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The GOTHARD Files: The Early Years, 1965–79
This is Part one, of a three-Part series on the history of the Institute in Basic Life Principles. Please click here to read the Introduction.
In the space of less than twelve months, from the early months of 1980 until January of 1981, a multi-million dollar ministry suffered a massive public blow that nearly crippled it. The blow came from within its own ranks, and among the headlines were phrases like “gross immorality,” “failure to maintain confidence of staff,” and “refusal to address sin.” Yet somehow, within three years, The Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts (IBYC) had not only recovered from the scandal, but had launched an even loftier offshoot ministry that continues in some capacity to the present day. What was the Scandal of 1980? More importantly, what happened after the Scandal that made it all go away? And how could a thing like this have happened in the first place?
Bill Gothard’s IBYC seminars were like nothing else of their day. While televangelists like the Bakkers were conning money from the fixed-income elderly for their opulent lifestyles, Gothard quietly set up an overhead projector and began speaking from his syllabus about the basic principles of life, applicable to Christian and non-Christian alike. His seminar wasn’t a one-hour television spectacular. It was a week-long event filled with note taking and—well, more note taking. One evening, Bill gave a chalk talk. At the end of the week, he handed his graduates a red notebook filled with everything they had just heard, and told them to keep the book to themselves and tell their friends about the seminar. From 1964 to 1969, Bill’s little seminar grew from tens to thousands in attendance every year. A ministry to troubled teens that had developed in the heart of a teen culminated in a life-changing message to a conflicted and floundering Christian community. Bill had stumbled onto something, and a lot of people were buying it. By 1971, Bill could fill the biggest conference centers in the biggest cities in America. By 1980, over two million people had attended a seminar.
Not everyone was buying into Bill’s teachings, though. Some people believed it was really more self-help than saved-by-grace. In fact, some biblical scholars have essentially argued that if you scrubbed any mention of the salvation message out of the IBYC seminar, you still had the IBYC seminar. Several Christian news articles and even a book or two were written during those early years, questioning his one-size-fits-all approach to resolving conflicts, and frowning on Bill’s teachings on authority. By the time the well-known magazines were willing to allow print space for articles about this young Wheaton graduate, his seminars were so popular with mainstream evangelicals that it would have felt unwise to dismiss him out-of-hand. After all, no matter how many holes could be poked into his theology—and there were many who did so—his alumni couldn’t stop talking about the results!
So what happened? What was going on behind the scenes in the late ’60s and the entire ’70s that nearly took down one of the most surprising Christian ministry success stories in decades? It may be disappointing to learn that the culprit was the most basic of biblical sins—pride—laced with a healthy dose of the lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.” Proverbs 16:17 (NASB)
Pride seems to have dogged Bill from the beginning of his time in ministry. Bill told a story that was repeated in A Matter of Basic Principles: “According to Bill Gothard, one day some of his fellow youth workers confronted him, saying they detected ‘spiritual pride’ in him, perhaps due to his success in youth ministry. He said he became convicted this was true and confessed it to one of his fellow workers. That person dealt harshly with him and advised him to confess the sin to several others, including the head of the missionary society for which Gothard worked. Gothard’s boss fired him shortly after he made this confession.” It might be said that this incident was the catalyst for Bill going into ministry for himself. It is significant that the structure of his ministry placed Bill in a position where he would not have to experience that humiliation again. Bill was proud of himself. He had done something big and probably in his mind eternally important, and his parents and most of his siblings were riding the wave with him. We don’t think anyone can really begrudge Bill that feeling of pride in his accomplishments. But what the rest of the world hadn’t seen yet was the darker side of Bill Gothard. He had discovered that he needed the ongoing success of his ministry more than he needed anything else in his life. More, even, than love, marriage, and family. More than he needed to live out his basic principles. And he would do almost anything to keep the trajectory going forward and upward.
Bill’s father had himself enjoyed prominent positions in major ministries started by other great men of faith. When Bill was in his teens, William Gothard, Sr., was hired as editor and executive director at Gideon International, a well-established evangelical ministry known for distributing Bibles free of charge. Individuals who knew Gothard, Sr., in those days said that he took his new job very seriously, arriving at 8:00 in the morning and working until 11:00 p.m. or midnight every day for “quite a period of time. He was a real work horse and yet he refused to hire people until he was sure that these were the people God wanted him to hire for the organization.” It must have been deeply impressed on the young Bill that a life of ministry was of first and utmost importance in a man’s life. In fact, before Bill had even reached his 40s, a close staff member said of his work ethic, “He gets up early in the morning and works until he falls asleep. He doesn’t have the eight to five deal. It’s just all the time.”
We know that Bill’s mother, Carmen, was a strong, opinionated woman and the mother of six: Ann, Laura, Bill, Steve, David, and Joan. We know that his father was hard-working and hard to please. We know that all of his siblings joined him in his ministry at various times, and that eventually some of their own children had a role. We know that Bill entrusted Steve with the creation of popular publications like the beautifully bound Character Sketches that many of our parents had on their bookshelves while we were growing up. Bill’s father was on his board of directors. It is well known that Bill Gothard, Sr., often spoke during a session in the early days of the seminars. We know that the Gothard family was both fractured and insular. They called each other out on missteps when necessary, but for the most part they kept each others’ secrets. And there were secrets. By the time the Scandal was over, though, Bill had banished one brother and had begun to alienate a sister. By the mid-’80s, some of them were fighting with each other in the courts.
Bill famously stated in his early seminars that, although he was open to marrying, he was devoted to his ministry and had postponed marriage to give his time to it. Bill had apparently been tempted to marry once in his youth, but for some reason it hadn’t worked out, and he had never met anyone since that time with whom he could see himself bound for life. What Bill didn’t say in the seminars was that he also preferred his staff to remain single and devoted to his ministry. Bill’s teachings on authority made enforcing this relatively easy. The following quote appeared in an article in The Wittenburg Door in 1973, a Christian publication:
“On the second night of his Institute and in the second section of his manual, Bill Gothard explains that one of the principles for a successful relationship to God and men is a proper understanding of and obedience to a chain of command which begins with God and extends to a teenager through the Bible, the government, his father, and his mother in a descending order. Gothard claims that God has put a protective umbrella over us, and that whenever we get outside of this umbrella through rebellion or disobedience we expose ourselves to the realm of Satan as though we were entering into witchcraft.”
Bill used different tactics in imposing the authority teaching on his staff. Even though they were no longer teenagers, he encouraged them to remain under the authority and protection of their fathers. Bill himself idolized his own father, and during the Scandal even used the excuse of his father’s influence on why he refused to submit to his board of directors, from which his father had resigned in disgrace. However, even beyond his teachings on authority, Bill was primarily concerned about his legacy. When a staff member would come to Bill with a direction from their father that interfered with Bill’s plans for them, Bill would either suggest that their father was unfit to direct them, or that, as members of his ministry, his staff were effectively his children. As their ultimate authority, Bill would accept no disagreement. One former staff member explained it like this, “Those who questioned his authority were asked to leave and were labeled as failures. Bill would explain that they had failed God and were resistant to God’s chain of command. The Gothard family was at the top of IBYC’s ‘biblical’ chain of command.”
So there was to be very little dating on staff, and even that was discouraged. Staff members who wanted to marry each other and remain on staff were also frowned upon. Single staff members were given a document containing suggested answers to possible questions family members might ask regarding dating and marriage, and were counseled on when and how to write letters to parents so as not to convey any unhappiness or questions about the ministry.
Bill was very firm on this rule. In 1971, he fired a secretary because she did not respond favorably to his order for her not to date. In 1973, he threatened his executive secretary with dismissal for writing to a man she was interested in from back home. One former secretary explained that even though nobody was allowed to date on staff, these rules didn’t apply to Bill himself or to his family members. Bill and his brother dated freely, often dating fellow staff members and even their own personal secretaries.
Bill was fast becoming obsessed with staff loyalty and control. Steve wanted to marry, but Bill encouraged him to remain single for a while longer. Much later, following the demands of his board and area staff in the wake of the Scandal, Bill admitted in a letter to alumni pastors, “My pride and wrong priorities resulted in encouraging [my brother] to postpone marriage because of the demands of the ministry, thus disregarding his personal needs.” Bill’s father agreed with Bill and perhaps even encouraged the brothers in this—Steve helped keep Bill on track with the business side and publications, and the success of the ministry needed Steve to stay single, at least for a while. The apostle Paul famously wrote, “if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (1 Corinthians 7:9 NIV) We know that Steve agreed to hold off on marriage, but we have also learned that Steve had been “involved in fornication” since his college days. Agreeing to remain single did not mean he planned to remain celibate. Steve’s lack of self-control appears to have ultimately destroyed any sense of moral responsibility or human respect that he may have once possessed.
In 1969, one brother was in the middle of the greatest launch of his ministry to date. Campus Teams had become a traveling seminar in 1968, and the support staff was growing. The other brother was in the middle of a moral dilemma. On the way home from a seminar at Trinity College, a secretary who had been dating Steve for three years confessed to Bill, “Steve and I are failing in the moral area of dating.” In the puritan wording of Bill’s seminars and of the day, she had just bravely confessed the most intimate of sins to her boss about his brother. Bill did not take appropriate steps to stop his brother’s behavior, and in this he committed a great wrong toward this woman and many women to come.
Bill Gothard had a lot to lose. The entire premise of his seminars was that if you follow the principles you cannot fail to be successful. If success is not achieved, you must not be trying or, worse, you have not confessed personal failings that are blocking God from blessing you. If it came out publicly that his own brother had unconfessed sin—and that Bill was aware of it—there would be quite the public backlash. Part of Bill Gothard’s draw was the unassuming humility and almost Victorian purity of his seminar style. The exposure of problems like these under the surface would have seriously damaged his credibility.
By the mid-’70s, Campus Teams had become IBYC and the seminars were raking in the cash. These were heady times. One big seminar with registrations and book sales could pull in nearly half a million dollars. Bill charged $45 per person to attend for one week. By 1980, two million people had attended his seminars; generating at least $90 million in revenue ($370 million by today’s standards). His most expensive publication, the Character Sketches, was one of his most popular and can still be found prominently placed on many alumni’s living room bookshelves today. Yet Bill did not appear to take much of the wealth for himself. It wasn’t easy to learn where the bulk of the money was spent, because the board did not choose to offer a public financial statement; although, when pressed, they stated that they would be happy to show their records if asked. The IBYC board replied vaguely to The Wittenburg Door in 1973 that they divided the budget into 20% for publicity, 30% for staff expenses, and as much as 40% for “future development.” There was no mention as to how the final 10% was spent.
In 1973, his Chicago and Midwestern Area Coordinator told a major news source that Bill only accepted a salary in the amount of $600 per month, and that was before taxes. How did Bill pay for housing, food, gas, and his trademark navy blue suits on that salary? He told us at his seminars that he lived with his parents, drove an old car, and led a very simple life. This is mostly true. He did primarily live with his parents, though any housing expenses incurred were swallowed by the ministry, including vacation travel. The Gothard family as a whole appeared to have little to no concept of how to separate ministry and personal expenses. At least three of the family’s privately owned homes were renovated at ministry expense. Bill did drive an old car, but his blue, convertible Olds 98 was expensive to maintain. He relied on IBYC funds to handle those maintenance costs. By now, his ministry owned a MU2 Turboprop plane and a new LearJet, and by 1980 the ministry was in the process of buying a second, bigger LearJet. Bill traveled in a style that most of us wouldn’t dream of. All of his expenses were covered. If he wanted something personal, he would casually mention it and the staff would buy it as a gift or expense it.
What did he spend his $600 per month on, then? Bill explained that away in his seminars, too—he gave much of his personal income to “Christian causes.” However, in 1980, when his largest area seminar committee was demanding answers and his staff was belatedly going through the finances with a fine-toothed comb, Bill was asked what Christian causes he actually gave his personal money to. “I gave it to myself,” he replied.
It appears that Bill was dealing with temptations of his own beyond keeping his ministry going at all costs. Bill traveled regularly with female secretarial staff. According to several accounts, including that of his personal secretary from the ’70s, Bill placed serious emphasis on the importance of staff women learning to wear their hair and to choose their wardrobe in accordance with his personal tastes. He would often defer their clothing options to Steve, who apparently had a more stylish eye. This behavior evidences both his need to be in control and an unhealthy obsession with the form and appearance of his female employees.
As petty as Bill’s lies and partial confessions seem now, at the time he was fiercely protecting his legacy. He had firmly entrenched his chain of command teachings into every individual involved in his ministry save one, and any staff members who dared question his methods were firmly reprimanded as being resistant to authority and summarily dismissed. The one person he couldn’t control was becoming a big problem. By 1975, Steve Gothard’s sexual activities with female members of the staff had grown from one to at least four. The woman who had originally confessed to Bill in 1969 had been in counseling with the wife of one of Gothard’s close friends who was also a prominent staff member. She confessed everything in great remorse. The next day, after talking to Steve, she called the woman back and retracted her story. The rest of the female staffers involved also wanted the immoral activity to stop, but Steve was relentless and the behavior continued. His demand for complete loyalty held their tongues when questioned. Some members of staff continued to try to investigate the situation, but with very little cooperation. Finally, they sat Steve and Bill down and confronted them both about Steve’s immorality. Steve’s problem had become Bill’s problem. Bill and his father agreed that this needed to be handled internally.
Bill was not innocent in his interactions with the female staff, either. In 1976, at a Valentine’s Day single’s retreat, Steve confessed to his immorality and Bill confessed to “defrauding” female staffers. Steve indicated a genuine desire to be helped and restored. Bill insisted to the staff who knew of the issues at hand that he would be Steve’s accountability, and he banished Steve to the Northwoods retreat center. One staffer recalled that it was agreed that Steve would continue his writing and “work on Character Sketch books on the area of becoming a servant because that is what he need[ed] the most. Bill showed no real interest in discussing the matter further.”
The Northwoods was a large property in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that belonged mostly to Steve, though its conference center and airstrip was owned by IBYC. Bill had a little cabin up there as well, that, according to him, had been a gift. (It was actually purchased with ministry funds; the receipt for it was apparently later found in a desk drawer.) The Northwoods was a beautiful retreat center, capable of hosting as many as 300 people. There was water skiing on the lake and even a bowling alley and a screening room. Steve did as he was told again, ensconcing himself at the Northwoods where he continued to write and collaborate on new IBYC publications. The money was still coming in via donations and seminars, and the alumni were eagerly buying up whatever IBYC published. Bill sent young staffers up north to help Steve. Bill went to work also, and developed a new teaching on only giving a good report. This was handed out to his staff and incorporated into his seminars.
This is where our narrative grows very dark. The remote Northwoods lakeside property became a place of such gross immorality for the next four years that it is difficult to find a universally politic way to explain what went on. The dated interviews and documentation from the resulting 1980 investigation were copied to prominent persons involved. Everything we are about to share has been confirmed by two or three witnesses, including one of the women involved.
Steve began to actively pursue sexual relationships with the secretaries who were sent by Bill to the Northwoods to work with him. Within four years, Steve had ongoing and overlapping relationships with no less than seven women. Their activities included in part explicit conversations, sexual activities which many churches teach are unnatural, pornographic movies and books, and other psychological grooming. His exploits were so indiscreet that others on staff stumbled across him in the act, more than once, with different women. One woman was observed living in the Northwoods’ Crazy Bear Lodge with him unchaperoned.
Steve exercised such control over these women that he was able to coerce at least two of them into vowing to be available for him sexually whenever he asked, and even made them promise that they would continue their activities with him after marriage, should he one day marry. The women were also required to vow to keep their relationship and activities a secret. These sexual relationships were not simply the choices of consenting adults living an immoral lifestyle. Instead, they were the result of methodical behaviors that broke down the psychological and emotional defenses of each woman.
Life in at the Northwoods was extremely isolated, and Steve was in charge of operations. Women arriving there were subjected to isolation from the staff and assigned to menial and frustrating tasks. They were excluded from trips to town or dinners out with the rest of the small staff of Northwoods, or they were assigned chores such as washing vehicles in cold or stormy conditions. At staff meals, Steve would completely ignore his current target, and speak to everyone except her. After several weeks or months of being singled out this way, the girl would come to Steve frustrated or in tears, genuinely asking what she was doing wrong.
This is when the strategy changed, and Steve would bring her into the fold, assuming the role of counselor. He would then break down her boundaries by discussing her insecurities, and he would sometimes walk in on these targeted girls in their rooms while they were preparing for bed. He would then put them at their ease and casually discuss their bodies with them. He would ask them to wear their hair a certain way, and once they felt attached to him in some way, he would make them promise to dress according to his preferences. Some of the women complained to each other that Steve even dictated that they should wear push-up style bras. If they were uncomfortable with his advances, Steve would cite Bill’s chain of command teachings and remind the girls that “he could easily have them terminated and removed in short order if they did not respond obediently.”
What is most astonishing is that this behavior went on for years. It wasn’t only the women Steve corrupted. One man witnessed Steve’s activities with his own eyes, then later fell into immorality himself with one of the women involved. Steve’s assistant rented pornographic movie reels and delivered them to the Northwoods or Steve’s parents’ home near the Chicago headquarters, where the two men and sometimes the women would watch them.
Where was Steve’s brother Bill in all of this? Where was the accountability that he had promised to provide for Steve? Where was the discipleship? Bill didn’t leave Steve alone completely. According to reports, Bill was often at the Northwoods, working with Steve and the team that was there. Bill would later state that he had no idea Steve’s activities were ongoing. However, according to compiled interviews with the seven secretaries plus Bill’s own female associates, “Bill Gothard [was] watching secretaries constantly going to Steve Gothard’s bedroom.” Worse, it was Bill who was sending these women to work with Steve. Later, when one of his staffers confronted Bill and asked him why he had sent a particular woman to the Northwoods, Bill exclaimed, “Not her too!” When the women were later asked directly why they hadn’t gone to Bill to tell him what Steve was doing, every single woman stated that she had done just that, but that Bill had done nothing to help her. He and his father both felt that Steve was necessary to the ministry.
Bill’s personal record wasn’t entirely innocent. While at the Northwoods or when traveling for seminars, Bill made it a habit to visit his secretaries’ rooms as they prepared for bed, asking for a long hug goodnight. One trusted staff member walked into Bill’s private cabin in the Northwoods to find a female staff member sitting on his lap wearing a sheer nightdress. The man was later badly mistreated by Bill and Steve and forced to resign in disgrace.
Bill Gothard wasn’t above coercing his own female staff into obeying his every whim. His executive secretary in the ’70s had been plucked from her family shortly after her eighteenth birthday to work for him. She had caught Bill’s eye a couple of years earlier at a Youth Conflicts seminar that she attended with her parents, who were solid supporters of the seminars. This young lady had turned 18 in August 1970 and was attending her freshman year of college. During Christmas break, Bill convinced her that it was God’s will for her to postpone college to come work for him. In spite of her reservations in leaving her family during the holidays, she agreed to come right away. She arrived at Headquarters two days after Christmas and devoted the next ten years of her life to Bill Gothard and IBYC.
Bill became enamored with this fresh and pretty young woman, and made her his personal secretary shortly after she arrived. Their relationship blossomed into a dating relationship that was tame for its day, but rather shocking by Bill’s famously public dating standards. Bill often asked her to sit on his lap in his office. They would lie together outside and look at the stars. According to her later accounts, his young secretary was not attracted to Bill, but she cared for him and accepted his attentions. She became emotionally attached to him and was very loyal. Bill would often say that he didn’t know what God had for them in the future. Later, he would insist that he never intended to marry her and that he certainly didn’t promise marriage, but the impressions his secretary was left with were very different.
It wasn’t long before Bill began to use coercive tactics with her that were very similar to his brother’s. He required absolute loyalty. She was not allowed to travel without his permission. Her clothing and hair were to be approved by him. She was required to work on average three hours of overtime daily, which was never added to the payroll. By the late ’70s, Bill’s young secretary was exhausted emotionally, psychologically, and physically. She began to suffer an emotional breakdown. Bill was displeased. He informed her that she was out from under authority, and that she needed to decide whether she was going to stay within the chain of command. He told her that she could either work in registration (an entry-level job) at his Chicago headquarters or that she could continue her correspondence for Bill, but only from the Northwoods retreat center.
Bill’s secretary was concerned. She had previously felt discomfort from Steve’s familiar interactions with her and wasn’t sure that working closely with him was a good idea, and she said so to Bill. In the end, she didn’t feel that she was being given a choice. This was her punishment, and she felt that she needed to see it through or go home. After several years, Bill’s secretary had become so emotionally connected to Bill and the ministry that she couldn’t conceive of going home yet. So she packed up her things and moved to the lion’s den. Within months, Steve had snared another victim.
[Part Two to be continued next week]
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