When I was seventeen, I graduated high school and packed up to move to Phoenix, Arizona. I was joining 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 adult life. As most teenagers are, I was happy to be out of mom and dad’s house so I could make my own rules, live my own life and redefine myself. Typical post-high school feelings.
The training program wasn’t what I expected it to be, though. Instead of making up my own rules, and acting out my new adult life, I spent several years forbidden to go off campus without permission from a discipleship leader, unable to date without the permission of my pastor (which wasn’t ever given), scrubbing toilets, washing dishes, doing laundry (for the pastor), and nannying the pastor’s 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 “pastor’s 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 and worked out at the City Club in Lafayette, LA at least three days a week. She only ate salads and there were no “extra pounds” on her, as he implied.
The pastors snatched me up to groom me into looking like their wives, teach me ministry etiquette, and give me face time with my 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 his 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 (about $0.50 an hour, actually).
I planned the holiday church staff parties, wrapped presents for dinner parties, and learned to cook their favorite Cajun meals, so I could be the absolute hostess when my time came to help lead my own church. I was encouraged to run every morning, and not to eat fried foods, because no one likes a fat pastor’s wife. My hair was to be grown out long, and blonde was the color of choice for me. I was taught walk in stiletto heels, with a proud chest, raised chin, and eye-brow lifted just enough so I’d look sexy and mysterious.
It worked. The men wanted to be near me. Some wanted to marry me. One that I actually thought was attractive. 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 (chosen by the pastor), 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, and not pastor a church. I’d also like to get a college education. And while I was at it, I really liked this one guy, T, not the guy he’d “prepared” for me.
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. Not to mention, Christian Southern women from his church did not make up their own mind. He was the authority of them, if they were single, and he made up his mind for the women in his congregation. If a woman was married, and he didn’t like her husband, he’d spend time emasculating her husband so he’d be afraid to speak his mind, too.
After our discussion, with which we disagreed on the core things that mattered to my future, 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). If you left without the pastor blessing you, you were considered to be rebellious, disobedient, and otherwise a castaway. Most of your peers and fellow leaders would ostracize you and drop their loyalty to you as a friend in order to prove their devotion to the pastor whom you didn’t listen to.
In retrospect, everything that I was taught in this group was either extreme or destructive to my personal well-being. Not only was it unbiblical; it was unrepresentative of the idea and teachings of Christianity. There was no academic, historical or social context taught to us with the Bible. It was an authoritarian viewpoint from the pastor, only, and no other voice of God was to be heard but the pastor’s. 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 pastor taught us. And what our pastor 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.
For me, it’s taken years to redefine myself and to give myself permission to change as a person. I still wrestle with the guilt that I’m not “living my life right” or that I’m an evil, rebellious sinner, despite knowing that I’m actually a pretty decent human being.
I began my Bachelor’s degree in 2005, after leaving the training program and church. I started school, still defining myself by “their rules” and eventually found the support to break away from the power they still had over me. I entered therapy, which was helpful.
I took classes on Christian fundamentalism, the Holocaust, and World Religions. I found through my studies that religion in general has caused a lot of harm to people, but it’s also mostly good at its core. Humanity can be horrific and awful based on their religious or personal biases, but humanity can also be a thoughtful, insightful group of people.
The more I studied and made new friends, the more open-minded and contentious I became.
I began to discard everything I was taught in the cult, and I went back to my young adulthood to find who I had been before I joined the group. I revisited childhood dreams of becoming a writer. I took up drawing, as I did when I was 10. I allowed myself to be happy with my personality, my quirks and my own dreams.
I cried a lot. I talked to friends for hours about the hurt I was experiencing. I got a cat (which I highly recommend).
Every one copes differently, and everyone’s journey will be different. I can’t offer you a cliché answer that life will be better, or eventually be perfect. Honestly, life never will be perfect.
I can express to you that if you were in an abusive relationship, or a religious cult, there’s nothing wrong with you, and the shame you feel comes from the power struggle we may always feel from our former leaders and oppressors who spent years carefully manipulating and controlling every choice in our lives. They live in your head at times, and the best thing you can do is cut ties with those people, and don’t feel bad about it. Distance yourself from them. Provide for yourself resources, friends, and tools to make you feel safe and healthy again, and keep supportive, kind people around you in your life.
Life will eventually feel normal again, and you’ll start to feel happy with who you are, and not what someone is telling you to be.