Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Escape from the Cult of the United Methodist Church

"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.


A united method said...

I certainly can't argue that cults and non-cults have much difference. Richard Dawkins makes the point that all religions (cultish or not) have beliefs that seem to take on a life of their own. I'm right with you concerning the "humanity" of the leadership we find that assumes the title of "body of Christ" - often in our most dangerous and hurtful choices.

But I wonder, have you raised charges (within the UMC) against these people who have wronged the church through their abuse of power and wronged you?

I know that might sound pretty pointless, as I can understand your confidence in the UMC to reconcile with those its wronged are nil. But hey, I'd love to hear why you have/haven't raised charges against the leadership. (feel free to email me)

A united method said...

oh...and you gotta get into magic the gathering. I never gave it up :) It has all of the flavor of a good role playing game and not nearly the tomb of rules.

Merry Christmas!

Jonathon said...

Very well written John and I empathize with much of your frustration my friend.


Anonymous said...

So what are you going to do to further Christ's kingdom now? I left another "mainline" protestant church years ago and found a home in an evangelical arena - very happy. Freedom that I give back to my freedom provider.

Matt said...

Hi John. As a frequent reader of your blog and occasional poster (at least to the caption contest!), my heart goes out to you. I stopped for a moment as I wrote this reply to offer a prayer for you and your family.

bob said...

John, I know it's not the same but here on your blog you are not alone. Look at all the different people who access your site non-believers, Catholics,Baptists and others besides the Methodist. All people who have come to know and care about you and your family you through your faith and wit. Don't give up on God even if you give up on methodism
God bless you

John said...

A united method -- yes, I have. There are formal complaint processes outlined in the Disciplined, which I have exercised and have been blatantly disregarded by my Bishop.

A united method said...

Well thats a load of crap. I hope you can discover some way to respond to this whole situation that gives some kind of reconciliation. Christ responds with grace, even if the church won't.

As I play a video game today called 'Left 4 Dead' on my xbox, I will be thinking of you (its a zombie game). I do hope you have a Merry Christmas!

Michael said...

It is impossible to respond to this without knowing specifically what you encountered. I can only say, within the context of my current DS and bishop (both of whom are rather direct, to-the-point persons), I cannot imagine either of them using their positions to hide from or retaliate against legitimate whistle-blowers. I've encountered a few DS's who were obviously not suited for those jobs (which also led me to wonder about their suitability as church pastors!), but I never considered them devious even as I butted heads with them more than once. Political? Certainly. Criminal? Hardly.

My point? I'm not sure I have one. I get your understandable anger and bitterness, but allow me to offer you this - whether you allow it to post or not: no one is being hurt by your bitterness and anger but you and your beloved family. Surely your wife hurts for you and all you've encountered, but now it's time to fish or cut bait.

I lost my secular job in January of this year, and I KNOW I was done wrong. I had given this company 15 solid years and I had put my own family aside because the work, I felt, was important. Then they dumped me unceremoniously as if all I had done meant nothing. And yes, I was one who called a spade a spade, regardless of who was present in a meeting. And yes, I "offended" plenty.

Once dumped, I was angry and bitter. Even now, these are emotions I must constantly be on guard against because they effect nothing but affect plenty.

Sorry so wordy. I constantly watch your blog, enjoy your humor, and struggle with your intellect and insight. You have a great many gifts, John. I pray you will soon enough be enabled to let go of this and get on with your life.

Jeff Lutz said...

Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst. - C. S. Lewis

Anonymous said...

I think it is wise to vent then explore all options. May God give you the wisdom to find the best paths of communication to find justice and to help prevent these people from doing things like this to others.

Sadly, organizational politics exist inside and outside the church. Even authentic Christians are not immune to such things, but when the UMC has so many transparently false believers in leadership I would expect even more of this.

John said...

Jeff, that is a fantastic quote, and soooo true.

As I was relating my experiences to my counselor, he said, "Well, you're discovering that the Church is just like the World."

And I responded, "No, it's worse. The World will screw you as badly as the Church. But the Church will claim to be doing so out of love, or in the name of God. The World makes no such blasphemous claims."

Michael said...

Sort of invalidates the very existence of the Church when we cannot be distinguished from the world, doesn't it?

Weekend Fisher said...

What distinguishes us from the world is rarely sainthood. More often it's the hope of forgiveness, and the humility of repentance, for the love of Christ.

John said...

'Rarely' isn't good enough. If there's no sanctification -- if there is no sign that the redeemed have indeed been redeemed -- than Christianity is nothing more than a shifting of eschatological categories.

Anonymous said...

Running down Jeff's quote led me to Lewis' "Reflections on the Psalms." Google Books let me read the chapter where the quote occurs, "The Cursings." It's good stuff.

RevAnne said...

John, so sorry to hear this.
Like Michael, I can't see this specifically happening where I am, but we certainly have our share of issues.
I hate that some people/groups are like that.
We're not all like that, although my husband (also a pastor) likes to point out that the only people Jesus couldn't get along with in the Bible were church folks.
Praying that you'll sense the grace and presence of God with you in this.

The Progressive Deist said...


I am sorry that you had to go through this. It is painful to find your path in life and then have it taken away from you.

I may not be a Christian so you may not feel that I can relate but I don't like to see anyone go through such a thing.

I have found that as one door closes other doors may open up. I attend a UM church as a non-member but I don't really pay attention to what is going on beyond the church or what is going on in the greater UMC. Yet, I have followed your path for a few years now with interest as we have certain common political beliefs and common interests (those darn zombies) so I am saddened by the sudden change in your life.

I think that any organization can become cult-like and this does not stop with Christian churches or the greater UMC (obviously) even though there are those that would argue otherwise. Unfortunately, in too many cases, people in power want to stay in power so much so that they will not step out against someone who is corrupt unless they have no choice.

So, the top brass keeps quiet when they should be the first to step up and expose corruption. Just look at the democrats/republicans or the Catholic church.

If the organization comes under scrutiny then their position may weaken and that cannot be allowed.

This is why I have always been partial to the Libertarian philosophy.

I hope that you are able to continue to pursue your chosen path in other ways and hopefully bring a much needed positive influence into the religious sphere.

I will continue reading your blog if for nothing else than the zombies because lets face it, it does not get much better than zombie media.

Seriously though, I wish you good luck in your journey.


The Thief said...

John, I'm sickened by the actions of your DS, bishop, and committee. I've felt the lash of the UMC across my back, and it took me 1 1/2 years of healing before I was even ready to want to forgive the pastor and church people who wronged me. Now, another 2 years after that, I'm in a healthy, growing UMchurch where God is working and the Holy Spirit is active. I had given the UMC "one more chance" and it worked out for me.

But I have to agree that it hurts worse when the sting comes from church people.

John B said...


I don't believe that "everything happens for a reason." However, I am convinced that God works for good all thing for those who love Him and are called according to His purposes.

You may not be ready to hear that yet, which is completely understandable. However, I am confident that there will come a day sometime in the future, though it may be a number of years, when you will look back on this travesty of justice and see God's hand at work through it all. What is now a very painful experience, will become a source of grace.

Anonymous said...

It is ironic that many church leaders who deny original sin do such a great job of exemplifying it. They are the ones tasked with knowing and obeying the rules and being fair, and they do such a bad job of it. Their personal desires trump the need to advance the kingdom.

Blessings to you in 2009 as you find the best way to serve God.

Anonymous said...

"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."

this was my experience too- in fact my letters were not even acknowledged, how many non-religious professionals would have the gall to behave that way! I'm done with christian church, it's too unhealthy.

Anonymous said...

I think that Methodists are a huge cult too.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like Detroit West. DS is unable to communicate in English, promises are made and then forgotten, and a minister can stop a candidate with a simple word. If the UMC cannot fix their own problems then they create the messed up ministers they do get. Unfortunately this is the same level as child abuse; violence. The victims are left with little due process. The courts need to see these people as the bad guys and use their authority to bring them down.

John said...

I would love to see civil courts involved. That would be tremendously fun!

I have no solutions to offer the UMC because the entire idea is predicated on the presence of God being a guiding force in his Church. And without that, any solution, even a radical one, is just a band-aid.

Anonymous said...

It's time to fix the UMC candidacy process. First, stop paying for bad ministry. No money in the collection plate, Second, appeal even if there is nowhere to go. The bishops must learn how to hear the people. If nothing else, put on a button with 1Peter2:7 on it. The bullies have forced congregations to be too quiet. A little protest is a wonderful thing.

Anonymous said...

I am just wondering & this may be a little off topic. My son was inpatient at a residential treatment facility for juvenile sex offenders. At 14 he fondled our 6 yr. old neighbor. He was inpt. & we are still in outpt. I feel we have gotten little help w/his outpt. counselor. Yes my son did something wrong, but what lies around this kind of initial act is a type of personality that needs alot of reform. This counselor is Methodist I just recently found out. I feel she accepts too much of his inappropriate treatment towards myself & does not encourage him to move on better. I am a Christian, I have always gone to a Lutheran Church. But I feel this counselor to be cold, uncaring, and expects me to tolerate certain disrespect & blames me in front of my son. Does this Methodist stuff have anything to do with it? This counseling is paid for by a grant & we are low income. But I would like to get the two of us more help, especially him. She doesnt give a crap if he is a homo, druggie, flunkie, etc. Maybe just collecting a paycheck & using this job as a stepping stone-she is young. My son was beaten, shook, neglected, traumatized and molested as a baby & toddler from his natural father---with that in his history he has to have professional help, but most of all to be civilized, & live a clean Christian life. Is this poison taking him to see these public agencies? I see an individual therapist, she is Christian & I have changed so much for the better. Any advice please?

John said...

What a horrible burden to carry!

I have no expertise from which to advise. I can only say that if you are in a position to get a different therapist, get one! If you have a counselor who isn't working, try another. I don't know if you are under any financial or legal obligation to use this counselor, but you certainly are under no moral one.

That's all that I can offer. It would be terribly presumptuous of me to offer counsel on a situation that is clearly a crushing challenge.

RetiredGeek said...

Catholicism to Methodist to Cultism...It is a normal road map...A trend of the sinful souls who do not comprehend GRACE. Once in a while comes "here standish ich, Ich kann nich anders, Gutt Helf Mir...Martin Luther anyone....Bring on another Martin for the soul destroying Methodism cult.
He recognized the cult of Catholicism.....the Pope replacing Christ...and it's prodigy the Methodist....I know, my X wife of 50 years was and still is Methodist...A believer in the holy catholic church....the creed of the Methodist she speaks without meaning... and they always spout it out in their services...meaningless phrases as Christ spoke about......It gives them away.....yet I refuse to speak the nonsensical....phrase.....duh...and wants to "do good missionary works as the only path to the many marriage Samaritan woman at the well...So hoping Christ will not tell her the Truth..And the X being A sprinkled baby not yet capable of repentance and she as a Methocist did not need to be reborn again...duh....A died in the cult....Methodist..wanta be...bishop there in...May...God forgive all of them....for they..know not...what they do!...

Anonymous said...

My name is Kurt and I too have fled the United Methodist Cult. It took me 23 years to finally come to my senses, but I have finally severed all ties with the UMC. If you are interested, check out my website:

Recovering Methodist said...

Having grown up in the midwest under the tutiledge of the United Methodist Cult, I am appalled.

We have been fed fertilizer from the pulpit that skirts the issue of God and salvation. As my stepfather lay dying from stomach cancer, the good Methodist minister was not concerned with this man's soul, but sprinkled with water and told to "rememeber your confirmation".

Another thing I dont get, "Passing the Peace". "Passing of the Peace" is as productive and meaningful as complete and incurable constipation. Rituals based on a theology of doublespeak that obscures the personal knowledge of one's own eternal destiny and meaning are vain rituals.

Anonymous said...

I can more the understand the comments. I have after years of being a very dedicated person left the UMC.

Althugh there are many good and sincere people, my frustrations became to much with:

1. A clergy that is in many cases wholly unprepared for the world. No practical skills in technology, marketing and finances. A process where pastoral openings are not assigned to the person who has the skills to accomplish the most, but to reward long-term connected pastors.

2. A clergy who is made up of the over compensated (usually with political connections) and the majority of clergy that lives on crumbs. How can the church attract the young and the talented into service.

3. A laity that has given up responsibility.

4. A polarization of clergy between spaced out ex-hippies and right wing nut jobs.

5. A church which does not seem to know where it stands or what it teaches. Ok there is that Book of Discipline thing, but I have seen church sponsored wine tastings to benefit the United Farm Workers, a lecture by a leading pastor on why Mary was not a virgin and another pastor who preached that the tougnes of hell fire were waiting for gays, transgenders and evolutionists.

The best way of summing it up is that te United Methodist Church like much of Christianity has lost its way or its bearings. It has lost its way because no one really takes responsibility and there is no accountability.