Stages of Recovery

Excerpts from chapter 3, Recovering From Churches That Abuse, by Dr. Ronald Enroth. This book is now available online in PDF format.

Dr. Paul Martin, director of a residential cult recovery program, observed that people usually go through three stages of recovery after leaving a cult or authoritarian church.

The First Stage - Confronting Denial

The first stage of recover involves...confronting denial. Victims will tend to deny their experiences and blame themselves for what happened to them.  They need to be shown that they were controlled by very clever, manipulative people... They need to understand how the control mechanisms that were at work in the church continue to affect them even after they have left. They must experience true acceptance, love, and a sense of belonging. They need to understand what has happened to them emotionally and psychologically.

It is important to help victims experience positive fellowship. The intensity of relationships within an abusive group must be matched by intense relationships in a wholesome setting.

The first stage also must address the doctrines of the abusive church. It is important to examine and carefully refute any unorthodox teachings... Peter Sommer observes,

"These groups are rarely heretical in theory. They don't deny Christian basics; they tend to brush by them. Instead they focus on what makes them different from other churches or groups. They have lots of teaching, but it tends to be on such themes as commitment, submission, and prophecy."

Stephen Martin, a staff member at Wellspring, considers instruction in sound study methods and the interpretation of the Bible important. In abusive groups, twisted hermeneutics are often used to instill fear and guilt and thus become a form of spiritual intimidation...In talking with former members at Wellspring, I have found a number of them who have difficulty with or even an aversion to reading the Bible because it has been misused by the group to abuse them. Learning the proper application and interpretation of Scripture goes a long way toward healing the wounds of abuse."

Sommer advises, "It may be wise not to read Scriptures that the group has emphasized; their interpretation may be deeply grooved into your thinking. Read instead the many texts that they did not teach you."

Paul Martin [Wellspring] feels it is wise for victims to use a different translation of the Bible from that commonly used in the group.

The Second Stage - Grieving and Regaining a Sense of Purpose

The second state of recovery from Wellspring's perspective is both a time of grieving and a time for regaining a sense of purpose. Tears will be shed over wasted years, missed opportunities, and severed friendships. It helps to talk about the past... Former members need a safe place to tell their story fully and freely, even if they feel confused and embarrassed.

The abusive church experience is often a crisis of faith... Victims must be able to...renew a personal relationship with God. That can be difficult for those who have yet to resolve the tough question, "Why did God allow this to happen to me when I was sincerely seeking him?"

In Sommer's words, people must turn "to faith in the living God from faith in a distorted image of him."

The Third Stage - Focusing on the Future

At Wellspring victims of spiritual abuse have reached the third stage of recovery when they begin to talk less about the past and begin to focus on the future: career pursuits, new relationships, and family... Wellspring exists because recovering emotionally, restoring a loving relationship with God, and re-entering society are not easily accomplished on one's own.

[The third stage] is a time for picking up the pieces that are worth retrieving from life as it was before the abusive church experience. Dr. Paul Martin describes his experience of retrieval this way:

"Without question, parts of me died during those years in this group. I have been able to take the discipline that I learned in the group into my current career. But I constantly try to recover the parts of me that died during that involvement."

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