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While many entered the world of ATI (the Advanced Training Institute) as teenagers or young adults, I was one of those who began my journey quite young. Even though I didn’t understand my parents’ new found zeal for “Wisdom Booklets” on my first day of school, I gradually came to accept them as a regular part of our routine. Our church was pastored by an ATI father, there were at least half a dozen other ATI families in our church at any given time, and no one we regularly fellowshipped with ever questioned our lifestyle. In addition to the pastor’s family, my parents were held up as good ATI role models. Everything seemed fine to me, so I followed along, sure that my parents would never do anything that wasn’t good for me. “Children obey your parents” had been quoted to me from my youngest years, so naturally I followed suit. My parents thought well of the ATI ministry and Mr. Gothard, so I did too. They talked to me about all the ministry opportunities in which I could one day participate. They also eagerly planned for the day when they could take me to my first Basic Seminar and have me hear about the principles that had changed their lives.
Though I had been a believer since the age of five, you might say my adult conscience kicked in around the age of eleven. I believe the Holy Spirit began convicting me of areas in my life that needed to be changed. My biggest fault was that I was a habitual liar. I enjoyed telling stories and making people believe that they were true, especially if I had done something wrong and wanted to avoid punishment. While I later learned to channel that ability into more reputable things, I realized that my lying was wrong and started going to people I had lied to and asking them to forgive me. This was highly encouraged by my parents since they had been taught at the Basic Seminar that maintaining a clear conscience was an essential part of being a mature believer. I remember feeling nervous as I approached someone, my heart beating, and then the embarrassment of admitting my fault and waiting for their reply. In all cases I was graciously forgiven, even with a bit of a chuckle by a few who were tickled by my zeal. I also remember the rush of relief and freedom I felt after each episode, sure that now that I had asked forgiveness, I was free to live life without guilt again… until I would remember something else I had done. While I soon reached the point where I had asked forgiveness for all my major offenses, what I didn’t realize was that I had gained something that would come to be very destructive: an oversensitive conscience.
It didn’t help that two years later I attended my first Basic Seminar and sat under one whole night of teaching about responsibility and maintaining a clear conscience. Because my parents were avid supporters of the ministry, naturally I drank in every word as gospel truth. While the information I learned was nothing new, the seminar only caused my over-sensitivity to heighten. I didn’t want to live an un-blessed life because I wasn’t willing to humble myself and ask forgiveness. And I certainly didn’t want to die while I harbored unconfessed sin. What would happen to me then? Would I earn a lesser reward or incur harsh judgment on the day of recompense because of my failure to make things right? What had initially been a fresh start and the beginning of a more personal walk with Christ at age eleven also became the bane of my existence.
When I was fifteen I had the chance to work as a team leader at a Children’s Institute (CI). I entered the week excited. It was my first real ministry opportunity with IBLP (the Institute in Basic Life Principles) and I wanted to make the best of it. The week went along fine until one night during “cool down.” One of the CI leaders asked a young man to come forward. The room got quiet as the young man confessed to participating in something that had ruined his ministry at the CI. Apparently, the leader had sensed “sin in the camp,” the person had been found out, and it was now being addressed publicly. As the young man shamefacedly walked out of the room, the leader explained that he was being sent home. No other details were given about his offense, but a Scripture was read and a stern warning given to the rest of us lest we should also fall into temptation. We were also instructed not to discuss the situation among ourselves or speculate about what he had done with the threat that we too would be sent home. My mind was whirling. What could have been so awful to get him sent home? What if I unknowingly committed the same offense and got sent home myself? My guard went up as well as my anxiety. The shared excitement among the CI workers turned to heightened unease. Over the next few nights several other young men confessed to participating in “wrong things” that disqualified them from participation in the CI, all the while never really making it clear what they had done. Again, we were instructed not to discuss the matter with any of the other CI workers. Each time there was a confession, my anxiety level increased. I made it through the rest of the week unscathed, but I returned home having no idea how much I had been scarred by my first ministry experience. As I look back, I realize that there were several lessons I’d learned that first week that would lead to further troubles down the road: First, you had to consistently live a blameless life in order to be involved in ministry. A wrong action, an inappropriate thought, even an unintentional offense could disqualify you. Second, any involvement in “sin” could cause God’s spirit to depart and prevent people from getting saved, lives from being changed and the ministry’s work from being done. Third, in order to preserve this aura of perfect ministry, you had to constantly be on your guard lest you give the enemy ground to come in and tempt you.
Later that year I attended a young ladies’ Counseling Seminar at the ITC (Indianapolis Training Center). This seminar was a prerequisite to other ministry opportunities. I was again excited about attending, especially since I’d get to stay at a Training Center by myself for the first time. The week got off to a good start, I had roommates I got along with and I anticipated an entire week of personal teaching by Mr. Gothard. Though I didn’t enter the week with any feeling of unease, I began to sense a personal unrest as the week progressed. As usual, I took all the messages to heart and did my best to follow the Training Center guidelines. I assumed if I was feeling uneasy, then it must be a problem with me, since everyone who worked at the Training Center was godly and I was the fledgling student. My team leader was a girl in EQUIP, and every morning for team Wisdom Search she read a section out of a little book about cleaning the rooms of our heart. Combined with the other teaching that week, I began to assume that I must have personal issues to deal with. We were supposed to be learning how to counsel others, but I found that the topics consistently focused on how we ought to be improving ourselves.
Then came the videotape about brokenness on Friday night.
The accumulation of my unrest throughout the week came to a head that evening. I had always been shy, I hated getting up in front of people, and every evening that Mr. Gothard asked if anyone had a testimony, I always trembled in my boots (or in this case, my navy dress shoes). It was plain that Gothard enjoyed hearing how his teaching had affected our lives. On this evening, I was convinced that I was sinning because of my lack of brokenness in refusing to share a testimony in public. After all, wasn’t failing to admit something to others the same as a lie? I got up and joined the line forming for testimonies. All the while my heart was beating as I thought about what I would say. I was about five girls away from my turn at the podium when Gothard unexpectedly announced that there was no longer any time left for testimonies. He thanked those of us still in line and said it was time to close the evening. As I look back now, I consider it an act of grace from God on my behalf since it was the only time Gothard ever cut testimonies short during that seminar. I can only wonder what my nervous, guilt-racked self would have come up with to say had I been given the chance.
After that experience, I could never again attend an ATI or IBLP function without feeling constantly on my guard. At one event, we were given a challenge by one of the teachers to consider long-term overseas mission work. IBLP had ministry openings in several other countries at the time, so naturally I assumed that if I ever participated in overseas missions, it would be with IBLP. Because of my previous two experiences, I had come to depend on my parents to be the voice of reason each time my conscience got out of hand. Every time I was away from home and had limited contact with my family, I would feel abandoned to my own wayward conscience. If I participated in long-term ministry, who would I depend on to know if my offense was truly worthy of confession or not? One evening after the closing session I went up to talk with the teacher who had given the challenge. I explained that I wanted to be involved in ministry, but (without explaining my reason why) I was hesitant to leave my family. She gave me a sad look and reminded me that Christ had said, “he who will not give up father or mother is not worthy of Me.” I was immediately overcome with guilt, and at the first opportunity I called my dad. To my surprise, he said that my family had just read that passage the other day in Wisdom Search. I assumed that he agreed with what the teacher had said. I was burdened for months after that because I thought I was disobeying God by not being willing to accept His call. It wasn’t until later that I realized that overseas missions wasn’t what God had in mind for my life. I wish now that I could take my then sixteen-year-old self, give me a hug, and explain that the verse the teacher referenced had an entirely different meaning than what she intimated. I would lovingly tell myself that God didn’t expect me to prove my loyalty to Him by fulfilling someone else’s call to ministry. I would also have a few hard things to say to those who had encouraged my oversensitive conscience to develop in the first place. Unfortunately, this was not to be the last of my issues.
The worst event by far came a year later. I wanted to work with younger girls and finally had an opportunity to serve as a team leader at a local seminar for young ladies. A few weeks before the event started we received a letter from the leader of that particular ministry encouraging us as team leaders to set aside all hindrances and fully focus on the task before us. My conscience once again kicked into full gear, and I spent the next few weeks examining myself to be sure I didn’t have any unconfessed sin or other blind spots. As the week of the seminar approached, my trepidation grew, and the evening I arrived at the Training Center, I was experiencing high anxiety. I again assumed that because the Training Center was a place of godly living, I was experiencing conviction. That first night, left alone in my room with nothing but my own conscience, I became certain that I was unqualified for the week ahead. The next day, every activity seemed perforated by my lack of confidence that I could effectively lead a team of young girls. Before the seminar attendees arrived, I had the chance to speak to the very leader who had sent the letter and confided to her what I was feeling. A serious look crossed her face as, true to IBLP teaching, she soberly asked me if there was a major offense I hadn’t made right. I told her that I couldn’t think of anything, but continued to be burdened with a heavy conscience nonetheless. During our second discussion, her conclusion was that I was letting the enemy walk all over me. I thought it had to be true, but I had no way of knowing how to prevent that from happening. For the most part, my conscience behaved itself when at home, but as soon as I entered Training Center life, that all changed. In another discussion, she essentially told me to buck up and be strong. Still, the feelings of guilt continued. In my final discussion with her, the leader eventually gave up and suggested I talk to someone else about my problem. I now find it ironic that the very thing she initiated in her letter for good, ended up wreaking such havoc — a havoc that she couldn’t ultimately help me resolve. In innocently upholding the standards of IBLP, she had unknowingly contributed to an issue that went far deeper than one lost ATI girl’s guilt-ridden conscience. I somehow made it through the rest of the seminar, and it was with great relief that I climbed into my family’s minivan when my dad came to pick me up the following Sunday.
My last Training Center guilt-trip experience is one that I laugh at now, though it seemed serious at the time. One winter I finally got the chance to attend a training event that I thought would be “safe.” After breakfast the first day, we were informed that before classes would start, the young ladies in the class would be meeting with the Training Center director’s wife. We were assembled into a separate room and handed an overview of the dress guidelines. Apparently, the entire facility had been gathered together the previous evening and been given a thorough run-down of dress code, specifically those that pertained to the young women. As a class of young women there for one week of training, we were expected to fully comply. We were told that we had to wear double layers and made sure our waist wasn’t defined or we could cause the young men to stumble. The director’s wife used an example of her own clothing. She unbuttoned her bulky sweater to reveal a corduroy dress that was slightly tapered at the waist. Though the fabric was fitted to her waist, there was nothing revealing about the dress. At the time it reminded me of something my mom would wear, and my mom generally wore loose clothing. The director’s wife explained that while she had at first considered the dress to be appropriate, when she realized that a fitted waist could be a stumbling block, she now wore a sweater over it. She re-buttoned her sweater, saying that the dress looked much better with the sweater anyway. She also told us of one young lady who just that morning had been reported by a young man because he could see the form of her nipples through her blouse. (Never mind that it was the dead of winter and there were parts of the Training Center that weren’t adequately heated.) The young lady was taken aside and asked to change because she had caused the young man to stumble. I felt sorry for the young lady but was also concerned for myself. I didn’t want someone to report me for exposing myself thoughtlessly. The familiar feeling of unease again overtook me. The entire week, I checked and double-checked my clothes before going to breakfast each morning, even going so far as to wear several “safe” outfits more than once to be sure I didn’t wear anything outside of the guidelines. I still recall the comment a friend of mine made when I later told her about the bizarre clothing guideline: “If I didn’t wear clothes that defined my waist, you wouldn’t know I was a woman!”
Fast forward a few years later to a Sunday evening where I found myself listening to as guest speaker at church. I don’t remember his topic that night, but one comment he made has stayed with me ever since. He said the majority of our offenses are to those people to whom we are closest, such as family, and not to the world at large around us. I remember being shocked and relieved all at the same time. This was drastically different perspective from what I had imbibed up to that point. According to IBLP teaching, I felt like I was in danger of offending someone every minute of the day, and I could never be right with God until I had asked forgiveness for my offense. What this man was saying was that asking forgiveness should be something done as a means to restore a lost relationship, not to quell feelings of guilt because we didn’t measure up to God’s standard. I don’t remember anything else about that night, but it was the first time that the chains on the link to my guilt began to weaken. It took several more years before I was completely free from my chains, but I’m happy to say that today they’re completely gone.
One thing that has helped me on my road to recovery with this and other issue is to identify specific truths about my situation in the light of both God’s truth and other obvious facts. As I reflect back on my problem and concurrent experiences, there are a few things that come to mind:
First, the problem I had wasn’t my problem, it was the fruit of a ministry seeped in legalistic teaching. The reason I was experiencing my feelings of guilt was the culture of spiritual abuse that exists within IBLP. One of the marks of an abusive leader is that they make their followers think that they have a problem while citing their own wisdom as the sole solution to that problem. Gothard’s teaching created a feeling of guilt in every person who was exposed to it, and then supposedly offered answers on how to resolve that guilt. Only, there never truly was any resolution, only a continual pit of shame and frustration mixed with a self-satisfaction that we were somehow better than the average Christian for following Gothard’s principles. As I came to realize later, true conviction from the Holy Spirit is an entirely different thing from the guilt-laden mind control that I had come to believe was truth.
Second, I don’t have to be perfect to minister. Sometimes the most effective ministry happens when we don’t even know it and when we’re not even on our A-game spiritually. It’s through our weakness that Christ’s strength is made perfect, not because we have a clear conscience or we’ve caught up on all our unconfessed sin. Sadly, this perspective on ministry is prevalent even in many mainstream churches. As I consider this take on qualification for ministry, I often wonder who God would truly consider to be qualified given our sin natures. There is certainly sin that disqualifies a person for leadership in the church, but for the average Christian with common struggles, I believe that the perspective IBLP upheld was unbalanced and degrading.
Third, sometimes it’s okay for people to be offended. Christ caused offense on more than one occasion with the religious leaders of His day. Often, trying to make things right only further opens a can of worms. What I found in the majority of cases was that the person I’d supposedly offended had either completely forgotten about the situation or hadn’t even considered it offensive. I’m not saying that there’s not a time to apologize or that we should stubbornly refuse to admit that we’re wrong. On the contrary: God wants us to confess our sin to Him (1 John 1:9). I eventually came to realize that my conscience isn’t something for me to maintain, it’s something God uses to draw me to Himself so HE can maintain me. According to IBLP teaching, the concept of maintaining a clear conscience puts the burden on my shoulders to be pure enough to be accepted by God and man and only serves to prep me for my next failure. It took me years to realize that there was nothing more I needed to do in order to gain God’s favor. It’s my hope that others would come to that same realization.