Dec 15, 2012

An Open Letter to Clergy Regarding Helping Former Members of Abusive Churches or Cults

ICSA Today, Vol. 03, No. 02. 

Carol Giambalvo
ICSA Director of Recovery Programs, ICSA Board of Directors
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:
  1. Encourage them to get information to help them understand what appened to them in the group, and to help them recover from it (sources of information listed in the Resources at end).
  2. Understand that you will need to earn their trust—they have had their trust violated so badly by a group that looked good.
  3. At times they may be triggered by words that were “loaded” in the group: the use of some scriptures that the group twisted and emphasized, even some hymns that were sung in the group; dynamics—normal things that are used in healthy churches—can be a source of a trigger to them. Just understand, and make it okay if they need to leave the current setting should this happen.
  4. Understand that they may not want to share their story—they need to build healthy personal boundaries. Respect their boundaries. The groups build unhealthy boundaries between members and the “outside” world, tear down their healthy boundaries, and encourage them to bare their souls and confess all to other group members and leaders. It takes time to reestablish their healthy boundaries after they have left.
  5. When they need to talk, listen to them. They need a voice, on their own time.
  6. Encourage them to ask questions, and let them know that it’s okay to disagree.
  7. They need respect and love as they struggle through their recovery issues.


1.    Identity Crisis
  • Who am I now? For those born/raised in high-demand groups, who am I?
  • What do I believe?

2.    Feelings of being disconnected; a sense of purposelessness

3.    Grief
  • For the people I left behind
  • Loss of a cause
  • Loss of “belonging”
  • Loss of what I had to give up in order to join group
  • Loss of innocence
  • Loss of career goals; finances; belongings
  • Missing the “buzz”; looking for it elsewhere
  • Anger
4.  Boundary issues

  • Rebuilding healthy boundaries—creating a safe place to heal
  • Learning it’s okay not to divulge everything to everyone
  • Learning how the group tore down the boundaries between other group members/leaders and me
  • Learning how the group built up unhealthy boundaries between the outside world and me
  • Trust issues
  • Testing the waters, building up a relationship before I trust someone—developing healthy boundaries

5.    “Magical thinking” of cultic group, spiritualizing everything

6.    Varying symptoms of post traumatic stress
  • Panic attacks
  • Floating/triggers
  • Nightmares
  •  Sleep disorders
  • Inability to make decisions
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Fears not grounded in reality—fear the group was “right” when they told me something bad would happen to me if I left
  • Hypervigilance
7. Difficulty with relationships and authority figures
8. Underemployment


reFOCUS:  (many articles on recovery)
Books: Take Back Your Life by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias, Bay Tree Publishing, (scroll down)


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 ofExit 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

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