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How to Leave a Cult, Part 2: Questioning

Getting involved in a cult is surprisingly easy.

You think you would never be so gullible, but trust me: you can be converted in next to no time at all.

If you missed it, read Part 1: How I joined the ICOC Cult.

Everyone wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves, right?

Things Cults Say

In fact, that’s one of the lines we would use a lot in the International Churches of Christ.

Here are a few more that years later make me laugh… or make me cry. It depends on the day.

  • “If you’re not on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”
  • “Your indecision IS your decision.”
  • “You can’t run from God.” (This is true, by the way, but we tended to use it as a weapon.)
  • “Shy isn’t in the bible, sister. But pride is.”


After being in the ICOC for a few years, I found myself married to my spouse, with a couple of kids. This was not exactly thrilling to our disciplers, who had tried to keep us apart for a while, and then begrudgingly gave us permission to marry.

Well, first they finally gave us permission to date, then marry. Dating in the ICOC was similar to a lot of churches at that time (mid 1990s): the purity culture was all the rage.

Some of our friends even saved their first kiss for the alter, but us being the rebels we were, well… we definitely didn’t! Mainly because we sick and tired of the leaders not wanting us together, but cheerfully pairing up other friends with one another.

I was furious at our pastor for announcing to the entire wedding during the ceremony how we were saving sex for our wedding night. He hadn’t told me he was going to “announce” that, and quite frankly, 25 years later, I’m still pissy about it!

But that is another thing about being in a cult: your health and happiness aren’t a priority: “saving” people is. If someone in the attendance thought that was neat and wanted to know more about my church, then who cares that he embarrassed me publicly at my own wedding?

We went through pre-marital counseling and the couple leading it had been married (and I’m not kidding) a whole year.


We were expected to sit at their feet and glean their knowledge when they hadn’t even opened all their wedding gifts yet.

This was the first time I seriously almost left the church. I had told them I wasn’t comfortable taking oral birth control and had some questions. Why it was any of their business anyway I’ll never know, but I didn’t even think to question that. The man looked at me and bellowed, “Get on the Pill or you’ll have twelve kids in ten years!”

Besides being bad at math and biology, he didn’t have a real great bedside manner.

I didn’t leave though, and I did what I was told. The Pill was a nightmare to be on and my new husband didn’t mind at all when I told him I was done taking it six months into our marriage. Of course, nine months later, our first daughter was born.


In the ICOC, kids are definitely a setback, something to be put in “Kid’s Kingdom” (children’s church) as soon as possible.

They were not thrilled we were having kids soon (our second daughter came along 18 months after the first), but they were fiercely pro-life (with the exception of anyone questioning the mechanics of the Pill) so what could they do?

Parenting was addressed in the ICOC in a similar fashion to all of their other theologies: do A, B, and C, and you’ll get D.

A lot of rules and legalism, a lot of “seek first the kingdom” (the kingdom meaning the church), and books like To Train Up A Child and Growing Kids God’s Way (I do NOT recommend these books, BTW).

Having a husband who worked incredibly long hours in retail and dedicating our lives to the ICOC took a toll on me.

My first pregnancy and birth weren’t too bad, but the second threw me for a loop. I felt like a single mom. Every last evening and weekend was full of work or church activities.

I was the only new mom I knew who was breastfeeding so I was always getting banished somewhere to feed the baby, while the other moms stayed in services and groups with their bottles.

I suppose the church didn’t want any males eyes wandering to an accidently exposed boob? Who knows. I just know I sat on a lot of dirty public restroom floors with tears in my eyes as I nursed my daughter.

I kept getting mastitis, and I was trying to get through a blur of post partum depression. Still, I never missed anything the church asked me to be at, from Mid-week to Sunday services to Bible studies to door knocking to Discipling times.


We were drowning in debt and yet never even considered lowering our tithe. Our disciplers knew exactly how much money we made (or didn’t make) and anything less than 10% would have been a grave sin.

And then there was something called “Special Contribution.”

Special Contribution came once a year (sometimes twice) and it was a huge deal. You were encouraged (i.e. required) to tithe 40 times as much as usual, or even more.

It became a bit of a competition to see who could give the most. Leaders encouraged us to take out loans and credit cards if we had to, because after all, “God invented them.”

The money went to overseas missions, strictly ICOC based (after all, no other religious group could be trusted. We had cornered the gospel, remember?) or at least they TOLD us it went to overseas missions. More on that later.

I’ve been out for a long while, but I’ve heard that current members were told to give their COVID-19 relief money to the church as well. That definitely wouldn’t surprise me.

The allegations and lawsuits that have recently come to light also don’t surprise me. The problem with forgiveness and unconditional love is, abuse can run unchecked.

At this time (around 2003), we had a new pastor and his wife taking over our Boise location. They were incredibly young and inexperienced, but honestly, 99% of the ICOC fit that mold, at least in our Idaho location.

Maybe anyone over 40 could smell what was rotten? We rarely could convert anyone of a grandparent age.

After our new leaders had been leading the church for a bit, they had their first baby. Everyone clamored to bring them dinners and gifts and spoil them.

I remember distinctly when it was my turn to bring them a homecooked meal, I had to go get a Payday loan to buy the groceries. I roasted them a whole chicken with homemade barbeque sauce, a from-scratch potato salad, drinks, and a homemade dessert. I brought it all over to their house with a gift and a card, and our family ate popcorn for dinner.

A week later, the pastor told me they had received so much food they threw away everything I had brought, uneaten. He thought it was hilarious. I went home and cried.


Eventually, cracks began appearing in the surface of the ICOC. Things were happening that I was suddenly more aware of and questioning.

Things like, a woman I had been studying the Bible with was so eager to be baptized, but the leaders kept saying no. Sometimes it was because her house wasn’t clean enough (so she wasn’t repenting of her sins fast enough), and sometimes it was because they really liked “saving up” all the baptisms for a big weekend when the higher-ups from Denver were visiting because it made us look super successful.

I was getting really frustrated and so was she, especially since we had told her explicitly that she was in danger of hell if she wasn’t baptized.

She ended up leaving. I still think about her sometimes.

Other reasons for refusing to baptize someone would be: not having completed every last study, being a smoker, being a drinker (moderation was okay), not living in a town with a “true” church (i.e. an ICOC church), being sexually active outside of marriage, having a boyfriend/girlfriend who wasn’t interested in the ICOC, holding back sins, and I’m sure there were more.

Another weird thing the cult did a lot was re-baptizing people. This was done if someone frantically remembered a sin they had forgotten (so apparently God didn’t know about it either and thus it had gone unforgiven? Unsure.) or if they had “fallen away” and then came back and were “restored.”

It was a little tiresome seeing the same people getting dunked over and over.

Another time we were told to sign papers or we would basically be excommunicated. The papers were called The Evangelization Proclamation. I don’t remember a lot of what was said but every member had to agree, sign their name, and then they were plastered on the church wall.

I was the last person to sign; me and my friend, Genesis, who had been a member even longer than I had been. She always had a rebellious streak! I miss you, Gen, and know that you are partying it up in heaven, probably watching trashy reality TV reruns with Jesus.

Silver Linings

While most of the cult was a blur of busy work, bad theology, dangerous situations, and legalism, there were some good things about it. (Or is that my trauma talking?)

Our closest relationships that we still maintain to this day came out of walking through those years together. When you are absolutely transparent about your sins, your struggles, your past, your hopes, your dreams, your marriages, your sex life, your kids, your finances, you can’t help but get very close to those people.

We treasure some of the friendships we made at that time, and to be frank, have never been that close to anyone ever since.

In Part III we’ll discuss what it took to topple Kip McKean and his higher-ups, how our little family decided to leave for good, our spiritual journey thus far, and where we are now.

Thanks for reading!

How To Leave A Cult, Part 1: How I Joined The ICOC Cult

Hi, there! Thanks for coming along with me on a weird journey. If you have ever been in a cult, are struggling to get out, or are simply fascinated by the story, here is a sordid and twisted tale of how I joined a cult, stayed for almost a decade, and then made the decision to leave.

I would love to hear from you, so please feel free to drop me a message or contribute to the comment section!

Religion, Rules, and Church

In 1996, I was a rule-following, fairly religious (but not a church goer), homeschool graduated, 18 year old ballerina.

I’m not sure that cult members go after this genre per se, since we’re a small demographic, but I was likely pretty ripe for the picking.

Religion for me was all about rules, and I liked it that way.

I was a good girl. I wasn’t just a member of the Good Girls Club, I was also the introverted, nerdy, non-smoking, non-drinking, never-cut-her-hair president.

As a kid, we had mostly gone to church in a tiny converted garage. This was an off-shoot of the Church of Christ, where the women wore head coverings when they prayed (oftentimes a napkin from the dinner table, if that was handy), and wore dresses (my mom thought that one was dumb, so I was allowed to wear pants. Thanks, Mom).

There were no instruments allowed in worship, and the 2-3 families who made up the congregation were taught to sing hymns with all the parts (I was an alto). The preaching could go on for hours, and to my recollection, it was all about hellfire and damnation, but it’s possible my memory is flawed.

My parents left that church when I was about 12 or 13, and it would be years before we would go to a church again, although occasionally we would have house church. Religious homeschoolers in the late ’80s/early ’90s know all about house church, canIgetanAmen?

Still, I was definitely religious. I had no intention of going to hell, and I liked God. He seemed like an okay guy, and was nice to talk to.

Moving to a large city at age 16, I was thrown into a whole new world. The performing arts world is not such a safe space for a shy, awkward ballerina. I started college early, and also worked on campus as a waitress.

Which is where the cult found me.

Joining a Cult: The International Churches of Christ

The International Churches of Christ (ICOC), led by Kip McKean, was at one time the fastest growing and largest cult in America. You can google it, or even find podcasts about it.

At one point there was an expose on the ICOC featured on one of those shows that came after Entertainment Tonight. Was it Access Hollywood? Someone chime in here.

Eventually, the “movement” toppled (more on that later), but Kip is still active and has renamed his cult International Christian Churches, or the Sold Out Discipling Movement. If you live in a city with a population over 100,000 or so, there is sure to be a church there – whether it’s the “new” ICOC, or Kip’s newest version.

The ICOC building where I first went met in a gym. The churches didn’t really believe in spending millions of dollars for a building when they could just rent someone else’s space.

Seemed smart to me! I loved that. No one likes money hungry churches, right? Spend that money somewhere else, like on, you know, widows and orphans (or your leader’s lifestyles … more on that later).

Step 1: The Warm Welcome

The group was aggressively friendly! There was zero hope or chance of sneaking in the back, sitting alone, and then leaving.

It didn’t matter if you were well dressed, attractive, smart, outgoing, or some random guy off the street. Everyone was treated like they were The Most Interesting Person on Planet Earth.

While this was disconcerting as an introvert, it was also pretty great. I had a couple friends, sure, but these teenagers and young adults acted like I was the greatest thing since sliced bread! I felt really special. People who left the cult oftentimes talked later about being “love bombed.” We would laugh at that, but it seriously was a real thing and it was quite intentional.

Worship was weird though, I had to admit.

Step 2: The Growing Intensity

There was a lot of snapping and clapping (but not really any lifting of the hands). The songs were new and fresh, and as a longtime Christian I was surprised I didn’t know any. I learned later the ICOC pretty much exclusively only sang “their” songs, as no one else in the religious world had a handle on the gospel.

When the preaching started, people would speak out constantly, shouting things like, “Amen!” “Preach it, brother!” or everyone’s favorite, “WE NEED THIS!” It was by far the loudest church service I had ever been to.

Everyone took notes, and I learned this was one of the rules.

(If you’ve never been a cult member, there are a lot of rules.)

Anyway, extensive note taking was required, in case there was some kind of follow up or a quiz, or just in case you wanted to go over the lesson again later. I filled up entire boxes of journals, and my Bible fell apart regularly from use.

I’m not sure if it was the first service or the second I went to, but someone asked me if I wanted to study the Bible. I said yes.

The ICOC has an extensive set of Bible studies, and they are never deviated from. They go in a certain order:

Even though I was busy with school and performing and working, I got through my studies pretty quickly, as I was eager and ready to learn and also a very fast reader. The girls who studied with me were the people I wanted to be. They were cool without being intimidating, warm without smothering me, and would drop anything at the drop of a hat to help me. They would have given me the shirts off their backs, no problem.

I had never been baptized and I had been feeling secretly quite concerned over this character flaw. What if I got in a car accident the week before my baptism? Then you would most definitely go to hell, they gravely answered. That was another motivation to get through the studies as fast as possible.

Step 3: The Commitment

Before they will baptize you (which is the be all/end all), you have to meet certain requirements, besides going through each and every study and getting a passing grade. You cannot date anyone outside of the church, and if your family or friends don’t like the church, you should cast them aside. “Seek first the kingdom” was a scripture we used and abused again and again. Only the members of the ICOC were in the kingdom after all, so they came first.

Since my family (parents and little sister) were studying the Bible as well, and going through the studies, I didn’t have a problem with them holding me back spiritually.

But I did have a couple friends who were getting concerned, and an on-again-off-again boyfriend who seriously was beginning to hate what was happening to me.

Since he obviously wasn’t a true disciple, I broke up with him.

Anyone can be a Christian, is what they tell you, but only a disciple will go to heaven. So we used that word – disciple – constantly.

We would never call ourselves Christian. So passé! “Christians” were to be pitied. They were fakers, pew-warmers, or worst of all, they were “lukewarm.”

If you backed a disciple in a corner about this, they would politely say that perhaps there were other true churches in the world, but if so, they’d never seen them. This should have been a red flag, but I hadn’t had much luck with normal Christians being truly transformative anyway, so perhaps these guys really did know something the rest of the world didn’t know?

The ICOC began in the 1970s. Evidently, there were no true disciples before this time? That seemed a little weird, but I went with it.

A few years later, we had heard the story of the would-be disciples beginning in a living room SO MANY TIMES that we would secretly refer to those couple of families as The Would-Bes.

We all got a little sick and tired of the story that was reverently told, but hierarchy is the name of the game in cults, and those leaders were pretty much God Almighty. Pipe down, peasants!

When I was baptized (in a hot tub), I was finally content that should I suddenly pass away, I would find myself in the arms of Jesus. Not because of anything He’d done necessarily, but mostly on my own merits. It was good to have Him as a backup though, should I need Him, right? (If you can’t tell, this is meant tongue-in-cheek.)

I met my future husband at my baptism. While the cult was small, I was in the Campus ministry, and he, as a college graduate, was in the Single’s ministry, so we hadn’t crossed paths yet.

When you’re a disciple, your typical week looks like this:

  • church services a minimum of three times per week: Midweek Service, Sunday service (most ICOC services would meet on Sunday evenings since they typically rented buildings. I think they also loved getting rid of invitee’s excuses of wanting to sleep in on Sundays!), and another thrown in for good measure
  • meeting with your discipler (more on that later) every week for a few hours of confessing sins and prayer. At this point, you’ve done so much confessing and praying together during your studies that this is surprisingly easy
  • door knocking at least one night a week. Being an introvert, I hated this part, but you know … seek first the kingdom, sister
  • Bible studies with would-be disciples as often as possible but you’d best believe it was at least 2-6 times per week/person, and
  • one night a week you would attend your Bible Talk Group

Step 4: The Isolation

This, of course, left scarcely any time at all for anyone who was not a disciple.

And that’s a cult 101 lesson: isolate. Just like an abusive partner, you’ll be removed, gaslit, and isolated.

At this point, most of your old friends are getting a little sick of your behavior anyway, and they might drift off. You’ll be sad, but not really.

Even the religious ones are looking at you like have grass growing out of your ears because you’ve become so extreme.

It’s okay though: you’re praying for them. Usually in front of a large group where confidential information is spilled under the guise of a prayer request. To this day, even though I’ve been out for over 15 years, I still don’t pray with people, not aloud. I don’t trust them in all honesty, and I don’t trust myself.

Step 5: The Pressure Towards Submission & Accountability

Traveling out of the area was strictly not allowed, or if it was, be prepared to get an ear full about your sin. Occasionally a disciple would fall back on the old adage, “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”

Missing any church service was greatly frowned upon, and your discipler would let you know if it was okay to take a new job, move to a different house, or socialize with anyone outside of the church. Getting advice was the name of the game, but really it was getting permission.

If you missed a service, you’d best be on death’s door! Didn’t matter if it was because you had a family commitment or needed to travel or were super sick.

Once you are baptized and nice and thoroughly soaked, you are given a discipler. Your discipler is someone in your peer group who has been a disciple longer than you.

Well, sometimes. Not always.

You HAD a discipler, and you were SOMEONE ELSE’S discipler. There were no exceptions. If you weren’t qualified to teach someone, you’d best learn real fast.

And if your discipler seemed a little wet behind the ears, or had nothing in common with you, or was a complete nut job, too bad.

Step 6: The Growing Fear

Not following the commands and rules set by your discipler was a huge risk: at best you’d be reprimanded for your “pride” and taken to leaders to convince you of your sinful ways, at worst, you’d be put in front of the church and called out publicly.

It was called “getting advice,” but you weren’t able to take it or leave it. You were to make your leader’s life “a joy, and not a burden” (Hebrews 13:17).

That was another scripture we used and abused, almost always to get someone back in line who might be questioning things.

Sometimes I had disciplers whom I loved and respected very much, other times it was a huge chore to meet with them and spill my soul. And being someone else’s discipler was a giant responsibility. If they “fell away” (cult speak for leaving the church), it was going to be on your head as well.

Falling away meant hell, no exceptions.

I had a few girls fall away in a short period of time and it made me very fearful, both of my status in the church and in heaven. I felt like a black widow, and was rebuked for not holding onto them harder when they wanted to leave.

“Speaking the truth in love” was a much thrown around phrase in the ICOC. This meant you could be blunt and honest to the point of rude and mean.

I remember women being told they were fat, smelled bad, or needed to change their hair or clothes. I can’t speak for the men and boys, but the women and girls cried a lot.

Dating only happened in the church and in groups. This was the height of the purity culture, remember? Couples who had an interest in being more than friends with each other had to get permission, which sometimes took a long time if the leaders didn’t want you two together (like with me and my now-husband).

Once they had permission, they became official boyfriend and girlfriend, but hand-holding was about all they were allowed to do unless they were really good at sneaking around, but who had the time and energy for that?

You were never never to be alone with a member of the opposite sex, couple or not. So, group dates were where it was at!

They would happen every Saturday night, and you were not allowed to skip out on this. Any brother who asked you out must be told yes.

Most of the time these were fun, but sometimes they were rough. The cult attracted all kinds of people, including former perpetrators. This was one time where being in a group was much appreciated.

The story continues: Read Part 2 here.

How to Make a Steampunk Dollhouse

Today I’m going to show you how to make a steampunk dollhouse!

After making both suitcase dollhouses and a haunted dollhouse, I was inspired to try a steampunk version. It’s easy enough to transform a thrift shop dollhouse or one that you already own into something Victorian sci-fi.

Here’s how!

Lately Goodwill’s prices have sky-rocketed (just like everyone else’s – can I get an amen?).

But I thought under $13 was perfectly acceptable for this very large and sturdy home.

It was in great shape, other than the bottom left corner which snagged on my car door as I tried to wrangle the whole thing in my backseat.


And there are some missing roof shingles. I thought about replacing them with popsicle sticks… but hey, a lot of people need their roof replaced. It gives it a sense of homey-ness, right?

The second set of stairs had come loose but that wasn’t a biggy.

A few trips to the following places: Hobby Lobby, the Dollar Tree, and Walmart gave me some great pieces to get started with. The blue paint was in perfectly fine condition but I felt like this house needed a yellow upgrade.

Hobby Lobby’s jewelry department had some killer markdowns in a real steampunk vibe, including some metal octopuses, owls, and a great little hot air balloon.

The paper for the walls was also from Hobby Lobby.

The acrylic paint I got from Walmart (they’re only .54 each! The metallic ones clocked in at .97. I know, big spender here!)

These cute little owl decals came from the Dollar Tree and the metallic paint went on easy and dried super fast.

The furniture also came from the Dollar Tree and I used the same metallic paint. The apothecary jars were from there as well!

These little clock discs came from Joanne Fabric where I stopped when I ran out of yellow paint and didn’t want to go all the way to Walmart.

They didn’t have the paint, but they had these, as well as the cute metal gears for the outside of the dollhouse. They were both marked down to a couple of dollars each.

The Dollar Tree had fairy lights and batteries so for $2 I lit up the attic floor. I Gorilla glued the box in an unobtrusive spot where you can still reach the on/off switch and can replace batteries.

This little room turned out cute! The stripey “wallpaper” was a great accent to the steampunk cat that I simply printed out from the internet and framed in a Dollar Tree frame. The rug was a sticker decal from there as well.

There is another steampunk image framed here but it’s hard to see it from here. I figured a little human being playing with it would be able to see it though!

Hobby Lobby had this cute Victorian sewing machine that fit in well.
A little tea set gives our adventurers a chance for a cuppa in the afternoons.

What do you think? Was I right about the yellow? I think it turned out super cute.

I could have kept going with the décor, etc, but I didn’t want to spend too much and I felt like the new owner could have fun putting their own spin on it.

Now it just needs a little Victorian family to move in!