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Today, contributor to The Saturday Paper Tanya Levin on why former Hillsong members are increasingly reporting that they suffer PTSD and what’s known as religious trauma syndrome.

What happens when you leave Hillsong

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Hillsong is in crisis. More and more people are leaving. But what happens after someone leaves the church? And what does it tell us about how the church operates?

Today, contributor to The Saturday Paper Tanya Levin on why former Hillsong members are increasingly reporting that they suffer PTSD and what’s known as religious trauma syndrome.

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Guest: Contributor to The Saturday Paper Tanya Levin.

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

##RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*. 
Hillsong is in crisis, and more and more people are leaving. But what happens after someone leaves the church? And what does it tell us about how the church operates?

Today, Tanya Levin on why former Hillsong members are increasingly reporting that they suffer PTSD and what’s known as religious trauma syndrome.

It’s Wednesday, July 13.

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##RUBY:
Tanya, you were once a member of Hillsong. Quite a long time ago I believe when you were quite young and when the church itself was in its infancy. So could you tell me about how you joined, and some of your early experiences in the church? 

##TANYA:
Mm. My parents had become born again Christians. They'd become quite fundamentalist Christians round about when I was born and by the time I was eight years old. I'd been baptised in water, I had been taught to speak in tongues.

##RUBY:
Tanya Levin is a contributor to *The Saturday Paper*.

##TANYA:
And then we just ended up moving to Cherrybrook in the area of the Hills Christian Life Centre and ended up going to the local Pentecostal church, which ended up becoming Hillsong. And yeah, it was incredibly different back then. 

##Archival tape -- [Church song and applause]

##TANYA:
It was a lot smaller. So There were probably 300 people, 400 people in a warehouse. Lyrics to the songs were on an overhead projector. 

##Archival tape -- [Church song and applause]

##TANYA:
And, you know, I was all very sort of low key, and it had a very, very warm feeling. It was a you know, it was a small enough community. Everybody knew everyone, at least by face. And yeah, it had a very natural feel to it. 

##Archival tape -- [Church song out]

##RUBY:
Hmm. And was there a particular reason then that you chose to leave the church. What or when was it that you started to question the way that things worked there? 

##TANYA:
Yeah. So when I was about 16, there were a few changes. A couple of things happened. Our pastors, Brian and Bobby Houston, who went on to lead Hillsong for over 30 years, they decided to go on an overseas trip to the United States 

And they were shown the real heights and glamour of what evangelism could look like. And, you know, it looks like a lot of a lot of millionaires. So they came back as very different people.

They, you know, were a lot flashier, literally when they got off the plane from their first trip to the States. So this seemed to be this real emphasis on money and prosperity. 

And at the same time, I was looking around at some of the kind of stranger Pentecostal aspects of the religion and just not finding it to be real. 

And yet everybody else around me they were going along with the programme. So I figured it was my problem. I remember looking around at people, speaking in tongues. It used to be quite a big thing there. They'd sort of they'd have songs and then they'd put aside a couple of minutes I’ll tell you, they'd put aside a couple of awkward minutes for people to just like freestyle speak in tongues. 

And I'd be looking around going, That doesn't make sense. That's not a language, that's just gibberish, and then instantly feel really guilty because, you know, how could I question something like that? Thinking, Well, that must be a satanic attack on my brain, so I've got to pray harder, I've got to do more church, I've got to do that kind of thing.

And, I was left pretty much in my own personal hell for about 12 years thinking, ‘I can't go there, but I'm going to go to hell. So. I didn't know…’ It was this sort of living purgatory. It was a really horrible time. 

##RUBY:
And so after leaving the church, did you have much contact, have you had much contact with other people who've also done that, who also used to be part of Hillsong and have left? 

##TANYA:
Oh, for a long time there was nobody. 

Traditionally, we are isolated from each other. When you leave and you've done this  terrible thing by not being involved anymore. People are told not to contact those who have left. And so, yeah, we have been quite isolated and turns out everybody sort of felt it was their problem. 

My inbox is just full of the words PTSD, cPTSD, depression, anxiety, and people tell the same story over and over. They feel that they ended up in a very controlled environment. 

You know, there's reports of abusive behaviour. So many people report having been screamed at by a pastor or, you know, being overworked as a volunteer or having to pay for things that they didn't expect.

So people have often come up with the same conclusion as me, which is that it appears that this organisation operates like an abusive relationship, which a lot of controlled thinking groups and cults operate like that, where there's one person that has to be listened to, that has to be obeyed no matter what. And if you don't, the consequences are pretty severe. 

People would contact me and say that it had been 15 or 20 years and they were still frightened to talk about it. And this is what I've been trying to investigate is: what is this fear about? You know, what is this trauma that is so difficult to articulate? 

##RUBY:
We’ll be back after this.
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##RUBY:
Tanya, you were once a part of Hillsong. And since leaving the church you’ve been speaking to other people who have done the same. And it seems like you’re discovering similarities in people’s experiences, and that you’re noticing something about the dynamic that mirrors an abusive romantic relationship. So can you explain what you mean by that? 

##TANYA:
It appears to operate as if, you know, the church itself is a perpetrator. It's so narcissistic. So initially people get love bombed and they get told how wonderful they are. They get told that they're welcome, that they're accepted, that they have a family. And that's reasonably what so many people are searching for. 

A young woman I spoke to recently who's only 30 years old, she's only left in the last year, and she said, you know, I just had a birthday. And if I'd been at Hillsong, I would have had 50 people to go to dinner with and I would have had 100 people that cared about my birthday. It's very much about that sense of tribalism. 

And then over time, it's similar things to an abusive relationship, such as controlling people's ideas, their time, getting them to be exhausted with activity so that they don't really know what's going on. Financial pressure, particularly with this place. Researchers are now looking at coercive control dynamics as well being applicable here. 

Very often the people who've left Hillsong are so full of fear. And when I've asked them about it, you know, some people have reported it's a fear of having personal information leaked because there's a database that Hillsong keeps, it's a personnel database called My Hillsong and it's got records of employees, volunteers, everybody in that system that, you know, that any organisation might have in personnel. 

However, with this one, it's also got very, very personal, private, sensitive information on people: when they've gone through counselling or for any reason a pastor might have intervened and they're some of the most private information on that database and people are afraid that that information might come out. 

##RUBY:
Mm. And there is a specific condition that relates to this, isn’t there? It’s called religious trauma syndrome. Can you tell me about it, and how it might apply to people who have left Hillsong? 

##TANYA:
So, looking at religious trauma syndrome, which Dr Marlene Winell, an American psychologist, developed in 2011. She talks about it as a condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of the indoctrination. 

##Archival tape -- Marlene Winell:
“I was just starting to see a pattern. You know, as I was working with people and it was matching my own experience and realising that when you have a name for something, it makes a huge difference…”

##TANYA:
So she says it's a combination of post-traumatic stress disorder and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Religious trauma syndrome has a very recognisable set of symptoms, a definitive set of causes and a debilitating cycle of abuse and symptoms of religious trauma include cognitive symptoms. So confusion, difficulty with critical thinking, making decisions.

##Archival tape -- Marlene Winell:
“There are two main areas of abuse, I think. One is this Hell business or people get told they're going to fry forever. And that can last way beyond the time that you have understood that to not be true intellectually.” 

##Archival tape -- Marlene Winell:
“And then the other area has to do with being told that you are wrong and bad and you need saving. Because essentially, Christianity invents a problem and then offers you a solution.”

##TANYA:
So the language of Hillsong is very much focused around church, not so much about God, but it's about, you know, you've got to build a church and pray for the church and we've got to expand the church. 

So, you know, people would already be facing that, that real guilt about being disloyal as well as yeah, I mean losing family, losing connections and all kinds of relationships that are important to people.

And just like an abusive relationship, you see people going back and trying again. People often think they have to change themselves like me. They think it's their problem and that they need to change. So they often go back and give it a few more times before they leave again.

##Archival tape -- Marlene Winell:
“Because if you think about it, it's really a huge, huge change. You're really having a revolution, a private revolution, in your worldview. And so the implications of that are huge.”

##TANYA:
People are just left floundering. And I mean, they're often left really financially compromised as well. There's a story I can't forget where a woman said to me, a middle aged woman told me that her and her husband have accepted that they will never own their own home because of how much they've invested in the church over 20 years. And it's things like that that you can't necessarily measure, but it's a very deep loss for people. 

##RUBY:
And so, Tanya, over the last year or so, Hillsong has weathered several scandals. Brian Houston has left and the future of the church, I suppose, is more uncertain right now than it has been in the past. I wonder what your sense of, of how Hillsong is going to manage this moment and if its power might start to wane. 

##TANYA:
Well, Hillsong is facing a lot of challenges at the moment and a lot of that has been because of the spotlight that's getting shone on them. 

So, you know, they've lost free labour. The pandemic had a huge impact on attendance. The finances are down.

So it's fascinating. There's no actual pastoral care that comes from these people. It's a one way show. Hillsong is all about content production and they just want to get content out into the world. 

And as new regions of the world open up to the Internet and, you know, more technological advancements, they've got hundreds of millions of people to go before they run out. 

##RUBY:
Tanya, thank you so much for speaking to me about all of this today. 

##TANYA:
Thank you Ruby for having me on your show.
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##RUBY:
Also in the news today,
Defence Minister Richard Marles has called for closer cooperation between Australia and the US, to avoid what he’s described as "a catastrophic failure of deterrence" in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Richard Marles also used an address in Washington DC to argue China was engaging in the biggest military build-up since WWII, and that the US-Australia alliance could not afford to "stand still".

And, the first full colour images from the James Webb Space Telescope have been released by NASA. The Webb telescope is the successor to the iconic Hubble, and is the most powerful space telescope ever built.

The first complete image shows thousands of galaxies in one picture, and is the deepest and sharpest image of our distant universe to date. 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*. See you tomorrow.

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Background Reading

news
July 9, 2022
Former Hillsong members detail PTSD from ‘abusive cult’

As Hillsong continues to face internal struggles, former members talk about the trauma they suffered in the church and the post-traumatic stress they have dealt with since.