What Clergy Should Know
Duty of Care
the unavoidable intrusion of cults and cultism into their pastoral
lives, clergy ought to understand the nature of cultism in order to
better serve those who come to them for support and guidance.
suspect that the intrusions of cultic groups into my pastoral life are
not unlike the experience of many other clergy.
Consider the middle-aged woman who recently came into my office
in tears because she did not know what to do about the progressive loss
of her son and daughter-in-law to a group called Scientology.
Or note the case of my own daughter who, having a decade ago as a
high schooler told me of the visit of a Hare Krishna speaker to her
sociology class, now says that she had been invited to an informational
meeting for a new personal development workshop that allegedly uses
I have been the object of such approaches.
Not long ago a pleasant female voice called to ask if I had
received her organization's invitation to a special Christian
anti-communist meeting for local clergy sponsored by CAUSA, which I
later learned is a Unification Church front actively promoting the
politics and religion of Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
point in noting these episodes is to emphasize the fact that cults and
cultic behaviors are all around us and that clergy have a duty of care
toward their congregants in this area of concern.
They ought, therefore, to know something of the problem in
general, be able to recognize its appearance, and, above all, they ought
to know how to help its victims.
host of new religious, therapeutic, and New Age self-improvement groups
now vies with more traditional institutions for spiritual commitments.
New prophets and self-styled messiahs providing new revelations
and new sacred scriptures challenge our mainstream practices. From my Lutheran religious perspective, these unorthodox new
"ways" are spurious and to be denounced and combated.
They are modern manifestations of the ancient Gnostic heresy,
which is to say salvation by special enlightenment.
even from a nontheological perspective, these cultic manifestations of
our troubled time can be seen to be harmful.
They induce persons made anxious by the common ills of modern
life, the spiritually and theologically immature, and especially those
who are simply at a vulnerable point in their lives to abandon
traditional and complicated approaches to problems in favor of
unrealistically simple and unambiguous ones.
And this is frequently destructive, for cultic groups
intentionally deceive and defraud while violating basic human and civil
rights. Typically, such
a great or excessive
devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employ
techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of
the group's leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members,
their families, or the community. Unethically
manipulative techniques of persuasion and control include, but are not
limited to: isolation from former friends and family, use of special
methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group
pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or
critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear
of leaving it. (From: Cults:
Questions and Answers. M.D.
Langone, Ph.D. American
Family Foundation (Weston, MA), 1988, p.1.)
results of such methods are, all too often, family schisms, mental
breakdown, financial disaster, loss of individuality and personal
initiative, child and spouse abuse, lives of manipulation, deception,
even criminal activity, and quite literally, enslavement.
Two questions confront us. How
do we help parishioners who have -- despite any preventive educational
measures we may have instituted -- become involved in groups that
produce such effects? How
do we "inoculate" those who haven't become involved but who
are, or might become vulnerable?
first duty of pastoral care is to offer a patient and willing ear to the
relatives or friends of the cult-involved.
The initial appeal for help may well come hard on the heels of
the caller's own hysteria-inducing discovery that a loved one has cut
his or her social moorings and gone off with a group suspected of being
a "cult." On the
other hand, the call may come from family members who have witnessed
their loved ones' gradual alienation from friends, family, old values,
and goals. In either case
the pastor must listen and understand the situation, thus providing
essential comfort while setting the state for a rational assessment of
the issues. The congregant
must be reassured -- if the evidence is supportive -- that the problem
is a real one and that concern for the cult-involved person is justified
(rather than simply being, for example, the unreasonable concern of
overprotective parents). The congregant must also be reassured that the
situation is not hopeless, that help is available, and that a rational
plan can usually knit sundered relationships and draw loved ones out of
pastoral counselor must then direct his congregant to sources of
information likely to help achieve this.
Certainly, the pastor himself can provide some of the needed
information by learning, in anticipation, about both cults and
counseling the cult-involved. He
can turn not only to his own denomination -- many pastors are not aware
that such resources exist so close to home -- but to agencies that
specialize in providing such information, whether about the
psychological and social dimensions of the phenomenon, or about
particular troublesome groups -- how they work, the nature of their
appeal, the defenses they erect, and their weaknesses.
Such knowledge is vital to effect the reassessment of
relationships and attachments by both the cult-involved person and those
concerned about him, a reassessment which must precede a happy
resolution of the problem. Knowledge like this may also be important if some appeal to
the law is made.
remember that there are unique pastoral care opportunities in working
with individuals and families once somebody has left a cultic group. In many cases, ex-members are still dealing with theological
and other spiritual issues that may have been central to their original
involvements. Here, you can
assist the ex-member to clarify for himself healthy forms of faith and
religious commitment as distinct from those with which he was involved
in the cult.
addition to the obligation to help victims of cultic groups, clergy also
have a duty to forewarn potential victims, especially the naive young
people who come of age every year.
Churches and synagogues should make cult education programs,
especially those that teach potential victims how to resist cultic sales
pitches, a regular part of their work with congregants.
An indispensable resource in this endeavor is AFF, which
distributes this flyer (see below).
intrusions of the cult phenomenon into a clergyman's life can be ill
timed and frustrating, but they present great opportunities, if we are
prepared, to fulfill the calling to which we have committed ourselves.