Cathy Beaver had already given up a boyfriend and most of her free time for her new church. But she balked at the church's fixation on a Bible passage that said women shouldn't speak in church.
Ms. Beaver, a sophomore at West Virginia University at the time, could remember plenty of women speaking in the Methodist church that she grew up in. The more she doubted her new church, she said, the more its leaders struggled with her, quoted Scripture to her and sometimes called her names.
As the conflict came to a head, Ms. Beaver called her Methodist church at home to talk it over with the assistant minister, a woman. And her parents soon realized that this new church was manipulating her will. She left and sought counseling.
That new church, part of a group called Great Commission International, had seemed at first to offer a deeper understanding and practice of Christian faith, Ms. Beaver said last night in a talk at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Cockeysville.
The talk was sponsored by a local chapter of Cult Awareness Network, a nationwide volunteer group that opposes mind-controlling religious groups and provides counseling for people who want to leave them.
The network defines a cult as a group that uses deception and mind-control techniques to recruit and retain members. Mind-control techniques include claiming to know God's will for individual members and alienating members from their families or anyone else who might disapprove of the group's doctrine.
Part of a four-week series, last night's meeting covered groups that employ a Christian terminology in a system that typically involves a new recruit in a close relationship of "shepherding and discipleship" with more experienced members.
As in Ms. Beaver's case, the new recruit submits the latest turns in her spiritual life for scrutiny at the end of each day by church leaders who use that information to criticize and manipulate.
Now 21, a Methodist again and a music education student at Towson State University, Ms. Beaver has been out of the Great Commission group for two years. But it wasn't until six months ago, she said, that she was able to read the Bible again "and not feel overwhelmed and anxious about it." She also had to work at recovering her sense of humor and a basic self-regard.
Ms. Beaver, who is from Laurel, got involved with the Great Commission during her freshman year at West Virginia. A roommate who became her best friend invited her to church services, racket ball games and other social activities specially designed to recruit people.
Soon Ms. Beaver was doing something with the church five or six nights each week. "The one thing they do in these groups is wear you out," she said.
In her second year with the group, she had a boyfriend who was a regular church-goer, but was not part of the Great Commission. "They thought that was sinful," she said, and told her to pray about her relationship with him. She broke it off.
Church leaders read the letters the boyfriend wrote to her at college. They didn't have to ask; she submitted the letters on her own as part of the discipline in the relationship. After a while, Ms. Beaver said, "they don't have to be your parole officer anymore. You're doing it by yourself."
She told her church leaders about her daily prayers, too, she said, and they probed for weaknesses. "Every prayer I prayed was out of guilt," she said.
When the church insisted that she be baptized, Ms. Beaver protested at first that she had already been baptized in the United Methodist Church. Two nights in a row, she said, church leaders kept her up well past midnight arguing and quoting their interpretations of Scripture to her until "I got rebaptized."
In the audience at St. Joseph's last night were several people who said they had once belonged to similar groups. They laughed and nodded at parts of Ms. Beaver's talk that resounded with their own experiences.
Some in the audience, though, said some of the marks of a manipulative religious cult sounded somewhat like zealous practices found in many churches. "The Lord wants you on fire," one man said.
But Ms. Beaver and others drew a distinction between fervor in faith and abusive techniques that deprive members of their freedom to think or to doubt or to even have time to themselves.