Leaving a Spiritually Abusive Group

(Originally printed in the September/October 1996 Issue of the MCOI Journal)

After three frustrating and disillusioning years, my ministry position in an evangelical church came to a disappointing end in 1987. My wife and I searched for a new church home, but even more, we searched for answers. We longed for a fellowship that exemplified ideal Christian unity. I wondered if, maybe, God really hadn’t called me to local church ministry. “Perhaps, I should go into Christian counseling,” I wondered. My spiritual life was also in decline. I wasn’t the kind of person I wanted to be.

Many events led up to my resignation, including my efforts to get counseling for some people in our church. It was at this point a local evangelical pastor referred me to a counseling ministry that sounded promising – it specialized in people who had been psychologically abused as children, which sounded like a perfect fit for my friends’ situation.

But after talking to the head of this “counseling ministry,” I was confused. He didn’t seem too helpful, nor very interested in my friend I was referring to him. But the counselor was willing to meet with me, so I drove to see him. By the end of our discussion, he had me considering the possibility that I, myself, needed counseling. He didn’t deny that the other people in my former church needed counseling, too, but as hindsight snowed me, to him I was “a bird in the hand” and worth more to him than “two in the bush.”

Over several long, grueling weeks I engaged in “phone counseling” with him. He didn’t have time to meet with me in person and, for some reason, didn’t mention he ran counseling “groups.” Over two months, he gradually stripped me of the roles I continued to play in helping my friends from my former church — or of doing any kind of ministry whatsoever – and told me to introspect (he called it “asking God”) about my “problem.” But every time I thought I’d found “the answer,” the counselor would find something wrong with it. When I was fully desperate, he finally invited me to a group.

My very first night in the group, someone spoke about basing my self-esteem upon Christ, instead of my efforts. For some reason — perhaps out of desperation, I reached out and grabbed this as my “answer,” and suddenly the dark cloud over me vanished. Maybe there was something to this “therapy” after all! I did briefly wonder, “If the answer was this simple, why didn’t the counselor share it with me at the beginning?” But I quickly suppressed the thought.

I shared my relief, enlightenment, and new-found freedom with the counselor (who was also the group leader). My “crisis” (which, in retrospect, hadn’t existed until I met this man) was over. Before, I was vulnerable – spiritually weak, grieving the loss of a ministry position, worried about my friends, and depressed. Now those clouds had lifted. The counselor recognized I no longer had need of his services, so he quickly changed the subject, “Can you think of any better place to learn counseling?” He then suggested I do some kind of “internship” at his counseling ministry, a tactic that kept me connected to his group.

The internship seemed like a wonderful opportunity. I had a reference from the evangelical pastor who originally told me about this counselor. There appeared to be a legitimate board and list of references, so I felt safe in casting my lot with this little counseling ministry. I saw so much concern and closeness in the various groups! The leader seemed compassionate and strong. Shortly after I joined, I even sat in on an interview he gave to a nationwide Christian magazine. I knew I still had problems in my life, but couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to get this opportunity!

There were a few “red lights” flashing at the front door, which I ignored. First, the counselor had been excommunicated from his church in 1986. His board stood with him through this crisis, and many still think he was wronged. Second, he had also been fired from a well-known youth ministry a few years earlier. He had a pattern of not being able to get along with people, most notably, his own wife. Third, he frequently used profanity. This seemed quite inappropriate for a man who claimed to be a conservative, evangelical Christian. But I and others rationalized it as part of his “therapeutic background,” since some therapy groups are known for tolerating profanity.

The counselor disarmed criticism by being very up front about these things. He spoke of being “accountable,” but the funny thing was, no one in or outside the groups could ever convince him he was wrong about anything. He had an amazing way of turning the tables on anyone who questioned whether some of his critics might be right. He initially appeared humble, open, and reasonable and even openly confessed some of his sins from years ago, which were often embarrassing! Only gradually could I see how closed off he was toward anything that might tarnish his image.

Within 18 months (by the end of 1988) after I joined, much had changed. The original board of directors had resigned in frustration with trying to hold the counselor accountable. He gave us only very sketchy details about their resignation, some of which were deceptions. The original list of references was also shrinking, because these people criticized him when they discovered how he actually ran his “ministry.”

The inner workings of the groups gradually went from warm and loving, to confrontational and controlling. The leader began hammering at us to verbally confess our sins in the group. He kept repeating Bible verses that seemed to justify this. He used humiliation, comparing us unfavorably to secular “12-step” groups, telling us the people in those groups were “more honest” than we were. Sometimes people would make fledgling efforts at confession, but the leader would burst out in angry dissatisfaction. \.

He offered a place where we could be “real” and yet “safe,” and the desire for this resonated within us. TRUE fellowship, where we could share EVERYTHING! But somehow, we missed the contradiction between the counselor’s promise of “safety” and his own unsafe behavior: his outbursts of anger, his use of humiliation, his role-playing scare tactics. We were so drawn to his Utopian promise, we were blinded to how disqualified he was to be our Utopian leader.

True, he had a way of seeing “into” people. He called it “the gift of discernment.” God told him things. He would tell us of all the people who had praised his “great discernment” over the years, accompanied by stories of how these same people turned away from him when he HAD to tell them what God wanted them to know, i.e., about certain sins in their hearts. But the use of his “gift” didn’t end after he had helped others by giving them “self-awareness.” It always led to people turning over their decision-making powers to him — unless they left first.

The counselor also claimed that weight problems were indicative of people who had “issues they refused to deal with” and, yet, he himself was quite overweight. He would loudly declare. “I don’t tell you people what to do! I don’t run your lives!” But, in practically the next breath, he would tell a married couple to stop having sex or order someone to break off contact with parents. These were some of the many internal contradictions in our group.

Most could not handle the resulting tension. Many left from 1987 to 1990, and the groups became so small they were combined into one. Oddly, instead of three groups that each met weekly, there was now one group which met three times a week! As the demanding nature of the counselor drove people away, the demands he made on our time and energy actually increased! It gradually became clear – although we all suppressed our awareness of it – that nothing would ever be enough!

He had us read “Recovery Movement” books, because many of them advised readers of two primary’ things: 1) Everybody comes from a “dysfunctional” family, and 2) to “recover,” you must separate yourself from your family of origin, which had passed the “dysfunction” on to you. Some of these books were written by evangelical Christians, most weren’t. But the fact that Christian authors were involved gave us confidence in what we were reading. We were never told exactly how long we’d need to separate from our families, but by 1990, just about everybody in the group had cut off family ties, and we were at the mercy of the counselor. Most of us separated for a very long time. I, myself, separated for three years; others for longer periods of time.

There was never any solid, Biblical reason for doing this, but there was a typical scenario: a) members started “realizing” how “dysfunctional” they were; b) they were further convinced the “dysfunction” came from their family of origin; c) they would try to either separate from their families in order to “heal” or set up family group counseling with the counselor d) when the family figured out what was up and they were about to be raked over the coals by the counselor, they would back out: e) then the counselor labeled the family as truly “evil” (as per the book, People of the Lie, by M. Scott Peck) and further justified the members staying away from their families. Sometimes the members’ families truly had committed sin. But, instead of the counselor teaching the members how to forgive and move on with life, the leader taught the members how to refuse forgiveness until complete satisfaction was made by the family and thus hold grudges – all in the name of “healing” and even “reconciliation!”

The same “logic” was applied to our churches. Since all churches were too “sick” for us to belong to, we ended up making the group the equivalent of “church.”

Almost everyone in the group was well educated. A few had Master’s Degrees. One had a Ph.D. Another was the son of a respected theologian. Nearly all were raised in Christian homes. I, myself, had even been involved in counter-cult/apologetics ministry prior to my church ministry experience. How could we be so misled?

For me, the answer is that the counselor, who had degrees in psychology and communications (which carries heavy doses of group psychology), understood human conditioning processes. He knew how to attract people, how to get them to commit, and how to influence them over time. He had a very behavioristic approach, which didn’t work on everybody, but worked on enough people to satisfy him. Those people it didn’t “work” on usually left confused and hurting.

He knew how to create credibility and plausibility and how to command respect. He knew how to organize these dynamics in a sequential process so that, eventually, we were convinced he had great discernment, he could read people’s hearts, he knew if we were truly sincere, and he knew if we were making progress in being cured of our “dysfunction.”

The requirement to confess sin in the groups became stricter. He required EVERYTHING be brought before the group, in blatant contradiction of what he had previously said, demonstrating how much control he came to exercise.

This burdensome requirement caused some people to dropout, and then “drop back in”… including me. I eventually confessed deeply embarrassing sins I thought I’d take with me to my grave and soon discovered that sins confessed were NEVER forgotten! They became your “ID Cards” in the group. You would always be “the person who did such and such.” Whenever you questioned the leader, he would haul than out and throw them back in your face! Any sense of forgiveness could be snatched away at a moment’s notice.

When there was no more to confess, the counselor wanted more. So, he had to create more. This came in the form of accusations against our consciences, our motives, our attitudes, our desires – ANYTHING the counselor thought he could “discern.” If people showed up in the group wearing slightly unusual clothing, the counselor accused them of pride, or even of “trying to seduce.” If a woman made a suggestion to a man that the counselor thought was too forceful, she was accused of “castrating” him. He always had plenty of “reserve ammo” in the form of previous confessions we had made and always found a way of justifying new accusations as ways of “getting us to confess” things we were now hiding, even though we’d previously admitted to being guilty of them.

If we ever objected to an accusation from the counselor, he would throw a previous confession in our faces. “Aren’t you the same person who …?” Then he’d just stare at us in silence. Sometimes he’d start screaming and swearing at us. He claimed such extreme harshness was “necessary” in order to counter the “power” we supposedly projected. This somehow justified his violation of the example of Christ’s meekness. He frequently complained about how we “hurt” him and “grieved” him by “forcing” him to act in such a manner. It was a lot like having an abusive parent, although we couldn’t see it… nor could we figure out how to escape.

Over a four-year period, I watched as he elevated a single woman in the group to the status of his near equal, only to eventually find fault with her and, then, to publicly humiliate her until she, quite literally, barely could crawl away in utter despair! He’d been spending literally scores of hours on the phone with her each month (which was a questionable activity in light of his own extremely poor relationship with his wife) supposedly “mentoring” her. But when he suddenly decided to question her sincerity, the phone calls turned ugly, as did her treatment in the group. He would call her names in front of the rest of us. Names like “seducer,” “slut,” and “the ultimate deceiver.” One day, amidst all the hysteria the counselor had induced in her, she put her little blind son in his wagon and steered it to the leader’s house, only a few blocks away. He later accused her of doing this “to sexually seduce him.”

He never clarified the exact nature of her supposed “sins,” yet she was required to “see” them and repent of them since he had “discerned” them. No one dared to stand up or question. We knew from vast experience the tables would be turned on US as well. The leader’s retort would be to accuse anyone who came to another’s defense of “rescuing behavior.” He taught that “rescuing behavior” always indicated the “rescuer” was protecting the accused in order to hide the fact the “rescuer” was guilty of the same sin! So, to stand up in someone else’s defense was treated as an admission of guilt, giving the leader virtually limitless accusatory power.

After this woman barely escaped our group with her sanity, the counselor re-created the same scenario with me, setting me up in a position of leadership only to knock me down. Before I could escape, he accused me of “committing adultery” because I had a 20-second phone conversation with a woman. The nature of that conversation? She asked me how I was doing, and I told her. There was no sexual content whatsoever. There was no attraction between me and that woman. There was no relationship other than that which had been created by our membership in the group. I was very happy with my wife, not looking around for anyone else and, frankly, not attracted to this other woman. It didn’t matter. The fact that the counselor made the accusation was satisfaction enough for him and the group, and so began nine months of utter hell for me.

I thought I was the only one in the group who was so evil as to be “unable to see his sin.” I begged God to show it to me! I must be truly reprobate to be so blind! In the midst of grueling introspection and prayer, the leader kept hurling other accusations against me until I no longer knew whether I had ever been a Christian! For much of the summer of 1992, I was only allowed to come to the group meetings for the first 15 minutes and share what “progress” I had made, and then go home. I was “under discipline” in this way until August, when he was persuaded I was truly “repentant.” As much as I could be of a sin I not guilty of! I was MORE than repentant!

After that brief period of respite, when there was no more talk of “discipline” and I could stay in the group meetings as long as everyone else, I began to see I was not the only one who was going through hell. It became obvious to me from listening to others, EVERYONE around me was in bondage! I thought, “Maybe I just need a time out’; get away for a while, get my head together, and come back when God shows me how it all fits together.” On the last Monday in October, I asked permission from the counselor for this “timeout,” and he gave it. That Friday he called me at work to withdraw permission — for no reason! — and demanded my presence at that night’s group meeting I refused.

My wife was still in the group. Over the next few months, the counselor applied as much pressure as he could to intimidate me into either remaining totally silent or coming back to the group. He worked HARD to drive a wedge between my wife and me and only ended up driving her away. He concocted many lies about me and gleefully violated my confidence by sharing the embarrassing sins I confessed in the group with my new friends outside the group. For many months, I was devastated and wanted to do something about it. I can very clearly relate to others who speak of feeling “spiritually raped” after these kinds of experiences. The humiliation and loss of spiritual orientation are difficult to describe.

But I needed to go through it. I needed to see how low my former counselor would stoop to protect himself, even if it meant destroying me. I needed to go through the pain of having my confidence violated by him even to the point of breaking state laws! – so I could see him for what he was and, as far as I know, remains: a pathetic, self-absorbed, controlling, Pharisaical, lying loser. I know that sounds harsh. I don’t want it to be. Perhaps the emphasis should be on “pathetic,” rather than on all those other adjectives. Calling him “pathetic” emphasizes the fact I mean him no harm. A person who’s pathetic can only harm you if you believe his lies. But therein lies the danger: a pathetic person can, nonetheless, harm you. and you need to be aware of just how that person can do it. He can do it if you IGNORE his self-absorption, his controlling nature, his Pharisaical condemning spirit, his lies, and his “loser-mentality” (i.e., his tendency to blame everyone else for his own problems). We, in the group, ignored those aspects of his personality. We made excuses for him. And so we fell into his trap of blaming others and set ourselves up to be abused by him the way he had abused countless others before us.

When I first came out of the group, I was EXTREMELY protective of my ex-counselor. I even defended him! I thought he was misunderstood. Only after I repeatedly tried to straighten things out with him did I come face-to-face with his true nature. I’ve also learned that many, many people take a long time to go through the process of “disillusioning” themselves, i.e., dropping all the comforting illusions about their abusive ex-leaders. It’s a common phenomenon. More than three years have passed, and I’m FINALLY able to completely identify him for who he is: a spiritual abuser on the order of “brutal shepherds” of Ezekiel 34 and the Pharisees of Matthew 23. Spiritual abuse is nothing new. It is thousands of years old.

The essence of my recovery process has been to allow God to heal me over time using His appointed means: His Word, prayer, worship, and the fellowship of believers who are “grace-driven” rather than “guilt driven.” I discovered I could share these experiences with spiritual people without being labeled a “slanderer,” which is what the counselor called anyone who tried to hold him accountable and be understood. I also met others who had been through similar experiences, which was a real comfort because it took away my feelings of being abnormal for falling into this.

It showed me the agony I continued to experience was not unusual , yet, I learned others had recovered from it which gave me hope. Books like Healing Spiritual Abuse by Ken Blue were enormously helpful.

My wife and I now attend Grace Community Bible Church in Roselle, Illinois. Finding a church where the Word of God is central and where it is preached with the same emphasis found in the Bible itself, that is, with an emphasis upon GRACE! – and where this same grace is extended to all who attend is the first thing I would recommend to anyone seeking to recover from an experience similar to mine.

Ron currently works in the Advancement Division of Wheaton College and is pursuing an MA in Biblical Studies at Wheaton College Graduate School.


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