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The GOTHARD Files: The Sleeping Giant
Today’s article is an introduction to a 3-part series on the early history of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). Please understand that behind the scenes of these articles is a substantial library of documentation.
From the beginning of Recovering Grace, most of our articles have been written by former ATI students and IBLP staff who were with the ministry from the late 80’s to today. We are the product of the phenomenon that happened in the early 70’s with IBYC (the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts) and the evangelical world. We are the children of the Seminars. We have been writing to an audience of past and present ATI students and families in an effort to warn them of the dangers of Bill Gothard’s teachings, and of his ongoing personal failure to practice what he preaches. These stories have spread like wildfire as they have been shared on social networks and emailed to family members and friends; The vastness of the Internet carried our cause further than expected. It woke a sleeping giant.
When Bill Gothard first started bringing young people to his IBYC Headquarters in the late ’80s and early ’90s, those of us who were barely more than children heard the whispers of the big Scandal of 1980. Each department at Headquarters was run by a full-time paid staff member. In the early years of student apprenticeships, many of these staff members were those who had been there from the beginning. Not that they would tell any of us about The Scandal, mind you. But it was referenced from time to time. Bill himself would mention it in vague terms, especially if a student pulled some teenage stunt that violated his list of “don’ts.” Bill would change his expression to disappointed gravity and tell the offending student that this kind of activity once caused his staff to engage in moral failure. His own brother was no longer with the ministry as a result. We didn’t want to fail morally, did we? Well, of course we didn’t. And of course we wondered. What did happen back then? Even our parents who had attended the seminars in those days didn’t know much. But there were people who knew. The Machine that was IBYC in 1980 silenced them with such decisive retribution, threat, extortion, and disregard that some allegedly feared for their lives. What happened to those people? Where are those witnesses now?
Today, we are 33 years away from the Scandal of 1980. Some of us weren’t even born then. For some, however, 33 years is not that long ago. For some, 1980 was a defining moment in their lives and careers. A lot of life has happened since then. Wrongs have been forgiven. Marriages, children, grandchildren, different career paths, and new memories have healed the hurts of those days. But the witnesses of 1980 have not forgotten what happened. Some have moved on and scarcely looked back. Some stuck around and tried to help the ministry heal and move toward a wiser future. Some stayed for a while, realized that nothing was going to change, and regretfully washed their hands of it. Bill Gothard and his ever-changing board of directors placed the documentation in the vault and locked it away.
Bill Gothard had a very earnest, loyal, and hard-working staff. Between the years of 1970 to 1980, his full-time support staff and secretaries grew in number from around 25 to about 75. The majority of the staff were unmarried. IBYC had become their family. But they didn’t all know each other as well as they thought. Nearly every communication and decision went through Bill. Even smack-dab in the middle of the biggest scandal of Bill’s life, most of his staff didn’t know what was going on until the damage was almost inconceivable. Once the staff did realize what was happening within their own ranks, many of them stepped in to do what they could to help resolve things. In 1980, there was no Internet. There were typewriters, envelopes, and the US Postal Service. You communicated by telephone or by snail mail, or you arranged a good old-fashioned face-to-face. Fellow staff members were interviewed. Copious notes were taken. The admonitions in Matthew 18 on how to resolve a dispute among Christians were carefully followed. And in the end, these fine young people realized that they had placed their trust in a man who refused to be held accountable, and in a ministry whose “principles for life” were impossible to maintain. Most of the staff resigned in mass protest, having lost their faith in a man they had trusted with their lives and livelihoods. Others who stayed to see it through were fired because they couldn’t in good conscience let The Scandal go. Bill kept going. IBYC became IBLP. He adjusted his ideas for the future and invented another new acronym: ATIA. His former staff also moved on. Those who stayed kept what they knew to themselves. And those who had left filed it away. The great Scandal of 1980 was pushed into a dozen disparate file drawers, and there the giant slept for 30 years.
The digital age did something for truth that the most conscientious of note-takers and credible reports in 1980 could not. It gave a voice to individuals, and, in the case of Recovering Grace, it unified our stories in such a way that the preponderance of evidence could not be denied. And the witnesses whose stories had been squelched by Gothard’s multi-million dollar machine finally opened their file drawers. There were those who had been silently concerned for years, but who needed a venue and moral backup to address what they had seen to be great offenses of ungodly behavior and promotion of unscriptural doctrines. We knew there would probably be witnesses out there who would be willing to share. But we had no idea just how much paperwork was preserved from those days. Where there isn’t a first-hand account, there’s a document. Where there’s a document, there’s a signed and dated letter referring to the document. There are official interviews, and there are published news reports. There are the eyewitnesses. There are the lists of who was copied on what information. After we picked ourselves off the floor and asked ourselves how it could be possible that these stories had never been told, we knew we needed to tell them. You see, the goal of the whistle-blowers in 1980 is the exact same goal as ours: To show the error of Bill’s teachings, to pray for his repentance and reconciliation with those he has wronged, and to demonstrate based on Scripture why we believe Bill Gothard has disqualified himself for ministry.
We have been entrusted with information that has been carefully preserved all these years, and we confess that we are feeling the pressure to do this story justice. Some of these letters are so personal to the individuals who shared them that we feel obliged to keep them to ourselves for now. But as hard as it was to learn the details, we have been given a unique opportunity to share what happened during the Scandal and to do our part in helping right these wrongs. What we have decided to do at the beginning of our series is to tell you a story. We have checked and crosschecked our sources, and we can honestly say that our information comes from the mouths of “two or three witnesses.” In the coming days, we’ll share documentation and personal stories that will expound on our “Scandal” series. This information should never have been forced into secrecy. This is a story of family, of faith, of failure, and of betrayal—and in the center of it all was a 46-year-old man named Bill Gothard. The purpose here is to do our part in accomplishing that final step of Matthew 18.
One prominent former seminar volunteer explained to Bill and his board why he believed Bill’s staff was right to seek the truth and to hold Bill personally accountable: “We do not believe that the staff, who love Bill genuinely and who tried to hold him accountable, are ‘defiled with germs.’ Basically, they were not giving evil reports, rather giving reports of evil.”