While many people have simply walked away from harmful groups, others have resorted to the aid of exit-counselors - sometimes called deprogrammers. Rick Ross is among the most successful of these counselors.
WA: In dealing with oppressive religious groups, the term "destructive Bible-based religious group," is sometimes used. Please explain.
ROSS: A destructive Bible-based religious group typically highly authoritarian. The leader or leaders assume total control over the followers, who abdicate their individual autonomy - evaluate circumstances for themselves.
There may be a system of discipleship, or so-called headship, by which the leadership of the group assumes authority/control over their followers. That may be part of a pyramid scheme, where the passing type of situation, where the pastor of the particular group, or the elders, believe that God has delegated all of his authority to them to shepherd their flock or sheep. Then they govern every aspect of individual member's lives. This may include their finances, their dating, their personal sex life, their interaction with their extended family, and their interaction with society at large.
And, typically, the members of a destructive Bible-based group see the world in very black and white terms, and a kind of "we," "they," mentality. Those within the group are the spiritually elite, or elect, and everyone and everything outside is worldly, evil, carnal, or even satanic. The group may have a very legalistic approach to governing individual member's lives, by excluding such things as television, the media, radio, the cinema. They may even have a blacklist of books that may not be read, and periodicals that may not be subscribed to. This also may include a dress code, such as the United Pentecostal Church International, where women members may not wear dresses above the knee; may not have sleeves above the elbow; must have dresses that are buttoned up to the neck; may not cut their hair; may not wear makeup or jewelry; may not wear certain types of swimsuits; and so on.
Another outward symptom may be disfellowshipping or shunning - which is done by Jehovah's Witnesses - where members may not talk to ex-members who have been disfellowshipped or shunned. This limits the Witnesses' access to outside information about their own group.
Excessive tithing is also a typical symptom - where members are tithing at least 10% of their gross income, and up to as high as 40%.
And, typically, in a Bible-based destructive group there's little, if any, accountability for the funds.
WA: You mentioned the United Pentecostal Church. What are some of the other dangerous groups that are active today?
ROSS: They include the Boston Church of Christ, many different independent Pentecostal Churches, and Baptist churches have no denominational accountability. Essentially, the members in those churches, in regard to their safety and well-being, are involved in shooting craps. They, in a manner of speaking, roll the dice and say, "Please God, give me a good leader, a good pastor." And frequently they come up with snake eyes: they end up in a position where the pastor is not an ethical or moral person. And there is no denominational accountability; no one they can look to and say, "Bishop, or Convention Board, help me! My pastor's out of line. He's abusing funds; he's abusing members." In the independent church there's no outside accountability.
WA: Do you think that people fall into these traps because they pray for God to give them a good pastor of leader, and when someone comes along, they automatically think it's God's answer to their prayer?
ROSS: Well, that certainly is the way the pastor is going to sell the members on his control over them. They frequently say they are "anointed of God," or they are "called by God," or that they have received " a word from the Lord." Essentially, these leaders claim that they have a hot-line to heaven - that Jesus or God speaks to them directly. The members are told that they may not question the leadership because "thou shall not touch God's anointed." They quote obscure scriptures that have very little to do with contemporary leadership.
What has really happened is that individuals have abdicated their ability to make any decisions regarding leadership, or critical decisions regarding their lives.
WA: From your experience, Rick, what are your recommendations for parents? What should parents look for?
ROSS: Has the young person entered a group where questioning is discouraged, or a group which sees all Christians outside of the immediate fellowship as being unsaved or lukewarm? Has the family observed radical changes in behavior- specifically: all the old friends are being thrown aside; there's a new group of friends, and they all belong to the particular church. Parents may also observe an obsessive, compulsive kind of behavior pattern in their child. Specifically, there's a total lack of balance in their lives; church has become the total focus; they're going to three, four, five meetings a week; their studies and grade point averages are falling down. Other things, such as hobbies they cared about, athletic endeavors, clubs that they may have belonged to - everything else is falling apart. And the church and its leadership have become the total obsessive focus of their lives.
When parents begin to observe these symptoms - and again, the black and white thinking, the total, uncritical acceptance of anything told to the individual member by the leadership - then the parents should realize that this could be a Bible-based destructive group. Warning flags should be going up.
Now, if they decide that this is the case, they should consider professional intervention, where they retain someone like myself, who will sit down and talk to that individual on a voluntary basis, and inform them, talk to them about the type of group they've become involved in, and allow them to have a period of time where they can make some objective decisions about their future involvement and commitment to the group.
For example, the group may have a track record they're unaware of, such s Jehovah's Witnesses, or the United Pentecostal Church International [UPCI], where there have been ex-members who have gotten out and who have stories to tell that would lead a member to pause and question further commitment to the group. Re: the Jehovah's Witnesses - there's a wonderful book that's been written, Crisis of Conscience, by Raymond Franz [from Biblical Research Commentary International, PO Box 43532, Atlanta, GA 30336]. Very few members of the Jehovah's Witnesses have been exposed to this book. I dealt with a very destructive church associated with the UPCI in York, Nebraska, where children who belonged to the church were removed from a parent's custody, because the judge deemed that the church was a destructive Bible-based group that would do harm to the children emotionally and psychologically. The UPCI knew about the abuses of that pastor, and yet they continue to this day to allow his credentials to remain in effect. He was involved in a very destructive form of the Pentecostal movement I'm sure you're aware of, called "deliverance ministry."
I've worked with many, many people who have come out of deliverance ministries emotionally and psychologically scarred. I have worked with people who have, as a direct result of deliverance ministry, been placed in a psychiatric hospital and medicated by psychotropic drugs. And, of course, when we're talking deliverance ministry we're talking about people like Kenneth Hagin in the Pentecostal movement - and many of the Assemblies of God churches distribute this literature. A deliverance ministry basically tells their members that any type of negative feelings they may have - negative things that are occurring in their day-to-day lives - can be ascribed to demons or the devil, or that they are demon-possessed, and that they need to be "delivered." They go to someone in the group who's a self-styled exorcist who then joins together with others and they cast demons out of that individual. This can traumatize a person and cause almost irreparable psychological and emotional damage.
I worked with one young man who was hospitalized as a direct result of a deliverance ministry that was a small prayer group within an Assemblies of God church. And I worked with a 30 year-old housewife who also was victimized by a deliverance ministry. She also was involved in an Assemblies of God church and was hospitalized.
Now, these prayer groups were small cell groups that were within that church. The church knew they existed, but they were not necessarily functioning within that pastor's ministry, but they were under the umbrella of a particular Assemblies of God church in the United States - Pastor Tommy Barnett's Phoenix First Assembly, a huge church. This was a prayer group under the auspices of Phoenix First Assembly.
WA: Do you counsel people against their will?
ROSS: I've been involved in involuntary deprogramming in extreme circumstances - two involuntary deprogramming of adults in the last eight years. I've been involved in numerous involuntary deprogrammings of juveniles who have been legally, but involuntarily deprogrammed at the request of their parents or legal guardians.
One example was demonstrated on CBS's 48 Hours. Another example is a case I was just involved in in Milwaukee, where a mother and father were very upset that their daughter, without their consent, had been recruited into a Pentecostal prayer group led by a woman who was self-proclaimed prophetess of sorts. The woman had broken away from the UPCI and formed her own little group. She claimed to be hearing from the Lord and led a Bible study - it was a hyperactive group. They were meeting five, six, seven times a week. The sixteen year-old became involved and the parents ultimately had to have restraining orders against this woman. Then they called me in. The deprogramming was involuntary, but successful.
WA: Is your work load increasing?
WA: Is that because you're becoming more well-known, or is it because there is such a great need?
ROSS: Well, I think there's a very great need. Let's face it, in the Pentecostal movement there are roughly 13 million Americans. In the fundamentalist fold there are millions more. So, the born again movement comprises anywhere from 50 to 70 million Americans. There is a substantial percentage of that movement that has become fanatical, a fanatical fringe. That involves millions upon millions of American citizens. There are very few people available who have a track record of successfully deprogramming people from these fanatical groups. I am one of those people. I find myself receiving more and more calls each month. Last month, for example, I flew more than 20,000 miles. And this month I'm already booked into the middle of the month. I'm constantly being called about groups like this. I'm not restricted to Arizona, or even the Southwest. I work all over the United States. I've been called on causes from Florida to New England to Alaska to California to Louisiana.