Healing Seminar: For people who have left abusive churches

I would like to gauge how much interest there is in attending a weekend retreat. The topic of the retreat would be: How to heal from spiritual abuse when leaving a fundamentalist sect (or cult). We would organize it for three locations: Nashville, Minneapolis and Dallas.

skyWhat people have found is that if they can get together and share their stories there is so much healing that can happen. A therapist told me today that when people leave strict religious groups that they experience PTSD. It is important for people with PTSD to talk to people who have been through the same experiences.

The retreat would be led by myself and two experienced seminar leaders, two of us are therapists. There would be opportunities to do artwork expressing your journey. There would be some workshops to talk about the major methods of manipulation and spiritual abuse in these kinds of churches. There would be time to share our stories of what happened to us and where we are in our journeys. We might even do some skits to illustrate the kinds of manipulation we have been through.

One of the healing things about these seminars is that we get to experience respect from those leading the seminars, something we did not experience in the churches we left. We get to be understood for the trauma we have been through, and we get to express our opinions in an atmosphere of give and take, rather than an atmosphere of pre-judgement and threat.

Leave a comment or email me if you are interested.

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Card Counting Christians: How post-evangelicalism comes across on the big screen

holy rollersTwo days ago I saw a documentary on Netflix about a group of young post-evangelical Christian pastors who played Blackjack to support themselves. Holy Rollers: The true story of card counting Christians is a painful view for an ex-evangelical like myself.

The Seattle based group was run by church-planting pastors and members of Seattle bands. Their conversation, and especially their justification for playing Blackjack was peppered with post-evangelical, emerging-church lingo that grated on my nerves just as badly as evangelical-ese (and the lingo my old sect I grew up in uses). Phrases like: “living in the gray”, “Christians think that if they just make up that extra rule it will make living by the book easier”, and “God spoke to me”, all the while learning how to fool the casinos into giving up some of their money to them, felt like sandpaper on an already irritated soul.

casinoThere were a few moments in the documentary that were beautiful portrayals of the evangelical subculture. When they were hauled into the back rooms and questioned, the casino security could not believe how they could be paid by the hour, when they could skim so easily without getting caught. They explained  they were all Christian, which made sense to the casino operators.

Another beautiful thing was that most of the players (all male) were married with kids, as is not the case with most postmodern hipster youth in Seattle or anywhere hipsterish. Many in the hipster community are experimenting with pansexualism, gender bending, and open relationships, and eschew having children because this world is so ruined and overpopulated, not to mention collapsing ecologically.

But the faith expressed in the documentary, although discussed and fretted over, and modified somewhat, still was the result of having been raised evangelical, one’s parents being the most important factor in one’s faith. They were speaking more to their own subculture than to the community at large.

It was refreshing that they were willing to consider impacting the community at large, though beyond music, most of their involvement in the larger community was window dressing: tattoos, beards, and rolled-up skinny jeans. Their time was spent almost exclusively with their own subculture.

God spoke to meWhat one reviewer pointed out was that the arrogance of the Christians was particularly grating. Especially when “God spoke to” three of the men and they decided to kick out the only non-Christian member of their team.

One thing that was refreshing was that they were aware that their subculture was not impacting the community at large, and that troubled them. They were flirting with change, but clearly had not figured it out.

One disappointing portrayal of post-evangelical emerging-church culture was the sameness of the worship services. If you’ve visited one emerging church you’ve visited almost all of them. No differences at all. For all their talk of rebellion and change, they are followers wearing a uniform and raising money by the corporate outline in a ring binder.

One interesting thing that I experienced while watching the documentary was the Hopeful Child in me wanting to win at Blackjack. The psychiatrist Fairbairn posited that abused or neglected children develop a large Hopeful Child in adulthood that is taken in by big promises. I wondered how many of those in the card-counting group were raised in harsh evangelical and fundamentalist homes, and thus had developed a big Hopeful Child, just waiting to believe in a big promise that wouldn’t deliver.

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Hooked by my relatives: Honor and Shame

After leaving the fundamentalist sect I was raised in years agofishing, I find that members of the sect, especially relatives, engage me in conversations about church that still hook me: somehow I am in a conversation or email exchange that I want out of, but I can’t leave, because my relative has gotten the last jab. I need to get the last jab in before I can leave the conversation.

What are my needs?  I need respect (from my relatives). I need to be heard (by my relatives). If I walk away in the middle of an argument about my faith, I lose respect, and my hard work on my faith has not been acknowledged. Yet I’ve been here before, many times. I already know I will not be heard, get respect or acknowledgement from this relative. But he has hooked me and is reeling me in. So how do I get off this hook?

I know the answer, it’s just not the answer I want. I have to ask myself, “If I weren’t hooked, what would I do?” The answer is usually, “Walk away. Drop the conversation in the middle, with my relative getting the last jab.”

This is the same advice given to people who have to live with people who have severe personality disorders or severe mental illness: When the person puts you in a no-win situation, do what you would do if you were not in the no-win situation. It’s a freeing perspective.

The reason it is so easy for my relatives to hook me is because I was raised by Shame. I don’t want to be unfair here, there were many good things about my childhood. But frequently I was scolded or ridiculed for having normal childhood needs: attention, comfort, acknowledgement, autonomy and information. This is standard child rearing in fundamentalist, alcoholic, military and mafia homes. Jesus never ridicules us for our normal needs.

RobRoySwordFightWhenever the Pharisees or Sadducees approached Jesus with a question they were challenging his honor, because they saw Jesus as a challenge to their honor. Honor, in this context, is the flip side of shame.

My relatives approach me to shame me, because I have challenged their honor. Shame is the most painful emotion to me, so I respond by defending my honor. Thus I am hooked. I cannot unhook myself until I accept that I am not going to defend my honor. I have to walk away from the conversation allowing them to shame me one more time, or I will never be able to walk away. Those are my choices: stay in the conversation defending my honor, but constantly being shamed, or walk away in shame.

Jesus honors us. Paul points out that while we were sinners Christ died for us. That he exchanged his seat of honor as the Son of God for the shame of the cross, so that we would not suffer condemnation, but be honored as sons of God. Jesus gives us His honor.

Whenever I am in a shaming conversation about religion, I can rest assured it is not a Christian conversation.

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Loyalty needs Trauma: Loyalty and the Moral Defense, Part 3

I remember an elderly woman whose mother grew up on a sheep farm in Texas, unpopular in those days, because sheep grazed the grass so short there was nothing left for the cattle. One of my her favorite expressions was: “I could beat you within an inch of your life,” an expression that her son kept alive while he was raising his children. He became a preacher in the hard line Churches of Christ, and would insist from the pulpit that when a child enters the terrible twos temper tantrum stage the parent has the moral obligation to beat it out of the child, because the Bible says, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, and the rod will drive it far from it”. One of his favorite stories he would tell in his sermons was how one of his children at age two, after a spanking, flew at his father in a rage with both fists flying. So the father spanked the child again. The child flew at his father again, so the preacher spanked his child again. Over and over until the child gave up.

That child grew up, and is now loyal to his parents and the church. He won’t allow any of his siblings to rebel against, or level accusations at, his mother and father. He has questioned the basic CENI doctrine of the hard line Churches of Christ, in such a way that the whole raison d’être for their existence comes into question. Yet he attends a tiny hard line congregation, and rebukes anyone in the family who departs from the sect. His family complains that he is stingy with compliments, grumpy and sickly, the caricature of the older brother in the Prodigal Son story. One of my siblings maintains that every person in the hard line churches we grew up in had similar diagnosable personality disorders, caused by the trauma from their childhoods and from the churches they attended.

Trauma is essential to instill loyalty. Physical, verbal and emotional abuse helps to instill loyalty in any group: a school, a family, a military group, the police academy or a hard line church. The most loyal organizations: the mafia, the marines, a police force, urban street gangs, college fraternities, fundamentalist churches, all have initiation and hazing rituals that traumatize their participants. These organizations tend to attract people who find their hazing rituals normal. They find the hazing and initiation fascinating and exciting, with promises of belonging, intimacy and importance, never to be fulfilled. Not all traumatized or abused individuals will remain loyal, but all of the loyal have been traumatized.

The trauma does not have to be physical. marine scream in faceIt can be grabbing someone and shaking them, or screaming in their face. It can be a threat of emotional abandonment, even the threat of divorce in the family. One of the most powerful forms of abuse is rejecting a child’s offer of love. Any trauma will do, as long as the child’s foundation is shaken often enough.

The Moral Defense, according to Donald Fairbairn goes like this: “Whatever my parents did to me was good and right, because they are near perfect. Whatever beatings I received I deserved. Because I can only survive if the people I identify with are ideal.” In Stockholm syndrome trauma makes the person vulnerable, then the vulnerable person latches onto the strongest and most powerful relationship available: a relationship with the traumatizer. But they cannot question the traumatizer, because of fear of retribution, and more than that, because the traumatized person has idealized their caretaker/abuser into a near perfect image.

DennisMenaceSpankingThe trauma is often amusing to those in the group. Harsh spanking brings amused smiles to those who witness it, or reminisce about it. Recruits tell amusing stories about the abuse they suffered in boot camp. Fraternities and sororities laugh as they tell about the hazing rituals they endured and inflicted.

A young man told me that his father threw him across the room against a wall, because “I must have done something really bad to make him that angry.” When I told him about a four-year-old little girl in the news who had been thrown against a wall repeatedly by her parents, he said, “What did she do?” Then he stopped and realized what he was saying was ridiculous. Unless I have reached the age when I am ready to let go of my idealized parents or organization, if I blame the powerful parent (or powerful organization) for the abuse, then I can no longer idealize them. If I can no longer idealize them, then I am alone, bereft, adrift in a dark sea with no hope of salvation. So instead I blame myself. (The person who has successfully reached the teenage period of declaring independence is far less likely to succumb to the Moral Defense. A mature teen is more likely to blame the abuser.)

Trauma makes me feel deeply ashamed of myself: I deserved this trauma. But trauma also makes me feel important: someone powerful took the trouble to abuse me personally. If I walk away from the traumatizer I am nothing; there is nobody left, whom I have identified with, who thinks I am important.

It makes no sense until you experience it. Then it makes total sense. For instance, the stereotypical battered wife who repeatedly returns to her abuser. Why? She knows she is important to him. She hates the abuse, but is fascinated by someone who has intense interactions with her, like the bullied child who cuts him or herself, or contemplates suicide.

The religious sect is the same: intense interactions that fascinate the members; threats of hell, promises of heaven, threats of withdrawal; who can resist the wonderful intensity of this relationship? Is it any wonder that those who leave (or are kicked out of) the hard line sect wander from church to church looking for an intensity not offered by more moderate congregations?

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Just Like my Daddy: Loyalty and the Moral Defense–Part 2

Military recruiters and police academies all over the world know intuitively that the way to create loyalty is to traumatize the recruits. Humiliate them, spit on them, call them names, scream in their faces, scare them, traumatize them, and in return you will get loyalty. Unfortunately you won’t get good positive interactions between these trainees and the public. What you will get from these traumatized trainees is authoritarian challenges, groupthink, and in general, running roughshod over the public’s civil rights. If you don’t believe me, try exercising your federally protected civil right not to testify against yourself, next time your vehicle is stopped by an officer. You will regret it.

Patty HearstThe public was baffled in the 1970s when a newspaper and magazine CEO’s daughter named Patty Hearst, was kidnapped by a gang of revolutionaries, the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was later caught on a bank’s security video carrying a machine gun into the bank, helping to rob the bank. The American public decided she had been brainwashed. She had been brainwashed, but first she was traumatized.

Stockholm syndrome

Bank employees held hostage in Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm Syndrome is named after the 1973 hostage taking of bank employees for six days, who later defended their kidnappers and adopted the kidnappers’ values. But this has always been true. Freed slaves wanted to own slaves. People freed from concentration camps were harsh on their children. The prisoner realizes, at a subconscious level, that in order to survive she has to take on the viewpoint of the kidnapper: Identification with the Aggressor.

BXP52548Who is fascinated by casinos? Probably those whose parents made big promises and then didn’t keep the promises. Gambling casinos match that original parent-child interaction, and the adult who bonded with a parent who never kept his promises is fascinated by a similar mirage in adulthood. Instead of running as far away from unfulfilled promises, we run towards whatever reminds us of the dysfunction and trauma of our childhoods.

But why would anyone be sucked in by an abusive church? That one is easy: Because abusive churches fascinate those of us who grew up in abuse.

Jesus said if we are not willing to forsake our mothers and fathers then we are not worthy to be his followers. Almost every interaction Jesus had with his family was difficult, negative and rejecting. He had to oppose his family from the beginning in order to accomplish his work. Jesus’ family represented themselves as followers of God, and they were upset and baffled when he ignored and contradicted them, walking away from his family.

Fairbairn, an early theoretician of Object Relations Theory and Attachment Theory, taught that children, in order to form their own identities, first bond with their parent/s. If they see negative in their parents, they are compelled to ignore it or justify it in order to maintain the kind of bonding they need to form their identities. So if their parents are neglectful, harmful or rejecting, they must justify that behavior by pronouncing themselves bad. A four year old girl told Fairbairn: “My Mommy broke my arm because I was a bad girl.” This is necessary, posits Fairbairn, because if she admits her mother is bad, she loses all hope of forming a positive identity in adulthood. She might as well jump into the abyss as to admit that her mother is not worthy of her adoration and imitation. You can see this attitude clearly in first grade boys who each insist that his father is the best father in the world.

Erikson, who floated 7 stages of psychosocial development in a person’s life, said that we could get stuck at any stage along the path, failing to accomplish an essential psychological task, and we would move forward without the equipment that stage was to provide us with. All a parent needs to do to prevent a child from declaring independence in the teen years is to traumatize the child earlier. The result of post trauma in teen years, according to James Marcia, are three choices: identity moratorium, identity diffusion and foreclosed identity. What we see most often in the sect I grew up in is foreclosed identity: taking on the identity and values of one’s parents wholesale, without critical examination. Moving forward into Identity Achievement would require courage, strength and resources that the traumatized person does not have. You can see this on Facebook with friends or relatives who repeat news stories on Facebook that support the beliefs they were raised with, without any effort to check these stories to see if they are urban myths.

house-of-cardsSo in the hard line Churches of Christ, each generation accepts their sect’s house of cards without being willing to examine the beliefs and values in any new light.

Traumatized people stay blindly loyal to their church, unwilling to break free from the dysfunctional organization that reminds them so much of their dysfunctional parents they have not been able to differentiate from.

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Loyalty to Church and Family

The Godfather

The Godfather

In any hardline church, gang, corporation, military group or cult, there is an emphasis on loyalty. The command to be loyal seems to trump all other commands. For instance imitating the early church in the New Testament was held up as the primary goal of the church I grew up in. But when I started pointing out inconsistencies in the way that principle was interpreted, I was deemed a danger, not a helpful person, as true followers of the main principal would have deemed me. No, a danger. So what was the principle that was bigger than following the New Testament? Loyalty (because the church holds our faith and salvation).

Jesus specifically pointed out that when we join his journey to seek out truth, we have to forsake our father, mother, sister and brother. But the opposite commandment holds sway in the church I grew up in. To be respected in the church meant to ignore obvious inconsistencies and to toe the line. You can’t land a job at a big church, or be invited to preach a gospel meeting or deliver one of the lectures if you question the status quo. Of course you could be innovative by using a new fangled medium to snazz up your sermon; powerpoint, color illustrations, a movie clip, a new book on Hebrews or marriage. But don’t question the doctrines that hold our faith together.


Normal training of recruits

Any organization that uses shame and humiliation as a regular part of their training is going to have this same attitude: the military, police academies, youth gangs, football teams, churches that mock other faiths, any place that keeps members in line by mocking and humiliating is going to have this same attitude of loyalty. And the organization will have lots of watchdogs to hold people in line. This loyalty is not a thought out policy, it is something that grips us at the heart and grounds us  with paralysis.


Paul Cultrera, age 13, Boston

I watched a documentary of a Boston man who had been molested as a child by a priest who had been moved from parish to parish by the bishop instead of protecting the children. They went to interview the current bishop and he refused to speak to them, so they just filmed the diocese headquarters grounds until a priest came out and mocked them: “You are a sad little man…” Later they found out the mocking priest was the current Catholic bishop of Boston. Unable to see how mocking will make him look, and unable to see how disrespectful he is, he shows that he believes it is appropriate to mock people investigating problems in their church. And he shows how he was raised: mock the ones in the family or community who are disloyal; it is an automatic response.

Where do we learn to be Loyal?

We learn to be loyal in our families at the earliest age. In order to survive we have to have food and love. We bond with our caretakers, to form our identities and to survive. Fairbairn said that when our caretakers are cruel or neglecting we use the Moral Defense: I must be bad in order for my caretakers to be cruel or neglecting. I cannot permit my caretakers, whom I identify with, to be judged as evil, or I have no hope of getting the love I need to survive.


Kohlberg, Moral Development

At age 12 healthy pre-teens begin to let go of their caretakers, and question the way we were raised. Those of us who are stunted and too damaged to question things remain unquestioningly loyal. In fact Kohlberg found that a majority of the population is stuck at a conventional level of morality, unable to question the status quo.


James Fowler, author of Stages of Faith

Almost everyone who has been raised in a nurturing, respectful environment has been able to question and examine the values they grew up with, and to find their own identity. These people are not loyal to organizations, they are loyal to principles. Fowler teaches that our principles of faith go through the same transformation, at the same time.


Erik Erikson, Psychosocial Developmental Stages

But no person raised in a mocking, humiliating, threatening church or family environment is able to find their own identity easily. Most choose to foreclose or postpone finding their identities (Erikson). They vote the same way as their parents. They go to the same church, which assures them they are going to heaven and not to hell. They go home for Christmas and Thanksgiving every year and don’t rock the boat.

The only converts to these hardline churches are those that are vulnerable to mocking and threats from their own childhoods. Those who have been raised in strict Catholic households, or children of sarcastic alcoholics are the most likely to be converted to a hard line fundamentalist church.

How to Heal

If you are wanting to heal from the trauma of growing up in a mocking, threatening church (and family), it is important to surround yourself with respectful people. This is the true nature of church: respectful support to grow into a respectful, loving person. In other words, stop spending time with disrespectful sarcastic people. At first it will be hard to find respectful, mature people to spend time with. They have different scary opinions that threaten our equilibrium.

Secondly, stop talking to yourself in disrespectful ways. Stop calling yourself names. Stop berating yourself. If you make a mistake, especially a mistake that hurts someone else, say, “I regret that. I don’t want to do that again. I need to make a plan.” Then envision yourself not making that mistake again, see yourself being successful in your quest to be kind to others.

Thirdly, accept forgiveness. Whenever someone came to Jesus broken in spirit, they received forgiveness, because Jesus believed that forgiveness empowered broken people to move forward and be successful. That forgiveness is still freely available. Live your life accepting God’s constant forgiveness, and extending that constant forgiveness to those around you.

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The Extra Mile: Jesus’ Extra Mile practiced in our age

elahi There was a guy I heard on the radio today who said he kept getting searched and questioned at every airport he flew out of, or arrived in, since 2002 on a return trip from The Netherlands. His name is Dr. Hasan Elahi, a similar name to someone on a government terrorist Watch List.

He eventually asked TSA authorities for a phone number, so he could notify them every time he was flying somewhere just so he could avoid being questioned for an hour. Every time he travelled he would dutifully phone up a specific person in the FBI and let them know.

Finally he decided to put up a website that works with a GPS that posts on the website everywhere he goes: every time he leaves home, when and where he went, the bed he slept in, the food he ate, the toilet he visited, lots of pictures, everything goes on the website () and anyone can look at it. He calls it an art project. He calls himself a privacy artist. (He bleaches his hair and dyes it yellow. He shaves off his eyebrows.) He now wears a GPS device that pinpoints his exact location on a map on his website.

Every once in a  while he looks at who goes to his website: CIA, FBI, Dept of Homeland Security. He said he is glad there are patrons of the arts in each of these federal agencies.

It reminded me of the extra mile Jesus recommended in the Sermon on the Mount, a passage that many believe is part of the nonviolent anti-hierarchy philosophy of Jesus.

elahibedsJesus said if a Roman soldier commands you to carry his pack for a mile, carry it two miles. According to Roman law a soldier could command any person walking along the road to carry his 70 lb. pack 1/2 a mile. But, as is the case with people carrying weapons for a government, the soldiers did not always obey that rule. They would sometimes make a person carry their pack for twice the allowed distance. Jesus said, “Go with him two miles.” Walter Wink imagines a humorous argument between the soldier and the Jewish peasant.

“Give me my pack back.”

“No, no. I’ll be glad to carry it another mile.”

“No, give it back to me now.”

“No, it’s okay. I can carry it for you.”

“For the last time, give me my pack back.”

Dr. Hasan Elahi is doing the exact same thing. “You want to question me about where I go and why I go there for an hour every time I fly? You want to invade my privacy? Okay, here is everything all the time. Look at where I am and what I am doing whenever you want to. In fact anyone can.” And what do we find when we look at Dr Elahi’s website? We find he eats food, sleeps in beds, uses the toilet. Nothing exciting, except maybe speaking for TED talks.

elahi toiletsWe live in the one of the most spied upon societies in history, spied upon by our own government more than the Stasi spied on the German people during Hitler’s terrifying Nazi era, partially because it is  much easier now in our electronic age. And Dr. Elahi has turned our nation’s spying into an art project, a game. He has registered a powerful protest, that makes the TSA, FBI, CIA and Department of Homeland Security look a little bit silly, all nonviolently, and without breaking any laws. All he did was make their jobs easier. He gave them what they kept asking for and more, just exactly what Jesus told the poor powerless Judean Jews to do to the powerful Roman soldiers in 30 A.D.

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