On Dec. 26, 1988, Randy Paulson’s family handcuffed him, tied his ankles together with rope, put him in the car and drove for five hours in the bitter cold to a safe house.
Over the next seven days, Paulson was — with the help of two professional exit counselors — deprogrammed from his involvement with the Christian Fellowship Church Ministries International (CFCMI).
Randy had joined the church three years earlier after, he says, having been “trapped in years of sin.”
Started in the 1980s largely as an outreach to people who were troubled, many of them escaping alcoholism or drug problems, CFCMI was known as a strict church.
It was, in fact, abusive — both spiritually and sociologically.
CFCMI members told Randy that since God rescued him in their church, he must stay with them.
They claimed they were the only church that had the “right” understanding of the gospel and salvation, and that CFCMI was where God wanted him. Randy was told that if he left, he would lose his salvation, be condemned to hell and God might kill him.
He did not want to die, so he stayed with CFCMI until his intervention in 1988 — even though he was denied food, sleep and a personal life, and having to hand most of his income to the church.
The church’s pastor, Lloyd Ray Davis, also discouraged Randy from contacting his friends and family.
But, just as cult experts advise, his family never stopped communicating with him.
They also contacted the Minnesota attorney general and the Cult Awareness Network before setting up Randy’s rescue. Both warned the Paulsons that CFCMI was a dangerous cult.
In 1992, Davis was sentenced to 31 years in prison, after having been convicted of sexually molesting two male teenagers.
Davis died in prison in 1999. The church he founded, now simply named ‘Christian Fellowship,’ and headed by Peter Paine, Davis’ son in law, remains controversial.
Meanwhile Randy says his faith is stronger because of his experience with CFCMI.
“I have the peace of Christ Jesus in my heart without the bondage of sin or the cult,” he says.
His mother, Geneva, has written a book about the family’s experiences, hoping that Rescuing Randy will be of help to others who find themselves in similar circumstances.
“I don’t think anyone realizes how traumatic it is for a family to go through something like this,” Geneva said. “We thought our family was close; then something like this happened and it was amazing how the bond grew. We’ve all worked through it now, and can actually talk about it without tears.” […]
Professional exit counselor David Clark, who helped Randy in 1988, has read the book.
“He is in full agreement with what is in the book,” said Geneva. “He travels all around the world doing this.”
“No one wants to admit they were duped,” Randy said. “But if God could be glorified and people could be helped through this book, then I was OK with my personal life being exposed.”
“If people find themselves in any situation where they feel powerless to know what to do, don’t be afraid to ask for help,” said Geneva.
“What we went through — it could happen to any family, any faith, anybody,” said Roger.
Trading one addiction for another
Experiences such as those shared by Randy and his parents often cause others to realize they may need help, for themselves or a loved one, to break free from an abusive church or movement.
Below we list some resources to help you get started.
Differentiating between a cult and people who are zealous about their religion comes down to power, says Ron Burks, a licensed mental health counselor in Florida who’s worked with people who have suffered in abusive groups that are often called cults.
“A person who is able to exercise absolute power of their followers can usually find a way of justifying most any kind of behavior,” Burks says. […]
The stable environment of a group can be helpful for people trying to recover from addiction, but counselor Burks says they often trade one addiction for another.
“The problem is that the person is trading slavery to a chemical to slavery to an ideology and to another person’s will,” he says. “Recovery is very, very openhanded. Indoctrination is a gradually tightening noose around your ability to think clearly.”
- Deprogramming refers to a process that reverses alleged brainwashing. It is controversial in that the process is usually started without the voluntary cooperation of the person being deprogrammed. Kidnapping and holding a person against his or her will is illegal under most circumstances.
- Exit counseling is a voluntary approach to helping those involved in cults make informed decisions about their group affiliation. It is used instead of the controversial process of involuntary deprogramming, which involves coercion.
- Thought reform consultants are committed to voluntary exit-counseling. Exit-counseling itself was designed to replace involuntary deprogramming. However, at one time some organizations and individuals blurred the distinction between the two practices by claiming both could be either voluntary or involuntary.
Apologetics Index has a collection of research resources on the subject of abusive churches (and spiritual abuse). That includes two online books: Churches That Abuse and Recovering From Churches That Abuse
Tip: use the questions in Chapter 1 of Recovering From Churches That Abuse People to take a look at your own church or group.
Finally, if you think you may need expert help, please see Guidelines for selecting a cult expert/counselor.