Monday, March 31, 2008

What's That Hissing Coming From The Pulpit?

If it looks like a snake, acts like a snake, sounds like a snake . . .

It's easy to look pityingly on those who have been the victim of a cult and 'tsk, tsk' about their gullibility while thinking how we would never fall for such things. Interestingly enough, I realized that the whole church world kind of does this to Eve. We have this image - are presented in Sunday school and sermons with it - that Eve was essentially a little bit of a ditzy woman - gullible and naive. None of us would have fallen for that old Serpent's line of hogwash... 

Logically, this doesn't make sense. Would God have created the first woman of the race - the mother of all mankind - with a diminished mental capacity? I think not. Eve was an intelligent woman. Probably more intelligent than we are - she was, after all, not yet fallen. So in order for her to be deceived, it would take some cunning. The Bible says that the snake was crafty or subtle above all the other creatures. Satan chose this creature for a reason. It took a great deal of craft and subtlety to deceive Eve into going against everything she knew.

This is still true today. Most people are not deceived because they are stupid. The biggest deceptions - the ones deceiving large numbers of people - have to be subtle and crafty or they would never get off the ground. A main element - the starting place - is charisma.

cha-ris-ma: (American Heritage Dictionary)
1. A rare personal quality attributed to leaders who arouse fervent popular 
    devotion and enthusiasm 
2. Personal magnetism or charm: i.e., a television news program famed for 
    the charisma of its anchors.

charisma: (World Net)
a personal attractiveness or interestingness that enables you to influence 

charisma: (American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy)
Extraordinary power and appeal of personality; natural ability to inspire 
a large following.

This brings us to the title of this post. Many leaders of rogue churches or cults have enormous charisma. If they didn't they would have never risen to the position they are in. It takes the craftiness of practiced charisma to mask the snake behind the message. 

If they said to us, "Here, take this strychnine tablet. It's good for you," we would look at them like they were nuts and tell them to get away from us. No, they take pure water and slip the strychnine in, carefully - a little at a time - so we won't notice it. The occasional funny aftertaste can be explained away with the concept that not all truth is easy to swallow. This pastor would use the analogy that not all of the food in God's banquet was cakes and dessert. Sometimes, we needed to eat our broccoli.

The personal charm - he exudes it from the pulpit - and the pure water that is used as a cover - work as a coating to mask the existence of the poison. The longer the exposure, the more difficult it becomes to see clearly. One of the biggest things to watch for, in my experience, is how a leader treats women. This particular pastor has left a string of broken, used and discarded women in his wake - and his family, especially his wife, and leaders cover his butt every time - for the sake of the message - the ministry. Yeah. Right. For the sakes of their own security and position of privilege... but that's another post.

These narcissistic snakes in the grass dressed as spiritual leaders get off on twisting you up and holding you in thrall. They feed off of your emotional responses during a service. The build up hope and expectation and leave you there twisting. They build loyalty in the elect few by 'helping' them financially - inviting them to 'invitation only' prayer meetings and gatherings. They get off on being your god-like guru on all things spiritual - all things pertaining to life and living. 

If you, however, should see something wrong and challenge them, look out. You will see their masks slip. 

Not long after I was made a leader, we had been preparing for our annual Christmas Eve Concert - a VERY BIG DEAL. We had spent hours the night before setting sound levels and lighting and AV timing. One of my areas of leadership was in the AV and running lights. I had brought in some of my own equipment ( a computer) because the finances of the church were tight and we needed the equipment to do the job right. I was nervous - this pastor is a perfectionist that is constantly changing his mind. 

When I came in the night of the service, I found him in my booth with one of my very new volunteers who really didn't know much about what to do yet. He (the pastor) had changed everything and the service was going to start in an hour. He was not very tech savvy, but thought he knew everything and had proceeded to mess with the very touchy equipment. I assessed the situation, saw that the computer was crashed and all the settings messed with and I got a little testy. 

I said, "I wish you had waited until I got here to do this." His reply? 
"This is my church and my equipment and I can do with it what I want."
I said, "Actually, that is my computer you crashed."
He said, "You better fix your attitude or go home. I don't need this kind of stress right now."

I am sad to report that I stayed, got my attitude "in line," and actually ended up apologizing to him after the service for being out of line. He very graciously "forgave" me. 

If you want to see what kind of person they really are, challenge them on something they have said or done and watch the show. Be prepared to have it turned back on you, though, until it is your fault for whatever it is you have brought up.

So, listen carefully. Make sure they are living what they are preaching. Pay attention to how they actually treat people, including you! Listen to your gut. If you hear hissing from the pulpit, leave.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Post Script to the last Post...

In addition to the Scriptures about confusion and fear, I wanted to add this passage from Romans 8 in The Message

"God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him. After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun.
     So, what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn't hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn't gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God's chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger? The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ's love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture: 
   They kill us in cold blood because they hate you. 
   We're sitting ducks; they pick us off one by one.
None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I'm absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us." Romans 8:29-39

The especially relevant part to those of us who have been abused by spiritual leaders is, I think, that part that says "not bullying threats, not backstabbing" will be able to get between us and the love of Christ for us. Let this sink in. NO MAN HAS THE POWER TO CANCEL OUR SALVATION!!! That is a very personal issue that belongs to Christ alone... and "He has embraced us."

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Controlling With Fear

Fear. To the person who has been abused or bullied, the very word can cause a tightening in the stomach. When you say the word ‘bully,’ most people think of the neighborhood bully who was always picking on the kids littler than him (or her). This kind of bullying is what I call overt bullying. It is blatant, in-your-face threatening. This can be verbal and/or physical. It is usually recognized the world over for what it is. Although this kind of bullying includes emotional abuse and intimidation, because of its blatant nature, it is easy to spot.

There is  another kind of emotional bullying that is far harder to spot and identify. It happens in the home and in the church. It begins with someone - a parent or a pastor - establishing themselves as your benefactor. It begins with you ‘knowing’ that they are the source of ‘good’ things in you life and that without them in your life, you will be in a dangerous place - vulnerable and easy prey. Once this is established in your mind, you are open for manipulation that will let them ‘put the fear of God’ in you to keep you in line. For someone who has been the victim of this form of abuse, the word ‘fear’ can even, years later, cause a drifting sense of anxiety - a chill up the spine.

I will start with how this happens in the home because if you were the victim of it from a parent, you will be far more susceptible to it as an adult in a church. As a child, you naturally look to you parents as benefactor and the source of all that is good in your life. This is normal. Normal parents aim for this. Children have every right to expect this. The problem arises when a parent has another agenda.

In my case, I was raised by a narcissistic mother and an emotionally distant father. Actually, he was only distant in showing affection. His periodic eruptions of disproportionate anger were anything but distant. When I was growing up, my parents were devoutly religious. My father was a deacon and my mother a Sunday school teacher and pianist. Pillars of the church community. My mother was also an expert on the Bible and loved to get in theological debates with people. She has read the Bible through many times. She knows what it says and can come up with a passage of Scripture for almost any issue. To the young mind of a child growing up, this WAS the voice of God Himself. If my mother said it, it was fact. Period.

The way the mind manipulation works is like this. The child knows that good and pleasant things come from mom and dad and that punishment comes from mom and dad. Children also naturally look up to their parents - believe that their parents know everything and can do anything. As a child, I was not taught to apologize for doing ‘fill in the blank.’ I was taught that I would “stay in the bedroom until I was prepared to come out and tell mommy I was sorry for what I did to mommy.” What was the main lesson learned? Don’t hurt mommy’s feelings. 

As you grow, anything you say or do that is outside of what they want you to say or do is ridiculed. I’m not talking about normal ‘this is good, and ‘this is bad’ behavior. They operate this form of intimidation on what clothes you like, what TV shows you like, what music you like, the hobbies you’re interested in, etc. They don’t come right out and say that you shouldn’t watch or listen to or like these things. The mock the things themselves - pick them apart with no room for argument and laugh at them. The implication is, that anyone who likes these things is foolish. Thus, without ever saying anything directly about the child, they have very effectively ridiculed the child for her tastes - her preferences. This has a huge impact on a child’s willingness to trust their own ability to choose good things.

It is difficult to even articulate the way that this fear was first instilled. Imagine, at the age of 2 1/2 years, in the midst of the potty training experience, being told, when you have an accident, that you are being lazy or stubborn and getting whipped with a belt. This kind of punishment was always preceded by ‘the look.’ Over time, the actually whipping was not necessary. Just getting the belt out and ‘popping’ it was enough. Then, all that was really necessary was ‘the look,’ to know you were in dangerous waters and better back up quick. Couple this with the constant ‘loving’ correction of any mistakes made even when pursuing the ‘approved’ things.

This doesn’t even begin to describe the atmosphere and feeling in the home. Couple this with the belief the my mother was ‘tight with God,’ and any step toward independence felt like a step away from God. Result? Controlled by fear of being out of line with God - the feeling that God is watching over your shoulder and if you doing something your mother wouldn’t like, He will tell her. It creates a sense of never being good enough and an almost desperate desire to do things ‘right.’ Instead of the normal process of being allowed to make mistakes and learn, it sets up a fear of making mistakes that paralyzes - a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ and being punished. In fact, it sets up a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ and getting ‘out of God’s commandments’ and going to hell. This fear can last well into adulthood - in fact, I think it will last until it is recognized for what it is. For some, that may be all their lives. You can probably see how this would set someone up to be used by an unscrupulous pastor.

Which brings us to how this works in a church setting. Obviously, someone abused in the ways described above would be more vulnerable to this than someone who was not abused. But not being abused as a child does not exempt you from being vulnerable. It starts with things like I have already talked about in previous posts: Us Against Them and Never Quite Enough and things along these lines. Once a pastor or leader has established that ‘he has the keys to the kingdom’ and if you want in, you better follow them, they will begin to talk about the revelation that they have being higher or deeper than the revelation at the church down the street. Then they say things like, “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to slide into heaven with a D-. I want to burst through the gates like I own the place and walk up to King David and start swapping stories.” Ugh. It becomes a competition with other churches - doctrines - whose got the best revelation.

There was a lot of time spent on talking about how to “prepare for the glory.” The implication was that if we did everything ‘just right,’ God would manifest His glory in OUR church, proving we were the BEST. Of course, when the glory clouds did not roll in, the fault lay within us. We were not in unity. If we were in unity, God would ‘shake the building.’ After a while, if your mind drifted for a second, you felt guilty because maybe you broke the unity of the body and if God didn’t show up, it would be your fault. I actually reached the place where I felt like I was being unfaithful if I visited another church or meeting, even if it was at a time when our church was not meeting. At the time that I walked away, I had been a leader in the church for about 14 months and had been volunteering in the office for about 3 1/2 years. After I became a leader, I was actually called into the office and reprimanded for going to an extraneous meeting. These were dangerous, you see. You might actually find out they were full of it. 

The final example of this I will share is what happened when I told them I was leaving. First, he tried to tell me I wasn’t. When that didn’t work, one of the things he asked me was if I believed all the prophecies that had been spoken over the church. This, by the way, is another form of control - speak lots and lots of prophecies from the pulpit about what great things God is going to do in this ministry and intersperse it with ‘warnings’ from God to get yourself “squeaky clean” and in line so you don’t mess things up for everyone else and also so that you don’t end up getting a D-, or maybe even being disqualified. From what? From heaven was my assumption. When that didn’t bring me back in line, he asked me if I was unconcerned about how my leaving might “hurt the sheep.” Never mind that what he was doing was already devouring the sheep. When that didn’t work, he told me that I needed to be careful and make sure I was under a pastoral covering or I would be easily deceived. I supposed he thinks that I am now deceived, or would if he read this. Which reminds me of another form of manipulation he used especially on the women in the congregation. He said, from the pulpit, several times that “Eve was deceived, but Adam knew exactly what he was doing.” Then he would go on and expound on how women are easily deceived and men are not and that women who refuse to be under a man’s covering are opening themselves up to be deceived. Yikes!

Throughout this 2 1/2 hour meeting where I told them I was leaving and they tried to talk me out of it, God’s grace was on me so that I was not afraid and was calm and firm. When I left the building, though, I freaked out a little. It has been a tough go this last year or so. Second guessing whether I did the right thing. The more time goes on, the more absolutely sure I am that it was the right thing and that this church is a cult.

I think the most important things for Christians to remember as they leave an abusive church are 1) God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33), and 2) God is not the one who sends fear (2 Timothy 1:7).

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Never Quite Enough

The tactic I call "Never Quite Enough" is, essentially, a variation on the old carrot on a stick idea. It can be used in a church by the leaders or at home by parents.

In the church setting, it goes like this.
First, you are told what wonderful things are available to those who do things the "right" way. This can be anything from material possessions to greater wisdom and enlightenment to the perfect marriage and the perfect children. Often, it will entail promises of never having problems again. The carrot will usually be tailored to the group. 

Once the "ideal" has been established, they begin working on the things you need to change to reach this ideal. I understand that there is a legitimate place for instruction and correction. This is not what I am talking about. In this manipulation tactic, the promises are grandiose and the requirements ever more and more exacting.

Once they have you hooked, they continue to teach the elements of what the steps are to achieve the ideal, but add the element that if it isn't working for you, you aren't serious enough about doing it right. Ah, does this sound familiar to anyone? It is a classic tactic of abusers the world over. "If you aren't happy - don't have what you want - aren't getting what I promised you - it is YOUR fault for not doing it right."

The problem is, they are a little vague on the finer points of what it is you are or are not doing that is holding up the works - at first. They will keep it to a vague "live like the Bible teaches." But, over time they will begin to get specific. Things like giving more money, getting rid of anything that might be offensive to God. 

Some of the things promised included never being sick again. Never being poor again. They did not come right out and say that problems wouldn't come. In fact, because the Bible teaches that they will (Matthew 18:7, for instance), they would say that the problems would come but you could reach the level where you would be above it all, like being in a plane that is above a storm. They would also teach that it was possible to never be sick again.

Now, I don't want to step on anyone's doctrine here, but this leads, in my experience, to blaming the victim. They would teach that if you were sick, it was your own fault because your faith was not strong enough - you just weren't believing hard enough. It was actually stated from the pulpit that depression was a sin and Christians had no business being depressed. Again, this is a classic blame shifting tactic of an abuser. If it is coming from a pulpit, RUN!

Now, here is where it really starts to get sick. Many people who come to a church are coming because they have problems. There are a lot of wounded people in this world. When victims of abuse come to a church seeking help to heal - to find comfort and solace - and are told that if they have problems, it's their fault, this is not helping them. Most people who have suffered from abuse are ready to believe it was their fault because that is what their abuser told them. I actually know of more than one woman who went back to an abusive husband because they were told that if they just believed harder, it would all work out. This is criminal.

The other part of this is the constant "encouragement" that says, "Come on, we're almost there. Don't give up on us now!" The carrot on the stick. The problem is, the donkey that follows that carrot never gets to eat it. The more emotionally and financially invested in the "ministry" the people become - the more they believe they are "almost there" - the more focussed they become on not wanting to be the one holding the works up for everyone else. The problem is, no matter how much you give in, it will never be enough. If it worked, it would work. Period. It would not leave you feeling like you need to scrub your life with a bristle brush to find that little thing that God isn't showing you that is holding everyone else back. Never enough. If your pastor is yelling at you and you always feel like you're missing it, step back and look more closely at what is going on behind the scenes. Are they REALLY practicing what they preach? He was not. 

An example of this (I found out later) was to tell us what God has told them to do. "Now I'm not saying that God is telling you to do this, but He told me to get rid of all my 'fill in the blank'." The unspoken implication, through tone of voice and facial expression, is that if you don't do it, too, you will miss out on what God is getting ready to do. Bleah!

It is important that we all continue to grow, but this only truly happens in an environment where we are accepted as is and encouraged in love. What happens in the above scenario is a twisting of the emotions and self-image to the place where you believe that you don't deserve anything because you are never enough. You actually believe the abuse IS love. The Scripture that says the Lord rebukes those He loves (Hebrews 12:6) was used to reinforce this idea. This is criminal. 

Don't do things JUST because your pastor or leader told you that God said. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Us Against Them

This form of emotional manipulation is usually a subtle one. There aren't a lot of church leaders who just come out and say, "It's us against EVERYONE else," including other churches. There are some who do that. Stay away from them. :-)

This is about a more subtle approach. It is one I am familiar with as it was employed at a church that I went to for many years. They don't come out and say that everyone is against them because they KNOW that would be a big red flag for most people. Instead, they say things like, "Be prepared when you talk to people outside of our teaching. They aren't going to understand you and may call you crazy for believing what we believe." Then they will say something about how persecution is to be expected if you are really doing what God says. 

This pastor actually said, "If you want to visit another church, that's fine; as long as you are attending every service we offer first. If our doors are open, you should be here." Notice he didn't come right out and say that you shouldn't go to another church. The church offered three services a week. How many people are going to be into attending more church services per week than that? If you feel guilty about even going to a a special meeting hosted by another church, you need to examine that. If that seems to be a church wide feeling, get out.

Isolating from other churches is a precursor to the forming of a cult. Those that they can get to go along with the isolation policy are then targeted for the next step. They are drawn into the "inner circle" of the leader's friends. From here the leader will hand pick a core group that will be his buffer - that will defend him to the teeth - that will be loyal to him no matter what they hear. From there, it can really begin to get ugly.

This same pastor has said, from the pulpit - with a smile, "Some people out there have actually accused us of being a cult. Can you believe that?" Then the part about being wary of the people outside his teaching because they didn't get it, poor souls.

Another way they reinforce the "us against them" mentality is by disparaging those who have left the church. Not blatantly - carefully, under the guise of being concerned about the spiritual health.

Another aspect of this is the idea that because their church is so "faithful" to the 'fill in the blank,' now they are going to get special revelation. The implication is that you will not get this revelation ANYWHERE else and so you better NOT go anywhere or you might miss out.

If any of this sounds familiar, please, step back and apply some logic - some discernment - some (yes) judgment - to the situation. If what they say will not stand up to logic and questions - if you feel overly embarrassed to discuss what your church teaches with other Christians, you're probably being led down the primrose path. Leave. Period.

Remember, the more isolated you become, the less accountability they have and the more they can begin to teach you things - slowly, carefully, bit by little bit so you don't choke - that are further and further from reality - from Truth.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Wolves In Shepherd's Clothing

What do I mean by a "Wolf in Shepherd's Clothing?" Simply those who have been placed (or placed themselves) in a position of religious authority over others who do not have those other's best interests in mind. This could be anything from a Bible study leader to the senior pastor of a mega-church. 

I'm not talking about leaders who make mistakes and move on. I'm talking about those who are in it for what they can get out of it. It takes a special kind of perversity to use God to manipulate people into doing what you want. 

They usually operate through presenting themselves as a spiritual/Biblical authority or being 'hooked up' with someone who is. Make no mistake. The majority of people who do this are very clever, subtle (like their true father), and can go for years - even decades - without being unmasked. The following passage is a very good description of what they do.

"Instead of giving you God's Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn't think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called 'Doctor' and 'Reverend.'" Matthew 23:4-7 (The Message)

The subtly - the smoke and mirrors - lies in appearing to help people - appearing to be concerned about the welfare of the people that come to them. Don't be pulled in by their self-promotion or the promotion from those who are under their spell. Step back and look at the actual fruit of their labor. If they are good at what they do, they will actually help a few people, but it will be incidental, not intentional. Apply logic to what they say. Check what they say against the Bible - they are experts at twisting. Don't just check to see if the passage is in there, though. Check the context to make sure it is actually saying what they claim.

These are some BIG ones. 
  • Pay attention to the turnover rate in their membership. Pay attention to how they treat those who leave. Pay attention to how they deal with real dissent - how they handle someone who disagrees with them.
  • Pay attention to the way they treat those who have REAL problems - emotional problems, drug problems, street-level problems that are not pretty to look at. 
  • If you go to them for advice and leave feeling insignificant, confused or discounted, THIS IS A BIG RED FLAG! 
  • If they are preaching on marriage, check the divorce rate, not just of those who are still there, but those who have left. How many of them got divorced as they left? 
  • If you feel like you never quite measure up to their expectations - where they claim you should be if you are 'doing this right' - you're always just not quite enough, this is a red flag.
In other words, objectively check the fruit of their ministry.

Another big red flag is if they are focused on how they appear - how the church appears - how the members appear. If they are more concerned with how you look than how you feel or what you are going through, RUN!

"You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You're like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it's all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you're saints, but beneath the skin you're total frauds." Matthew 23:27-28 (The Message)
I will talk about some specific experiences in later blogs. Peace.