This piece by Mercy Survivor Sarah breaks down the enmeshment between Mercy Ministries staff and God, a dynamic which is at the very core of the power and control issues that are so prevalent at Mercy Ministries. This piece is the third and final piece in a three part series, and was originally published on her personal blog which can be viewed at Sarah’s Collage.
I have deviated slightly from my original plan for the series with this piece. It is structured around the use of loaded language, but focuses more on the “fruit” of the principles represented by the language.
My experiences relate to Mercy Ministries Australia, however women from the Mercy homes abroad may identify with aspects of this piece.
Please note that as I share my encounters with Mercy staff members, I do so to illustrate the dynamics being discussed in this piece that were operational in the program, and not to bring condemnation on those who acted these dynamics out. I have no malice in my heart toward them and I sincerely hope they have since had the opportunity to gain some freedom from their own issues which were evidenced by their actions.
To their credit, Mercy Ministries facilitated a course called “Woman to Woman” as a module of group therapy during my time in the program. It was written by Allan and Helen Meyer of Careforce Lifekeys and was psychologically sound. This course discussed the consequences that we as adults may struggle with from having grown up in dysfunctional families of origin, and also helped us to identify and move on from the ways in which those things may be affecting us presently.
One thing it taught us is that we can sometimes grow up with certain family messages. Someone who grew up in an environment where there was an “elephant in the room” (a significant or obvious issue that was never discussed) may have experienced a “don’t talk” rule. Likewise, someone who grew up in a family where there was an authoritarian parent who was always right “or else” or “because I said so” may have experienced a “don’t question” rule. Other common family rules are “don’t feel”, “don’t think” and “don’t trust”.
Such dysfunctional dynamics can exist in other settings such as workplaces, churches, or indeed one-on-one relationships. The rules themselves do not need to be verbally stated in order for them to be explicitly operational.
In this piece, I will attempt to explain the various covert yet all consuming manner in which the rule of “touch not” was enforced at Mercy Ministries.
Touch not the Lord’s anointed
For those of you who are not acquainted with the statement, or indeed the rule of “touch not the Lord’s anointed”, allow me to explain.
This statement appears in Psalm 105:15 and 1Chronicles 16:22, and again in 1Samuel 24 where David famously spared Saul’s life. The Hebrew word for “anointed” is “Mashiach” which means Messiah. This anointing was a temporary power from on high given for the purpose of accomplishing a specific task. In the OT, “anointed” almost exclusively referred to the high priests, prophets and kings. Under the new covenant, Jesus (the Messiah) is our High Priest, Prophet and King. Under the new covenant, the anointed are those who have God in their hearts. Therefore, this statement was intended in specific contexts or situations, and not intended for Christians (believers of the new covenant) to take as a kind of blanket statement to apply without limitation in all situations, or to apply exclusively to themselves. 
Unfortunately, this statement is often subjected to the process of “wicca” (literally meaning to bend, twist or manipulate). It is cherry-picked, twisted and misused by a minority of shonky or misguided Christian leaders to discourage people questioning their teachings, morality or level of accountability. When bent into a human agenda, this scripture becomes a doctrine of its own, and one that I would call the “doctrine of immunity”.
The above scripture is often used as fodder for unhealthy dynamics in bible-based cults, but the dynamics themselves may be found in any destructive group – perhaps under cover of other holy writings, or even the words of the group leader if they are believed to carry supreme authority.
In extreme situations, and particularly situations in which the “anointed” has a significant amount of authority over vulnerable persons, it seems there is no limit as to how far this rule of immunity can apply.
Defining “touch not”
In addition to the above, the definition of “touch not” can also become quite twisted and broadened beyond its original and contextual meaning. In its Old Testament context, it basically means “harm not”. David’s original intent to assassinate Saul would constitute such harm.
However, those who misunderstand or abuse this scripture believe “touch not” to mean a range of other things – many of which would hardly be considered harm – resulting in double standards and one way rules.
“Touch not” may go by other terms such as “do not go against”, “do not speak against”, “do not stir up dissention”, “do not sow discord” or “do not bring disunity/division”. In the context of “speaking against”, it may go by “do not gossip” or “do not slander”. (Most of these variations have scriptural overtones).
Examples of “touch not” might include expressing doubts about the group’s teachings (“don’t question”), expressing “negative” feelings about the way in which the anointed handled a particular situation (“don’t feel”), or sharing with any person other than the anointed issues you were having with them (“don’t talk”). Basically, “touch not” could be conveniently applied to anything the anointed required it to.
The first thing one must understand is that those who enforce this “doctrine of immunity” understand themselves to be “the anointed” because of their position of spiritual authority. In cults or destructive groups, the group leader or leaders may consider themselves to be spiritually and/or morally elevated in some way than those lesser in rank to them. They may call themselves “enlightened” or “chosen”. Or, they may go by their title such as “reverend”, “guru” or “life coach” which by default would classify them as being the anointed – whether that position be given to them by an organisation or other person, or whether it be self-assigned.
At Mercy Ministries, staff often stated…
“We are ordained authority, anointed by God“
“We are ordained authority placed over you by God“
…often preceded or followed by…
“Each staff member is prayed into their position”
“Placed over you by God” alludes to Paul’s instruction to the Roman church to obey the governing authorities and civil laws (“laws of the land”). (I will discuss this in more depth in a moment).
“Prayed into” meant that they were prayed for by other staff members (the anointed) after they successfully gained a job with Mercy Ministries. I speculate that this process may have been seen as a process of transference of this anointing.
The logic goes that if one is the anointed and therefore elevated, given their position, then those not in an equal or higher position of authority to them are therefore not the anointed. At best, they are less anointed. In any event, they are not anointed for tasks that are generally considered to be the responsibility or privilege of the peers or superiors of “the anointed”. These tasks might include things like confronting issues of accountability, morality or erroneous teachings.
At Mercy Ministries, it was understood that staff were not in the program to deal with their character flaws, we were. So their job was to bring correction to us, and they were believed to be “anointed” for this very task.
However, as we were not in positions of spiritual authority over them and not “the anointed”, and we were there to deal with our own problems, it was reprehensible that we should attempt to raise concerns about their character issues, irrespective of their ongoing impact on us.
Earlier, I mentioned that staff frequently said…
“We are ordained authority placed over you by God“
As previously indicated, placed over you alludes to St Paul’s epistle to the Roman church in which he instructs them to obey civil laws. (This scripture frequently popped up in our discipline reports on the popular prescribed topic of submission).
The passage of Romans 13:1-7 reads as follows: –
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God in some translations “placed over you”]. So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due“.
So when staff used the above statement, they were not urging us to obey the governing authorities of Australia. (Indeed, they themselves were found to be in breach of the Trade Practices Act by the ACCC, found to be in breach of the Privacy Act (NSW) by the NSW Privacy Commissioner and they also drew concern from the Australian Medical Association for potentially unethical protocol). Rather, they were telling us that God and His holy word required us to obey and submit to whichever requirement they were trying to enforce at that time. For us to disobey them was equivalent to us disobeying God.
However, there are three vital things we must understand about this scripture which actually contradict Mercy’s application. The following observations are excerpts from an article written by LT called “Covering and Authority” on a blog devoted to discussing theology around authority and submission. Some of the following statements apply more to the Christian regard for government authority than for spiritual leadership, but I kept them in because omitting them would create gaps and confusion: –
“1. Paul is clearly referring to the government
In his argument Paul, refers to three things that are applicable to governments but not to churches: –
• It bears the sword
• It administers retribution on the wrongdoer
• It collects taxes
2. God instituted government, but that does not always mean we should follow it
When we consider whole counsel of scripture, we see many examples where authority is deemed illegitimate or in rebellion against God’s divine will. We can reconcile this with Romans 13 by acknowledging God has ordained governments to fulfil a role in society, but these authorities can be in rebellion against God. Paul doesn’t say authorities represent God, just that they have an appointed role in God’s plan.
Covering theology often speaks of leaders being God’s delegated authority. If everyone in authority represents God to the people they are in charge of, how can: –
• Satan offer Jesus the kingdoms of this world (Mat 4:8-9)
• Satan be the ruler of this world (Joh 12:31)
• The apostles decide to disobey their rulers (Acts 4:19-20)
• Jesus warn his disciples to be discerning in how they follow the instruction of the scribes and Pharisees (Mat 23:23)
• God give a prophet the authority to uproot entire nations (Jer 1:10)
• The government be a tool of the anti-Christ in the Book of Revelation
3. Resisting God and resisting what God has ordained are two different things
Paul has chosen to be very precise in his wording in Romans 13. If he meant to say people are resisting God if they resist authority, he would have said that. Instead, he said that those who resist authority are resisting what God ordained or put in order. God may have established the leaders of Judah, but they rebelled against God. At that point, people must resist that which God ordained because people corrupted it. For Jeremiah to be submitted to God’s authority, he had to speak against the authority of his government, the government which God instituted.
The word translated ordained or instituted in this passage is “tasso”. According to Thayer’s lexicon, “tasso” means to “put in order” which is why English translators would use “institute” or “ordain”. A parking lot manager may be appointed/ordained/instituted to be in authority in the parking lot, but that doesn’t mean they directly represent the CEO of the company. Someone who is appointed to a specific position walks in the authority of that position. If the parking lot manager exercises his or her authority to command a parking lot worker to break company policy, a worker may end up in total rebellion against the manager but still completely respecting and following the wishes of the ultimate authority“.
At Mercy Ministries, the very opposite of the true meaning of this passage was practiced, or rather, enforced. This passage made frequent appearances in forced written reports on topics such as “why God wants me to submit to staff”.
Above and beneath
Those who consider themselves to be “the anointed” may believe their spiritual gifts of discernment such as interpreting God’s will and holy writings or hearing from God in general are sharper than the gifts and intellect of those “beneath” them. As a result, they may feel entitled to bypass the process of obtaining relevant qualifications if their position would normally require same. They may feel that because they have been placed in their position by God, they are under no obligation to provide others with an earthly recognition of the authority they claim to have, or to be accountable to earthly authority – and ironically in some cases, even if it meant disobeying the “laws of the land”.
At Mercy Ministries, we were often told by staff…
“God has not only anointed us and placed us in these positions, but He has also qualified us“
This one was spouted mainly by staff who were about 20 years old and studying at bible college. Another variation of this was…
“God has used my life experience to qualify me for this position“
This was often in lieu of a relevant qualification to care for at-risk young women with severe mental health and trauma issues. (All but maybe three I am aware of had no relevant qualification to support their roles, and one of them had not yet completed her course). When they said this, it generally meant that they had experienced some kind of difficulty in life such as a troubled adolescence or an eating disorder, which they believed could help them relate to us better. It may be true that one could empathise more if they have “been there” in some sense, but this provides no guarantee that they have the level of character, recovery or tools needed to professionally assist others overcome serious and complex issues.
On the subject of accountability, I remember raising concerns about staff accountability on two occasions during my time there. The first time, the staff member stared at me and said nothing. When I say “stare”, it was a look of contempt and humiliation that made me want to crawl into a hole and die, but I am not sure how to express that in a less subjective manner. As unpleasant as this response was, it was certainly one of the better ones, and much more preferable than being labelled or yelled at for daring to ask.
On the second occasion, I was met with…
“We are accountable. We are accountable all the way back to America“
This staff member then went on to explain how they email reports each day to Nancy Alcorn at Mercy Ministries of America, which is also something that was explained to us quite often. These reports detail (in that staff member’s own choice of words) the various altercations, “chats” and occasions of any other staff/resident contact that went beyond the mundane. Of the reports I have seen in my own file, some tell of events that I remember going down very differently.
There were a handful of people in Australia that program staff would have been accountable to (according to the “touch not” mindset). One of them was the Director of Mercy Ministries Australia, but strangely, we were forbidden from disclosing to them (or any corporate staff for that matter) issues to do with the program or staff. The remaining people were those who formed the board of Mercy Ministries Australia, and the protocol for residents to approach them was to have program staff forward requests to them on our behalf. The only one I know that went through was a request for girls to receive more than $30 per week out of their welfare payments which was received directly by Mercy Ministries, however that request was denied.
The anointed are always right, more right and within their right
Given that the anointed are therefore spiritually/morally superior, or more “attuned” to God and His will, then the personal perspective of the anointed may be seen as a higher truth than the perspectives of others. Their feelings or suspicions may carry more clout, in most or all situations, than what evidential facts or another’s testimony may indicate to the contrary. This dynamic is very dangerous and can have extreme and devastating consequences. When this rule is present, it may seem that there is no limit to how far it can apply. At Mercy, staff were always right. If a resident was right, then the staff were more right. If the staff were wrong, they were within their right regardless.
This rule can also be applied to a group’s ideology, and Dr Robert J Lifton refers to this as “doctrine over person”. Here is a description of this dynamic: –
“Every issue in one’s life can be reduced to a single set of principles that have an inner coherence to the point that one can claim the experience of truth and feel it. The pattern of doctrine over person occurs when there is a conflict between what one feels oneself experiencing and what the doctrine or ideology says one should experience. If one questions the beliefs of the group or the leaders of the group, one is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to even question. It is always “turned around” on them and the questioner/criticiser is questioned rather than the questions answered directly. The underlying assumption is that doctrine/ideology is ultimately more valid, true and real than any aspect of actual human character or human experience, and one must subject one’s experience to that “truth”. The experience of contradiction can be immediately associated with guilt. One is made to feel that doubts are reflections of one’s own evil. When doubt arises, conflicts become intense“.
In addition to all of the above, we now move into new territory. Not only are the non-anointed to “touch not” by refraining to disagree, question, feel, think, talk or displaying an incorrect attitude, but they are also to surrender to the higher truth of the anointed. This may mean that if a the anointed suspect (or “discern”) that one has committed some sin, or secretly have an ungodly thought, feeling or motive, their suspicion is a higher truth than any argument the non-anointed could give to the contrary, even with supporting evidence.
This was very true of Mercy Ministries. A resident asserting her truthful position could result in a plethora of undesirable consequences. It may start by a staff member trying to talk her around to agreeing with their truth. If she resisted or disagreed, she might have two or more staff members trying to talk her around – all at once, or a couple at a time over a number of meetings. She might be told that not only is she guilty of such-and-such, but she is also “unsubmissive”, “unteachable” or “in rebellion against God”. Throughout this process, she may accumulate disciplines (extra chores or written reports). She might land herself a special meeting with her counsellor, program manager and senior program manager as a final attempt to talk her around. But chances are, the meetings have probably already escalated into intimidation and yelling. If she has not been broken down by this stage, she may be told she is “unwilling to change”, either as a final attempt to make her “submit” or as a preamble to being told “you are being dismissed from the program”.
A situation was not considered resolved until or unless the resident accepted the “truth” that the staff member was insisting upon. This was achieved by the resident’s spirit being broken and confused by the verbal, emotional, spiritual and intellectual abuse, or the more promising alternative of the resident resorting to telling a lie for the sake of avoiding further harassment.
If I could give a metaphor for this dynamic, it was like reading a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book over and over again that gave only two possible endings. If you chose to continue asserting a truth they did not like, you caused yourself more and more trouble. If you gave them the only response they would accept, you achieved a false peace and the issue was “resolved”.
(The previous piece I wrote in this series called “You are unwilling to change” describes this process in more detail. It is worth a read if you want to better understand what I have briefly touched on here).
This is generally the way conflicts escalated at Mercy Ministries, but there were obviously variations to this process. Sometimes, one might encounter verbal abuse earlier on in their resistance. Other times, one might encounter a staff member who had the capacity to be more reasonable and less reactive, who would still try to talk them around but not in a way that left them feeling traumatised. The best situation one could hope for is that the staff member who made the initiating assertion had some capacity to be reasonable. In this case, they may accept a valid explanation, and this would negate the necessity to go through the traumatic process described above.
The following is an excerpt from an email I sent Nancy Alcorn in 2007. I shared a personal experience of mine that illustrates the above process. To this day, I struggle to verbalise what happened on this occasion, and become dissociated and verbally scattered when I try.
“[This event] happened around October or November 2005.
We were having bed time and quiet time half an hour earlier than usual on a Saturday night. Marnie* and Tanya* were working that night. I knocked on the staff room door and said “just to let you know, we usually have bed time half an hour later on Saturday nights”.
Marnie and Tanya (staff) accused me of being intentionally rude, of undermining their authority as staff members. It kept changing from “you were being intentionally rude and sarcastic” to “the way you said it was rude” to “the fact you even said it at all was rude”. I disagreed with all of these statements which got me into more trouble for being unsubmissive and unteachable and this small incident was blown out of proportion into four meetings.
When Marnie made these accusations, I felt scared and confused.
When I was spoken to by four different staff members over the course of four meetings, I felt scared, unable to leave the room, disempowered, angry, full of rage, and eventually bitter.
When Marnie accused me of discussing it with the other girls when I had not, I felt under complete attack, scared of what would happen, unsure of how to convince her that she was completely misunderstanding me.
When Kylie* yelled over me and wouldn’t let me speak, I felt like my spirit broke. When Kylie used the word “vile” regarding me and/or my behaviour, it penetrated my spirit deeply. When Kylie would not listen to what I had to say, and kept yelling over me, I felt my spirit break.
When Kylie lied to me about what the manual said about Saturday bed times (I had already checked), I felt angry, confused, a little insane, and unable to show her otherwise out of fear of what her reaction might be.
When I was told to write out disciplines about submission and teachability, I felt defeated, shattered and confused. I also became very confused about who God is.
When I was writing out these scriptures, I felt like my mind had been twisted and that there was no limit to the submission we had to give Mercy staff“.
Staff worked in twos and threes. If a not-so-reasonable staff member started a drama and the other was more reasonable, the protocol seemed to be that they were required to support each other in these matters. In the aforementioned email, I shared an example that supports this supposition: –
“Nelly* was having some issues with a staff decision she felt was unreasonable. She had been to staff about it, and finally talked to Samantha* about it [a staff member]…She felt that she was able to explain her side of things fully, and when Samantha* could acknowledge that what Nelly* was saying was completely reasonable, she said…
“Even though I see what you’re saying is valid, I am still inclined to support staff here because they are staff“
If a staff member was potentially out of line in a situation, it was deemed irrelevant. All attention would be on the resident’s offence – whether real or perceived – however the same measure was not used to weigh up a staff member’s offence, even if it was equal to or greater in proportion to the resident’s offence.
To share an example of this manifestation from my own experience…
I was praying about a traumatic event from my childhood with my counsellor. She gave me very specific parameters in which to hear from God, and I failed to hear from Him within those parameters or within a convenient amount of time. My counsellor became impatient and angry. She began yelling at me. She made baseless accusations, among them that I was “playing games with staff”, but failed to give examples. This went on for some time, and I finally snapped and yelled “STOP F____ING WITH MY HEAD!” I immediately apologised for snapping, and she went on to make more accusations.
A few days later I was called into a meeting with her and a senior staff member. First, it was expressed to me very firmly that what I had done was very bad and very wrong. I agreed and again apologised to the counsellor. I said I had written out scriptures on anger to deal with my anger problem. Towards the end of the discussion, I began to say to the counsellor “In future, I don’t mind if you bring up things with me or point them out, but can…” I was going to say “can you please do it this way” or “can you please be more specific or give me examples so that I know what you mean”, but I was interrupted with…
“She’s the counsellor! You’re the resident! She can bring it up however she wants to!“
As a discipline, I was ordered to scrub the tiles around the pool. I was also going to be put on probation, but they decided not to in the end. This was one of the harsher responses one might encounter, although I did get in worse trouble for other things.
In a long email I wrote to Nancy Alcorn, I said of this event…
“After this meeting, I felt like I had done something aweful…The message I got from this ordeal was…”all of [my counsellor’s] provoking and accusations towards me are completely justified and deserved because I snapped and swore at her“.
Strangely (or not), the note from my Mercy file detailing this event tells a very different story – a story so different, so factually different, that I struggle to believe it was simply an issue of perspective.
On another occasion, every girl in the home was having issues with a particular staff member. (Let’s call her Jan*). Some girls felt excessively picked on by her, others felt her decisions were harsh, unfair and without reason. We were never allowed to talk about these things among ourselves, but it was quite difficult to contain when the problem was being experienced and witnessed by all of the residents with increasing frequency. We ended up nominating one girl to talk to another staff member about her. (Let’s call this staff member Mabel*). The nominated resident appeared to have good favour with Mabel.
My memory of the outcome was that Mabel spoke with us during morning class the following day. I can’t remember much of what she said about the actual problem, but I don’t remember her denying the problem. But she said that it was really important for us to not talk among ourselves about these things, and that we really needed to follow protocol and go directly to staff. Shortly after this, some girls were asked to apologise to Jan in front of the other residents and staff.
Rewards and punishments
Those who establish themselves as the law supersede the law. Those who see themselves as the anointed may perceive themselves to be agents of God appointed to bring God’s discipline and correction to those in there care, by whatever means. (This is rarely a mutual luxury). In this case, there may be a rewards and punishments system in place which is more often than not dominated by punishment and fear of impending punishment.
Rewards might be earned for: –
• Conformity to group thinking and behaviour
• Loyalty to the anointed, such as dobbing
• Presenting a favourable image of the group to outsiders
Rewards may come in the form of: –
• “Love” by way of special favour, flattery and affection
• Being recognised in front of others as a successful member of the group
• Promotion to positions of authority over others in the group
• Opportunities to promote the group to outsiders
• Not being harassed by the anointed, or at least as much as others
The official rewards system at Mercy Ministries was “merits”. They were a kind of currency that could be earned for good behaviour etc with which we could buy naps or cans of fizzy drink.
Another common but unofficial reward was special treatment from certain staff members. Sometimes this was for reward-deserving behaviour, other times it might be simply because that staff member liked the residents personality. Favour was also given sometimes to girls who dobbed on others.
This favour might look like affection or spending one-on-one time with them such as letting them hang out with them in the program staff office. A staff member I recall would give chocolates and lollies to girls she liked.
From those of us who appeared to be making progress with our recovery, a few were chosen to represent the work of Mercy Ministries in the promotional material or speaking to Gloria Jeans officials visiting the home. These girls tended to be ones with outward “before/after” pictures and whos testimonies glorified the program. Ie, “Mercy was my last hope and it literally saved my life”. (I don’t doubt the sincerity of girls with those stories, although it concerned me that the way their testimonies were used appeared to give more glory to Mercy Ministries that God to whom it ultimately belongs).
As previously mentioned, punishments tend to play a larger role as people in cults and destructive groups obey out of fear. Punishments may be meted out for…well…basically anything at all deemed punishable at the whim of the anointed. The more common reasons for punishments found in cults and destructive groups might be: –
• Criticism of the group leaders or ideas
• Independent thinking
• Not “showing” the change/results that support the group’s image or claims of success
• Physical labour
• Physical or psychological abuse
• Guilt trips
• Encountering “unloving behaviour” by way of shunning or passive aggression
• Threats of getting into trouble or excommunication
• Being played off by the anointed with others in the group
• Extra sessions of indoctrination
• Deprivation of something deemed as a privilege by the anointed
It is not uncommon for punishments to be extreme or disproportionate to the corresponding offence, let alone undeserved.
The rewards and punishments system plays a major role in psychologically conditioning one for dependence and compliability. Not only does it evidence an already existent authoritarian cultic relationship , it also adds an element of “parent/child” to the power imbalance, hence stripping a person of their adulthood.
It is an absurd concept to an adult outside of this situation that one could claim the right to interfere with another in this manner, let alone for that person to simply accept and comply with such interferences being imposed on them.
A healthy child who undergoes a healthy development process generally develops into an adult who is independent and empowered to think for themselves. However, the cult environment does just the opposite. A healthy (but deceived) adult enters into the cult environment and regresses to the intellectual state of a child, in that their decision-making capacity, identity, sense of boundaries and ability to think and act for themselves are weakened. Decisions are made for them by the anointed. They may be told how they think or feel, what they want and what they need. The anointed decides for them what is deemed a right, and what is deemed a privilege. “The anointed knows better” is as far as their reasoning capacity can take them. Their boundaries are constantly broken down until their locus of control is in the hands of the anointed.
At Mercy Ministries, fear of impending punishment was something I experienced for most of the 12 months I spent there. I was constantly hyper vigilant, carefully wording my sentences and tip-toeing around the more volatile staff members in the hope my laying low would keep me out of trouble. Often, I was even scared to knock on the program office door. But despite my most desperate efforts, I still managed to cop a few abundant servings of “love”.
At Mercy, punishments came in the following forms: –
• Disciplines. These could be: –
o An extra chore
o An extra tape series. These were usually given out for counselling homework. The topic would usually correspond with the message staff was trying to enforce. Eg, if you had been accused of being unsubmissive, you might receive a tape series on the topic of submission.
o A written report on a topic decided by the staff member prescribing it. Again, this was often enforcing of the message staff were trying to get through. If you were accused of lying, your report topic might be “why God wants me to not lie to staff”. You would need to find supporting scriptures to quote in your report.
• If you were in serious trouble or on probation, you could miss the Friday shopping trip or an opportunity for weekend leave.
• Missing recreation (exercise) for some offences
• Being asked into the program office for a “chat”. This could be quick and simple, or long and drawn out. It could be done nicely, or it could become verbally abusive. It was a bit of a lucky dip really, and in part dependent on the staff member you were dealing with.
• Having to sign a “separation contract”. This contract required that you and person X were not to talk with each other, sit next to each other at meals or in class, spend any one-on-one time together or be shopping buddies on Friday. The idea for this was to avoid girls becoming exclusive or codependent. They were usually given to girls who were becoming good friends with eachother (some may have been codependent, others were probably not), girls who got into trouble together, or girls who had been having “negative” conversations about staff or the program.
Whilst the cause could not often be predicted, more common reasons for receiving disciplines at Mercy Ministries (aside from altercations) were things like: –
• Forgetting to do a chore which we were rostered on to do
• Not having a chore done in time
• Forgetting to go to the program office for meds
• Being caught talking with room mates during quiet time or after lights out
• Being found out that we failed to seek staff permission to say lend another resident an item.
• Being caught three times within two weeks having dust on your bedside table, having slightly imperfect hospital corners on your made bed, not having your bed made before breakfast, or having anything out of place in your room.
• Missing your rostered laundry opportunity (this wasn’t so common but it also depended on the staff member)
• Acting out with your issue (eg, having vomited after a meal or having self harmed)
For other offences, it was said that they could potentially result in a discipline, however it was an uncommon consequence. But the potential was always there, and for me, that definitely created a constant “fear of impending doom”.
The following is an excerpt from a “Resident Handbook Multiple Choice Test” I took on 11 July 2005. The correct answers are underlined: –
I must ask permission before:
a) Turning on a light switch
b) Turning on the TV
c) Turnong on the air conditioning in my room
d) All of the above
My bed must be made by:
d) Before breakfast
I may use my razor:
a) Once a week
b) Twice a week
c) Three times a week
d) Whenever I want
If I want to bless another resident with an item or encouragement note I must:
a) Ask the resident if this is ok
b) Just do it
c) Ask permission from staff
d) Ask a resident who is close to graduating
Failing to provide all your receipts after shopping may result in receiving a discipline of:
a) Extra counselling sessions
b) Restricting you from your next shopping trip
c) Spending a weekend away with staff
d) All of the above
I may have a sleep in the afternoon if:
a) I tell the staff on duty that I am praying
b) I have had a hard day
c) If I am not feeling well
d) If I am pregnant
God and the anointed: One and the same
Earlier, I shared about how the anointed may believe their spiritual gifts and discernment are sharper than the gifts of others, stemming from the idea that they are “elevated” in some way.
The most powerful aspect of this dynamic is that if they are elevated above others, then they are closer to God (who is perfect), or more like God, than others. As “the anointed” are authority believed to be instituted by God, their words and actions may be seen as or claimed to be representative of God Himself. In extreme situations, a cult leader or leaders may claim to be God or the way to God.
At Mercy Ministries, this fusion of staff and God was extremely powerful in my personal experience. I may have shared a similar analogy elsewhere on my blog, but here is the best way I know how to sum up the enmeshment of staff and God…
Their words were God’s words. Their ways were God’s ways. Their will was God’s will. Their feelings towards us were God’s feelings. Their confrontations and punishments were God’s correction. Their suspicious thoughts and subsequent accusations were spiritual discernments revealed to them by God. If they condemned or rejected us, that was from God. Fear of staff was the fear of God. Submission to staff was submission to God. The scriptures about who we are in Christ were true, subject to any conflicting labels spoken over us by staff. The program and methods were infallible, God is perfect. Mercy Ministries was our last and only hope. If we were dismissed from the program, we had no hope and God had given up on us.
There are many symptoms one might experience after leaving a cult or destructive group. Below is an excerpt I came across that explains and lists these symptoms. Underlined are the ones I experienced myself..
“After exiting a cult, an individual may experience a period of intense and often conflicting emotions. She or he may feel relief to be out of the group, but also may feel grief over the loss of positive elements in the cult, such as friendships, a sense of belonging or the feeling of personal worth generated by the group’s stated ideals or mission. The emotional upheaval of the period is often characterised by “post-cult trauma syndrome”: –
• Spontaneous crying
• Sense of loss
• Depression and suicidal thoughts
• Fear that not obeying the cult’s wishes will result in God’s wrath or loss of salvation
• Alienation from family, friends
• Sense of isolation, loneliness due to being surrounded by people who have no basis for understanding cult life
• Fear of evil spirits taking over one’s life outside the cult
• Scrupulosity, excessive rigidity about rules of minor importance
• Panic disproportionate to one’s circumstances
• Fear of going insane
• Confusion about right and wrong
• Sexual conflicts
• Unwarranted guilt
The period of exiting from a cult is usually a traumatic experience and, like any great change in a person’s life, involves passing through stages of accommodation to the change. Passing through these stages is seldom a smooth progression. It is fairly typical to bounce back and forth between different stages. Not everyone achieves the stage of accommodation/acceptance. Some return to cult life. But for those who do not, the following may be experienced for a period of several months: –
• Flashbacks to cult life
• Simplistic black-white thinking
• Sense of unreality
• Suggestibility, i.e., automatic obedience responses to trigger-terms of the cult’s Loaded language or to innocent suggestions
• Disassociation (spacing out)
• Feeling “out of it”
• “Stockholm Syndrome”: knee-jerk impulses to defend the cult when it is criticized, even if the cult hurt the person
• Difficulty concentrating
• Incapacity to make decisions
• Hostility reactions, either toward anyone who criticizes the cult or toward the cult itself
• Mental confusion
• Low self-esteem
• Dread of running into a current cult-member by mistake (I felt absolute terror at the prospect of seeing Mercy staff. On one occassion where I saw them socially and couldn’t leave because I was on a boat, I spent most of the time in a corner hyperventilating while my now husband was trying unsuccessfully to calm me down)
• Loss of a sense of how to carry out simple tasks (it took me about a year before I could do grocery shopping by myself without taking over an hour)
• Dread of being cursed or condemned by the cult
• Hangovers of habitual cult behaviours like chanting
• Difficulty managing time
• Trouble holding down a job
Most of these symptoms subside as the victim mainstreams into everyday routines of normal life. In a small number of cases, the symptoms continue“
For me, deciding to follow Christ was something I took very seriously. I was a Christian before I went to Mercy. I desired His will for my life and was in a constant process of surrendering my life over to Him. I had a growing revelation of His love and grace, and I loved reading the bible most days. My faith was developing in a healthy way and positive effects of this began showing with my choices and with my mental health. I still had a long way to go obviously, otherwise I would not have felt the need to seek the help of Mercy Ministries.
After 12 months at Mercy Ministries, I felt utterly terrified of Mercy staff, close to physically toxic when I tried to read the bible and in a constant state of anxiety about the idea of losing my salvation. I struggled to even like God for awhile, and my trust in Him is still being restored. My reality was that if staff disapproved of me, God disapproved. God was on my side, but not if I had differences with staff. Staff were representations of God in the flesh. If staff demanded their truth from me that my heart could not agree with, it meant that my spirit was jaded and I just needed God to reveal that truth to me. If I disobeyed staff’s will for my life, I was out of God’s will and at risk of losing my salvation. To stay at Mercy, conform, and finally graduate was my last and only chance for healing. I could only be grateful that I was not dismissed from the program, because if I was, then I would have believed I was totally damned by God and completely without hope.
Post-Mercy, it took me a long time to separate myself from the enmeshment that occurred. Enmeshment of staff and God, and enmeshment of staff and me. But when I was eventually able to get clarity, I realised why they had so much power over me, even after I had graduated and left. The power they had was the power that I had chosen to give God in my life. I felt like staff had “hijacked” my relationship with God. They were gaining the control in my life that I thought I was surrendering to God. I felt like a puppet on a string. So many of their demands were dressed up in scripture, and the word of God which was previously setting me free was wielded as a weapon of manipulation and control.
“To whom much is given, much is required”
The bible is clear about what God requires of those who tend to the spiritual welfare of his sheep. (1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:6-12 are good starting points if you are interested in exploring these further). To name but a few of these qualities, overseers are to be: –
• Above reproach
• Self controlled
• Able to teach
• Not violent but gentle
• Not quarrelsome
• Must not be a recent convert
• Not conceited
The “touch not” mindset says “I am blameless, this means I can not be blamed” or “God has entrusted me with this position because I am above reproach, therefore no human may put my integrity into question”.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:22, Paul says: –
“Abstain from all appearance of evil“
(Underline added for emphasis). Not only are we to abstain from evil, but, in the words of one commentary: –
“We should therefore abstain from evil, and all appearances of evil, from sin, and that which looks like sin, leads to it, and borders upon it. He who is not shy of the appearances of sin, who shuns not the occasions of sin, and who avoids not the temptations and approaches to sin, will not long abstain from the actual commission of sin“.
This scripture is intended for all Christians. (Even “the anointed” are not exempt!) This scripture instructs us to go out of our way to be open and transparent with others, and to refrain from doing things which, whilst innocent, may easily be interpreted or speculated upon as sin.
However, the “touch not” mindset says “I am above reproach, therefore I am beyond the need to be transparent” rather than “I need to be as above reproach as possible by being open and transparent”.
In my humble opinion, the biggest hypocrisy of all behind the “touch not” mindset is that it sends the message that one is beyond sin, or more beyond sin than another. The bible is clear that every human being is a sinner. We sin. We were born into a sinful world and we have the sin nature within us. Identifying as a sinner qualifies us to receive God’s free gift of grace. If we are sinners, we are also forgiven. If we are not sinners, we have no need for Jesus ultimate sacrifice. This is at the very core of the Christian faith. That is why I believe it is completely un-Christian for a Christian to consider themselves beyond the requirement to account to those they care for. The second issue is that the anointed are actually all who are in Christ, not just Christians in positions of authority. Therefore, the harm “the anointed” inflict upon…well…THE ANIONTED, and by deviating so diabolically from what their role ordains them to do, actually means that they are the ones truly bringing harm on the anointed.
Today, I am thankful to God that I am now in a safe and healthy spiritual community. It is by no means a perfect, pain-free spiritual utopia. (I have not gone to heaven just yet). But it is not perfection that defines a healthy spiritual environment. It is freedom. The freedom to feel and think for myself. The freedom to say “yes” because I am truly free to say “no”. The freedom to engage in mutual, respectful dialogue when I have wronged or have been wronged. The safety I feel when I hear my pastor demonstrate his firm grasp on the true gospel and his own ongoing need for God’s grace. The freedom to grow, learn and mature as God works in me. The freedom to heal! The freedom to know God for myself and make my own decisions based on what I feel God wants me to do.
Most of all, I am thankful that the thing I treasure most in this world has been restored to me: my relationship with Jesus.