I was a Leader in a Cult
Part 1: Introduction
This is the first instalment of a series of blogs outlining my history of being a member of a cult for 15 years in the 80’s and 90’s. I’ll discuss how this affected and influenced my life; led me to where I am today; the lessons I’ve learned from that experience about leadership; and how that has become a major driving force behind my work as a leadership consultant and coach.
I know this will be read by some people who shared part of this journey with me and some who are still in this cult. Some will be offended by my use of the term cult. I do not apologise for this, because, by any academic measure, the organisation meets the criteria of being a cult (see the note “What defines a cult?” at the end).
The vast majority of people in the cult are victims. When you are in it, this is very difficult to see or understand. Those who founded the cult are not victims. They are men who exhibit narcissistic, sexist, abusive and predatory behaviours who should never be in a position of leadership.
In October 1983 I moved from Newport in South Wales to London to start university at Guy’s Hospital Dental School. (Yes, most of you know I’m an Optometrist, but university life started for me with a failed year at dental school). I moved into Commonwealth Hall student residence in Cartwright Gardens, WC1H 9EH, round the corner from Kings Cross.
Having been raised a vicar’s son and always been involved in the church youth group scene, I thought joining a CU (Christian Union) or something similar at university would be a good way to meet and make new friends. A good church friend from Newport had moved to London the year before, was living in Connaught Hall close by, and had got involved in a group doing Christian outreach to university students. He invited me to come along to one of their meetings held in his hall one evening, so along I went.
The people running the meeting were mostly mid-western American manly men. Back then I was fascinated with things American and was immediately attracted to the group. Everyone was super friendly, very inclusive and good company. They ran a course called ‘Basic Christianity’ aimed at non Christians to introduce them to the basics of the gospels and faith in Jesus. As the course progressed it then focused on the “happy-clappy” stuff of baptism in the spirit (a spiritual experience when you invite the Holy Spirit into your life) and the gifts of the spirit - speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing etc. I was not expecting that!
The course culminated in a weekend retreat when we were all encouraged to be baptised in the Spirit. I did have a “spiritual experience” at the time and exercised the gifts of the spirit for years after. (These days I have a very different explanation of what happened based on my understanding of physiology, neuroscience, flow state and other subjects I’ve studied. That’s a whole separate blog for later.)
As an aside, and a very important point about these meetings, Jess, my wife, was one of just two women at the very first meeting I attended. She was serving squash and biscuits to the men attending the course - yes, just men. Jess and her parents were members the “community” (the term used to describe branches of the cult) who sponsored this outreach to students.
One key tactic used by cults when recruiting new members is called ‘love bombing’ - “the action or practice of lavishing someone with attention or affection, especially in order to influence or manipulate them.” (Oxford Languages). It worked!
Other tactics used to recruit members are: target selection (see next paragraph); isolation; keeping control. (1) Also note that students, fresh from leaving home and in a new environment are vulnerable and ideal targets for recruitment by any organisation.
I was definitely subject to target selection. I had a history of youth leadership in the church; I was tall, dare I say attractive, reasonably self confident and had potential to fulfil their unspoken ideal of hegemonic masculinity (of which I had no clue at the time). Further I could play the guitar and sing. They saw me coming and I was reeled in, hook line and sinker.
Thankfully, for me, life in my teenage years actually provided me with some personal protection from this recruitment system. Without realising it at the time, and only getting understanding with hindsight, I was very adept at switching between two ways of behaving and I continued to do this as I engaged in the student outreach group. What I was ignorant of was the gradual formation of a pseudo personality, not just a different way of behaving, compared to my true self.
Pseudo personality develops as “a result of the intense influence and change process in many cults, people take on a new social identity, which may or may not be obvious to an outsider” (2).
As I got more involved many aspects made it very attractive but I was always aware of not being 100% in. I could perform to all the requirements when around the group.
I quickly became identified as leadership potential and was asked to lead the worship. This is a very significant and somewhat revered role within this and other charismatic Christian organisations, because of the central role of sung worship. (I’ll talk about this more when discussing flow state in a later blog). I was put in a “sharing group” (similar to an accountability group) overseen by the senior leader - with no formal pastoral care training in many cases. In these groups one was encouraged to share, prescriptively: high point of the week, low point of the week, time when closest to God, and confession of sin (yes, cringe). Young men would confess to all sorts of stuff; impure sexual thoughts (in a context of a strict no dating policy), masturbation, non heterosexual thoughts and desires (a big taboo in the cult, being very conservative in it’s views on sexual orientation and gender identity, i.e. all considered sin and not part of God’s plan). This sharing is another aspect of cult life - disclosing some of one’s thoughts. It is shaming and gives away so much of one’s agency and autonomy to leadership, so they can exercise “power over” its members. They want to know everything about you, gradually do, and they discuss it amongst each other to maintain that control!
In situations when I got away from the group my behaviour was very different. This meant that, unlike some, I didn’t fully let go of my true self and hence a full pseudo personality did not develop. I maintained a certain level of independent critical thinking that led me to be very conflicted at times. I remember occasions when the “should” and ‘ought to” voice of my pseudo personality would lead me to talk to friends or colleagues outside the cult about faith and Jesus. I also clearly remember feeling really embarrassed about this at the same time. This shows the power and influence of a pseudo personality over ones behaviour. It won out at times, causing me to do things I didn’t really want to do. The embarrassment I felt was my true self reminding me of what I really thought, but for years the pseudo personality had the strongest influence on most of my big life decisions.
It’s a little scary when I look back at it now with the knowledge and understanding I have gained! I also know that there are many people just like me, living out life and making key decisions not based on their true self but on a pseudo self that has been created in them by others.
Once you’re in and hooked you only see life one way - their way. Extricating oneself from such a situation is hard because there is no life outside of the cult as far as you are aware.
For me there were a couple of things that helped us get out. The nagging small voice of my true self was one. The other catalyst was a big split at the highest level of leadership across the pond in Ann Arbor Michigan where the parent organisation was founded. The community we were in was forced to choose a side and this caused a split. The majority chose one side, we chose the other, so we left.
In subsequent blogs I’ll talk in more detail about some of the specks of living in a cult that I have mentioned above.
Important note: When I was in a position of leadership within this cult I will have given some bad counsel to some for whom I had pastoral responsibility. For this I am truly sorry, unconditionally, and am very willing to engage with you personally to make amends for any harm my advice may have caused or any lingering resentment you have.
4 psychological techniques cults use to recruit members. https://bigthink.com/the-present/four-cult-recruitment-techniques/
An Investigation into Cult Pseudo Personality: What Is It and How Does It Form?. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237681336_An_Investigation_into_Cult_Pseudo_Personality_What_Is_It_and_How_Does_It_Form
For those not familiar with me, herewith a potted history of my cult involvement:
Attended first meeting in October 1983
Lived a somewhat double life for several years
Had a “revelation” at a meeting circa 1985 that one day I’d marry Jess
Lived in mens households for 5 years. These are groups of up to 11 men in a house with a moderate element of common life: morning prayers everyday at 7am, common meals each evening, “Lord’s Day” celebration every Saturday evening, participation in a mens sharing group weekly; organised chores and cooking rotas; an appointed head of household to oversee everything. (I was head of several households).
As there was a no dating policy (which I secretly ignored quite a lot thanks to True Self), I waited until I qualified as an optometrist before starting to date Jess - I was totally convinced I’d end up marrying Jess. The dating policy also another controlled process.
Ask Jess about her experience of what, for her, was an arranged marriage. My experience was totally different because I’m a man, of course (of course, because of the hegemonic masculinity and patriarchal sexism within the cult). Do read Jess’s blog on her experiences.
Got Married in 1989 - thankfully we were both besotted by then and 33 years later our relationship is better and stronger than ever.
Spring 1991 moved to south east London because we believed God told us to.
Sam born in ‘91, Ben in ‘93 and Juliette in ‘96
1993 moved back to west London (Hanwell) as Peckham in the 90’s was not for us.
1998 we left the cult after a big split in the International leadership.
What defines a cult? (This is a direct quote from reference 1 above, but worth including here.)
A cult is a group or movement that, to a significant degree:
Exhibits great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing
Uses a thought-reform program to persuade, control, and socialise members (i.e.,to integrate them into the group’s unique pattern of relationships, beliefs, values, and practices),
Systematically induces states of psychological dependency in members
Exploits members to advance the leadership’s goals
Causes psychological harm to members, their families, and the community