Guest post by Carol. For many years. Carol was a member of The Way. Today’s post is an informational article about The Way for people who may not be familiar with this religious sect. You can read Carol’s blog here.
About The Way International
The Way International is a small, fundamentalist, Bible-based organization headquartered in New Knoxville, Ohio, on property that was once the family farm of the founder, Victor Paul Wierwille. The Way is considered a cult by many former members, by most mainstream churches, and by certain secular groups. It has most always operated as home-based churches.
The Way recognizes 1942 as its commencement date and has (almost) always operated as home-based churches. Wierwille claimed that, in 1942, God audibly spoke to him, telling him that He would teach Wierwille the Word as it had not been known since the first century, if Wierwille would teach it to others.
Like some other new religions, The Way had great growth beginning in the late 1960s, through the 1970s, and into the early 1980s. In the early ’80s, as many as 20,000 people attended the then-yearly Rock of Ages festival held on the Way’s property in New Knoxville. (The Rock of Ages was discontinued in 1995, after 25 years.)
Beginning in the latter 1980s, within a few years of Wierwille’s death, The Way began to unravel due (in part) to power struggles and to the exposure of rampant sexual abuses that had started with Wierwille. The Way has survived but is a skeleton of what it once was.
The Way teaches non-conventional biblical doctrines, and in that aspect, differs from conventional Christian Fundamentalism. It is fundamentalist in that followers of The Way believe that the Bible, as it was “originally” given, is perfect and inerrant and is God’s revealed Word and Will in written form to humanity. Way doctrine teaches that there is only one proper interpretation of the scriptures.
Way followers do not believe that Jesus is God. One of Wierwille’s books is entitled Jesus Christ is Not God. However, neither do followers believe that Jesus was just another man. Rather, he is the only begotten son of God and the redeemer of mankind. Without Jesus Christ shedding his “perfect blood,” mankind would continue in an irredeemable state. The Way teaches a virgin conception but not a virgin birth. God created sperm in Mary’s Fallopian tube which fertilized one of Mary’s eggs, thus producing a human with “perfect blood.” God, who is spirit, is Jesus’s biological father, and Mary, a human, was his biological mother.
The Way teaches that a human baby is not fully human until it takes its first breath and that abortion is not murder. Upon birth, a human is only body and soul (soul being breath life and encompassing genetics). A person does not receive the spirit of God until he or she decides to become born again (also known as being saved, made whole, redeemed, or the new birth). However, children are counted as saved as long as one parent is saved. This continues until the child reaches an age of accountability, when the child is able to independently make a decision to be saved or not.
Way followers believe that a person gets born again by believing Romans 10: 9 and 10. That is, people must confess with their mouths (out loud is not necessary) that Jesus is Lord (not as God, but as Master) and believe in their hearts that God raised Jesus from the dead. To accept Jesus into one’s heart or to believe that Jesus is God does not result in a person being born again; those are counterfeit formulas. Once people are born again, they cannot, for any reason, lose their salvation. The only people who cannot be saved are those born of the seed of the serpent, the devil. The Way does not subscribe to any sort of water baptism; it is not necessary and became obsolete once Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended to the right hand of God, making the new birth available.
Way believers are taught that homosexuality happens because of devil spirit possession. But people who are gay can still be saved, even if they continue being gay, though they wouldn’t be able to attend Way fellowships if they are unwilling to change their behavior.
In the 1990s The Way began teaching that the original sin in Genesis happened when the devil appeared in the form of a beautiful woman and enticed Eve into a homosexual experience. Adam watched, or at least consented, though he didn’t directly partake in the act. By consenting he ate of the figurative fruit from the figurative tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, and thus all humanity fell from grace and needed a redeemer. Prior to that doctrine, The Way taught that the original sin probably involved masturbation; Adam and Eve met their own sexual needs instead of each other’s. But masturbation is not considered a sin in and of itself.
Followers of The Way believe that when people die, they do not immediately go to an after-life in any form. The only human currently alive after death is Jesus Christ. All other humans remain dead and will be raised in the future either at Christ’s first “return” (which most Christians refer to as the “rapture” — The Way doesn’t use the word “rapture” but rather the phrase “the Hope”) or at the final judgments. Animals are not resurrected.
Way followers do not believe in an eternal hell-fire torment. After the final judgments, all non-believers will die the second death and cease to exist forever. The lake of fire and the devil and death will be obliterated. A new heaven and earth where all sorrow and death has ceased will then last for eternity, bringing into fruition God’s original intent in Genesis before the “fall of mankind.”
Though The Way is not part of the Charismatic movement, everyone in The Way speaks in tongues, but not spontaneously out loud during gatherings. In public Way meetings the believer is called upon by whomever is overseeing and is directed to either “prophesy” or “speak in tongues and interpret.” Speaking in tongues is mainly for the believer’s private prayer life “to build themselves up spiritually” and have a better connection with “God, the Father.” Way doctrine teaches that the nine “gifts of the spirit” referred to in I Corinthians 12 of the Bible are actually “manifestations” and that every equipped believer operates all nine of the manifestations. “All nine all the time” was a common phrase in The Way.
Way believers are not literalists. The Bible abounds with figures of speech and ancient Middle Eastern customs. A person needs some knowledge of these in order to understand the context of the Bible.
The Way is not a King James Bible-only organization. King James is the main version used in The Way because that version is what most biblical lexicons and concordances are keyed to and because the italicized words in the King James indicate that those words were added to the text. The Way references various versions in its study of the scriptures.
Guest post by Carol. For many years, Carol was a member of The Way. You can read Carol’s blog here.
I originally wrote the following narrative two to three years after leaving The Way, in 2007 and 2008, dividing it into several parts. Between 2008 and 2016 I made some revisions and added my health story (written in 2005) as an Addendum. In April, 2017, I began expanding the narrative with more specific personal accounts, which may continue as an on-going project. Within the body of the narrative, I provide links to further information and to memoir pieces I’ve written about certain incidents or time periods. It’s a long read. But, in another sense, not. It covers over forty years.
I hope the narrative gives a glimpse (1) of some of the reasons folks join “cults” or similar groups, (2) of consequences that can result from following authoritarian and elitist groups, and (3) that even decades-long true believers can change.
I got involved with The Way International in September, 1977, at the age of eighteen and exited 28 years later in October, 2005, at the age of forty-six. The journey continues…
1960’s -1977: Why would anyone joint a cult?
I wasn’t raised with a specific church doctrine, but my family attended a Methodist Church and Camp-meeting with some regularity in my younger years. From about age eight years old and into my teen years I was fascinated with the supernatural, reading books on UFOs, playing with Ouija boards, intrigued by witchcraft, and dabbling with astrology. I attended some sort of Baptist revival with a friend when I was maybe ten; I remember going up for the altar call. When I was around eleven years old, I saw a movie about Nicky Cruz, The Cross and the Switchblade, which led me to read Cruz’s book, Run Baby Run. Cruz’s story made an impression on me; it seemed authentic as opposed to a religious facade. Around twelve years old I attended a Methodist confirmation, but to my recollection never completed the requirements.
Around thirteen years old I read the four gospels and concluded that Jesus Christ was the biggest egomaniac that ever walked. However, I did like the poetic flow of the gospel of John. I continued to read parts of the Bible during my early teens; my opinion didn’t change. In the Old Testament I read about a vengeful God who annihilated people. Of the folks I talked with about the Bible, no one could satisfactorily explain the contradictions to me. I could argue most Bible believers into a corner, and for some reason I enjoyed it. Understandably, I rejected the Bible as an ultimate authority, but thought it contained some truth, alongside other religions.
Also at thirteen years of age I fell in love for the first time and gave my whole self, body and soul, to my young teenage lover. I craved attention and touch, to be wanted, and to please. I was involved with four such all-encompassing relationships between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. In the second of these relationships, I was a victim of physical abuse. I ended that relationship after about one year which coincided with the ninth and final hitting session; that time I fought back. At the time I did not reveal the physical abuse to anyone; I was embarrassed and didn’t want people to think badly of him or me. He was a “jock” four years older than I; I was a cheerleader. I decided then to switch peer groups and to become friends with the “freaks.”
In late spring, 1974, at fifteen years of age, I began experimenting with drugs. Three months later, I became romantically involved with one of the main high school drug dealers. We were never in short supply of mind-altering substances. In October, 1974, we ate seeds from datura stramonium (Jimson weed). I lived a four-day sleepless nightmare filled with hellish hallucinations while strapped to a bed in ICU. My boyfriend was restrained with a straight jacket. Yet, even after the stramonium nightmare, we continued experimentation with various kinds of hallucinogens — LSD, windowpane, blotter acid, mescaline, MDA, and a few others. (Click here to read about datura stramonium and click here to read a two-part series about my experience.)
Most of my psychedelic experiences caused me to feel at one with the universe, in harmony with all creation. But then as the months passed the trips began to turn bad. The feeling of tripping lingered even without having dropped any acid. I became paranoid and withdrawn.
Needless to say, I had many thoughts of insanity. My saving thought was, If I was insane I wouldn’t know it. At that point, in desperation for my sanity after spending over a year in my chemically-induced spiritual search, I quit experimenting with drugs and turned to Transcendental Meditation (TM).
In late summer, 1975, at sixteen years old, I got 100% involved with TM, volunteering at the TM Center, assisting with classes and initiations, and planning to attend the Maharishi Mahesh University in Iowa after high school graduation. Within eight months of starting TM I broke the relationship with my dealer boyfriend. He got busted a few months later.
A little more than one year into TM, I met my next boyfriend (four years older than I) and moved in with him the summer before my senior year of high school. He was faithfully involved with a small Baptist Church. Yet, he smoked pot on an almost daily basis, and we cohabitated, “living in sin” for ten months. Because I wanted to please him I dropped my involvement with TM and decided I’d try to believe the Baptist doctrine which was difficult for me, especially the hell-fire teachings. Almost every Sunday I found myself at the altar in tears of shame, wondering if I was “saved.”
We had wedding plans for June, 1977, a few weeks after I graduated from high school. But in May I broke the engagement; I couldn’t come to terms with belief in a God of damnation. I felt that for our marriage to work I had to believe. I was also struggling with mood swings, depression, and feelings of low self-worth.
I was eighteen years old. I felt driven to find “the truth,” to discover God, to find my way “back to the garden.”
Some may wonder about parental guidance through these years. For whatever reasons, I had few disciplinary boundaries while growing up. (Plus, it was the 1960s and 1970s.) I also apparently developed some issues with abandonment. In the 1960s, Mom spent extended time as an in-patient for manic depression (now known as bipolar disorder). Dad was challenged with anger issues, possibly as a result from a brain injury due to a serious car wreck prior to starting the family. Like most of humanity, my parents were good people who went through some hard times, handling life as best they could.
Looking back, I see that those circumstances influenced choices I made in seeking elsewhere to fill certain unmet physical, emotional, and familial needs. Yet these were also rich times spent freely exploring nature and life. From the age of four and into my teen years, I spent most of my free time playing outside. From my mid-elementary years and up I was a latch-key kid. I am the youngest of three children.
In 1961, when I was around two years old, our family moved from Daytona Beach, Florida, to the foothills of North Carolina. My parents lived in that NC home until their deaths, Dad in 1996 and Mom in 2009.
Our neighborhood was full of kids. We rode bikes all over the place and played pick-up football, softball, and rolly-bat. I loved to run and played lots of tag, relays, and Sardines (a hide-and-seek game). We regularly camped outside in our yards or select places in the surrounding woods. We directed our own play; adults were seldom involved.
Our neighbor owned and boarded horses. The large pasture stretched behind our house. I fell in love with horses and rode almost daily until I was around thirteen years old. Sometimes I’d even go for a ride before school. I loved grooming horses and caring for them. My parents bought me my first pony when I was six years old. His name was Dynamite. I later owned Princess and then Black Eagle. I liked riding bareback and pretending I was a Navajo or Cherokee Indian. Other times Marie, my horse-riding friend, and I would pack saddle bags and pretend we were explorers.
Shortly after the split from my fiancé in May, 1977, I moved onto a farm with a hippy family who had moved to the North Carolina foothills from New York. I dabbled with Transcendental Meditation (again), the teachings of Ram Dass, yoga, and a group that followed The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ.
In June, I visited a cousin with the purpose of accompanying him to a Wicca meeting. He ended up having to work, so I spent the day with my aunt with whom I attended a small Charismatic gathering. At that meeting, I heard speaking in tongues for the first time. That day I was led into tongues and began to see a different side to the scriptures.
I returned to the farm and told my yoga-hippie friends that they didn’t have to do all that meditation to be one with God — “Just believe on Jesus Christ and speak in tongues!”
I became engrossed in the scriptures, trying to understand and craving to comprehend the “breadth and length and depth and height,” “to know the love of Christ,” and to be “filled with all the fullness of God.”
I began reading and rereading Acts and the Pauline epistles, mainly Ephesians through Colossians. I drove over an hour one way to attend church services where I had been led into tongues. The message at this church was different from what I’d been exposed to at the Baptist Church. The theme was love, grace, mercy, and understanding. Not to mention, they had good music!
I was full of questions and wanted to understand the Bible and be able to reconcile at least a majority of the contradictions. I decided to attend college focusing on biblical studies and counseling. I also had an interest in service work with either VISTA or The Peace Corps.
I chose a college that had “spirit-filled” connections, Montreat College near Black Mountain, North Carolina, in the heart of Billy Graham country.
During my few months at Montreat I attended Montreat’s Presbyterian Church services along with various flavors of Charismatic meetings in the local vicinity. However, the same insecurity and shame that I experienced in the Baptist Church again haunted me. I couldn’t seem to find satisfactory answers to my questions nor a remedy for my shame.
I became friends with some students at Montreat who were considered to be spiritually mature. We met regularly for prayer meetings. Talk went on qualifying who was spiritual enough to be allowed at these assemblies. Looking back, these meetings mainly served to achieve an emotional high with some participants being slain in the spirit and speaking in tongues out loud and uncontrollably. During one of these sessions I had to leave because I felt like I was tripping; I felt paranoid and dirty. I don’t think I went to any more prayer sessions after that one.
Montreat would invite well-known Christian leaders to speak with the students. It was a small school, so students were able to personally meet and interact with the guests. Jackie Buckingham was one of those guests. She and her husband, Jamie, were personal friends with Nicky Cruz. Jamie was Nicky’s co-author of Run Baby Run. As Jackie shared some of the miracle stories, my heart burned within me to know God and his power like she described.
On one occasion Ruth Graham visited the college campus. I attended a small gathering with about twenty young ladies and Mrs. Graham. We met in an informal living room setting attired with a few upholstered chairs for seating and the rest of us on the floor. It was very comfortable. I asked Mrs. Graham questions regarding speaking in tongues and the holy spirit field. Her answer was that she simply didn’t know the answers. I thought to myself, If Ruth Graham doesn’t know, who does?
Around this time is when I found The Way.
Fellowship meetings with The Way were tender and welcoming and didn’t involve the frenzied, spirit-filled confusion I was experiencing at some of the Charismatic gatherings. At Way Fellowships I witnessed what I had read in sections of Acts and the Pauline epistles: all things common, decent and in order, fruit of the spirit, greeting with a holy kiss.
I enrolled and took The Way’s Power for Abundant Living Foundational and Intermediate Classes, which were combined the first time I sat through “the Class.” I drove a three-hour round trip, from Montreat to Hickory, for almost each of the fifteen sessions; though some sessions were combined over a few weekends.
For once I was getting answers to many of the questions that plagued me. Apparent contradictions in the Bible were explained. I learned that I was righteous before God and that I had “sonship rights.” I began to memorize King James scriptures, repeating them over and over in my mind convincing myself of “the truth.” I was finally learning God’s will for my life. Jesus promised, “Seek and ye shall find.” I had found it. Or so I thought.
Friends from the prayer group at Montreat warned me that The Way was a cult. I considered their words and read about The Way in cult literature. It appeared to me that those who claimed The Way was a cult based that conclusion mainly on the fact that The Way did not believe Jesus is God. Until shortly after starting college I never realized that Christians believed that Jesus is God. At the time, I was stunned that anyone would think such a thing, that a man could be God. Therefore, the main thrust of The Way being a cult because it was non-trinitarian didn’t concern me much.
In my college Old Testament history class I wrote an answer in response to an essay question on a test asking to compare Old Testament faith with New Testament faith. My essay was based on research from The Way. I received an A+ on that essay with a note from my professor, “Excellent research. I have questions about some of your findings.” Having been warned The Way was a cult I felt too uncomfortable to ever approach the professor on the matter.
The prayer-group friends subjected me to a type of interrogation with an emphasis on the Trinity. We met in a small classroom. There were five of them and one of me. Four of them were standing with one at the chalkboard writing. I was seated. Their examination included questions, authoritarian proclamations, and accusations regarding The Way and its “devilish doctrines.” I recall a couple of them raising their voices at me, I think in an attempt to wake me from what they considered my delusion and to save me from the “cult.” I felt attacked, cross-examined, and scared.
Not long after that incident my college roommate, who suffered with mental illness, was found in the parking lot trying to pick sparkling diamonds out of the glitter in the pavement. She had also recently begun using the window instead of the door to exit and enter our college dorm room. The prayer-group friends who had interrogated me blamed me for tainting my roommate and causing her to get “possessed with demons,” all because I was attending a Way Class and Fellowships. I was the only student at Montreat involved with The Way.
These were the people warning me that The Way was a cult? I guess it takes one to know one. Jesting aside, I believe these friends’ intentions were good. But their approach, for obvious reasons, sent me running in the other direction.
I mailed a handwritten letter to Dr. Wierwille (Wierwille received his “doctorate” in 1948 from an unaccredited seminary, Pikes Peak Bible Seminary, which was located in a house in Manitou Springs, Colorado), the founder and president of The Way, whom I had listened to for forty-five hours on audio tape as he taught the combined Foundational and Intermediate Classes. I shared with him what had happened with my prayer-group friends. I never expected to hear back. But I did. I received a typed letter in an envelope with a return address from “The Teacher” in New Knoxville, Ohio. He commended me for my stand and wrote, “When people throw dirt at God’s Word, all they do is get their hands dirty.”
I finished my first semester at Montreat College and then dropped out to study and serve with The Way.
Guest post by Carol. For many years, Carol was a member of The Way. You can read Carol’s blog here.
1970s Word Over the World
In January, 1978, at the age of eighteen, shortly after dropping out of college, I got 100% involved with The Way. Back in my hometown, I moved into a “Way Home” with two other Way believers to help run Way Classes and “move the Word.” That’s what you did in a “Way Home.” I witnessed to everything that moved, sometimes going door-to-door alone. I landed a job in the laundry department of a local hospital. One of my fellow employees was my first Way recruit.
In February, 1978, I met the president and founder of The Way at a large Way gathering called a Heartbeat Festival at the Omni Hotel in Virginia Beach. I waited, alone, outside a conference room where Dr. Wierwille was meeting with the Word Over the World Ambassadors (WOWs) from the region. About midnight, he walked out of the room. I got up, walked over to him, introduced myself, and said, “I want to go WOW this year!” (WOW was The Way’s main lay outreach program, volunteers serving for one year wherever assigned by The Way.)
The next morning, I sat on the front row in the large meeting of hundreds, if not a couple of thousand, people. At the end of his teaching from the stage, Doctor pointed at me and said, “You’re going WOW. next year; aren’t you honey?” I nodded my head yes, and he said, “Have you signed up yet?” I shook my head no, and he bellowed, “Well come on up here!” He motioned his arm for me to join him on the elevated stage, which I did, and he personally signed me up to go WOW.
As I stood with him on the stage in front of the sea of onlookers, he again enthusiastically bellowed, this time to the whole audience, “Who else wants to go WOW!?!” As people came up to the stage I helped hand out the blue WOW sign-up cards.
Little eighteen-year-old me, on stage with the “man of God of the world,” our “father in the Word,” “Doctor,” as many loyal followers affectionately referred to him. I felt large and small at the same time. Privileged. Awed. Humbled. Knowing that I was doing God’s will for my life. Or so I thought.
It was almost intoxicating, but not in scary or uncontrollable way. I was high on the “love of God.” I thought there was nowhere else on earth where one could experience this unique oneness, unity of purpose, synchronicity, and more. I later came to call it “the chewy, caramel center of God’s heart.” It was almost tangible and was a feeling that would be duplicated at Way functions multiple times in the following decades.
Latter May through July, 1978
Before going WOW in August, I jumped on board with The Way’s statewide summer outreach program, WONC – Word Over North Carolina. I was assigned with three other young ladies to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where Fort Bragg is located. I got a job driving a taxi cab. We witnessed to lots of soldiers and ran one Power For Abundant Living Foundational Class.
Sometime between February and May, I had made the commitment to enter The Way’s leadership program, The Way Corps. WOW was a one-year commitment; Way Corps was a lifetime commitment. My upcoming WOW year would serve as my first year of Corps training known as the apprenticeship year. (Ministry years ran from August to August.)
I was commissioned, with hundreds of others, as a WOW Ambassador at the Way’s yearly festival, the Rock of Ages, held at Headquarters in New Knoxville, Ohio. (The Rock of Ages was discontinued in 1995 after twenty-five years.)
I was sent to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and was designated a WOW Family Coordinator. There were four WOWs in my family, all of us barely adults – myself, another young woman, and two young men. Along with overseeing the WOW family, I oversaw our Twig Fellowship. Our WOW family was assigned with six other WOW families to Milwaukee and made up a WOW Branch, which was overseen by an 8th Way Corps trainee on his interim year assignment.
The Way was structured like a tree known as The Way Tree. The roots of the tree represented the research of God’s Word stemming from Dr. Wierwille and the research department at Headquarters. Research is what “fed the tree.” Later The Way purchased other training locations which were collectively called “root locales.” The Trunk represented a geographical country, such as the Trunk of the USA or the Trunk of Canada. Limbs were states, such as the Limb of New York. Branches were areas within a state and were typically composed of about seven Twigs. Twigs were the household fellowships held in Way believers’ homes. An individual believer was sometimes referred to as a Leaf. The Twig is where believers spent most of their time as far as Way meetings were concerned. A common phrase at that time was, “Life is in the Twig.” In the mid-1990’s, the term “Twig” was replaced with “Household Fellowship.” (Click here to listen to the song, Am A Leaf by one of the popular Way bands of the 1970’s.)
My WOW family lived in a small, run-down apartment on the East Side near Lake Michigan and the University of Wisconsin. We spent a lot of time witnessing on campus. Through the year, I worked part-time jobs as an office assistant, a bus girl at a restaurant, and an ice cream cart driver selling frozen treats on the East Side.
One of my WOW brothers was my boyfriend. We had met at the end of Summer Outreach in North Carolina and had sat together through the teachings and the WOW commission at the Rock, never imagining that we would be assigned to the same WOW family. We were both stunned when we opened our assignment envelopes. He was kind of pissed because, since he was the man, he thought he should be the Family Coordinator. I was concerned because we both had raging teenage hormones. He was 18. I was 19.
Shortly after opening our assignment envelopes, our WOW Branch gathered so we could all meet each other. At that time, I privately told our Branch Leader that my WOW brother and I couldn’t be together; we were in love. There was no way we could concentrate on our commitment to God if we lived together in the same house. Our Branch Leader took my request up the Way Tree to higher leadership. The verdict came back – we were to stay together. The assignments were inspired by God.
I got pregnant within a couple months and got an abortion. I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, where our Limb Leaders lived, to get the abortion. My mom paid for it. I stayed in the Limb Home for a few days after the procedure. The Limb Leaders were kind, but to my recollection, we didn’t discuss the abortion. I recall feeling very alone, crying alone, and bleeding a lot. Other than my boyfriend and my Branch Leader back in Milwaukee, no one else in the Branch knew, at least that I was aware of. I returned to my WOW family like nothing had happened and went back to “moving the Word.” At that time in The Way, abortion was pretty much treated like getting a splinter removed.
In September, 1979, after the end of my 1978-’79 WOW year, I entered in-residence training with the 10th Way Corps at The Way College of Emporia in Kansas.
The WOW Ambassador and other outreach programs with The Way were on a volunteer basis with participants supporting themselves financially while doing the work of the Ministry; there was no monetary compensation from The Way. Volunteers were expected to continue to tithe from income received through their part-time secular jobs during their full-time volunteer service with The Way. As WOWs, we were to work our secular jobs twenty to thirty hours per week and do the work of the Ministry forty hours per week. (Click here to view pages from the WOW Handbook.)
When I was in Corps training, the program consisted of a first-year apprenticeship, when a trainee served closely with Way Corps, a second year in-residence at Way root locales, a third year as an interim or practicum when the trainee served wherever assigned by The Way, and a fourth year back in-residence at Way root locales. The in-residence years were work/study programs and were financed via funds solicited by the Way Corps trainee. Those who funded the trainee were called “Spiritual Partners” and agreed to a monthly or other non-tax-deductible financial donation. The Way Corps trainee was to pray for and to write to each Spiritual Partner once a month during that in-residence year.
The Way Corps training program was not an outreach program, per se, though outreach and teaching were some of the final goals as part of the “lifetime commitment to Christian service.” A Way Corps trainee could be assigned to an outreach program during the apprentice or interim years or after graduation.
The in-residence years included an outreach exercise called Lightbearers. Trainees would live in the field with Way believers for two weeks and help recruit enough people for the area to be able to run The Way’s Foundational Class.
As an outreach exercise, Corps trainees would sometimes have “witnessing” days in their local root locale communities.
The Corps program also included hitchhiking requirements where trainees were to witness to those who gave them rides and were to “believe God” to arrive at assigned destinations within given time frames. I hitchhiked over four thousand miles while in The Way Corps. On one of my hitchhiking assignments, from Kansas to New Mexico, my partner and I did not arrive at our destination in the allotted time frame. We had missed it by four minutes. We had to turn right around and hitchhike back to Kansas from New Mexico. (Click here to read a transcript from my 13th Way Corps personal journal detailing that excursion.)
Through my Corps years I spent time at three of The Way’s root locales in Kansas, Indiana, and Ohio. I spent a couple of weeks in New Mexico at The Way’s L.E.A.D. Outdoor Academy. L.E.A.D. stood for Leadership, Education, Adventure, Direction and was The Way’s wilderness, rock climbing program, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I did not spend any Corps time at The Way’s root locale in Gunnison, Colorado. (The Way sold its Kansas and Indiana properties in the 1990’s after losing followers en masse. At some point, The Way also sold the L.E.A.D. property in New Mexico. The Way kept its Headquarters in Ohio and The Way Family Ranch in Colorado.)
Though I spent over four years in Way Corps training I never graduated. I left the program, not once, but twice, midstream in the training, both times during my interim years. To break one’s Corps commitment was akin to a Judas’ betrayal.
Yet, for the most part, I loved my in-residence years at the “school of the prophets” and was successful through that part of the training. In-residence, our lives were scheduled for us. We seldom had “free time.” I believed that I was in the center of God’s will and heart. I felt I was in a cocoon where I was learning how to do things right so as to be better able to serve God’s people. I believe that is why most followers went into The Way Corps — to serve.
The proving years (interim/practicum) were my death of confidence. The pressure of overseeing people’s spiritual lives, of receiving revelation from God, and of bearing good spiritual fruit overwhelmed me. Externally I appeared capable and confident. But, internally, I felt an incredible urge to flee. I sought escape from an internal dissonance which was brought on by trying to run in shoes not designed to carry me, but that I believed were my duty to make fit. Or perhaps, I was trying to run from manipulation that I didn’t recognize as such.
Not only did I break my Corps commitment, I did so in an AWOL fashion which only added to the shame of my broken integrity.
I think one reason I chose an AWOL approach was because I felt that if I counseled with leadership and then disobeyed, in my confused perception, that was a more direct act of disobedience than if I just disappeared. Plus, I felt any counsel would try to talk me into staying.
For decades after breaking my Corps commitment, a dark shadow of shame followed me. I would try to understand the whys of my betrayal. Immaturity? Insecurity? Low self-image? Lack of confidence? Unrelenting standards? Fear of failure or perhaps success? Devil spirits? Character flaws?
It took me until 2016, eleven years after leaving The Way, to realize that by fleeing the Corps I didn’t break my integrity. I was actually endeavoring to keep my integrity by trying to be true to my core, to my self. But I didn’t know how. Still, I wish I hadn’t left in an AWOL fashion.
To me, the Corps was a huge commitment.
And I had broken that commitment twice.
The ensuing shadow-of-shame haunted me for decades.
Yet, all that while as I was treading the waters of life trying to keep my head above my shame, unknown to me and other followers, top Way leaders were abusing their authority, engaging in covert and rampant illicit sex with followers.
Guest post by Carol. For many years, Carol was a member of The Way. You can read Carol’s blog here.
1980s Word Over the World and Starting Over
I’d been living in northern Connecticut since mid-August right after the 1980 Rock of Ages festival. At the Rock I had been commissioned for my interim year assignment in the 10th Way Corps — a volunteer Word Over the World Ambassador Team Coordinator overseeing two WOW families. I had landed a job working part time for a Way-believer dentist one town over from ours, ten miles away. I didn’t have a car, so I’d often hitchhike to and from work.
It was a clear crisp day in early October, around the time of The Way’s yearly anniversary celebration. My mind was reeling, as it had done other times. How can I ever fulfill the Way Corps calling? I’m not good enough. I don’t have the believing. I’m a sorry excuse for Way Corps. I can’t live up to “It Is Written.” My WOW team would do better without me. Maybe I shouldn’t even be with The Way. Is this really what I want to be doing?
I felt spiritually small. I short circuited. With my mind racing and fearful (of what I am not sure), I hitchhiked alone from Connecticut to my parent’s home in North Carolina.
In the aftermath I was overcome with shame.
I had broken my word, a despicable act.
I had let down my WOW team.
I had let down The Way Corps.
I had let down my Spiritual Partners.
I had let down God.
I had let down the Ministry.
I had let down myself.
After I arrived in North Carolina I was filled with remorse and confusion. I wrote letters of apology to Dr. Wierwille, the founder and still president of The Way; to L. Craig Martindale, the Corps director who later became the second president of The Way; and to the Connecticut leadership where I had abandoned my post. At some point, I wrote my Spiritual Partners. As far as I remember, I received kind and encouraging responses from everyone I wrote.
Over the following few months, Martindale and I communicated via letters back and forth multiple times. I felt it was my duty to fulfill my Way Corps training and commitment. I wanted to finish what I had begun with the 10th Corps, but every fiber within me did not want to start over. I asked Martindale three different times to please let me begin anew at my interim year. But each time his answer was, “No.” Probably because I dropped my assignment in an AWOL fashion, I was denied the option of picking up where I had left off.
I was required to start the program over. So be it.
Around December, 1980, I moved into a Way Home with two other believers in my hometown, again to move the Word and run Way Classes. That’s what you did in a “Way Home.” For income, I worked selling Encyclopedia Britannica for my mom and worked as a waitress at a pub.
I had to wait about nine months to begin the Corps process anew. During that time, I plummeted into self-destructive behavior with alcohol and secret promiscuity. Though I had been sexually active from an early age, I had never before engaged in promiscuity.
I have no doubt that this self-numbing behavior was a response to my deep shame and self-loathing which I continued to bury, part of which was a result of my broken 1980 Way Corps and WOW commitments, from the abortion I received during my first WOW year in 1978, from the recent broken relationship with the father who was still in Way Corps training in the 11th Corps, and from feeling unable to live up to the “It Is Written” standard of Corps.
Yet throughout those months of illicit activities, I helped run fellowships and classes, possibly as an endeavor to prove my worth to myself.
I moved into a different Way Home with five other believers in Cleveland, Ohio, for my apprenticeship year for the 13th Way Corps, embarking upon my second attempt. I had been invited to Cleveland by my 1978-79 WOW Branch Coordinator who had recently graduated from the 8th Way Corps. He was like a brother to me. He would help me succeed with my Corps calling.
Mom hooked me up with Britannica in Cleveland, and I tried selling books for about six weeks. I also tried selling Cutco knives. Then I got jobs through a temporary agency as a deburrer in a steel mill and later as a billing clerk for a wallpaper company. I oversaw the Way bookstore for northern Ohio, carting it around in my Toyota Corolla to various meetings. But that was volunteer work, not paid.
I gave up alcohol (for the most part) and put an end to the undisclosed promiscuity. But still, every fiber in my being continued screaming in rebellion against starting the Corps process over. I interpreted my internal turmoil as temptation to not perform my duty of carrying out my calling. I expressed this in counsel with Way leadership who confirmed that it was my duty to “pay the vows” of my Corps pledge regardless of my internal misgivings. At that time, I believed that to disobey leadership was to disobey God. And I had to obey God.
So, carry on I did.
Then, within one month of that counsel, I became physically ill. At age twenty-two, for the first time in my life, I suffered with asthma and symptoms of an over-responsive immune system gone haywire. I had buried, and continued to bury, what I deemed as inappropriate emotions and thoughts. I now know that that emotional tomb gave rise to physical illness.
The asthma, and other symptoms, worsened through the year culminating in a week-long hospitalization in July, 1982. Yet, I had a successful apprentice year and entered in-residence training with the 13th Way Corps in September, 1982.
But, thirteen months later, I broke my Way Corps commitment.
It was like a horrid deja vu.
Except, I was in the 13th Corps, not the 10th.
Except, it was 1983, not 1980.
Except, I was on staff at Ohio Way Headquarters, instead of being on the field.
Except, I had the added weight of the chronic physical illnesses, which had worsened through the year.
Except, I escaped in my car, instead of hitchhiking.
But all else was reminiscent of my 1980 broken commitment to the 10th Corps.
Again, my mind reeled back and forth, side to side.
Again, I left in early October around the time of The Way’s anniversary celebration.
Again, I abandoned my commitment in my interim year.
Again, I felt spiritually small.
Again, I short circuited.
Again, I left in an AWOL fashion.
I called and left a message at HQ Food Services (my interim year Way Corps assignment) that I would be in late. I never showed. Instead, I left a note on my bunk in the dorm, packed a few items in my old Toyota Corolla, and drove from Ohio to my parent’s home in North Carolina.
Surely this wasn’t real.
It was just a bad dream.
But it wasn’t a bad dream.
I had again failed my calling.
I was physically and emotionally ill and drained.
I was overcome with shame.
My integrity was compromised.
At my core, I felt defective.
I was 24 years old.
In addition to my confusion and anxiety regarding my sold-out Corps commitment, three months prior in July, 1983, my father had been in a head-on automobile collision, leaving him to live his remaining twelve-and-a-half years as a quadriplegic. Though his accident was not the reason I dropped (the second time) from The Way Corps, it was the reason I moved back home – to help care for Dad. While in high school, I had worked as a nursing assistant in a nursing home. I had experience as a caregiver.
When I arrived home, Dad was still in the hospital going through rehab, learning to live life as a quad. Mom and I received training on how to care for Dad. I lived at home until September, 1984, and helped with Dad’s daily care. My brother lived about twenty minutes away and also helped. My sister lived seven hours away and helped when she was able to visit. It was an overwhelming time for the family. (Click here to access some of the blog posts I’ve written about living with quadriplegia.)
I had seen Dad once since his wreck, when I had visited him in the hospital in July. The last time I had seen him with body and limbs intact was around May, 1983. He had come to The Way College of Emporia in Kansas to visit me on a Parent’s Weekend. He stayed on grounds in the Uncle Harry Dorm. He and I went dancing one night at a local pub. During his visit, he signed up for The Way’s Power For Abundant Living Foundational Class. (Mom had taken the Foundational and Intermediate Classes back in 1978. Neither Mom nor Dad regularly attended Way Fellowships.)
I did not immediately go to the local Way fellowship when I arrived home in October, 1983. I waited about one month and only went back after meeting a man who was “hungry for the Word.” The only place I knew that had “the truth” was The Way, so I accompanied him to Twig. When I returned to Fellowship, the local Corps leadership welcomed me with open arms and forgiveness. The man I took to Twig ended up in The Way Corps a few years later.
Though I didn’t immediately return to Way Fellowship, I did immediately write Martindale, who was the Corps director and now the second president of the Way. He responded with, what appeared to me, compassion. In hindsight, perhaps his compassionate tone was due to Dad’s quadriplegia. He encouraged me to stay faithful in the Household and to put my Corps training to good use; there were “too few of us for any to stand on the sidelines.”
I heeded his charge within the following month and then stayed faithful to The Way for the following twenty-two years.
But my Corps years were over. And I paid consequences for decades – physically with chronic health issues; and mentally, battling feelings of deep shame and reproach for breaking my commitment and never fulfilling my Way Corps calling.
Meanwhile, as I lived battling my shame, unknown to me and other followers, top Way leaders continued abusing their power engaging in rampant illicit sex with followers. That abuse continued for the next seventeen years.
After leaving The Way in 2005, I learned that in 1983 after I AWOLed from the 13th Corps, one of the Corps Coordinators (not Martindale, who was the director) announced at mealtime to The Way Corps at HQ that I was not worth the cost of a dime for a phone call.
Guest post by Carol. For many years, Carol was a member of The Way. You can read Carol’s blog here.
1984 and onward: Loyalty, Hush, Aftermath, Freedom
In September, 1984, almost one year after moving back home, I married my current husband, who was involved with The Way on a local level and had been one of my Spiritual Partners (Way Corps trainees financed their training by soliciting people to donate funds. Contributors were called “Spiritual Partners.”) when I was in-residence. He provided a stable anchor for my life, for which I am eternally grateful. Through the subsequent years, we stayed busy meeting the challenges of me living with chronic illness, helping to care for my quadriplegic father, and raising our children.
Our first child was born in 1988 after a very rough pregnancy due to asthma. Our second child was born in 1990. After the children were born, I earned part time income through in-home childcare and later through sales with a few different multi-level marketing companies. For a number of years, I worked part-time at a large science center, and then as a preschool music instructor.
My husband and I chose to eclectically home school our children. Most Way followers did not home school, and it was not encouraged unless the parent overseeing the schooling had a teaching degree. My husband had a college degree, but not in teaching. I had only one semester of college, and I was the one who mainly guided our children’s education. In that respect, and a few others, my husband and I veered from the typical Way-parenting path.
From 1984 through the spring of 2005 (for me) and the spring of 2006 (for my husband), we stayed closely involved with The Way, serving at the local level and overseeing Fellowships for many of those years. Yet, we did not regularly approach Way leadership for specific personal counsel. For the most part we made our personal decisions in private and informed leadership if we deemed it appropriate. One example of that was our decision to home school.
Beginning in the mid-1990s The Way had a no-debt policy for Home Fellowship Coordinators, for The Way Corps, for any believer serving in the Way Disciple outreach program which had replaced the WOW program, and for any follower who wanted to take The Way’s Advanced Class.
In 1997, we sold our home on which we had a mortgage. Our mortgage had been under $500 per month. Our first rental home was over $900 per month, but we were debt-free. Between 1997 and 2003 we relocated our residence five different times in three different cities in North Carolina. It was exhausting. Two of the main reasons for our moves were to live geographically closer to believers in areas that were “spiritually hot” and to keep our rent payments reasonably low. My husband also had two different job changes during that time.
At our last move in 2003, after we had stepped down from running a Home Fellowship, we went against the no-debt policy and took out a mortgage. We did not counsel with leadership prior to our decision but did receive a personal visit from them afterward.
From the latter 1980s through the 1990s, The Way became more and more controlling, step by step endeavoring (and most often succeeding) to meddle deeper and deeper into followers’ personal lives. This widespread progressive micromanagement, especially regarding time, commitment and obedience to the Ministry, personal finances, and shunning those who left, was due mainly to control tactics and doctrines gradually instigated during L. Craig Martindale’s tenure as the second president of The Way, a position he held from 1982 until 2000. Martindale regularly hollered and ranted from the pulpit, warning us of the adversary and the spiritual battle and often blaming us for troubles in the Ministry.
Then toward the latter part of 1999, micromanaging and verbal abuse were relaxed. Within six months of this loosened grip, Martindale resigned as president after his public admission to Way believers that he had been involved in a “consensual affair” and due to an out-of-court settlement regarding (in part) sexual harassment.
Yes, the reigns were loosened. But the emotional, psychological, spiritual, verbal, and financial abuses were never adequately discussed or addressed. It was as if they never occurred or, at the very least, were unimportant. I’m not alone when I say there was an air of hush, making these abuses taboo to discuss. We were to heed the exhortation of Philippians 3:13 in the Bible; that is, to “forget the past, declaring it null and void.” For years after leaving that hush bothered me, especially that I had allowed myself to succumb to the muzzle.
Within a year or so of Martindale’s confession and dismissal, he quietly disappeared from The Way, out of sight to the faithful. Questions were discouraged which was standard when anyone departed – an uneasy hush with a pretense that nothing had happened and all was okay.
From 2000 onward, The Way became stagnant. I have described my last few years with The Way as “a flat tortilla shell with no substance.”
Between 1987 and 2000, there were four major crossroads when my husband and I had to decide whether or not to continue with The Way. At each crossroad, we believed our only alternative to The Way might be an ex-Way splinter group. It never occurred to us that we had another option: to walk away from all Way-related structure and doctrine. Due to our deeply held beliefs, we were blind to any alternatives outside of foundational Way doctrine which splinter groups, for the most part, held onto.
Some other determining factors were our deeply held belief that The Way was the “true Household of God” – to desert was to walk away from our heavenly father and from God’s true family; our belief that walking away would open up ourselves and our children to harm from “the adversary;” our decades-long investment of time, life energy, and finances into The Way; and trust in our leadership – for most of our time in The Way we had served with what we considered kind, honest leaders.
Each time, we had to make a choice of whom to trust. That’s really what it boiled down to.
Three of those crossroads coincided with three major Way exoduses when followers left en masse around 1987, 1989, and 2000. At each of those three crossroads, we chose to do whatever our immediate leadership chose to do, which was to stay with The Way. (Click here to access links about some of the history of The Way’s decline.)
The other crossroad was the most difficult. In 1995 our local Corps leadership, a married couple who were 1st Family Corps, were made “mark and avoid.” The Family Corps was a specially designed Way Corps program for adults with children. Children were called Mini-Corps or Junior Corps, depending on the age of the child. There was also a specially designed Way Corps program for retirees called The Sunset Corp “Mark and avoid” was The Way’s practice of shunning or excommunication. The phrase is condensed from Romans 16:17 in the King James Version of the Bible. Mark and avoid was a key factor in “keeping the Household pure,” which was one of Martindale’s obsessions. Sometimes a believer was put on “probation” prior to the mark-and-avoid status. During probation, the believer could not attend any Way functions, and worked with his or her direct overseers to correct whatever personal issues were involved. Any contact with other Way believers was limited.
It was a complex predicament for my husband and me. We had a bond with our local leadership. They had officiated our marriage in 1984, had helped me with my chronic health issues, had provided much emotional support when I left the Corps and after my Dad’s automobile wreck in 1983, and had provided child care numerous times for us, and we for them.
My husband and I had also developed a bond with our state leaders, a married couple who were early Corps graduates. During the one-year probation of our local leaders, we oversaw the local Household Fellowships. Throughout that time our state leadership became our direct overseers. The four of us visited each others’ homes and shared meals and prayer. My husband and I felt they were honest with us, though we never knew why our local leadership had been put on probation, other than it was something personal. Our state leaders were always kind and uplifting and left me feeling good about myself. They were well-respected in the Ministry and had held various top leadership positions. The wife had her masters in psychology. In 1994 and 1995 I had seen her regularly on a professional level, pro bono since I was a faithful believer. She helped me through a suicide episode.
Our state leaders and the local leadership had known each other for decades, since before The Way. They were good friends. Mark and avoid ended their relationship. It ended ours too, with our local leadership. We chose to follow the state leaders’ decision of mark and avoid and to continue with The Way. My heart grew crustier after that choice. (Click here to read a memoir piece that shares a bit about that time in our lives.)
After I left in 2005, we learned that other top leaders had been aware of or involved with the abuse of authority in regard to sex; it had been rampant among the inner circle of top leaders. Yet, Martindale had taken the full brunt of the fall while some of those other top leaders stayed or rose in their leadership positions.
As of 2005, outside of Martindale’s so-called “consensual affair,” most loyal followers were unaware of the many other illicit sexual allegations involving other top leaders including the founder, Victor Paul Wierwille, who had died in 1985. We had previously heard of some, but not all of the reports of sexual misconduct. And we greatly doubted those we had heard of. It wasn’t until after we left that we became aware of the number of abortions women in The Way had received. (Why Didn’t We Know About Leaders’ Sexual Advances?)
If followers heard about some of these allegations, we dismissed them as lies or rumors or innuendo directed by “the adversary.” Beginning in the late 1990s, followers were charged to stay off any sites on the internet that were critical of The Way. Fear of becoming possessed or influenced by devil spirits was one controlling factor. We had been well-indoctrinated regarding devil spirits; it had been Martindale’s focal subject through the years of his presidency.
As of 2006, Way followers I had spoken with blamed solely Martindale, once highly respected and loved by followers, for The Way’s early-2000s upheaval which led to more loss of followers. From my viewpoint in hindsight, top Way leaders used Martindale’s fall as an opportunity to save their own faces in the eyes of Way followers. Martindale was their scapegoat, though he was also guilty.
Since 2000 Way leadership appears to have kept itself clean in regard to sexual abuses.
Leaving The Way
In October, 2005, after 28 years of loyalty and serving as a lay leader at various levels for over fifteen of those years, I exited The Way. But this time was not in AWOL fashion as I had attempted two times before in previous decades. Rather, while trembling, I informed our husband-and-wife Limb Leaders via phone about my decision. My husband joined the conversation via a second phone extension in our house. I wanted a witness.
The Limb Leaders’ responses were that perhaps I needed to be going to more functions and wasn’t giving enough; that I should have counseled with Way leadership before making my decision; that if I had sincerely prayed and contemplated, I would have chosen to stay with The Way; that The Way had experienced some problems through the years not unlike the first-century church; that most followers who leave never return; and that I was welcome to come back at any time.
But no one could convince me to continue. An incident with my son earlier that month had catalyzed my decision. Plus, during that past year or so, my heart had become a vast, empty hole. I felt like a shell of a person. I wanted to feel whole again.
Earlier that October, my then fifteen-year old son, his eyes damp with tears, said to me, “Mom, I feel empty inside.” That was it. That vast hole in my soul was not only affecting me, it was affecting my children. Or maybe my son was growing his own vast hole. At that point, I had to leave.
Through the previous couple of years, one of the main reasons I had stayed with The Way was for my family and children. I was afraid that if I left we would become splintered because we wouldn’t be likeminded on the Word. It was one of my biggest fears. And then, when I left, it was for my children. Not to say that there weren’t other reasons, but the incident with my son was the deal breaker.
I already had a quasi-exit plan. For five months, since May, 2005, I had been seriously researching how to exit, in case this time would come. I had to figure out whom I could trust. Again, that’s what it boiled down to. (Click here to read a memoir piece about when I received a letter in May that was a linchpin in my exit strategy.)
Over the subsequent eight months after my departure, my husband and our children (at the time ages fifteen and eighteen) cut allegiances with The Way. Our son drifted away within a couple months after my official exit. My husband officially left at the end of March, 2006. And our daughter quit going to Fellowships around May, 2006. (Click here to read a letter my husband sent Rosalie Rivenbark, president of The Way at the time, shortly before his departure.)
To leave was a tormenting decision riddled with internal chaos. In my mind, by choosing to leave, I would be playing the Judas role three times (the number three Biblically representing “complete”) and breaking a salt covenant (“worthy of death” according to Old Testament standards) which I had taken in 1981 at a Way Advanced Class Advance.
Cutting ties via an official exit in 2005 had begun at least seven years prior, but I didn’t realize that at the time. Around October, 1998, I had begun journaling, and I didn’t stop. For the previous sixteen years, I had beaten myself up with shame and berated myself over being unable to believe God for healing of my chronic health issues. The Way taught a health-and-wealth gospel, though The Way would never call it that. (Click here to read about that doctrine helping to drive me to the brink of suicide.)
By 1998, I was no longer able to stuff my inside turmoil into oblivion. The only thing I knew to do was, to write and write and write. Darkness, emptiness, pain, grief, self-loathing. It poured onto the page, which led to writing about hopes and dreams.
I quite literally wrote my way out of The Way.
I left The Way via one of the ex-Way splinter groups which was vital in helping me with my exit and later with my husband’s exit. Though we only continued with the group for about one year, we will always be thankful for their help.
Within a couple months after I left, I got deeply involved for over a year with an ex-Way online forum which provided much needed support and connections. However, I later found myself in a web of unhealthy relationships with some of the key participants and in a maze of suspicion which included false or mistaken allegations toward myself and others. The experience got under my skin, and at times I was filled with rage over (what appeared to me at the time as) hypocrisy. I felt like I was witnessing aspects of The Way but on the other side; we defectors as a group were not that much different than loyalists as a group. Years later I came to realize that the us-them mentality is a human condition and one we can easily fall into. In spite of those experiences, I still think the forum provides excellent support and information for people seeking help in leaving The Way. And I would handle my circumstances and relationships differently now, in 2017, from when I was still fresh out of The Way.
Life After The Way
In July, 2008, I hired a licensed mental health therapist who specialized in cult recovery. The main reason I hired him was because of what had happened at the ex-Way online forum. Two years later, in September, 2010, due to boundary violations (none were sexual), I filed an official complaint with the therapist’s state licensing board. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, and I had no idea the can of worms I had opened.
Almost a year after I filed the complaint, the therapist viciously attacked me online with false allegations and accusations in multiple rants and articles complete with my photograph. A few months after that, I learned that I wasn’t the only client he had harmed.
In January, 2014, his license was revoked. He was found guilty of professional misconduct along with negligence, incompetence on more than one occasion, and unprofessional conduct. (Click here to access an overview of events and links to more details regarding my experience with the therapist.)
The experience with that therapist was deeply traumatizing. On some levels, it was worse than The Way. One of my friends, who also experienced therapist abuse (but not with the same therapist), calls it “sanctuary abuse” – an apropos term, in my opinion. As of 2017, I am still working through the trauma.
Not surprisingly, I no longer participate with any ex-Way splinter groups, ex-Way online forums, or cult-recovery groups. My only involvement with cult-awareness involves a few contacts, sharing on my blogs, and a small amount of social media.
In spite of the manipulations in The Way, I had many good experiences – times filled with rich learning and “God moments,” regular exposure to some excellent teachings and teachers, and relationships with some wonderful people, an ongoing one being with my husband of over three decades.
For years I struggled with the question, How could something I thought was so good turn out to be so evil? The good and evil dichotomy was difficult to wrap my mind around as I’d try to reconcile it.
I have since learned the good and evil can’t be reconciled. That may seem obvious to most people. But it was a harsh reality for me to recognize and accept that top leaders whom I deeply trusted were emotional, psychological, spiritual, financial, and sexual predators concerned primarily with their own appearance, advancement, and power.
Since exiting, I’ve cycled, and recycled, through a myriad of emotions including periods of bitterness and rage, a deep sense of overwhelming loss and grief and loneliness, identity issues, the feeling of being shattered, and feelings of shame and self-blame regarding certain personal decisions and my blindness to manipulations. There have been times when I’ve felt very lost. There have been times I’ve doubted my departure and have missed the camaraderie with Way believers; there are still good people who remain loyal to The Way.
On the flip side, I’ve discovered freedom to think for myself and to consider ideas outside Way doctrine. My relationship with my husband has been restored; we were on the brink of divorce during our final years in The Way. Our family has grown closer, instead of further apart. Our children have been able to pursue life without the constraints of Way practices and doctrines. Some personal friendships that were shunned from decades past, due to The Way’s “mark and avoid” doctrine, have been renewed. I’ve probably received more answers to “prayer” since leaving The Way than during my whole twenty-eight years of loyalty combined. I’ve learned to reasonably trust myself again. Music and poetry, writing and art, nature and animals have become integral parts of my life. I continue to discover what my opinions are, my likes and dislikes, and how to express those. Over time, I began to experience a groundedness and quietness in my soul that perhaps comes with age. In hindsight, I felt stuck in adolescence while in The Way.
My Way experiences and my responses since leaving are not atypical for a cult devotee. In discussing The Way with ex-members of other authoritarian groups and from reading accounts from various books and articles and comparing those with my and others’ experiences in The Way, I’ve learned that The Way was not unique in its approach to group-think, control tactics, and practices resulting in emotional, spiritual, and other abuses. Neither were the so-called high times and “God moments” unique to The Way. All are common factors within authoritarian groups.
Way followers’ experiences can differ (sometimes widely) depending on their local leadership, their depth of involvement, and the years they were involved. Cults are like onions, with outer and inner layers. The closer to the center, the firmer the grip. The Way exemplifies that.
Within seven months of leaving The Way, I got a job working as the manager of an art studio. That job was one of my best therapies as I communicated with artists of all stripes from all over the country. As of 2017, I still work as a studio assistant, but I stepped down from being the manager around 2011 when I established a pet-sitting business which has been successful and another therapeutic outlet.
By the end of 2009, my physical health had improved to the point that I was able to take up my teenage dream of long-distance hiking and backpacking. But, in 2011, that dream was indefinitely suspended when I developed widespread nerve damage, a loss which I have deeply grieved and am still coming to terms with. As of 2017, managing the nerve damage is my biggest life challenge.
Upon leaving The Way in 2005, I visited a few churches, but nothing resonated. For about a year I was involved with an ex-Way splinter group. For a few years thereafter, I leaned toward Christian Universalism. Throughout that time, I was reading about various schools of thought regarding different beliefs, including atheism. Eventually I began to see the Bible as other written works; that is, as historical literature instead of the “God-breathed Word.” I had landed in the agnostic camp.
It took me until around 2010 to really accept that I no longer believed the scriptures to be infallible nor to be the inerrant Word of God. It took another five years to become comfortable with my agnosticism. For now, in 2017, I’m happy with that.
But I’m even happier that I can reasonably trust myself again, that I’m continuing to learn who I am and what I like, that I’m able to live without constantly battling shame and guilt, and that I’m becoming my own best friend.
And I’m most happy that my family remained intact after leaving The Way, and that our children are not living under the constraints of Way doctrines and practices.
For the most part, life is good, and certainly much larger than when I was a Way believer.
I hope my story gives readers a glimpse into the life of a loyal cult devotee, an ex-cult recoveree, and a human who continues to explore and discover and grow, living life along the way…
Guest post by Carol. For many years, Carol was a member of The Way. You can read Carol’s blog here.
What follows is an addendum to Carol’s story.
Why an Addendum
In the summer of 2005 my mental health therapist at the time asked if I would write my health story to be included in a book. She asked a few of her clients this same request. She had specific topics she wanted covered; thus the content of the narrative posted below. I have made only a few revisions since it was originally penned.
When I got involved with The Way in the fall of 1977 at the age of 18, I was in good physical health. But four years later, for the first time in my life, I developed asthma and other symptoms of an over-responsive immune system. My symptoms worsened during subsequent years and continued for the next two decades. They did not significantly improve until I began stepping outside Way doctrine and tapping into a more authentic path for my life.
The following was written a couple years before I wrote my Way story. I later decided to add it to my Way story as an addendum. I added it because my health story and Way story are intricately intertwined. Autoimmune illnesses can be triggered by, among other things, stress and trauma and suppression of emotions, all of which one experiences in a high-demand group or relationship and with indoctrination of a toxic faith.
I have no doubt that Way doctrine had a detrimental effect on my physical health, which includes my emotional and psychological well-being.
Healing the Soul, Healing the Body
At 46 years old, I sat across from my counselor. She looked into my eyes and stated, “Carol, I want you to start thinking like a well person.”
The statement stunned me. I felt nebulously lost within it, having no concept of what her words meant. Over the next few days I rolled the statement over and over in my head and heart. The ensuing story is part of the journey endeavoring to discover what it means to think like a well person.
I choose the 39th year of my life as the threshold for the following meandering, a snippet of my journey. It was in that year that I began to submerge myself in ink and page, writing my way toward wellness. Journaling changed my course from death to life, from despair to hope.
At 39 years old, I was married with two children, ages 8 and 10. For the last seventeen years I had suffered with severe asthma; numerous bouts of pneumonia; multiple sinus surgeries (1984, ’85, ’86, ’96); environmental, chemical, food, and inhalant allergies; hives, welts, and various skin disorders; systemic candida; depression; anxiety; mood swings; chronic fatigue; body aches; and a myriad of other symptoms that go with an over-responsive and depleted immune system. I had been pumped with intravenous drugs, swallowed or inhaled a host of pharmaceuticals (including thousands of doses of steroids), been pricked with needles hundreds of times for various reasons, and received a myriad of allergy antigens. Alongside with conventional treatments, I had utilized alternative therapies including homeopathy, oral and intravenous vitamin/mineral supplementation, strict dietary protocols, acupuncture, herbs, bodywork, prayer, and some psychological counseling.
Exhaustion and depression were constant companions.
I was caught in a sticky, mucous-coated, stagnant, thickened, stringy web that felt like it morphed into every tissue and cell beneath my skin.
I felt trapped in my own body.
I craved to breathe freely.
I thirsted for fluid energy and to move without pain.
I dreamed of running like a deer, graceful and free through the woods.
I hungered for freedom.
I often felt like a complete failure as a believer, as a mother, as a person. Shame coursed through my veins. My suicide plan was foolproof, but I couldn’t leave my children with the legacy that their mother had committed suicide. My children were my saving grace, my reason to keep drawing one more breath, to keep trying.
Life was not always dreary. Alternative treatments had become my mainstay for recovery, and I had stretches of improvement and hope. But the improvement came in incremental bits.
Yet, now my hope was depleted; it was time to quit hoping. I had clung to the belief that God’s will for me was complete health. It was time to give up the dream that I could actually get well. Death seemed the only alternative for release. At that point, I took my pen to paper and began to write.
Emotions crystallized into words upon the page, detailing the self-loathing, the asthma attacks, the pain that racked my body, the exhaustion, the anger, the murky darkness of it all. I felt such deep, deep shame and self-hatred. Day after day I filled the pages; I held nothing back. I poured it all onto paper, including dreams and hopes.
I wrote because I had to. I did not know what else to do. I never imagined that by putting pen to parchment my circumstances would begin to change, but they did, in a most powerful way.
Within a few months of starting to journal I was hospitalized yet again (October, 1998) and connected with a doctor who discovered I was suffering with mercury toxicity, a typical cause for immune dysfunction. In January, 1999, I was again hospitalized and connected with a different doctor who confirmed the mercury toxicity. That same month I began an intense, yearlong detox regimen which included oral chelation therapy, intravenous and oral vitamin and mineral therapy, hydro-colon therapy, low heat saunas, and coffee enemas.
I continued to journal and began to re-educate myself on healing. I began to have hope again. Unknown to me at that time, I suffered my last severe episode of asthma attacks in January, 1999.
After six months from my last round of asthma attacks, I was able to start addressing more definitively other symptoms: fatigue, mood swings, hives, and pain. It was like my body continually pushed symptoms to the surface that were desperately crying to be released. Yet I was hopeful that these symptoms too could be ameliorated; the asthma was already curbed, and I had new treatments to try.
Maybe my body can get well if I can learn better how to listen to what it is trying to communicate to me, I thought to myself. Maybe I can allow it to heal itself. Maybe, maybe, just maybe…
The next regimen on my agenda was a treatment known as Enzyme Potentiated Desensitization (EPD), a complex allergy treatment that approached the reprogramming of miscoded T-helper cells. Every eight weeks, for 1-1/2 years, I would receive an injection containing over 200 antigens mixed with an enzyme to penetrate the miscoded cells. I would then go into quarantine for five days to limit my exposure to allergens and eat only venison, tapioca flour with water, and sweet potatoes, due to food sensitivities.
My health improved with EPD. A sore spot in my left lung, that had been present since my last bout with pneumonia, cleared. Some skin conditions improved. My sense of smell was restored. Allergic reactions and energy improved. Then the FDA abruptly stopped the use of EPD in the United States. My sense of smell was stolen again and some allergy troubles resurfaced. But I remained hopeful that other doors would open for me.
Shortly after EPD was taken away I was diagnosed with a herniated disc, confirmed with an MRI. A friend loaned me the book, Healing Back Pain by Dr. John Sarno. The book was about how some people suppress emotional pain which then manifests as physical pain. I matched the profile. Within six weeks of applying what I had read, the back spasms were 80% better. After five months, they were completely gone.
Due to the improvements gained from applying what I had learned via Sarno’s work, I was prompted to delve more deeply into the relationship between my emotions and my physical illnesses. How many of my illnesses and symptoms could be due to suppressed emotions? Am I honest enough to be able to open up and see what really lurks in my soul?
In latter 2000, I began regular psychological counseling to see how much of this connection could be a cause for some of my ailments. Over the subsequent four years, I developed a support system which consisted of journaling, bibliotherapy, and relationships with a handful of people and professionals that I could call upon. I grew in my ability to open up, to peek within and see the ugliness and the beauty. I saw more ugliness than beauty. But I began to understand that even what I perceived as “ugly” was okay; I didn’t have to fear it.
During these four years, my symptoms became less intense and then plateaued. I lived managing mood swings; hives and sneezing attacks a few times a week; and a hormone dysfunction that would manifest in severe aches, depression, and cognitive impairment at least five days per month. I continued my search for relief through conventional means (including medications for the depression), bodywork, nutrition, homeopathy, and energy medicine. I continued with counseling and journaling. I began to think that this was as well as I could get.
In latter 2004 I was introduced to a nutritional product that had more life-changing effects. Within nine months of consuming this product my hives completely disappeared. The mood swings and debilitating hormone dysfunction were probably 85% better. I was able to get off my daily psychiatric medications. My energy was more stable. I went from feeling like I was hit by an 18-wheeler at least five days a month to being hit by a bicycle a few days a month. I was beginning to taste freedom.
It was during this time that my counselor stated those unforgettable words: “Carol I want you to start thinking like a well person.”
My adult life had revolved around sickness – a science of schedules and charts and foods and pills and needles and tests and treatments. This new experience of wellness was scary. Oddly I found myself wanting to break down, but couldn’t.
I thought I would run free once liberated from this tyranny of entrapment. Yet, I was in new territory, unfamiliar, uncomfortable. What was I to do with myself now? It took me six to eight months to become comfortable with being “well.”
In the fall of 2005 I was well enough to make some major religious changes. After twenty-eight years of loyalty, I chose to leave an authoritarian religious organization. In hindsight, I have no doubt that certain doctrines and practices that I had embraced from this organization were major contributors to the chronic illnesses in which I had been ensnared. Without the wellness I had been granted by 2005, I don’t know if I could have made the break from that organization. It took much resolve and energy that I didn’t have prior to 2004.
Over time, after divorcing the organization, I was able to tap into my heart again, and I began to understand with greater clarity underlying emotional causes that contributed to the previous decades of illness.
What are my maintenance practices? Decent nutrition, medications as needed, rest. Movement, nature, play. Mindfulness, reading, writing. Music, movies, laughter. And authentic relationships with myself, my environment, and loved ones. When I experience physiological symptoms or tumultuous emotions I endeavor to seek self-awareness and then to listen and follow the paths that offer relief.
What does it mean to think like a well person? It means I recognize that I am significant, worthy of love, and fully human. I am a vital member of the human family. I am not an appliance that requires fixing; rather, I am a yearning individual with an innate need for love, acknowledgment, and to know my value. (The book Healing Back Pain mentioned above, prompted me to dig deeper for a specific program to help guide me in uncovering emotional causes for physical symptoms. That search led me to this link, MindBodyMedicine.com. The originator, Dr. David Schechter, has a specifically designed journaling, reading, and education program that enabled me to better tap into emotional causes that had prompted certain physical symptoms.)
In 2008, at age 49, I had full, left hip replacement surgery due to degeneration brought on by years of high doses of steroids that I had consumed to keep me breathing. In 2010, the manufacturer of my implant announced a voluntary recall because some of the implants were defective. Through 2012, I went for yearly examines of that hip, and it appeared that my implant was okay. That status changed in 2016.
In December, 2009, I contracted MRSA, which erupted four different times within five months.
In late September, 2010, I made the difficult decision to file an official complaint against my then-mental health cult-recovery therapist. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life. He was investigated, and his license was revoked in January, 2014. I was not the only client whom he harmed. (To read an overview of that experience click here.)
In May, 2011, I developed debilitating symptoms simultaneously in all my limbs and extremities while taking a medication for toenail fungus. In 2013, it was properly diagnosed as polyradiculitis, a rare type of peripheral neuropathy typically associated with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) and Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS). But I do not have CIDP or GBS. With polyradiculitis, multiple nerve roots are swollen at the spinal cord. For me, that includes roots at my lumbar and cervical neck regions. Symptoms have spread to all my limbs and extremities, my back, my neck, and my jaws. I receive steroid lumber epidurals every twelve weeks and steroid cervical neck shots every six.
In June, 2016, we discovered that my recalled hip implant from 2008 had slowly been leeching cobalt and chromium into my body. Among other things, heavy metals can sometimes be a factor in nerve damage. On August 30, 2016, I had revision lateral hip replacement surgery replacing the 2008 defective recalled implant. It typically takes one to two years after removal of a leeching implant for metal levels to come down. We’ll then have a better idea as to how much of a role the metals might play in the nerve damage.