How My Parents Joined a Cult

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Every time I tell my story, people ask the same questions. “What about your parents? How did they get involved? What do they think about Bill Gothard and IBLP now? How do they feel about you writing publically about all of this?” Well, here are some answers! I have talked with each of my parents separately and together to get these answers, and they have approved this blog post.

An Introduction to Bill Gothard:

64804_458336314496_4891626_nMy parents were first-generation Christians. They began their relationship with Jesus in college and got involved in a wonderful Christian campus ministry. The campus minister was instrumental in their spiritual growth. Unfortunately, He was also a supporter of Bill Gothard and took students to Gothard’s Basic Seminar every year. The community of Christians at college was alive and vibrant. Students were serious about growing in Christ and my parents absolutely loved it!

After they graduated and left the campus ministry, my parents struggled to find a church with the same passion for Jesus. In every church they went to, the people seemed fake, like church was just something they did on Sunday, but their relationship with God didn’t really matter.

Homeschooling with Bill Gothard:

Some of their closest friends from college, a couple who was a few years ahead of them in marriage and children, decided to homeschool. This was back in the 80s when No One was homeschooling! It appealed to my parents and they decided to homeschool as well. Their friends started to use Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute (ATI). Gothard promised that ATI was an exceptional homeschooling program that would automatically make your family and children succeed. You also had to be approved to join the program, have your life in order, commit to various standards, pay a yearly fee, and promise not to share, or even show, any of the curriculum to anyone who was not “ATI”.

If you ask my parents now, they will tell you that they wish they’d paid more attention to the red flags. But, their trusted friends believed Gothard, so they thought it must be okay. Plus, my parents were pretty new Christians and they didn’t have the Biblical background to see through the lies and out-of-context Scripture. They thought they could weed out the bad and keep the good.

We joined ATI when I was twelve. Before ATI we were just an average homeschooling family. My mother liked to garden, and sew, and make bread. My siblings and I devoured books, played outside, did chores, and went to homeschool group outings. We went to a regular church in town and looked relatively normal (for the 1980s and early 90s). After joining ATI, things began to quickly change.

Joining the Cultic-Church:

IMG_3984Our Family, Christmas 1998

When I was fourteen, we left our regular church and started driving an hour and a half twice a week to a new church. It was made up of conservative, homeschooling, Gothard following, mostly large families. At the heyday, we had families coming from as far as two hours away, even some from Canada. The church promoted a safe environment for teens, protection from the world, like-minded fellowship, and deep spiritual teachings. Sundays were an entire day of church with a lunch and fellowship time in-between two two-plus hour services. There was no Sunday School, Children’s Church, or nursery. There was lots of singing, testimonies, prayer, and long sermons. My parents saw people who were actually “living out” their Christianity for the first time since college and were excited. Once again, they thought they could weed out the bad and just enjoy the good.

Unfortunately, even more than the ATI program, this cultic church was damaging for my brother and me. Adults have an easier time picking and choosing what they believe. As teens, we bought it all, hook, line, and sinker. It didn’t help that we went to special teen events where we were “indoctrinated” even further. There were red flags at this church as well, especially as my dad got involved in leadership. It took us seven years to leave.

More About My Family:

My family was never “Gothardites” like some people I knew. They always saw Bill Gothard as just a man and didn’t agree with everything he said, especially my dad. My parents both had genuine relationships with Jesus before Gothard and ATI, and continued those relationships while we were in the program (cult). We were a “fringe” family. We didn’t make the yearly pilgrimage to Knoxville, TN (a huge mega conference just for ATI families); I think we went twice. My parents didn’t send us to training centers (where most of the abuse happened) or let us go overseas with groups of ATI students. My dad was a public school teacher for crying out loud, so he was almost considered a traitor. In fact, I credit my father and his skepticism with protecting me from getting further involved than I did.

My parents are wonderful people! They were just deceived by a manipulative con artist with amazing promises of success. Unfortunately, Gothard’s program and teachings seemed to appeal to mentally unstable, abusive type people, and many former ATI students experienced horrible abuse in the name of Gothard. This was not my family! We were just a nice, homeschooling family who lived a sheltered, old-fashioned life.

What My Parents Think Now:

Regret. This is the word I hear most often when we talk about Gothard, ATI, and the “crazy church”. My parents regret their choices. They regret not noticing or listening to the red flags they saw along the way. They are sorry for the damage that was done to their children. They regret not listening to cautions from others and from their own hearts.

How They “Got Out”:

Since we were always a fringe family, getting away from Gothard’s teachings just kind of slowly happened for my parents over the past ten or twelve years. Then when everything started coming out two years ago, first girls and women accusing Gothard of sexual harassment and abuse, and then learning about all the misconduct in the 1970s, it just solidified everything for them. They realized that all the cautions and hesitations they had had in the past were validated.

How They Feel About My Blog:

My blog and the book I am writing reminds my parents of the choices they made and makes them feel regret, and that is hard. However, they assure me that they are supportive of what I am doing. They are glad that I can use this venue to work out the damage I experienced and help others in the process.

I have had to remind my parents multiple times, especially my mom, that I am not mad at them. I am not upset. I don’t blame them for the choices they made. I have come to the place where I embrace my life. There were a lot of wonderful moments, friendships, and memories within the craziness of it all. Besides, without my past, I wouldn’t have a story to tell, or a blog to write, and I wouldn’t have the passion behind my search for truth instead of tradition.

Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

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[After a couple months of business (and silence), I am finishing up the stories of how I left legalism and found grace in Jesus. This is part 2 of 3.]

Something crazy was happening to me.  I had always been the “good-girl”, the people please-er, the “godly” example, but I was quickly becoming a rebel. And it wasn’t rock music, or blue jeans, or college that was doing it to me (like I had been taught); it was Jesus. I stood there at family camp, on a sandy path with the sun filtering through the trees, and I knew that they couldn’t both be Jesus. Someone had to be a fake.

I realize that I can’t just say “family camp”, I need to explain this to you “normal” people. Think of a camp that has been completely taken over by large, homeschooling families, wearing skirts, singing hymns, and going to long chapels twice a day. There were families in cabins and families camping in tents and campers. Lots of people, tons of kids!

We began the week with a speaker who talked about the power of Jesus Christ living in us. It was beautiful to me. I resonated with the Jesus he spoke about. In the past four years since God showed up in my bedroom (see previous post), I had gotten to know Him as a very real friend. The second half of the week, another speaker came. This man gave us lists of rules to follow, impossible standards, and promises of God’s blessings only if we followed them all. And that’s when I lost it.

It’s so hard to explain this! Imagine a large old-fashioned tent meeting. All these families sitting under a big white tent singing hymns and listening to a preacher. During the first half of the week, I sat near the front with other “good” kids. But when the man of rules showed up, I found myself sitting in the very back with the “rebel” teens, with my arms crossed, and a grumpy look on my face. This was so NOT the typical me!

And this brings me back to the sandy path where I paced back and forth trying to wrestle with the Jesus I’d been getting to know, and the god my church and cult had been teaching me about for the past seven years. There was Jesus who loved me and wanted a relationship with me, who gave me His Spirit to give me power to follow Him. Then there was the Jesus who gave rules and steps and expected performance before he would “bless” you. They couldn’t both be Jesus!

Finally in desperation I cried out loud, “Will the real Jesus please stand up? I have to find the truth!”

I got in so much trouble that week at camp. You will most likely read this and think I’m overreacting, but this was my reality. I had a “rebellious” attitude, I started questioning standards (such as why we wore skirts) with my friends, and I held fingers with a boy in a play. It was scandalous! Especially since I’d always been an “example” for others to follow. I was confronted by more than one adult trying to get me back on the “right path”. But I was disillusioned and I was done! There had to be more and I was determined to find it!

That week was the beginning of two years of questions, of doubts, of searching for answers and truth. And then Jesus brought me to summer camp where I found the real meaning of grace and got a cartilage piercing. (Gasp!)

Have you met the real Jesus?

Is he more than religion?

More than a set of rules?

More than something you do on Sunday?

Is he more than a distant God and an ancient book?

Are you willing to do whatever it takes to find him?