to seem like a tsunami inside me, but I now understand how a young counseling intern that may have never traversed such experiences personally might have responded in this way. She had absolutely no clue what I was experiencing on any level, and considering the pain, I suppose that is a good thing for her. I hope that no one ever has to live through some of these experiences. I did not go back after she made that comment, as she had so little appreciation for my symptoms and for my primary problems.

Finding an Exit Counselor (one of the finest to be had!)

I received a call from the woman from the old church (whose husband was indulging in internet porn and having affairs), and she told me that her lawyer had just dumped her, one week before her custody case was scheduled for court. When her attorney saw our former pastor and assistant pastor listed as witnesses on her husband’s behalf, he said that he could no longer participate in the case. I don’t understand how this could be legal for her lawyer to abandon her, but she suddenly did not have an attorney because the woman told me that the attorney said that he could not "speak or appear against Jxxx Cxx." (This is how the events were related to me, and the woman was absorbed in the stress of finding a new attorney.) 

All I could think was that I couldn’t find help in any church and I couldn’t count on a lawyer either. Who else did these people own? Did they own everyone? Would anyone believe me? It was horrible. I now understand that this is hypervigilence, a common symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and mine was quite complex as one trauma had reawakened the pain of more than one unresolved trauma from my past.

While talking with her though, I told her about my profoundly disappointing experience with the counselor at the church in Rockville. She told me about someone who she recently contacted who left our church many years ago. The word in our group was that this woman had gone into witchcraft, so the church completely abandoned her and no one dared to call her. My friend took a chance and called her, and she’s no witch. She became a Presbyterian! This was a story the church cooked up and spread as "damage control" (milieu control) so that people would be too terrified to seek her out. I called her, and she gave me the name of her counselor.

The next day, I called her "exit counselor" who spent 2 hours on the phone with me, telling ME exactly what had happened to me at my church. It was as if she knew the group. Finally, someone who understood. She did have knowledge of our "group" from many years ago (at least 15 years) when there was a huge church split. This corresponded to what I knew about the network of churches that once topped 30 in Maryland, but by the time I exited, they only existed as a network of 7 churches. She said that she had "information" to share with me and with my husband if he had spent any time at all with the group. (He bottled everything up and was angry but functional, and I felt like he didn’t need to be there.) 

She insisted that he needed to come as well, and I think we went to her home within the next day or two when he was able to arrange a day off of work. I remember that she said the word "information" many times, and I could not imagine what information she had for us. It must have been good, because she was the only person I talked with who had a clue about anything that I was trying to explain. She knew so much that she explained it to me. She understood perfectly what language I spoke, all after trying so desperately to find help from so many.

She showed us several videos, one that included an old after-school special entitled "The Wave," (see below) about a classroom experiment in a high school where they essentially and accidentally recreated Nazism. That was tremendously powerful for me, as the holocaust was always something deeply disturbing and significant for me, even from a young age. God bless her --she brought us lunch, like a wonderful angel, as we had completely lost track of all time and space. She showed other documentary films about cults and people whose families helped get them out of groups like the Moonines. I remember wondering where she was going with all this, and she also showed us a video about "Snapping," an old documentary about people and manipulation featuring Seiglman, the author of the book bearing that title. Something about that video really bothered me, and a feeling of disdain crept over me for the people who had "snapped." 

And then, she came in and sat down in front of us, pulling up a chair so that she was very close to us. She pulled out a well-worn book that fell right open to a page with a chapter title of "Ideological Totalism." She read straight from that book’s description of the techniques of thought reform, and my life seemed to fall completely apart. (If you’ve seen the movie "The Matrix," I felt like it was like the scene when Neo wakes up in the pod of goo, then is flushed into the sewer. I clutched my husband’s had when we saw that film for the first time, years later, as both of us likened that scene in the film to how we felt in the exit counselor’s living room.)

I’d only felt like I was starting to fall off the earth when I spoke to that elder that night when I called to say we would be leaving our church that I really loved. But the world temporarily seemed to fall right out from underneath me, though I was firmly seated in that exit counselor’s living room with my husband by my side. She read the techniques of thought reform to us, and there was not one thing that she said that did not occur within our church. No exaggeration. 

That was our church. Milieu control… I’d lived it, and a thousand light bulbs went on in my head. Mystical manipulation… And this I also knew well, and I had a million more little light bulb moments. The dots that made no sense in isolation of one another made terrifying sense. And without any persuasion, it was obvious and we were completely convinced that we had been in subjected to a process of thought reform. I suspected such and made pejorative statements to that effect (using the term "cult") when I was angry through that past year, but I had no clue that it was true. 

My husband and I wandered out of her home like blundering idiots, as if we had been hit by lightning.

Recovery: Reading, Reading, and Journaling!

And so began my new journey, learning all the ways that I had been deceived, manipulated and very, very human. This dear counselor helped me so much, and I was very impressed with the literature that she recommended. After that long session at her home, I returned only one more time alone, and I only spoke to her briefly on the phone less than a dozen times in the dozen years since. I am troubled because my other Christian friends were so reluctant to embrace this, so I was grateful that I could because of my clinical nursing background. Most of my Christian friends were deeply disturbed and offended by the idea that they’d been taken in by anything cultic, so they were very reluctant to listen to anything along these lines.

It all had deeper significance for me and gave me liberty that I fear many Christians coming out of abusive groups cannot accept and trust. They would read Jeff Van Vonderan (a Christian title of "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse"), but they would not go any further. Many reject all things having to do with psychology as a modern, scientific discipline. But thank God for His hand in my life, for I could find help that my friends could not, and most of them continue to "cult hop" through a never ending course of group after abusive group. My close friend would not even read Van Vonderan’s book for 7 years after this experience, and she cycled through many churches since leaving the same one that I did about this same time. She’d been to more Bill Gothard seminars than me, as I’ve only ever been to the intro basic principles seminar, and only one time. See my book list HERE and Steven Hassan's alternate list HERE. And Rick Ross' list HERE.

The exit counselor also honestly and gently told me to find a psychologist to help me with the molestation issues that this experience had pulled up for me. She told me concrete things about how to find a credible person that I could trust including what kind of credentials to look for, though I should have been able to discern this for myself as a nurse. In the state I was in and after so many attempts to find viable help, I borrowed her strength and confidence, in order to find a counselor for these more personal issues that were not directly related to spiritual abuse but shared so many of the same dynamics.

A coworker recommended one of our bereavement counselors at the hospice where I worked who turned out to be remarkably perfect for me at the time. She had experience with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, battered women and abuse, and she was frequently consulted by our county to lead groups at our hospice bereavement center for families who lost loved ones to homicide. She saw my anger as a healthy stage of growth and the very necessary first stage of recovery, a stark contrast to my first attempt at counseling.

Now in my twelth year of recovery (2009), I still struggle with some difficult issues. (I went back into therapy about two years ago, now getting fantastic results with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing for not only the spiritual abuse memories that have been slow to heal but for those from throughout my childhood and in my adult life.) 

Our first church experience (after a functional two years of respite and relocation in another state) was rough and difficult. We chose a church where we believed we would be "safe" and free from mystical manipulation in the form of "prophetic words," and it turns out that we chose a hotbed of legalism. The church was full of people who all seemed disconnected emotionally and in love with logic to a drastic fault. We experienced discrimination and rejection because we were not quick to formally join after our previous experience in our cultic church. 

We were also sorting out doctrine, and it did not seem wise to commit to a new doctrine after emerging from the painful consequences of this same type of commitment. Or reluctance to join was frowned upon, and we learned that this church had plenty of unwritten rules of their own. They restricted ministry such as visiting the sick to their formal membership only, though we tithed there and participated as much as we were able while enduring some devastating health problems that made keeping a job difficult. Our reluctance to come under their formal authority as church members (in a denomination with which I did not entirely accept doctrinally – what I thought was the most responsible and respectful choice for all) was seen as a type of sin. This sin made us unworthy of consideration when we desperately needed encouragement and care. 

Many of the families there were affiliated with a cultic parachurch organization that resulted in a small exodus from our church when this parachurch group formally founded their own local, "family integrated" church. So we did not choose a very healthy church on our first try which has left us with some additional emotional baggage. The search for a church home after healing from an abusive one is often difficult, and even armed with information about thought reform, I believe that most people still tend to gravitate toward the familiar.

We relocated a few years ago, and between our histories at both of these churches, the search proves difficult. Much of the Evangelical church suffers with Biblical illiteracy today, tossed about by every wind of doctrine. I’ve grown particularly sensitive to the homeschooling and family oriented agendas, and I have trouble in churches that focus on these unbalanced teachings, seemingly ubiquitous today. I still bristle when I hear certain "trigger" words and phrases that sound identical to the loaded language in our former group, and unfortunately, much of that language has permeated most evangelical Christian churches. So many churches seem void of love for Jesus and love for the lost, especially wounded sheep. 

Evangelism is no longer a love and a mission either, as the love for the Lord fuels evangelism! My husband cringes at anything that sounds like Pentecost or Charismata, though this does not bother me as much. I cringe at what sometimes strikes me as legalism in the liturgical churches, but he is comfortable having been raised in that setting. Now wise about manipulation techniques and still rightfully concerned about doctrine, the selection process proves complicated. But we are still looking and growing in this area now, be it ever slow. We are patient with ourselves as are our true, long-term and faithful friends in the Lord also love and support us.

This past year (2009), I’ve heard on two different news shows that people coming out of the fundamentalists Mormon groups and Scientology often need as many as twelve years to recover from the thought reform and mind control that they suffered. I was encouraged by this, especially when reminded of it again when we passed the eleventh anniversary date of the day we left. I may actually have had a little catching up to do this past year, but I plan to start year twelve with gusto! Look out world! I’m coming COMPLETELY back (at year twelve), and better than I was before....even better than I would have been had I not walked this journey.

As I now write about these abuses, maybe I can still be an agent of positive change in the life of my former pastor, that "good and godly man." May God bless him with discernment that he might recognize the errors in his doctrine and of the harmful nature of his tactics. Maybe he will have occasion to read some of my writing, and I pray that the Lord uses it for His use and His glory. May we all be reconciled one day, in true liberty in Christ Jesus, in unity in the Spirit of God rather than in the uniformity that the group tried to create and enforce in order to recreate their version of it – something of an amalgum of the First Century Church (that "had all things in common" in a collectivistic sense per their interpretation and of a 1950s sit-com.
 (I’m praying that it happens on this side of the veil, but I’m not holding my breath! I will rejoice to see it, though.)

Since we left our original group in Maryland (the CGM/Gothard-influenced church), that pastor’s son had a baby that was afflicted with a devastating, chronic disease. The elder who spoke to me on the phone that night years ago, delivering the "curse" to me, experienced some horrible life events after we left the area. They lost one of their two sons in a fatal car accident, reportedly on his way home to his wife and children. The elder himself developed either a debilitating neurologic disease and died a few years ago. The church cares well for his widow, wheelchair bound with another very debilitating disease for what must be more than twenty years. And when I think of them, my heart aches as I pray that their soul searching will tell them that their actions did not bring about their illnesses and tragedies.

I wonder if it occurs to them that they have experienced the bitter pains and woes of living as they said others would suffer as a result of their disobeying their better judgement, and I wonder if they ask themselves what terrible things they did that brought terrible "Christian karma" down on their own heads? How did they become apostates, thus warranting this terrible judgement, as these are considered the just consequences that others experience when challenging their own authority covering? Maybe it only applies to the underlings in any particular group? 

Perhaps for those in church leadership, the Gothard-taught "umbrella of protection" and superstitions regarding punishment for exiting the protective "spiritual covering" against the will of said leadership only applies to the common folk and not unto themselves? And to whom do people at the top of the pyramid of leadership like Gothard submit? I pray that they might realize, in the middle of the night, that perhaps they were wrong about how they represented God to those who left their fellowship without their blessing and under curse. But more than that, I pray for and desire that people reject these ideas of curses and the millstones of legalism that church leaders hang around their necks.

If you can identify with this entry, please also read
They Told Me If I Left ... by Ron Henzel

"One of the most insidious features of Spiritual Abuse ... ... is the state of terror in which it leaves so many of its victims."

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