Elements of Recovery from Abusive Groups

Excerpts from "Dispelling the Myths" by Dr. Paul Martin, founder and director of Wellspring Retreat, in Christian Research Journal, 1989 Winter/Spring.  This article was targeted to those who help victims of abusive groups -- pastors and counselors.  As victims ourselves, it might be hard to hear ourselves discussed in the third person in this article, but getting past that, there are very helpful insights into what we are going through.


Defining the Problem

In attempting to understand what has happened to the ex-cultist it is quite helpful to employ the victim or trauma model.  According to this model, victimization and the resulting distress are due to the shattering of three basic assumptions the victim held about the world and self:  "The belief in personal invulnerability, the perception of the world as meaningful, and perception of oneself as positive."  The ex-cultist has been conned, used, traumatized, and often emotionally and mentally abused while serving the group and/or a leader of the group.  Like other victims (e.g., of criminal acts, war atrocities, rape, serious illness, etc.), ex-cultists often re-experience the painful memories of their group involvement. They also lose interest in the outside world, feel detached, and may show limited emotions.

The cultic experience often results in a crisis of faith:  "How could God allow this to happen to me?"  "I must be horrible since I failed God and His plan for my life."  The ex-cultists belief in a "just world" is shattered.  He or she can no longer say, "It won't happen to me."  A need for meaning is paramount.  The victim must be helped to regain a belief in self and the world that allows room for "bad things happening to good people."

He or she may also need to talk out and relive the trauma again and again, as do the victims of other types of crises.  Unfortunately, the process of talking about the trauma is sometimes "short-circuited" by well-intended helpers who view such rumination as "unedifying" or "focusing too much on the past."  Effective therapy must be very supportive and reaffirming...

Victims need to be freed from the view that they were somehow solely responsible for their plight...For a sense of meaning to be restored victims must be helped to see their cultic experience in view of a benevolent God who truly loves them....

Behavior change is also very helpful...The chances for (and speed of) the ex-members recovery may in part depend on how similar the church's and pastor's style is to that of the extremist group.  If there is a marked similarity between the former group and the present church, there will be a great probability that the church setting will trigger traumatic memories.  Consequently, the ex-member should seriously consider buying a new Bible translation and finding a pastor unlike his or her past leader in personality or teaching style.  Along these lines, he or she would do well to seek out a church or fellowship providing a welcome contrast to the cultic milieu.  Far too often ex-cult members drop out of good churches because they remind them too much of their group.  It is tragic that these people are sometimes viewed more as "backsliders" than as victims.

A support group or professional counseling can go a long way in helping by giving the ex-member strategies that will enable him or her to avoid future victimization by manipulative people.  This allows the victim to regain some sense of his or her own strength...As with other victims, finding and talking with other former members (preferably from the same cultic group) is an essential step to recovery.

Getting Help

Education and support groups are essential.  The recovery process inevitably takes time.  But, although many will eventually recover on their own, it is unwise to prolong the recovery process.  I believe that one hour per week with a pastor our counselor is not the best approach.  There are simply too many issues facing the ex-member than can be dealt with effectively on such a basis.  What has been spelled out in this article hopefully underscores the need for special programs designed to aid the recovering member...consisting of education, group support, and counseling.

Rediscovering the Gospel

It is essential to help those coming from aberrational Christian groups to rediscover the gospel.  It is my experience that all cultic or aberrant groups distort the gospel.  This includes those that call themselves orthodox Christian as well.  What is particularly disturbing is that many of these groups could, with a clear conscience, subscribe to the most orthodox, fundamental, and evangelical statement of faith.  But practically, they are living a subtle but deadly religion of works righteousness, at least in regard to sanctification, if not justification.  For this reason it is very liberating to former members to study the letter to the Galatians in a step-by-step fashion and contrast St. Paul's message with their group's practices.

Through the gospel, meaning to life is restored and self-esteem is regained.  Ex-cultists can see, as Joseph did, that "God meant it for good" (Gen. 50:20).  It has also been Harold Bussell's experience that a clear understanding of the gospel is the single most important issue in a cultist's recovery and future immunity from further cultic involvement.


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