Watching a Train Wreck that I Never Saw Coming
My husband and I left our abusive church some six months earlier, and people I counted as friends invited us on an independent foreign missions trip that they'd organized, returning to the place where they'd once served for years as missionaries themselves. They needed the specific skills of both of us for the effort. We were each invited to serve in a specific and deeply meaningful capacity. On the heels of feeling utterly lost, learning through exit counseling that we'd been “spiritually abused” through the use of thought reform techniques at our former Shepherding/Discipleship church, both of us found great encouragement in the idea that we could be a part of ministry again. We grieved the loss of the opportunity to minister regularly at our former church, and its absence left a sad void in us. The preparation for the trip infused us with hope and a sense of purpose which we found very healing.
The night before our team arrived in the foreign country, the local church that we intended to work with toward a specific end “split” due some drama of church politics that had nothing to do with us. Unfortunately, for some of us, this church split made certain aspects of the work we went to accomplish there almost obsolete in some cases. We walked off the plane into a little bit of confusion, and instead of “hitting the ground running” to labor at the work we planned to do, we basically had to reorganize and find new, different opportunities and contributions to the effort. As Christians, my husband and I believed that God already orchestrated specific things for each of us to both do and and learn, a matter that Scripture says is prepared in advance for us. That belief enabled us to joyfully adapt, though I must admit that it was not an easy task (for me, anyway). We did find precious opportunities to minister which we found deeply rewarding, and they may have actually become more effective and fruitful than that which we originally intended to do there. We apparently also went there to learn some painful lessons in life as we watched group manipulation unfold.
Classic, Basic Spiritual Abuse
Perhaps because of the unforeseen setbacks that the group faced, our group leadership became very passive rather quickly, and at times, they behaved as though they were detached from most everything that was going on around them. In the absence of strong leadership, the large group comprised of people from four churches across three different states in the US separated into three subgroups: 1.) the passive elite who ended up treating the trip like a “spiritual party” holiday in a tropical paradise, 2.) wealthy, proud people who sought after any and every kind of power and notoriety they could get at the expense of others which was geared toward street evangelism and plays in the evenings, 3.) those who had a more pragmatic agenda within the host church which was task oriented, the group most heavily affected by the church split. Subgroup size (people who came from the same group/State/church) and our accommodations (arranged according to the type of work we came to do) also helped contribute to some of these divisions, but these factors didn't excuse what resulted.
Having just exited a church where the leadership exploited the emotions of their followers and manipulated church members for personal gain and power, I was shocked that I “found myself” in a foreign country with people who began to behave very differently than they did with me when we were back at home in the States. (Why???!!!) (How???!!!)
The people who came to do specific work within the church faced some difficulties as they tried to figure out what they could do at the local church which largely fell apart because of the church split faced some serious difficulties. When they asked for guidance and resources, these people were shocked when they were told that they had the “wrong spirit,” were shamed for having needs, and were given condescending moral lectures. A few were reprimanded verbally. I could barely believe my ears when I first heard this and witnessed it from the leaders myself. It also became quite difficult, because the group of assertive people became aggressive in the absence of strong leadership which was expected from those who organized the trip. By the second half of the tour there, this group actually sought to prevent any work by those who were not members of their subgroup which emerged. They were cruel. They even excluded others from social activities at the end of the trip., and the absent leadership did nothing.
The Kangaroo Court Session
Then it happened. One afternoon, I watched a husband and wife who were a part of the smaller, specific, and pragmatic ministry subgroup attempt to participate in the activities of the larger, dominant, and now aggressive group. (It was like watching a 20/20 Episode expose on human behavior.) The wife had a particular skill that was useful and needed at a planned event, and she planned to do what she traveled to another country to do. My husband and I watched as three aggressive men from the large group called the woman over to them (while her husband was elsewhere), all while the former missionary who served there who orchestrated the missions trip looked onward, listened, and did absolutely nothing.
We listened to them tell her that she was under their authority and had overstepped her bounds, primarily because her part in things that day was not wanted. She was accused of challenging them, having the “wrong spirit,” and of working against the team. They then made what I thought were quite mean-spirited and unwarranted personal criticisms regarding her actual skills which, frankly, I thought were exceptionally good. We had only a few more days to endure, and as you may imagine, I'd already heard one moral lecture myself several days earlier. My husband and I saw an opportunity to talk with and encourage the woman being demoralized and shamed, because by then, we were sure that anything we could possibly say to the aggressors would fall on angry, deaf ears. We decided to keep our pearls, avoiding the rending that we were sure would follow. We shared our pearls of love with her and her husband who knew nothing about our similar experience earlier in the trip.
We watched this beautiful, happy, strong, woman whose heart ached to contribute – to do what she spent her own money, time and effort to travel there to accomplish – turn into a defeated, heartsick, broken person in the blink of an eye. We listened to her fold up and repent and apologize to her abusers. The words of Jesus came to mind about the parable of the sower. This woman was not being challenged about her doctrine, but the way she lived out and manifested her faith in the Word of God was being attacked. But like the seed that fell on soil that was stony and failed to grow roots to keep it stable and strong, her resolve and her confidence in what God was doing through her was not deeply rooted, at least not on that particular day. Like the Word of faith that can spring up in us quickly like seed sown in stony soil, she didn't have the strength to endure against those who were jealous of her and the reward of good work she sought to do.
And it struck both my husband and I. This was the pain of cognitive dissonance in action and the very same type of breaking that we saw at our church and didn't want to believe really happened until it happened to us. We looked at this young woman and saw ourselves. She was powerless to change the situation, and within that system and place of isolation (primarily because we were kept by the group and had no transportation and didn't even have access to our own plane tickets, several years before 9/11/2001), she had no options to easily or gracefully exit the confrontation. None of us had that option, at least not without creating offense and drama. We were beholden to these people for our basic needs for the next five days. We saw a picture of ourselves in what this young woman endured, and we watched spiritual abuse in action.
Cognitive Dissonance and Thought Conversion
Steve Hassan describes thought conversion which takes place through the process of cognitive dissonance as a process that results in domination of the self. He breaks down individuality by describing it in terms of an individual's thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Because we are cohesive and rational beings, our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors follow one another. We feel the way our thoughts direct our emotions. Our behavior flows from our emotions and our thoughts, and these three elements of the self work together. When one of these factors of self is pulled in another direction, it creates a great deal of emotional and mental stress for the individual. Because these factors must work in concert with one another to maintain the person's cohesive sense of self, manipulating one aspect becomes a means of manipulation.
In other words, if I want to manipulate a person to think, feel, and behave in a certain way which is different from how they are currently thinking, feeling, and behaving, I need only to dominate one of those aspects of that person. Because of the cohesive nature of the self, the other aspects will follow.
For the sake of argument, lets imagine that a parishioner rejects the doctrine that their new pastor has just presented to them. The pastor wants the parishioner to accept, believe and support his newly introduced doctrine, and that is the pastor's expressed goal. He wants to win the thought and mind of this person, his follower, but the pastor meets notable resistance, and the follower is very resistant. What can he do?
Manipulators and nefarious ministers have learned that if they meet resistance in terms of belief, they stand an excellent chance of getting their mark to accept their belief and idea if they can dominate emotions, for example. They can also do it through behavior, because it is hard to disagree with an act if you are opposed to complying and carrying out that behavior. If the manipulator can dominate your emotions (through shame, embarrassment, greed, pride, desire, etc.), they will have a very simple time thereafter of getting you, their mark, to accept their idea. If they can get you to do what they want you to do, even if it seems like a benign task, they also have a good chance of manipulating your thoughts and emotions.“Can everybody raise their hand to God and say 'Amen'?” Those who do this have just confessed a thought and belief by complying with the behavior requested of them, and the process results in an emotion. Behavior follows emotion follows thought follows emotion follows thought follows behavior...... It is a continual, self-reinforcing cycle of the continuity of self.
Hassan also adds information into this mix of the elements of the self which are the ways we express our individuality, and he puts them all together to form the acronym of “BITE” (behavior, information, thought, and emotion) to describe this dynamic. This process makes thought conversion possible because of the need for human beings to behave, think and feel in a cohesive way. In itself, the process represents how we learn and develop, contributes to moral function and our sense of ethics which result in behavior, and that can be healthy. It can, however, result in harm to the individual when manipulators tap into this aspect of human nature to exploit the innocent and unsuspecting.
Read more about thought conversion and cognitive dissonance HERE.
More About Thought Conversion as a Means of Preserving Image Consciousness and Suppressing Criticism
In days to come I hope to explore how individuals can be affected by these types of situations when manipulators, abusers, and bullies exploit our human nature to get what they want. I may tell of some more of my personal experiences, as well as those of my husband and some of my friends – along with the tactics used to enhance this process used within spiritually abusive churches.
Manipulators, high demand groups, and cultic churches alike use these types of techniques as a means of not only changing thoughts but also as a way of squelching criticism and hiding their dirty little secrets and, most definitely, as a way of burying the big ones. The trouble is that wounded sheep get buried along with them in the process. It looks like Chuckles Travels recently posted about one such big, buried secret, but sometimes, justice digs them back up and they come crawling back out of the ground. May the survivors come forth from their trauma and pain like Lazarus did from his tomb when Jesus called him forth into abundant life.
Check back soon for more.