Thursday, January 24, 2013

My Own Process of Forgiving the Church After Spiritual Abuse

I suffered so much disappointment and distress during the last two years at my spiritually abusive church, and the year after I left was just as difficult. I hate to say it, but I also struggled with aspects of the betrayal bond I'd formed with it. While coping with the post-cult syndrome variety of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I could not find any former members who were all that interested in talking about their own experiences. I approached several people that I trusted via phone calls, and no one would call me back. One woman who suffered with bipolar disorder called me soon after it was obvious that we'd left the church, and she agreed with me about the stress as well as the swing toward open authoritarianism (which we'd not noticed when we both joined the church, round about the same time).  We both agreed that we'd joined the church during a calm/honeymoon phase in the cycle of abuse.  We never contacted one another after that, and I felt awkward talking about the matter  -- my first experience telling anyone at the church what had happened to me and why I left.

Two other women from the church called to ask me very honestly about why we left – both women I adored. I told them that when I found credible help for what I was going through, I learned from this counsel that because of membership there, I'd developed all of the same symptoms of anyone who'd just left any type of cult, naming the Moonies specifically. Of course, their end of the line went silent. I'd decided ahead of time that if I were asked, I would be honest, but I wouldn't push the matter. I would be gracious and say little, sticking closely to what I was experiencing objectively as opposed to mentioning the specifics of the abuses we observed, very directly accusing the church with those specifics. I was tempted to talk about the “wife beater's home group” Bible study and the fact that an elder said that I should live in fear of death and disease because we'd left without the elders' and pastors' blessing. But I said nothing, save to offer pretty discrete answers to specific questions. I was still very afraid and disappointed in myself, though I'd really done a brave and virtuous thing by walking away.

There were a few people who understood some of the problems I faced, and my own best friend was transitioning out of the group as well. When I found the anti-cult literature and the exit counselor, I'd hoped to encourage others with the same information, my best friend being one of them. I hoped we could put together a type of support group type so that we could learn about the reasons why the group did what they did, affirming one another as we shared our similar experiences. Everyone I talked with had essentially grown up attending that church and found the cult reference too disturbing. So while some of these women would listen, they wouldn't chime in. One of the women who left the church when I did became involved with four other aberrant churches before she would “get it” about the system (spiritual abuse) as opposed to the place and the people.

Personal Recovery

In addition to the general struggle of the general aspects of spiritual abuse, my exit counselor told me that I needed to go to a counselor for help because of the symptoms I struggled with. I'd been sexually abused as a child, and I'd started having dreams about that abuse, but with my pastor's face on my abuser's body. I've understood all that as my mind's way of saying “You know what this is. It has happened before, but in a different way.” How amazed I was to read later that year that others had described their spiritual abuse experience as a rape of the mind and soul. But I also began to realize that my church was not the only pressure that made unreasonable and demeaning demands of me, and issues with my parents began to surface. I had a sense, even in those first few months that a good chunk of my whole spiritual life (related to the Word of Faith influences) was tainted with manipulation, too. I'd ended up in the Shepherding Movement, the particular brand of spiritual abuse used at the church I'd just left, because I rejected the illogical and unreasonable abusiveness of the Word of Faith Movement. All of that was really beyond the scope of the exit counselor.

In a post many weeks ago, I mentioned wanting to fly across the room at the first (nouthetic) counselor I met with, but I ended up finding excellent help with the bereavement counselor who worked for the Hospice where I was a nurse. She listened, helped me with self-soothing techniques, and she really surprised me one day with a watershed comment which spoke of the “betrayal bond” I'd formed with the pastor. Apparently, I would talk about my frustration with the lies and the justification of domestic abuse that I'd witnessed in my pastor, and then, I'd apparently go into a mantra about how good he was. After a few weeks, my counselor looked at me and said, “You know, you are his biggest defender.” This was perhaps the most powerful moment in all of the work we did together. She worked with me and walked with me as I confronted this with her help. I manifested so many of those compulsive relationship habits of traumatic bonding, but I finally accepted that what I experienced was abusive. She helped me honor and experience my anger, but it took some time before I could express that anger at over my pastor's (and church's) betrayal specifically.

Most people want to blame their suffering on a specific person as the cause, but they usually defend the system and the traditions that they followed while in it. I could not deny and found wisdom and peace in the realization of the problems with the system of the church. I differed from most, because I struggled to lay appropriate blame with the responsible individuals as I made sense of the experience. I struggled compulsively to defend and exonerate my primary abuser, my pastor. But I'd been primed for abuse in this way, raised with those deficits in my emotional development growing up. I'd been taught that absorbing blame was the Christian thing to do, and criticizing a pastor was a sin. My mother carried ideas from Shepherding that required unquestioned devotion to one's minister, and one could not “touch God's anointed.” To a great degree, this fell to authority figures as well. I had much to overcome in this part of my healing.

The Letter

After nearly a year, I felt that I needed to do something to release my pastor and elders, and a few other people who really facilitated the cultic system at the church and within the seminary where my husband and I were both involved. I was still angry, still learning about all that had happened to me and what I was going through. As noted in the post about the anger I felt, I had a great moral duty to forgive these men. About nine months after we left the church, we relocated in another State. Had we still lived in the area, I don't know that I would have done such a bold thing or been so honest in my letter. I was too afraid of seeing people from the church in the supermarket, and the freedom of not running into anyone from the church became quite a perk of moving away. I wrote letters, stamped them, then mailed them all in a package to a friend to just drop in the mailbox for me. I didn't want anyone who received a letter having any ability to track us down.

I felt a duty to warn these men (and a couple of women) that they were hurting sheep with a very dangerous set of practices. I considered them my Christian brothers, and I also considered that if I were doing something similar and didn't know, I would want someone to tell me, no matter how troubling. I felt that if I didn't give them some way of learning about spiritual abuse and challenging them to consider their actions, I couldn't stand blameless before God. I also believed that I had a duty to those people over whom they lorded themselves. I couldn't abandon them there without trying to do what I could to stop the abuse. My husband processed things differently and decided that these men had not behaved like true Christians and no longer considered them to be brethren as he once had. But he was able to make a cleaner break from the experience than I did in many ways, and I couldn't do that until I confronted them.

What did I write?

I don't believe that I kept a copy of the letter, though for the purposes of this blog post, I wish that I had. I fit it all on one side of one page. I explained that I'd learned that their religious system was spiritually abusive, listed books that defended the thesis of spiritual abuse in evangelical churches in particular, and I think that I threw Singer's Cults in Our Midst in there, too. I didn't offer a lengthy explanation at all. If they wanted to find out what Spiritual Abuse was and cared enough, they could buy their own copies of Johnson and VanVonderan's Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. I struggled with whether to include what I'd said to those two women on the phone about suffering from the same symptoms as a Moonie who'd just left the cult, as I feared that they would merely laugh at me and discredit the rest of what I had to say. I believe that I included it anyway, realizing that there was little likelihood that they'd take any of what I'd written to heart. But I don't exactly remember anymore.

I told them that they were not entirely to blame and that I was complicit in what happened at the church. I agreed to make them my authority to some extent, even though I was never given informed consent about the system. They didn't hold a gun to my head, but they were responsible for the manipulation and coercion. I wanted to take responsibility for my part in things, but I left them with full knowledge of what I believed about how they treated their flock. It was up to them to deal with that themselves on their own terms with God.

I stated that I didn't want to hear from any of them ever again.  (I was still washed over with grief and fear.)  If they wished to seek me out to discuss matters, to seek my forgiveness, or to offer restitution, they should offer such to God in prayer through their own repentance to Him. I told them that the letter was my line in the sand by which I released them from any duty owed to me – and I stated that I believed that they owed me such a duty. And thereafter, I didn't struggle with forgiveness. I found the letter to be very liberating, and it freed me to focus on other aspects of recovery.

In years to come, from time to time, I would get angry about aspects of things as I recalled them. I would then yield these matters and them to God again, honoring my commitment to forgive them. But I don't believe that I've felt any anger toward any of them in quite a long time. I no longer fear them, either, but I imagine that my heart rate would shoot up if I bumped into one of them today.  :) But I needed to write that letter, and I felt a duty to send it. Not everyone comes to these same conclusions, and they can forgive without confrontation. My husband didn't see the need to do so, but he did have the opportunity to “tell off” the assistant pastor a few weeks after we left the church. He'd called our home during the day, expecting to catch me alone to manipulate me. Instead, my husband answered, causing the caller to stammer. (Today I would love to have a tape of the call, but then, it probably would have terrified me.) I think that whatever my husband said to him freed him from any duty he had to confront anyone there.


I'm often asked by people who are preparing to exit a group about whether they should confront their pastors and leaders about their convictions and reasons for leaving. People need to do what they need to do, and they must be true to their convictions. In general, I recommend that people stay as far away from “ground zero” as they possibly can. Most leaders will kick into damage control mode and will be angered if challenged – and most spiritually abusive guru leaders will feel somewhat threatened. They also will very likely attempt to manipulate, shame, and berate to stop you from spreading your doubts and information that will cause others to think, claiming that you are an agent of evil who threatens the unity of the body (as opposed to threatening their control over the milieu of the group).

Because I believe that the exit process is tough enough without a lot of confrontation, I encourage people to just leave as quietly as possible. (This series of posts explains why in greater detail.) You can always go back after you've processed your emotions, thoughts, and even your feelings about religion and spirituality. You will be less vulnerable to their tactics and their aggression after you've stepped back and dissociated yourself from the group and the system. We're not supposed to ignite strife, and this is easier to do with more perspective after some time has passed. If' you've effectively left a group , there's less likelihood that the group will work that hard to get you back. They're more likely to continue to shun you, because after waking up your critical thought, you're generally going to be seen too much of an effort to control.

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse contains a chapter that discusses considerations about whether to remain in a group as an agent of change or whether to leave. For those who struggle with how to or whether to confront their group leaders, before or after they leave, this book may help you work through the costs, risks, and benefits of your options.

My greater struggle involved forgiving God for letting the whole painful experience happen to me and for letting the group continue after I exited...

...the subject of the next post on forgiveness.

Addendum 24Jan13:    After posting this, I've decided to include an incident that happened before I moved away from the area where the abusive church was located.  My husband had gone on to our new life elsewhere, and I remained in Maryland to finish packing and to got to settlement on the house.  I remained alone for a few weeks, and one morning, the metal "SOLD" sign that the realtor hung on the bottom of the big, wooden sign at the end of our drive was bent in half, dangling from one of the two eye hooks where it attached to the parent sign.  I heard that word of our move and the fact that I was alone in the house was known to some in the church we'd left about ten months earlier, and I didn't know what to think.  I did know that people drove by from the church on their way to our neighbor's house, because they attended there, too.  Passive aggressive behavior was paramount in the church, so I felt that it was someone from the church.  And this was more than just a snide comment from someone at the grocery store or a comment in an awkward phone call.  This was a physical act.  I felt threatened by that.

I felt a holy boldness, and I phoned the police.  I filed a report and told the officer who came to my home that I wanted the issue documented in the event that anything else happened to me before I left the residence.  The church had interfered with a friend's divorce and custody hearings, and a few local police officers attended the church, so I wanted to pre-empt anything else that they might try to do to intimidate me.  My neighbor called the next day to ask if I was alright, as she'd seen the police car in the drive.  I told her why I'd called, and she admitted to me that she knew that someone from the church had damaged the sign.  I was able to call the realty company, and with the police report number, they were able to compel the responsible party for the damage to their property.  I was glad that someone would see some justice, even though few who suffered from their arrogance ever did.

After re-reading this original post, I felt it important to include this experience, too, as it represents how difficult it can be for people who leave very controlling and aggressive religious groups as part of post cult trauma syndrome.  I'd been threatened with death and harm as "God's act of judgement" against me for leaving, and understanding the anger of some in the group, I wasn't sure if someone wasn't willing to follow through on God's behalf.  I can tell you that I felt very good for standing up for myself and my own safety that day, as if I claimed a part of my soul back from the group.   (Though my knees were knocking.)  About three months after this event, I sent the letter to the pastor and elders.

That said, do what you must to find your strength again.  Take your power back from those who manipulated you to hand yourself over to them in unqualified trust as if they were God Himself.  It's a wonderful feeling and righteous self-care.