Interview: exit-counselor Rick Ross
By Skipp Porteous
Countless thousands of Americans have submitted their lives to the
control of unscrupulous leaders who claim to be ordained by God. The
leaders of these destructive Bible-based groups entice the unwary
with their vain promises. In turn, individual lives are disrupted
and families are divided. While many people have simply walked away
from harmful groups, others have resorted to the aid of exit-counselors
- sometimes called deprogrammers. Rick Ross is among the most successful
of these counselors.
In dealing with oppressive religious groups, the term "destructive
Bible-based religious group" is sometimes used. Please explain.
A destructive Bible-based religious group is typically highly authoritarian.
The leader or leaders assume total control over the followers, who
abdicate their individual autonomy - their ability to critically think
and evaluate circumstances for themselves.
There may be a system of discipleship, or so-called headship, by which
the leadership of the group assumes authority/control over their followers.
That may be part of a pyramid scheme, or it may be manifested more
in a shepherding type of situation, where the pastor of the particular
group, or the elders, belive that God has delegated all of his authority
to them to shepherd their flock or sheep. Then they govern every aspect
of individual members' lives. This may include their finances, their
dating, their personal sex life, their interaction with their extended
family, and their interaction with society at large.
And, typically, the members of a destructive Bible-based group see
the world in very black and and white terms, and a kind of a we-they
mentality. Those within the group are the spiritually elite, or elect,
and everyone and everything outside is wordly, evil, carnal, or even
satanic. The group may have a very legalistic approach to governing
individual members' lives, by excluding such things as television,
the media, radio, the cinema. They may even have a blacklist of books
that may not be read and periodicals that may not be subscribed to.
This also may include a dress code, such as the United Pentecostal
Church International, where women members may not wear dresses above
the knee, may not have sleeves above the elbow, must have dresses
that are buttoned up to the neck, may not cut their hair, may not
wear makeup or jewelry, may not wear certain types of swimsuits, and
Another outward symptom may be disfellowshipping or shunning - which
is done by Jehovah's Witnesses - where members may not talk to ex-members
who have been disfellowshipped or shunned. This limits the Witnesses'
access to outside information about their own group.
Excessive tithing is also a typical symptom - where members are tithing
at least 10 percent of their gross income, and up to as high as 40
percent. And, typically, in a Bible-based destructive group there's
little, if any, accountability for the funds.
You mentioned the United Pentecostal Church. What are some of the
other dangerous groups that are active today?
They include the Boston Church of Christ, many different independent
Pentecostal churches, and Baptist churches that have no denominational
accountability. Essentially, the members in those churches, in regard
to their safety and well-being, are involved in shooting craps. They,
in a manner of speaking, roll the dice and say, "Please God, give
me a good leader, a good pastor." And frequently they come up with
snake eyes. They end up in a position where the pastor is not an ethical
or moral person. And there is no denominational accountability, no
one they can look to and say, "Bishop, or convention board, help me!
My pastor's out of line. He's abusing funds; he's abusing members."
In the independent church there's no outside accountability.
Do you think that people fall into these traps because they pray for
God to give them a good pastor or leader, and when someone comes along,
they automatically think it's God's answer to their prayer?
Well, that certainly is the way the pastor is going to sell the members
on his control over them. They frequently say that they are anointed
of God, or they are called by God, or that they have received a word
from the Lord. Essentially, these leaders claim that they have a hotline
to heaven - that Jesus or God speaks to them directly. The members
are told that they may not question the leadership because "thou shalt
not touch God's anointed." They quote obscure scriptures that have
very little to do with contemporary leadership. What has really happened
is that individuals have abdicated their ability to make any decisions
regarding leadership, or critical decisions regarding their lives.
From your experience, what are your recommendations for parents? What
should parents look for?
Has the young person entered a group where questioning is discouraged,
or a group which sees all Christians outside of the immediate fellowship
as being unsaved or lukewarm? Has the family observed radical changes
in behavior, specifically all the old friends are being thrown aside,
there's a new group of friends, and they all belong to the particular
church.Parents may also observe an obsessive-compulsive kind of behavior
pattern in their child. Specifically, there's a total lack of balance
in their lives. Church has become the total focus. They're going to
three, four, five meetings a week. Their studies and grade point averages
are falling down. Other things, such as hobbies they cared about,
athletic endeavors, clubs that they may have belonged to - everything
else is falling apart. And the church and its leadership have become
the total, obsessive focus of their lives.
When parents begin to observe these symptoms - and again, the black
and white thinking, the total, uncritical acceptance of anything told
to the individual member by the leadership - then the parents should
realize that this could be a Bible-based destructive group. Warning
flags should be going up. Now, if they decide that this is the case,
they should consider professional intervention, where they retain
someone like myself who will sit down and talk to that individual
on a voluntary basis and inform them, talk to them about the type
of group they've become involved in, and allow them to have a period
of time where they can make some objective decisions about their future
involvement and commitment to the group.
For example, the group may have a track record they're unaware of,
such as Jehovah's Witnesses or the United Pentecostal Church, where
there have been ex-members who have gotten out and who have stories
to tell that would lead a member to pause and question fruther commitment
to the group. Re: the Jehovah's Witnesses - there's a wonderful book
that's been written, _Crisis_of_Conscience_ by Raymond Franz. Very
few members of the Jehovah's Witnesses have been exposed to this book.
I dealt with a very destructive church associated with the UPCI in
York, Nebraska, where children who belonged to the church were removed
from a parent's custody, because the judge deemed that the church
as a destructive Bible-based group that would do harm to the children
emotionally and psychologically. The UPCI knew about that church,
they knew about the abuses of that pastor, and yet they continue to
this day to allow his credentials to remain in effect. He was involved
in a very destructive form of the Pentecostal movement I'm sure you're
aware of, called deliverance ministry.
I've worked with many, many people who have come out of deliverance
ministries emotionally and psychologically scarred. I have worked
with people who have, as a direct result of a deliverance ministry,
been placed in a psychiatric hospital and medicated by psychotropic
drugs. And of course, when we're talking deliverance ministry we're
talking about people like Kenneth Hagin the Pentecostal movement -
and many of the Assemblies of God churches distribute this literaure.
A deliverance ministry basically tells their members that any type
of negative feels they may have - negative things that are occurring
in their day-to-day lives - can be ascribed to demons or the devil,
or that they are demon-possessed, and that they need to be delivered.
They got someone in the group who's a self-styled exorcist who then
joins together with others and they cast demons out of that individual.
This can traumatize a person and cause almost irreparable psychological
and emotional damage.
I worked with one young man who was hospitalized as a direct result
of a deliverance ministry that was a small prayer group within an
Assemblies of God church. And I worked with a 30-year-old housewife
who was also victimized by a deliverance ministry. She also was involved
in an Assemblies of God church and was hospitalized. Now, these prayer
groups were small cell groups that were within the church. The church
knew they existed, but they were not necessarily functioning within
that pastor's ministry, but they were under the umbrella of a particular
Assemblies of God church. One of those churches was the second largest
Pentecostal Assemblies of God church in the United States - Pastor
Tommy Barnett's Phoenix First Assembly, a huge church. This was a
prayer group under the auspices of Phoenix First Assembly.
Do you counsel people against their will?
I've been involved in involuntary deprogramming in extreme circumstances
- two involuntary deprogramming of adults in the last eight years.
I've been involved in numerous involuntary deprogrammings of juveniles
who have been legally but involuntarily deprogrammed at the request
of their parents or legal guardians. One example was demonstrated
on CBS' "48 Hours." Another example is a case I was just involved
in in Milwaukee, where a mother and father were very upset that their
daughter, without their consent, had been recruited into a Pentecostal
prayer group led by a woman who was a self-proclaimed prophetess of
sorts. The woman had broken away from the UPCI and formed her own
little group. She claimed to be hearing from the Lord and led a Bible
study - it was a hyperactive group. They were meeting five, six, seven
times a week. This 16-year-old became involved and the parents ultimately
had to have restraining orders against this woman. Then they called
me in. The deprogramming was involuntary but successful.
Is your work load increasing?
Is that because you're becoming more well-known, or is it because
there is such a great need?
Well, I think there's a very great need. Let's face it, in the Pentecostal
movement there are rougly 13 million Americans. In the fundamentalist
fold there are millions more. So, the born-again movement comprises
anywhere from 50 to 70 million Americans. There is a substantial percentage
of that movement that has become fanatical, a fanatical fringe. That
involves millions upon millions of American citizens. There are very
few people available who have a track record of successfully deprogramming
people from these fanatical groups. I am one of those people. I find
myself receiving more and more calls each month. Last month, for example,
I flew more than 20,000 miles. And this month I'm already booked into
the middle of the month. I'm constantly being called about groups
like this. I'm not restricted to Arizona or even the Southwest. I
work all over the United States. I've been called on cases from Florida
to New England to Alaska to California to Louisiana.
How do you describe a walk away?
A walk away is a person who, for whatever reason, looked at the group
and decided, "Something's wrong. I need to get out of this group."
They're not quite sure why they've left. Somtimes they feel that they've
betrayed God, that they've sinned by leaving the group. But for wahtever
reason, they decide, "I must leave. I can't take it anymore." Perhaps
the leaders or elders of the group have done something that conflicts
with what the walk away sees as proper reasonable moral conduct. They
may even notice that even though the group preaches from the Bible,
their actions are unscriptural, unethical, in conflict with what they
supposedly preach. So, in the mind of the walk away, there's this
conflict, this dilemma - the group does not act like they preach.
Or, from a biblical perspective, how can they be a good tree if they're
bearing corrupt fruit. And the walk away says, "Hey, they're a lot
of rotten apples growing on this tree, and I've seen a lot of bruised
fruit, and I need to get out of here." As a matter self-preservation,
or to protect loved ones - they worry about damage that may be wrought
on their family, their children, spouse - they've left. Many of the
groups I've dealt with are involved in child abuse. That is, the beating
of children. Chidren have died in some of the group I've been exposed
to. Adult members have collapsed from nervous exhaustion, and sometimes
have been literally worked to death.
So walk aways have left as a matter of physical, emotional, psychological
preservation. When walk aways leave the group, unlike the people I've
deprogrammed, there are many loose ends, many unresolved issues. As
I stated before, walk away often feel that they've betrayed God, that
they are a sinner, but nevertheless, they had to leave out of self-preservation.
So frequenty they leave with feelings of guilt and anxiety. I've frequently
been retained to work with walk aways just so they can sort through
a lot of the loose ends, have someone to talk to, and recognize, "What
did the group do to me? I've lost this time in my life. I feel terrible
about it. I want to make some sense out of it. I want to get rid of
these feelings of guilt and anxiety. I want to get on with my life
and I feel like I'm still caught up in a lot of the group thinking."
And part of what the whole deprogramming/exit counseling process is
about is recognizing the mind control and thought reform techniques
used by the group. And by recognizing them, release the person who
has been victimized by them.
Do you find a lot of people who have walked away now lead healthy,
Yes, but I find a lot of the walk aways go through a longer period
of readjustment than people who've gone through deprogramming. Keep
in mind, the people that have gone through deprogramming are frequently
approached by the deprogrammer early in their commitment to the group,
within the first year. They have not been damaged by the group as
severely as a walk away because they've only been involved for a comparatively
minimal amount of time. They come out fairly whole, having recognized
what was wrong with the group, and have dealt with it specifically
and thoroughly. Often, they've had follow-up care at a rehabilitation
center, or worked with a mental health professional clinician in follow-up
A walk away is someone who has been a group typically longer. Perhaps
two, three, four, five years - or ten or twelve or fifteen years.
They have literally been abused by the group. They left the group
because they've been burned out by the group. We're talking about
people who've been depleted, burned out, abused, taken advantage of.
They may have been physically abused or sexually abused. We're talking
about peple who have a lot more problems and residual effects coming
out of the group. They've been in longer, and the reason they left,
typically, is because they've been abused. Also, they may have been
abused financially. I've worked with people who've been taken for
tens of thousands of dollars and financially stripped. They've been
stripped emotionally, psychologically, financially. They may have
been abused sexually. So we're talking about a group of people that
have left, often times, in desperate situations, where they never
really confronted the basic issues of thought reform and mind control
about the group, and sorted through all of those issues. It's much
easier for someone who's gone through deprogramming early on to sort
through these issues, than it is for someone who fled the group with
a lot of emotional, psychological baggage.
What would you say to the person who is in a group, and say, happens
to pick up this newsletter and wants to get out?
Walk away, seek professional help. That may come in the form of a
rehabilitation center. There are three in the United States: Wellspring,
the Cook Home, and Unbound. Wellspring, in particular, deals with
people walking away from Bible-based groups. They're located in Albany,
Ohio. The Cook Home in Enid, Oklahoma has also had extensive experience
with this. There are two cult clinics in the United States, both run
by the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services. One in New
York, the Madeleine Borg Counseling Services in Manhattan; another
in Los Angeles. There are support groups all around the country, such
as Second Chance in Phoenix, where you can get together with other
ex-members. Or Life After Potter's House in Flagstaff, Arizona, where
ex-members get together to talk about their common problems. I would
say don't do it alone. Look for support through your family. Look
for support through mental health clinicians and professionals who
have a track record, who have dealt with this problem in the past,
who have a track record of helping other ex-members. But don't stay
in and keep suffering. Find a way out and get help.
Do these people ultimately reject religion, or do they find a more
balanced religion of some sort? What happens to their religious beliefs?
Many feel that they cannot attend a church or be involved in any organized
religion because they feel burned out. It takes a while for them to
regain, first of all, a sense of themselves and their individual autonomy,
and get into a place in their lives where they're making their own
decisions again and critically thinking on their own. I think the
most important thing for a walk away to realize is, do what you feel
comfortable doing. Don't allow anyone to pressure you into another
church, be it your family or friends.
Do you find that many people try to use their own experience to try
to help others get out?
Some do. There are support groups where people become activists. And
they at least wish to share their testimony or their stories about
the group with others. There are others who feel they just want to
be done with it, that they don't want to deal with the group anymore.
They don't even want to hear about it. And that's all right. There
are many people, that by opposing the group that stripped them emotionally,
psychologically, financially, they feel like they have retaken their
personal power. And that's important to them. Others just feel, "I've
got my family, I've got my life, I've got my career, I need to get
on wit hit. I want to leave this bad experience behind me."
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