I want to talk to you about abusive religious leaders—while also exploring the general ways that toxic people show different faces to different targets

The theme for this month at SwanWaters is how toxic people are never just one thing to one person. For my contribution to this theme, I want to approach it from the angle of religious abuse—while also exploring the ways that toxic people show different faces to different targets.

My Story (In A Nutshell)

Over the last 4 years, I have been very public in sharing my story of religious abuse in order to break the silence for other people who have survived, or are still suffering, in the cultic group I was a part of.  My book Chase Down Your Freedom (2015) was that story. It chronicled the way I was groomed and abused for 6 years, stood up to the church, and then suffered a set of very traumatic consequences as a result. Despite still experiencing mental illness, I have been going from strength to strength ever since.

I have also, recently, started a Facebook group called Prayers To Jezebel—Unlearning The Doctrine Of The Godly Woman. It is an online community for people who have deprogrammed, or are seeking to deprogram, themselves of the damage and toxic interpretations of religion that have shaped their thinking. These interpretations are mostly cultic in nature.

Consistent Traits Of A Cult Leader

According to Joe Navarro, who served on the FBI’s National Security Division’s Behavioral Analysis Program, there is a list of 50 traits that cult leaders have. Some of these traits include the following:


  • Is exploitative of others by asking for their money or that of relatives putting others at financial risk…
  • Has an exaggerated sense of power (entitlement) that allows him [or her] to bend rules and break laws…
  • Is superficially charming.

The group I was a part of had 49/50. The only one we didn’t have to do was number 10 which is “Sex is a requirement with adults and subadults as part of a ritual or rite.” Thank goodness. My reason for mentioning this is to demonstrate how consistent the traits of cult leaders are across the board. I know other survivors of religious abuse who come from different sects,  and they have experienced most of the qualities listed, too. But as I wrote in Chase Down Your Freedom,

“It is not the aesthetics of a group that make a cult a cult. It is the dynamics.”

We must wrap our heads around the fact that all abuse—whether emotional, religious, sexual, physical, etc.—while expressed differently, is hinged on the misuse of one quality: power.

So in relation to my personal experience with religious abuse—and what I witnessed other people in the same group go through—I can identify that, while we were often mistreated in similar ways, there were some key ways in which we were treated differently. And the tactics our pastor used to abuse us varied upon the basis of what exactly she wanted to accomplish.

One Size Does Not Fit All

I have always been an empath and a highly-sensitive person. I can feel what other people are feeling and pick up on their subtle—and not so subtle—energies all the time. So when I was a vulnerable 18-year-old girl (legally an adult, but let’s be honest I was a girl), after my father had been removed by the Department of Human Services for being abusive, my family was in shambles.

My mother was a broken woman, I was a wreck, and each of my five younger siblings was experiencing and expressing trauma in their own unique ways. We were looking for a place of hope and support during a time of crisis. If we had found our way to a normal, kind Christian leader, that would have been the case. But we found our way into hands of the most toxic person I’ve ever known to this day. So combine my empathic nature (which was, at the time, not tempered with wisdom) with the trauma of abuse and family crisis, I was ripe for the picking when it came to using shame as a manipulative tool. And so were my family as unique individuals susceptible to different kinds of abuse.

Different Tactics Used For Different Targets

Because I care so deeply about what other people feel (and before I knew that it could be used against me), my pastor would cry, scream, and yell at me to make me feel bad. Whether it was for expressing an opinion, or saying that I couldn’t do something she wanted me to do—even if I had work or was sick. The tiniest, alleged infraction was met with terrifying anger.

As a result, I learned to feel deep and overwhelming hatred and anger toward myself for being, what I thought was, disobedient to God. The Bible says that when we obey or disobey an authority figure, we are obeying or disobeying God—because his authority is upon them. I mistrusted my own judgment. And I wanted to feel looked out for and approved of so badly that I invested all my belief in my pastor’s ability to hear from God. And this, inevitably, let to her making pretty much all decisions on my behalf; from who I hung out with to whether I was allowed to make jokes or not. I answered to her about absolutely everything in my life.

But for the boys in our youth group, while many of the above tactics were also used, she’d flatter them, build up their egos, give them positions of prominence in the church, and flirt with them. She’d take their opinions more seriously than those of the girls. She’d also do private massage sessions with them in her office while they lay on the floor half naked—she never did this with us, and we were never allowed to go near the office when they were in there.

She and her daughters would often wear low-cut tops, but she would demonize the rest of us girls as being immodest and possessed by the Jezebel spirit if we even accidentally showed our cleavage. She didn’t want anyone of us outshining her at any point, and her morals vacillated with whatever her agenda was at the time.

The Lesson Learned From Toxic Religious Leadership

While I will never say that I’m glad that I experienced what I did—even if it did make me into the person I am today—I can definitely say that my time in that place has given me some great insight into people—especially people in positions of leadership. The main lesson being that if someone in a position of power is volatile, unpredictable, and inconsistent in their morals and treatment of others, then they absolutely cannot be trusted. As people, generally, but even more so as people that I allow to have input in my life when I’m their spiritual student.We are all equal in terms of how deserving we are to be treated with dignity. And, in the same breath, we are all equal in how our personal qualities were used against us in order to exploit our time, money, sexuality, and souls.

The key to keeping good leaders around me, and the toxic ones away, is to know that I am worthy of being treated with dignity. And if anyone—leader or not—does not treat me with the dignity I deserve, they can get ta steppin!

we love to read your comments below

Carrie Maya

Carrie Maya

Carrie Maya is an Australian memoirist, blogger, poetry slam champion, and editor. She has a background in journalism, manuscript development, and activism against religious abuse. Her work as a non-fiction writer has been praised by international, best-selling author of Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert. In 2012, she released Charcoal and Red Lipstick--a collection of poems about the way femininity emerges from brutality. This was followed by the 2015 release of Chase Down Your Freedom--a memoir which documents her time in a Victorian-based cult, the aftermath of leaving, and the steps she took to get her life back. It has been well-received and has been the catalyst for people in religious sects to have the courage to leave. Currently, Carrie is studying her Bachelor of Arts with a major in Sociology at Federation University, Australia.
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I want to talk to you about abusive religious leaders—while also exploring the general ways that toxic people show different faces to different targets

I want to talk to you about abusive religious leaders—while also exploring the general ways that toxic people show different faces to different targets

I want to talk to you about abusive religious leaders—while also exploring the general ways that toxic people show different faces to different targets


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