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Recovery from Spiritual Abuse
How You Can Help

By Sharon Hilderbrant, M.A.

Recently, I have read two new books that describe in detail the abusive behavior of various churches and the effects of this abuse on church members. Churches That Abuse, by Ron Enroth, and Damaged Disciples (in press), by Ron and Vicki Burks, both published by Zondervan, relate stories that may be hard for some Christians to believe. Those of us who work with the victims, however, know the stories are true.

Churches on the fringe exist in every major metropolitan area as well as in small towns and isolated rural areas. Some are large, "mega-church" organizations, while some may be small house-church gatherings. Most of them look fairly normal to outsiders. That is, until abused persons begin to leave and tell of their experiences.

Getting out of the group is only the beginning of recovery. Recovery involves, according to one survivor, getting "the group out of us." The effects of abuse are long-standing. The following outlines how Christians can help the spiritually abused in their recovery.

Most survivors will have much trouble trusting. Anyone. Especially churches. A support system is desperately needed, but survivors will have difficulty approaching. Help with material needs (housing, job, food, etc.) is usually much appreciated. Social support via invitations to events or dinner, or just a conversation about something other than church or religious issues is very much needed.

Therefore, a safe place for confidentiality, a place to be relaxed without expectations of appearances or performance, a place to connect with another caring person (or persons) without becoming too involved in private lives, is needed. A dysfunctional don’t trust rule was present in the system, by teaching, by practice, or both. Don’t push for trust. Don’t push the recovery process. Respect their boundaries.

Survivors need to tell their story. So they will remember it themselves, and not deny any part of it. So they can be validated by others who believe them. So they can use the truth to dispel the deceptions of the past and discern deception in the future. The dysfunctional system no doubt had a don’t talk rule by practice—but probably spiritualized and cloaked in scripture as well. The don’t talk rule serves to hide a myriad of the leaders’ sins.

It is normal for anyone who has been victimized and abused to feel intense emotions. The longer the survivors had to endure abuse without an outlet for emotions, the longer it will take for them to experience the full range of emotions about it. Depression and anxiety are common masks for other emotions.

Too much intellectualizing may inhibit the survivor from getting in touch with his or her emotions. Fear, guilt, anger, grief, rage, sorrow—all must be felt and expressed in their own time. An overspiritualizing of emotions may have been present in the dysfunctional system, with certain emotions demanded and others condemned by a twisting of scripture. The result is a don’t feel your real feelings rule.

Encourage survivors to talk about what happened to them. Listen. Empathize. Offer words that may describe what the person is feeling, since they may not be able to identify it themselves at first. Limit feedback and comments to supportive statements. Keep confidentiality. Be trustworthy.

Who am I?
Survivors typically do not know who they are anymore. They lost themselves in the church/cult. They need to know they are lovable. Count them as equal to yourself—not less just because they are needy. Assure them they do not have to be perfect. Accept them as they are. Encourage them. Build confidence, offer choices. Allow them to have strengths and weaknesses.

They need to know that they are not evil or possessed, not crazy, not shameful. They need to know that they are not powerless and that they can recover and grow beyond this experience. Don’t make decisions for them and don’t try to fix them. Let them know you speak for yourself. Be careful of speaking for God. Tell them recovery takes a long time—2 to 4 years, or longer.

What about the group?
It is critical that survivors know that God is not the group. Leaving the group is not equivalent to leaving God. They must hear that no group has exclusive truth, or is the elite, or is especially anointed over another for ministry of the gospel. (It is the gospel that is anointed!)

They also need to recognize that group leaders actually deceived people, used and abused people, twisted scripture, and fostered co-dependent and/or addictive behaviors (perhaps immoral behavior, too) among members. Be gentle as you interpret what was hurtful and wrong in the group. Remember, they probably have left behind some people that are still dear to their hearts and do not wish to blame them. Information about co-dependency and dysfunctional families and other institutions at this stage may be helpful in confronting denial. Save Bible reading until the individual is ready to grapple with it in small doses.

What is God really like?
Just as survivors lost themselves in the group, so did they lose reality about who God is. They need to have grace explained in depth and to examine God’s attributes carefully. The long process of recovery involves continually uncovering misrepresentations of God conveyed by the words and behavior of group leaders, parents and other authority figures.

Survivors will need to be reminded again and again of the true attributes of God and the principle of grace. Be genuine. Be personal. Explain how scripture helps you to understand God’s attributes. If you have received grace, you can speak confidently about it. Tell what you love about God.

God’s people:
To become reconciled to God requires reconciliation with God’s people. Many who begin to trust God again have much more difficulty trusting people in any church. It helps to confront the truth about God’s people with statements similar to the following:

• Leaders are not more favored by God over others in the church.
• All struggle spiritually, even leaders.
• All are in various stages of growth (no instant spirituality).
• All make mistakes, none are infallible.
• All can learn to hear God’s voice for themselves—no need to remain spiritual children who must submit to parental leaders.
• All need each other—none are needless.
• All have something to give and are valuable to God.
• All—leaders and lay persons—are called to live by the same standards.
• All need to have their own relationship with God apart from the involvement of other believers—including spouses.
• The church is not just one building or one gathering, but believers

Be honest:
Be honest about yourself and your own church. Admit your own inability to have all the answers. The truth will not hinder their relationship with God. Remember it is the Holy Spirit’s job to draw them to Himself. Your admission of struggle may help them to learn to struggle and not give up.

Going to church:
Survivors may need help working through memories and emotions triggered by going to church. Continually point them to God Himself. It is not God who has violated them, but people—some well-intended and some deceptive. Help survivors to see that Christians are individuals—imperfect—not to be put on pedestals, but to share in the struggles and the benefits of the Christian faith.

Help them to recognize the distorted thinking—about themselves, about God, etc.—that accompanies traumatic reactions. This is a good time to use the safety and authority of scripture to confront the deception created by the group, and to soothe and console. A trained counselor may be needed for this part of recovery.

Untwisting Scripture:
All survivors will need help working through memories and feelings triggered by scripture. Scripture was twisted to the advantage of the group or its leaders. True meanings of Scripture are healing and give life. Untwisting takes much work. Make no assumptions of what they know or understand. Challenge every concept, all usage of jargon and Bible language for clarification of what it means to them. They may assume you know their understanding of a phrase, as if there is only one way to interpret it. Respect their spiritual boundaries. Be sure they are ready to grapple with scripture. (It is normal to avoid reading the Bible at all for 12-18 months or more.)

The recovery process I have just outlined takes a long time. One-on-one support is a long-term commitment. More helpful is a group support system, where all are assisting survivors in various aspects. Create a network of Christians who will assist with material needs, who will provide financial assistance to attend community events (or a couples’ weekend, or a family camp) for rest and recreation, who will assist with filling out tax forms, or who will advise on how to buy a good used car.

Help them obtain medical care or tutor their children to bring them up to grade level. Provide information that will help them learn (or re-learn) how to function, without fear or shame, in the larger society. Lend them self-help books to read. Help with professional counseling as needed. Be available as a friend in a small group of friends. (Isn’t that how Jesus would do it?)

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

The above article originally appeared in The Shield newsletter in 1992.
It was posted on this Web site in March 1997.

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