In a spiritually abusive group, the manipulation begins the moment you set foot in the door. Newcomers are treated differently from those who are already enmeshed in the group. New people receive either more attention, or a different kind of attention, which often seems so nice and loving -- even wonderful! But the new person does not realize that this level of treatment is special. He or she is frequently led to believe that this is how everyone in the group is treated. And this encourages him or her to have the mistaken expectation that such flattery will continue.
In the field of cult studies, this is referred to as "love bombing," so-named because some cults truly go overboard in showering new members with attention and affection. (Some have even offered free sex to new members.) Love bombing has proven to be a very effective method of recruiting new members, accelerating their assimilation into the group, and securing a deep level of commitment. After all, who does not want to be loved? Who would want to lose a truly loving community of people once they found it? And which one of us would not be prepared to make personal sacrifices in order to keep it?
Another technique used with great effectiveness has been selective recruitment. In many groups, not just anyone can join. A newcomer must first meet with some level of group leadership, who will determine whether the prospective new recruit is "serious enough" to be admitted. What is actually happening is that the individual is being evaluated for his or her level of compliance. Can this person be controlled? Will we be able to mold this person into one of us -- someone who will submit to our agenda? Of course, they don't actually speak, or even always think, in these terms. The leadership may themselves be self-deceived enough to believe that all they are really looking for is "Christian commitment." In a spiritually abusive environment, however, subsequent events will demonstrate otherwise, and will show that the real goal was control all along.
When a person makes it through this process and is allowed to join, it can be almost as flattering as "love bombing." It gives a person a feeling of having "made the cut." It also increases the perception that the person has found others who really understand him or her, especially the desire to truly follow God. And finally, it helps the leadership to erect a wall of secrecy around the group. Not "just anyone" is able to join, so therefore not "just anyone" can really know what goes on inside. The mutual understanding from the very beginning is almost always that outsiders cannot and will not understand the inner workings of the group, so the screening process protects the group from the outside world, while simultaneously initiating new members into its culture of secrecy.
This culture of secrecy is presented as entirely benign. Members are told that it exists only for their own "protection." But the only thing it protects members from is the truth, and this is a very dangerous sort of "protection."
For example, in some groups, when people are kicked out, the whole ordeal is very "hush-hush." One day an entire family might be part of the group; the next day they're gone. Questions are not encouraged. Members are told not to contact the former members. If they want to know anything, they are told to ask the leader, who has all the information and can slant it any way he pleases. But to question the leader is to risk one's own ostracism, so few members ever do. The former members' pain over being forced out is compounded by the pain of isolation that is produced by the secrecy.
In one semi-communal group I know, whole families have to pack their belongings and move out of the apartment building when the leader orders them to. Everyone in the apartment complex can see what's going on. Far from "protecting" these people's reputations, these humiliating rituals only confirm in the minds of those who remain that something must be wrong with these people, or they wouldn't have been asked to leave.
When you see people in a religious system being secretive--watch out. People don't hide what is appropriate; they hide what is inappropriate.
One reason spiritually abusive families and churches are secretive is because they are so image conscious. ...
Another reason for secrecy in a church is that the leadership has a condescending, negative view of the laity. This results in conspiracies on the leadership level. They tell themselves, "People are not mature enough to handle truth." This is patronizing at best. ...
[David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, p. 78.]
I was introduced to my spiritually abusive group in 1987 after an extensive screening process. It involved several weeks of phone calls with the leader before I was allowed to attend the first meeting. Since I eventually joined on the premise that I was coming to a "Christian therapy" group (although over time the leader tried to evolve it into a "church"), and I had never attended that kind of group before (so I didn't know what to expect), the fact that there was a screening process didn't seem all that strange to me.
I have since learned of other groups, however, which claim right up-front to be churches, and yet employ a similar screening process with the same effect. New members feel specially selected, rather than merely "settled for."
Given the highly confrontational brand of "therapy" that the leader practiced, it was not too long before I witnessed harrowing scenes in our "therapy" group meetings. But because I was being treated special, and because I was impressed with the leader's seeming competence in psychology (which later turned out to be a charade), I did not consider what I was observing to be "abuse." I thought, "Surely the leader knows these people better than I do, and surely he knows what he's doing!" The artificially-loving recruitment process was keeping me in line from the very beginning.
Because secrets were being kept in the name of "protection," I was less suspicious of the leader's hidden agenda than I should have been. When this agenda finally became obvious, I realized that we had all been tricked into placing blind trust in a man who really did not have the training, experience, or personal integrity to practice therapy, or any other kind of counseling. We had all been seduced into placing our trust in him through a carefully-orchestrated process, patiently carried out over weeks and months, beginning with our initiation into the group.