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Starting an Ex-Cult Support Group

The Shield of Faith was a Denver-based, sister-ministry to Darkness to Light. The Shield of Faith operated a support group for ex-members of cults and aberrant Christian groups.

The Shield of Faith and its support group are no longer active. But for the benefit of anyone who might be interested in starting such a group, below is information about the former support group. First are two articles from the Shield of Faith’s old newsletter, The Shield. They are written by the two counselors that directed the group. Then is information taken from a flyer about the group. Lastly is a suggested reading list.

Healing From Cult Involvement:
How Might it Take Place?

By Sharon Hilderbrant, M.A.

One year ago this month after much prayer and planning Shield of Faith initiated a support group for people coming out of cults and aberrant Christian churches. Our group, to the best of our knowledge, is unique in this area of the country.

Our purposes are support and recovery for those who have been directly affected by their personal involvement in such groups. Our orientation is a religious addictions model. While not working through the 12 step program directly, we are operating with a similar mind-set as A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous). Some of our thoughts and intents on this follows-

As a counselor I frequently see people who are confused and fearful regarding their relationship with God. Because of hurtful---even abusive experiences within an aberrant Christian church or pseudo-Christian cult, some of these people prefer to believe in no God at all rather than to accept the cruel devil- god preached to them in their former "church." Others have not given up on God, but have tremendous difficulty trusting people, particularly those calling themselves "Christian."

In either case, these people are no longer involved in the religious group, but have not been able to recover from the group experience. Such people need a place to share their pain and grief with others who know that their experience is not unique, that they, the victims, need not bear the burden of guilt for their victimization.

People who have left a cultic church family are displaced people, lost without a compass. They have been isolated from society in many ways, and now must find their way back into the world.

They lack friends or strong family ties outside of the religious group and now they must attempt to assimilate into the larger society through obtaining and keeping jobs, maintaining a home, and working with the public agencies, including public schools.

If they have been in a particular group for years, they may have tremendous difficulty communicating with others and may often find themselves in conflict on the job and elsewhere.

Marital and family relationships may be strained to the limit, as all members try to adjust to their new lives and to the changes in each other. Feeling alone in the world, but not fully trusting people, they may feel a desperate need to replace their old religious group with a hew one, one that will spend time with them, and help them get what they need to survive the stress they are experiencing. They need to be made aware that groups like Fundamentalists Anonymous and American Atheists may serve to perpetuate addiction to a group or may replace religious addiction with addiction to anger and rage.

The Shield of Faith support group is still new, and we are still learning how to help those participating recover from their experiences in a cultic religious group. We hope to encourage them to discover their own strengths, to be able to admit their own feelings, to be able to think for themselves. We hope they will learn to challenge and re-interpret the "special language" of the religious group so they can re-examine the Christian faith for themselves without fear. Finally, having been given permission to think, know, feel, and question, they may come to understand and experience grace.. which will give them an entirely new perspective on what it means to be a Christian.

Author: Sharon Hilderbrant- received her M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Stetson University, Deland, Florida. She is in private practice as a counselor doing both individual and family counseling in Lakewood, Colorado.

Support For the Ex-Member

By Alan Myatt, M.Div, Ph.D

It was 4:00 am when the phone called me from my sleep. I answered to hear the frantic voice of a woman. "Can you help me please? My son just called and said he was thinking of killing himself. You see, he was in this group and he just left..."

The story was so familiar. Another victim of an aberrant (cultic) Christian group. Upon breaking with the group he became convinced that all of the curses they had portrayed for those who defected would surely come to pass. In addition he was convinced that God hated him because he could not cut it in God's most spiritually committed group. He knew the group was wrong, but he was convinced that it was right. And at the moment dying seemed like the best alternative to facing life without the group.

The experience of belonging to and leaving a cult or aberrant Christian group is often devastating. Typically it is accompanied by a great deal of fear and guilt. The former member has been in a situation of total dependence upon an authority figure for practically all of life's important decisions. Even thinking is an effort, much less making the daily decisions that most of us consider routine.

And then there is the anger and humiliation. Humiliation at having been proved wrong after years of preaching the one truth to family and friends. Anger at having been deceived, and at the lost years given to the group along with their opportunity and promise.

The young man whose mother called thought he was reaching the end of what he could take. Since he was out of state our counseling was done over the phone. While this seemed to avert the immediate crisis it was not enough. A referral was made to a Christian mental health clinic in his area and the last I heard he was doing well. But, one thing was lacking at that time. There was no on going support group of former members that he could link us with in order to get support from those who really understand; those who have been there.

It is well know that those dealing with problems such as alcohol and drug addiction, eating disorders, problem adolescents and so on ad infinitum, are greatly helped by sharing their struggles with others who have or are experiencing similar life problems. Many of these groups are based on the famous twelve step model developed by Alcoholics Anonymous.

The support group started mostly by the efforts of Sharon Hilderbrant, with some help from myself and Shield of Faith, applies this concept to provide a place of healing for those with involvement in cultic religions. The group is currently a joint effort of Sharon, Shield of Faith and Cross Purposes, the counter-cult/ occult ministry which I currently direct. It is open to anyone with a relevant experience, free of charge.

Describing a typical meeting is not so easy since meetings may vary greatly depending on who shows up and what issues someone may want to deal with. Perhaps someone may be new, and they simply need to tell their story. It's amazing to see the nodding heads and knowing looks around the room as a former member describes the cult experience.

The names, places and dates may radically differ from person to person, yet each recognizes his or her own story in that of the others. What joy there is in watching as the new person realizes, "I'm not crazy after all.

This has happened to dozens of others. The group really was doing those off the wall things to manipulate and deceive." With this revelation comes the first wave of relief and the beginning of the healing process.

At times the group may focus on discussing the traits of co-dependency or family dysfunction, attempting to understand why the members were vulnerable to cultism. This also helps to accomplish one of the groups major goals; to help everyone become healthy today.

Dwelling on the group and blaming it for all of one's problems is not the point. Using the cult experience as an opportunity for learning and growing is much more helpful. Understanding how the cult served as an addiction used to avoid responsibility helps promote more responsible and functional living today.

Occasionally the group may focus on theology. We know what the various cults represented in the group have taught. What does the Bible say? While this Is not a study group, there are times when addressing intellectual questions is of great therapeutic value.

Basically, anything relevant to one's experience in a cultic group is open for discussion. No one is put down and everyone's point of view, Christian or not, is respected. The hope is to promote emotional healing and encourage thinking for one's self.

No one is given a script of what to believe, but instead one is encouraged to check out true teachings of Jesus in an environment of freedom from pressure and coercion.

In my work with ex-cult members over the years I have found that support from those with sympathetic ears is one of the most valuable resources for helping them. Groups such as this have great potential and I urge anyone who knows of someone who may need such a support group to let them know that help is available.

But whatever the case, please do not assume that simply because someone has left a cult then everything is fine. It is not; they are in great pain and they need a friend.

Author: Alan Myatt is now serving as a missionary in Brazil with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, along with his wife, Kathy, and daughter, Carrie.

"Getting Free"

A recovery group for former cult and aberrant church members.

Getting Free? Free from what?

Those who come out of cultic or aberrant Christian groups frequently feel:

1. Out of place in the world

2. Ashamed at having been "taken in"

3. Angry with themselves and God

4. Grief related to time lost

5. Alone and frightened

6. Tempted to rejoin the group

"Getting Free" can offer hope and assistance in getting free from the above hurts.

What is "Getting Free"?

"Getting Free" is a support/recovery group for those persons who need a safe place to share their experiences of having been involved in a cult or aberrant Christian group. Those who come can expect to receive unconditional acceptance by others. All persons can work through their experiences, beliefs, feelings and relationships with those in or out of a church who may have behaved in hurtful ways.

The Primary goals of the group are:

1. That each individual will emerge from this group experience with the ability to place their past experiences in perspective with the present and the future.

2. That all members will increase in self-confidence and independence.

3. As a result of progress on the above goals, that each individual will be better able to decide for themselves what they want to believe and where they may want to worship and why.

What can one expect in this group?

1. All persons in the group have a background of experience similar to that of the other members.

2. It is important that all members feel free to express their feelings toward others in a atmosphere of safety.

3. The identity of all members and the content of all discussions is understood to be confidential.

4. Group members are free to participate at whatever level they feel comfortable.

5. The facilitators guide discussions and help the group stay on track. Group members work as a team for the benefit of all.

6. Although some may express a desire to develop their own understanding of God and the Bible, this is not a Bible study.

What does it cost to attend?

Attendance at "Getting Free" is at no charge.

How is the group structured?

The weekly meetings are two hours in length. The first hour is devoted to group support and sharing. The second hour is devoted to a "12 Step" approach to recovery.

Suggested Reading

Why Cults Succeed Where Churches Fail by Ronald Enroth.

Co-dependent No More by Melody Beattie.

It Will Never Happen to Me by Claudia Black.

When Helping You is Hurting Me by Carmen Renee Berry.

Healing for the Adult Children of Alcoholics by Sara Martin.

The Addictive Organization by Ann Wilson Schaef.

Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Woititz.

John Bradshaw On: The Family by John Bradshaw.

Another Gospel by D.R. McConnell.

The Dangers of Growing Up in a Christian Home by Donald Sloat.

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

The above articles originally appeared in The Shield newsletter in 1989.
They were posted on this Web site February 1998.

Cults and Aberrant Groups
Cults and Aberrant Groups: General Information

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