“How do I believe again?” the young woman asked me after I finished my talk at the Spiritual Abuse conference in Hartford. Her words still haunt me. Her tearful eyes were full of questions, doubt, sadness, resignation, hurt. “How do I believe again?” I remember when I felt just as she did. After exiting from the pseudo-Christian group in which my husband and I had been involved, we both struggled with our faith, neither one of us certain we would be able to find our way back to God—and even more doubtful we could ever find a way back to a healthy church. Fortunately, we were able to do so through the ministry of faithful Christians who were instrumental in our healing. The Wounded Sheep Project is a call to churches to reach out and minister to individuals who are estranged from God and His church. These are individuals who have been wounded by pseudo-Christian groups, spiritually abusive churches, false religious groups, etc. Most of them are believers, Christians who have lost their way because of emotional and spiritual abuse. Most of them long to reconnect with God, but because they have been given a distorted view of God and religion, they are angry, scared, and disillusioned. We believe the Church has a divine mandate to reach out to these wounded souls and we believe God is specifically calling local clergy and lay leaders to accept a leadership role in creating a safe haven, a safe place, where individuals can heal and recover from spiritual abuse. Most churches do not have a ministry to reach those who have left the church, but yet we know from Scripture that God specifically tells the Church to find and take care of its broken and wounded members. In the book of Luke, Jesus told a parable about the lost sheep: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’" (Luke 15: 4-6 NRSV) Clergy must take a leadership role in developing a model for healthy Christian communities and safe-haven churches that can be used across the United States. There are many ministries in today’s churches – outreach programs to help the homeless, the poor, refugees, prisoners, etc. But where is the ministry to those who are estranged from the church and those who have suffered spiritual abuse? How do we care for those whose faith has been shattered, those whose relationship with God and the church has been damaged through spiritual abuse? What ministry in the Church reaches out to those who have been wounded by the religiously abusive groups? How do we reach the lost and wounded sheep who despair of ever reuniting with God? Should not the church bring the sheep back into the fold? Should we not be concerned for these individuals who are like sheep without a shepherd? Should we not help them “believe again”?
We have found that the topic of spiritual abuse is one that most clergy and church members do not want to address. Understandably. Yet research conducted by the Spiritual Safe Haven Network (SSHN) indicates that at least 3% of church members have experienced spiritual abuse. Although 67% were Christians before their involvement in a spiritually abusive group, only 39% remained a Christian after their experience. Other researchers state that the percentage of church members who have suffered spiritual abuse is much higher than the SSHN estimate. According to a 2010 Barna study, four out of ten (37%) non-churchgoers avoid church because of negative past experiences with churches or with church people. The negative experience does not necessarily equate to spiritual abuse, but the point is that there are many “wounded sheep.” Clearly, this problem should not be ignored. Avoiding the topic of spiritual abuse is not the answer because by doing so, the church cannot be the place of healing for victims. Spiritual abuse is real and people who have been abused in the name of religion need the church to recognize their pain and give them hope that reconciliation with the church is possible. Proposal: 1) Initiate an awareness campaign to increase understanding of the prevalence of spiritual abuse, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, etc., and the need to develop appropriate ministries for the “wounded sheep.”2) Utilize social media, the internet, and events, such as Meet-Ups, to identify “wounded sheep” and work toward integrating them into local churches. 3) Provide training and education, which includes a working definition and identification of spiritual abuse. Training and educational workshops can be provided to clergy and lay leaders, and church members. Group training can be provided by individuals with knowledge and experience in this area and can be held at convenient times for attendees. An online training program will be available for individuals who are unable to attend workshops. Individuals seeking to become knowledgeable can enroll in an online program.4) Sponsor conferences and workshops on spiritual abuse and recovery in the Dallas area. Through the Spiritual Abuse Resources Network, experts from around the country can help provide assistance and lead workshops. Conferences and workshops will not only provide education and increased awareness of spiritual/cultic abuse, but will also act as an avenue to identify individuals who may be interested in reconnecting with God and engaging in a church. 5) Continue offering support groups: A support group for former members of religious abusive groups is currently held monthly at the north campus of Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, TX, and is facilitated by Doug and Wendy Duncan, two mental health professionals who have been conducting support groups for over ten years. Currently, an average of 15-18 individuals attends the support group after doing an online search and contacting the facilitators.6) Provide pastoral care and counseling and increase awareness of the availability of counseling services for individuals who have experienced spiritual abuse. Doug Duncan, LPC, as well as several other counselors in Dallas are knowledgeable about spiritual abuse and are competent to help individuals who seek counseling services for recovery from abuse. 7) Provide 2-day recovery workshops on such topics as “healing my image of God.”8) Convene public “listening sessions” to open dialogues and obtain feedback on the role of the church in spiritual recovery. The Wounded Sheep Project Leaders: Doug and Wendy Duncan are former members of a Bible-based pseudo-Christian group and were able to reconnect with God through the Episcopal Church (described in I Can’t Hear God Anymore). After leaving the group where he was a member for over twenty years, Doug earned his master’s degree in counseling and is now a licensed professional counselor in the state of Texas. Wendy is a licensed social worker and holds a master’s degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is also the author of I Can’t Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult, the true story of the couple’s involvement in and eventual separation from the religious group. Since renouncing their membership in a spiritually abusive group, Doug and Wendy have developed a passion for educating the public on the problem of spiritually abusive groups and teaching churches how to minister to wounded believers. Doug and Wendy Duncan have spoken at numerous conferences and churches and are active members of a local Episcopal Church.