Today has been nonstop from the beginning, so I apologize I am just now sitting down to get this post out.
My series has interestingly enough, come out, around the same time that Bill Gothard has relaunched his personal web site with a new look and a host of testimonies from followers claiming that all the testimonies RecoveringGrace has reported on are false.
Next week I plan to link to some articles covering these recent events, but this week let’s dig in to my analysis of Bill Gothard’s Harmful Leadership.
Bill Gothard’s charisma as a leader was not in having a fancy presentation, or the flash and enamor of the televangelists of his day. He did not promise healings from God or roar at people to “come to Jesus and save their souls from hell.” Instead, he became known for his simple teaching presentation in a navy suit, accompanied by projector slides that he drew hand notes on and chalk art paintings he would draw on a chalkboard. (Kirk, 1998, p. 5) He would continue this style for decades whether teaching to a few or in an event center to thousands. Along with his enigmatic style, his leadership grew as he cast a vision and purpose for the daily spiritual practices he promised would bring blessing, peace, and contentment to any who followed. This he claimed was accomplished through such practices as respect for a patriarchal authority structure, conservative dress, debt-free living, home-schooling children, continual scripture memorization, and an aversion to any music with drums. (Knowles, 2014) (Wikipedia, 2014) Through promising answers, casting vision, creating community and a sense of belonging – Gothard was successfully using all three types of leadership.
Bill Gothard’s leadership grew to be so effective because of how innocuously his teachings drew people in. As Mohr reveals, followers of harmful leaders are often looking for a sense of belonging, which is a component of both charismatic and servant-leadership. (2013, p. 11)
Another scholar studying the development of fundamentalism, reveals that Gothard’s followers were often searching for answers, a rulebook to life, a safer atmosphere for their children, or a believable means for holding on to certainty in a world facing an evermore uncertain future. (Bendroth, 1999, p. 44)
Followers came seeking answers and a vision to build their life around, and Gothard gave them both in abundance. Gothard’s magnetism as a leader was further cemented over the years by the blind willingness and loyalty of his followers. For the few who questioned, the fear of isolation, alienation, and tarnishing the reputation of a godly man and a godly organization held them deathly silent—all of which Mohr reveals are common tools of a harmful leader. Gothard accomplished these measures through his toxic twisting of scripture into organizational beliefs on authority, forgiveness, and “not sharing evil reports” of other Christians. These teachings created the perfect environment for not only Gothard’s alleged sexual behavior towards his female personal assistants, but also the cover-up of family sexual misconduct, child abuse, and an utter lack of financial accountability. (Silencing the Lambs: Listening to an Evil Report, 2014) (Poll, 2003)
Bill Gothard was considered an exemplary teacher in how to live a good Christian life and an expert on Christian family roles, relationships, and dynamics. The fact that he remained single his entire career was rarely questioned. Families and young adults considered it an honor to just meet him, as they flocked to his teaching seminars and family conferences by the thousands and deemed it a privilege to serve in one of his many organizational centers or offices across numerous states and around the world. No one suspected him to be anything other than a great man of God, and again the few who dared to question otherwise were silenced and alienated. (Wikipedia, 2014) (The Gothard Files: A Case for Disqualification, 2014) A homeschool alumnus of Gothard’s organization recently shared this personal reflection,
During my two years working at the Training Center after high school, I saw a system of absolute authoritarianism—designed to protect “leaders” and silence “rebellion”. I saw an organization built on the “special insights” and the idiosyncratic whims of an old man with way too much money and power. They say that he groomed young women, selected the vulnerable and the hurting, told them it was God’s will for them to come work for him. They say that he made them feel special. That say he took advantage of their naivety—naivety instilled through the teachings and culture he created. I believe these stories, because I saw the edges. When we were at the Training Center, we joked about Gothard’s “harem”. We all knew there was a certain physical “type” of woman that he liked to be close to him, working for him. I saw him pick out young women who were obviously vulnerable and hurting—but also very attractive. I heard him promise them they’d be right at the center of the next big thing he was planning. Those plans never came to pass, but I saw the girls come and go. I saw the double standards. We weren’t allowed to go out with other staff in mixed-company groups. We weren’t allowed to have a conversation in the lobby with female staff members. And yet he—a single old man—had long “counseling sessions” with the same young women we were forbidden from meeting. At the time, we shrugged it off. He was the leader. He was allowed to make the rules. (Murray, 2014)
Thus, what many would deem exemplary servant-leadership, transformational leadership within their own lives personally, and an inspiring (charismatic) form of leadership to follow, enabled a man to masterfully build a construct of leadership that effectively drew in millions.
This construct was a virtual hallway of mirrors given that for decades his lifestyle, teachings, and behavior reflected just what he wanted his followers to see and believe.
A construct of leadership that used scripture and an organization to hide a harmful and twisted private life that prioritized the reputation of men, organizational success, and the wealth and power he had accumulated far more than anyone else.
In reality, his resignation wasn’t the scandal; it was merely the uncovering of a long history of scandalous events, where a leader used a harmful mix of leadership styles to continually abuse his authority and relationships while positioning himself as a leader on biblical authority and godly relationships. As one author on RG recently writes,
“Bill Gothard created a cult, and he did a fine job of it. He didn’t create a commune that physically isolated his followers from the rest of the world. He didn’t lead weird sessions with chanting and candles. He didn’t even come up with strange names for his teachings. He conducted his cult in the wide-open view of the church, and for twenty or thirty years, he was wildly successful.” (Jones, 2015)
Some might read the word cult and question whether the description is justified. As to whether Bill Gothard’s organization and his numerous followers can indeed be technically termed a cult, that determination is beyond the scope of this paper. As to whether Gothard is a criminal or to be held accountable for his actions, only the future will tell. However in light of the recently publicized events that led to Gothard’s resignation and the discovery of his leadership pattern of grooming, control, deceit, and cover-up—questions must be asked by secular and religious leaders alike of how was this kind of leadership not only possible, but so effective? Mohr’s mixture of transformational, charismatic, and servant leadership theories into harmful leadership eerily describe Gothard’s leadership style. His success as a leader in gathering numerous followers over four decades and the legacy of harm left in his wake reveal he used this mixture of leadership strategies all too well.
Jones, S. R. (2015, April 29). The Brilliance of Bill Gothard. Retrieved May 1, 2015, from Recovering Grace: http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2015/04/the-brilliance-of-bill-gothard/#more
Kirk, D. (1998). A Call For Discernment: A Closer Look at the Teachings of Bill Gothard. Retrieved May 5, 2015, from Recovering Grace: PDF Files: http://storage.cloversites.com/calvarybiblechurch/documents/Gothard_Paper_02.pdf
Knowles, F. (2014, April 9). Leader of Oak Brook Religious Group Reigns Amid Sex Harassment Allegations. (http://chicago.suntimes.com/?p=193111, Ed.) Sun Times .
Menzie, N. (2014, April 18). Bill Gothard Denies ‘Sexual Intent’ in Hugs, Foot Contact With Young Ladies in Statement Following Resignation. The Christian Post. Retrieved from: http://www.christianpost.com/news/bill-gothard-denies-sexual-intent-in-hugs-foot-contact-with-young-ladies-in-statement-following-resignation-118207/.
Minnery, T. (1981, February 6). Gothard’s Staffers Ask Hard Questions and Press For Reforms in Institute. Christianity Today. Retrieved from: http://www.recoveringgrace.org/media/Gothard-Staffers-Ask-Hard-Questions-and-Press-for-Reforms-Christianity-Today-Feb-16-1981.pdf
Mohr, J. M. (2013). Worlf in Sheep’s Clothing: Harmfrul Leadership with a Moral Facade. Journal of Leadership Studies , 7 (1), 18-32.
Murray, M. J. (2014, May 6). Growing Up in Bill Gothard’s Homeschool Cult. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/micah-j-murray/growing-up-in-bill-gothar_b_5228166.html
Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and Practice (6th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage Publications Inc.
Poll, R. (2003, March). Exegeting Bill Gothard. Christianity Today , 77-78.
Recovering Grace. (2014, February 18). Gothard’s Process: Invite, Idealize, Isolate, Transgress, Rewrite. Retrieved April 29, 2015, from Recovering Grace: http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2014/02/gothards-process/
Recovering Grace. (2014, February 19). Questions From the Mailbag. Retrieved May 1, 2015, from Recovering Grace: http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2014/02/questions-from-the-mailbag/
Recovering Grace. (2014, February 18). Recovering Grace: Chronology of Ruth, Annette, Charlotte, Meg, Rachel, Lizzie, and Grace. Retrieved April 29, 2015, from Recovering Grace: http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2014/02/chronology-of-favorites/
Recovering Grace. (2014, February 15). Silencing the Lambs: Listening to an Evil Report. Retrieved May 1, 2015, from Recovering Grace: http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2014/02/silencing-the-lambs/
Recovering Grace. (2014, February 3). The Gothard Files: A Case for Disqualification. Retrieved April 29, 2015, from Recovering Grace: http://www.recoveringgrace.org/gothardfiles/
Recovering Grace. (2014, February 21). The GOTHARD Files: Scandal Chronology, 1971–1981. Retrieved April 29, 2015, from Recovering Grace: http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2014/02/scandal-chronology/
Time Magazine. (1974, March 1974). Obey Thy Husband. Time .
Wells, G. A. (2014). Cults of Personality. Think , 13 (37), 13-17.
Wikipedia. (2014, December 31). Wikipedia: Bill Gothard. Retrieved April 29, 2015, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Gothard
Come back next week for my final series post sharing some of my personal experiences working at a Gothard Training Center; how Gothard’s ministry impacted my childhood; and how it impacts me now.