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Chapter 6: A Broken Bone That Heals Is Stronger

Chapter 6: A Broken Bone That Heals Is Stronger…

Breaking away from an abusive religious group is a process that usually hinges on a turning point, a decisive event that compels a member to move from doubt to action. For Betty Donald, the turning point came while she was in Haiti as a short-term missionary for the Church of Bible Understanding.

COBU, as the group is often referred to, is a communal group residing in a number of houses in the northeastern United States. The founder and leader is Stewart Traill, who claims that God speaks directly to him and that he is the sole possessor of the correct method of interpreting and understanding the Bible.

The orphanage in Haiti where Betty was serving took in a seven-year-old boy who was very sick and would die unless he had an expensive operation. Betty was anxious: All the short-term missionaries except her had been recalled to the States because of COBU’s tight finances. But she called the headquarters in New York City anyway, explained the desperate situation, and asked for money to pay for the surgery. She was told, “Haven’t you seen God come through for you before? He’ll do the same for you now; trust him.”

“Needless to say,” Betty recounts, “they never wired money. I sold surplus cooking oil to pay for medication and food. As I was doing that, a Bible verse kept haunting me: ‘I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.’ I kept thinking to myself, ‘If God promised that his children wouldn’t beg bread, why am I having to do it?’ I knew that my name was tarnished back in the U.S. because I was complaining about the financial situation. At that point, I really didn’t care anymore. Everyone was always afraid of what Stewart would think about a matter or say about us. I was sick of the way the group operated.”

Betty finally got the boy admitted to a hospital by signing a statement that COBU would cover the bill in full. Then she went to New York and, failing again to obtain funds from COBU, raised the two thousand dollars that was needed on her own. She never saw the boy again, however, because he died in a fire at the hospital.

“I was devastated for weeks after that. At first I was filled with anger, first toward Stewart and then toward the others I knew who compromised and avoided the truth so they wouldn’t get dealt with. The result was this little boy’s death.”

Betty’s dissatisfaction was heightened by another event that surrounded the boy’s surgery. Along with trying to obtain money from the headquarters, she issued an appeal for blood donors over a Christian radio station in Haiti. “The response was tremendous. I had an opportunity to interact with Christians outside of COBU and found them to be quite sincere. I was surprised at how they worked together and how genuine they were.”

After the boy died, any remaining loyalty Betty felt toward COBU died also. “I had to face how dishonest and dysfunctional members were because of fearing what Stewart would say about any type of situation out of the ordinary, especially if it involved spending money. We would try anything possible to avoid being accused of doing something wrong. I had always hated living like that, but would often justify it and hope that it would never result in something serious. This time it did, and I was left to face just how much I’d compromised, justified, and blamed myself for how mean, controlling, and unreasonable Stewart really was. I felt nothing but contempt for Stewart and the organization that I had once been totally loyal to.”


After returning to New York, Betty discovered that a number of changes had taken place in the COBU organization-none of them, she felt, for the better. Stewart was changing some of his teachings, the communal housing in Brooklyn was deteriorating, and several women who were at wit’s end were thinking about leaving. In one major group meeting, Betty stood up and publicly denounced Stewart’s view of women. Soon afterward, she and two friends laid plans to leave the group. They tracked down an apartment through want ads; because they had not lived on their own for many years, “we all felt bad, a little scared, and excited.”

When people finally make the break with abusive churches, they often go through a stage of emotional euphoria. They experience spiritual as well as psychological and personal freedom. Betty cherished her newfound freedom. “I enjoyed going to the grocery store. I felt exhilarated walking in a clean neighborhood with the sun shining. The idea of truly being free was so fantastic. I felt like a freed hostage enjoying life again.”

But leaving the group also caused the women to feel insecure and lonely. “We were all shattered,” Betty relates, “and trying to pick up the pieces of our lives as best we could. When I first left, I felt as if I were walking around with a dirty secret that only these friends knew and could relate to. It was extremely hard to talk with anyone about my experience, even my family. I wanted desperately to tell my parents everything, but at the same time I was afraid and felt ashamed. I feared that if I told them my story, they might be hindered from coming to know Christ.

“It bothered me greatly that I couldn’t relate very well to other people and in fact had very little to say, because the only thing I really wanted to talk about was what had happened to me. My fellow ex-members often criticized my bitterness. I was bitter, of course, because I had been put down and criticized for years.”

During Betty’s period of doubt in the exit process, she found refuge in renewed contact with a friend, Nancy, who had left COBU four years earlier. “I talked with her weekly, before and after leaving the group. Nancy helped me a lot. She listened to me and helped me work through my questions and doubts without giving a lot of advice. The best thing Nancy did for me was to reflect on her experience and listen without criticizing me.”

Once on her own, Betty decided to seek counseling through an evangelical church, but, being still unsettled in the world outside COBU, it was difficult to make a connection. When the pastor failed to keep the first appointment, Betty ended up talking with a deacon at the church for five hours, telling her story for the first time. “1 never felt so free and relieved as I did after those few hours.”

Eventually she began to receive counseling from the pastor, and by the end of her third session, she began to trust the pastor. “He took a group of about twelve of us to dinner after church one evening. At one point he commented, ‘I had no idea what you women had been through.’ That comment and others like it, coupled with his obvious concern and kindness, helped me a lot and let me see that some pastors, at least, are approachable.

“Gradually I became more comfortable talking with others about my experience, and I found that the more I talked, the better able I was to sort out my feelings about COBU. I have since made many new friends, have taken up bicycling and aerobics and have been involved in the Singles ministry at my church. But I admit that I still become angry and feel cheated that I threw away a college education because of Stewart Traill. I feel inadequate around others my age who have a career, a home, and a family to raise.”


Margaret Griffin’s recovery process took longer than Betty Donald’s. A member of the Church of Bible Understanding for ten years, Margaret was unable to talk openly about her experience until she had been out for seven. “It is very hard to recover after being violated in an area of one’s life that touches the core of our very being. I still have many scars, although I have a sense of wholeness in the Lord that I didn’t have seven years ago.”

Margaret joined COBU as a teenager trying to cope with the death of her adoptive father. A decade earlier she had been deserted by her natural parents, which left much bitterness and low self-esteem. “The church started out okay, but, due to my immaturityspiritually and age-wiseI did not recognize some of the warning signs that were there. It took ten years and the spiritual life in me dwindling down to a dimly lit burning wick before I took the hint. On the surface things seemed healthy. Then we became a radical Christian commune, trying to pattern our lives together after the early church in the book of Acts.

“I went through years of public humiliation at the meetings, cramped living conditions, and an environment in which women were treated as inferior to men. I ended up on the street with ten dollars to my name and nowhere to go.

“The Lord has put some beautiful Christians in my path since that time who have loved me and not treated me like a freak. Today I am wiser, and I feel stronger and better equipped than the average Christian who has not gone through this kind of experience. I can ‘smell’ legalism long before the average Christian can. It’s like they say, a bone that is broken is stronger after it has been healed than if it had not been broken at all.

“I have learned since leaving that we don’t need to be doing overtly spiritual things to be serving the Lord, although I admit that I’m probably one of the most rigid people I know. But I’m getting better all the time. I’ve loosened up! People I knew back in COBU days are surprised to see that ‘Sister Holy Face’–my own nickname for me during that time-has started to learn to enjoy.

Both Betty and Margaret had experiences after leaving COBU that sound familiar to sociologists. There is an identifiable set of dynamics at work in the process of leaving a role, whether the exit is from an authoritarian, control-oriented religious group or a place in secular society. Helen Ebaugh explores these dynamics in her book Becoming an Ex: The Process of Role Exit.

Disengagement from old roles is a complex process that involves shifts in reference groups, friendship networks, relationships with former group members, and, most important, shifts in a person’s own sense of self-identity. [1]

The exit process involves discarding one’s self-identity central to one role and establishing a different identity according to a new role. We can see from many of the case histories presented in this book that, especially for long-time members, the individuals’ sense of identity-their badge of belonging-is deeply embedded in the abusive church or organization to which they had committed themselves. When they leave the group, disassociating from their previous role and identity is difficult because of the residual effects.


Dr. Ebaugh has identified four major stages in the role-exit process, regardless of what that role is. [2]

The first stage occurs when people begin to question and doubt their commitment. Doubts usually come gradually and may be related to a number of factors, primarily changes in the organization, disappointments in relationships, burnout, or specific, triggering events.

Very rarely does [leaving a role] happen as a result of a sudden decision. Rather, role exiting usually takes place over a period of time, frequently originating before the individual is fully aware of what is happening or where events and decisions are leading him or her. [3]

The reactions of friends and other valued people to one’s expressions of doubt are crucial. If the initial doubts receive positive social support, there follows a second stage, during which the person begins to seek and evaluate alternatives. Betty’s contact with Nancy served this purpose. Assurance from others that the doubter isn’t really “crazy” for considering leaving usually accelerates the process. There is a sense of relief at knowing that one is not trapped permanently in the present role but has freedom to choose. The person may begin to imagine how he or she would fit into a new role.

This leads to the third stage, which Ebaugh calls “the turning point,” a firm and definite decision to leave. That decision usually comes in connection with a specific event. It crystallizes one’s doubts. It can be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The turning point usually results in the person’s announcing the decision to other people, some of whom may then facilitate the exit. The person may feel relief and a sense of freedom, but also uncertainty and anxiety. The process of adjusting is easier for those who have kept some ties or built some bridges with life beyond the role, such as jobs, families, or outside friends.

The fourth stage is creating and coming to grips with what Ebaugh calls the “ex-role.” Relationships are central. The person has to adjust to changes in his or her intimate relationships and friendship groups. An ex-member of a religious group, for example, must deal with the labels and stereotypes that follow him or her.

One characteristic unique to the ex-role is the fact that exes once shared a role identity with other people, many of whom are still part of the previous role. In addition, there is usually a cohort or aggregate of other exes who have left the previous group. Exes are faced with the challenge of relating to former members as well as other exes. [4]

For people who leave abusive religious groups, the relationship to former members seems to be especially significant. Many of the people I have interviewed for this book have attempted to maintain contact with other ex-members through informal support groups or ordinary social activities. Ex-members are sometimes able to reestablish broken contacts simply reading the organization’s newsletter and learning of church-related events that their long-lost friends might attend.

A good example of this kind of networking is the San Francisco-based KIT Information Service, which sponsors annual conferences and publishes the monthly KIT (Keep in Touch) Newsletter for former members of the communal Bruderhof society and the Hutterites. The service also publishes annually a directory of ex-member addresses. The newsletter consists mainly of letters written by former members of the Bruderhof, but also contains news and information about the society, book reviews, and ex-member reunions.

Ramon Sender, the editor of the KIT Newsletter, directs his comments to the current leadership:

So, Bruderhof folks, I would suggest that instead of labeling ex-members as “unfaithful,” you should see us as your Bruderhof graduates, people who have “served their time.” We learned some valuable skills and now are strong enough to test ourselves outside the communities, strong enough to rely on our own feelings and our own consciences, no longer needing the Bruderhof support system to know right from wrong. We peregrines no longer sit captive and hooded in a gilded cage. We have unfurled our wings in the wider, more adventurous skies of the outside society. Hey, guys, we’re your successes, not your failures! C’mon out and join the crowd! It’s not as badwe’re not as badas you’ve been told. [5]

Former members of abusive groups find the same kind of mutual support in their informal gatherings that members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) experience. Recovery is largely a group phenomenon. It is difficult to accomplish in isolation. Self-help or recovery groups offer an opportunity to listen to the stories of other spiritually abused people and learn from their experiences. The groups provide a context for gaining insight into one’s own issues and motivations. Like members of AA, refugees from abusive churches need an atmosphere of unconditional acceptance. A nurturing group can help victims of spiritual abuse to learn to trust others again. Most important, a support group-whether formal or informal, large or small-provides a sympathetic audience of people who have “been there” too.


One additional factor enters into the exit process for many people leaving religious groups. Like others mentioned in this book, Margaret found an attitude among some evangelical Christians to be an obstacle to her recovery:

“When I first left, I didn’t find a lot of Christian people who were willing to be compassionate and nonjudgmental toward me. Many churches distance themselves from people like me, and I learned early that it was best to pretend as if I never went through anything like this so as to be treated normal. I think they acted that way mostly out of ignorance and fear. Now that I have been able, with the Lord’s help, to deal with my experiences, I can speak openly. But it surely would have helped back then, when I was hurting and alone, if I had seen a different attitude demonstrated by people whom I met in the Christian community at large.

“Our Lord is faithful, and there were a few Christians who could see past the church I had been in and who could see that I knew the Lord but had been battered-like the man the good Samaritan rescued and needed a huge dose of love.”

Margaret feels that now she is on her way to a wholesome recovery. “Last summer we held a reunion of ex-members of COBU. It was really a good experience because we were reminded of the good that had been between us, while at the same time there was healing, enabling us to deal with some of the abusive things that happened in our life together. I think the hardest thing for each of us is to face our own responsibility for a spiritually abusive situation.”


1 Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh, Becoming an Ex: The Process of Role Exit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 181.
2 Ibid., see especially chaps. 2-5.
3 Ibid., 23.
4 Ibid., 185.
5 The KIT Newsletter 5, no. 9 (September 1993): 10.

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Recovering From Churches That Abuse

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See Also

• Churches That Abuse – online book, also by Dr. Ronald Enroth
• Research resources on abusive churches and spiritual abuse
• Guidelines for selecting a counselor/cult expert

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First published (or major update) on Wednesday, February 17, 2010.
Last updated on February 24, 2012.

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