Thursday, December 12, 2013

Understanding the Cycle of Spiritually Abusive Groups

Though a person can be thrown out of a high demand religious group, most people choose to walk away from them on their own because involvement in the group becomes demanding for them. Less frequently, a group can actually fall apart after the death or demise of its leader. If you've been an acolyte of Vision Forum, you may find yourself examining what the group really offered to you and whether you want to continue following the ideology. If you find yourself in such a situation, or if you are the loved one of someone who is involved in an group that creates concern, the cycle of involvement can help you understand the experience. If you have participated with Vision Forum and are shaken by Doug Phillips' resignation, I challenge you to keep reading.

I frequently refer to Wendy Duncan's book which has a chapter entitled something like “I Never Wanted to Join a Cult” because it is so true. Vyckie Garrison talks about how she originally just started following homeschooling, but soon an involved lifestyle gradually became the center of her entire life. People join high demand groups because they believe that they've actually found a church or an organization that will help them meet their spiritual goals and make them better people. They find people who understand them, and as part of our human nature, we also find a place where we can reciprocate the benefit that we gain while working toward a great and virtuous end. But as in any situation wherein a leader or a system uses others for profit or gain, a predictable cycle will emerge. Sadly, a spiritually abusive relationship differs very little from any other type of abusive one in this respect. People who get out of such relationships also bear striking emotional themes shared by people who have left domestic abuse situations.

I once read many years ago that deception is very snake-like, and I believe that it is well worth considering here. Snakes don't knock loudly on your front door, declaring their purposes (like an angry bear would). They survive through avoidance and subtlety. They will sneak into cracks in your defenses, and they will disguise themselves as something good, perhaps by hiding in a package, so that you carry them into your home willingly. Keep that in mind as you consider this induction process.

Honeymoon/Calm Phase

It is during the “honeymoon phase” that people are recruited into the system. Paul Martin used to talk about the “buzz” one feels. Livia Bardin has likened the experience to watching the best blockbuster movie you've ever seen but finding that you're in a staring role and the film never ends. You've found a sense of belonging and believe that you've found the true answers to the things you've looked for all of your life. This phase actually involves a seduction of sorts, offering you solutions to problems and many things that you believe that you can't refuse. The group members and the leaders do this in such a way that you do not realize what is happening to you, and events are orchestrated quite well to deceive you into believing in the benefit offered to you.

Confirmation bias (described in the previous post) holds us captive, and during this phase, we are very unlikely to entertain any doubts about the group. Those who seek to gain from your involvement will also conceal the negative aspects of the group from you by controlling the environment and communication. The language used in the group is also just a bit different, and in the beginning, it feels something like proof that the group is actually much better than any others, even within a larger belief system. “These people really get it,” you will tell yourself. They will also work very hard at demonstrating to you that you are valuable, and they will work hard to make you feel special. This is the process of “love bombing.” The really negative aspects of things are concealed from you.


Tension Phase

Aspects of life start to become more like work, and the very positive “honeymoon glow” begins to wear off when it's clear that you've started to form relationships and become involved within the system. Things very subtly begin to change.

In all groups, there are always formal goals and rules. The most obvious are found in a church's belief statement and anything formal that you are told about how the group is structured. There are also informal rules about how one conducts oneself within any social group as well, even the healthy ones. They become automatically conveyed guides about how to behave through conformity to fit in with the group, and in healthy groups, there is nothing amiss with this process. These rules are termed the “hidden curriculum.”

In emotionally and spiritually abusive groups, the unattractive ideas, rules, and consequences for breaking those rules are concealed from the new recruit, but they are learned subtly through the hidden curriculum. Cognitive dissonance characterizes this phase, a very subtle type of confusion that arises when what the group says and/or does varies from what you first assumed or believed about the group. Things begin to happen that don't quite make sense, or you will hear about rules or conduct that seem odd to you. Because of one's attachment to the group and the weight of the positive experience with it and the charismatic leader, these concerns seem trivial. During this phase, I learned not to ask too many questions. People avoid you when you ask questions, giving you the subtle cue that asking too much will displace you from the true life of the group and the sense of belonging.

I found myself thinking things like: “I must have missed something or misunderstood.” “I don't know the history or the people, and this is why this doesn't make sense.”

I had an experience in my group that epitomizes this phase for me. My church had many quiverfull members who were in my own peer group, but the middle aged pastor and his wife were not yet on board with this trend. At that time, the “acceptable” number of children for a family was three or four, but not more than that. (That expectation changed as the pastor's quiverfull daughter's family grew.) My friend found herself pregnant with baby number five on the heels of number four, and the pastor's wife pulled her in for counseling about “letting herself go” and behaving irresponsibly for having another baby. I became quite angry about it, and I asked my friend about what they realistically expected her to do, now that she was pregnant. (It was a disciplinary meeting, though I ignorantly tried to tell my long-term member friend that it couldn't have been.) It was a very pro-life church, and the numbers of children in growing families there were frequently referenced by the pastor as evidence of that. It made absolutely no sense, but the pastor's wife's concern really had nothing to do with the size of the woman's family. It had to do with her attitude and lack of conformity. (We were friends for good reason.) ;) It was an opportunity to control her through shame.


Confrontation Phase

In abusive relationships, the mounting tension starts to erupt into more direct communication and confrontation. In a spiritually abusive group, the member will begin to experience the unpleasant if not painful consequences of failure to properly conform with the group's or the leader's specific expectations. The communication switches from being pleasant and passive to passive-aggressive. Remember that the foundation of the process remains dependent on deception, and “fuzzy logic” still provides the best cover for the hidden agenda of the group – the best interests of the leader. The messages are usually mixed and confusing. I often said that they kissed you while thrusting in the knife. Often, you will not even be given clear information about the rule that you violated, though you will be well-aware that you didn't meet the expected standard. Unstated assumption and vagueness still prevail, but you are given lots of instruction about the power structure and chain of command.

When the member experiences this type of discipline, usually through some type of ostracizing within the group or through temporary removal of some benefit or privilege, it is usually not presented as a direct consequence for violation of the rules. It's wrapped up in a nebulous experience of an attitude problem or some lack of spirituality as observed by some concerned party who claims to have your best interests at heart. This makes things harder to connect back to the rules, and it induces shame. And quite often, the punishments are not usually commensurate with whatever rule was broken. This disparagement usually leaves the member quite shocked and wondering what happened to them which usually causes them to return to the group to gain favor with leadership again.

There will also be, according to Henke's Spiritual Abuse model, some conveying of the idea that the group is superior to others remotely like it. The tension is just part of maintaing that special status with God, a needful part of one's spiritual growth, and it's always under the guidance of the leader because of their special connection to God. It is the cost of membership. Image consciousness becomes very important to the member under the threat of loss of status (or eternal salvation in some cases). The member will be threatened with some form of abandonment (or permanent removal of privilege within the group), or the consequences of abandonment will be reiterated through the citing of some tragic example of a former member as evidence.

I would also include the death or demise of a group leader under this category.


Reconciliation Phase

Both parties basically become very shocked by the confrontation after the frustration has been expressed by the group leader(s) and/or the member. The member is left to deal with shock, injury, incredulity, etc., for the confrontation was never anticipated. It is a betrayal. It is during this phase that apologies and excuses are offered to assuage the member's pain to cause them to pursue a closer relationship with the group. There may also be a great show of caring from the abusive party (damage control) which engenders the sympathy of the injured for the leadership.

Both parties generally try to excuse the event by creating a myth about the altercation: "it wasn't that bad and was blown out of proportion." The member makes the choice to give the abuser the “benefit of the doubt” and usually employs wishful thinking to avoid thinking about the pain of loss. This is minimization which typifies abusive relationships, and it occurs on both sides of the conflict. The member will feed into it as much as the abuser does. Denial is also a possibility, as the confrontation quickly and conveniently slips out of the remembrance of one or both parties.

For me, this phase lasted only about two months. In addition to the fear of loss of what VanVonderan and Johnson call “sweat equity” in their book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, I felt like I could be an agent of positive change in the church. I believed that I could turn things around and that there was hope left. Unable to rationalize away domestic abuse and with clear indications that the leaders had no intention of changing their position, we decided to walk away from the group. The decision to do so was very difficult, and it took me many years to recover from the very confusing mix of great pleasure and great pain that membership in the group created for me.

The reconciliation phase poses a critical moment for a member of a high demand group, for they have the opportunity to really process and acknowledge what happened to them. People have a choice to make. If they stay, they have to ignore a lot. If it involves moral compromise, they have to sear their conscience to make this work. I was not willing to do this, but it took knowledge of tolerated/condoned domestic abuse and adultery and a notable bias against women in marriage to jettison me out of there. Most people just decide to stay and to ignore the problems. Submission doctrine comes in handy during these times for those who do decide to stay.


I think that blaming the leader for the experience presents the easiest “out” for people to process the experience. It is much less threatening to scapegoat one leader within a group than to admit that the system and/or the doctrine was problematic. If a person exits a spiritually abusive church and holds a leader accountable for the problems without considering the process and dynamics of spiritual abuse, they are very likely to just move on to another group that follows the same unhealthy dynamics. People have referred to this as “cult hopping.” In the quiverfull arena, you will often see people abandon Bill Gothard's system, and they'll move into a similar Shepherding Discipleship group where they find a sense of belonging, but they don't have to abandon too many beliefs. Many moved into Vision Forum, and it will be interesting to see what transpires within the ranks of leadership in the “Family Integrated Church” movement. Many move into something more along the lines of the seemingly intellectual Gospel Coalition, Sovereign Grace, and John Piper. Some may feel liberated by moving into a Calvary Chapel or Vineyard system.

It is my hope that people who walk away will learn about the dynamics of spiritual abuse so that they can avoid future heartache.