Recovering from Church Abuse

Millions of people have been abused, hurt, disillusioned, and disappointed by organized religion. Some of these are even suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

"People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person's daily life.

"PTSD is marked by clear biological changes as well as psychological symptoms. PTSD is complicated by the fact that it frequently occurs in conjunction with related disorders such as depression, substance abuse, problems of memory and cognition, and other problems of physical and mental health. The disorder is also associated with impairment of the person's ability to function in social or family life, including occupational instability, marital problems and divorces, family discord, and difficulties in parenting."

Jan Groenveld describes three stages in recovery.

  • * Realisation and Exit
  • * Comprehension and Emotions
  • * Reconstruction and Dreaming


The first stage varies in length, dependent on the method of exiting. This stage is marked by the time and experience that alerted the person to the danger of the group and resulted in exiting the group permanently. The key to an effective exit is whatever helps to "jump start" the critical thinking process of the mind. This process has been on hold for much too long because the church or group has told the followers that to question and doubt the group is to betray god, break covenant or whatever. The price for questioning and doubting, they are told, is the displeasure of God and possibly worse. This is a very powerful fear to overcome.

Even after leaving, some people are not sure if they made the right decision and "float" between their old church identity and their new separate identity. The more information and support a person receives during this stage, the better equipped they are to handle the pain and loss of stage two.


The second phase is full of ups and downs, highs and lows. One moment you feel you just returned from Mars, excited by new freedom and discoveries; the next moment you are full of rage and pain. This stage involves coming to terms with a sense of having been raped, emotionally and spiritually.

The extremes of pain possible in this phase are disconcerting and can root great anxiety. It is how someone might feel standing by helplessly as an insane killer slowly murdered someone you loved. It feels so unfair and incongruent.. many simply wanteded to serve god and their country, wanted to help people, and wanted to make the world a better place - and for this sacrifice they were cruelly used. This is a very difficult aspect of the experience to reconcile. "What ever did I do to be treated like this?" is a question that rings deep in the heart of many who exit abusive groups.

No wonder, then, that the rage and anger the person feels is so overwhelming and frightening. Furthermore, the rage and anger generate guilt and shame.. "it is not right or godly to feel this way." The more this is the case, the more the person will tend to repress or deny the full expression of their emotions. But, understanding and feeling ones' emotions in a non-destructive way is part to recovery. As Paul wrote, "be angry.. but do not sin." This second phase can be extraordinary journey through pain and loss to learning and mastery. It varies in length and is dependent on how able the person is to experience loss and how disciplined they are to study, think, and work toward a thorough understanding of the experience.

If victims understood the challenge of the process of recovery, some might never start. The person must learn how to trust life again and learning to trust requires learning how to reality test. Because the religious phobias and teachings often touched on many aspects of life, such as family, government, education, religion, relationships, and economics, the ex-cultist often finds it necessary to examine and reality test most, if not all, of the teachings received in the group for subtle, residual ideas that continue to distort reality and manipulate their perspective.

In addition, it is in this phase that the individual must learn how to trust themselves again and their ability to make decisions. This is no small matter. Having failed to discern the truth the first time around.. and now experiencing this tremendous shame and anger and pain.. how does the person move forward? How will they know what and who is safe?

Learning to trust after you have been used and hurt can be very scary, but trust in oneself and in others can be rebuilt with disciplined thinking and with courage. For those who come from dysfunctional backgrounds, recovering from the abusive experience often means acknowledging and recovering from the effects of earlier dysfunctional relationships, such as:

  • * Abusive parents, relatives, siblings, spouse or abusing others
  • * Alcoholism, rape, incest, eating disorders, drug abuse
  • * Difficulties with intimacy, careers, law enforcement


To someone in the middle of the pain of stage two, the idea of having a dream again and building toward it is a sad, frustrating, and painful joke. No one can make up for all the years the church has stolen from you, but you can make up for some of those lost years. If you are willing to stick with it, to work through and let go of myths that look like truths both from the group's teaching and from within society's teachings, and if you are willing to acquire new skills and improve others, you can and will be able to build a healthy and well-functioning life with a dream you can work toward.

Paths of Leaving.. Exit Determines Recovery

However you left the system, the point is to walk on. The way you left will in part determine the nature of your own recovery. Different people leave in different ways. Some WALK out. Some get KICKED out. Some cult members BURN OUT. Others GROW out. Still others FIND OUT or get COUNSELED out.


These people simply rebel from the situation and leave. Unless they also shed the mind control, walk-outs may lead destructive or fear-filled lives.

Some adopt the attitude that since they couldn't measure up to the system's requirements, there isn't any hope for them anyway, so they might as well "live it up" while they can.

Some develop patterns of living that they wouldn't have chosen otherwise. There is a good chance that they will find another abusive group.


These people are excommunicated or shunned for a variety of reasons, usually related to the fact that they failed to fully integrate the four aspects of mind control--information control, thought control, emotion control and behavior control.

People who are kicked out of churches are commonly filled with grief and guilt. They are still very loyal to the group's beliefs and its people, even though rejected by the group.


These people have been so abused spiritually, mentally, physically, emotionally and financially, that they are barely able to function on a normal basis. Some "burn-outs" exhibit the Post-Traumatic Stress syndrome that is commonly experienced by war survivors. They are usually very confused, perhaps even physically ill, afraid and unable to trust anyone, most of all themselves.


These are people who are given, or stumble onto information which explains the situation enabling them to leave the mind control without fear and guilt. These people usually take several years to work through the adjustment to normal living and attitudes. Education, scriptural as well as secular, cultivating new friends and establishing a new environment and restoring one's God-given personality are most helpful. The more one learns, the greater the healing.


These people are rare. Few studies have been done on the needs of people who were born and raised within a highly controlling church or group.

The Challenge of Transition

In his book on transition William Bridges states that transitions begin with an ending...

"Marriage is the end of singleness; a promotion is the end of a former job—and the routines and relationships that went along with it. Transitions begin with an ending; this is why they stink, feel so bad. Transitions require genuine grief. You are not crazy—well you might be—but not for feeling the blues and blahs inherent in pursuing something that seems as exciting (why would I be depressed about that?) as your dream of a new life of faithful followership of Jesus and leadership in his name."

We have to let go of the old thing before we can pick up the new — not just outwardly, but inwardly, where we keep our connections to the people and places that have defined who we are. Even positive changes (being accepted to the school of your choice or having a baby) produce these unexpected losses because we identify ourselves with the circumstances of our lives. Our lives are "storied" by the geography, culture, people and events we have known to date.

Endings involve ..

  • disengagement
  • dis-identification
  • disenchantment
  • disorientation

Endings bring disengagement; they break apart social ties. It is hard to imagine life and identity apart from these knowns. But, this is usually the path to real development (in contrast to mere tweaking).

Endings bring on dis-identification: In transition, we lose ways of self-definition. It feels like the end of me. We experience the feeling of “I’m not sure who I am any more”. I was a __________ (vocation, role, etc.), but in this new reality I don’t yet own an identity. No longer “being a young person” or “being near the person in power” can be source of panic. But, trying to hang on to old identities stand in the way of transformation and personal growth.

Endings bring disenchantment. We carry around in us a picture of “the way things are”; an enchanted view. Once this is dis-enchanted, we are left, in a process like gestation or farming, to wait for something new to be born.

We tend to view personal growth as purely an additive process, one that means gaining stuff, never loss. But to grow and change, we must confront the part of our old reality that “was only in our head”—and lose it. The perfect spouse, child, job or church never did exist. We created them as an inner cast of characters and then looked for someone to play the parts.

These and other misperceptions are the “enchantments” that must be “dissed” or recognized as “sufficient for the old reality”, but insufficient now. Maybe we really did need to believe that “people are always trustworthy”, etc., because it protected us in our immaturity. But with real growth comes truer perception that can be tolerated with mature Christian peace. Dissing our enchantments is far better than switching spouses, rejecting children or destroying the career of a colleague.

Finally, endings bring disorientation. The reality that is left behind in any ending was not just a mirage; some of it was real. To be out of that reality, but to have no clear sense of, or un-failing plan for, the future is disorienting. It leaves us feeling confused and empty, stuck or lost in a non-world.

The familiar ways through which we structured our time and space are gone and nothing new has come forward to replace them. This is a meaningful, but un-enjoyable time.

During an ending, the desire for repetition of the old (in an effort to avoid the developmental thrust involved in transitions) is a key temptation to be avoided. It aborts the process of learning a new way of being in the world. Before we can find a new something, we must deal with a time of nothing.

No new time of life is possible without the death of the old season. To gain, you must first give up. An ending clears the ground for a new beginning. The ending of an outward situation thrusts us into a season in which we process its implications--this can seem like “hell” as we go down before we go up. We let go of an old way of being before picking up a new one. We then we begin to act—even when the tasks seem impossible--knowing that the Spirit will meet us “there”; in that place where we have run out of our own resources.

Go to Recovery from Spiritual Abuse or After Recovery.

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Related Websites: the Masculine Journey (John Eldridge)


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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on September 9, 2006