How to Select a Cult Expert

How to find a cult expert
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.

Choose wisely at CultExperts.org

Leaving a Cult

Countless people are — or have been — caught up in ‘high-demand’ groups. Such groups can be anything from manipulative cults, cult-like social movements, abusive churches, or even destructive one-on-one relationships. [See: What is a Cult?]

Many make it out by themselves, or with the help of friends and family. Others need professional intervention and follow-up counseling.

Professional help can come from psychologists, counselors, or other mental help specialists. Some professionals — as well as lay practitioners — have specialized in dealing with cult issues. These ‘cult experts’ help current cult members understand why and how they can leave. They also help former cult members to come to terms with their cult experiences.

Cult Experts, Consultants, Specialists, Et Cetera.

When you are looking for help — for yourself or for someone else — you run into various terms and labels. For instance: ‘cult expert,’ ‘consultant,’ ‘thought reform consultant,’ ‘lecturer,’ ‘exit counselor,’ ‘intervention specialist,’ ‘cult specialist,’ ‘court expert,’ ‘cult watchers,’ ‘cult tracker,’ et cetera.

The media often still refers to cult experts as ‘deprogrammers’ — people who ‘deprogram‘ someone who has been ‘programmed’ through ‘brainwashing‘ or ‘mind control.’ Most cult experts themselves no longer use the deprogramming terminology, due to controversies surrounding that intervention process.

When you help someone caught up in a cult, it pays to familiarize yourself with cult-related terminology and issues. That way you can ask informed questions when interviewing counselors.

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 to reject their parents, friends, and former way of life)

how members can be encouraged to re-evaluate their involvement in such groups


Some cult experts are licensed mental health counselors, while others have no formal counseling training.
Helping someone leave a cult — and deal with the aftermath — involves a good deal of counseling. You will have to decide whether you trust this to a licensed professional, or to a lay expert.

Buyer Beware: Term ‘Cult Expert’ Not Protected

Realize that cult-related counseling is an unregulated field.

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.

Among cult experts you can encounter:

  • Licensed Professional Mental Health Counselors
  • Lay Experts
  • Loose Cannons, Rogues, Charlatans, et cetera

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.

Licensed Mental Health Counselor… Or Not

Some cult experts are trained and licensed mental health counselors.

Licensed professional counselors (LPCs), also called licensed clinical professional counselors or licensed mental health counselors in some states, focus on mental, emotional, and behavioral issues in a variety of healthcare settings. These professionals work with families, individuals, groups, and couples in roles as wide-ranging as substance abuse counseling, psychoanalysis, and learning disability counseling.

Aspiring LPCs must hold at least a master’s degree in counseling or a related field. After two years of supervised clinical experience, these professionals may sit for a credentialing exam in order to work in community health agencies, hospitals, and private practice.

Helping someone leave a cult — and deal with the aftermath — involves a good deal of counseling. You will have to decide whether you trust this to a licensed professional, or to a lay expert.

Lay Cult Experts

A ‘professional cult expert license’ does not exist.

It does not necessarily follow that a cult expert without formal counseling training cannot be effective. You find lay experts in every field — from plumbing and carpentry to car repair and medical care.

Someone with nothing but lay expertise may well be able to repair your leaking faucet, or to repaint your living room. And in most states and countries anyone can provide counseling services, life coaching, spiritual therapy — or, say, thought reform consultation.

A lay expert may not suggest they have formal credentials, such as a required license.

Still, in most places anyone can call him- or herself a ‘counselor’ — or provide counseling without necessarily using that term. But a lay practitioner may open himself up to the liabilities associated with ‘practicing without a license.’

In the end, you have to consider whether you trust the care of your loved one to an licensed expert who is held accountable to professional and ethical standards — or to someone not subject to formal accountability.

When evaluating lay- and professional experts looks for demonstrable skills, a proven track record, and their standing among peers in the field.

Lofty Titles

Unfortunately some ‘experts’ who have become quite skilled at marketing themselves are the very ones to stay away from.

A few cult watchers market themselves with big titles. They may use lofty sounding business names apparently designed to cover up the fact that, say, their ‘education institute’ is essentially a one-person affair.

Be particularly cautious with sensationalists and self-marketers. They tend to succeed in getting a few sound-bites 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-bites on TV or self-aggrandizing online behavior, it pays to do some research: is this ‘intervention specialist,’ ‘cult specialist,’ ‘lecturer’ or ‘institute ‘executive director’ well-connected? Do recognized experts in the field refer people to them? Are they licensed counselors?

Tip: The YouTube Cult Experts Test

When researching cult experts, include YouTube as one of your resources.

Among other things, you will notice whether or not someone is well-connected with other experts in the field.

Some experts are actively involved in professional organizations. Their channels include videos of their presentations at seminars and conferences. They also post interviews with or by fellow professionals or lay experts — often including former cult members.

Others have no formal presentations to post. Most videos may simply be of that person addressing an imagined, off-camera audience.

Media outtakes are tricky. TV stations love soundbites, and that is primarily what some experts provide.

Keep in mind that it is one thing to be considered an expert by reporters and personalities, and another to be accepted as such by professional- and lay peers.

“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 was involved in, and escaped from, Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple cult.

International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA)

Many cult experts are listed, affiliated with — and/or recommended by — widely recognized organizations such as the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA).

ICSA is 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.

See also our own list of recommended experts.

Take Note!

ICSA is an open membership organization. There are no specific requirements to join. Members come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Among others there are cult experts (think, ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’), cult members, and former cult members.

You’ll even find certain academicians viewed by some as ‘cult apologists‘ (or ‘cult defenders’) due to their advocacy on behalf of groups generally considered to be cults.

To understand this approach, read ICSA’s policy regarding the benefits of dialogue between parties that may not see eye to eye on cult-related issues.

Bottom line: be awere that some organizations, websites and individuals listed on ICSA’s links page are not necessarily recommended.

In other words, you must still put in the time to research cult experts before selecting one.

Cult Terminology

There is a never-ending discussion about the definition of the term ‘cult.’

The word 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 when a loved-one is caught up in, well, a cult-like group.

Other terms you may hear are: high-demand groups, LGATs, intentional communities. new religious movements, alternative religious movements, abusive churches, spiritual abuse, et cetera.

Incidentally, some scholars of religion and/or philosophy prefer the euphemism ‘New Religious Movement’ instead of ‘cult.’  While usually knowledgeable about the teachings and practices of cults, many such scholars reject negative testimonies of former members — and denounce other critics as well.

Need Help Now? How To Select A Cult Expert

Understand that cult experts operate from various perspectives

Start out by learning the differences between sociological and theological definitions of the term ‘cult.’ Knowing from which background and perspective a cult expert operates is important.

  • Many cult experts 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. They 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: Some opportunists talk about ‘Bible-based cults,’ but operate from a non-Christian perspective. They lack firsthand knowledge, as well as spiritual discernment. One rogue 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. Others have strayed into actively supporting and defending cults and cult leaders. This is generally done under the guise of ‘promoting religious freedom.’  Some do — or have done — both.
  • Naturally, there’s a fair bit of disagreement between cult experts. Most handle their differences professionally. A few don’t. Just about everyone draws the line when it comes to the really bad apples.

Cult research organizations, discernment ministries, and 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. Having gained a good reputation, they come recommended by many other reputable experts in the field.
  • What is their religious affiliation or perspective, if any?
  • Will they counsel someone even if that person is not willing to accept their religious belief system?
  • 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.

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 someone without attempting to convert that person?
    • For instance, a Christian cult expert counseling a Jewish believer should help that person leave a cult without attempting to convert him to Christianity.
  • Are they respectful toward followers of other religions?
  • Who are their professional contacts and affiliations? Who do they refer to or consult with? Who is willing to refer someone to him or her?
  • Don’t be fooled by lofty sounding names and titles. For instance, some ‘Institutes’ are merely one-person efforts.

Observe the behavior and attitude

Observe the general behavior and attitude 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 himself lacks formal training — has gained a decidedly bad reputation due to his sustained attacks on highly qualified cult experts he disagrees with, including degreed professionals.
  • 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).

Recommended Cult Experts

Note: This is not an exhaustive list. For one thing, many cult experts do not actively recruit clients. Some only work with referrals from other experts in the field. Others do not provide intervention- or counseling services, but rather are involved in academic research.

Note: Many experts on cults do, for various reasons, not refer to themselves as ‘cult experts.’ Rather, you’ll see terms such as exit counselor, thought reform consultant, mental health counselor, intervention specialist, et cetera.

Never assume that a title like that (e.g. ‘cult specialist,’ ‘consultant,’ or ‘cult expert’) is an indication of professional expertise. Only post-nominal letters indicate that the person holds a position, academic degree, accreditation, and so on.

  • 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 — Steven Hassan is a licensed mental health counselor, cult expert, and undue influence expert. He 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 book, Combating Cult Mind Control: The #1 Best-selling Guide to Protection, Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive Cultsis a revised and thoroughly updated (30th anniversary edition!) version of his 1988 volume on the same topic.  We highly recommend it! Likewise, see also Steven Hassan’s book, Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs. It provides an extensive guide to the reality of ‘undue influence’—the preferred term for mind control. By the way, Hassan’s most recent book is The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control (“A masterful and eye-opening examination of Trump and the coercive control tactics he uses to build a fanatical devotion in his supporters…” – Kirkus Reviews). Steven Hassan is an active member of The Program in Psychiatry and the Law (PIPATL), a think tank at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. He is a longtime advocate for updates to the legal system’s understanding and assessment of coercive control and undue influence.
  • 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. See, for instance, Traumatic Abuse in Cults: A Psychoanalytic Perspective, published in the Cultic Studies Journal (ICSA). Shaw also was the editor of a special issue on the traumatizing narcissist in ICSA’s International Journal of Cultic Studies. Daniel 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 primarily 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 about the group or its leader. That may 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.

Theological vs Sociological Perspectives

When researching cults it is necessary to understand the differences between theological and sociological definitions of the term ‘cult.’

Sociological Perspective

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.

Theological Perspective

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).

Books on Cults

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.

Stick with books that have stood the test of time as well as reviews by peers in the field.

Book: Combating Cult Mind Control
Steven Hassan

Combating Cult Mind Control

The #1 Best-selling Guide to Protection, Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive Cults. Steven Hassan is America’s leading cult expert

Book: Take Back Your Life
Janja Lalich
Madeleine Tobias

Take Back Your Life

Recovering from cults and abusive relationships

Book: The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse
David Johnson
Jeff Van Vonderen

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse

Recognizing and escaping spiritual manipulation and false spiritual authority within the church

Book: Healing Spiritual Abuse
Ken Blue

Healing Spiritual Abuse

How to break free from bad church experiences

Book: Twisted Scriptures
Mary Alice Chrnalogar

Twisted Scriptures

Breaking Free from Churches That Abuse

Book: Toxic Faith
Arterburn and Felton

Toxic Faith

Experiencing healing from painful spiritual abuse

Book: Spiritual Abuse Recovery
Barbara Orlowski

Spiritual Abuse Recovery

Dynamic research on finding a place of wholeness

Book: Soul Repair
Jeff van Vonderen
Dale & Juanita Ryan

Soul Repair

Rebuilding your spiritual life

Book: Healing Spiritual Wounds
Carol Howard Merritt

Healing Spiritual Wounds

Reconnecting with a loving God after a hurtful church

Book: Shunned, a Survival Guide
Bonnie Zieman

Shunned

Survival guide for victims of shunning by shunning by religions, quasi-religions, cults and other extreme groups

Book"Cracking the Cult Code for Therapists
Bonnie Zieman

Cracking the Cult Code for Therapists

What every cult victim wants their therapist to know

Book: Recovery from cults
Michael Langone (Editor)

Recovery From Cults

Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse