As the jet taxied away from the terminal that winter day in 1970, the parents tearfully waving off their teenage daughter never imagined how many years would pass before she truly returned. She was embarking on a journey that would last nearly a decade, and when it was over no one would ever be able to turn back the arms of time and recapture what was lost along the way.
I am that daughter, and I dedicate this story to parents everywhere who love their children as my parents loved me. Perhaps my story will help you and your family avoid the pitfalls of the young and the not so young who willingly sacrifice their souls to the dreams and aspirations of the “great.”
This is a true story, but as I recount the strange happenings of it, I wonder if it will seem beyond belief to those who have for years given their loyalty, trust and love to the major characters who must be described herein. To all of you I plead, please read with open hearts and follow this story to the end. In doing so you may grieve, as I have grieved, or shudder as you walk with me through the shadows of my personal valley of death. The lessons were costly, at times even brutal, but they provide all the more reason for the telling. If only one person can be spared by learning from my experiences, the hurt of putting them on paper will be worthwhile.
By the age of 15 I was well acquainted with the ministry of Bill Gothard and the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts. My parents expounded often on how Mr. Gothard’s seminar could enrich my life and teach me much about such important matters as making lasting friends and being successful in the area of dating. At 16 they considered Mr. Gothard’s seminar so vital to my personal growth that they drove me, along with the young man I was dating, a thousand miles to spend a week listening to the teachings they assured me would change my life. They were indeed correct. My dating habits didn’t change drastically because my parents had already taught me godly principles. However, other things began to change. I became a devoted follower of the Institute’s seminars, listening with total commitment to the teachings of a man I was sure could achieve his vision of “turning the world upside down” with his new concepts of living. I faithfully sought to apply each of his concepts and struggled with feelings of guilt whenever I failed to do so. I began linking achievement with the approval of God and worked the harder to be all that I thought He would desire. My favorite song expressed my driving purpose, “Give of thy best to the Master, give Him the strength of thy youth.”
So when Mr. Gothard’s telephone call came asking if I would join his staff in Illinois, no one was more surprised or delighted than I. I quickly arranged to take a leave of absence from my freshman year of college and boarded a plane for Chicago two days after Christmas, less than two weeks from the date of Mr. Gothard’s call. It seemed a strange time to leave my family, but Mr. Gothard had clearly stated I must come immediately. Our respect and reverence for this man was so deep we never thought to question either his motives or his judgment. Many opportunities to do so would arise in the future, but each one would be quickly pushed aside. We, like so many others, were blinded by our desire to see a changed world and our love for the man who promised such a reward for his laborers.
And labor we did, which takes this account back to the years between 1971 and 1975. During this period of time a lifestyle was initiated by Mr. Gothard that would later end in tragedy for many on his staff. It is easy to report the havoc which transpired, but the difficult challenge is to reveal what caused it. This task is both difficult and painful for it requires exposing the actions of a man so many hold in great esteem. There is no other way, however, to tell the true story or to provide the facts which may help you guard yourself and your family from the devastation which has left its mark on many lives, including my own.
Original document from Ruth’s papers, click to enlarge
Original document from Ruth’s papers, click to enlarge
Original document from Ruth’s papers, click to enlarge
This is how Ruth began her life’s story. The memories were too painful, and she never had the opportunity to finish writing it.
My Ruth was much like the Ruth of the Bible. Her journey was long and difficult, filled with physical, emotional and spiritual pain. She didn’t end up with a prince charming Boaz, but with me, and the ending was anything but fairytale. Ruth worked at the Institute’s headquarters from 1970–1980. We were married shortly after she left the Institute. God gave us two beautiful children, and then, after 13½ years together, our loving Savior decided He needed another flower in heaven and Ruth was gone. Our personal story began a long, long time ago but that’s not this story. This is a story of betrayal, deceit, and evil control.
Ruth was never able to finish writing her story; it was too difficult emotionally. In the end, she was fighting for her life, raising two young children, and living for each day and for what the Lord had in store for tomorrow. Someone else would have to fight yesterday’s battle for her. Before Ruth’s cancer, she fought the good fight; she had seen what the ATI program was doing to individuals, families, and churches. When she saw that Bill was using the same techniques on the ATI students that she had suffered under many years before, she fought even harder. Ruth went so far as to reestablish contact with Bill, hoping she could be an agent of change. But that never happened. Today I’m sharing with you the story Ruth never wrote, but which she shared with me as we worked together to leave the past and create our future together.
The pain and suffering I read on Recovering Grace is what she wanted to stop. The Institute we lived under is different than yours. Pre-1980, the organization was known as the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts (IBYC), and that name had been changed from “Campus Teams” sometime in the 1960s. IBYC’s bread and butter was the Basic Seminar. Major cities like Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Oakland, Dallas, Denver, Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, and New York would have live week-long seminars twice a year with up to 18,000 in attendance. Smaller cities had video seminars where Bill would sometimes make a one-night appearance. By 1980, over two million people had attended his seminars. The Institute owned two airplanes: a Learjet 35 and a turboprop MU-2. They also had a larger Lear 55 on order. The Seminar had major real estate holdings in Oak Brook (200+acres) and at their upper-Michigan Northwoods facility (3,000+ acres), which included a fully instrumented private airport. Money was never an object. Success and prosperity were seen as a sign of God’s blessing, giving rise to a “the end justifies the means” philosophy of ministry. Those who lived and worked at the Oak Brook headquarters endured a different, more oppressive life than the Seminar’s public image.
Historically, this was during the era of Jim and Tammy Bakker, who were in their prime with the PTL network, who, along with Jimmy Swaggart were making their heart-breaking TV appeals to millions of older people living on fixed incomes while they were living in opulent luxury and sin. Bill took a drastically different approach: he would “humbly” and openly share that he lived on a set income of $600, still lived with his parents, drove an old car, and wore inexpensive clothing. All of this was true; his favorite food was cheap and easy: egg salad sandwiches. But the other side of the story was that the Institute spent thousands of ministry dollars to keep his old, rusty 1968 Oldsmobile 98 classic running. He would drive his old junker to the airport and then climb into his brand-new Learjet. If he wanted anything personally, he would casually mention it to his staff and they would buy it as a gift or expense it. These subtle requests were never anything expensive, but he didn’t have a need or worry in the world. And this false sense of humility had its rewards. The Seminar alumni were so tired of the overt pressure placed on them by televangelists and their local churches that when they heard Bill’s message of never asking for money and how God provided in miraculous ways, they got out their checkbooks and the millions came in. (Bill’s brother was a different story. For Christmas or his birthday, he would request expensive leather luggage or rare, expensive duck decoys to add to his collection. The staff felt emotionally manipulated into providing these gifts, even though they made almost nothing themselves.)
When Ruth arrived at the Oak Brook headquarters at the age of 18½, all aspects of her life were controlled by Bill and his brother (who was serving as V.P. of the ministry): where she lived, what she wore and how she wore it, who she saw, where she went to church and the level of involvement she could have with it. Bill once threatened Ruth with dismissal over one male friend of hers, because he couldn’t tolerate her “lack of total commitment” to him. And this was just over her corresponding with a young man who lived two thousand miles away. Ruth and Bill finally reached a compromise: Bill would read all of the correspondence from this young man and help her write very non-personal letters in response, while discouraging any phone calls between the two. Bill felt that his authority overshadowed Ruth’s parents’ approval of this Christian young man and their relationship. (I was that young man and was unaware of this high level of control till after we left the Institute.) Sadly, this was par for the course among staff members. Bill controlled the dating lives of nearly all his staff members, and individuals were routinely fired for developing relationships without Bill’s blessing.
Image was everything to Bill. Bill would send Ruth and other staff women to his brother for various training, and would preface the direction by saying, “God has given my brother special insight and direction.” These areas of “training” were normally in dress and presentation. Ruth often stated that some of the women complained that Bill’s brother even directed what kind of underwear they should wear.
To the staff, Bill reinforced the message that God was blessing the ministry based on its growth and prosperity, which implied Bill was of God and could do no wrong. One could say these young, impressionable staff members were slowly brainwashed, and “God’s blessing” was used as a means of control. Staff members who questioned anything Bill taught were forced to leave and were labeled as failures. Bill would explain that they had failed God and were resistant to God’s chain of command. Questioning was rarely tolerated by Bill and his family. The Gothards were at the top of the chain of command, as evidenced by God’s blessing on the ministry, of course.
At Headquarters, Ruth started out as the assistant to Bill’s secretary, and Bill soon took a liking to Ruth. Fairly quickly she was promoted to his personal secretary. This was no 9 to 5 job; she was expected to be available whenever Bill wanted her, and the early mornings and late nights meant she had almost no personal life outside of the ministry. She traveled with Bill to be available to him in between seminars. Ruth’s entire world soon revolved around Bill and his schedule. It is easy to see how an impressionable young girl would struggle to maintain objectivity when she is suddenly thrust into the jet-setting world of a popular Christian speaker who was being welcomed by thousands of Christians in cities across the country. It was an exciting life!
Although he taught the highest standards of physical conduct for the sake of outward appearances, Bill started asking Ruth to sit on his lap in his office. He would invite her to come watch the stars, and they would lie on the roof of the old Headquarters building under a blanket together. Bill would take her to dinner and have her sit next to him on the bench seat of his Olds 98. She told me that he used intimate phrases like “I don’t know what God has planned for us,” clearly implying that there was something more to their relationship than secretary/boss. Ruth didn’t love Bill as a suitor, but over time he trained her to rely so exclusively on him for every decision she made that she was willing to do what God commanded and marry him if he asked. While the things that they did would not be terribly unusual for a dating couple outside of the Institute, Bill’s behavior was way out of bounds for a Christian leader and boss, and a clear double standard set against Bill’s own teachings on moral purity. Through the years, he has systematically fired staff for much less physical and emotional involvement.
Individual witnesses reported that in the late ’70s, when Bill was visiting the Northwoods, he would wait until all the staff ladies had gone to bed, and then he would knock on their door to give them a long good night hug while they were dressed in their night gowns. Ruth often said how much all the girls hated it, but felt powerless to stop it. Ruth’s writings contain this quote, “Bill treated staff women with a level of intimacy only appropriate in marriage and did discuss marriage with several women. He did so without consulting the parents, even though he teaches in the seminar that this is an evidence of a man with questionable motives. What good purpose could Bill have had in discussing marriage with more than one woman? If this was a means of creating loyalty to himself, it is not one we believe God can bless.” It was only after leaving IBYC that Ruth discovered that Bill had used the same technique of discussing marriage in a non-committal way with several other women during the same time period he was discussing it with her.
By this point Ruth had worked at the Institute for 7½ years. Bill had interfered with every relationship she had attempted, yet he failed to move to a point of commitment. He hinted at marriage, discouraged or forbade all other relationships, and left her stuck in emotional “never-never land.” Ruth writes, “I was threatened with demotion by Bill Gothard in 1978 when I asked him to emotionally free me to date and seek to build relationships with men other than him.”
After years of working as Bill’s personal secretary, Ruth fell out of favor with Bill after an emotional breakdown. The psychological control he held over her and the way he kept her reliant on him and his “rhemas” were taking their toll on her mentally and emotionally. As a result of her breakdown she told me she felt like she was punished by being demoted. She was given a choice: she could work as a clerk in the registration department (an entry level position) or leave Headquarters and go to the Northwoods property and work for Bill’s brother. Ruth writes, “Even after I told Bill about the moral pressures I faced from previous visits to the Northwoods, he pressured me to relocate there.” This was a fateful decision that would have her working with an immoral man and land her in the middle of one of the most grievous cases of widespread sexual harassment and abuse in a Christian ministry.
The IBYC scandal of 1980 was horrific, and was an out and out case of sexual harassment and abuse. The “scandal” that broke in the Christian media wasn’t about a single case of immorality, but was the revelation that Bill had known about the sexual immorality of his brother for more than five years without taking substantive action. Instead, Bill set himself and his father up as his brother’s only sources of accountability, while continuing to send a stream of young Christian girls to work for him. Predictably, many of them were seduced and violated. At its roots was the slow brainwashing by Bill and his family, accomplished under the banner of the “chain of command” teachings. It may sound extreme that sincere young Christian women who loved the Lord became entangled in this situation, but the extremely controlled environment which focused on externals, “what other people thought,” “not damaging the ministry,” and the constant teaching of God’s direction coming through your “authorities” became the perfect tool that allowed this sexual harassment and abuse to occur. Again Ruth writes, “Bill’s misuse of the concept of chain of command literally robbed his staff of their personal accountability to God and the maturity that comes with such responsibility. They were encouraged to hand over their minds and spirits in a way totally contrary to Scripture, and without the maturity of a close personal walk with God, they were easy prey for the tragedies which occurred.”
Ruth was one of the women who had been sexually preyed upon and willingly admitted it when asked. I am not sharing something private, but a part of her life story that she wanted others to learn from so as to not make the same mistakes. She reminded all of us that Christians need to put their faith in God and not in man, and that we don’t need an intercessor between us and our Savior. God guides us directly. Others can play a part in pointing us to Him, but the relationship goes from Him to us and not through Bill or any other “spiritual leader.”
Bill, in response to a 2006 letter from me, acknowledged that he should have never sent the women up north. (Northwoods is where most of the sexual misconduct occurred). This letter was significant because it was the first time since 1980 that he had taken any responsibility for what occurred. His letter was in response to a 26-page letter I had sent him earlier that year, calling for his repentance. However, that request for forgiveness was a vague statement; it could be interpreted without the forehand knowledge of his brother’s immorality or as historical regret. Regardless of his intent I did offer him forgiveness for that item, and for that one item only.
In 1990, while Ruth and I were visiting Gary Smalley in his Phoenix home, Gary shared that in the mid-’70s he and another man personally approached Bill regarding his brother’s immorality. Gary and the other staff member (who confirmed Gary’s story in a phone call to me) were forced to resign, and Bill’s brother was sent from the Headquarters in Oak Brook to the Northwoods facility, where he retained his Vice President position. This action simultaneously protected the brother from any further investigation while ignoring and refusing to acknowledge the many women whom Bill’s brother had already sexually manipulated and misused. It was around the time of this scandal when Bill wrote and published his alumni supplement, “Rediscovering a Forgotten Truth,” which twists the instructions of Jesus in Matthew 18 on how to confront a brother in sin and reframes these important instructions with an emphasis on only giving a “good report” about others. At the same time, the staff were directed to sign a “Loyalty Oath” that they would never share anything negative about anyone. To this day, Bill still claims that he was “unaware” of his brother’s rampant immorality prior to Gary Smalley’s whistle-blowing attempt, but Bill’s own admission that he should never have sent the women on staff up north was, in fact, an acknowledgment that he was aware of his brother’s past history, because there is nothing else that would cause that regret.
In the mid-’70s, because of my training as a commercial pilot, I was asked to join the IBYC staff to fly their first airplane. After visiting Oak Brook, I did not have a peace about it. As Bill drove me back to the airport, I told him I lacked a peace regarding their offer. He stated that my peace was not necessary because God only gave peace through the chain of command, not to me personally. I knew that Christ promises the peace that passes all understanding, so deciding to go with that promise, I rejected the position. Several years later, I was ready for a change and I accepted their second offer, but I only lasted eighteen months and resigned when the scandal broke.
Accepting the position in 1979 was in God’s gracious plan; He knew that Ruth and I would reconnect and get married, and for me to understand all she had been through I needed to see it for myself. It gave me the background to help her regain her spiritual and emotional freedom as she left the Institute. Even after leaving the Institute Ruth found it very difficult to make decisions. Shortly after we were married she passed out in a grocery store while trying to decide which product to purchase. Even to go to the mailbox, in our rural setting, she had to get dressed up; the Institute’s requirement of appearance had been so strongly drilled into her that it was hard to break free from the Institute’s bondage.
I had the privilege to hold her hand as she walked through her final journey after she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer at 37 years old. When Ruth was diagnosed with advanced, aggressive cancer at such a young age, her doctors told her it was most likely exposure to intense stress that predisposed her to this particular form of cancer. She had not experienced anything as stressful as her ten-year employment with IBYC from 1970–80. Together we endured a grueling four-year battle as she bravely fought for her life. She filled my life with love, taught me how to communicate better, and blessed me with two beautiful children. They were 9 and 11 when she went home to be with the Lord after losing her battle with cancer. She never got to see them grow up—a regret we all feel deeply.
As I close, I want to share a paper that I found a few years ago in Ruth’s handwriting. I don’t know if it was the start of a letter to Bill, a journal entry, or maybe something to add to her barely-started book. Whatever its purpose, she bared her soul. For thirteen years she was tormented by nightmares revolving around her experiences at IBYC until just before she died.** Oak Brook was hell on earth for Ruth, but today she walks on streets of gold, bathed in the warmth and light of our loving God and His Son, Jesus.
My belief in your dreams, Bill, died long before I left your doors. Yet my soul cannot seem to forget the agony of that death.
Last night, for the countless time, I dreamed of my departure from the Institute. As I walked away, unexpected hands tore at me and pulled away the protection of my clothes as I screamed for help. As I opened my eyes in terror, I was reassured and comforted by the wakeful presence of my dear husband.
These dreams that re-occur off and on are the marks of a soul that remembers and still cries out at the cruel blows that came from the hands of a one-time friend. Bill, true I do not feel bitter, I feel free. Yet the memories must fester somewhere in my soul. They rise in the darkness of night to frighten and trouble my mind. I want to forget and to forgive with my unconscious as well as my conscious self, but something holds me back.
In many dreams I’m confronting you or your family with all the accusations that have never been acknowledged. The grievances cannot rest for having never been recognized and openly dealt with.
Bill, how could one who trusted you so completely live to trust you so little? Young dreams die hard and the dying took ten years of my life. Perhaps, I muse, it is for those years I grieve. I don’t think so, though, for I am wiser for all I learned at your hands. The tragedy is that much of the learning came through the failures of yours and mine alike.
If your soul should lash out at this exposure of mine, I shall not hide. God has strengthened my heart, and I no longer inadvertently begin my prayers with “Dear Bill.” Do you remember being amused at my confession of such actions?
(It seems there should be more but this is all I found)
As I read Recovering Grace and see the hurts Bill has caused, I can only wish we had done more to stop his evil. The reports of Bill’s emotional manipulation and damage of young girls go back decades, from his first ministry out of college to today. But the lesson for all of us is to put our faith in the Lord and no one else. Man will fail us but Christ won’t! It’s sad that so many parents were taken in by his deceitful ways, and that many of the ATI students had to endure Bill’s abusive teachings. I hope that most parents only wanted the best and were looking for something different from what the world offered, but I know that others found it gave them the abusive power they desired. Christ holds each of us accountable for our actions and abusers will have to deal with Christ’s words in Matthew 18:4–6: “Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
When Ruth died, I told our children we were on life’s journey. On that path there was the road ahead and the road behind, and we had a choice as to which one to follow. We could go back, but that would lead only to heartache. We could take the road ahead but keep looking back, and that would cause us to stumble; or we could keep our eyes on the path ahead while remembering the path behind to help guide us through what lay ahead. What lay ahead was the assurance that God’s love was always with us. “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38)
What Bill tried to do was an attempt to put himself between man and God. Earlier in Romans 8 Paul states, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (vs. 28). This is our hope, that regardless of the hurt, through God’s plan something good will come out of it. We might see the result now, later, or we might never know, but our calling is to trust Him and live by faith.
**After a failed experimental bone marrow transplant for breast cancer, Ruth was given 6 to 9 months to live and we were able to get her strong enough for one final family vacation at the magical Kea Lani in Wailea on Maui. It was the goal that kept her going through five months of hospitalization. She loved Hawaii. Even leaving the hospital, the vacation had to be delayed to allow for a round of radiation treatment to relieve the pain from tumors is her spine. In Ruth’s attempt to shield me from some of her pain she failed to tell me about the above-mentioned nightly recurring dreams. There were no topics we couldn’t discuss and why she kept this from me is a mystery. On our fifth night in Hawaii, October 31, 1993, she writes about it in her journal: “My left hip is giving me trouble. It’s painful sitting and lying down. Larne added a new pain patch this AM and I took 2 tylox. That helps a lot. But I feel anxious, I admit, about the pain. I’m so afraid I’m getting worse. I’ve given it all to the Lord but I still have the haunting dreams every night. Part of me isn’t totally at peace—the subconscious part. I think I fear I won’t be strong enough to withstand what tomorrow may hold. Yet I know how foolish it is to borrow sorrow from tomorrow.”
That day she finally told me about the 13 years of dreams, and in the next day’s entry, November 1, 1993, she writes: “Last night we took a long walk along the beach. God had this perfectly prepared. I still can’t walk any distance but we borrowed a wheelchair from the hotel and stayed on the concrete and cobblestone walkway. They stretch for several miles along this beach in front of the large hotels in the strip. They are first above the sand and over the rocky areas that jet out into the sea. It was a beautiful walk. We meandered thru the “Grand Wailea Hyatt.” It’s the only other hotel that compares with the one we’re in. At least in my opinion. Their water-slides run among man-made rocks and mountains reminiscent of Disneyland. They have an underwater elevator connecting the upper and lower pools. They have a chapel over the water that’s almost entirely made of gorgeous stained glass. Lots of fountains, flowers, etc. The kids loved it…. Last night was my first night without nightmares or sad dreams. Larne prayed they’d go away and they did. I know they reflected the subconscious fears about my future. I must continually and consciously yield my fears to God. It’s so easy to borrow sorrow from tomorrow instead of trusting Him to provide strength when I need it.” Ruth finally shared this last burden with me and together with God’s help we prayed it away and they never returned.
Ruth’s Vacation Journal pg 1
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Ruth’s Vacation Journal pg 2
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Ruth’s Vacation Journal pg 3
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See how the experiences Ruth, Annette, Charlotte, Rachel, Meg, Lizzie, and Grace had with Bill Gothard fit together chronologically here, and behaviorally here.