Getting Involved in a Cult
ICSA Today, Volume 3, Number 2, 2012, 8-11
Getting Involved in a Cult Is Easy; Getting Out Never Is
For 29 years, I was associated with a Bible-based group with what I now know are the dynamics of a cult. Most of the pastors from a variety of backgrounds whom I sought out soon afterward didn’t understand what it meant to leave a cult, or what my needs were.
My most pressing need, especially in light of my wife and two children staying in the group, was a caring, understanding ear so that I could talk. I needed to reevaluate everything in my life, spiritual and otherwise. It took me several years before I was confident that I had left the group for the right motives and had done the right thing before God. The group had planted in me the concept that there was something intrinsically wrong with anyone who left—some kind of character deficiency they saw and I couldn’t. I feared that after a time God would lower the boom, and then I would have to humble myself, repent, and return. It was hard to grasp that God actually could be helping me to leave.
It was also a challenge to find a new place to worship, since I was gun-shy and was hurting to share with someone who comprehended my agony and my need to reevaluate every last one of my beliefs about Christianity. I would go into a church service to try it out, and find that people were so wrapped up in their own routine that no one in the congregation even stopped to talk to find out why I was there. That experience was hard when I so needed support from somewhere.
My goal isn’t to be hard on pastors, but I hope to convey what I sense even 10 years after having left. If pastors and churches truly want to help former cult members recover, they need some basic knowledge of what is involved in recovery.
Because I found little help in the church, my only resource was a number listed in the Yellow Pages to call for help if one had left a cult. My main support early in recovery was to read books on cults—lots of them, twenty or more over several years. A breakthrough came when, 4 years after I had left the group, I attended the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center. Finally, several years ago, I met the first pastor, from our local Presbyterian church, who had a good understanding of controlling people and cults. That experience has been a great asset in continuing my growth, even after 10 years out. My wife and two children are still in, and it looks like they will be there for life—as I so well taught them when I was a leader there.
This is my basic story as I present it at local college psychology and sociology courses, and to our Presbyterian Youth Group:
About forty years ago, as a young adult not much older than you, I started college to earn an associate’s degree. My faith was sincere; I wanted all of God I could get. During my first semester, I met Al, at the time a pastor of a well-respected denomination. I remember a question quietly passing through my mind: “How do you know you can trust this man?” That question was a warning from within, but I didn’t recognize it.
Early in my second year of school, I met Linda. Our spiritual common ground brought us together. We met on a secluded stairwell in one of our college buildings to pray and sing Christian songs together. About a year later, Pastor Al married us. Our intent was to better serve God together as a team. Al informed us during premarital counseling that he and his group wanted to pay for our wedding and reception. Having an offer this good from those we had known only a year or two put the finishing touches on my considering Al my real father, and the group my true family and real friends.
As a pastor, Al began straying from the norm. His digression divided his church, and eventually his congregation asked him to leave. Al’s conclusions about why this was happening were that
People were not willing to “go all the way with God.” They just wanted to be “Sunday Christians.”
God wanted Al to leave his denomination in order to start his own church.
In order to start his own church, Al had to work a regular 9-to-5 job for a time. This commitment appeared to me to be the ultimate dedication and sacrifice, and it inspired me to want to be just like Pastor Al.
I shared with Al my growing belief that God was calling me to be a full-time minister, which of course meant attending a seminary. Although he was a graduate of a well-known and prestigious seminary, Al said, “All that seminaries do is fill your mind with useless knowledge.” He continued, “I believe on-the-job training is not only a better use of your time, but faster. With on-the-job training, you will learn practical things with which you will actually be able to help people.”
“We train our leaders on the job,” he said. “Since our group is incorporated in New York State, we can legally ordain our own ministers.” This sounded like a shortcut coming from God. I felt privileged that Al was letting me in on this little-known secret and implied his willingness to train me himself.
During our first 2 years of marriage, as Linda and I were looking for a church to call home in the town where we lived, Al kept in touch to invite us to his home town to attend special spiritual events. Then he completely took me by surprise when he approached us about making a commitment to his group. At first, his invitation struck me as somehow strange: With all the churches within a hundred-mile range of our town and his, there wasn’t even one good one closer to home? I also knew it would be hard to explain to my parents and even other Christians that we would be driving two and a half hours each way to attend worship. That just wasn’t normal. At the same time, we wanted whatever God wanted. We concluded that God must be requiring this of us for some unknown reason, and He would be pleased by our sacrifice and would someday reward us for it.
Soon, Al approached us again. This time it was about pioneering a church in our home. We would meet in our apartment on the alternate Sundays when we weren’t traveling to his town. It seemed obvious at the time that being a home-church leader was the start of my on-the-job training.
Taking advantage of words often heard in church settings, Pastor Al would redefine biblical words and phrases, and then declare authoritatively that his definitions were the most authentic and accurate insights available to man today. He proclaimed that only a few privileged men are entrusted by God to know the real meaning of the Bible. Most ministers aren’t even anointed by God and really shouldn’t even be in the ministry.
Without question, Al was a gifted and fascinating storyteller. He instilled and kept alive in us a fear of the devil and possession by demons, a fate that would befall those who did not willingly comply with all that God was speaking through him. I was being brainwashed and becoming a voice-activated clone at the disposal of Al’s every whim.
Al approached us yet another time to ask whether my wife and I wanted to be part of Discipleship, a multiyear commitment in which we were required to submit every decision to Al before we acted upon it. This included Al’s approving our changing jobs, moving to a new apartment, and making vacation and marriage plans; how we raised and disciplined our children; and how we budgeted and spent our money. Being a disciple wasn’t what I had in mind, but it was presented in such a way that I didn’t see any way around it. I had to go through with it if I wanted to disciple others and ultimately be a full-time minister.
A short time later, tragedy struck. It was 5:30 in the evening on August 8th. It was raining and muggy. Our family of three was just sitting down to eat supper in our apartment when lightening hit a tree, followed the rain gutter into our attic, and ignited a major fire that forced us to move out for months. One week later, we watched as, before our eyes, our 3-year-old son Kevin, who had been struggling for a year and a half with a rare blood disease, took his last breath.
We couldn’t have been more vulnerable than when Al approached my wife and me once again. “Consider moving to my town; the church here needs additional leadership.” Relocating was not a goal I ever had. I really wanted to see my home group flourish. I had built it from scratch, we were very attached to the other members, and leaving went against so much within me. At the same time, I didn’t want to miss a God-given opportunity and the next level of on-the-job training. After a 2-week internal struggle, I ended up adapting myself to what I thought God required of me and Al wanted.
Between working a full-time job and being absorbed in on-the-job leadership training, I had little time to think or reason. Five, 10, 15, 20, 22 years slipped by. After all this time, I still believed Pastor Al was going to ordain me legally and make me a full-time minister. I dreamed that then, having reached my goal, I would be the happiest I had ever been.
Unexpectedly, however, like Rip Van Winkle, I awoke from my slumber to discover that I was in the midst of a nightmare, not a dream. Al approached me once again and unveiled yet another hard-to-swallow change:
Gary, you have missed so much along the way. I know this will be hard for you, but God has made it clear to me that you need to voluntarily step down from leadership for at least another 2 years. That way, you and I can work together more closely.
I will tell you ... HOW you are to think….
Everything taking place was so confusing. Not long before, one member who had been there for years complimented me: “You are more like Pastor Al than any of the other three leaders.”
Now here was Pastor Al saying I had missed so much and I still needed to be told how to think. Nothing was making sense. The thought that, at 47 years old and after 22 years of leadership training, I still would have to be told “how to think” initiated my actually allowing myself to think that something was terribly wrong.
Even though we had it drummed into us for years, “Don’t let your minds WONDER or WANDER—God is in control here; He knows what He is doing,” I couldn’t help thinking that if I haven’t caught on in 22 years, there is no guarantee that 2 more years could make a difference.
A few days later, a letter from Al arrived in the mail:
These recommendations are not to be misconstrued as punitive or disciplinary in nature, but simply to help clear your mind … so that your ministry can get on a better, more fruitful level. Hopefully, all will be done on your part willingly and with full cooperation … so your whole being can better be immersed in the teachings and direction the Lord has placed before us.
I decided to do the unthinkable, something we had been warned not to do: visit two previous “deserters” to ask them why they left. I learned that when the two individuals had themselves begun to ask Al questions, they were told the exact same thing I was being told: “You are listening to the devil.”
During the 2-week period that Al had given me to decide whether I would comply, one morning at 3 am, while pondering the upcoming major decision, I remembered a handout in my file cabinet that I had picked up 2 years earlier, but never looked over. It described the earmarks of a cult using a list of eight brainwashing techniques from Robert Lifton’s book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, A Study of Brainwashing in China. As I read the handout, examples for each of the eight categories flowed into my mind. A sick feeling came over me as I wondered,
Could it be that for 22 years I have been used by Al, and it has all been for naught? Maybe my mind is just playing tricks on me; maybe it’s not really a cult; maybe lack of sleep is affecting my ability to think clearly.
I didn’t want it to be true. Part of me was trying to face reality; at the same time, I was hoping it was all a figment of my imagination, or a bad dream, and soon I would wake up and everything would be OK. For 22 years, I had relied on someone else to help me make all my big decisions. Now, I faced the absolute biggest decision of my life, and I would have to make it on my own.
Not wanting to burn any bridges behind me, instead of outright leaving when I really wasn’t yet 100% sure, I came up with an idea to ask for a leave of absence, to give me more time to think without others putting pressure upon me to conform. I knew full well that Pastor Al would not go along with a leave of absence. That’s because a chief directive of the group was that it was God’s will to stay in the group for the rest of your life. If you left before dying, God might be so upset by your “breaking covenant” that you might have a car accident; or get a sickness such as cancer and die; or, at the very least, your marriage would end in divorce. Leaving the group was on the same level as committing the unpardonable sin.
Al wanted me to make my announcement in front of the group. He wanted me to state that I was willingly stepping down from leadership. But that just wasn’t true. I would have to lie. I wouldn’t be able to step down willingly. I was being asked to do the unreasonable. Several days later, Al called on the phone and offered to help me write my announcement, to ensure that it would be expressed to the congregation in the right way, and that I would present it in a way that would preserve my prospects for future ministry.
Al’s offer to help prompted an idea. My plan was simple: Take Al up on his offer, read the version he wanted me to give, and then go on and say what I really wanted to say.
Easter Sunday: It was expected that I would fully comply as I always had. I stood up and read the announcement that Al had worded. I then went on to say,
However, I am not comfortable or at peace with these plans. I have many doubts about many things. Perhaps it is just me, but I need more time and space to think about these matters. I checked with the New York State Police, and they said I only have to comply if I want to.
I ended by addressing Al: “Will you grant a leave of absence?”
“Gary, this is all a surprise to me; I didn’t know anything about this. I-I-I don’t know. I will need some time to pray about this.”
I went through with my plan: “Well then, I am taking a leave of absence.”
Before I could finish, my wife and two children had scurried across the room to good shepherd Al’s side, desperately hoping for some direction from him. Those few moments drastically altered what had been our family. Our severed and wounded relationships were now hanging on only by a thread.
On Thursday, 4 nights after my announcement, my wife, son, and daughter confronted me at the front door as I came home from work. They were sure that God had given my 9-year-old daughter a vision. My daughter saw the devil tying me up with ropes, deceiving me, and holding me firmly in his grip. The vision was proof positive for my family: They were right and I was wrong. They pleaded with me that I should humble myself, repent, and return to the group.
I made numerous attempts to share with my family the concerns I had about the cult-like dynamics within the group, but my efforts were futile. Each and every time, my family answered like a recorded message. They did not want to be deceived by the devil as I had been; they didn’t want to hear this kind of talk.
I was not alone in my efforts. Linda’s father had spent hours finding and printing 99 pages of information about cults from various Web sites. He sent the package and asked Linda to look it over. She refused; she never read one sentence. Sometime later, he asked her again, threatening that she would be written out of his will if she didn’t at least look it over. But for Linda to expose herself to this outside influence would have been listening to the devil.
Physically, I was able to leave the group; but a lot of the group was still in me, living with me as a daily reminder. Recovery is more than not attending any longer. It took me 9 months to start feeling comfortable with my decision. It took me 2 years to be sure my reasons and motives for leaving were valid.
Four years later, troubled about my family’s continuing involvement, having no new friends, and not being able to find a supportive church, I emailed Wellspring, the retreat center in Ohio I had read about that helped former cult members with lingering issues. I was invited to come for a 2-week stay, which a generous grant from understanding donors made possible.
During my stay, I met daily with Ron, a Christian psychologist and counselor, and a former cult member himself. As I drove home from Wellspring, I could sense that, at age 47, the decision-making, OK, adult “me” had just come to life.
Now, I know that cults and controlling personalities do exist. Brainwashing is real. Cults exert a psychological and manipulative hold on individuals that is tenacious, sometimes impossible to penetrate. To illustrate how real it all is, even 10 years later, I see no signs of hope that my family will ever leave.
Normally, you, your family members, and your friends may not be vulnerable to being recruited into a cult. However, all it takes is the right combination of an astute cult recruiter and common stressful events such as moving, starting college, changing jobs, getting married or divorced, facing financial woes, giving birth, or grieving over a death in the family.
In closing, I’d like to urge you to consider several things:
Cults are not as rare as you might think.
Be street wise about cults. Know the earmarks. You might even consider reading a book about cults.
Upon first impression, cult recruiters may seem nicer than some of the people you know. They are trained to be that way for a purpose.
Getting involved in a cult is easy; getting out never is.
 See Robert J. Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1989), Chapter 22, for a discussion of these dynamics.