In the last post, I defined what I call the “epiphany moment” – the moment at which a member of a spiritually abusive group finally begins to consciously consider that the pain that they endure to be a part of the group may not be worth it. Whatever benefit they gain just isn't worth the compromise that they're asked to make or the collateral damage suffered. Within the context of the cycle of spiritual abuse, this moment of realization usually falls within the Confrontation Phase of the process after conflict and tension has built up over the course of time spent in the group. Another former member once described this moment by using the analogy of a shelf upon which memories of confusing experiences and doubts were stored but avoided. One day, your shelf just breaks, and you must make a moral choice. Do you step back from membership to deal with the doubts and the things you overlooked, or do you turn the shelf of doubt into a heap on the floor so that you can return to the convenience of your life within the group?
Before my own epiphany moment, I “shelved” many of my own items of experience – situations or statements about belief that didn't make sense. My internal dialogue about these things usually involved rationalization. Either I didn't understand the full context, didn't know the people being discussed well enough, or must not have been paying attention, missing something in the meaning of what was happening or being stated. I would say to myself, “They can't really mean this in this context, because that's unreasonable.” (Often, I actually did interpret things properly but didn't want to believe or couldn't fathom that this is what was meant.) After my epiphany moment, I gave myself permission to entertain my natural doubts about what was really happening to me. Using this analogy of the shelf, when mine finally broke, several items in particular suddenly had deeper meaning.
My internal dialogue changed at this point, however. I started saying, “Oh my! That's what this really meant all along!”
To help illustrate the process, I'll offer some notable examples of how I put these past events into perspective.
They left without our blessing...
As discussed at length in this post, when I left my church, I phoned an elder who had been very kind to me to tell him that we wouldn't be returning. He became very upset, and he explained to me that if I left without the blessing of the elders (and a “sending out” ceremony before the church), I could not leave. The elders had to pray to decide whether it was God's will first. If I left against their will, God would punish me, and he named terminal illness, death, and job loss as possible consequences for disobedience. I was incredulous, and I knew that this was not Scriptural – and it seemed to me that I'd never heard such things before. I was in complete shock, a part of me was angry, while another part of me was completely sick inside that I'd essentially been cursed by this elder. But the next day, I realized that I had heard this message before.
As I thought about that phone call with the elder, I spontaneously recalled a discussion that I'd had with the pastor in the church office, and it was a strong memory which surprised me. I would realize later that because of how I recalled it, it was actually a trauma memory – or what is called an associative memory involving intense reliving of a particular moment. I remembered where I stood and what I was wearing, and other aspects about the environment. I was also dissociative, for it felt strange to remember it, and I felt like I was floating and that my body filled the room. That's how disconcerning the information felt for me when I heard it. (For more about dissociation, see video below and read more HERE.)
One day while working in the church office, someone brought up the name of a former member that I didn't know at all. They'd left the church before I started attending. The pastor was talking about people making mistakes and reaching out for help in the general sense, and as the other person who brought up the name left the room, he looked at me and started to talk about this person and their family. I didn't know them and had never heard about them before. He mentioned about how the elders had approached this family about things that they were doing and how they were making mistakes. One of these mistakes was apparently the family's departure from membership. The pastor said something to the effect that the elders expressed their collective opinion that these many life choices that they'd made were unwise, and that “things didn't go well” for this family as a consequence.
I told myself that I couldn't really have much to say about this matter, and I interpreted it reasonably. I didn't know the people, but for a group of elders to approach a person to give them feedback about bad decisions, I could only imagine that these bad behaviors involved something self-destructive like gambling or substance abuse. To me, the reason why things went poorly for the family had to do with the nature of their self-destructive lifestyle, but that wasn't exactly what was said, nor was this implied. The real problem, which the pastor emphasized, was the fact that the family chose to leave the church against the will of the elders, and God was retaliating against them for their sin of rebellion. He didn't say this exactly, but I just had to spin this in my own mind, because I couldn't accept or believe that any Christian would believe such a thing.
I recalled at the time that the church embraced Bill Gothard's“umbrella of authority” concept, and I remembered the iconic diamond and chisel picture from his materials. I know that the concept did talk about how people would put themselves in harms way, but I could not imagine that anyone would follow this logical conclusion to such an extent that this applied to something like leaving a church. The idea was presented as part of Gothard's “Basic Youth Conflicts seminar, and that is geared towards young people. The chain of command presented presents a teenager who doesn't want to obey the wisdom of their parent, so in my mind, this all referred to typical teenage rebellion scenarios. You don't want your children to drink or be sexually active, and those are self-destructive behaviors. I'd never considered that the pastor believed that this applied to pastors who cared for people in their congregation – and that they would have any interest in micromanaging a family to such an extent.
Looking back, though, I realized that the pastor was not talking about the nature of this family's choices. He was really saying that the family was punished because they left the church, and the elders told them to stay. Within spiritual abuse, this authoritarianism exemplifies what Lifton called the Dispensing of Existence. When you fail to comform within a closed system like this, the group will remove status from you and will ostracize you. If you leave, you are not only shunned, you're threatened with harm that God will bring down on you. If you leave the group, you lose your salvation as well as God's protection. You become damned.
I then had several other instances of people who were brought up in discussions that didn't quite make sense. We had friends who were best friends with a former elder's family who left against the consensus of the group, and we didn't understand any of that either. That made sense, too. I also recalled another couple who actually went through with this public blessing, and I thought that they were moving away. We were still very new to the church at that point, and I didn't know these people, either. I thought that she was just socially strange at the time, because the wife actually took the microphone and made a disparaging comment that ruffled some collars. She was trying to find her voice, but they were afraid to just walk away without the “blessing” and didn't want to risk the curse. All that did was send the message to the congregation that things were well with the people who chose to leave – as damage control.
I had another “aha moment” before I even left the church, but sometime well after my epiphany moment. Again, I was working in the church office, but I have to jump back to give you some history.
The day we first attended the church, we were actually looking for a different one that we never were able to find (back in the days before the internet and GPS!). We passed this other church, but it was on our list of places to visit, so we just gave up. We arrived a good forty minutes before the service started, but we decided just to go in and sit down. The pastor came over to us and essentially interviewed us in what we thought was just friendly conversation. He specifically asked us what ministers we liked, and my husband talked about R.C. Sproul and Ligonier. We read Tabletalk and used it for our devotions, and I expressed how important his material was for me as I transitioned out of Word of Faith. I thought no more about it.
On our third Sunday morning visit to the church, the pastor mentioned R.C. Sproul from the pulpit and referenced something in Tabletalk, Sproul's publication. This was huge for us, because the church was not Presbyterian, but we felt like we would be respected and understood there. The pastor read the same material that we did. We must have many other common beliefs.
Almost four years later, after my epiphany moment, I mentioned the latest edition of Tabletalk to him and asked him about an article. He read Sproul. I remember him talking about it from the pulpit when we first joined. He turned and me and said, “Who? What article?” He then told me, “I don't read that. I never did. I don't know anything about Sproul.” I guess he didn't remember his tangled web. I asked him about it again and said that he mentioned Sproul in a sermon at one point. He told me that this couldn't be true. He didn't read Sproul.
Before my epiphany moment, I very likely would have just “shelved” that exchange, and I would have tried to make some excuse for him. But I had reason to question the pastor now. He was clearly not who I thought he was, and I distinctly remember him mentioning Sproul. I don't think that the pastor was gaslighing me at this point. I think that, almost four years after the fact, he didn't remember. He never read Tabletalk. !!!! He just said that he did from the pulpit to impress us and recruit us. When I learned about the dynamics of spiritual abuse, when I heard about the concept of Mystical Manipulation, it was clear that this is exactly what the pastor had done. He orchestrated events to make them seem divine.
I also then thought about why the meetings for homegroup leaders (cell group Bible studies mid-week) stressed to us that we had to take notes on the events of the lives of people in our group to report them to our “elder in charge.” It wasn't to help train us as leaders. It was information that was passed up the chain of command, and that information was then used to create the illusion that elders had divine knowledge about the events of the lives of the people. I then recalled a few other instances wherein elders knew things about us and also interviewed us, but we believed to some extent that some of this was “prophetic.” God used the Holy Spirit to lay burdens about us on the hearts of the leaders who loved us. This was not true. They were just passing information around on the grapevine, then they reconstructed it to make it seem like it was the Holy Spirit divinely telling them information about us. I couldn't believe that I didn't put this together beforehand! Perhaps if we had remained homegroup leaders and attended more than two meetings that we would have figured this out, but I'd learned enough in those two disturbing meetings – a big part of why we stopped serving in this capacity. (We were unwilling to comply.) I certainly put things together after my epiphany moment.
Processing the Past
When you exit a spiritually abusive group, reading the personal accounts of other former members (even from other religions) will help you recognize much about your own experience. Learning the dynamics of spiritual abuse and the correlary concepts that Robert Lifton describes as thought reform will help you realize how the group was able to keep you interested and hooked into the system. In essence, spiritual abuse and thought reform are just what the works of the flesh look like when used to manipulate a group of people in an organized way. Understanding how the process comes together in a church setting will help you heal, but it will also help defend you against future abusive situations of many varieties. Manipulation and control looks like manipulation and control. Writing about your realizations and your epiphanies about the shelf of doubt after that grand “epiphany moment” comes along can help you work out your feelings and will help to heal your mind.
More About Dissociation:
Read more about how Robert Lifton's thought reform criteria play out in evangelical churches in Steven Martin's book, and watch an overview on YouTube.