Cult ExpertsHow To Select A Cult Expert
Leaving a cult
Many make it out by themselves, or with the help of friends and family.1
Others need intervention and/or follow-up counseling — from cult experts, for instance.
Cult Experts, Consultants, Specialists Ect.
When you are looking for help — for yourself or for someone else — you run into terms like: ‘cult expert,’ ‘thought reform consultant,’ just ‘consultant,’ ‘lecturer,’ ‘exit counselor,’ ‘intervention specialist,’ ‘cult specialist,’ ‘court expert,’ ‘cult watchers,’ ‘cult tracker,’ et cetera.
Familiarize yourself with the terminology and issues so that you can ask informed questions when interviewing people.
Keep in mind that this in an unregulated field in which some people who have become quite skilled at marketing themselves are the very ones to stay away from.
What is a Cult Expert?
A cult expert is someone who is knowledgeable about
- the teachings and practices of groups and movements often referred to as ‘cults’
- the ways such groups (and individuals ) recruit followers
- how they go about convincing members not to leave (and, often, reject their parents, friends, and former way of life)
- how members can be encouraged to re-evaluate their involvement in such groups
The term ‘cult expert’ is not protected. Anyone can use it regardless of ability, approach, or level of acceptance by recognized authorities in the field. Important note:2
Among cult experts you can encounter
- lay experts, or
- loose canons, charlatans and sundry unethical types
Some cult experts are trained and licensed mental health counselors, while others have no formal counseling training.
Some self-proclaimed ‘cult experts’ have a bias for or against one or more religions.3
Some people give themselves big titles, along with lofty sounding names apparently designed to cover up the fact that, say, their ‘institute’ is essentially a one-person affair.
Be particularly cautious with sensationalists and self-marketers. They tend to succeed in getting a few sound-bytes aired, but with their snap judgments and gossipy attitudes they don’t hold a candle to experts who present well-reasoned, insightful analyses.
While you may recognize someone from sound-bytes on TV or self-aggrandizing online behavior, it pays to do some research: is this ‘intervention specialist,’ ‘cult specialist,’ ‘lecturer’ or ‘institute director well-connected? Do recognized experts in the field refer people to them? Are they licensed counselors?
Incidentally, some scholars prefer the euphemism ‘New Religious Movement’ instead of ‘cult.’ While knowledgeable about the teachings and — often to a lesser degree — practices of groups and movements often referred to as ‘cults,’ many such scholars reject negative testimonies of former members and denounce other critics as well.4
“Nobody joins a cult. You join a self-help group, a religious movement, a political organization.
They change so gradually, by the time you realize you’re entrapped – and almost everybody does – you can’t figure a safe way back out.”Deborah Layton, who was involved in -- and escaped from -- Jim Jones' Peoples Temple cult
International Cultic Studies Association
Many cult experts are listed, affiliated with — and/or recommended by — recognized organizations such as the International Cultic Studies Association — an interdisciplinary network of academicians, professionals, former group members, and families who study and educate the public about social-psychological influence and control, authoritarianism, and zealotry in cultic groups, alternative movements, and other environments.
When selecting a cult expert it is a good idea to check with ICSA for recommendations.5
See also this list of recommended experts — along with their recommendations.
The term ‘cult‘ is controversial, in large part because over the years it has taken on a negative connotation.
In addition, though the term has several precise definitions the word is ambiguous. Its meaning differs depending on the context in which it is used, and often also on the perspective of the person using it.
Likewise, the term ‘sect‘ — often used in Europe instead of the word ‘cult’ — is controversial for the same reasons.
The reason we use the term ‘cult’ anyway is that the word tends to be the first that comes to mind when someone is looking for help.
Other terms you may hear are: high-demand groups, LGATs, intentional communities. new religious movements, alternative religious movements, et cetera.
The E-library of ICSA, the International Cultic Studies Association, contains over 25,000+ documents and 20.000+ articles on about 1.000 groups. Plus: ICSA’s journals, magazines and newsletters.
Also available: ebooks, FAQs, study guides, and other resources — a plethora of research resources providing a thorough cult education.
Need Help Now? How To Select Cult Experts
Understand that cult experts operate from various perspectives
- Many deal with cults and cult-related issues primarily from a sociological point of view. Their emphasis is on behavior rather than theology or ideology.
- Many more operate primarily from a theological perspective — emphasizing how specific doctrines violate the accepted, normative set of beliefs and boundaries of the faith tradition certain groups and their leaders claim to represent. Usually they look at behavioral issues as well, since bad behavior — such as spiritual abuse that takes place in abusive churches — tends to be rooted in faulty doctrine.
- Most experts in this group work from a Christian point of view, with specific expertise in addressing cults of Christianity. NOTE: Be aware that there are also opportunists who talk about ‘Bible-based cults’ but who operate from a non-Christian perspective, lack firsthand knowledge as well as spiritual discernment. One in particular is known for his hateful rhetoric directed at Christians.
- Similarly, there are organizations and individuals who address deviations from the Jewish faith. It should be noted that the majority of them refer to Christians and Christian organizations — particularly those that participate in evangelism among Jews — as ‘cultists’ and ‘cults.’
- A number of experts and their organizations claim to be ‘value free,’ ‘neutral’ or ‘non-sectarian.’ Some operate much like consumer protection agencies — but a number have strayed into actively supporting and defending cults and cult leaders — generally under the guise of ‘promoting religious freedom.’ Some do — or have done — both.6
- Naturally, there’s a fair bit of disagreement between cult experts. Most handle their differences professionally. A few don’t. Just about everyone draws one line when it comes to the really bad apples.
Research organizations, ministries or individuals
- What are their professional credentials, if any? Remember, this is an unregulated ‘industry,’ and not everyone who calls him- or herself an ‘expert’ is qualified to help you.
- Buyer beware: Helping people to leave a cult, or to deal with the aftermath of a cult experience, necessarily involves a certain amount of (mental health) counseling — in addition to expert advice. There are many capable counselors who do not have official degrees and or licenses. But you’ll find they have a proven track record — and, having gained a good reputation, come recommended by many other reputable experts in the field.
- What is their religious affiliation or perspective, if any?
- Will they counsel you even if you are not willing to accept their religious belief system? See this information.
- Are they respectful toward followers of other religions?
- Who are their professional contacts and affiliations? Who do they refer to or consult with?
- Some cult experts who market themselves as such are, in fact, shunned by many respected professionals and organizations in the field.
- Don’t be fooled by lofty sounding names and titles. For instance, some ‘Institutes’ are merely one-person efforts.
Observe the general behavior of the organization, ministry or individual you have under consideration
- As is the case in any other profession, this field of work has its share of charlatans, angry loners, self-proclaimed experts, and the like.
- Bluster may play well in the (social) media, but genuine expertise generally is accompanied by professional behavior.
- One ‘expert’ — who lacks formal training — has gained a decidedly bad reputation due to his sustained attacks on qualified cult experts he disagrees with.
- Avoid people who have a track record of blustering, bullying and stalking. You and your loved ones deserve better.
- Harder to spot: one ‘cult specialist’ with a knack of self promotion tends to talk in ‘sound bytes’ –communicating basic information that did not originate with himself. Often when this ‘expert’ addresses a cult or cult-like group he sounds like an authority on the movement, even though most — if not all — of his information is a rehash of various media reports.
Ask questions about the fees involved
- Intervention and counseling services do not come cheap. This is true for licensed professionals (e.g. a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, and/or someone certified by the National Board for Certified Counselors), and for non-licensed and non-certified people who charge fees in exchange for their services.
- Discuss fees as soon as possible and get everything in writing.
- Do not make hasty decisions, but compare rates and check your options.
- Some individuals or organizations may work on a sliding scale (i.e. adjust their fees according to your ability to pay).
- International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) — an excellent organization which we already mentioned above. ICSA also has a wealth of research resources online. Contributing members have full access to the entire 25.000+ items E-library.
- reFOCUS — a secular, non-profit tax-exempt organization which provides a network of support and referrals for individuals recovering from the effects of a destructive cult, or other closed, high-demand group or relationship.
- Carol Giambalvo’s Cult Information and Recovery — Carol is a co-founder of reFOCUS, and though she has retired as a Thought Reform Consultant, she is still a board member of the International Cultic Studies Association. She has written and lectured extensively on cult-related topics. Carol Giambalvo also spearheads the Colorado Model — ICSA’s acclaimed group model for cult recovery. Knowledgeable about a wide variety of cults and cult-related issues — including cults of Christianity (so-called ‘Bible-based cults’), and well-connected with other cult experts, Carol is an excellent person to contact for referrals.
- Rosanne Henry, MA, LPC — a professional counselor licensed in the state of Colorado, Rosanne helps people evaluate harm in cultic groups, relationships, and potentially abusive organizations, especially those disguised as churches.
- Joseph Kelly and Patrick Ryan — Kelly has been a Thought Reform Consultant since 1988. Ryan has been a cult intervention specialist since 1984. Together they provide intervention services. Both are co-authors of Ethical Standards for Thought Reform Consultants, published in ICSA’s Cultic Studies Journal.
- Steven Hassan, M.Ed., LMHC, NCC — a licensed mental health counselor, Steve is the author of three books that have received extensive praise from former cult members, families of former members, clergy, cult experts, and psychologists. His current book, Combating Cult Mind Control: The #1 Best-selling Guide to Protection, Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive Cults, is a revised and thoroughly updated version of his 1988 volume on the same topic. We highly recommend it!
- Colleen Russell, LMFT, CGP — is specialized in working with cult education and recovery. She has done so for over 15 years in her 25 year private practice in Marin County, San Francisco Bay Area. A former cult member herself, she has given presentations at ICSA and other professional organizations. Russell works with former members, those born and raised in cults, and with people whose partners have been — or are — involved in cults. Family members, partners (current or past), and friends of someone currently in a high demand group can consult with Colleen individually and/or participate in one of the workshops she facilitates. Colleen also works with survivors of domestic violence (which in many ways parallels cult involvement). She consults with clients in her office, online or by phone.
- Daniel Shaw, LCSW — a psychoanalyst, teacher, and clinical supervisor. He is the author of Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation (Routledge). Shaw has written numerous psychoanalytic papers, and he is the author of Traumatic Abuse in Cults: A Psychoanalytic Perspective, published in the Cultic Studies Journal (ICSA). He also was the editor of a special issue on the traumatizing narcissist in ICSA’s International Journal of Cultic Studies. Shaw has Psychotherapy & Psychoanalysis Practice Offices in New York City and Nyack, NY. He also provides consultations, psychotherapy or clinical supervision via Skype.
- Families Against Cult Teachings (F.A.C.T.) — a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness and educating about destructive high-control / high-demand groups in the United States and abroad.
Research Cults and Cult-Related Issues
If someone you know is involved in a cult it pays to do some research yourself. Understanding something about the background and nature of a particular group — including its founder, leaders, teachings and practices — will also help you evaluate lay and professional experts you get in touch with.
There are a lot of online research resources about cults. Many are helpful; many are not.
Some take an angry, belligerent approach, while others are entirely too nice. Certain sites and their operators have even been known to actively whitewash groups widely considered to be cults.
Some cult information sites subscribe to academic standards, but the vast majority of cult education websites are operated by lay parties.
Some websites consist, for the most part, of news articles copied from original sources. Used correctly, news archives can be helpful in making a current or former member of a cult-like group aware of certain facts — which may, in turn, provide him or her a different perspective on the group and its leaders. Used incorrectly, such items may instead validate what the person in question has been told to expect: ‘lies’ and ‘persecution.’
Look for websites that provide a variety of research resources — including original material written by recognized, respected experts. Again, we encourage you to start your research at the International Cultic Studies Association.
There is a plethora of websites that address so-called cults of Christianity. In that regard, note the following:
When researching cults, it is helpful to understand the differences between theological and sociological definitions of the term ‘cult.’
At CounterCultSearch.com you can search for information about (religious) cults, cult-like organizations, and cults experts, — as well as paranormal-, New Age, and pseudo-scientific claims — across 260+ websites, blogs and forums dedicated to cult research, spiritual abuse information, ex-cult counseling & support.
These resources address cults primarily from a sociological point of view.
At ApologeticsSearch.com you can search for apologetics articles, books, videos, and other research resources — across 140+ Christian apologetics websites and blogs.
Most of these resources address cults primarily, though often not exclusively, from a theological point of view.
Many deal with so-called Bible-based cults (properly referred to as cults of Christianity).
Domestic Violence, Human Trafficking, One-on-One cults
Some experts not only address cults, but also other abusive high-control relationships — such as those that involve domestic violence or human trafficking.
Not all cult experts — lay or professional — have the expertise, training, and license to provide effective help in this area.
Terms like ‘one-on-one cult’ or ‘cultic relationship’ are sometimes used to describe relationships in which there is a significant power imbalance. Abusive relationships — in which one person deliberately controls, manipulates, and exploits the other — usually include psychological, physical, and/or sexual abuse.
Cultic relationships are not just limited to marriages or domestic partnerships, but may also occur in situations in which one person is in a position of power, while the other is not. One-on-one cults can develop between, for instance, pastors and church members, bosses and employees, teachers and students, et cetera.
If you are in an abusive relationship — or know someone who is — it is important that you assure the help of a licensed counselor.
You and your friend or loved-one need professional help from a licensed mental health practitioner — rather than from an unlicensed ‘cult expert.’
Make sure that the expert you are evaluating is such a professional him- or herself — not just someone who works with (or refers to) a licensed counselor.
There are many books that deal with cults and cult-related issues. Some are helpful; a lot are not.
Steer clear of sensationalist ‘true crime’-type books — as well as books written by the kind of lay ‘cult experts’ recommended professionals would not in turn recommend or refer people to.
Stick with books that have stood the test of time as well as reviews by peers in the field.
- People who leave on their own accord are sometimes referred to as walkaways. People who have been forced to leave are sometimes called castaways. ↩
- The same is true for such terms as Intervention Specialist, Cult Specialist, Thought Reform Consultant, Deprogrammer, or Exit Counselor. ↩
- For instance, one particularly bad apple, in several respects, is bitterly hostile toward Christians (and anyone else he disagrees with) ↩
- These scholars have been referred to as ‘cult apologists‘ or ‘cult defenders.’ The scholars themselves claim they are merely defending religious freedom. ↩
- Note that ICSA is an open membership organization. Some organizations, websites and individuals listed on its links page are not necessarily recommended. Also note ICSA’s policy regarding the benefits of dialogue between parties that may not see eye to eye on cult-related issues. ↩
- For a while these experts were referred to as ‘cult apologists.’ While many have bettered their ways — or at least have become more cautious — it pays to be aware of the dangers some experts represent. ↩