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How to Effectively Engage with Loved Ones Still Trapped in High-Controlling Churches

This morning, I wrote a Twitter thread on high-controlling churches and observations I’ve made over the years working to expose church abuse. Some great conversation ensued. Here is the direct link, but I am also posting screenshots in case something happens with Twitter (due to recent selling of Twitter to Elon Musk).

Jeff Irwin posted a tweet with really good questions that deserved a more lengthy response, so I thought I’d make a post out of it rather than deal with Twitter’s character limitations.

This topic is really important because many of us left behind loved ones at harmful churches, and we of course want to see them free from abuse. This topic is also one of the most common questions I get privately from folks who are trying to help their friends or loved ones leave high-controlling churches, or know how to respond effectively. It is definitely post worthy.

Let’s take a look at Jeff’s question and concerns below:

Jeff’s tweet opens up a whole other can of worms that needs to be addressed; I’m so glad he chimed in! 

When we know that someone is in harm’s way, normally we simply explain how to solve the problem, they take our advice, and the problem is solved. The first important takeaway is this: don’t think of this as normal. If you explain away what the problem is, it may backfire on you.

If you reach out to someone and try to warn them about the harm that you see, they may turn you off instantly and avoid you entirely. That is a risk you do not want to take. You cannot influence a loved one caught in a high-controlling church if the relationship is severed, so you’ll have to maneuver cautiously to keep the relationship open. That’s the most important step.

When I think of this relationship between two individuals: you, being the one with knowledge and insight about the abuse; and the other being the individual currently in harm’s way, my mind conjures up a line of string extended. You are holding onto one end of the string, your loved one stuck in the harmful environment is holding onto the other end. To make this relationship work, you both have to intentionally hold an end. If either of you let go, you no longer have a way to interact, and the relationship is severed.

If you are wanting to maintain this relationship with the hopes that your friend/loved one will eventually leave the high-controlling church, you have to be careful and it is good to have some ground rules in place (most likely unspoken). Be mindful that the survivor is still be controlled by the church leader who may view you as a threat and try to sever this relationship.

Being firmly grounded is crucial if you are going to maintain this relationship, and you must know the risks and have those risks in the forefront of your mind as you continue the relationship, because at any moment, the relationship may turn.

Here are my recommendations:

Always keep in mind the goal: to help them come to their own conclusions which leads them to leave the church. They need to own this deeply. This is similar to a domestic violence situation. You can tell a domestic violence survivor she is being abused until the cows come home, but until she fully understands what is happening to her and is ready to make the move, it won’t happen. People who don’t fully understand their abuse and own the reasons why they are leaving will often return to the abuse, so the goal here is to be the vehicle by which they get information to help them come to these important conclusions. You really are important in this process if you understand these issues and don’t get in the way. 

Do not initiate conversation about the church or church leader. You know exactly how abusive the leader is, their common tactics, and the harm you have observed and/or experienced. Again, in normal situations, you might tell someone everything you know. That will not work in this situation. Survivors need to learn these things on their own. So, let it be on their initiative and timing. Warning: this is a long process. You are seeing things clearly, and they are not. They are going back to their abusive environment and weighing observations and taking notes.

When to move forward in the relationship:

  • When you hear them telling you problems they are observing, this is a clue that they are looking for more insight you may have. This is important so they can form their own conclusions about the unhealthy church. Continue with that direction. 

Below are warning signs of when to re-evaluate and possibly limit or even stop (not sever, just stop for the time being so you have time to assess) the relationship:

  • If you sense any defending of the church/pastor, this tells you they are not ready to leave. It is not good to engage in this discussion.
  • If this person is praising the church/pastor and talking about how good/helpful/godly it is, this is not someone who is wanting the church to change. They are not seeing things clearly.
  • If they are trying to preach to you, tell you that you are sin, tell you to repent, anything that is spiritually shaming, they might be trying to recruit you back to the church. You will need to either stop meeting or identify boundaries: you can say you are happy to discuss other issues, but not church-related topics in order to ensure ensure both ends of the string are being held.

The risk of getting pulled back into a high-controlling church is a valid one. You may have friends/loved ones left behind and desire to re-establish those relationships. Be aware of that strong emotional tug on your heart. I know of one family who left our high-controlling church and spoke loudly against the pastor and his abusive practices. They were lured back, and as far as I know, are still there. Another person who was sued by my former pastor actually went back and publicly apologized to him and the church members! Can you imagine? So you must be aware of this reality. It happens.

So make sure you are in a place where you can easily walk away or close the conversation if you observe any of the aforementioned warning signs. You have to be on guard of this dynamic and aware of what could happen. 

Photo by Oleg Magni on Pexels.com

As simple as it sounds, what helped me most in leaving my high-controlling church was observing close friends from my former church. I observed their carefree and happy lives. In my high-controlling church, I was bound to rules/practices that interfered with having a normal and enjoyable life. In the high-controlling church, life was difficult, heavy, and a burden with all of our pastor’s demanding and time-consuming expectations.

But seeing my old friends “do life,” the simple, mundane, with joy, free from extra church rules/obligations was attractive to me. I missed that life.

But seeing my old friends “do life,” the simple, mundane, with joy, free from extra church rules/obligations was attractive to me. I missed that life. And because they were still my friends, when I left the high-controlling church, they were the first to welcome me back to normalcy. It should be important to note that these two friends in particular also followed the guidelines I described above. They did not put down my pastor. They treated me the same, as a friend, and allowed me time to come to my own conclusions (2 years).

So, really, the bottom line is love. Love your friends/family who are stuck in their abusive church. Show them what love is, what joy is, what freedom is, what mundane is. Invite them to share a meal with you (their favorite meal). Be boring. Be you. Be kind, loving, and accepting. This is so attractive to someone in a high-controlling church. Remind them of fun times you’ve had in the past away from the controlling church. Show them what they are missing out on, but do it naturally, because that’s what we all do when we re-connect with old friends, right? We love to reminisce about old times together. This is the time to do that.

It’s interesting how the simple example of love is what will likely bring these folks home. Let love be your guide!

If you have any success stories, I’d love to read them in the comments!

9 thoughts on “How to Effectively Engage with Loved Ones Still Trapped in High-Controlling Churches”

  1. This is really helpful – the ‘church’ (system) I have left is not geographically based. It’s more broadly a ‘homeschooling culture ‘ – for my adult children their father represents ‘the standard’ and they have equated that with ‘christianity’. Keeping hold of ‘my end of the string’ while avoiding being dragged back in by the most enthusiastic is hard. Others have chosen just to let go of the string… Then there are ‘friends’ who have sent messages asserting the ‘true’ perspective of the ‘boss’.. It was when I actively sought help for my troublesome marriage (and went through DW ‘s ‘reforming marriage ‘ with h and ‘friends’) that the cognitive dissonance began to be revealed to me. Then it went from bad to worse. I read Vaclav Havel on ‘the power of the powerless’ recently. He mentions the self-erasure which results from being ‘an individual-as-a-component-part’ of a system. It is for freedom Christ has set us free. Some of us naturally run from freedom – so it is harder for our Father to bring us out of bondage…..

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  2. Tekel, thank you for sharing some of your challenging journey. You absolutely get it. It sounds like you are getting free from those unhealthy relationships and well on your way to wholeness and freedom. Good for you for doing the hard work. I wish you peace along this journey.

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  3. Regarding the question fo staying and warning vs. leaving, I learned when I left a high control church that other members left soon after I did–they watched what was going on between me and the “pastor” and left in protest as to how I was treated. The issue in question was that for Communion, I’d made some unleavened bread and “it was cut too big.” No kidding. The same guy who cussed me out over Matzoh also would agree to things on Sunday, and would undo whatever was done the next day.

    It’s been an important guide to me ever since, the nonsense that guy pulled. Talk to me about King James Only or Trail of Blood, and I’m loaded for bear because of it.

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  4. It is taking/has taken years for me to understand the goal Julie Anne describes in this article: “to help them come to their own conclusions…”

    I want to go into conversations with an irrefutable argument to help them “see the light”, but they just interpret it as a train in a tunnel speeding toward them.

    So often, I find my goal is to control them to believe the truth instead of relinquishing control in order to love them, ask questions to get them thinking, and be patient over the years as they either do (or don’t) find their own way out.

    Most people find it very difficult to be a long-term member of a cult; most find their way out eventually.

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  5. It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it, Paul? We think our loved one will want to learn what we have to say. It just doesn’t work out like that most of the time. The burden is on us to remain present, loving, and available for the right time when they really do want to learn more. Your last sentence is correct – most people will eventually leave. It’s just so painful to be on the outside watching, waiting, longing for our loved ones to discover the truth.

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  6. Amen Julie Anne. May Jesus be with you, and a very Happy and Blessed Mother’s Day!

    You deserve to be loved and respected, as Jesus did in His Day!

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  7. Good to see you back, Julie Anne.
    One of the silver linings in the Covid cloud may be that people have had a chance to get some distance from oppressive churches and shop around, with all of the online options that popped up in 2020. Whenever we get back to full attendance (whatever that will look like) I think it’ll be interesting to see the shifts.

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