When I was seventeen, I graduated high school and packed up to move to Phoenix, Arizona. I was joining Master’s Commission, a discipleship training program for college aged students. I was elated–it was my first time moving away from home and I loved the idea of dorm life and beginning my path into adulthood.
Master’s Commission wasn’t what I expected it to be, though. Instead of traveling around the world, acting at high school assemblies, and getting to know God better through studying the Bible, I spent several years in Master’s Commission as near slavery. You think I’m exaggerating? I know. I get that all the time. Seriously, though. I was forbidden to go off campus without permission from a discipleship leader, couldn’t date without the permission of my pastor, scrubbed toilets, washed dishes, did laundry (for the pastor), and home schooled the pastors children.
I was quickly branded the “good girl” and was put to work in the pastor’s home taking care of their children and often writing sermons for the pastors. I was a “pastors wife in training.” My senior pastor called me that, actually. He would walk in the house and call, “Woman of God! Did you go running today? We don’t want you to pack on the pounds like my wife here.” (His wife was a size two.)
They snatched me up to groom me into looking like them, teach me ministry etiquette, and give me face time with the pastor so I could “counsel” with him and make sure my decisions were ran through him before I did anything major in life. I raised their children, in part, because they wanted me to be a good mother when their chosen pastor came along to propose to me, and the other part of the plan was that they wouldn’t have to pay a nanny since I worked nearly for free. I planned the holiday church staff parties, decorated the pastors tables, and learned to cook the favorite cajun meals, so I could be the absolute hostess when my time came. I was encouraged to run every morning, and not to eat fried foods, because no one likes a fat pastors wife. My hair was to be grown out long, and blonde was the choice hair color. I was taught walk in stiletto heels, with a puffy chest, raised chin, and eye-brow just enough so I’d look sexy and mysterious.
It worked. The men wanted to be near me.
However, the pastor had his own set of ideas when it came to what men were suitable and unsuitable for me.
His dream was to plant 100 churches in 100 years. I was to be on the next shipment out of the church, with my groom-to-be, so that we could plant a church in X City in Louisiana.
The pastors dream was tripped up for a second when I told him that I’d like to do missions work, with or without a husband. I’d also like to get a college education. And while I was at it, I really liked this one guy, T, not this other guy, J.
All of this was a terrible shock to the pastor.
I don’t think any woman in his life had stood up to him. Ever.
From that point, I knew that I couldn’t live in Louisiana anymore, and I couldn’t attend that church. I’d have to do the hardest thing I’d ever done until that point: leave the friends I’d grown to love for years.
I knew what happened to those who left the group. They were never spoken to, and they were whispered about quietly (mostly about the “sin” they were partaking in, and how they’d “backslid” into temptation).
My group was a cult, you see. I had no idea I’d been doing ministry in a cult for several years. I thought I was serving God.
In retrospect, everything that I was taught in this group was either extreme or destructive to my personal well-being. Not only is it unbiblical; it’s unrepresentative of the idea and teachings of Christianity. The way the Bible was twisted into oppressing us was horribly abusive. We were given the idea that we were not only sinful in nature, but we were rebellious, and couldn’t trust our own hearts because they’d lead us astray from what the leader taught us. And what our leader taught us, was God’s voice of authority in our lives. If we departed from it, we were in sin.
It took years for me to figure out that this group was a cult. It took tears and many therapy sessions until I could admit that those pastors whom I loved so deeply, were harmful to me. I also realized that I didn’t have to be a pastors wife, if I didn’t want to. I wasn’t limited by what someone chose for my life.
Many of my readers ask if it was so bad there, why didn’t you just leave? That’s not a simple answer, for me.
In some ways, this group gave me a life I wouldn’t have had without it. I had “favor” with pastors who were nearly worshipped by tens of thousands of people. I got to act in small productions, and co-write sermons for young adult conferences that thousands of teens would see. I could spend some precious moments in the morning journaling and soaking in nature. And most importantly, I was surrounded by peers and leaders who loved me and supported me while I was in “God’s will.” They became like family as I obeyed my pastors dictates. Actually, they considered themselves my only family and kept me away from my real family.
After a few years, the dark side began to emerge. I was surrounded by friends who acted like clones of each other. Every woman started preparing herself for motherhood and life as a full-time ministry “support” to her future husband. We’d spend hours grooming, and playing dress up, so that we could parade out before the chosen young men who may be our future husbands. We snatched up babies in church, so we could be seen cradling, coddling, and cooing–hoping our future husband may see us and approve.
My ministry family began to dictate my every move. “Where’d you go?” was a seemingly innocent question posed by a pastors wife. When we answered, we were rebuked with a sinister, “You know you’re supposed to ask permission. What if something happened while you were gone and we needed you?”
Worse than that, was when I decided I wanted to go to college, travel as a missionary, and write. “I really see you as a pastors wife,” my pastor said one muggy Louisiana afternoon when I told him my future goals. “What do you think about Joshua or Tavares?” he casually asked when I told him I didn’t want to be a pastors wife. “I’ve been grooming them for you.”
My parents played a big role in me leaving. They were discouraged to visit due to our busy schedules and the fact that my pastors always kept me dizzyingly busy, but they came to visit me one weekend. After lunch with the pastor, my parents told me that they didn’t like the way he was speaking to me and for me, and they felt it was an unhealthy place for me to be. They wanted me to leave.
But, to me the leaving this group was the hardest thing I’d had to face.
You’re shocked, I know.
To leave on your own, meant three things.
1. If you were leaving without a church or ministry appointment, you were considered to be rebellious, disobedient, and otherwise a castaway.
2. If you left on your own, many of your peers and fellow leaders would ostracize you and drop their loyalty to you as a friend.
3. You’d be alone without the support of the hundreds of friends you’d made.
After being in this group for several years, I’d seen hundreds of people come and go. The ones who weren’t “blessed” were quickly forgotten. We were discouraged from talking to them and encouraged to talk badly about them. We were not to model ourselves after them, but to take note of the “wrong” they’d done, and discuss how they’d fallen “out of God’s will.”
I’ve come to find out that leaving meant I’d feel sense a feeling of being alone and an “outsider” so deeply, and sincerely. It meant I’d cry for days on end, wouldn’t be able to hold a steady job for years, and would develop social anxiety from living in the real world after being in a “bubble” for so many years. It would mean I’d need therapy; would have “issues”; and begin taking an anti-anxiety medication which certainly meant I “wasn’t trusting in Jesus” enough.
It meant I’d be crushed by having people I knew and loved reject me and leave me. I’d be grieving for the loss of so many relationships I’d spent years cultivating. It also meant I’d develop anger when they’d try to add me on www.myspace.com or www.facebook.com accounts, because they wouldn’t speak to me, but they’d follow my every move. They’d report back what I’d done, said, or pictures I’d posted and would judge me critically behind my back.
They’d be condescending with, “I’ll pray for you’s” and “I hope you’re doing well,” which began to mean that they thought I couldn’t succeed in life without them, and that they strongly disapproved of every decision I’d made without them.
It’d eventually mean that I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. I was no longer accepted by those in the cult, but I was peculiar and odd to those who were in the normal world. For years, I felt misplaced. I felt misunderstood and troubled.
I began my Bachelor’s degree in 2005, after leaving Master’s Commission and Our Savior’s Church. I lived near my parents, and slowly developed a new set of friends. I entered a relationship with a therapist, who advised I cut out anyone from my life who was related to the Master’s Commission or Our Savior’s Church for my own mental and emotional well-being. I partially listened. I took classes on Christian fundamentalism, and I read everything I had time for–classic literature, holocaust literature, essays on evolution, philosophy books, etc.
I started a new path to self-discovery. I went back to my childhood dreams of becoming a writer. I took up drawing, as I did when I was 10. I taught myself to paint, photography, and to make new friends.
I opened up to my parents and friends. I cried when I needed to. I wrote painful stories.
When I chose to pre-write for a memoir (in the form of a blog) of my days in the cult, I faced the fear, the anger and the hate from them. They were outraged. They said I was spiritually attacking their pastor, that I was acting un-Christian, that I was lying. They did everything they could to silence me. To take away my voice.
What I found by continuing to write was that I was helping people. I had no idea how many broken, hurt people were out there who felt alone like I had. Hundreds have come forward and emailed me in the past five months.