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Cults What Clergy Should Know

Cults:  What Clergy Should Know

Rev. Richard L. Dowhower

A Duty of Care

Given the unavoidable intrusion of cults and cultism into their pastoral lives, clergy ought to understand the nature of cultism in order to better serve those who come to them for support and guidance.

I suspect that the intrusions of cultic groups into my pastoral life are not unlike the experience of many other clergy.  Consider the middle-aged woman who recently came into my office in tears because she did not know what to do about the progressive loss of her son and daughter-in-law to a group called Scientology.  Or note the case of my own daughter who, having a decade ago as a high schooler told me of the visit of a Hare Krishna speaker to her sociology class, now says that she had been invited to an informational meeting for a new personal development workshop that allegedly uses cultic techniques.

Even I have been the object of such approaches.  Not long ago a pleasant female voice called to ask if I had received her organization's invitation to a special Christian anti-communist meeting for local clergy sponsored by CAUSA, which I later learned is a Unification Church front actively promoting the politics and religion of Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

My point in noting these episodes is to emphasize the fact that cults and cultic behaviors are all around us and that clergy have a duty of care toward their congregants in this area of concern.  They ought, therefore, to know something of the problem in general, be able to recognize its appearance, and, above all, they ought to know how to help its victims.

The Phenomenon

A host of new religious, therapeutic, and New Age self-improvement groups now vies with more traditional institutions for spiritual commitments.  New prophets and self-styled messiahs providing new revelations and new sacred scriptures challenge our mainstream practices.  From my Lutheran religious perspective, these unorthodox new "ways" are spurious and to be denounced and combated.  They are modern manifestations of the ancient Gnostic heresy, which is to say salvation by special enlightenment.

But even from a nontheological perspective, these cultic manifestations of our troubled time can be seen to be harmful.  They induce persons made anxious by the common ills of modern life, the spiritually and theologically immature, and especially those who are simply at a vulnerable point in their lives to abandon traditional and complicated approaches to problems in favor of unrealistically simple and unambiguous ones.  And this is frequently destructive, for cultic groups intentionally deceive and defraud while violating basic human and civil rights.  Typically, such groups exhibit:

a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employ unethically  manipulative techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.  Unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control include, but are not limited to: isolation from former friends and family, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it.  (From: Cults: Questions and Answers.  M.D. Langone, Ph.D.  American Family Foundation (Weston, MA), 1988, p.1.)

The results of such methods are, all too often, family schisms, mental breakdown, financial disaster, loss of individuality and personal initiative, child and spouse abuse, lives of manipulation, deception, even criminal activity, and quite literally, enslavement.  Two questions confront us.  How do we help parishioners who have -- despite any preventive educational measures we may have instituted -- become involved in groups that produce such effects?  How do we "inoculate" those who haven't become involved but who are, or might become vulnerable?

Pastoral Care Strategy

The first duty of pastoral care is to offer a patient and willing ear to the relatives or friends of the cult-involved.  The initial appeal for help may well come hard on the heels of the caller's own hysteria-inducing discovery that a loved one has cut his or her social moorings and gone off with a group suspected of being a "cult."  On the other hand, the call may come from family members who have witnessed their loved ones' gradual alienation from friends, family, old values, and goals.  In either case the pastor must listen and understand the situation, thus providing essential comfort while setting the state for a rational assessment of the issues.  The congregant must be reassured -- if the evidence is supportive -- that the problem is a real one and that concern for the cult-involved person is justified (rather than simply being, for example, the unreasonable concern of overprotective parents).   The congregant must also be reassured that the situation is not hopeless, that help is available, and that a rational plan can usually knit sundered relationships and draw loved ones out of destructive associations.

The pastoral counselor must then direct his congregant to sources of information likely to help achieve this.  Certainly, the pastor himself can provide some of the needed information by learning, in anticipation, about both cults and counseling the cult-involved.  He can turn not only to his own denomination -- many pastors are not aware that such resources exist so close to home -- but to agencies that specialize in providing such information, whether about the psychological and social dimensions of the phenomenon, or about particular troublesome groups -- how they work, the nature of their appeal, the defenses they erect, and their weaknesses.  Such knowledge is vital to effect the reassessment of relationships and attachments by both the cult-involved person and those concerned about him, a reassessment which must precede a happy resolution of the problem.  Knowledge like this may also be important if some appeal to the law is made.

Finally, remember that there are unique pastoral care opportunities in working with individuals and families once somebody has left a cultic group.  In many cases, ex-members are still dealing with theological and other spiritual issues that may have been central to their original involvements.  Here, you can assist the ex-member to clarify for himself healthy forms of faith and religious commitment as distinct from those with which he was involved in the cult.

In addition to the obligation to help victims of cultic groups, clergy also have a duty to forewarn potential victims, especially the naive young people who come of age every year.  Churches and synagogues should make cult education programs, especially those that teach potential victims how to resist cultic sales pitches, a regular part of their work with congregants.  

The intrusions of the cult phenomenon into a clergyman's life can be ill timed and frustrating, but they present great opportunities, if we are prepared, to fulfill the calling to which we have committed ourselves.