Thursday, August 13, 2009

Blog Interview With Author Shari Howerton

Shari Howerton is the author of Breaking the Chains:Overcoming the Spiritual Abuse of a False Gospel. She graciously stopped by The Cult Next Door for a blog interview.

I first "met" Shari on a message board for spiritual abuse victims. Searching for understanding and truth about my own toxic church experiences, I was blessed by Shari's postings concerning her own experience.

When I heard she was sharing her testimony with a published book I was elated. Her kind yet truth-filled account will be a blessing to those on the journey out of spiritual abuse.

Without further ado, here is The Cult Next Door blogspot interview with Shari:

You picked an awesome title! Last time we chatted back and forth, you were still searching for the right one- "Breaking the Chains" is so apt!

Thank you.

You describe the imprisonment of legalism and false religion your church forced on you in the preface:

"My husband has told me he cannot imagine anyone, let alone a Christian, believing the things I was taught. Although it is a foreign concept to him and others I have talked to, it was my life for forty-three years...Despite my desire to live for God all those years, I was a prisoner of my chains. I needed deliverance as much as any sinner in the gutter. I knew nothing of the freedom Christ had died to provide for me. ."

What enlightened you that you were living in a spiritual prison?

Finding the Gospel and the cross, my freedom in Christ, grace -- these aspects of Christianity served as my enlightenment. It was a long process, not one event. Over the course of my life in the church, I saw many inconsistencies. We had all the same problems and all the same sin as any other group. The only difference seemed to be in behavior you could fake. What I mean is that the things that set us "apart" from other Christians were outward. You can appear holy in a setting like that and have no real change happening in your heart. Many people led double lives. Yet we professed a different standard of holiness and a "higher calling." It just didn't add up for me. It seemed like we only talked about perfection; I didn't see anybody actually being perfected. I always had questions in my heart and mind. I remember wondering how we could possibly be who we thought we were. At the same time, I was reluctant to go too far in my questioning.

I had been told all my life that I couldn't find God or be in God's will outside "the Body." I was also told I could never go anywhere and find truer friends or people who loved me like those people. I bought into all of that. However, prior to leaving, I would have told you I wasn't a prisoner and I wasn't trapped there. I could leave any time I wanted to. I finally did decide to leave because I wasn't growing spiritually in that environment. Yet I was experiencing God and the potential to grow spiritually much more in other settings, which was not something I would have ever expected. That gave me the courage to search for God outside those walls and I felt like He was nudging me to leave. I couldn’t be sure I was doing the right thing and I had a lot of conditioning to overcome. I feared displeasing God, but I prayed and asked Him many times to simply show me if I had been wrong to leave and I would go back.

Only after I did leave did I become aware of the level to which I had been controlled and conditioned by fear. I would occasionally have anxiety about whether or not God was mad at me for leaving "the Body," even though He so abundantly blessed my life in every way after I left. I would wonder "what if they're right?" and "what if they are the true church?" and "what if I've left the true church and now I'm deceived?" The perfection teaching haunted me most, and I had trouble believing that I would really go to heaven because of what Jesus did rather than by earning eternal life (through my own good works/perfection/righteousness). I wanted to believe the Gospel, but it seemed too good to be true. I had been told that Christians who believed their salvation was accomplished through the cross were just looking for an "easy way." I wondered if I was just taking the "easy way." I didn’t consciously want to do that. There was a lot of struggle involved. Through that struggle, I became more and more aware of my chains. I recognized the spiritual prison I had been in as a result of experiencing freedom. The more I embraced the truth, the more I realized the bondage from which I had been set free. My spiritual theme song is "Remember Your Chains" by Steven Curtis Chapman; "Remember the prison that once held you before the love of God broke through."

"I did not know what it meant to be in Christ. I only knew what it meant to be in church."

Victims of spiritual abuse readily understand this statement. Consumed with pleasing church leaders, living by an ever-increasing list of their rules, having little or no control over your own life decisions- this is life lived under the dictatorship of a human, not under the grace of God.

Looking back over your experiences in this church, how did the leadership keep you "in line" so that you followed their rules and expectations?

I wanted to be loved and accepted. I wanted to please. I wanted to be approved of. I did not want to be viewed as someone who was rebellious, unwilling to submit to authority, in a bad spirit. I didn't want to be viewed as worldly or backslidden. It had so much to do with peer acceptance and fitting in. You were viewed differently (judged) if you were openly non-compliant - even in small things. At the same time, plenty of people did not follow the "rules" if they were out of town or knew they would not be running into other church people. I recognized this lack of spiritual integrity long before leaving.

Before I left, I began to realize how self-focused my motivation was even for doing right. It wasn't about God. I didn't really believe that some of our rules were important to God. I complied in order to have the love, acceptance and approval of my social group, which made it about me and the response I wanted (or wanted to avoid) from other people. God showed me the self-absorption of people pleasing. Seeing the wrong priorities that were cultivated in me helped me to leave. It wasn't so much that I was afraid of my pastor (what he could do to me). However, I feared his disapproval and the disapproval of others. I did not want to disappoint him or other people in my church. Many cast people who went against the pastor in a negative light.

However, I cannot honestly say I ever followed every rule.

You came from a church that shares many similarities to my former church.
In my church, the pastor always guaranteed death and destruction to anyone who dared speak against her or leave the congregation. She preached often that the Judgment Day of God was nigh and anyone not listening to her, The Voice of God From The Pulpit, as she titled herself, would be dammed to destruction.
Did your church leaders utilize scare tactics such as these to keep members frightened and unwilling to leave or attend other churches?

What I remember is the fear of joining myself to the beast and being deceived. I don't remember statements about being damned (other than the Scripture about believing a lie and being damned). I do remember many warnings about being outside the Body, outside the covering, rejecting the truth I had been so privileged to receive. I remember one prominent minister saying publicly that it would be better for someone to be lost in the world than lost in the Baptist Church. So I got the very strong message that the only thing MORE displeasing to God than turning my back on HIM would be turning my back on THE CHURCH and that particular group of people.

When our pastor told us that he believed God had told him to relocate to the Nashville area, he said that we were all supposed to remain with him (move across the country). That was what GOD wanted. Someone asked him what he would think if we prayed and didn't feel like God was telling US to move. His response was that he would fear for our soul (if we thought God told us that). I remember rejecting that idea. I did not believe that my very soul depended upon being in one specific man's congregation. However, my whole life revolved around the church and the people in the church. The thought of remaining in California without my family and friends was just unfathomable to me. This gives a man, or leader, a lot of control over your life and your choices.

I think these leaders have a lot of control based on two things: 1) the teaching that they alone have the truth – truth that the rest of Christianity is lacking – holds people who are afraid that might be true. I was afraid it was true. "If I left, where would I go? Nobody else has the truth. Perhaps in leaving I would be displeasing God and not treasuring 'these precious truths' He has privileged me to know." The other component is the way we built our whole lives into the church. Everyone, for the most part, married within the group. So everyone, over time, winds up related in some way to others in the church. Most of their family is in the group. Many do business primarily within the group. Social relationships are formed and cultivated primarily within the group. If people do think about leaving, they have to uproot their entire life, as they know it, and start over. To say a person has to be willing to leave their comfort zone is about the most monumental understatement that could be made. Not to mention, if one considers the possibility of this group not having the truth as they had believed, they must then confront the possibility that they have based their whole lives on a lie. Many people simply cannot do that - or are unwilling even to consider it.

I remember telling God that I didn't care if everything I had ever believed was a lie and I had to start over from scratch. I just wanted the truth. If I lost all my friends and had to start over, I knew He would give me new friends. It wasn't easy. I can't begin to tell you how many times I cried, missing certain close friends from my earlier life. To this day, it hurts to know how some now view me. They cannot see my heart. To them, I have become a bitter, angry, venomous person. They don't understand why I could not remain silent and go my way, leaving them alone. Some have called me a betrayer of lifelong friends. That will never be an easy thing for me to accept and come to terms with. I still wrestle with it. I still have a desire for those friends to know my heart. Nevertheless, part of breaking my chains is finding an acceptance of what God has ordained for my life. I believe He has asked me to give up those friendships. As much as it hurts to let go, I have had to let go.

Author Ken Blue in his book, Healing Spiritual Abuse, recounts the tragic story of a woman named Natasha. Her pastor and church leaders told the congregation that salvation could only be obtained by fulfilling extreme rules and standards. Believing herself rejected by God for failing to keep these rules, Natasha laid down on a track to be crushed by the passing train.
Jeff Vonvendern, author of the Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse defines this type of pressure as abuse. He says that spiritual abuse happens
“…when spirituality is used to make others live up to a ‘spiritual standard’…without regard to an individual’s actual well being…the person…is sent the message that [their] spirituality [is] defective.

Did you observe members of your former church feeling despair because they could not live up to the standard of perfection?

This is an interesting point and I’m glad you asked this question. It brings back something very specific. Charlie Daniels wrote my foreword and he stated that I had been persecuted. I felt a bit of discomfort with that word because so many people use it lightly. I asked my editor his opinion. I explained that although I have endured criticism, harsh judgments and even some rejection, I didn’t feel “persecuted.” Anything I have suffered is so miniscule in comparison to what Jesus suffered for my redemption. It doesn’t seem to reach the level of what I would define as persecution. My editor disagreed. He responded that, most importantly, those are Charlie’s words, not mine. I do not have to be completely comfortable with his word choice because it is his opinion he’s giving in the foreword. However, my editor also pointed out that persecution takes many forms. I can’t find the email in order to quote him, but I thought what he said was profound. He took the time to explain to me that I was under persecution before I ever left CGT because of the doctrine of perfection. He said that many forms of persecution would at least drive you to the cross and to the Savior. However, the doctrine of perfection did not. It caused me to persecute myself because I knew I could not be perfect. It robbed me of my hope in Christ.

I did know others would felt despair that they could never be good enough. Several who have also left have shared with me the hopelessness they felt under that teaching. But many others have shared with me that they simply did not think about perfection at all. I find that hard to understand or relate to because I remember thinking about it and feeling the weight of my inadequacy at a very young age. My son has told me recently, as an adult, that he remembers thinking about killing himself (while in elementary school) because he didn’t think he could ever be perfect. I had no idea he was thinking so deeply about perfection at that young age. However, I understood the heaviness he felt because I remember feeling it and asking God why I had to be born in “the true church” and know “the truth” that I wasn’t going to heaven. I was only in fifth or sixth grade when I was feeling the weightiness of this “truth.”

The second half of Shari's interview is continued in the next post.

Blog Interview With Shari Howerton

“I grew up in a religious cult. It is difficult for me to use that word in print because it is inflammatory. I am aware that the word conjures up images of mass suicide, burning buildings, polygamy, and such. Those extremes are not part of my story, nor do I have any expectation that those dangers exist today for others within my former church.”

I am glad you stated your situation bluntly. The term "cult" is synonymous of Jim Jones, David Koresh, and the mass destruction of their followers. While your former church leaders aren't passing around poisoned Kool-Aid, they have passed around the understanding that they (and their organization) are sole holders of the truths of salvation. Offend them, you have offended God and thereby lose sight of salvation. This is the cult mentality that motivated Koresh and Jones into believing they held the power of life or death over their followers.

I think this mentality is present in varying degrees in different individual congregations throughout this fellowship (GAC/Sowders). There are also varying degrees of control. The messages are conveyed in a multitude of ways. Many times the messages are implied rather than communicated through bold statements (though they are often quite direct). For instance, in the congregation where I was raised, my former pastor never made an outright declaration that if we offended him, we offended God. Nor did he say he held the power of life or death over us. It was usually more subtle than that, but nonetheless direct.

My former pastor occasionally told a story about something happening to someone who opposed him (you would get the implied message). He frequently asked the question, "Are you not for me?" He would say that if we were not for him, we were against him. We were likened to the children of Israel, who murmured against Moses, if we questioned or challenged. When we were asked to move with our pastor from CA to TN, he said he would fear for our souls if we prayed and we thought God didn't tell us to go with him. He told us many times that God wouldn't tell us something without telling Him. If God hadn't told our pastor what we thought He'd told us, there was good reason to question that God had spoken to us at all. We should not pray for God to tell us, we should pray for God to tell Him and He would tell us what God wanted us to do. There were many messages like this over the course of my life (from birth to age forty-three). So, you see, he didn't come right out and declare that we were leaving God if we left His ministry or we were offending God by offending him, but the message was successfully conveyed to most of us nonetheless. I know it was conveyed to me.

It has been said of some of us that we left because we could not come under "the covering" and "the authority" of God's order. We left because we didn't want to obey or comply with the standards/rules. We are bitter, angry ex-members of the church if we challenge their beliefs and practices. We are dismissed as having personal agendas. We are enemies of the church. It is not acceptable to voice one’s disagreement openly. It is always the person's fault (who has "issues" with the church) and there has been no acknowledgment of wrong doing on the part of the church or church leaders. A member of my own family has portrayed me as someone with "problems" to people who didn't know me as a way to dismiss me (or anything I might say). Several of those people have told me that their impression of me (based on that description) was that I must be a bit wacky or unstable. I am neither.

However, in spite of all this, as I read your statement above, it caused me discomfort (even after being out for over six years). It's still emotional for me. I don't want to label all the people in my old church. I truly love many who remain there and I don't want to hurt them. I care about them collectively. However, the more I read about cults, the more I have to face the reality that I spent most of my life in one.

Before I left, I could only recognize that we had some "ways" that might appear cultish to outsiders, people who didn't realize who we were. I look back now on that way of thinking and realize my own cult mentality at the time. But as long as you stay, you cannot see it for what it is. I know that from experience. I did not leave because I had come to the realization that I was in a cult. I left because I found it impossible to grow spiritually in that environment. Now I understand more fully why I couldn't.

The message was powerfully conveyed to me that I could not find the truth outside the Body (Sowders) fellowship. After I left, I struggled for quite a while with intermittent fear and anxiety about God being upset or displeased with me. I know I was not born with those fears. They were instilled in me. However, I didn't fully recognize how strongly I had been held by fear until I left. It wasn't because someone enlightened me. But those fears did not fully emerge as long as I stayed in the group. It was more lack a nagging thought. I could deny that fear was a factor as long as I didn't fully experience it. But after I left, embedded fears emerged. And that was when I dealt with them. I sincerely did not want to displease God. I prayed many times that He would show me if I was out of His will or I had left His true church. It had been deeply ingrained in me that all other churches (outside the GAC group) were Babylon (the false church). Why would I have fears like that if I hadn't been taught to believe that?

Many in my former congregation are presently trying to deny that they have ever been exclusive or claimed to have the revealed truth that the rest of Christianity lacked. Some have actually said we never believed or claimed such things. This is an attempt to rewrite history. It's dishonest. We sang songs about it. These dishonest representations of the past only confirm to me that God rescued me from a bad place. If they no longer believe in their distinct and unique calling, they should be honest enough to admit they once did, but they don't believe that any longer.

I have no reason to rewrite my history. I was raised and taught to believe that I couldn't go anywhere else and find the truth that God had revealed to William Sowders. We were the only Christians who knew we were not completely saved by faith in Christ (that we had to go on to reach perfection). We were uniquely called to restore the church and the uncorrupted truth of the early church in these latter days. When the call went forth to “come out of her,” we believed we would be the garner they would come into. There were songs, dreams, experiences. I have notes in my Bible. I have tape recordings. It’s hard to believe anyone denies this.

Men who are honest within the group will still acknowledge the long held beliefs of the group. But men who are trying to gain acceptance from "the religious world" and other Christians are trying to conceal their beliefs in order to grow the church. This is a deceptive practice and it is wrong.

What words of encouragement would you give to someone standing on the threshold between fear of an abusive pastor and the freedom of God's unending grace?

I have written a whole book in an attempt to encourage other wounded people and point them to the cross and God's matchless, unending grace. It is difficult for me to encapsulate all of the things I would say to someone "standing on the threshold" between fear of man and the grace of God.

I will boil it down to this. If you fear your pastor, he is not a true shepherd. If he engages in deception, and that has been revealed to you, God has revealed the truth to you for a reason. Jesus came to set captives free. If you fear men and how they may respond to you, you are not free; you are a captive. The truth will set you free unless you refuse to receive it.

Fear no man, nor what man can do to you. Please don't allow men to rob you of the promises of God. I have finally realized what grace is. Grace is something you cannot earn. It is God's unmerited favor through faith in Him and His Son. When we truly grasp what God has done for us in Christ, our response will be such deep love and gratitude that we will want to live lives of obedience. We will want to glorify our Savior and point others to the cross. We will want to please the One who loves us so much that He provided for our forgiveness and redemption at great cost to Himself. There is no other response to such amazing love. But obedience is our response to His love, not the means of salvation. We are saved by grace.

Jesus died to break our chains. He died to free us; that we may live in the freedom of His love. Because we are free from condemnation, we are free to trust completely in the love and grace of God and willingly obey Him from our hearts.

Thank you so much, Shari for your patience as I worked on the appearance of this interview!

Shari has bravely stepped forward to share her testimony of a life lived in a toxic church environment.

Those unfamiliar with such terms as toxic church and spiritual abuse may be mystified that Shari simply did not leave the ‘bad church’.

Just as a hostage does not simply waltz away from a bank robber, or a battered wife dance away from her abusive husband, so one does not ‘walk out’ of an abusive church.

The robber has a gun and death threats.

The abusive husband maintains a death grip on the wife’s self-esteem.

The toxic pastor or church leaders declare that if the church member leaves their congregation, they turn their back on God.

As Shari mentions in the interview, this knowledge is clearly understood by the congregation even though the pastor may not have spoken the actual words.

Simply stated, these so called men and woman of God took hostage the abused parishioner’s spirituality for their own emotional, sexual, or monetary profit.

As Provender stated in the guest post:

We trusted. Our trust was seized and used against us. We loved. Our love was grabbed and twisted into servitude. We hoped. Our hope was dangled in front of us with promise after promise, not always spoken. Those promises were yanked farther away. We yearned to be nearer to God. Instead, we were led along a walkway to a human idol and told we were nearing God, as the burdens grew heavier and more unbearable.

To me, spiritual abusers are the equivalents of vampires and pirates.
A ‘pirate’ for they steal time, money, and devotion not rightfully theirs.
A ‘vampire’ as they suck the very life-blood of the abused’s relationship with their Creator.

As Shari said:

If you fear your pastor, he is not a true shepherd. If he engages in deception, and that has been revealed to you, God has revealed the truth to you for a reason. Jesus came to set captives free. If you fear men and how they may respond to you, you are not free; you are a captive. The truth will set you free unless you refuse to receive it.

The address to my blog, outofthesilverchair, refers to the C.S. Lewis tale, The Silver Chair.

The story is a fitting allegory of spiritual abuse as the prince, Rillian, is kidnapped by an evil witch and taken to dwell in her gloomy underworld kingdom.

The witch is not content to simply bind the Rillian in chains. Rather, she enchants him so that his captivity seems pleasant and his captor, the witch, and also slayer of his mother, the queen, is perfection embodied.

So it is with spiritual abusers. They bind their victims with false fear of God and delude the victim into thinking that they are God’s direct voice, prophet, etc.

May God free all who dwell against their will in the dark underworld of toxic religion.

Shari's blogspot, Miss oblivous Thinks Out Loud, contains a collection of her thoughts and prayers from her journey out of a spiritual prison. It is an sightful and enjoyable blog to follow

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Guest Post By Provender: Spiritual Abuse is Invisible Trauma

Alcatraz - Hospital Bed
photo by JoscelynAllen in flickr
Recently, I added a quote by Ron Henzel to my Spiritual Abuse quote of the month on Provender, and it’s a good one. It speaks to the heart of the issue of spiritual abuse:
The manipulation involved in Spiritual Abuse is especially cruel because it takes advantage of a person's deepest needs and highest ideals.

After you’ve gone through a period of spiritual abuse, you are at first only interested in survival, and then recovery. It takes some time to look back and take stock of what happened. Even after you’ve done that, you don’t always appreciate the huge toll spiritual abuse takes on your psyche. You know you’re hurting. You know the hurt is magnified by memories of unjust incidents and painful words.
Still, I’m not sure how many victims realize that spiritual abuse reaches right into the depths of the spirit and hurts the most vulnerable parts of our being. We trusted. Our trust was seized and used against us. We loved. Our love was grabbed and twisted into servitude. We hoped. Our hope was dangled in front of us with promise after promise, not always spoken. Those promises were yanked farther away. We yearned to be nearer to God. Instead, we were led along a walkway to a human idol and told we were nearing God, as the burdens grew heavier and more unbearable.

I’ve been on sites where victims of spiritual abuse cry in pain. They don’t know if they will ever again trust. They no longer know for sure if God is real. They long for intimacy with Him but can’t find it. I’ve been on other pages where victims are cynical and even hostile toward believers and churches. The pain and bitterness ate through their souls and left an empty hole. Some start anti-Christian web sites and spew hate-filled words like weapons at the church.

None of this surprises me any more. What they endured was a searing hot poker at their most sensitive spiritual skin. Some do heal. They may have to deal with disfigurement and scar tissue, but they manage to get back to a place where they can open up to God again. For some, that takes years and years. Some seem to waver, going back and forth, believing and not believing. Hardly daring to believe.

Others go from one abusive situation into another. Some have been drawn to more than one other abusive situation after a first one. How any of those victims survive, I will never know.

The point I’m trying to make is for those freshly out of a spiritually abusive experience. If you haven’t been able to recover right away, don’t be bewildered about it. Don’t wonder why you can’t pray, or keep rehashing unpleasant experiences, or wake up fearful, or constantly worry about people in your old group. You’ve just been through something extremely high on the stress continuum. Spiritual abuse is like losing a spouse or being in a fire or discovering the betrayal of adultery. It’s like a fatal car accident, a child’s life-threatening injury, a diagnosis of cancer.

People don’t talk about spiritual abuse. There are some good books on the subject but they don’t hit the bestseller list. There are good sites out there on the topic, but often you have to dig for them. There are groups that help in recovery, but churches rarely talk about them.

Because spiritual abuse is something you aren’t exposed to much before it happens to you, it may seem like it’s not something big, that you should be better by now, that you are silly for being paranoid or frightened or angry or obsessed about what happened. But you’re not. You’ve been through something that scarred the most vulnerable part of you. It’s going to take some time.

So what can you do? Read about spiritual abuse to see how common it is. Talk about what happened to you and don’t let the Don’t Talk Rule silence you. It’s not sin to talk about it. In fact, it promotes healing to do that. Find others who have been through it and talk to them. If you don’t think you can pray, try praying again later, when the wounds are less raw. And remember to take care of yourself because you’ve been through a lot, even though no one around you can see it.

Click here to read Provender's guest post "Twisting Scripture".

Further Reading:
Weaning Myself From Religious Addiction