My Unexpected Journey
We spent 4 years there as members, happy to join because all of the doctrinal statements were sound; we had even asked extensive questions about their church government style and whether they had a presbytery, questions that were answered to our satisfaction. But by our fourth and final year, I had begun contending with an expectation by leadership that women submit to domestic abuse and tolerate their husbands’ adultery. I began advocating for these women, who were also told that they had essentially solicited this maltreatment from their husbands because of their own failure to adequately perform their God-given gender roles.
My husband and I put a date on the calendar by which, if these serious problems were not adequately resolved, we agreed to walk away. During that interim, we learned that the leaders firmly held to a strict chain of command, and to doctrines about gender hierarchy that we had heard nothing about during our early years in the church. We were mortified, for leadership actually justified, if it did not facilitate, physical violence and other male and leadership, privilege-related abuses through these beliefs.
A few days after the advent of our agreed-upon date to exit, I phoned the only elder whom I still respected and who I felt had been a kind friend. I felt that I owed it to him to say goodbye, especially because we chose to walk away without any formal declarations. I would still classify what followed as the most disturbing conversation I have ever had. This NASA engineer became emotionally distressed; and he proceeded to explain to me that if I left without the blessing of the elders, I would face great danger. When I asked with a touch of sarcasm about these dangerous consequences, this elder read me a laundry list of terrible things that could befall us; these potential dangers included loss of careers; specific health problems, including cancer; and tragic or unexpected deaths.
While I did not believe this reasoning to be remotely rational, and I felt some anger, I was simultaneously deeply sickened in a way that I find nearly impossible to describe. Looking back now, I know that these direct threats had caused me to dissociate (to lose touch with reality so that the world seemed dreamlike) and to depersonalize (to feel disconnected physically from my body, as if I were watching the scene from elsewhere in the room). I reacted so strongly partly because I was incredulous at what I had been told, but also partly because, in the context of my religious tradition, I considered this to be a curse. And this was a personal curse, delivered directly from an intelligent man whom I loved and respected.
The following morning, I pulled out several phone books, and I started calling evangelical churches in Baltimore to see whether I could find a pastor who would be willing to talk to me. I saw the issue as a religious and doctrinal one, and I felt that the best person to seek for advice was another minister from my own tradition. I called every evangelical church in Baltimore that day, from a host of denominations. I eliminated the Episcopal churches because several of our church’s elders remained connected to a network of Episcopal churches in the area that embraced speaking in tongues. Word would surely get back to our church if I inadvertently called one of these individuals, and I dreaded any further confrontation if the elders attempted damage control.
I stopped counting how many calls I had made when I reached 20, but I called at least that many more by the end of the day. I purposely did not call the churches in the presbytery, which I had learned was actually just a group of pastors who met together for a lunch every month or two. In retrospect, I started out with churches in a denomination that follow elder rule in church government, and it didn’t occur to me until years later that this limited selection likely influenced the unanticipated responses I received (my issues involved coping with the harsh declarations of an elder).
The people I spoke with fell into two categories: those who had knowledge of my church or its pastor, and those who did not. Those who did have such knowledge comprised the largest group, and most of them were reluctant to talk to me at all until I reluctantly divulged the pastor’s name after they had pressured me to do so.
I received a variety of responses, all of which provided me with a single alternative: To be reconciled with the Lord, I had to be reconciled with my pastor. I found that idea absurd. I was at no point in a state of estrangement from God! I could barely fathom that so many people repeated that I “should repent” of wrongdoing, an assumption that presumed that I must be in a state of willful sin. I’m in willful sin because I refused to remain a member of a church that passively condoned domestic violence? I heard the word submit that day more than on any other day of my life.
The responses all came down to the following in some manner or form, although they varied a bit (please note that I did not identify the church or pastor unless I was asked and the person to whom I spoke persisted until I did so):
- “I know xxx and he is a good man”; “I know xxx and he is a godly man.”
- “It’s inappropriate for you to take this outside of your church.”
- “It’s inappropriate for you to speak this way about your pastor.”
- “I know your church, and you need to go back to submit to your pastor.”
- “I know your church, and it is a good church with godly leaders.”
- “You must go back and submit to/repent to your elders.”
- “You must submit to your pastor.”
- “What did you do to fall out of favor with your church leadership, because you can’t be telling me the full story?”
What disturbed me most deeply, and the reason I sought out pastoral counsel specifically was that I had been threatened in ways that felt like a curse. But my resolve dwindled down to nearly nothing, and I gave up calling because the fact that I had been cursed did not matter to anyone. No one.
When I said that I refused to submit to men who behaved in such a way, I was told that I had no other option. It didn’t matter that women were locked in basements by deacons or that elders admitted desiring to hit their wives. It did not matter that they allowed men to sin with no consequences and blamed all the sins of men on the failure of their wives. Eventually, I stopped offering any rationale as to why I couldn’t do what they advised.
Over the course of 2 days, I had also contacted churches in DC and northern Virginia, and I left many messages on answering machines across Baltimore. I received only a single call back, which came while I was at work; but I was too discouraged to return the call by then.
I found no local options within evangelical Christianity. The responses of these ministers only intensified the distress I already felt, by reinforcing the threat of doom that I had heard from the elder when I was leaving my church.
Biblical (Nonclinical) Counseling
I shared what had happened to me with a friend in Rockville, Maryland, who talked to the Director of Counseling at her large church. He told her that he knew about my church and that it was “dangerous.” He didn’t agree to see me, but through him I was referred to an intern who volunteered at the church.
This counselor, who I had presumed was clinically trained, was in fact an example of what I later learned was a nouthetic-style biblical counselor. Nouthetic counselors believe counseling should be based solely upon the Bible. They are not trained in clinical theory, assessment, or technique, and some believe that all mental-health issues derive from a sin or demonic cause.
I first explained to her that I had been molested as a child, and that I had started having recurrent dreams with my pastor’s face superimposed over the person who had abused me, which left me with a horrible feeling of guilt. She wanted to talk only about the details of the sexual abuse I suffered as a child and about the abuser, who had been dead for a decade and so was certainly no threat to me. She also pressured me to join a new church, and she didn’t understand at all why I found that prospect so threatening. Walking through the doors of a church flooded me with sheer panic at that point, and it was stressful just going to a church to meet with her.
I visited with the counselor two more times, and I kept trying politely to redirect discussion away from my childhood experience and to how I might deal with dreams about my pastor and the intense guilt that I felt. I had also started to feel overwhelming anger, which was an emotion I was never permitted to entertain directly before. I was preoccupied with how I could forgive these men, which I knew the Bible required of me but I had no idea how to do. I asked her how a person could even begin to forgive in the light of so much injustice.
The woman responded glibly, “Well, you know you have to forgive them.” I had already been struggling with anger, and I suddenly pictured myself lunging across the room and attacking her. During that flash of fantasy, I imagined I was an observer seated elsewhere in the room. I now understand that this was dissociation triggered by how threatened I felt.
I have little memory of what occurred in the rest of that session. I remember watching the counselor talk, and watching her hands and feet. I don’t remember leaving the building. And then I was suddenly aware that I was in my car, wondering how I would manage to drive home because of the deep fatigue I felt.
I told one of the women who was abused in the church I had left about my profoundly disappointing experience in Rockville. We started talking about former members and some of the things we had heard about them. She put me in contact with someone who had left the church many years before and had received another kind of counseling related to her leaving. People were afraid to contact that woman because the church told everyone that she had become involved in witchcraft, but my friend had run into her and learned that was a false rumor. (In fact, the woman had joined a Presbyterian church.) Through the former member, I obtained the phone number of an exit counselor who had helped her when she struggled after leaving because she had encountered the same kinds of problems I had.
That next day, I called her exit counselor, who spent 2 hours on the phone with me, telling me exactly what had happened to me at my church. It was as if she knew the church personally. Finally, I had found someone who understood. She did have knowledge of our group from at least 15 years earlier, when there was a huge church split. This information corresponded to what I knew about the network of churches and their previous history. She said that she had information to share with me and also with my husband if he had spent any time at all with the group.
We all spent an entire day together at her home. She began by showing us several videos, including The Wave, about a social experiment in a California high-school history class that inadvertently ended up recreating a small-scale version of Nazism among the students. She brought us sandwiches to eat because we hadn’t realized how much time had passed. My husband and I were seated together on a love seat; the exit counselor sat down across from us, pulled her chair a bit closer, opened a copy of Robert Lifton’s Psychology of Totalism, and started to read to us the chapter entitled “Idealogical Totalism.” Without any embellishment on her part, what we had experienced became clear to us. It was at that point that our journey of healing began.
I then found an excellent counselor to help me with the personal issues that had resurfaced. And that counselor saw my anger as an essential first step in my recovery.
As houses of worship continue to express concerns about dwindling numbers of churchgoers, I often think that the failure among some of these groups to meet the needs of the spiritually abused plays a major role in this escalating trend. Although I try to encourage survivors of spiritual abuse to share the healing resources I found in the cultic-studies community, I long to see faith communities become the first to respond to this great need.
Ms. Kunsman’s personal account is not surprising, given findings of a survey on which Rev. Richard Dowhower reported in ICSA Today:1 “Eighty respondents (42%) sought help from mainline religious organizations. Thirty-two persons (40%) found these services not at all helpful, 17 (21%) rated the services as helpful or very helpful, and 31 (39%) rated the services as somewhat helpful.” Although nearly half the respondents went to religious organizations for help, nearly half of those said that what they received was “not at all helpful” [emphasis added]. Clearly, religious organizations need education about the needs of spiritually abused persons.
A study at Baylor University2 found that “More than 3% of women who had attended a congregation in the past month reported that they had been the object of CSM [clergy sexual misconduct] at some time in their adult lives” and that, if one includes those who know of the abuse, “in the average American congregation of 400 congregants, there are, on average, 32 persons who have experienced CSM in their community of faith.” Assuming that CSM is the apex of an iceberg of lesser abuses of power, such as those described by Ms. Kunsman, the prevalence of other kinds of abuse and abuse perpetrated by church leaders other than clergy is probably considerably higher than the 3% found in this study, although I know of no empirical research pertinent to this hypothesis. I would further hypothesize that the tendency not to speak ill of church leaders may result in the kind of revictimization that Ms. Kunsman describes. Again, empirical research is needed, although anecdotal accounts such as Ms. Kunsman’s are telling.
So as not to give the false impression that I am suggesting that clergy and church leaders are somehow especially at risk of abusing those under them, I also want to mention that research has found, for example, that therapists who report having sex with clients range from .9% to 12.1% in eight studies,3 that sexual harassment and generalized workplace abuse are common,4 and that childhood sexual abuse (CSA) figures are disturbingly high: “CSA constitutes approximately 10% of officially substantiated child maltreatment cases, numbering approximately 88,000 in 2000. Adjusted prevalence rates are 16.8% and 7.9% for adult women and men, respectively.5
The general principle is that power corrupts, and where there is a power imbalance, as in churches and other religious organizations, there will be a risk that power will be abused. Denial of this fact is not an appropriate response. Religious organizations need to be open to talking about the problem, willing to be educated on ways to prevent its occurrence, and sensitive to the needs of those who have been abused, especially within religious groups. ICSA’s project, the Spiritual Safe Haven Network (http://safehaven.icsa.name), seeks to help religious organizations deal more effectively with issues of abuse.
 Dowhower, R. L. (2013). The results of the 2008 International Cultic Studies Association’s questionnaire for former cult members. ICSA Today, 4(1), pp. 10–11.
 Garland, D. R. (n.d.). The prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct with adults: A research study executive summary. Baylor University (http://www.baylor.edu/clergysexualmisconduct/index.php?id=67406).
 Pope, K. S. (n.d.). Sex between therapists and clients (http://kspope.com/sexiss/sex2.php). [This chapter, “Sex Between Therapists and Clients,” by Ken Pope, appeared in Encyclopedia of Women and Gender: Sex Similarities and Differences and the Impact of Society on Gender (pages 955–962, vol. 2) edited by Judith Worell and published by Academic Press, October, 2001, 1264 pages, ISBN 0122272455. It is presented here only for personal, individual use. Academic Press owns the copyright to this chapter. Questions about any uses involving copyright should be addressed to Academic Press.]
 Richman, J. A., Rospenda, K. M., Nawyn, S. J., Flaherty, J. A., Fendrich, M., Drum, M. L., & Johnson, T. P. (1999). Sexual harassment and generalized workplace abuse among university employees: Prevalence and mental health correlates. American Journal of Public Health, 89(3), 358–363 (http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.89.3.358).
 Putnam, F. W. (2003). Ten-year research update review: Child sexual abuse. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 42(3), 269–278 (http://www.nctsnet.org/nctsn_assets/Articles/1.pdf).
Cynthia Mullen Kunsman (ASN, BSN, Gwynedd Mercy College; MMin, Chesapeake Bible College and Seminary; ND, Clayton College) is a nurse with a wide clinical teaching background who now serves as a consultant in forensic medicine and toxicology. Although she chose to decline their practice, her credentials in both naturopathy and hypnotherapy have enriched her understanding of the phenomenon of cultic influence. She and her husband sought exit counseling after 4 years in a shepherding discipleship group, which set her on a journey of confronting her upbringing in the Word of Faith movement. She hosts UnderMuchGrace.com and blogs at SpiritualSoundingBoard.com, articulating information about spiritual abuse to Evangelicals with a specific focus on gender and high-demand homeschooling. She has contributed to Christian apologetics journals and conferences, aided other authors in research, and contributed to books, including Hillary McFarland’s Quivering Daughters. She also serves with the Freedom for Christian Women Coalition and the Spiritual Abuse Recovery Blog Network. She resides in South Florida with her husband, Gary W. Kunsman, PhD, F-ABFT.