The final few weeks of this past semester, I embarked on analyzing the leadership of a man I once believed to be a great man of God. This man was a well known leader to the community I was raised in. He was also a recognized leader among many others within the larger conservative Christian community my family followed when I was a child, who have all fallen in recent years to the blinding light of public exposure revealing their secret, harmful lives and choices.
This man I studied was Bill Gothard.
My research proved to be more difficult for me than I anticipated. Not for it’s academic requirements or the time needed to complete the project, but rather because it took an emotional toll as it forced me to dig through a closet of skeletons that I so often want to forget.
This closet has haunted me silently for years with its many memories. It is far easier to ignore them with each day putting more distance between me and the past, until scandals break open in the media like a flood and threaten to swing its door wide open yet again.
First there was the fall of Doug Phillips in 2013, a man whose catalog and publications my family used to receive, read, and order from on many occasions growing up.
Then there was the leadership denial and mishandling of sexual abuse victims that rocked two Christian colleges I often dreamed of attending as a child.
Then the day came when RecoveringGrace.org went public with a vast amount of documented evidence revealing how Bill Gothard, leader of the famous homeschool organization Institute of Basic Life Principles and it’s home school curricula Advanced Training Institute (ATI), sexually groomed, molested, and abused over 30 women. If that weren’t damaging and shocking enough, they also uncovered another series of scandals from thirty years ago, where Gothard had led an effort and managed to successfully cover up his brother’s sexual abuse of multiple women within the organization, child abuse at the hands of organizational leaders, and the misuse of organizational funding for private Gothard family purposes.
Then to my sadness and resigned lack of surprise given the track record of the “celebrity leaders” of my past — the Duggar Family news hit this past week, revealing that they had hidden and failed to report (until over a year had past) their son’s sexual molestation of 5 minor girls, four of whom were his own sisters. Even then when they did report it, it was to a family friend who was a state trooper, who is now serving 56 years of time in prison for child pornography charges, and due to that state trooper failing to report the incident to the appropriate authorities no legal consequences and helpful counseling for either the victims or the abuser was pursued.
That closet with its many skeletons seems to never cease in reminding me yet again how rose colored my glasses once were.
Memories that whisper to me…
Of time spent talking about these leaders as worthy of respect and promoting them as worth listening to, following, and defending unquestioningly…
Of time spent judging other childhood family friends who did not follow their methods, much less know who they were…
Of time spent name dropping with my friends over who had saw who at what conference, who knew who, and who had met who, who worked for who, who knew which leaders’ teachings the best, who exemplified their teachings the best…
All of these and more came out of my mouth on more than one occasion.
First with childhood one-up pride, and later with a confused sense of what was once fine and good now seems embarrassing, painful, regretful, and a hopeless feeling of being entirely duped.
These leaders are just some of many of the spiritual leaders in my life who have fallen off their pedestal I once had them on. While most people probably have to deal with some leader or influential person in their life failing them at one time or another, there is something especially disheartening when it becomes almost every major spiritual leader in your life that you can remember.
These are the days when my cynicism and skepticism scream the loudest and my utter disappointment with church failures and humanity’s ability to be truly changed by organized religion for the better get the best of me.
Some other survivors of these communities give life to my triggered, raw emotions when they share about their own response to these media scandals by saying:
On a personal note, the past few days have been very triggering and difficult for me. It’s absolutely crushing to see how many Christians do not take abuse seriously. I haven’t felt this discouraged about the state of Christianity since I left my childhood cult. I have spent years (YEARS!) writing about this stuff—including a painfully personal book (the writing of which exacted a steep, emotional toll on my life) and honestly, it’s super depressing to see how LITTLE (nothing?) has changed. ~ Elizabeth Esther
What the gawkers and headline-makers can’t comprehend is that for every scandal splashed across their glossy tabloids, there are a thousand broken lives that will never make the news.
Sick as it is, sexual abuse sells page views. So they fire up the ol’ outrage machines and crank out a few thousand dollars worth of shock over the latest discovery.
But there will never be headlines for broken marriages and broken hearts, for eating disorders and suicidal depression. For innocent faith destroyed beyond repair. You won’t read in the news about years and years of therapy, about brainwashing and codependency and deprogramming. There won’t be stories about the way some songs still make us get up and walk out of church services, about the thirty- and forty- and fifty-year-olds still trying to believe that their childhood hearts were loved.
This is our normal. ~ Micah Murray
In reading through current media reports and commentary after each of these scandals, whether from the news outlets, magazines, or the blogosphere, there is one sector of information and writing that I have found largely silent in it’s commentary on these communities, leaders, and issues.
This area would be social science research.
Much of my adult life has been spent searching for meaning beyond the pain and horrors of my past. For years that was found in my faith, and then I ultimately had to admit that even my faith was no longer giving me the answers I sought.
This is why my education and social science have both become such a meaningful source of information and learning for me. It is one area of my life that seeks to understand human society, and how to provide helpful data for the betterment of the public good.
Where I once was afraid of even asking questions, my education gave me permission to do just that and it gave me the tools to find answers.
While I understand many within Christian conservative circles would often not give social science scholars and research much credit, they will enough when it serves a purpose.
In fact the public at large (even communities like I grew up in) are used to reviewing or at least seeing summaries of scientific research findings released on medicine, medical conditions, medical discoveries, scientific discoveries, crime trends, crime rates, sexual assault rates, child abuse, and much more. In reality, social research and its findings effect our daily lives more than most realize: from the types of tv shows we watch; to the products we consume; to where we live; to the people we recognize as experts on various subjects; to the lifestyle decisions we make on medicine, education, public health, public safety, etc.; to the political and societal views we hold, and the list keeps on going.
Having been a social science student now for the past eight years, I have found that social science research holds a wealth of information and reliable, systematically collected data that has the potential to change people’s lives and society for the better when translated in an easy-to-understand manner.
What has ultimately caught and held my interest in social research though, is experiencing it’s impact in a meaningful way for myself.
I have done this through finding and learning about research that directly and indirectly touches my life and my experiences. This has been true not just in my exposure to research through my education, but also through my exposure to social research through books, social media, tv, and the internet.
Research and its findings, no matter the medium of discovery, and my education have taught me how to be more informed, how to better understand other people’s experiences, how to know what kinds of information on societal trends exist and are meaningful, how to better recognize sensational hype, and how to better discern bad and faulty kinds of information.
These skills and abilities are often referred to as critical thinking in the academic world, and they are skills that I was never given as a child in that community.
Dependency, naive trust, a belief that goodness is inherent to those who are within your community and who claim your faith, a belief that those same people should never be questioned — all of these leave a person’s heart so vulnerable to the intentional, harmful, and manipulative failings of humanity.
This is why the lack of existing research on the communities and leaders I grew up surrounded by stands out to the researcher in me as a real and glaring need.
If anything gives me hope for addressing the lack of research, it is the fact that there is now an entire generation of 1980s and 1990s children that were homeschooled like myself, that are now slowly-but-surely making their way through the higher education system. Not all of them by any means, as many (especially females) were woefully unprepared for higher education, if not discouraged from attending all-together. Many of us, including myself, have had to take a longer, more unique path to obtain a higher education; but still the fact that we are doing it gives me great hope that this lack of research will slowly begin to change.
We can already see grassroot advocacy efforts starting to happen thanks to organizations like Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out (HARO) and whistleblowing/awareness websites like the one HARO runs and Recovering Grace. As well as organizations like G.R.A.C.E who are working to teach Christian organizations and leaders how to respond to matters of abuse and harmful leadership practices in an informed, responsible, and compassionate way led by Boz Tchividjian, grandson of renowned Reverend Billy Graham.
It is efforts like these that focus on increasing awareness, accountability, and access to better information, education, and research within those same communities that I believe will change them for the better.
However an important component to these efforts also requires that funded scientific and systematic research with significant findings on these communities, leaders, and issues actually occur.
So with noticing this lack in research, and given that I have spent the past 8 years gaining skills in how to gather, read, analyze, and interpret social science research, I would like to spend the next few weeks summarizing and relaying some of my own work from my graduate classes.
Work of mine that I hope will be the beginnings of some of my own contributions to this gap in research.
My latest work particularly focuses on gathering leadership theory and studies available on harmful, moral leadership and using it to analyze the leadership of Bill Gothard and others like him.
Studies on harmful, moral leadership also reveal common traits often seen among this style of leader’s followers, and gives helpful information on how to better recognize, address, and prevent this type of leadership in the future.
If you are interested in learning more about harmful, moral leadership that Bill Gothard and others like him used and how to recognize it, please join me next week on Thursday for The Sinking Leader Ship of My Homeschool Past Part 1.