It began with a compliment from the pastor and a desire to be obedient. It ended with Karen Sapp allowing the minister to control nearly every aspect of her life.
She had faith in the North Highlands pastor, promising she could change her life with honor and service. Sapp gave all her free time to the church.
She worked in many church ministries, including one for members to cook meals for the pastor's family. She donned the uniform she was asked to wear. Sapp said she called the church leader, his wife and children "The First Family" – as requested.
One day last year, Sapp and her family walked way from the nondenominational independent church.
Looking back on how the pastor expected members to ask him for advice on everything from where to shop to what to watch on TV, Sapp keeps asking herself the same questions: Why, and how?
"It's not as if you join a church one day and promise to do everything they say," Sapp said. "It happens slowly. I would have done anything for the church."
Sapp was wrestling with the fine line between obedience and what is called "spiritual abuse," in which congregants follow the demands of their faith leaders to the detriment of their well-being. The dilemma isn't new, but the increased awareness is.
Web sites invite those who believe they are victims to tell their stories, books are devoted to the topic, and some cases land in court. Last month The Bee chronicled details of a lawsuit against Radiant Life Church in south Sacramento, claiming that its leader, Tony Cunningham, compelled church members to honor him by giving him money and paying for his vacations.
Congregants from other local churches said they have faced similar demands from their pastors, while some members counter that this is what faith is: You adhere to a set of beliefs and submit to your spiritual leader.
Listeners have been calling "The Eric Hogue Show" in recent weeks, discussing their experiences of obedience and spiritual authority on the Christian radio talk show.
"It's incredible, the stories people are sharing," Hogue said. His weeknight show, which airs on KFIA 710AM, has received more calls on this topic than any other.
Some listeners defend pastors' requests that congregants honor them with time, money and gifts, saying it is biblical. Others say it is not and that these pastors twist the Bible to suit their own goals.
Hogue's view is clear: "As a Christian, it makes me mad that some so-called spiritual leaders use their position to manipulate people. Unfortunately, this is going on more than people realize."
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