How to Select a Cult Expert
A research resource for parents and friends of people involved in cults or other high-demand relationships. Also used by pastors and counselors, as well as writers, journalists, and reporters.
Leaving a Cult
Countless people are — or have been — trapped in “High Demand” groups. Such groups may be manipulative cults, cult-like social movements, abusive churches, or even destructive personal relationships. [See: What is a cult?]
Many manage to leave on their own or with the help of friends and family. 1 Others need professional help and subsequent counseling.
Professional help may be provided by psychologists, counselors, or other mental health professionals. Some professionals – as well as lay people – specialize in dealing with cult problems. These “cult experts” help current cult members understand why and how to leave. They also help former cult members cope with their cult experiences.
Cult Experts, Consultants, Specialists, Et Cetera
When you are looking for help – for yourself or for someone else – you come across various terms and designations. For example: “cult expert,” “counselor,” “thought reform counselor,” “lecturer,” “exit counselor,” “intervention specialist,” “cult specialist,” “cult deprogrammer,” “court expert,” “cult watcher,” “cult hunter,” “cult tracker,” and so on.
In the media, cult experts are still often referred to as ‘deprogrammers’ – people who ‘deprogram’ someone who has been ‘programmed’ by ‘brainwashing’ or ‘mind control’. Most cult experts themselves no longer use the terminology of deprogramming because of the controversies surrounding this intervention process.
If you are helping someone who is trapped in a cult, it pays to familiarize yourself with the terminology and issues surrounding cults. That way, you can ask informed questions when you talk to counselors.
What is a Cult Expert?
A cult expert is someone who knows:
- the teachings and practices of groups and movements often referred to as “cults”
- the ways in which such groups (and individuals) recruit followers
- how they convince members not to leave (and to reject their parents, friends, and former way of life)
- how members can be encouraged to reevaluate their involvement in such groups
- How to help former cult members recover from their experiences
Buyer Beware: Term ‘Cult Expert’ Not Protected
Important: cult-related counseling is an unregulated field.
The term cult expert is not protected. Anyone can use it, regardless of their skills, approach, or acceptance by recognized authorities in the field. 2
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 training in counseling.
Some cult experts view cults primarily from a theological perspective, others from a sociological perspective, and still others consider both perspectives. [The term has different meanings depending on the perspective].
Note that some self-proclaimed “cult experts” have a bias for or against one or more religions.3
Licensed Mental Health Counselor… Or Not
Some cult experts are trained and licensed mental health counselors.
Here’s what that means:
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 requires a lot of counseling. The same is true for helping someone cope with the aftermath of the cult experience.
You must decide whether to entrust this process to a trained and licensed professional or an unlicensed lay expert.
Lay Cult Experts
There is no such thing as a “professional cultural expert license”.
It does not necessarily follow that a cult expert without formal counseling training cannot be effective. Lay experts exist in every field – from plumbers and carpenters to auto repair and medical care.
Someone with only lay knowledge may well be able to fix your leaky faucet or repaint your living room. And in most states and countries, anyone can provide counseling services, life coaching, spiritual therapy – or, say, thought reform counseling.
A lay expert may not suggest that they have formal credentials, such as a required license.
Nevertheless, in most places, anyone can call themselves a “consultant” – or offer counseling without necessarily using that term. However, a lay counselor may expose himself or herself to the liability associated with “practicing without a license.”
Your decision: Consider whether you entrust your loved one’s care
- to a licensed professional who is accountable to professional and ethical standards, or
- to someone who is not subject to formal accountability
In evaluating lay and professional experts, take into consideration demonstrable ability, a proven track record, and their standing among peers.
Lofty Titles and Hot Air
Unfortunately, some “experts” who are very good at marketing themselves are exactly the ones to stay away from.
Some cult observers market themselves with great titles. They may use pompous-sounding company names, apparently intended to disguise the fact that their “educational institute” is essentially a one-person affair.
Be especially wary of sensationalists and self-promoters. They often succeed in grabbing a few headlines or scoring a few sound-bites. But with their snap judgments, gossip and blather, they can not hold a candle to experts who present well-reasoned, insightful analyzes.
Even if you recognize someone from their sound-bites on TV or self-aggrandizing online behavior, it’s worth doing a little research: Is this “intervention specialist,” “cult expert,” “lecturer,” or “institute ‘executive director” well-connected? Are they recommended by recognized experts in the field? Are they licensed counselors?
The YouTube Cult Experts Test
When researching cult experts, you should also use YouTube as one of your sources.
There you can see, among other things, whether or not someone is well connected with other experts in the field.
Most cult experts are actively involved in professional associations. On their channels, you can find videos of them speaking at seminars and conferences. They also post interviews with or by other professionals or lay experts – often including former cult members.
Others have (almost) no official presentations to post. Most videos simply show the person in question speaking to an imaginary audience that is not on camera.
And of course, quoting experts is not the same as talking and interacting with them.
Note that outtakes from the media are difficult. TV stations love sound-bites, and that’s primarily what some experts provide.
Remember that it is one thing to be considered an expert by reporters and personalities, and another to be accepted as such by professionals and lay peers.
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.
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 academics viewed by some as ‘cult apologists‘ (or ‘cult defenders’) due to their advocacy on behalf of groups generally considered to be cults. 4
To understand ICSA’s approach, read its policy regarding the benefits of dialogue between parties that may not see eye to eye on cult-related issues.
Bottom line: be aware that some organizations, websites and individuals listed on ICSA’s links page are not necessarily recommended by the organization.
In other words, you must still put in the time to research cult experts before selecting one.
Speaking about cults: 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 cult 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. 5
Deborah Layton was involved in, and escaped from, Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple cult.
What to Watch for When Selecting 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.
Issues to understand:
- 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 emphasize how specific doctrines violate the accepted, normative set of beliefs and boundaries of faith tradition which 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. At the same time, a number of non-Christian experts are known to consult with theologically-trained Christians, and are well-informed.
- 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.’ (After all, when defined theologically, cults depart from the essential doctrines and practices of a particular faith).
- Most experts in this group work from a Christian point of view, with specific expertise in addressing cults of Christianity.
- 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
Cult research organizations tend to operate from a ‘non-sectarian’ or secular perspective. These may, in fact, include religion scholars who have become known as “cult apologists” (cult defenders). They have earned that label due to their propensity to describe cults or cult-like groups in a positive light, while summarily dismissing the claims of ex-members and other critics.
Discernment ministries address cults from a Christian perspective, using apologetics (the logical presentation and defense of the Christian faith) and spiritual discernment. They are sometimes referred to as countercult organizations (See the information at that link. And as mentioned, understand the difference between theological and sociological definitions of the term cult)
Questions to research:
- 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.
Observe 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 media and on 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 ‘soundbites’ — generally 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 of his information is a rehash of various media reports.
Ask questions about the fees involved
- Intervention and counseling services usually 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).
How to find a qualified therapist
No need for us to reinvent the wheel: See How to find a qualified therapist. This is a list of questions you can use to “interview” a therapist “to make sure that you feel good about their expertise, their level of professionalism, and whether or not they feel like a good fit for you.”
The list is published on the website of Janja Lalich, Ph.D., an international authority on cults and coercion.
Recommended Cult Experts
First, a few comments regarding this list:
Note: This list is not exhaustive. For one thing, many cult experts do not actively solicit clients. Some work only with referrals from other experts in the field. Others do not provide intervention or counseling services, but rather engage in academic research.
The people and organizations listed here are widely accepted as experts in this particular field. They are known for their expertise and professionalism. And while not all may necessarily agree with each other on various issues, they are known to treat each other with professional courtesy. Listings were not solicited, and cannot be bought. We do not receive any form of compensation for these listings.
For obvious reasons we have chosen not to include individuals who have developed a negative reputation in the field.
Note: Many experts on cults do not refer to themselves as “cult experts”. Instead, you will find designations such as exit counselor, thought reform consultant (or counselor), mental health counselor, intervention specialist, etc.
Note: Never assume that such a title (e.g., “cult specialist,” “consultant,” or “cult expert”) is an indication of professional competence. Only post-nominal letters indicate that the person has a position, academic degree, accreditation, etc.
Research Cults and Cult-Related Issues
If someone you know is involved in a cult, it’s worth doing some research yourself. Knowing something about the background and nature of a particular group-including its founder, leaders, doctrines, and practices-will also help you better evaluate lay and professional experts with whom you come into contact.
There are many online research sources about cults. Many are helpful, but many are not.
Some take an angry, argumentative – or even belligerent – approach, while others are far too nice. Certain sites and their operators have even been known to actively whitewash groups that are widely considered cults.
Some cult information sites adhere to academic standards, but the vast majority of cult education sites are run by laypeople.
Some websites consist primarily of news articles copied from original sources. Used properly, news archives can be helpful in alerting a current or former member of a cult-like group to certain facts about the group or its leader. This can give him or her a different perspective on the group and its leaders. Used incorrectly, such articles may instead confirm what the person has come to expect: “lies” and “persecution.”
Look for websites that offer a variety of research resources – including original material written by recognized, respected experts. Again, we recommend that you begin your research at the International Cultic Studies Association.
Theological vs Sociological Perspectives
As mentioned earlier, when researching cults it is necessary 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 deal not only with cults, but also with other abusive relationships with a high degree of control, such as those that involve domestic violence or human trafficking.
Not all cult experts, lay or professional, have the expertise, training, and licensure to provide effective assistance in this area.
Terms such as ‘one-on-one cult” or “cultic relationship” are sometimes used to describe relationships in which there is a significant imbalance of power. Abusive relationships-where one person intentionally controls, manipulates, and exploits another-usually include psychological, physical, and/or sexual abuse.
Cultic relationships are not limited to marriages or domestic partnerships, but can also occur in situations where one person is in a position of power and the other is not. For example, a “one-on-one” cult can develop between a pastor and a church member, a boss and an employee, a teacher and a student, etc. ( Another term for “one-on-one cult” is “destructive interpersonal relationship”).
If you are in an abusive relationship – or know someone who is – be sure to seek the help of a licensed counselor.
You and your friend or loved one need professional help from a licensed psychotherapist – not an unlicensed “cult expert”
Make sure the expert you are evaluating is such a professional themselves – not just someone working with (or referring to) a licensed counselor.
Books on Cults
There are many books that deal with cults and cult-related issues. Some are helpful; a lot are not. Some are written by respected cult experts, and some by informed lay (experience) experts.
Steer clear of sensationalist ‘true crime’-type books.
Select books that have stood the test of time, as well as reviews by peers in the field. The first four books listed here are especially recommended.
- People who exit on their own are sometimes called “walkaways.” People who have been forced to leave are sometimes called “castaways.” ↩
- The same applies to terms such 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) ↩
- Many of them have been particularly nasty about ‘apostates‘ and other critics, whose testimonies they summarily and foolishly dismiss as ‘untrustworthy.’ ↩
- These scholars have often been referred to as ‘cult apologists‘ or ‘cult defenders.’ The scholars themselves claim they are merely defending religious freedom. ↩