Step one is always the same - a confession that life is spinning out of control. In step two, broken people trust that a "greater power" can restore their sanity.
And so it goes, from a soul-wrenching inventory of moral weaknesses to efforts to seek forgiveness from those hurt by secret sins. This 12-step process is familiar to millions of addicts, whether their "drug" of choice is alcohol, cocaine, food, gambling, sex or the emotional abuse of others.But those who gather each week with counselor Sharon Hildebrand are using the 12-step process to defeat a different kind of demon - a fallen angel.
They believe they are addicted to religion.
"Someone who's hurting, or even a person who's healthy, can get into a twisted church and end up being hurt and abused," said Hildebrandt, who is writing a book about religious addictions. "Many people are out there looking for God, looking for help. What they find is trouble."
Hildebrandt quickly admits she and a few other counselors have merely put a new label on an old problem: Some people use religion to escape reality. Sadly, some churches encourage this. But a predator pastor may not always be to blame. Some church members are emotional parasites who latch on to religious leaders and give them incredible authority, whether the leaders want to fill that role or not.
As an evangelical, Hildebrandt has focused most of her work on people from very conservative flocks in Denver suburbs. "Religious addictions" can certainly be found in other religious groups, she said, but are most apparent where there is a strong emphasis on authority.
Participants in her group stressed they are not fleeing God or conservative Christianity. Instead, they said they are seeking healing for wounds inflicted by those who abused faith. All asked for anonymity.
One woman summed up her deepest fear, "I know so many people who are never going to go back to church. They used to be close to God. But now, they're not even trying to walk with the Lord on their own. That's all gone for them. They say they just can't believe, anymore, because they've been so hurt. . . . I don't want to end up like that."
After attending sessions of Hildebrandt's 12-step group, I've prepared a list of most-frequently cited clues that a congregation is bad news. But each case is as unique as a human soul.
- Sick congregations are often isolationist by nature. Their leaders - who shun accountability - reject contact with other churches or denominations.
- An all-powerful pastor who is the only authority on the Bible. "He's the only interpreter, not only of what's happening in his life, but of your life as well," Hildebrandt said.
- The role of guilt and shame. "If you never feel good walking out of church, that's a danger sign. . . . We're not talking about feeling shame just because you've been shown what the Bible teaches," said Curt Grayson, a psychologist based in Fullerton, Calif. He is also an associate of Hildebrandt. "The key is when guilt and shame are ways to control you, to get you to do certain things."
- Worship built on emotional displays. The goal: To create mood-altering group experiences that build unquestioned bonds of unity with a leader.
- Constant reminders to distrust outsiders. Note: This even undermines evangelism. "There's real tension, to say the least, between being told to bring new people into the church and being told to hate everybody on the outside," Hildebrandt said.
- Abusive churches have little interest in problems of daily life, such as alcoholism, eating disorders, divorce or the stress that haunts modern families. "You're supposed to repent, but no one wants to actually listen to you or give you any kind of practical help," said a group member.
- Systems that create "workaholics for God," with staffers or volunteers chained to their duties by feelings of loyalty to the pastor.
- Elaborate reward-and-punishment systems built around a code interpreted only by the leader and a core of loyalists. Gossip networks relay news about "sinners" back to those at the top of the hierarchy.
- Hildebrandt said dysfunctional churches frequently become "addicted to crisis" because of the unity produced by efforts to defeat outside threats. This usually evolves into a persecution complex.
- An obsession with sexual sins may be mated with troubling behaviors. In some churches, church staffers manipulate marriages and arrange courtships. Outsiders may be the only ones who notice inappropriate physical contact. "When our pastor greets members, he shakes all the men's hands," said one woman. "But he kisses the women. On the mouth. Every time."