"Wait -- did he just say 'cult'?"
Yes, and this is an inflammatory term. Permit me to explain:
Over the past several months as I have seen my religious (and other) world turned upside down, I read and heard various accounts of people who had escaped religious groups that are popularly known as cults, such as Jim Jones' People's Temple and the Jehovah's Witnesses, and I heard them speak thoughts that were strikingly similar to my own. And I wondered why.
I have come to realize that among religions, there is no sharp, hard line between cult and non-cult. Rather, cults are religions which display particular exploitative and manipulative tendencies in far greater prevalence than these tendencies may be found in non-cult religions, but that these tendencies may still be found in those religions not widely thought of as cults.
So when I say that I have escaped/am escaping from the cult of the United Methodist Church, I am referring to particular exploitative and manipulative behaviors that I found among some leaders that I encountered in the UMC.
1. The abuse of spiritual authority for personal power. I've mentioned this before, but on several occasions, I have heard a person in a formal (or self-appointed) position of spiritual mentor or leader put on some (fake) kindly smile and express "concerns" about my "need for spiritual maturity", particularly when I'm in some sort of disagreement with this person. No argument, no reason, no logic -- just the weaponization of the language of pastoral care and spiritual leadership as a tool to gain advantage in an interpersonal conflict. There are times when someone is trying to be a pastor to you, and there are times when someone is trying to manipulate you. And I think that you know the difference.
2. The call for enormous sacrifice of time and money. When I think about how much money I have poured down the hole of ministry in the past three and a half years -- lost income, seminary costs, candidacy costs -- wow. Not to speak about all of the time that I spent occupied in church, candidacy assignments, and schoolwork. Why, just the weeks I poured into those now-useless commissioning essays....Well, you get my point. In terms of time and money, I have wasted the past three and a half years and all of the money that Katherine and I could have earned, rather than spent, with them. I could have learned real skills, like MS Excel, instead of pointless ones, like NT Greek. All of this at the call of the UMC, which exploited me in terms of labor and money, and has now thrown me away like a used Kleenex. Now that I have nothing left to be exploited, I now find myself quite disposable. If you think about it, it's not that different from time spent taking Scientology courses and paying a lot of money in order to become an Operating Thetan. Because right now all of the books that I have read in seminary are as useful as a stack of badly-written L. Ron Hubbard novels.
3. Social isolation from outsiders. This is not something that the UMC pushes directly, but is the inevitable result of serious involvement in the UMC as a layperson, or candidacy for the ordained ministry. I remember very clearly the day I decided to give up playing role-playing games because I needed to become more involved in church. That, and when I quit my job before entering seminary, is when I cut off my ties from the non-Christian world. And in seminary, I never had time to get back into gaming because school and church devoured all of my time, and therefore cut me off from outsiders. For almost all of seminary, I did not know socially a single non-Christian, and very few non-Methodists.
And now that the UMC has thrown me out, I find myself completely alone. The connections with non-Christians that I had before are gone. Socially speaking, I'm now starting over completely from scratch. And since I'm too old to game and don't remember how, I have no idea how to even get started. Thanks, UMC!
4. No accountability for leaders. The Bishop did not even pretend to make an investigation or question my DS about my allegations, or even verify from my old PPRC chair about what I said happened at my church. The Discipline -- the book of Methodist law -- is just for show.
There is, however, brutal accountability for those who question the officers of the cult. Again, there was no effort by the DCOM to pretend that I was facing anything other than pure retaliation.
Come to think of it, the Bishop may actually be pleased if I told everyone here on the blog about everything that happened, and named names. Maybe by obliterating a candidate with a blog he was sending a message to anyone who might question the leaders of the cult. I mean, realistically, what consequences could he actually face? Please don't quote the Discipline in response. For the powerful, it's nothing more than a paperweight.
There were not, however, any signs of ritualized sexual exploitation, suicide pacts, criminality, imminent doomsday predictions, or statements of exclusivity (e.g. "Non-UMs go to Hell") in the United Methodist Church. And the behaviors that I describe above were not pervasive or universal. So it cannot be said that the UMC is comparable to, let us say, the Children of God or Aum Shinrikyo.
What I mean to say is this: the activities, traits, and behaviors that destroy people's lives in the most obvious cults are not shielded from mainstream Christian denominations by some mystical firewall. These behaviors, if unnoticed and unstopped, can creep into the blandest of churches.
That's because religions, cult and non-cult alike, are filled with people. And people abuse, manipulate, and exploit others if they are not accountable. That's just the sort of creatures that we are. That's why the United Methodist Church is just as capable of destroying lives as any other group -- and will, if the abuse of power and the power to abuse are unstopped.