reprinted from the Jul/Aug 1993 Free Minds Journal
Starting and Maintaining Support Groups
by Bruce Laughton
I am a born-again Christian who has been studying the cults for nearly
12 years. In 1985, 1 was recruited into Lifespring and gained firsthand
experience with being in a mind control group. In 1988, I started Answers Inc.
as a formal outreach to the Jehovahís Witnesses. I did not make the connection
between my Lifespring experience and the Witness recruitment practices until
nearly a year later. Instead, I started by pointing out the errant theology and
contradictions of the Watchtower. I became so skilled at argumentation that the
Witnesses gave me the nickname "The Exorcist." While I found this
flattering, my objective was to get people out of the group; not to win
I made a commitment to quit doing what didnít work and started looking for
what would. I stumbled onto the book, Combatting Cult Mind Control by
Steven Hassan. That discovery helped me to understand why I had been
unsuccessful, and kicked off a round of learning that continues today. I am
currently half-way through my Masters Degree in Psychotherapy and Counseling, am
interning in a mental health clinic here in Minneapolis. I have come to
understand the psychological dynamic used by these groups to impose their belief
As Hassanís book points out, the most effective way to work with someone in
one of these groups is to show them how other, similar groups work. If you are
able to develop rapport with them and share this information, they themselves
will see the connection between their group and others. Once this occurs, the
critical thinking process will be restarted and automatic defenses will lessen.
They will then be able to process information about their group.
Understanding these things is important when attempting to help ex-members as
well. When they are able to see the parallels between different groups, it takes
the power out of left-over group teachings. Our ex-member support group is made
successful by the presence of ex-members of several groups. As they discuss
their experiences, the similarities become obvious, and openness to further
exploration results. We do not share the Gospel with these ex-members until they
specifically ask about it. Even then, great care is taken to understand their
question and to answer it without adding more than they want to know. Most have
been so abused, it takes months for a trusting relationship to develop. For
these, the only witness they can receive is a lifestyle witness. Having
confidence that the Lord can and does work through a nonverbal witness is
foreign to most evangelicals. Yet there are numerous examples of Christ offering
healing to people without a verbal witness. This is the pattern we have found to
be effective. There are several "rules of thumb" I would offer for
setting up a support group:
- Avoid being sucked into becoming a substitute for the cult activity. Your
goal should be to create a safe, non-manipulative, non-judgmental place
where ex-members can feel free to begin the healing process. The Answers
support group meets only once a month even though it is often requested we
meet more frequently. When we tried a more frequent schedule, the freshness
of the meetings vanished and things began to feel forced.
- Allow ex-members to seek their own level of spiritual exploration and
healing. People coming out of these groups will have experienced different
levels of trauma as a result of the psychological and spiritual abuse they
have suffered. Some will dive headlong into an exploration of the Gospel,
others will never go near it again. It is your job as the facilitator to
ensure that they can experience unconditional love in the support group even
if they are unwilling or unable to seek a relationship with God.
- Keep support group discussions confined to subjects that a11 can relate
to. An understanding of the manipulation used by these groups, the phobias,
communication rules, conditional love, denial, double (secret) lifestyles,
and the resulting fear, nightmares, trouble with relationships, difficulty
with decision making, anger, depression and dozens of other topics can be
related to by all.
- Set up secondary meetings to offer the riskier (in the mind of the
ex-members) activities. It is in these sessions that the errors of the
Watchtower can be discussed and Bible study can be undertaken. Care must be
used to communicate that these are for those who feel ready for them.
- The most powerful process is simply to allow people to socialize with each
other. Structuring the support group to consist of 50% learning activity and
50% unstructured socializing has worked well for us. This helps take the
facilitator "off the hook" of feeling like they are responsible
for making something happen. Remember, a support group is about people
helping each other.
- Be prepared to gently reestablish subject matter boundaries if someone
begins to monopolize the conversation and begins preaching (whether it is
the Gospel or not). Your handling of these situations when they come up will
be a direct influence on how safe the support group is perceived to be.
Gentleness, firmness and timing are critical in reestablishing balanced
participation without shaming.
- We have opened our group to ex-members as well as family and friends of
current members. This provides for a healthy distribution of topics and
gives the ex-members a chance to educate others on what it is like to be in
one of these groups. Helping others to understand mind control is a powerful
healing activity for ex-members.
- View turnover in the support group as healthy. If the group continues to
grow larger and larger, you need to be concerned. When your objective is to
create a healing place, people will move in, stabilize, and then move out.
Avoid the temptation to tie support group effectiveness to size. If you must
measure effectiveness, consider the following:
- Do participants feel free to come and go as needed?
- Are people reporting progress?
- Decreased feelings of guilt and fear.
- Willingness to let the support group structure be fluid and responsive
to the people who show up, increasing tolerance for different
personalities and orientations within the group, willingness to address
personal growth issues.
- Do you, as a facilitator, feel free to let the group change and grow ...
a willingness to look for what works rather than to have your ideas
- The facilitator of the group will have to understand not only the
theological issues involved, but also the manipulation processes that the
participants have been subjected to. As a starter, you will want to read Combatting
Cult Mind Control by Steve Hassan; Influence: The New Psychology of
Modern Persuasion by Robert Cialdini; Churches That Abuse by
Ronald Enroth; The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by Jeff
VanVonderan and David Johnson.
- The portion of the support group that is devoted to educational discussion
can take a lot of different forms. Essentially, it might consist of showing
a video tape and letting the ex-members discuss what they could relate to.
We often take the time to put their observations on a chalk board so
everyone can see the list grow. If the topic doesn't work, if it doesn't
stimulate discussion, use the time to gather suggestions as to what to
discuss during the next session.
- Exercise caution if you do individual counseling. You will be dealing with
people who are very comfortable in transferring dependency from their former
group to you as an individual. This can be so flattering that unless you are
aggressively watching for it, it will take you by surprise. A new dependent
relationship arrests the recovery process and can cause even more
- If you can find someone who is doing walk-away exit counseling on a
regular basis, take the time and energy to learn the technique. We do nearly
one per quarter and have seen some powerful things come out of these.
The support group is to provide support. That support should ideally come
from the people who are there for support. The most effective healing is open
experienced through the process of helping others. If the facilitators can keep
that focus and have confidence in the capability of the participants to help
themselves and each other, the group will accomplish its intended purpose.
Bruce L. Laughton
10438 Aquila Ave. S.
Bloominqton, MN 55438
back to Psychological Issues