How to help a family member or friend leave a high-controlling church group or cult: spiritual abuse, trapped, thought reform, mind control, freedom
“Mind control is the process by which individual or collective freedom of choice and action is compromised by agents or agencies that modify or distort perception, motivation, affect, cognition and/or behavioral outcomes. It is neither magical nor mystical, but a process that involves a set of basic social psychological principles. Conformity, compliance, persuasion, dissonance, reactance, guilt and fear arousal, modeling and identification are some of the staple social influence ingredients well studied in psychological experiments and field studies. In some combinations, they create a powerful crucible of extreme mental and behavioral manipulation when synthesized with several other real-world factors, such as charismatic, authoritarian leaders, dominant ideologies, social isolation, physical debilitation, induced phobias, and extreme threats or promised rewards that are typically deceptively orchestrated, over an extended time period in settings where they are applied intensively.”
― Steven Hassan,
I’ve heard it said that losing a child to death can be a parent’s worst nightmare. Now imagine having lost your adult child and their family, not to death, but to a high-controlling church or cult. Imagine not being able to celebrate birthdays or major holidays together. Imagine having only limited contact with your adult child and their family. How could your loved one entirely dismiss you, act like you are a stranger or enemy when you did nothing to them?
The other day, I watched a video by Dr. Steven Hassan. He was in the cult, The Unification Church, also called, The Moonies. After he was deprogrammed, he went to school and became an expert on cults. When listening to his story, something resonated with me about his story.
When he was 19 years old, he fell asleep at the wheel (he was allowed only 3-4 hours sleep each night while in the cult) going 80 mph and crashed. He was hospitalized for two weeks. Although estranged from his family, he reached out to the only family member who had not said to him that he was in a cult, his older sister. This struck me as I reflected on my experience at Beaverton Grace Bible Church (BGBC), which I view as a cult.
How did I respond to people who knew I was in a cult and wanted me out? How did I determine whether someone was a threat to me, or if they were going to support me no matter what, even if it meant I remained at BGBC? I think the answers to these questions might help people to understand what happens in the minds of people trapped in a high-controlling environment. I hope my experience will help others who are trying to help get their loved ones out of abusive cult environments.
These high-controlling environments aren’t limited to the “weird” cults like The Moonies. I’ve heard from people whose adult children are connected and emotionally trapped with churches pastored by graduates of John MacArthur’s, The Master’s Seminary. This has also happened in Doug Wilson’s churches, Harvest Bible Chapel, Mars Hill Church, etc. Emotional and spiritual entrapment is not remote.
I’ve heard the heartache from some of these parents via e-mail and phone conversations. They just want their kids and their families free. They want to snuggle and spoil their grandchildren. But their hands are tied, and they desperately want to know what to do. How can they get their loved ones out of their spiritually abusive church? Is there something they can do?
It’s important to understand the dynamics of these types of groups. The leaders of these high-controlling church groups or cults are spiritual and emotional bullies. In order for them to have a functioning group, they must maintain control of the group. There are a number of ways they do this. They keep group members so busy that they are not able to do many outside activities. They are elitist. They teach that their way is the only right way and anyone who does not believe like they do are off. Anyone outside the group is viewed as suspect. Why is that? Because the guru leader does not have control of them. Consequently, not only are they (outsiders) viewed as suspect, they eventually will be called enemies because if they believed as the group leader believed, they would be part of the group, right?
Just as one cannot question leaders who have all the “right” answers, group members will be taught — even without words being said — that anyone who questions them is against them, and thus, against their guru leader. There is no allowance for differing opinions. If someone does not like the group or the leader, they are the enemy. Group members will be told Bible verses about enemies, how there can be no light in darkness, etc. Consequently, group members will distance, and then shun the outsiders who are really family and friends who care about them. The bully leader does not have to directly say, “do not associate with your family.” The implication in his messages and teachings does this. And when one is that enmeshed in the high-controlling system, members play their part in keeping the group pure from the perceived “enemy.”
For those who have loved ones caught in a high-controlling church or cult, it is very important to learn what is going on in the mind of someone trapped in that environment, and to be a bridge to that loved one. By bridge, I mean someone who still has access and a relationship with their loved one(s). In high-controlling churches, sometimes all access is remove. If you still have access, albeit limited access to your loved one, I’d like to share with you what helped me maintain access with my good friends, as I was in such a high-controlling group.
I remember having at least five friends who were concerned about our family and group of friends attending Beaverton Grace Bible Church. These five friends were not pushy, but asked genuine questions about the teachings and about the behavior of our pastor, Chuck O’Neal. Some had attended a service, heard him preach online, heard him preach at a graduation ceremony. Many had watched us change. They did not like what they saw and wanted to alert us that we were not in a healthy place. Their heart and intentions were spot on; however, sadly, unbeknownst to them, their method may have sabotaged their efforts. I distanced myself from those who reached out to me in this manner. I removed that bridge in our relationship.
Important Lesson 1: Your loved one is not being physically chained to their high-control group. They are chained emotionally and spiritually. Your most important job is to keep the bridge between you and your loved one.
If you are in the beginning stages of making connections with your loved one and they are still solidly in the cult, do not tell them they are in a cult. Do not ask questions about what is taught. Do not try to reason with them. They are there because they believe it to be true. If you challenge this, you may lose all access to them. You will no longer have a bridge to connect with them.
Now imagine this. I didn’t like attending BGBC from the first time I heard O’Neal preach. Yet, at the same time, I did not care for someone challenging why I was at this church. I had already bought into some of the teachings and actually defended Chuck O’Neal, the church, the people, and my involvement there. It bothered me that my old friends were challenging me this way. I remember thinking that they just didn’t understand. They were missing out. They were trying to prevent me from becoming pure and holy and were the enemy. I needed to separate from them because they were interfering with my spiritual walk. I perceived them to be shallow Christians and I distanced myself from these folks. I didn’t want to be tainted by their weak religion (this was another lie I believed).
If you have a friend or family member in a cult or high-controlling church, you are probably going to want to show them what you see, how the teachings are wrong. You are, in fact, probably correct. As tempting as it is to say those things, it usually won’t work. They will sense that you are trying to control them, and/or lead them away from what they are defending as truth. In their minds, you will be labeled as untrustworthy or even as an enemy and lines will be drawn. You are no longer safe with them. Remember, they are in an environment in which they are being controlled. It will not feel safe for them to go from one person (guru leader) who is controlling them to another person (friend) who is telling them how to think.
Now, there was another group of old friends that I met with to knit regularly. I later learned that Chuck O’Neal had told a church employee (my friend) that he did not like me meeting with them, but O’Neal never told me personally. I continued to knit with my friends, but I had a sense that O’Neal didn’t approve. These ladies constantly showed me love and grace. They did not question why I was at BGBC. They shared what was going on in their lives and I shared what was going on in mine.
A couple of these ladies would later become my safe people. Through them, without them saying any words directly to me, I was able to see that I was being held captive spiritually and emotionally, and that my “church” was a destructive and hostile spiritual environment. I saw the freedom they had to follow the Holy Spirit and engage themselves with others outside the church. I saw how they ministered to people who came their way and didn’t need to run anything by their pastor for approval. The stark difference in how they lived their Christian walk and mine was very apparent. It’s something that stuck with me and helped me in my process of leaving BGBC.
Important Lesson 2: Extend love and grace, without judgment, to your loved one.
These two things will be lacking from any high-controlling church. This is what Steven Hassan had with his sister whom he trusted. This is the relationship I had with my knitting friends. Because trust is such an important issue with people in high-controlling groups, maintaining a trust relationship is crucial. You will continue to have that if you show love and grace.
It is so important thing for those caught in a high-controlling environment to have the freedom to make their own choices and come to their own conclusions. They are not getting that in their abusive groups, but you can help them experience it outside the group if you still have a connection with them. This can only happen in an environment with love and grace.
Important Lesson 3: Recreate what used to be normal with your loved one. Avoid talking about the destructive group entirely.
If there is any contact at all, remind your loved one of special shared memories. Talk about friends and family members. Make them their favorite meals. Bring out pictures and family videos. Make new memories together. Give them opportunities to make decisions: where would you like to go? what movie would you like to see? what would you like to eat? In some groups, they are not allowed to make decisions for themselves. You are showing them normalcy, something that is missing in their current controlled life.
It took a while for loved ones to get involved in a high-controlling group. It will take some time for them to get out. There is a chance that loved ones will remain. That is a very sad reality for some. However, I think the above suggestions will be the best way to show a trapped person light in their oppressive darkness. Hopefully it will appeal to them and when their group experience hits new lows, they might come to you and eventually escape from their spiritual and emotional captivity.