Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Shepherding: Many Variations on a Theme


The previous post reviewed the emphasis on submission that came out of many groups that were born during the time of the Charismatic Renewal. Understanding this aberrant “submission doctrine” and how it developed is essential to understanding the shepherding movement and its many variants that exist today. All of the Shepherding/Discipleship groups observed this focus on submission and the “umbrella of protection” concept to varying degrees and continue to do so, despite the fact that shepherding was theoretically denounced and renounced by most Evangelical leaders and some of the leaders of shepherding themselves. I’ve heard from many people over the past week or so tell me that they knew nothing of the practices of shepherding, but that does not surprise me. I participated very actively in a Shepherding group for four years and never knew that there was such a practice or an well-organized set of doctrines associated with it. I knew nothing of the history, and I had to be told about it by an exit counselor.


The Charismatic Renewal * *

In 1960, in Van Nuys, California, believers in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church started spontaneously speaking in tongues or “glossolallia.” The phenomenon spread through the Episcopal, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches first, then emerged at a few Ivy League college campuses after first breaking out at Yale University among students who were participating with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship in 1962. (It always amuses me to revisit the fact that this first occurred within an “high church” and within “high brow” universities.) In 1967, the phenomenon broke out among a group of Catholic students at Notre Dame. With all of the activity on college campuses in particular, and because this phenomenon spread across nearly all denominations and even included Catholics, it seemed to create a need for parachurch organizations. Different aspects of the movement continued through until the late seventies.

All of this activity and the experiential nature of the movement disturbed many people, as they saw this as a move toward fideism (reliance on faith only without rational or philosophical considerations) or a type of Christianity that was not deeply rooted in solid Biblical doctrine. Thus, building upon the concepts of parachurch ministry, many more groups like Campus Crusade developed, but with a specific goal of encouraging objectivity, encouraging the study of doctrine and promoting personal accountability among the growing numbers of young Christians. In the process of writing this, I’ve found myself considering the aberrant teachings of Federal Vision, as they also stated in 2002 at their first conference that they also desired to counter experiential Christianity and lack of accountability by stressing the importance of one’s involvement with the covenant community and submission to leadership. Federal Vision also reportedly grew out of a great concern over weak, experiential Christianity.




The Early Days of Shepherding/Discipleship

It has been my understanding that most of the groups that practiced shepherding originated from within Campus Crusade for Christ in the mid-sixties, but CCC did not actually formally or informally endorse any of them. One particular parachurch organization spearheaded the movement by forming Christian Growth Ministries (CGM) a parachurch organization in the late ‘60s that later published “New Wine” magazine. Because this is one of the groups that I know about personally, I will use this group as a prototype for the others which may differ in their individual practices. Many other groups also practiced shepherding, and there was much interaction among these groups all of these groups and other denominations including Maranatha Ministries, International Church of Christ, the Great Commission International (the group that Vision Forum’s own Geoff Botkin participated with), and Sovereign Grace Ministries/People of Destiny, etc... (I don’t believe that Bill Gothard formally participated with these other groups, but the primary doctrines preached by all these groups prove strikingly similar.) The “Fort Lauderdale Five” (Bob Mumford, Derek Prince, Charles Simpson, Don Basham and the latecomer, Ern Baxter) as they were called created CGM, a group that appealed to Baptists, Charismatics, traditional Pentecostals and even Theonomists who were drawn in through their connection to Mumford. Each of these men in the top layer of leadership at CGM assigned themselves to another within their group of five, a type of “accountability partner.” All major life decisions had to be approved by their “brother” first.

Other pastors submitted themselves to the oversight of these five men for guidance in a multi-level or pyramidal structure, observing what became a rigid chain of command that was taught to be analogous to the military in order to reinforce it. Within CGM’s system, there were layers of shepherds and partnerships which extended down to the level of the local churches who participated. For example, the network of churches that I once attended in the Baltimore/Annapolis area had ties to Bob Mumford, as several people in leadership participated directly with his ministry at one time. And I learned from my exit counselor that Charles Simpson actually participated in the creation of this group of churches that followed New Covenant Theology. Within these individual churches, elders had their own pastoral brothers to whom they were accountable and submitted. The cell group leadership provided another layer in the hierarchy, and individuals within the church also had fellow members (or couples who had couples) to whom they were paired. Major life decisions had to be approved by one’s personal shepherd, but one could appeal to the higher levels within the local hierarchy by following an appeal process, as long as one followed the chain of command. There were even rules for how to make an effective appeal in the proper, submissive way.

One website defines shepherding as “tending to the welfare of Christ-followers by watching over, nurturing, and guiding them. Having assessed the condition of the flock, shepherds will do what is needful to lead them to a greater Christ-likeness.” On the surface, these principles all seem generally benign, as the Word of God does instruct us to submit to one another and to our pastors and elders who govern the practical affairs local churches. I cannot tell whether this particular website from whence I pulled the quote recommends the type of shepherding that Jesus advocated, or whether the group responsible for the site practices something consistent with the CGM model. Many of the questionable practices of these groups are quite hard to discern because the problems are behavioral rather than doctrinal. In other words, the problems do not necessarily arise from doctrine but rather from how the hidden doctrines and mores that govern the group are interpreted and applied. Most of these original groups had sound, orthodox doctrinal statements, but the group dynamics fall short of orthodox Biblical conduct.

A shepherd protects and cares for sheep, but the leaders within the movement developed an overly paternalistic philosophy that objectified and reduced the individual to a perpetual child without discernment. As a consequence, the groups – quite inadvertently – trained people against discernment in favor of collectivism, and they become dependent on the leader, unable to live effective Christian lives without the discernment and governance of some authority figure. Theopedia describes this relationship found within Shepherding as a “mystical bond.” The group bond and the group’s system eventually became more significant than the individuals within each group.


Problems with Shepherding

CGM disbanded after people in nearly every shepherding group began to experience serious problems with the shepherding system because of spiritual abuse. Christians were emerging from these churches and parachurch groups with symptoms identical to people who were exiting any other non-Christian cult like a Moonies or Hare Krishnas. In 1975, Pat Robertson strongly denounced the movement, saying that the only difference between shepherding and Jonestown was “Kool Aide.” Exiting members were being hospitalized in psychiatric wards, and I’ve spoken personally with exit counselors who attended to many of these survivors. Pile, a former member of the Great Commission group notes in an article that appears several places on the web states:
The movement began to disintegrate in 1986 when its magazine, New Wine, folded due to steady loss of revenue. In the latter years of the 1980s Baxter, Basham, and Mumford officially “released” their disciples from their previous pyramidal authority structure – Prince had already severed his formal ties with the others in 1983. Yet even with Mumford’s public statement of apology – and in spite of Buckingham’s obituary of the “discipleship era” – the abuse of discipleship and spiritual authority continues unabated by other men and women in other churches and movements.

Originally in the CGM system of Shepherding, each person was assigned to another person, and married couples were assigned to married couples. When Mumford finally repented, I believe that all the denominations that followed the practice merely stopped the one-over-one, personal pastoring relationships only, shifting to a more informal “mentoring” concept. However, they did not repent of the authoritarian rule, the shunning, or pronunciation of curses that groups often issue to members as they exited their groups (leaving the protective “covering” of their spiritual mentors or authorities). More modern variations of shepherding generally include accountability to the leaders of cell groups that meet during the week (transferring paternalistic oversight from personal mentor to cell group leader or an elder). The practice of confession cell groups encourages believers to perceive themselves from a perspective of shame (facilitating manipulation) over their ongoing sins which they never seem to transcend rather than perceiving themselves as overcomers in Christ. As a consequence, cell groups stay informed about the problems of their cell group participants, generally collecting and reporting that information to leadership under the guise of offering very specific help and support to the sheep.


What is Shepherding Today?

Charles Simpson seeks to revive the movement, referring to it now as the “Covenant Movement.” He has scanned in all of the old copies of “New Wine” magazine and makes them available online. Also, as Pile mentions above, men like Mumford who apologized for the many abuses that came out of the movement continue to follow the same abusive principles but have abandoned only the practice of individual one-on-one pastoring which they falsely identify as the source of the issues with Shepherding.

In a broad sense, shepherding and discipleship describe any “Bible-based” manipulative group that follows a pattern of authoritarian spiritual abuse and stresses the importance and mystical protection that submission to a delegated authority yields for the individual believer. Several years ago, the Wellspring Retreat and Recovery Center that opened in 1986 reported seeing clients that have exited from eight different shepherding groups. I believe that this number is much, much higher, because I’ve been a member and also participated with two shepherding churches and know family friends that participated in another independent shepherding church.

An initial atmosphere of love and acceptance extended to new members causes them to both resist doubt and to see the group in an idealized light, a perception that members don’t usually overcome until they receive significant punishment. Even then, they might be honest about unjust punishment, but they will continue to view the leader in a positive way. This comes about through the comprehensive process of group indoctrination and manipulation, but it is also a coping mechanism that helps an individual maintain hope while suffering abuse.

People today have no idea that they are joining a manipulative group, since most of those who are now leading these churches do not realize or believe that they follow a spiritually abusive model. These groups formally declare sets of cogent written doctrine, but as is true of idealistic and totalist groups, the unwritten, abusive rules often go unnoticed by new members until after they are too invested in the group to easily walk away. Most of the unwritten rules are never directly or openly communicated but are taught through vague inference and unstated assumption, and they are enforced through social pressure and through positive and negative reinforcement. Most groups tend to focus on piety, and thus these groups seem to all be criticized as legalistic rather than grace based. Shame over sin (some of which are created based upon the group’s preference) and manipulation with shame by group leadership serves to control followers. If participants conform to expectations, they are rewarded with status in the group and whatever it is that one enjoys doing within the group. If one does not conform, reward is withheld; shame is employed; and/or status, attention and reward is withdrawn from the individual.

More than half of people that leave these groups leave of their own volition, but without learning about the nature of the manipulation to which they were subjected, they often just move from one abusive group to another variety of abusive group. People prefer what is familiar, and without identifying what they were deriving from their spiritual abuse experience (attention, an opportunity to resolve underlying shame issues, leadership opportunities, etc.), they will most likely enter another spiritually abusive group. I know former members of Maranatha who went to People of Destiny into Word of Faith. I know members of an abusive Vineyard church who came to our church and left to move on to a (more) patriocentric church. Often, their experiences and disappointments repeat until they learn through repeated bad experiences, and many people leave the faith or do not participate in local fellowships at all. And we have the most recent example brought to light here about Geoff Botkin who presumably left participation with the Great Commission in order to work with the patriocentrists.


For more information on Shepherding’s history
(ONLY SOME links in no particular order):

Charismatic Captivation (Lambert)

The Other Side of Discipleship (Pile)


A Dominion Experiment (Arnaud)

The Roots of Shepherding (Vinzant)

Discipleship Page (Apologetics Index)

Discipling Dilemma (Yeakley)

Wikipedia on the Shepherding Movement

The Shepherding Movement (Coleman)

Shepherding/Discipleship Movement Survivor’s Blog