Spiritual Recovery and Leaving a High-Controlling Church: Free to Plant, Free to Bloom, Free to Be

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What does freedom feel like for those who have left a high-controlling or spiritually abusive church?

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About a month ago, I was sent beautiful pictures by SSB’s friend, BeenThereDoneThat (BTDT).  At first I was drawn to them because cobalt blue is my favorite color.  Cobalt blue exudes a soothing peace and tranquility for me – a definite mood lifter.

This particular picture is now the cover photo on my Facebook page.  I selected the above picture because of the richness in color.  As I thought of the picture and the story behind BTDT and her family, it has become more meaningful to me.

BTDT and her family had been in a high-controlling church environment – a group that isolated, took away individuality, enforced extra-biblical rules and demands. This family was not free. They were essentially held captive spiritually, emotionally, and even physically by following the rules.

When I met BTDT and her beautiful family in Texas, they were FREEEEEEEEEEE!!  We met for about 2 hours and shared stories and cried and cried and shared more stories. There is something very special about having a common experience and being on the other side, free from those demands.

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You see those bluebonnets?  Look at them venturing out in the field. Look at them free to scatter, plant, grow, bloom.  Look at them mingling with other flowers not from their “group.”  There is nothing holding them back. They are free to be beautiful – all that they were meant to be.  I am very excited about BTDT’s family.  They maintained a solid relationship in their marriage (marriages can often take a hit in spiritually abusive environments) and their kids are young enough that I have no doubt they will rebound beautifully.  There’s no stopping them now:

 

 

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Bluebonnets

 

 

Some reading here may still be in a high-controlling spiritual group.  You may be wondering what it’s like to leave, what it feels like to be on the other side. It may take a while before you feel as free as those bluebonnets, free to roam, plant, and grow, but what will that transition look like for you?

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For those who have left a spiritually abusive church, how would you encourage someone who is questioning whether or not they should leave their church?

How has your life changed emotionally and spiritually since leaving?

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Related link: BeenThereDoneThat and Flying Free: Spiritual Abuse, A Personal Story

 

33 comments on “Spiritual Recovery and Leaving a High-Controlling Church: Free to Plant, Free to Bloom, Free to Be

  1. For those who get posts in their e-mail, wow, I did a major typos on the original title. Sorry about that. Someone sent me an e-mail asking if I was doing some jazz scat singing – lol.

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  2. “How has your life changed emotionally and spiritually since leaving?”

    I was able to finally have a real relationship with Jesus. It is nothing like what I expected. yet, I cannot explain it. it is strange. Once you strip away the institutional expectations everything changes. Truth becomes clearer. It is nothing like I ever expected.

    As Patti said in the last thread, she was able to stop minimizing her abuse. And that was also the same for me. The closer I came to Christ the more evil all of that seemed even years later…. until it made me actually pity them.

    BTDT–Those pics are fabulous. I don’t think I have ever seen wildflowers like that. Are they indicative to Tx?

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  3. The wildflowers you can see in much of Texas are native. But many places they are present in large part due to the actions and legacy of Lady Bird Johnson, wife of Lyndon Johnson. All along Texas highways, you can see bluebonnets, Indian paint brush, and other wildflowers, largely because Lady Bird wanted highways to be beautiful and not just a ribbon of pavement. Some places in April and early May will look like acre after acre of blue blanket, with some yellow and red highlights.

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  4. I’ve had very little impact when I’ve tried to directly convince people to leave abusive groups, or when I’ve attempted to discredit or challenge the abusive leaders of their groups. But…I have found some success (for lack of a better word!) in these three things:

    1. NOT attempting to get them to leave, question the group, convert their husband/wife/family, etc. to their uncertainties and suspicions about the group. Does’t work, because most abusive groups convince their followers that the attempt of someone else to convince them to leave is in itself evidence that the other person doesn’t really “get it,” and is an enemy/insincere/not a Christian, etc. So, I don’t even try anymore.

    2. Always present a unilateral promise of ongoing relationship with the person, irrespective of if they leave the abusive group or not, and let them know that you certainly consider your friendship to be private, and much valued. People in these groups move from not wanting relationships with outsiders, to not having any, to not feeling outsiders could ever want a relationship with them. Our love shakes the very foundations of their abused souls–even though you’ll rarely see it shown on their faces!

    3. In some sort of subtle, but clear way, I try to make it known that I am a solid, trustworthy resource for them, should they ever feel it’s necessary for them to leave the group. I try to let them know there is a “light in the window” for them, no questions asked, no media called, etc. That’s a couple of the random musing that rattle through my recovering brain! Well, I should add that, as it is absolute, unbridled spiritual warfare to interact with some one who lives under spiritual abuse–prayer is mandatory!

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  5. Our love shakes the very foundations of their abused souls–even though you’ll rarely see it shown on their faces!

    I 100% agree, Ken – – it was that unconditional grace-filled love that worked at my heart and made me realize what I was experiencing was not the love of God, but a convoluted form of control disguised as godly love. Thank you, Ken!

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  6. An Attorney already answered the question of how bluebonnets and other wildflowers became so prolific in Texas. These pics were actually taken in our fields. Some roadways in Texas have such masses of wildflowers that people take road tours just to view them (similar to road tours of fall foliage in the Northern regions.)

    On the issue of leaving a high-demand or abusive church: There were things that had bothered us for a long time. Making that decision isn’t easy. For us, it took a crisis where we were being coerced into making business decisions we believed were unnecessary and unethical. Even then, it was traumatic. We left behind our entire social structure. It was initially a relief to not have our lives so micromanaged. Now we are faced with the complexities of living in “the real world” which can be a lot to confront when your life has been lived in a “black or white” environment. Navigating those issues is a learned skill. But we are learning.

    We still haven’t managed to attend another church, yet. I have been enjoying some EChurch sermons online. I couldn’t even do that two years ago. I’d encourage others to be gentle with themselves. Don’t make any sudden decisions about faith or lack thereof. Jesus isn’t beating you over the head, though your abusive church may have made you feel that way. He has been a loving shepherd.

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  7. “What does freedom feel like for those
    who have left a high-controlling or spiritually abusive church?”

    Wow – Freedom is wonderful… It took a few years – BUT…

    Jesus loves me…

    Jesus loves me this I know….

    Jesus loves me just the way I am…

    ———–

    “…how would you encourage someone who is questioning
    whether or not they should leave their church?”

    How good do you want to feel?

    How good could you feel if you knew you didn’t have to change now?

    How good could you feel knowing Jesus loves you just the way you am?

    NO changes needed – NONE – NOT one – Perfect – Just the way you am?

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  8. There has been a large amount of ” Indian Paint Brushes” ( the reddish flower with the bluebonnet) this year. Was speaking with an old time farmer and dairyman here in Texas this weekend. The over abundance of Paint Brushes means a hot, very dry summer for Texas.

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  9. Churches need to work to reduce the risk of abuse. Admit that it is a large problem, that pedophiles like to target churches, that every church in all likelihood has had a pedophile in the congregation, and that steps must be taken NOW to reduce the risk to the children of the congregation.

    Evaluate whether the teaching of the church mitigates against children being able to stand up to a pedophile and report grooming or abusive behavior. The teaching in many churches supports the actions of pedophiles rather than the pool of potential victims. NO THEOLOGY IS CHRISTIAN (AS IN BASED IN THE LIFE AND TEACHING OF JESUS CHRIST) IF IT FACILITATES HARM TO CHILDREN, OR IF IT EXACERBATES THE HARM THEY HAVE ALREADY SUFFERED AND FROM WHICH THEY WILL CONTINUE TO SUFFER!!

    The church must make appropriate changes in facilities, policies, procedures, and perhaps personnel, such as those suggested above. But none of that will be 100% effective, unless the theology taught supports victims and not perpetrators or potential perpetrators.

    And any pastor worthy of a pulpit needs to be educated, knowledgeable, proactive, etc., etc. on this issue. IT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN homosexuality, adultery, new buildings, tithing, etc., etc. None of those involve innocent victims that Jesus taught us to protect and support as a specific group or class of people.

    And the SBC ERLC should be holding seminars or training in preventing, responding to, and interacting with the victims of, child sexual abuse. Regardless of which pastor or church leader loses stature and status because of it; those losses are their own bleep fault for not doing the thing Jesus taught.

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  10. Freedom has been great while it lasted. Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. Now that the influence of T4G and The Gospel Coalition are creeping even into my Arminianish AG denomination I am beginning to feel the freedom slipping. It’s like a Stepford movie of church. These guys sort of disappear into these celebs’ books and conferences and are coming back reprogrammed as Stepford pastors. I’m beginning to feel suffocated. I just watched one of our guys who was our youth pastor who now has his own church give a sermon and he sounds like a clone of Mark Driscoll. I’ve seen this young pastor’s reading list and it’s all Driscoll, Mahaney, Pipe, Dever, Mohler, etc. nothing from our side of the fence. Something is really wrong when I start feeling an intimidation in my spirit by pastors young enough to be my sons.
    Sorry to throw a wet blanket on this discussion that should be very uplifting, but I just learned of this these last few days. Please, I really do want to hear the exciting freedom testimonies.

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  11. “Sorry to throw a wet blanket on this discussion that should be very uplifting, but I just learned of this these last few days. Please, I really do want to hear the exciting freedom testimonies.”

    Patti, this is going on everywhere. It is wearing me out, too.

    it is cult of personality and it is pulling them in from every corner. It is weird. Like they have to emulate come celeb instead of growing themselves. It will delay them horribly over time. It is really bad here because of SBTS. The Methodists, Church of Christ (both brands) Presbyterians even some Lutheran churches are drowning in this stuff. SBTS is becoming a feeder for every denomination.

    I have only found the “freedom” thing outside the institution. We still have one foot in but I don’t see that happening for long. Mainly for the seniors and doing kid stuff. I stay completely away from their sermons/studies. I can’t take it. Thing is, these guys won’t leave you alone. Over time you are either on their team or you need to leave. I don’t even disagree with them anymore. I just ignore them.

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  12. “For those who have left a spiritually abusive church, how would you encourage someone who is questioning whether or not they should leave their church?
    How has your life changed emotionally and spiritually since leaving?”

    If you are in a church that you can’t ask questions in or you find you can’t be honest in, you need to start getting an exit plan. If your whole social structure is built around the church, it will be painful and hard to leave. However, God will bring you new friends. If you can not be the person God created you to be then you need to find a place where you can be free.

    I would be gentle with people still in the church. It is their family and their sense of belonging. Some are not able to recognize the unhealthy parts of the church. It may be too painful for them to even come to that realization.

    We were at a Catholic Church for almost 2 decades. It was once healthy but gradually overtime became very unhealthy. Spiritually/emotionally abusive churches can be found in any denomination. I am glad we got out while our kids are still at home.

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  13. Once you get past the initial shock of dealing with some of the things that were involved in your toxic belief system, then the fun begins. That is, you will feel the need to examine every belief/teaching that you have ever heard and see if it is truth and worth keeping or error and in need of throwing out. This is an important phase, though it feels so unsettling and somewhat out of control.

    It is important to look at what you believe and why, who taught you, what their theological roots were, and so forth. Out of this painful exercise, the dross will slowly drop off and what you have left will be the real gold of what you now believe. If you feel that your faith has been purified by fire, then probably it has or it will be.

    How we understand God’s grace, our view of church and church leadership, the mission of the church, and so forth, will need to be examined carefully over time. The outcome will be that your roots will grow deeper into Jesus and your fellowship with those who understand will be sweeter.

    Yes, be kind to yourself. Others are here who totally understand. We can help one another through this!

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  14. Getting a perfect score on a test in her core curriculum class helps you feel free! Success is the best revenge, Julie Anne. 🙂

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  15. I can’t really say how it feels to be free. I left a very controlling church three years ago and I am still struggling. I can’t make myself trust anyone in or related to a church. I know every church has issues, but I feel much safer away from it. It makes for a very lonely life and I miss using the gifts God has given me. I love to teach children and have taught many adult classes. I was the worship leader for many years. I never seem to fill complete anymore. I really don’t know which way to go anymore????? Jamie

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  16. For me, my faith became MUCH simpler. No more hours of Bible study and reading books and worship and prayer in the hopes of “finding” God. Now I know He’s in my heart and always here.

    Emotionally, I am much happier. Friends say I’m much less frazzled and much happier.

    It’s very scary to lay down all the rules and trappings, and just be yourself with God. But He’s already seen you. And you won’t find Him in all those rules.

    Thanks for bringing back the wonderful memories of Texas in spring!

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  17. It is important to look at what you believe and why, who taught you, what their theological roots were, and so forth. Out of this painful exercise, the dross will slowly drop off and what you have left will be the real gold of what you now believe.

    This is good, Barb, and it can be a lengthy process. I thought I was done with most of my stuff before I started blogging. But I’ve found that blogging has opened up new areas to explore personally. The, “where did this teaching come from?” question is very important. Did it come from your own reading/study from Scripture, or was it from a pastor who had his own agenda?

    Another thing that has been helpful to me is to give myself permission to be in limbo on certain issues. For example, a while back someone wrote an article about something I was covering on the blog and referred to me as egalitarian and a feminist. I challenged him on that because I’ve never come out publicly on either topic. The truth is I am not settled on either issue. Maybe I won’t ever be settled. What I am settled on is who Christ is to me and what He did for me. I have learned to not sweat the small stuff. Egalitarianism and Feminism are not in the Bible. They are labels. I find labels to be a distraction.

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  18. Ken, you make some really good points. I was one of those who refused to leave a strictly reformed church with cultic characteristics, even after several good friends who had been members trickled away one by one and tried to gently tell me there was no grace there and plenty of bad theology. I didn’t realize that the day I was excommunicated (for “slandering the elders”…reporting their partial and unjust handling of members to their overseeing body, and giving written permission for everything I wrote to be shared with the elders) would be the most theologically important day of my life. It’s a long way back to level emotional ground, but I am thankful I did not seek refuge in yet another church. The holy spirit and I (with help from tons of bloggers and commenters) sorted out truth from error for a couple of years. At this point, I finally found my courage and my voice and I have publicly blogged my experience. BEST, I have allowed the holy spirit to lead and teach, and I love digging into the Greek, utterly amazed at what God’s word really says. By the way, almost no one from my former church family would hear my defense or view my blog, yet they obediently shun me, typically citing 1 Tim 5:19 (Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.) This little isolated piece of scripture can be used by perps to justify the “star chamber” treatment as well as the isolated abuse of children. Maybe we should do group exegesis of it.

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  19. One thing that helped me disengage from over-rigidity was developing an ongoing conversation with God. God is with us wherever we are, and for me, that meant learning to put Him/Her into my days by talking with Him/Her.

    Eg: “What a great idea that flower is! The stripes! And it closes at night! You are amazing, God!” and “My friend looks very tired this morning, if there’s something You think she needs to hear, I am willing to tell it.” and “I have no idea why You put so MANY nerve endings in human joints. Half would’ve done the job as well. Just saying.” Etc.

    This sidestepped the rules and gave me a relationship. And a good relationship, too, for a person who’s had so many crappy ones. Plus it mitigated the intensity of my loneliness and helped me stay in my life.

    At first I couldn’t do it for more than 5 min because I was so anxious and dissociated, but I kept at it, leaving and returning, gently, over a period of years. Even now I’m not great at it, have never had even a half-day in which I could do it uninterrupted, but it is now part of all my days, and it has become habitual.

    The best part is that I like it so much, which is different from how it felt trying to fulfill the “requirements of the Christian life”. Instead of a dragging burden which one tries very hard to be happy about, being with God simply is a delight.

    FWIW

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  20. Now that I’ve caught up on comments, I see that tlc3 wrote the same thing. I guess it bears repeating lol

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  21. “By the way, almost no one from my former church family would hear my defense or view my blog, yet they obediently shun me, typically citing 1 Tim 5:19 (Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.) This little isolated piece of scripture can be used by perps to justify the “star chamber” treatment as well as the isolated abuse of children. Maybe we should do group exegesis of it.”

    Yeah, there is a historical context. I suppose they think it protects them from wrong doing. Amazing, isn’t it?

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  22. “Eg: “What a great idea that flower is! The stripes! And it closes at night! You are amazing, God!” and “My friend looks very tired this morning, if there’s something You think she needs to hear, I am willing to tell it.” and “I have no idea why You put so MANY nerve endings in human joints. Half would’ve done the job as well. Just saying.” Etc. ”

    Hee Hee. I can totally relate to this. :o)

    (The cool thing is you don’t even need to close your eyes….just sayin’)

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  23. Eg: “What a great idea that flower is! The stripes! And it closes at night! You are amazing, God!” and “My friend looks very tired this morning, if there’s something You think she needs to hear, I am willing to tell it.” and “I have no idea why You put so MANY nerve endings in human joints. Half would’ve done the job as well. Just saying.” Etc.

    Many people feel completely out of control with anxiety and don’t know how to get started. I struggled very hard to find the happy medium between that feeling that everything is okay and that I was connected to the world around me in those moments of peace and wonder — and the aspect of dissociating called “floating.” I would try to find that place of transcended calm of stillness and knowing that God was still God and was with me, and the type of “stillness” of losing two hours of time in overwhelm when I was actually trying to connect with the Lord which I usually did in that way through music. Or I’d get overwhelmed by grief.

    Having been through that and moved through it, I would say (and sometimes as people to try) that working on growing that sense of connection to beauty, goodness, and peace (what I would call transcendence). If you only get it for about thirty seconds a day, work to stay there a few seconds longer, or set aside time to find that place more than once in a day. For me, those were seeds that would grow, and I had to learn how to nourish them — to nourish me, and to remember how I used to do that before the trauma and the violation of my trust.

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  24. Patrice
    MAY 6, 2014 @ 5:08 AM
    I LOVE what you shared Patrice! FWIW ( ;
    Reminds me of the following quote I read a few days ago. I haven’t read the book.

    All Can Be Prayer

    I believe that God wants a personal relationship, an adult friendship, with each of us and that prayer is the best way of engaging in that friendship. By prayer I mean what occurs when I am conscious in some way of God’s presence. So prayer can be as simple as watching a child trying to speak words, looking at sunlight glancing off snow-covered trees, playing with your dog, feeling the wind on your face, hearing birds sing, smelling bacon sizzling in a frying pan, looking at someone you love; all can be prayer if you’re aware of God’s presence as you take in these experiences.

    From William A. Barry, SJ, Praying the Truth, Loyola Press.

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  25. Julie Anne, your comment about feminism and egalitarianism and labels made me think of a conversation I had recently with my husband about complementarianism. We are egalitarians but his parents, in the Bible Belt, considered his father to be the head of the household. I asked him how their marriage differed from ours. “Let me think,” he said. “Dad had the greatest respect for Mom and put a lot of confidence in her judgment. They talked things out and made decisions together. They really loved each other and each wanted to please the other….. Come to think of it, it was exactly like our marriage.”

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  26. Cindy K wrote: “Many people feel completely out of control with anxiety and don’t know how to get started. I struggled very hard ….dissociating called “floating”….trying to connect with the Lord which I usually did in that way through music. Or I’d get overwhelmed by grief….If you only get it for about thirty seconds a day, work to stay there a few seconds longer, or set aside time to find that place more than once in a day….”

    Yes! I couldn’t listen to music at the time, so I started by sitting next to God on the park bench in my mind. I brought everything to that bench, from rage to grief to despair. It was there I first realized that S/He loved me, just plain loved me like I never knew before. (I’d not had a “before trauma” so it was genuinely new. Oh my!)

    Some time later I started the work of bringing God with me into the real world. Having the park bench relationship first was very good because now I knew a loving Person to go with me, which sometimes assuaged, just enough, the panic which set off dissociative episodes.

    People need to give themselves a great deal of time (took me several years), patiently gently keeping at it, as able. And the kindness from God combines with their newly learned kindness towards themselves, which grows enough courage to keep trying in spite of panic.

    …..

    Gail aka scared, that’s it, exactly! These are not new ideas, of course. We each work out how to do it for our particular selves. When there are quite a few of us with similar issues, there are some methods that work better than others. But as you can see with Cindy K and I, even that will vary.

    It’s a matter of feeling your way in the dark towards that warm bit up ahead, step by step, taking breaks when needed, then reaching out for it again.

    It really is all good. I recommend it for everyone. lol

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  27. freedom said:

    “If you are in a church that you can’t ask questions in or you find you can’t be honest in, you need to start getting an exit plan.”

    Definitely. I would also add that if you are in an intolerable life situation, and left with NO WAY OUT if you actually heed all your pastor’s teaching and private counsel, then it’s time to think about getting out. Because something is way off.

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  28. That’s a great story, Marsha. Sometimes labels don’t really mean a whole lot. Other times they can be so divisive and hurtful (i.e., Miano and CON think they are putting me down by calling me certain labels).

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  29. Freedom said: “Spiritually/emotionally abusive churches can be found in any denomination”.
    I am copying & pasting because this is such an important thing to say!! Its too easy to think that, because this is a different denomination, it must be different. And it is also easy too assume that, because another church is of the same (or similar) denomination, that it will be exactly the same as the one that you fled.
    It’s more complicated than that.

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