None of these by itself is enough to really be sure, but any one is probably enough to raise questions.
1. People ask you who your “covering” is. Or they brag about who theirs is, and how it’s ok for them to do what they do because they’re “covered.” Sometimes couched in the language of “sending out” too, although that on its own is probably ok.
2. People talk about who their discipler is, or their personal pastor. They meet with them weekly and submit their life decisions to them. Feedback from the personal pastor is more important than it should be. Usually that personal pastor has a personal pastor too, and so forth until it gets to the senior pastor/apostle.
3. “Making disciples” is stressed as not just getting people saved but accumulating people for you to pastor.
4. Your church is part of an apostolic network that covers their elders’ sins instead of holding them accountable for them. Or, their accountability does not fit the seriousness of the crime—pastors with moral failures are restored in months’ time, or perhaps shuffled to a new position.
5. Your own church elders (in the local church) are absent or virtually powerless. The real power is in the senior leaders above you, and they’re a tight clique.
6. Sermons are preached on the virtues of obedience and submission. Watchman Nee is quoted, or others who promote spiritual authority as a key aspect of the pastor’s role. Obedience and submission to God is used as the prooftext for obedience and submission to man.
7. You are encouraged to stick out times of personal misery. “Desert” or “wilderness” times are used as the excuse for your dryness, and sermons on Jacob suffering under Laban, or Joseph under Potiphar are used as metaphorical justifications for why you have to stick something awful out. This is an excuse to get you to stay instead of leave. The justify the harshness of their system on you instead of recognizing that maybe it is not good.
8. Sermons on gossip, or private admonitions about others gossiping, are used to prevent you from talking about your sufferings to others. Especially if you are being mistreated by your discipler or senior pastor, speaking against him/her is seen as high treason. You feel like you have nowhere to turn, nowhere to vent.
9. Your parents and friends are worried about you. They may even be unsaved, so you are quick to dismiss their concern or disapproval. But even unsaved loved ones have a discernment about a controlling system that you may not have if you have been suckered. Consider their opinions on how it has changed your identity (apart from their theological concerns, perhaps). Or especially if your parents are believers, take even more time to consider. Shepherding systems encourage you to be skeptical of your parents and friends because they seem them as not under spiritual authority—they have no right to bring up concerns.
10. Giving is manipulated. Probably not explicitly, such as by televangelists or pockets of the black church. But all the same, there is always pressure to “never outgive God.” You feel like yoru giving is part of showing your allegiance; the more you give, the more committed you are. And while the leadership always seems to get their perks for free (retreats, babysitting, personal gifts, a car…), you are always encouraged to sacrifice for the church’s “vision.” You may even be subtlely pressured to do something outrageous like empty your kids’ college fund, contribute your retirement, sacrifice your bonus/pay raise, … Common sense things like taking a donation for the homeless in your town is never done. The pastor is overcompensated and the rest of the team is undercompensated. You may even be pressured to get a promotion for the church, start your own business, or turn proceeds from your current business over to church control somehow so they can benefit.
11. Raising support but your normal church doesn’t support you. You’ve never received one of those love offerings. You get no “love”!
12. Triumphalism, postmillenial vision for the church’s takeover. You have to do it. Your church has to rule. You have to the people group who does it.
13. “Spiritual family” or “Covenant Relationships” There is no way to leave this thing without feeling less spiritual than everyone else or perhaps doubting your salvation.
14. Hype and Exclusivism. Your church is the only one on the cutting edge. You are the Joshua generation or “dread warriors” (your church stream, specifically). Your church has their own everything, including their conferences, bible school, grad school, fellowship, sororities/fraternities, etc. Many churches of course have their own institutions, but a real shepherding church makes you feel like you stepped into the “unsaved” or “less cool” thing just by attending another stream’s thing. Outside ministries/resources are hardly ever recommended. Talk of ecumenicism might come from the lips, but you’ll never see your pastor truly receiving anything from a pastor outside his own stream.
15. People treat you in ways that in your heart you feel like “I never thought Christians could act this way.”
16. Burnout is a key red flag, especially if you are under thirty or single. Because serving is seen as spirituality, and top leaders get all kinds of perks while underpaying you, you feel “privileged” or “chosen” on your way to becoming a workhorse. Often, the church secretaries are the first to be enslaved, and usually secretly because they’d feel embarrassed to complain.
17. The Carrot. If you finally do decide to leave, and your leadership doesn’t want you to because you offer some service or value, they will offer you “a carrot” so you won’t leave… usually a promotion or a shot at your own leadership in a new place. By doing this, they hope to offer you some space or sovereignty to convince you to stay. In reality, the control will only increase if you move further up the leadership chain, and your morals will be compromised at some point (as you start doing things their way), which will make your conscience loathe to leave.
18. Anyone from the outside who starts influencing you will be dubbed “Jezebel.” This often happens in the context of marriage, if you find someone outside the movement you want to marry. they see this person as a threat because they know marrying outside the church might cause you to leave, to join your spouse’s church. but this can also happen in the context of a mother or family member who might be influencing you to leave or teaching you something threatening to shepherding doctrine.
19. Conformity wins the day. Your church has its own favorite lingo, jokes, dress patterns, hangouts, worship songs, etc. While many businesses and associations like to build comraderie, you get a sense in your church, that the more conforming you are in these “unimportant” areas, the more in-group you are. You may even get leaders personally complimenting you as you become more party line.
20. Shady things occurring in tax breaks, naming of the corporate entity (including name changes), audits, offerings, write-offs, benefits, reimbursements, shifting money around, etc. Often times the things are small or semi-private, but your conscience is troubled by lack of integrity or openness about money. Pastors may offer to let you see “the books” if you want–or sometimes very vague budget numbers are presented to the church–but you have a sense that details are cooked. Somebody may have been burned here and there, like buying something expensive for the church that was technically theirs to own, but the church has it and uses it as if it’s not.
21. There is a prophet (or several) that you hear from on occasion, or are referred to reverently from the pulpit. When this prophet visits or has a word for your church, it is a huge deal—sometimes your local leaders only get a special exposure to this man from on high, so they can get special words too. Many times the theme of these messages are to stay, to stick it out, that you’ve been suffering quietly. Lay prophecy is discouraged or dismissed.
22. Those who are cheeky enough to leave the church are gossiped about. Stories may be made up which distort the truth and the person’s character deficiencies. Oftentimes, the first people to leave a controlling church actually do have trouble with authority and so rumors about their not fitting in, or their unsubmissiveness, seem justified. But the other side of the story is never told while the “rebellious” ones who left were probably onto something!
23. If you are brave enough to leave yourself, you may be privy to some of these rumors but feel unable to fight them. People may shun you, or the rumors may be hurtful enough to keep you embarrassed or overwhelmed. The leaders themselves may immediately write you off totally—even though they’d praised you for years—or conversely they may pursue you (privately) even months after you’ve left. It depends on the counsel they’re getting from their superiors (to whom they are definitely discussing your details). They may even do both… write you off to the congregation while secretly pursuing you/bothering you on their own time.