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Points for Pastors

Points for Pastors: How to Best Help the Former Cult Member

Diana Pletts

  1. Hastiness in Group Evaluation. Don’t be hasty in making an assessment of the group. When it finally occurred to us to ask the pastor of the church we were newly attending (a Community Church) about our group, the Path, since it did not fit the criteria of satanic, he told us it wasn’t a cult. It took us Years to get around to asking that question again.
  2. Discounting member stories and emotions. Don’t discount their memories, stories, or emotions, in spite of the fact that they might seem extremely strong, outlandish or outrageous, or, alternately, flat or lacking in emotion.
  3. Church participation expectations. Don’t necessarily expect them to be willing, able, or desirous of joining the church, and/or the various activities, even if they seem lonely. It may be more than they can do, and they may have a need to observe, for a time.
  4. Examination of own beliefs. Examine your own beliefs and actions and expectations: do You expect your church members to act in a certain way, to accept certain beliefs and non-essential (in terms of Christian beliefs) ways of living?
  5. Relating to the opposite gender. There may be issues here, and counseling as a couple (with your wife or another appropriate female) may be the safest thing to do, to avoid misunderstandings, among other possible difficulties. The intensity of relationships in a cultic group can persist in expectation and behavior afterward.
  6. Give time to heal. One exiting from a high demand or cult group, especially without exit counseling, may have deep emotional and spiritual wounds, and need time to heal from them, which may be longer than you might think.
  7. Just listen to their story. Research has often shown that telling one’s story, and feeling accepted, heard in a true way, is an important part of the healing process. Heard without judgment.
  8. Accept them as they are. See #7. Be careful in making demands.
  9. Encourage them to understand their situation by educating themselves. Reading about cult affiliation and practices can help the ex-member to understand that it was not a deficiency in themselves, but, rather, the social-psychological practices of the group enacted on the former member, that brought about the affiliation, and caused the ensuing problems afterward. Suggest helpful books, and have them available in the church library.
  10. Don’t be offended if they leave your church. Sometimes the church relationships are too intense, too confusing, or too dissimilar from what they wanted, expected, needed. Alternately, the relationships might be too much the same, and possibly even triggering the ex-members.
  11. Suggest counseling. Specialized cult related counseling to explain how cults work, and their impacts, might be what is needed, especially if there has been much dissociation.  
  12. Encourage them to consider their lives prior to joining their group. Looking at photographs, meeting with old friends, listening to the music or reading the books that had interested them prior to their group involvement will help them to reconnect with their original created selves.
  13. Don’t expect immediate forgiveness. Expecting them to easily forgive those who cruelly tortured and tormented them, and destroyed their lives is not appropriate. Our pastor did not understand the excessive and inappropriate control and over involvement that  my mother in law, our cult leader’s sister, had in our lives, and how, whenever she would say something negative, it had a larger than life, and larger than would be expected, impact on my life.
  14. Respect their right to be different and to be themselves. One pastor expected everyone to have the same abilities, regardless of interest and inclination. My husband hated going door to door with the Jesus film, and was censured for it.
  15. Suggest cognitive activities. Crossword puzzles, reading, simple games will help the ex-member get some cognitive processes moving again.
  16. Be their friend. If possible, see if there’s a kind, accepting, loving individual in the congregation able to be their friend- maybe go places with them- the occasional outing.
  17. Help them understand the biblical beliefs about God and the Christian life and its expectations. Ex-members have likely been bludgeoned with scripture, and unreasonable demands.
  18. Let them live with the grey. Some parts of scripture are plainer than others. Encourage them to put those more confusing parts aside for the time being. Living with uncertainty and non-absolutes in other areas is something that needs to be relearned. I had to realize that the world, and my relationship with God, would not end if I did not do things exactly as I might be thinking God wanted me to.
  19. Understand that scripture has sometimes been used as a bludgeon on them. So, don’t expect them to be able to pick it up and read it again right away, perhaps especially certain triggering verses. Some have suggested using a different version that the one used in their group.
  20. Help them understand the true nature of God’s grace. The Book of Galatians.
  21. Just love them. Love suffers long and is kind. Ex-members are in great need of this virtue.