ICSA Today, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2012, 6-7
An Open Letter to Clergy Regarding Helping Former Members of Abusive
Churches or Cults
As both the Director of Recovery Programs for the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) and a cofounder of reFOCUS, a support and referral network for former members of closed, intense organizations or relationships, I’ve had inquiries from clergy about how to help former members when they come to them. I’ve also had remarks from former members that clergy don’t seem to know how to help them. As a former member myself, I’ve had my own personal struggles addressing spiritual and religious issues. Hopefully I can give you some useful information and suggestions.
First, some background information. People don’t join cults. They are deceived and purposefully recruited. The majority are in some sort of normal human transition stage in life, such as leaving high school for college, leaving college for the “real world,” experiencing the breakup of a relationship or marriage, losing a job, moving to a new location, retiring. And along comes a group of what seem like the most wonderful people from the most wonderful group with the most wonderful goals who show them love, acceptance, and a “higher purpose.” Many people have the mistaken idea that only troubled people from troubled families get involved in these groups. Cults don’t want troubled people. They want bright, dedicated, idealistic, energetic people to raise money, do the work of the group, and recruit new people.
So how do you help former members? Here are some suggestions:
What Are the Recovery Issues Facing Former Members?
1. Identity Crisis
2. Feelings of being disconnected; a sense of purposelessness
4. Boundary issues
5. Trust issues
6. “Magical thinking” of cultic group, spiritualizing everything
7. Varying symptoms of post traumatic stress
8. Difficulty with relationships and authority figures
ICSA Today, 3.2, 2012
International Cultic Studies Association
reFOCUS (many articles on recovery)
Books: Take Back Your Life by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias, Bay Tree Publishing,
About the Author
Carol Giambalvo is a cofounder of reFOCUS, a national support network for former cult members. She is on ICSA’s Board of Directors, is Director of ICSA’s recovery programs, and is responsible for its Project Outreach. She is author of Exit Counseling: A Family Intervention, co-editor of The Boston Movement: Critical Perspectives on the International Churches of Christ, and co-author of “Ethical Standards for Thought Reform Consultants.” She received ICSA’s 2008 Margaret T. Singer Award.