I grew up in the Evangelical church. Saved at age 15 and called to preach a few weeks later, every aspect of my life was dominated by the teachings of God’s inspired, inerrant, infallible Word — the Bible. In the fall of 1976, at the age of 19, I packed up my worldly belongings and drove north to enroll in classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. I soon meet a beautiful dark-haired girl who would become my wife. This coming July we will celebrate forty-one years of wedded bliss.
In the spring of 1979, we packed up our meager household goods and moved to Bryan, Ohio — the city of my birth. Thus began my ministerial career, a career that would take me to seven churches in three states. In 2005, I left the ministry, and three years later I filed for divorced from Jesus. Our divorce was final in November 2008. Since that time, I have not darkened the doors of a Christian church, save for funerals and weddings.
I was fifty years old when I walked away from Christianity. Few men with as much time invested in their ministerial careers as I had walk away from the church/Jesus. I know several pastors who no longer believe in the Christian God, yet are still actively serving churches. They have too much invested in their careers to quit now. They hope to quietly make it to retirement age without anyone discovering their unbelief. In my case, I was never good at playing the game, so when I reached the place where I no longer believed the central tenets of Christianity, I walked away. (Please see Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners.)
I had always known that Evangelicals tended to shoot their wounded and eat their own, so it should have come as no surprise to me when I was brutally attacked, labeled an apostate, and branded a Bible-denying hater of God. The wounds of those who once called me friend caused great pain and heartache. I have not, a decade later, recovered from the loss of these friendships. I know, of course, that fidelity to certain beliefs was the glue that held our relationships together, but I am still, to this day, surprised at how quickly my friends turned against me. While I have certainly made a few new friends, none of these relationships measures up to the ones I once had with fellow pastors. I currently live in the land of God, Guns, and Republicans. Atheists, agnostics, and humanists are far and few between, and many of them, out of economic and social necessity, hide in the shadows of their communities. Most of my friends are of the digital kind. I am grateful for having such friends, but I yearn for the kind of friendships I had as a pastor.
Imagine rebooting your life at age 50. Not an easy task, to be sure. Leaving Christianity forced me to rethink every aspect of my life; from my relationship with Polly and our children to my moral and ethical standards. This, of course, wasn’t easy. I had been religiously indoctrinated for most of my adult life. You don’t just flip a switch and think differently after deconverting. It is a long, arduous process, one filled with emotional pain and contradiction. It’s nigh impossible to completely wash from your mind decades and decades of Evangelical indoctrination. Even today, I still have moments when I have what I call “Evangelical hangovers”; moments when my thoughts do not align with my humanistic beliefs. The journey is never complete or without challenge.
While it would be easy for me to focus totally on my losses post-Jesus, that would paint an inaccurate portrait of my life. Yes, I wish I had more friends, but I am willing to go it alone, if necessary, to maintain intellectual integrity. You see, Christianity demanded that I bow and worship its God; that I follow its holy book; that I obey its teachings and standards. Once I was freed from the authoritarian rule of the Bible, I was free to chart my own course. And this is the one thing atheism gave to me: FREEDOM. I no longer fear God’s judgment or Hell. I am free to follow my path wherever it leads. For Evangelicals, life is all about the destination, whereas for atheists, life is all about the journey. Evangelicals focus on eternity, viewing this present life as preparation for life to come. Atheists, however, believe this life is the only one we will ever have. There’s no afterlife, no second chances; this is it! (Please see the series From Evangelicalism to Atheism.)
For Evangelicals, life is scripted by God. The Bible is a roadmap of sorts, a blueprint for how people are to live. As a humanist, I see a wild, woolly world before me. Who knows where I’ll end up! Who knows what tomorrow might bring. Each morning, I get up and do what I can to make the most of the day. No worries about parsing my life through the strictures of the Bible. No worries about God judging or chastising me. Thanks to Loki, I am free!
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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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.
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.
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.