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Recovering from Religious Abuse: 11 Steps to Spiritual Freedom

Recovering from Religious Abuse: 11 Steps to Spiritual Freedom

by Jack Watts, Robert S. McGee (Foreword by)

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Jack Watts' startling personal story of being victimized by religious abuse and then sinking into alcoholism and self-destructive behaviors will resonate strongly with the many thousands of those who have been disenfranchised or even crushed by institutionalized religion. Recovering from Religious Abuse will help these walking wounded discover how to


Jack Watts' startling personal story of being victimized by religious abuse and then sinking into alcoholism and self-destructive behaviors will resonate strongly with the many thousands of those who have been disenfranchised or even crushed by institutionalized religion. Recovering from Religious Abuse will help these walking wounded discover how to come to terms with their past as they heal from the inside out.

Jack speaks to his readers as one who has been there, has felt their pain and bitterness, their desire to get even, their belief that they are worthless. But now he shares a new story of one who has finally found spiritual freedom and a deeply satisfying relationship with the God from whom he had once been alienated.

Defining "religious abuse" as the use of spiritual authority to manipulate, harm, or use another person for personal gain, this practical step-by-step recovery manual takes readers on a journey that helps them fully realize the extent of the impact of their religious abuse, and progressively moves them toward healing and recovery. This 91-day plan includes daily readings, prayer, journaling instructions, and scriptures for reflection.

Editorial Reviews

Mike Furches
"Jack Watts has written a book that will, can, and has changed lives. It is a book that looks at religious abuse in a real way, yet at the same time, recognizing the importance of faith, religion, and spirituality."
From the Publisher
"Jack Watts has written a book that will, can, and has changed lives. It is a book that looks at religious abuse in a real way, yet at the same time, recognizing the importance of faith, religion, and spirituality."
Robert McGee
"Recovering from Religious Abuse is a ground-breaking work. Others have written about the problem, but Jack Watts has gone one step further. He has developed a recovery program that works. Millions have experienced religious abuse—Catholics and Protestants. Finally, there's a program available to help wounded Christians get back on their feet. I recommend it wholeheartedly."
Joseph A. Kloba
“There is good news for those who turn away from God because of their experience of hurt and pain at the hands of Christian leaders and others in the body of Christ. The God of the Universe, who loves and cares for us, should not be confused with those who have misrepresented Him. This practical and insightful book, Recovering from Religious Abuse, has been written to help you heal from the wounds that you have received. Out of the caldron of personal experience, Jack Watts shares the insights of his journey in an easy to follow, yet powerful format. Follow the 91-day plan—one day at a time—and your life will be transformed in amazing ways. I highly recommend this book to those who have been wounded, as well as to the counselors who assist them.”
June Hunt
“The healing journey for those wounded by trusted spiritual leaders can be daunting. Clearly Jack has walked this road and blazed a trail for those who will follow.”
Dr. Daryl Pitts
“I began my journey of recovery from drug and alcohol addiction in February of 1971. I began my recovery from religious abuse in 1978. I wish I would have had this book then. I have spent many years helping people find recovery from their hurts, habits, and hang-ups. During those years I have always looked for material that addresses the issues from both a clinical and a biblical perspective. Jack Watts has done that with this book. He also negotiates the fine line between showing compassion to the victimized (honor the struggle) without allowing them to develop a victim mentality. If you have experienced this type of abuse, you are in danger of confusing God with the abuser. This recovery program will allow you to discover who God truly is in the person of Jesus Christ, without the baggage of the abuse. I heartily recommend this to fellow strugglers.”
Matt Barnhill
“I've often heard it said that Christians are the only army that shoots its wounded. For those of you who feel like you've been ‘shot,’ let me recommend Recovering from Religious Abuse. This practical, insightful book has been written to help you heal from the wounds you've received. It's a book that can help you regain your sense of purpose and be everything God ever created you to be.”
Orlando P Peccora
“Do you remember how joyful and hopeful you were when you first believed? That seems like a long time ago, doesn't it? This is especially true for those who have been wounded within Christendom—wounded by people they once trusted. That's why Recovering from Religious Abuse is such an important book. By working the 11 steps, disillusioned Christians can regain their sense of joy and purpose. It's a book every Christian should have in their bookcase.”
Rujon W. Morrison
“Religious abuse is far more prevalent than most of us could ever imagine. Month after month during our Healing for the Nations Intensive Retreats, we see a number of people who struggle with the issue. Jack does a great job of presenting a recovery program that enables people to experience Jesus—seeing God for who He really is—not through the distorted lens abuse so often creates. This material is honest and real and encourages that kind of relationship with God. It is refreshing to see his understanding of clinical issues combined with discipleship and pastoral care. This material isn't focused on a victim mentality but, rather, victory in Christ. It offers more than just recovery; it offers growth, healing, and new life!”
Jim Baird
“Where do you turn when you've been wounded by a Christian leader? For those who have been abused—either verbally, emotionally, socially, financially, or sexually—you can turn to Recovering from Religious Abuse, which has been written specifically with you in mind. Jack's tough, no nonsense approach, is precisely what you may need to put your painful past behind you and move forward successfully with your life.”
Dr. Tim Clinton President
“Those who proclaim to come ‘In the name of God’ should offer a message of truth in love. But not every leader does. Some hurt rather than heal. For those who have been pained by religious abuse—and it does happen—Recovering from Religious Abuse offers stirring thoughts, hope and inspiration toward a real ‘freedom in Christ.’”

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Howard Books
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Read an Excerpt

Have I Been Religiously Abused?

What Is Religious Abuse?

Religious abuse is the mistreatment of a person by someone in a position of spiritual authority, resulting in the diminishing of that person’s sense of well-being and growth—both spiritually and emotionally.

This spiritual authority is used to manipulate others for personal gain or to achieve a personal agenda, thereby harming that person’s walk with God.

It can also be defined as any misuse of Scripture that harms a person’s relationship with God—like the damage resulting from cult involvement.

A Self-Assessment Exercise

Have you experienced religious abuse? If so, how significant has it been? The following exercise will help you determine for yourself.

After reading each statement, simply circle the appropriate number on the ten-point scale. Try not to spend too much time on any one statement. Choose the first response that comes to your mind. Your gut reaction is usually the best.

Even if your abuse has been significant, there’s hope for you. You can overcome the wounding you’ve experienced and become everything you’re capable of being.

  1. I have stopped going to church because someone in the ministry wounded me.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  2. Although mistreated by someone in the ministry, I still go to church, but I simply go through the motions.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  3. I believe God is displeased with me for leaving my church.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  4. I believe most Christians are hypocrites.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  5. Yes, a church leader has abused me.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  6. I feel unworthy to pray.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  7. I have been verbally abused by someone in the ministry.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  8. I have been sexually abused by someone in the ministry.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  9. I have been financially abused by someone in the ministry.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  10. I have been emotionally abused by a religious experience.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  11. I feel a sense of shame around religious people.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  12. I feel used by religious people.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  13. I believe religious people condemn me.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  14. I am angry with God.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  15. I feel unworthy to reach out to God.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  16. There is more to life than I’m experiencing.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  17. I would like to feel closer to God, but I don’t believe it’s possible.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  18. Life has no meaning.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  19. Sometimes I wonder if I have a drinking problem.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  20. Sometimes I wonder if I abuse prescription drugs.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  21. Sometimes I wonder if I have a problem with pornography.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

  22. Sometimes I don’t believe God loves me.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

    Strongly Agree / Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree

Now that you’ve finished, add your total score.
  • If you circled 7 or higher on any statement, Recovering from Religious Abuse can help you.
  • If your total score is between 101 and 129, this book will help you.
  • If you score 130 or above, you definitely need Recovering from Religious Abuse.
  • If you score above 150, your need for Recovering from Religious Abuse is significant.

Four Personal Accounts of Religious Abuse

Religious abuse occurs frequently and can happen to anyone—regardless of gender, religious affiliation, or time of life. Most abuse is inadvertent—not intended to inflict permanent damage to a person. This is not the type of religious abuse we deal with in Recovering from Religious Abuse. Throughout this book, our focus is squarely upon those who use their positions of authority to abuse others, which makes it particularly devastating to the recipient. These leaders believe they have the authority and the right to do so. They believe they are entitled to treat others the way they do.

The consequences of their abusiveness are frequently catastrophic—nearly as devastating as when a parent tells a child that he or she is unloved and unwanted. Sadly, even little children can experience religious abuse at a time when they are the most vulnerable and impressionable. The negative imprint upon a child can last a lifetime, diminishing the recipient’s self-worth. If unchecked, it can lessen a person’s lifelong accomplishments.

Religious abuse is devastating because it nearly always brings the recipient’s relationship with God into question. Either directly or indirectly, the abuser states or implies that the person’s connection to God is flawed, making the abusee feel alienated—a person with diminished value, a person unworthy of God’s love and care. Being estranged from God is like being estranged from a loving parent: no good comes from it.

To give you a better understanding—a better feel—for what religious abuse really is, four examples will be given: one from a small boy, one from an altar boy, one from a young man just beginning to make his way in the world, and one from a man going through a proverbial midlife crisis. Each is an example of a religious authority figure’s using his position of power to abuse someone in his charge.

My own personal experiences with religious abuse are woven throughout all these stories, except for the one about the sexually abused altar boy. All are written in the first-person voice, showing the deeply personal nature of these abuses. After reading these accounts, perhaps you’ll have a clearer picture of what religious abuse really is.


Newton, Massachusetts: I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, the second of four children in an Irish-Catholic family. Being a good Catholic, I went to Mass every Sunday and each holy day of obligation, which meant I was in church at least sixty times a year. Some of my earliest memories are of being in church. Part of my education was in a Catholic school, which was challenging academically and good for me. Dealing with the nuns and priests, who were positioned as intermediaries between God and me, however, was difficult and not at all beneficial.

How they dealt with me has had an impact upon how I perceive God, which has influenced my entire life. I’m not alone; there are millions of Catholic kids like me who have their own stories to tell—many of which are much worse than mine.

One incident in particular had a profound impact on me. It was the day of my First Holy Communion when I was just seven years old. For months, all the girls and boys from my Communion class practiced going to the altar rail, kneeling down, holding our heads back, opening our mouths, and sticking out our tongues. When we did, the priest would put the Communion wafer on our tongues, say something that I couldn’t understand, and move on to the next kid.

It sounds simple enough, but its execution on that fateful day was anything but simple. We were told—harshly, repeatedly, and in no uncertain terms—that we were to close our mouths immediately when the host was placed on our tongues.

The priest said, “You don’t want to drop Jesus on the floor, do you?” He went on to tell us this was a sacrilege—a mortal sin—that would send us to hell. This, of course, terrified me as a seven-year-old. I can still feel the cold chill of fear from his words more than half a century later. His harsh admonition wasn’t accurate Catholic teaching, but I didn’t know it.

Although I was little, I remember trying to look at the wafer as the priest held it up. I wanted to see Jesus’ face in it, but I never could. It didn’t look like Him, and it didn’t look like any part of a human being I had ever seen before either. Nevertheless, it was His body, and I was scared to death of dropping Jesus on the floor.

When the eventful day arrived, each girl was dressed in white, and all the boys, including me, wore white suits, white clip-on ties, and white gloves. Everything we wore that day was white, signifying purity—girls and boys. There were at least one hundred kids making their First Holy Communion that day, which seemed to excite the parents much more than it did any of us.

We sat up front away from our families—the boys on the right side of the aisle, the girls on the left. Sitting beside me was Jerry Callahan, who was a little goofy on his best day and slightly retarded on his worst. Because he was on my right, sitting right next to me, he was in line to receive Communion immediately before me.

On schedule, we were ushered to the rail by a nun. Each of us knelt precisely as we were instructed. When the priest came to Jerry, he didn’t open his mouth as wide as he was supposed to. This irritated the priest, who spoke very sternly to him. Scared, Jerry started to whimper. Exasperated, the priest put the host on Jerry’s partially protruding tongue, hoping all would go well.

Then the unthinkable happened: Jerry let the wafer drop from his mouth. Jesus landed on the floor right before my eyes. Aghast, the priest hurriedly grabbed the wafer, scraped up all the crumbs beside it, and put it in his own mouth, which really surprised me. After that, he rose quickly, gave Jerry a look of pure hate, and slapped him right across the face. It was a hard slap, and Jerry screamed from shock and pain.

As this drama was unfolding, Jerry’s mother rushed forward to retrieve her child, who was now hysterical—screaming at the top of his lungs. As she arrived, she looked up at the priest and said, “I’m so sorry, Father.” With that, she clutched her son, put a protective arm around his shoulder, and led him out of the church. I can still remember his receding sobs—as every adult looked at Jerry with contemptuous smirks.

The priest then turned his focus on me with defiant eyes, daring me to make a mistake. I was close to wetting my pants with fear, but I didn’t. I did exactly as I was supposed to do. Because I was so afraid, however, my mouth was bone dry, and Jesus stuck to the roof of my mouth and wouldn’t dissolve. It might as well have been peanut butter. Kids weren’t allowed to talk with Jesus in their mouths, and we couldn’t chew Him either. It was a sin. It took at least thirty minutes for Jesus to dissolve, and the Mass was long over before I could open my mouth and say a word.

The next year, Jerry died of a brain aneurysm. Because he was so traumatized by the priest’s actions that day, he never was allowed to make his First Holy Communion. This meant he couldn’t go to heaven, which saddened me. It’s also why I have such a vivid memory of the incident so long after it occurred.

This episode solidified my fear of God or, more accurately, my terror of Him. I saw God as cold, hateful, impersonal, petty, and mean-spirited. He was punitive—just like the priest who gave me Communion that day. This twisted my perspective about God for years.

Everybody believed the priest had a right to do this, and nobody protested—not even Jerry’s mother. Catholics were terrified of their priests—men who wielded unquestioned authority over the people in their parish. I can still feel the terror, which went deeper into my soul than the sacrament.

This incident was not isolated. It was routine in Roman Catholicism before Vatican II. If you think I’m wrong, just ask any Catholic who was raised during this era. Nearly every one of us has a story to tell about an abusive priest or nun. There are millions of stories to tell.

As I grew older and saw the world through adult eyes, I left the church. My memories of it are not pleasant. The mind-set of the Catholic clergy—at least the ones I knew—was that it was their right to slap kids around, and they did it routinely. Their power over the people was so strong and unassailable that moms and dads never protested how their children were being treated. This resulted in abuse that affected millions of kids like me—abuse that still impacts our lives. Just writing about it still angers me. I wonder if I’ll ever get over it.


Malden, Massachusetts: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t expected to be an altar boy. My older brother—ten years my senior—had been one, and my mother talked about the day I would become one for as long as I can remember. It was expected of me, and my parents thought it was as important as getting good grades in school. I remember how badly I wanted to please my parents, and my only apprehension was whether or not I could learn the Latin responses well enough to “make the team.”

When I was ten, I started learning the Mass, which was unintelligible and never made sense to me. I did everything I was expected to do, progressing satisfactorily. By the time I was eleven, I had become a first-rate altar boy and served with the parish priests every Sunday and each holy day of obligation, which were quite a few.

In the spring, just before my twelfth birthday, a new priest came to our parish, and he was much more friendly than the others, especially to me. I was his favorite altar boy, by far. I liked him a lot, even though he was heavy and always smelled like a chimney because of all the cigarettes he smoked. He always took time to talk to me, and when I was serving with him, I really liked being an altar boy—his altar boy.

After the last Mass one day, however, after Father had been there about six months, he asked me to stay behind for a while because he wanted to talk to me. Naturally, I did as he asked. We were in the back room, which was reserved for the priests and altar boys to prepare for Mass. While I was standing at the window looking out, Father came up behind me, reached around me with his right hand, holding me tight but not hurting me. Then he reached into my pants with his left hand and touched me. I was really surprised. I never dreamed he would do something like that. When he did, I froze. I didn’t know what to do, and I was scared to death. Because he was a priest, I didn’t challenge him, which I suppose I should have done, but I had just turned twelve. A kid like me could never challenge a priest. When I went home, I didn’t say a word to my mother, either. I just couldn’t. I was too embarrassed.

When I went back to serve the next week, he asked for me to stay after Mass again, which I obediently did. Once again, he touched me, which I knew he would. This time, however, he did more than that—much more than that. This little scenario went on for quite a while, but I never said a word. When we were alone after Mass and I knew it was time, I would just walk over toward the window with my back turned and wait for him to come to me, which he always did.

Honestly, this is the part I hate to admit. After a while, I didn’t mind it any more. I liked it, and he knew I did, which meant our secret would always remain safe. This went on for more than a year. Then, one day, he stopped. I never served Mass with him again, and I was never alone with him again either. This really confused me, and I was ashamed of myself for missing “our time together” so much. Another boy from my neighborhood, who was a couple of years younger than I, took my place.

All that happened decades ago, but it still bothers me. It didn’t make me homosexual. It did just the opposite. It made me hate gays, and it also made me hate God for allowing a pedophile priest to molest me. I know God’s real, but I haven’t been to Mass for decades. That experience, which remained bottled up inside me for years, has caused me problems my whole life—just ask my two ex-wives or my three sons, none of whom I ever allowed to be altar boys. No way!


Atlanta, Georgia: I was really wild in college. While at the University of Georgia in Athens, I drank a lot, always had girls hanging around, and gambled routinely at my fraternity house. For a while it was fun, but it also made me feel like I was wasting my life. Because of this, I went to a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting, received Christ as my savior, and began to change my life for the better. I abandoned my wild side, which made me feel much better about myself.

After moving to Atlanta, I spent a great deal of time at church—more than I had ever spent in my entire life. I went to a very conservative church where they made me a Sunday-school teacher for the ninth grade. The kids loved me. I was young, handsome, energetic, interesting, and fun—exactly what these kids wanted to be like when they went to college.

One day during class, a girl asked me, “Should I square-dance as a part of the school curriculum or make a stand for Christ because dancing is sinful?”

Totally surprised by the question, I replied, “Why would you want to look ridiculous in front of everybody in school over square dancing? If I were you, I would just go ahead and do it. If you’re going to make a stand, make it about something important—not something trivial.”

Satisfied with my answer, I went on with the lesson. That night I received a call from the church pastor. He said, “I want to ask you some questions about your position on some critical issues for teens.” Sensing the underlying malice in his silky tone, I listened intently as he asked me my position on movies, dancing, cards, and numerous other things. Finally, he said, “What’s your position on mixed bathing?”

Without hesitation, I responded, “I’m against it. I think it’s okay for boys and girls to swim together, but I’m dead set against them taking a bath together!” Complete silence ensued. My attempt to interject a little humor into a tense situation actually made things worse.

“I think we need to have lunch tomorrow,” he said. “Can you meet me at twelve thirty?” It wasn’t a request.

At 12:30 I met the pastor, a man in his midthirties with jet-black hair, pale white skin, and penetrating beady eyes. As we sat down, I was very nervous and started to light a Marlboro. In his most ingratiating voice, the pastor said, “It’s alright if you smoke. I’ll love you just as much if you light that cigarette as I will if you don’t.” When he finished saying this, he smiled in a genuine and disarming way.

“I know. Thanks,” I said and lit the cigarette. Enraged, he seethed with anger as I sat there speechless. He lit into me for smoking in the first place and went on with a tirade that would draw approbation from any prosecutor in the land. I sensed pure hate in this man toward me as he verbally undressed me from head to toe. He said no one who was genuinely a Christian smoked, which meant I wasn’t really a Christian in the first place. This really surprised me. Because he knew the Bible much better than I, I assumed he was correct. When he was finished, I was devastated. I held my ground outwardly, but inwardly I cringed—liked a whipped dog.

Incredulously, I asked, “Then why did you say it was alright to smoke?”

His reply was a contemptuous smirk—nothing more.

In truth, he couldn’t answer. It would have been too revealing. At the end of the meal, he prayed and left with the self-satisfied confidence that he had set another sinner straight.

After he left, I was shaken to the core. I had been a born-again Christian for less than six months, but I knew I never wanted to be like this self-righteous, mean-spirited pastor. It bothered me so much that since then I have never been able to tolerate such misanthropy—especially from those who parade their Christianity as their prime asset. I went to that church less frequently and finally stopped going altogether. I became cautious and guarded around church people rather than open and transparent. I remember thinking that Christians shouldn’t talk about loving people if they don’t practice what they preach.

When I went to his church, I was young and impressionable. I eventually stopped smoking, but the effects of my confrontation have been far more detrimental than anything the cigarettes could have caused. As the pastor, he had every right to question what I taught the kids, but he had no right to crush my spirit. My enthusiasm for Christianity waned, and I have remained guarded and cautious ever since. Stung by his verbal abuse, I have never trusted pastors again—not completely. I’m sure he intended to help, but he didn’t. Instead he used his authority to assault my self-worth—a strategy that worked to my detriment for years.


Santa Clara, California: Life in my church was like a soap opera—with all the excitement and intrigue you would expect from any daytime TV show. Some of my friends and I actually joked about it, saying, “This is just another day in As the Stomach Turns.”

The reason there was so much drama is simple: the church had turned into a cult by replacing several core elements of Christianity with authoritarian rule by a group of “self-appointed” elders. The man who started the church insisted upon this change, and most of the people submitted to it, including me. It was more like a cult of personality than a church, because the leaders, who were called “The Elders,” took on the founder’s personality traits—especially the angry, confrontational, and profane ones.

Our church didn’t start out like this, but it changed when the founder changed—when his personality changed. He was no longer the energetic, friendly, charismatic man I had met years earlier. In a short period of time, he transformed into a petty, vindictive, cruel tyrant. His tongue was acerbic and extremely critical. He took particular delight in criticizing women, especially his wife, who became a shell of what she had once been. As the mother of his many children, she would never divorce him. Instead, she left him mentally and emotionally, retreating into a world of trivial dithering. It was her only escape. The confident, capable woman I once knew no longer existed.

The founder’s unkindness also extended to me, hurting me very deeply. In the beginning I was highly valued, but that changed practically overnight. I never understood what caused this change in him—still don’t—but the change was real, and I felt it acutely.

Instead of exhibiting love and joy, which typified us for years, our church became characterized by fear, anger, intimidation, condemnation, and verbal abuse. To counteract any criticism, The Elders “dealt with the sin in the camp.” They did this by paying a visit, usually without warning, to an unsuspecting person who needed straightening out. They would sit the person down and shout at him or her, demanding change and compliance. They would start the meeting by saying something like this: “You know what you are? You’re a worthless piece of s—-; that’s what you are. I wonder why the f—- we even bother with you.” From there, it would only get worse. By the time they left, the person was an emotional cripple—ready to do whatever he or she was told.

You might question, Why would anybody in his or her right mind put up with this? There were two reasons: First, we lived in a bizarre situation. As a “house church” in a hippie community during the Vietnam War, things didn’t seem as weird or as abusive as they actually were. Second, if you didn’t submit to The Elders, your entire family was excommunicated—shunned and treated with contempt and humiliation. This meant, for example, that your kids couldn’t play with their friends from the church anymore and many other similar, petty acts of social cruelty. For example, a person being “dealt with” by The Elders would be forbidden to attend a potluck, so that everybody could talk about the person and make jokes at his or her expense. They even made one man stand in the corner for an hour like he was a five-year-old. Most people complied. The social ostracizing of the others was truly painful to watch.

The founder and another man started calling themselves apostles and said that church tradition, particularly from Orthodox churches, was as authoritative as Scripture. I couldn’t understand this; it seemed like such a radical departure from our past. Most of the leadership had been from Baptist or charismatic churches, and now they wanted to wear collars like priests. What was being taught was the polar opposite of what had been taught a decade earlier.

I was badly confused and didn’t know what to do or how to handle what was happening. While in this confused state of mental turmoil, I flew back east for my sister’s wedding, leaving my wife and children in Santa Clara. To save money, I stayed at my brother’s house.

My friend’s neighbor, who I’ll call Melissa, took care of my friend’s young sons so that we could have a pleasant evening and stay at the reception longer. It was nice to be with my family and lifelong friends. Because it was an escape from all the stress at home, I let my guard down and became extremely intoxicated. My judgment also was impaired.

For years, Melissa had had a crush on me. After my friend and his wife went to bed, Melissa made her move. Well, you can guess what happened. We had an encounter, at the end of which I freaked out. I dressed, left the house, and walked for hours. My life was in shambles, and I knew it. I called my wife and told her exactly what had happened—all of it. I was desperate for help. Her response, which I expected, was to call The Elders.

When I returned to Santa Clara the following day, The Elders were waiting for me—all of them. I wasn’t allowed to go home until they “dealt with me.” When I arrived, I had never felt so heartsick and remorseful in my life. I was willing to do anything to get back on track. The Elders could see this, but it didn’t matter. They only had one method for handling every situation—abusive verbal intimidation. After two hours of enduring their malicious condemnation, I started having suicidal ideations for the first time in my life. Shattered and intimidated, I became very compliant.

Their verbal abuse was difficult to handle. Far worse, however, was their chiding and contemptuous ridicule, which never ended. By contrast, confession in Roman Catholicism is sacred, and nothing said is ever repeated. At our church, the exact opposite was true. Confession to The Elders was fuel for gossip, providing another level of disgrace and humiliation. They also kicked me off the softball team—to give me more time “to think about” what I had done.

There were four sets of elders, and each set had responsibility for at least fifteen families. The elders for our family were, by far, the most brutal at the church. One was a plumber, and the other was a gardner. Both had graduated high school but had no further education. I was expected to “submit” every important personal and family decision to them to see if it was God’s will or not. To this day, I can still see them wagging a finger at me—with dirt under their fingernails—to tell me angrily, without question, what God’s will was for my life.

For example, when I decided to get an MA and a PhD, they were my authority concerning educational matters. The plumber could barely read, but he was God’s authority in my life about higher education. Nearly everybody accepted this nonsense. If you questioned it, your loyalty and submissiveness quickly became the issue, and you were “dealt with accordingly.” In other words, they would scream at you, routinely using profanity to do so—while at the same time calling it God’s will.

They actually practiced a de facto infallibility because they never would admit to being wrong about how they handled a situation. They would always say they made a lot of mistakes, but no mistake was ever specific. This is how a cult works and how it exercises power over the young, the naive, and the unstable, which was nearly everybody in our church.

Over time and slowly, The Elders became the head of the household in each family, usurping authority that rightfully belonged to the husband. It’s how they maintained an iron fist of control. They were like the pigs in Animal Farm who ended up dressing like men, calling themselves more equal than the other animals. I knew it was wrong and clearly undermined the sanctity of each family, but nearly all of my friends accepted it as gospel. I couldn’t. To me, it was aberrant, and I found myself at the library every day, reading about cults and brainwashing.

I began writing about what life was really like in our church and submitted it to the leaders as a critique for much-needed reform. It took me a year to complete; I’m not sure the founder even read it. Presenting it to him and the others, however, was very important for me, because I wasn’t going to be bullied by their cultic practices any longer, nor would I allow them to verbally abuse me ever again.

I finally broke free from the cult, but the years of abusiveness took a heavy toll on my wife and me. She had a difficult time recovering emotionally from our experience in the cult, which undermined our marriage.

I became an alcoholic and had a string of relationships. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, I became the person The Elders said I would be. I stopped believing God loved me, and I was very angry with Him for many years. My self-worth was in the toilet, and it required a decade for me to figure out what happened. When I did, I did the work necessary to finally get back on track—to reestablish my relationship with God. To this day, however, it’s hard to be a member of a church. I can’t let my guard down completely—I just can’t. The damage is too deep.

In each of these cases, religious abuse occurred. Obviously, the priest had no right to slap a seven-year-old child. In the second case, the priest’s abuse was far greater than any of the other examples, causing pain and confusion, which has adversely impacted the abused person ever since. There is no greater abuse than to sexually violate another, especially a child. In the third example, the minister used his position of authority to assault the young man’s character instead of dealing with the issue, which in that case was the church’s belief that square dancing was sinful. In this instance, the abuse was probably unintentional. The abuse in the final case, however, was more serious. In fact, it was life altering and very destructive. Not many suffer abuse at this level, but those who do have significant scarring to their souls.

Tragically, religious abuse occurs every day, and millions have stories bottled up inside them. Perhaps you have one as well? Even if you consider your abuse to be minor, it is an issue that needs to be addressed. This is specifically what Recovering from Religious Abuse will help you accomplish.

© 2011 John T. Watts

Meet the Author

Jack Watts has an A.B., from Georgia State University; an M.A., from Baylor University; and has completed everything except for his dissertation for a Ph.D. from Emory University. He has worked for nearly three decades in marketing, serving Christian ministries and publishers. Jack has five children and nine grandchildren.

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