2020-01-10 Spiritual Abuse Sessions

Spiritual Abuse Sessions at the ICSA Annual Conference

The ICSA Annual International Conference will take place in Montreal, July 2-4, 2020 (preconference workshops July 3, 2020). The talks and panels described below address aspects of spiritual abuse. [Editor's Note: Because of Covid, this conference was postponed. Most sessions were later presented online in 2021 or 2022.]

A Different Understanding of Religious Abuse and Recovery

Patrick Knapp

Currently there are at least four major, identifiable perspectives on how people best understand and recover from religious abuse. These basic theoretical viewpoints are: (a) a thought-reform or mind-control perspective, (b) a deliberative or Conversionist conceptualization, (c) a psychosocial needs-based perspective and finally (d) a dynamic-systems approach. Both secular and faith-based (Christian) adherents can be variously identified in each of these perspectives. All these viewpoints have their various strengths and limitations. Each is helpful to the extent possible, given the limitations of its respective philosophic or theological assumptions. However, a larger contextual approach may be more helpful to sufficiently understand involvement in and recovery from religiously abusive environments. This talk will integrate features from various conceptual frameworks and suggest essential principles necessary for recovery from such abuse. A fifth perspective SECURE, is then introduced and explained. This approach includes the importance of essential recovery principles that are embedded in the concept and practice of the following: finding a Safe haven, derived from attachment theory; acknowledging the essential role and function of Emotion, as found in emotion focused therapy; realizing the benefits of remaining Cognitively focused, which comes out of cognitive behavioral theory; having Unconditional positive regard, from client center humanistic psychology; having a required Relational support system, as identified in the 12-step plans of recovery; and finally, affirming the need of Education in understanding family-systems theory as a unifying and organizing principle to the religious environment. Finally, this presentation will briefly summarize a recently completed doctoral thesis, "A Survey of Religious Abuse and Recovery" (August 2019). Efforts to publish the full thesis are being considered and to that end, discussion following this lecture will be encouraged.

Narrative Exploration into Counselors' Experiences of the Influence of a Fundamentalist Religious Upbringing on Mental Health and Wellbeing in Adulthood

Gill Harvey

The purpose of this study is to explore Counsellors' experiences of the influence of a fundamentalist religious upbringing on mental health and wellbeing in adulthood. Co-researchers have been obtained from the Abrahamic religions namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam, with purposeful sampling being used in order to select equality of representation and information rich stories from the six or seven co-researchers. The methodology utilized is collaborative Narrative Inquiry combined with a relational-centered reflexive approach. This will provide opportunity for co-researchers to share their own stories around the influence of a fundamentalist religious upbringing and/or their client stories using unstructured interview/s. As well as storytelling, the co-researchers will be encouraged to integrate photographs, journals, art projects, genograms etc. if willing, as this may bring to light aspects of experiences which may not be accessed verbally. Co-researchers will also be actively involved at analysis stage in line with the chosen methodology. The basic philosophical values upon which the research design rests is the storied nature of our lives; that self is constituted through the stories we tell, that telling our stories can be a transformative experience; that stories always change with each retelling; and story-telling is an important medium for making sense of our life experiences. My interest in the research topic has developed from my personal story of a fundamentalist religious upbringing with cultish elements as well as work with clients who have also grown up in similar environments, many of whom have either never told their story or when they have attempted to, their therapist has not been able to grasp the importance of working with this topic when it presents. In the longer term It is envisaged that continuing professional development courses for counsellors and psychotherapists (and maybe also for those in related caring roles such as Ministers of Religion) will be developed as a result of the research findings so that fellow professionals can be more fully informed about the importance of recognizing and working with such matters.

Authentic Healing: Reconnecting with One’s Self and God

Robert Pardon; Judy Pardon

The Bible has been used to enslave the individual to a system or group (that proclaims the “real” truth) rather than to free them to become all that God desires them to be. This type of spiritual abuse is devastating and touches the very core of a person’s identity.” Destructive, religious groups (mostly Bible-based cults) are by nature traumatizing environments, and trauma profoundly disconnects the member from their own self. Survivors of such spiritually abusive environments may experience many types of loss, however, the loss of one’s core sense of self, or one’s identity, is the most fundamental and damning. Attempting to reconnect with God under such circumstances can be filled with terror and thus virtually impossible. He is known only as a punitive Being; one who is distant, uncaring and unpleasable. Therefore, attempting to connect with the true God first requires a sense of who “I” am – of being a somebody as a valid and distinct individual. The survivor can then seek to develop an intimate relationship with the new “God,” never known in the destructive group. This workshop will explore:

  • Two initial critical principles, where the real struggle lies

  • The components of identity, self-esteem triangle

  • Traumatic disconnection across three continuums

  • Strategies to reconnect with self and God

Developing Safe Haven Churches/Synagogues (and other religious organizations) in Your Community

Wendy Duncan; Doug Duncan

The Spiritual Safe Haven Network (SSHN) is a program sponsored by ICSA to enlist churches, synagogues, and other religious organizations to offer a "safe haven” and place of healing for individuals who have experienced spiritual abuse. However, although the program has been in existence for years it has not been as far reaching as it deserves to be. Why? The topic of spiritual abuse is one that most clergy and church members do not want to address. Yet research conducted by the SSHN indicates that at least 3% of church members have experienced spiritual abuse. Although 67% were Christians before their involvement in a spiritually abusive group, only 39% remained a Christian after their experience. Other researchers state that the percentage of church members who have suffered spiritual abuse is much higher than the SSHN estimate. According to a 2010 Barna study, four out of ten (37%) non-churchgoers avoid church because of negative (not necessarily spiritual abuse) past experiences with churches or with church people. Clearly, this problem should not be ignored. Avoiding the topic of spiritual abuse is not the answer because by doing so, the church/synagogue cannot be the place of healing for victims.

Doug and Wendy Duncan have been actively working on a project they call, “The Wounded Sheep Project.” The Wounded Sheep Project is a call to churches to reach out and minister to individuals who are estranged from God and His church. The Wounded Sheep Project’s primary purpose is to develop safe haven churches in the Dallas metroplex. The Duncans developed a detailed implementation plan that is twofold: (1) Educate and equip the church and clergy to recognize and minister to individuals who have been involved in spiritually abusive or cultic groups and (2) Develop and implement outreach strategies, recovery resources, and support ministries to reunite “wounded sheep” with God and His church. This presentation will describe the model that they used and the steps they have taken to implement the plan. They will detail outreach efforts to the “wounded sheep” and to churches, promotion strategies, educational resources, etc. and discuss what has worked and what has not worked in their community.

Dispelling Misconceptions About Christian Dominionism

Andre Gagne

Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, “dominionism” has become a popular idea discussed in the media. Even on social media, individuals and groups have been branded left and right as “dominionists” or influenced by “dominionism.” There seems, however, to be a lack of understanding of what is meant by such terms. This presentation seeks to provide a definition and a taxonomy of “dominionism” in order to dispel the misconceptions and misuses of the term. As a politico-religious ideology, one must also clearly recognize the relationship between “dominionism” and the Christian Right, as well as with other Christian movements and their various eschatological perspectives.

Distorted Discipleship in Christian Churches: Is There a Place for Healthy Mentoring Today?

Ken Garrett

Abuse in Christian churches often occurs in "discipling" relationships (also known as mentoring, follow-up, accountability partnering, etc.) Such relationships function within local church hierarchy, typically pairing less-advanced members of the faith with a long-term member for the purpose of spiritual-ethical growth and acculturation to the church. While these relationships are ostensibly formed for the benefit of the new member, in coercive-authoritarian settings they are frequently the means by which leaders control, harm and extract resources from members. Pastor Garrett will discuss the nature and purpose of mentoring-discipleship relationships as found in the bible, church history, and in the recent history of American evangelicalism. Speaking from his own experience as a member of an abusive Christian church and his subsequent research, he will discuss the harmful aberrations of the concept of discipleship in contrast with its legitimate, beneficial practice in biblical narrative and church history. He will also propose a healthy mentoring model for Christian churches.

Gaslighting, Thought Stopping, and Hot Seats: Manipulation in Cultic and Spiritually Abusive Groups

Doug Duncan; Molly Koshatka; Cyndi Matthews

A vital task for those recovering from involvement in a cultic group is to figure out what happened. Why did we get involved with the group in the first place? Why did we stay? What were the red flags that we did not see or that we dismissed? This panel discussion will focus on how manipulative techniques are used in abusive groups and how we can identify manipulation in other settings. One of the primary tactics that will be explored is gaslighting, which is a term taken from a movie made in the 1940s, Gaslight, in which a husband makes his wife think that she is going insane by denying her reality, perceptions, and memory. Abusive leaders use this technique to cause their followers to second guess and doubt themselves. The individual begins to feel that they cannot trust themselves and this prevents them from challenging their leader. Another tactic is thought stopping. Robert Lifton uses the term, “loading the language” to describe how words and phrases are used in thought reform environments to inhibit people’s cognitive thinking abilities and to dispel doubts and questions. Cultic and religiously abusive groups use clichés, jargon, and buzz words that are easily remembered to reduce a complex concept into the “truth’ that the leader is peddling. Yet another manipulative method often used by abusive leaders is public confession where the leader puts one of his followers on the “hot seat” and describes the “sin” that the individual has committed. This is done publicly and has the effect of instilling terror and anxiety in members. Other times, the leader may ask his followers to confess their own sins so that he can use their guilt and shame to leverage greater control over them. The panel will discuss how these techniques are used by various groups to maintain control over their members.

How my Experience of Well-meaning but Misguided Manipulation in Education and Bible-based, Christian Brethren Influenced my Counselling Practice and Christian Faith

Roger Helyar

This presentation focuses on how I became interested in manipulation and control, later identifying its destructive effect in religion and organizations, from low-level coercion through to a high-level control. Also, how I have blended this interest and experience of manipulation and control to benefit others, including setting up residential support. Although profoundly dyslexic, at school my teachers believed that manipulation, control and regular physical punishment would help me achieve their criteria. However, I learnt to identify their psychological techniques, subsequently adapting them as my method of survival and retribution. At age 15 I had a conversion experience and then found myself well-placed to deal with the considerable pressure and manipulation from the Brethren movement to conform. Later in my 20’s, I began to develop a deeper understanding of my wife’s struggles as a 3rd generation ‘believer’. In 1985 my wife and I started Rockhaven Therapy, Exeter, UK, offering ‘person centered’ residential support 24/7 for adults, many of whom had experienced trauma, manipulation, and various forms of abuse. This work and its considerable challenges led me to undertake professional counselling and supervision training that also raised two key personal questions – had I experienced religious abuse myself? Had I caused others to stumble? Finally, I will introduce you to a client I counselled who had experienced extreme abuse and trauma – ‘one man’s survival against insanity, his own and that of his captors’, (taken from ‘Time to Tell’, published by Rockhaven Books). Also, I will reflect on interventions, the use of empathy, and the importance of recognizing and dealing with my own vicarious trauma.

Intervention and Healing for Spiritually Based Cult Members: Ex-Member Perspectives

Kristen Valus; Rebecca Leon

Many spiritually based cultic practices include some that may be rooted in truth but were manipulated and twisted around to benefit the cult leader. Sometimes in an attempt to help undo the harmful programming, positive or mystifying spiritual experiences may be inadvertently explained away, minimized, or dismissed by well-meaning family members, clergy, and healthcare professionals. Often, cult/ex-cult members are life-long spiritual seekers who, although they need to heal from the spiritual abuse, want to continue on their spiritual journeys which include their previous cult experiences. Ex-De Rose cult member, Kristen Valus, shares her experiences around intervention and how she finally escaped from being De Rose’s Personal Assistant and concubine. Discussion will include the delicate dance necessary in intervention and treatment to avoid robbing ex-members of their spiritual experiences and paths and how through honoring her experiences and working with therapists and holistic practices, she has been able to untangle the truth from the manipulations, further enhancing her spiritual life, health, finances, personal relationships, and career. Rebecca Leon, Second Generation Adult ex-Jehovah’s Witness, will share her unique perspective on intervention, and how isolation, fear, and access to cult recovery information played a critical role in her first escape, return to the cult, and ultimate decision to leave for good. She will also share about her decision to let go of any attempt to extricate her mother from the cult, why she made that painful decision, and how that is working for her as her own family grows today. Additional Q&A period will further delve into what is working and what could be improved in the intervention and healing process.

Spiritual Abuse Among Cult Ex-Members

Deborah Glasscock

There is very little scholarly research available on the topic of spiritual abuse. The presenter recently completed phenomenological research on spiritual abuse of cult ex-members within the United States. Seven different ex-members from six different groups operating in various regions of the U.S. completed in-depth interviews about their experiences of spiritual abuse. Their interviews were transcribed and analyzed. Sixteen similar constituents emerged that form the structure of the phenomenon of spiritual abuse. The research question for the study asked: What is the lived experience of spiritual abuse? This brief presentation will highlight the findings of this research, present a theoretical model of cultic spiritual abuse, and suggest a possible definition of spiritual abuse.

The Uriah Syndrome: The Misuse and Abuse of Authority in the Church

Robert Dixon

Church leaders caught in immoral behavior and the cover up of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse -- authoritarian leaders who insist on maintaining control over the flock, while wreaking havoc and causing profound emotional, spiritual, and psychological stress, including the need for psychiatric hospitalization, while some even succumb to suicide. Many leaders in the church today are willing to sacrifice individual members and even entire congregations in order to maintain power and control over their congregations and choose to cover up horrendous abuse in order to preserve their reputations. Bob Dixon has written an insightful and compelling book that addresses these and other issues, as well as provides a surprising answer for individuals and churches who suffer from these pernicious but avoidable problems. He is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and has over 30 years’ experience as a member a heavy-handed, authoritarian church movement known as Sovereign Grace Ministries, currently Sovereign Grace Churches. Before leaving the organization in 2012, he spent approximately twelve years exposing and confronting spiritually abusive practices, he believed, were systemic to their organization and church culture. As a result, Bob is able to understand and address many of the problematic issues of spiritual abuse that find its root in the misuse and abuse of authority in the church, what he refers to as … The Uriah Syndrome.

Will I Ever Heal? A Therapist’s Personal Reflections on Being Raised in and Leaving an Evangelical Missionary Community

Sara Waters

What is wrong with me, I should be over this by now!” “Was it really a cult?” “I feel like an alien, will I ever be normal?” “I am so damaged, how can even think about having children?” “Will the pain ever end?” As a psychotherapist, these are the questions I hear over and over again from clients who are survivors of “cults,” or high demand groups, particularly those who were raised in them. And these are the same questions I have asked myself for decades. This presentation is a personal account of the path I have followed since running away from my evangelical family and community as an adolescent. I touch on experiences that are common for second or multigenerational survivors: the loss of family and community. The terror of hell and stepping into a world known to be “evil.” Making sense of how what once felt safe, was anything but safe. Being unprepared to navigate the world, and vulnerable to more traumatic experiences. Feeling alone, incapable of truly connecting with others. Struggling to manage overwhelming and confusing emotions. Engaging in troubled relationships, with myself and others, and even with the family that once betrayed me. Finding myself embroiled in other, unexpected, power and control dynamics. But also, reclaiming a sense of power and freedom. I discuss how healing is layered, and occurs over time, because being raised in a high demand group is a pervasive experience that fundamentally affects every aspect of who we are. Most of all, from where I stand now, I can genuinely offer hope. It is a measured hope but it is real, even if the healing is never finished.

Without Fear of the Future: Left Behind Daughters in the Quiverfull Movement

Erin Pack

Quiverfull families such as the Duggars and their brood of 19 children are a familiar presence of reality television. While presented as a wholesome, if not eccentric, brand of Christianity, the Quiverfull Movement demands complete obedience from its followers. Women and girls are especially held captive by the lifestyle and theological demands of the Quiverfull Movement. What happens to these women who are left behind, deemed “unworthy”, or do not conform to the narrow confines of their society? This paper will address the needs of such women and how they respond to their former faith and family environments.