Kerrin’s Story, part i

June 16, 2011 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Well, I certainly wouldn’t have ever thought my life would end up in these circumstances, but here I am. My story of spending most of my life in Covenant Life Church (CLC) and Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) could be quite long and take awhile to retell in total. For the sake of brevity and current, relevant circumstances I will stick primarily to the past couple of years and my most recent journey away from CLC/SGM.

My story at the mothership (CLC) begins twenty years ago. Yes, that’s right. I found my way out, with my sanity intact (knock on wood), after twenty years. Though, I was seeing a therapist to help with some residual effects of being there for so long and leaving. But before I begin, I want to be upfront with you because you should know where my current mindset is before you read any further: I am now convinced that Sovereign Grace Ministries is at best cult-like, and according to some academic standards would be classified a bona fide destructive cult. Now when I use that term—cult—I don’t use it pejoratively, I use it descriptively (a way of describing something; pointing to certain characteristics that are evident upon examination). Though I do prefer the phrase “destructive, high-demand group” to “destructive cultic group,” but for now I’m just going to stick with cultic. So if you are uncomfortable with that point of view or conclusion you may not want to read further.

A simple list of criteria or characteristics of a cultic group may be helpful at this point. Before I give this simple list I want to state plainly and clearly that Orthodox beliefs are completely separate from the characteristics of destructive cultic groups. So let me say it this way: CLC/SGM holds to mostly Orthodox beliefs, but it is their structure, methodologies, and practices that primarily identify them as a cultic group. There are other more complicated lists and nuances, but this list will work for the purpose of my story. I’m sure some who are still part of SGM will dismiss this list by saying something like, “Yeah, but that’s what a true church really is!” To which I would plead with that reader to simply consider opening your mind to another way of looking at things and consider the body of Christ is larger than you may possibly be aware.

The following is great criteria for examining whether or not Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) is a cult or cultic group:

1. Authoritarian pyramid structure with authority at the top

2. Charismatic or messianic leader(s) (Messianic meaning they either say they are God OR that they alone can interpret the scriptures the way God intended…..the leaders are self-appointed.)

3. Deception in recruitment and/or fund raising

4. Isolation from society — not necessarily physical isolation like on some compound in Waco, but this can be psychological isolation — the rest of the world is not saved, not Christian, not transformed (whatever) — the only valid source of feedback and information is the group

5. Use of mind control techniques (we use Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s criteria from chapter 22 of his book Thought Reform & the Psychology of Totalism to compare whether the eight psychological and social methods he lists are present in the group at question):

5A. Milieu Control: Control of the environment and communication within the environment.

5B. Mystical Manipulation: Seeks to promote specific patterns of behavior and emotion in such a way that it appears to have arisen spontaneously from within the environment, while it actually has been orchestrated totalist leaders claim to be agents chosen by God, history, or some supernatural force, to carry out the mystical imperative the “principles” (God-centered or otherwise) can be put forcibly and claimed exclusively, so that the cult and its beliefs become the only true path to salvation.

5C. Demand for Purity: The world becomes sharply divided into the pure and the impure, the absolutely good (the group/ideology) and the absolutely evil (everything outside the group) one must continually change or conform to the group “norm”; tendencies towards guilt and shame are used as emotional levers for the group’s controlling and manipulative influences.

5D. Confession: Cultic confession is carried beyond its ordinary religious, legal and therapeutic expressions to the point of becoming a cult in itself sessions in which one confesses to one’s sin are accompanied by patterns of criticism and self-criticism, generally transpiring within small groups with an active and dynamic thrust toward personal change.

5E. Sacred Science: The totalist milieu maintains an aura of sacredness around its basic doctrine or ideology, holding it as an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence questioning or criticizing those basic assumptions is prohibited a reverence is demanded for the ideology/doctrine, the originators of the ideology/doctrine, the present bearers of the ideology/doctrine offers considerable security to young people because it greatly simplifies the world and answers a contemporary need to combine a sacred set of dogmatic principles with a claim to a science embodying the truth about human behavior and human psychology.

5F. Loading the Language: Words are given new meanings — the outside world does not use the words or phrases in the same way — it becomes a “group” word or phrase.

5G. Doctrine Over Person: If one questions the beliefs of the group or the leaders of the group, one is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to even question — it is always “turned around” on them and the questioner/criticizer is questioned rather than the questions answered directly the underlying assumption is that doctrine/ideology is ultimately more valid, true and real than any aspect of actual human character or human experience and one must subject one’s experience to that “truth” the experience of contradiction can be immediately associated with guilt one is made to feel that doubts are reflections of one’s own evil when doubt arises, conflicts become intense.

5H. Dispensing of Existence: Since the group has an absolute or totalist vision of truth, those who are not in the group are bound up in evil, are not enlightened, are not saved, and do not have the right to exist; impediments to legitimate being must be pushed away or destroyed one outside the group may always receive their right of existence by joining the group; fear manipulation — if one leaves this group, one leaves God or loses their salvation/transformation, or something bad will happen to them; the group is the “elite”, outsiders are “of the world”, “evil”, “unenlightened”, etc.

I ask any current CLC/SGM member to carefully examine this list and tell me these don’t exist in some way, shape, or form? You might be surprised to find out that many other churches in existence today don’t exhibit these characteristics.

Now, back to my story: my perspective is a bit of a unique one because when it comes to analyzing SGM, without being too specific and to put it somewhat crudely, I was “close to the top.” And by “the top” I refer to my relationships within the polity’s organizational structure (i.e., Authoritarian pyramid structure. Reference #1 in the list above), not that I almost attained such a status, although, I was a “caregroup leader” for eight years, went to the “pastor’s college,” played guitar regularly on stage Sunday mornings at CLC, was once asked if I would consider being a “pastor,” and up until I physically left the group in January of 2010 was slated to be an Elder on a recent church plant. Some of you may already know who I am based on my first name. This unique perspective, one of viewing the organization as cult-like, comes from not only the closeness of relationships to “the top,” but twenty years of experience there plus years of observation, study, and analysis. Looking back now I have to admit to myself that I was under the sway of groupthink for part of my twenty years there. I bought into, used, and participated in the methodology, black-and-white worldview, hero worship, guilt-projection, enjoyment of status, seeking status, coercive persuasion, thought reform, etc. Increasingly so, in the last seven years I was apart of the group, I wanted to figure out how to leave, how to stop leading a caregroup, etc. but there was simply no easy way to stop and move on.

You should also know that since I’ve left the “leaders” now say, “We’re questioning whether or not he ever was saved.” And for a while after I left my wife was attending a special “caregroup” for spouses of “unbelievers” at CLC (reference #4 above: “Isolation”). This is primarily based on what they think they know about me: I’m neither a Calvinist nor a conservative evangelical. They know I was questioning and disagreeing with their theology. They know I questioned and disagreed with their decisions, methodologies, and practices. And then I left (reference #5H above). The rest is based purely on their conjecture without direct knowledge. And of course, from their point of view, I left (and am currently) writing this because I’m angry, bitter, or even crazy. Well, I will say, there have been times when I’ve been angry, but who’s to say that is wrong? Is it not right to oppose tyranny or oppression with passion? Was Martin Luther wrong to, along with intellectual reasons, oppose “church authority” with passion? If any “leaders” from SGM are reading this: what is the difference between passionate opposition to tyranny and anger? As one in “authority,” is it not a more convenient way to dismiss dissent by labeling it as anger or bitterness than to listen and accept someone’s point of view as legitimate? And even if someone is angry could that not indicate wrongdoing or injustice on the part of the Institution and its use of power?

I don’t base these somewhat rhetorical questions on pure speculation. No, I’ve witnessed the character assassination of those who have left by the leadership and the rank-‘n’-file members at CLC. No one is perfect, sure. But anger about how one was treated wrongly is a natural, good thing. It helps us avoid the same mistreatment in the future; that is if we’re aware of the freedom to avoid such treatment. This is the problem with leaving SGM; most people are not aware they have the freedom, are afraid to do so, or don’t know how. One should ask oneself, “Why would I be scared to leave what on the surface seems like a legitimate church?” The first time I expressed my strong disagreement with things that went on and my desire to no longer go there I was “strongly encouraged” to talk with all the pastors about this because I was a “pillar in the church.” Most people in that circumstance will not be aware of their freedom to say, “No, I don’t need to speak with them.” During this time, Eric Simmons even said to me, “You should go to church where your wife wants to go”—these guys can’t stay on message it’s all about control.

When I first expressed a disagreement with a decision the leadership made one leader practically yelled at me: “But they’re your spiritual leaders!” As if just because they are self-appointed “spiritual leaders” (reference #2 above: “Charismatic or messianic leaders”) I shouldn’t disagree with them or think a decision they made was wrong/bad/etc. What’s interesting is that this decision I disagreed with wasn’t even a “spiritual” decision, as the word “spiritual” is typically used (reference #5F in mind control: “Loading the Language”), it was a business or Institutional reputation decision; to use SGM’s language it was a “gospel strategy” decision. (By the way, if you check out that link I was the source of that email exchange among the SGM leadership. Bob Kauflin forwarded it to me when I was still a trusted insider. It was also the topic Isaac Hydoski refers to in this comment about his standard pastoral practice i.e., betrayal of friendship. Do you know what happens to your private conversations with your CLC/SGM pastor, ”friend”? This is common practice in their ranks.). The decision I’m referring to was about a church plant. It became clear to me that these men were primarily concerned with the Institution’s reputation first and foremost: the propagation of their version of “the gospel” depended on their public image and they were afraid of that being damaged.

My journey away from SGM has been a long one. And it didn’t begin with anger or some offense (although, this is typically how the “leaders” will dismiss someone like me who leaves for intellectual and experiential reasons). Sure there was anger and offense along the way. In response to emotional manipulation and coercive persuasion is anger not a natural response? Even a sympathetic response when we witness another human subjected to the manipulation and coercion of another? Were you not angered to learn of John Allen Muhammad’s coercion and manipulation of Lee Boyd Malvo in the Washington, DC sniper attacks? (That is an illustrative question, not meant to be a direct comparison to the coercive persuasion at SGM). Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., an expert in psychological abuse, wrote the following, “Moral outrage fortifies good against formidable evil.” Now it is just my opinion about SGM, but it is an informed opinion, an opinion formed by experience, facts, and intellectual analysis. And I am morally outraged at the evil that is perpetrated within the Institution of Sovereign Grace Ministries. I am morally outraged at what I was subjected to for the formidable years of my youth and early adulthood. I am morally outraged at what they do to other human beings.

As my growing unease with things that went on at CLC, and the way people were treated there, I began to think about how to leave (about 7 years ago). The real trouble was that I have a family and my family is connected “to the top” (i.e., I married a daughter of a long-time leader within SGM). So while thinking about how to leave, one of the things I concluded might be an easy out would be to go on a “church plant.” That would at least get me away from CLC and provide a different environment for my children to grow up in; perhaps I’d have more autonomy, etc. So about seven years ago I began asking a pastor/friend, Eric Simmons, who displayed slightly different views on polity than other pastors, if he would plant a church. In 2008 he began seriously considering it. There were, of course, other people who were asking him about planting a church over the years (i.e., I wasn’t the only one). Then the process began, he decided he wanted to plant a new SGM church.

(I will possibly share more about this portion of the story in detail another time. That is if SGM doesn’t comply with my demands at the end of this post. For now, let’s just say I disagreed with what happened after this SGM church plant was announced. I then started to vocalize not only my disagreement with this decision, the polity, but also my theological disagreements and questions. And ultimately how I was treated confirmed my suspicions that CLC/SGM is a cultic group.)

Bob and Eric could not answer many of my theological/philosophical questions; I don’t think they knew what hit them because I kept so much quiet for so long.  I even emailed Dr. Bruce Ware some theological/philosophical questions to show Bob and Eric that I’m not dumb and have in fact thought more deeply about certain issues than they had. Because they couldn’t answer my theological/philosophical questions they wanted me to go talk with Mark Dever. I refused this on the grounds that anyone else would not be afforded that privilege and I would not do that just because of whom I married. In addition, having witnessed Mark’s aggressive nature from the pulpit and once in person, I wasn’t willing to subject myself to that at the time. They assured me he wouldn’t be that way, but I said, “I’m still not interested.” After all, I was just a layman who disagreed with “Reformed Theology.” As an adult I felt I should be able to choose what perspective—philosophically or theologically—I agreed with the most without speaking to all the “experts” or “big dogs.” Even though, I’m fairly well read, pretty good at debating, and could probably hold my own against these “big dogs,” it was the principle of the things that was off-putting and at that time I was still repressed in speaking my own opinion.

They weren’t letting me go. At one point I said in a meeting, “I feel trapped” and “this is a classic sign of a cultic-group: easy in, difficult to get out!” I was told by Bob at one point when I was relaying how I disagreed with John Calvin, that I was “proud” for doing so (reference #5G in mind control: “Doctrine over Person”). Ironically, I found out later Bob had never even read The Institutions. I on the other had had read and analyzed Calvin’s arguments. My reading outside the “approved list” of books was demeaned, as was my intelligence during this process. The excuse I heard about this from my father-in-law was, “I expressed that I thought there were better things you could read for your faith.”—as if only the books/authors who agree with SGM’s version of “Reformed Theology” are beneficial to faith (reference #5E in mind control: “Sacred Science”).

When questioning the influence of the Shepherding Movement on SGM and expressing my dislike of this influence back in March 2010, Eric Simmons denied there was a connection. In response, I produced a quote from Alister McGrath, a reputable theologian who is noted for his work in historical theology and holds two PhDs. The quote spoke of the historical connection between CLC and the Shepherding Movement. Eric responded with the following lies:

“The way that I have heard CJ talk in the past about [the founders of the Shepherding Movement] is that he is grateful for their friendship but would really disagree with how they think about “apostolic” ministry.  Brent would have agreed with those guys and thus the reason why CJ asked him to not be on the Board.  Not that you want to know that stuff.”

When confronted on these lies Eric only said he was speculating. Here are the lies: 1) that only Brent agreed with those guys (they all supposedly had concerns but it was primarily CJ and Larry that embraced the teachings); 2) that CJ asked Brent to resign from the Board (Brent did so of his own accord); 3) that Brent’s resignation from the Board had anything to do with theological differences on “apostolic” ministry. As is plainly evident to most people, Eric’s statement is devoid of speculative language (e.g., “It seems like…” or “I may be wrong…” or “As I recall…”). It is clear he is trying to tell me something I supposedly don’t know when he says, “Not that you want to know that stuff.” So then the question is why would he want to deceive me in this way? Among other questions I posed to him I stressed this as the important one. I have yet to receive a response despite being told he would response ASAP. I can produce the email exchanges for anyone who is interested.

Tell me why anyone would want to follow “leaders” who lie, deceive, betray confidence, etc. and then cannot own up to it? They cannot be honest. Why follow anyone who lacks integrity? Everyone lies every now and again, but wouldn’t you expect men of integrity to admit when caught deceiving?

(to be continued…)