My next forays into new churches took me to some rather interesting places. One of these places was another large mega-church of the same denomination as the one I mentioned in my last post. This church has a main pastor who does most of the preaching, as well as a large and varied pastoral staff. One of the staff members is a licensed mental health professional who picked up quite a bit of experience in dealing with toxic churches as a result of talking to a number of people who left the cult I was in when it was beginning to break up. Eventually, I got around to talking to him also, after reading “Recovering from Churches that Abuse” by Enroth.
I was really impressed by this man's understanding and willingness to listen (in fact, I still think he's a really great guy). But there was a problem, namely, that as a main staff member at that church, he didn't have a lot of time to do one-on-one counseling. So he suggested starting a support group for survivors of church abuse. And as the group was coming together, he suggested that one of his unpaid volunteer ministry assistants be the leader and facilitator.
The fun started with the man he chose to lead the group, a man whom I'll call Wilt (not his real name, of course). When the staff ministry leader and Wilt hosted a meeting one Sunday afternoon for those interested in starting this support group, Wilt showed up in a three-piece suit, wearing a grave expression on his face, as if to say, “I'm the authority around here.” We all introduced ourselves and told a little of what we wanted from such a group, and the staff ministry leader suggested that we all start our first few meetings by reading “Churches that Abuse.” Then he let Wilt say a few words.
Wilt began by lecturing us on the need to understand sound teaching and proper methods of Bible study. He made it clear that he believed that most people did not know how to study the Bible properly as he believed it should be studied. He believed that we had gotten into a cult because of a lack of sound Bible understanding, and that his instruction and teaching would set us right again. I'm sure that such a view made him feel good, but it completely ignored the following points about abusive religious groups:
- Many of these abusive groups are fundamental churches whose doctrine seems on the outside to be quite orthodox. It is only as a person begins to invest time and commitment to these churches that they begin to show their more twisted sides. Indoctrination takes time and is often quite smooth and subtle.
- Many of these abusive groups preach the Bible day in and day out, but with a twist: Scripture is interpreted in such a way that it serves the aim of the group and of its leaders, and not the will of God. Ask a Jehovah's Witness, for instance, how much he's supposed to study during the week.
- The damage done by cults and abusive churches is not just doctrinal! Picture a family who joins such a church and which has one member – say the husband or wife – who falls out of favor with the leaders of the group. There are numerous cases where the leaders have alienated the entire family against that one member. Marriages are broken, money is extorted from people, members lose their health, some are driven to suicide, and all suffer from surrendering their wills and power to make decisions for themselves, and letting co-dependent “shepherds” run their lives.
- Recovering from an abusive church/cult experience therefore involves a lot more than just “learning the right way to study the Bible.” It involves things like developing your own social life, learning to make your own decisions, dealing with anger, recovering from financial losses, being reconciled to your family, and in some cases, recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder. This list is by no means exhaustive.