This former Assembly member had been doing well, attending a small country church, and then, "...when I heard the phrase, 'The elders would like to meet with you', I experienced a moment of sheer terror.'" The following is a real-life experience of being triggered by Assembly language and associations.
"I am still living with my parents since moving from Chicagoland in Oct. 2002... Living with my parents is a constant reminder that I'm not where I want to be in life. But I have peace that the Lord has me here. Each of my three siblings has separately thanked me for being here and for helping with my parents. None of them know the Lord, but each has admitted that the Lord brought me here. Isn't that interesting? Anyway, I work full-time and go to school in the evenings, working towards an accounting degree.
"Since moving back, I would periodically go to different churches, but really didn't find any place where I felt comfortable. But last May, a co-worker invited me to her church. It's a Bible Chapel, which, I'm learning, is code for a sort of distant version of Plymouth Brethren.
"I'm really enjoying being there. There's a solid group of Christians there, but not too big. Because I was taught to value the meetings, and to value the opportunity to serve others, while in the assembly in Chicago, it has been almost effortless to enter in and feel at home there. They call me a precious jewel, and I know I am a refreshment to them.
"I've even been able to get into the Word more than ever before - bought a new Bible (NAS) with no old assembly notes in it. I still have difficulty having a quite time on my knees in the morning - as soon as I kneel and open my Bible, I can't get the Cycle of Devotion out of my thoughts. So instead, I read the Bible on-line, at my computer, and I have great times of prayer in my car during my 40 minute commute to work (lonely two lane highways among cornfields - just have to watch out for roadkill and school buses).
"So I'm thinking that things are going relatively well for me, right? But this week, on Tuesday evening, one of the elders, whom I really respect and am comfortable around, called and left a voice-mail message (I was in class when he called). His message simply said that throughout the year, the elders try to visit everyone, and would I be able to meet with them next Wednesday.
"Well, when I heard the phrase, "The elders would like to meet with you", I experienced a moment of sheer terror (and the terror had nothing to do with the elders at the chapel). That phrase evoked such emotion from me. I calmly called him back to ask for specifics about the meeting - there's nothing negative about it. But after the phone call ended, I just sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.
"I haven't slept well for the past two nights, and my dreams are filled with assembly people. I am amazed at how deep the wounds go, and I am hoping that the Lord has allowed this situation so that more healing can happen. But when I try to help the Christians in my new church understand what is happening, I'm really at a loss. The most I can say is that well-intentioned men, who started out genuinely believing the Lord, let George distort their perspective and channel their emphasis to what would benefit him instead of the Lord's people.
"I wonder if Roger Grant will ever appreciate the seriousness of wielding his elder-authority towards service to George instead of to the well-being of the flock. This is such a serious, unresolved issue, in my thinking. I have no desire to confront him, or any of the other men who were in leadership; but I do pray, for the sake of many, that men like Roger would be brought into account for their treatment of the little ones."
Dear Wounded Pilgrim,
It's so good to hear from you! It's amazing that your siblings can see God's hand in your life. You just never know how the Lord may be using you. It's great that you are working toward your degree.
Your reaction to the elder visit is not uncommon among post-assembly folks. We had our first elder visit about 12 years after we left, and I still had palpitations, but not nearly as intense as your describe. It does get better with time. But also it will get a lot better after you have finally been able to let them come (and it may not be right now), because then you will have a new context for the concept of elders and elder visits.
I think there are at least two components to intense reactions like this. One is the "loaded language" of the terms "elder" and "visitation". Section VI, "Loaded Language", in Brian Steele's article, Robert Lifton's Eight Criteria for Thought Reform Applied to the Assembly," describes how it works. The whole article might be really helpful to you.
Brian doesn't include those two terms, but they belong on the list of words that were used to stop thought, prevent communication with outsiders, restrict individuality and make a person conform. Thought stopping has the effect of shutting down the prefrontal cortex of the brain and activating the limbic system, which is the emotional part of the brain. So strong emotions are triggered when one hears vocabulary that was loaded language in the assembly, such as the feeling of being controlled and restricted. Being unable to communicate to outsiders the unique assembly meaning of those words is also a frightening experience in itself--your feel isolated.
Another component is the emotional conditioning. It's sort of like this analogy: One day you open your front door, and there is a coiled rattlesnake that bites you. You recover, and you finally are able to get on your feet and open your front door again to go somewhere, and there is a child's toy rubber snake! Your feelings automatically react as if it were a real snake. It takes a long time for the feelings to subside, even after you realize that it's a different situation and not dangerous. One Christian counselor describes how slowly the feelings come down as being (deep Southern drawl) "like a BB sinkin' in oil".
Al Hartman's article, "Assemblyspeak," might also be helpful. The article, "Open Letter to Assembly Folks," might be something to consider giving to your elders to help them understand your reaction. The introductory article, The Assemblies, might be interesting to them in terms of the Plymouth Brethren connection.
Dear Wounded Pilgrim,
Thank you so much for sharing your recent experiences, as there are many former members who have found themselves in the exact same situation. It is a great encouragement for those going through similar things to learn they are not alone in their struggle.
A couple of years after I left the Assembly I received a surprise visit from "The Elders" of a Baptist church we were attending as well, and this without even a phone call warning me! They found out that I had been a member of the Assembly and were grilling me as to the true state of my soul! They asked questions like what I believed about salvation, and exactly when I had received Christ." They had decided before the visit that we had been members of a cult and needed a thorough cross examination as to our theology.
Sindy and I and the girls were deeply shaken by the visit, and our relationship with these leaders was difficult afterward. I later tried to explain my Assembly past and why their visit was so traumatic to us, but they seemed unable to understand. This last part about their inability to understand is what made it so difficult, as it seemed that it might be impossible for us to find a place to gather where there was an opportunity for real heart felt communication as believers.
1.) I don't think a former member should stay at a church where the elders look at you like you're from another planet and see you as a threat, vs. someone who needs a sympathetic hearing. This doesn't mean they're abusive, they just lack the knowledge and skills to pastor someone who has been in a spiritually abusive situation. If you feel up to it, tell them your situation and why you cannot remain in such an environment (being candid will help you and help them, too). However, I understand that this can be a difficult thing to do for many of us.
2.) Of course, the perfect church does not exist, (or the perfect pastor), and so along with the above advice, it is important for former members to not look for any church to fill their needs the way the Assembly did for us in the past. It is okay to keep a good distance from "full commitment" to the group. Just come on Sundays and when they try to sign you up for things learn to say "no" without feeling guilty. Really---- it's okay to say "no" and feel good about it in the process!
3.) Read The Subtle Power Of Spiritual Abuse, and if you already read it, read it again. This book can be very helpful in the search for a church because the book is not about cults, but about your normal church on the corner that has lost it's way. The book shows us how a grace based church should function, as well as how it should not, and so provides valuable insight for us.<
4.) As to the leaders of your new church seeing you as a "Jewel": Indeed you are a jewel, because you are a wonderful Christian person whom God loves very much, but is this how the leaders are using this term? I don't know the answer to this, but very often former Assembly members become a great asset to their new pastor/elders/church and what they mean by "jewel" is someone who can be relied on to perform a lot of needed work.
(I know of one example of former leaders who are considered "jewels" by their new pastor. In this situation the pastor is so impressed he considers them "very spiritual men" and has reinforced the former Assembly leaders in their unwillingness to honestly face those they abused. Of course, this is not your situation at all, but I mention it as an example as to how far this kind of thing can go.)
As to, "I am amazed at how deep the wounds go":
Yes, and the wounding of former members seems the deepest in those that followed GG with the most sincerity and who only expressed a desire to do their best to serve God.
Though the wounds were not sent from God, he knew that you received them in an earnest desire to do His will. Even if there were not another person in the world that cares about your broken heart, God most certainly cares very deeply and puts a great value on "the bent reed and the smoking flax" of our troubled hearts.
This is why spiritual abuse is so damaging, because it hurts the most important thing in the whole world--- our lives with God. This "life with God" is not just a mental relationship, but an emotional one as well, and it is this emotional aspect that is so hard to recover when broken. Because you had such a deep emotional connection in your pursuit with God your depth of wounding is just as deep,
God is our Father, and not only has a mind but has a heart as well. We've been made in the "image of God" and as such having just a mental connection to God is not enough. It has helped me greatly (and this is how I'm able to have a time of devotion, prayer, etc.) to just focus on the thought of a real God who really loves me. In my little story on The Good Samaritan, I tried to point this out: God has a special concern for those who, while sincerely seeking God are wounded in the process by false religionists. It's one thing to know that God loves me and another to really rely on this truth from ones deepest being.
In our "AM times" we are trying to make an emotional connection, as well as a mental one, and it is the emotional one that is so difficult. In The Cycle Of Devotion we were taught how to approach God and "enter his presence" via a series of inner disciplines. This is backwards from how we really are to experience the joy and peace of the facts of our gift based relationship with God.
I know that you probably already know this, but I say this for others who might be reading here. I think that you are wise in trying to deviate from your normal devotional practices by reading from the computer, and different bible versions, and using your long drives for prayer. Those reading here experiencing the same difficulty may try their own version of changing the environment, because what really counts is the end, not the means here (chuck the cycle and keep the devotion).
Wounded Pilgrim replied:
"This is great. Thanks for all your hard work. Your responses have really helped. I think Mark's comments are trying to cover all bases, but just to clarify - the elders at my new church have been nothing but kind and gracious to me. The elder suspected that his phone call to me would bring a reaction about elders. After my return call to him, he and his wife spent time in prayer for me (not questioning my Christianity, but for my healing).
"I already agreed to meet with the elders, because in my head, I am very aware that my fears and reactions have nothing to do with these particular men. Whether or not my heart is pounding out of my chest next Wednesday remains to be seen. The elder's wife really wants to understand my situation, so thank you for suggesting the article that might help them get a glimpse into my world. Maybe its time not to feel so isolated any longer - at least, that is what I am praying will be the result.
"There's another aspect to the "jewel" part. Serving others is the one thing I know how to do that allows me to be involved with my new Christian family without forcing me to be too personal and vulnerable. I have a comfort level with helping others - it meets a need I have. I say "no" when I need to, but its lovely to be able to help and be a blessing (especially when I'm not sure I have much else to offer at this time)."