SGM lawsuit: what feeds the crazy?

So, there’s this lawsuit against the denomination (or in their lingo, the “movement” or “family of churches”) that founded the cult-like church I grew up in, where the leaders are being accused of deliberately obstructing justice and preventing sexual abusers of children to live without consequences while making the children “reconcile” with their abusers.

I wish I was making this up.

Now, Christianity Today is running a piece with a quote from the current SGM spokesperson from back in November, essentially expressing that the leaders are affronted that someone would dare bring this lawsuit against them, because it undermines their authority and reputation.

Here’s the quote:

“SGM believes that allowing courts to second-guess pastoral guidance would represent a blow to the First Amendment that would hinder, not help, families seeking spiritual direction among other resources in dealing with the trauma related to any sin including child sexual abuse,” Tommy Hill, SGM’s director of administration, said in a November 14 statement.

They argue that they didn’t need to report these abusers to the law, because the knowledge they had falls under a protection established to preserve the trust of a parishioner/confessor relationship. The problem is this: the abusers didn’t confess initially to the pastors. The parents of the victims and the victims themselves were the ones bringing the report to the pastors. The pastors then proceeded to take what they considered to be appropriate action: in most of these cases (and any other cases of this nature that I’ve ever heard of in my ten years in SGM) the victim was asked about his/her sinful desires which might have caused this situation to start (translation: did you want it? were you asking for it? your heart is deceitful–you might not have been aware of your secret sinful desires. No exaggeration of content, just tone.), and then eventually attempted to conjure a “reconciliation” between the abuser and the victim. Often this entailed apologies on both sides and the expectation of a hug to show goodwill. And while the perpetrator might be, say, removed from helping in Sunday School, he/she would be allowed free range at their home church, in the community, at Bible studies, and at church conferences. And no one outside of those present for the “reconciliation” would know about what had transpired.

This is fucked up. That’s pretty obvious, from a basic human standpoint, let alone a legal or “biblical” one.

I don’t like writing about SGM stuff often. But I think I need to now, because I was in SGM for 10 years and I get how the system works and why this has happened.

Here’s the thing that most outsiders won’t understand: this sort of interaction is objectively wrong, but when you’re immersed in the all-consuming culture that is your average SGM church, you can’t tell.

Let me walk you through the mindset a bit? It’s hard to understand, and I won’t go so far to say you get brainwashed, but you definitely become numb to certain things: lack of appropriate boundaries, pastoral manipulation, guilt trips, performance-based social approval, etc.

You stop thinking critically, because questioning things is ever-so-subtly frowned upon. It’s welcomed, objectively, but you feel slight displeasure or get sidelined because of suddenly busy schedules (because, obviously, if you have questions, you’re asking your pastor to help you understand things better, not studying on your own, because they have slowly, subtly made you dependent on their approval for your confidence in your discernment and spiritual maturity). You get asked to save your questions for after care group, or referred to Systematic Theology (which will probably not answer your question), or be assured that this is really a common concern, and they plan to address it in a sermon series in the fall. Just wait.

So, the mindset.

You arrive at a SGM church. You’re starving for genuine believers who want to talk deeply about their faith and personal struggles and you’re welcomed to the local church with open arms and dinner invitations and suddenly you’re finding that these are really, really nice people. And they seem so happy.

So you start attending their care group. And the material they are studying is heavy in theological terms and discussions of sin, and God’s glory, and God’s sovereign plan. You feel excited that you have found believers who take their faith so seriously and seem to be growing in the Lord.

And you enjoy the sermons and the Sunday morning music–they have a great band, the songs are meaty and not Jesus-is-my-boyfriend-and-4-chords, and the pastors are funny, self-deprecating, and they talk in-depth about verses and reference commentaries and historical context and you feel excited, because this is intellectual AND heartfelt, and they seem so genuine. The pastor seems so humble and tender. You can see yourself “getting plugged in” here for the long-term.

Then, as your first year or two passes, you learn about other things.

The women’s meetings where there’s a joke/illustration about how the godly mom the speaker admires doesn’t even have a junk drawer, she’s so organized. That’s so hospitable of her, to keep her home welcoming and clean! This honors God!

There might be a care group meeting where you’re asked to look back on the last year–where did you fail? Where did you see God “growing you”? Where do you want to grow in your faith this next year? Who is going to keep you accountable to it? And the idea of accountability groups is introduced: a biweekly meeting of 2 or 3 church members of the same sex, where you ask each other “hard questions” about spiritual disciplines and growth–where have you been “struggling” lately? what do you need to repent of? how can you make it right with person you sinned against (they may not even be aware of it!)? do you have any “observations” for me?

You feel encouraged. Areas of weakness are being exposed and you’re getting support from your friends to try to grow and work on them! You have strong Christian friends who really care!

And other things happen. You are urged to be faithful with your giving, so you splurge and give generously to the building fund. You are compelled by someone’s example to go get involved in Sunday School. You want to grow in the feminine, biblical virtue of hospitality, so you have some friends over for dinner once a week. You help make food for care group. You plan baby showers, surprise birthday parties, trips to the movies (where everything is pre-screened via Rotten Tomatoes to make sure that no one will be made to “stumble” because of temptations in the movie related to their sins they’re currently working on). You get really excited when the senior pastor’s daughter-in-law asks you to babysit for her kids one evening–what an honor! You do it for free. You and your husband are hoping to improve your marriage to grow in ways you see the older couples living out godly marriages, so you study books like The Complete Husband, and urge him to make sure he’s got accountability partners for his struggles with lust (because he’s a guy. Duh, he’s always lusting. We know this.), and you schedule yourselves a weekly date night and you try not to have too many expectations for it, so there’s a chance of a deep conversation.

If you have kids, you ask the older moms for wisdom and so they start giving you input. This input morphs into regular unsolicited critiques, and you realize you have to be really serious about spanking the right way, and not letting disobedience on the first issue of a command slide anymore. Your kids need to learn not to interrupt adults, not to be angry or fussy, because you’ll get an observation from some other mom if they see you struggling to control the tone of your family. Oh, and you’re a stay-at-home mom, because that’s God’s best plan and highest calling for you as a woman.

You offend your friend by snapping at her one day over a nothing when you’re stressed, and she writes you a long email later, offering her concerns for the pride and anger residing in your heart. She cares about you, so she’s going to point it out! But you really need to repent and work on that. Maybe have longer quiet times and do a study on peace and gentleness? You wonder if she’s right, or if it’s just that you were overtired and hungry, and that’s not normal. You ask your husband to keep you accountable, and you show the email to your care group leader’s wife, who urges you to take it seriously and to pray about trying to reconcile with your friend. Later your husbands may meet for lunch, to discuss how to handle this reconciliation. They schedule a double date, where you apologize to her (you’re probably crying, because this is sin and it’s serious and you feel terrible because this sort of thing is what put Jesus on the cross for you. You are such a vile sinner!), and she welcomes the  apology, and then tells you that she spoke with your care group leader and his wife, too. They have some concerns about your pride, because you didn’t seem to be very receptive to the rebuke at first. Maybe you should meet with them as three couples and talk about it? You’re mortified and want to make it right, so you agree. Your husbands probably don’t say much. Your friend hugs you and tells you how she loves you and is praying for you and really wants to help you grow–that’s all!

The three-way meeting with the care group leader will be the end of this, if you are meek and receptive and don’t argue or question their input. This will end with a time of prayer, and much thankfulness will be expressed over your humble, teachable spirit!  Sunday’s sermon is about how you are supposed to make it easy for your pastors to care for you by being teachable and transparent to them, and you feel encouraged. You’re finally on the way to being purified, and man, are you thankful for the cross! Jesus must have suffered a lot to save you. So amazing.

…and then live that way for ten years.

You have the perfect storm for socially quick, manipulative personalities to rise quickly in the ranks of the church leadership, for the depressed and hurting to beat themselves up for their sins and keep accepting any critiques of their attitudes or actions, and the insecure to always, always second-guess their own instincts and instead choose to follow the advice and corrective teachings of those in authority over them.

It’s not brainwashing, but it’s a social immersion into a culture where you lose your sense of self, your boundaries, your privacy, and your ability to reason independently in a slow fade to submissive SGM church member, fiercely loyal to the great people and genuine culture of faith there.

It’s insane.

And so, in that world, your child tells you that so-and-so at care group touched their private parts. You are furious. You confront this person, you tell your care group leader. Your care group leader tells you that he’s going to bring this up with your pastor and get back to you (because no one thinks to call the cops yet), and the pastor wants to meet with you (maybe you’ve never had any one-on-one time with your pastor before, so you feel affirmed and like he’s taking it seriously)…and then you’re angry in the meeting toward your child’s molester, and you get confronted about your anger, and, and, and…

Suddenly, the SGM sin-confrontation system has kicked into high gear, and the child abuse has take a back seat (because, it’s only on the child’s word, and children are so sinful and need to be trained to love Jesus and not walk in their flesh)…

And it never gets reported. And your child is made to hug his/her abuser. And the abuser is seen as repentant and restored, and you think, well, maybe it’ll be okay. That process of rooting out sin is really thorough. And they have so much accountability–from their accountability partner and their care group leader and from the pastor.

And nothing is done about it.

Until now.

24 thoughts on “SGM lawsuit: what feeds the crazy?

  1. Do you have a massive migraine after writing this? I feel one coming on. Oh wait- in the SGM style I should thank God. Afterall, this headache was predestined.

    You are brave to speak to this topic. Thank you.

  2. I left SGM because I was ignored by my pastor. I served faithfully for years, even after the church leadership seriously hurt my father, then they hurt me. My current church *loves* people, and every Sunday it makes me want to weep for joy.

    1. Ditto, LG. We served and gave time and $$ sacrificially for years. Then one day, I politely asked a “pastor” who I knew better than all the others, the first probing question I’d ever asked: why CLC had changed their theology and practice in a key area. He answered me, unsatisfactorily and impatiently. Then he ended by basically telling me that anyone who thought as I did could leave CLC, and he would recommend that they do so. That was my introduction to the back-hand of “pastoral care”. A number of others followed, God did much work in my heart, and then He released us to flee to a loving congregation.

  3. We left SGM after nearly 10 years. Our experience was something like
    this, but as lame as it sounds, our branch was “different.” We were
    never actually counseled or guided much at all, mostly because we kinda
    were ignored. What I did see was this:

    I saw a church that offered more than anything I had growing up.

    I saw a church that tried really, really hard.

    I saw a church that talked about courtship or w/e it was until I finally married someone and was able to ignore it.

    I saw a church whose women’s ministry events were solely tea parties
    (ugh) that discussed modesty and submission. Never anything else.

    I saw a church who railroaded our marriage “counseling” and didn’t even
    bother having a pastor talk with us at all. A care group leader who was
    sorely unqualified tried, but gave us cliches upon cliches (she’s
    emotional, he’s logical was as deep as they got) that seriously hurt our
    marriage for years. They’re now divorced and we’re doing much better.

    I saw a church who ignored my husband, who has many years of deep
    theological and missionary training, for people with no talent or
    training. He was NEVER asked to lead, and was only asked to a Bible
    study once because a friend thought he would “like” it. The man could
    discuss theology with any pastor and has spent years on the mission
    field. It didn’t matter.

    I saw a church that helped me, somewhat, through a difficult (life-threatening) medical situation, but offended my family through their pushing to see me immediately after
    surgery and then offering “all things work together for good” when the
    news was the worst.

    I saw a church that was led by pastors-in-training who had little to no experience of real life. One, when told by a a friend that his fiancee was having trouble picking a
    church before their marriage, told him “dude, just tell her what to do.”
    Another completely rebuffed me when I tried to introduce myself during a
    hours-long car ride to NA. He just didn’t care.

    I saw a church that was so interested in grooming its men to be godly, that the
    completely ignored the single women in the church for several years,
    only to all awake at the same time, and all get married within a
    two-year period. Even then, the men still ignored all the single women
    who were educated beyond community college (seriously!).

    I saw a church that completely disintegrated because the pastors, who had
    established no structure other than “I’m in charge,” disagreed on
    everything, including basic functions. They kept it from the members,
    who had no idea why things were stagnant, but were told nothing.

    I saw a church who lost every family who actually did the back-breaking
    work behind the scenes leave. Those who stayed were about 75% those who
    led caregroups or those who would have stayed no matter what. Those who
    actually served and sacrificed left. And nobody really cared.

    I saw a church who told me I had no right to study women in the bible on
    any public level because I hadn’t studied in seminary or used commentary
    that was approved.

    I saw a church whose pastor directly accused
    me of listening to gossip when I asked him why so many people I
    respected were leaving the church. At this point in the conversation, I
    had not directly talked to them. It was just a fact that everybody knew.

    I saw a church who completely ignored our resignation letter,
    even when we praised them for the help it had been to us over the years
    and our simple “observations” that the leadership had pointed out about

    I saw a church whose remaining members circled the
    wagons, and for the most part, completely cut ties with the rest of us.
    One of them praised the split, saying it was the most peaceful, happy
    church split they had ever seen. They, of course, lost few friends in
    the whole ordeal.

    But there has been good:

    Now, I know a church that we attend. It’s not perfect and there are a few things I’d
    love to change. However, I’ve learned my lesson. I don’t
    listen/follow/idealize to the man who is preaching anymore. I listen to
    what he says and I read for myself. I use my brain and think for myself.
    It’s pretty awesome.

    1. NCA

      I feel ‘ya… and wouldn’t be surprised if we attended the same church.
      Maybe, maybe not, but many of the same patterns became apparent in the
      SGM church I attended for a decade plus. Hugs.

  4. So, so disgusting. Thanks for writing about this. We had a lot of SGM friends growing up and these were always traits that we started to notice as well (the overwhelming friendliness coupled with the legalism, the projection of perfect wives, the enforcement to marry inside the church, which was starting to get close to generational incest). It is a dangerous, dangerous place for women and children.

  5. Cool blog! Have to add it to my reading now! I was part of SGM back in the PDI days, saw more than I needed to see to convince me that they are a cult and left, never to return. Of course, it did take some amount of detox to clear my head, but attending a single I can’t even imagine what you had to go though to detoxify yourself. I can’t even imagine raising my children in that environment ….

  6. Your description is perfect, Hannah – I can understand why other readers are experiencing pain and panic just reading what we experienced. Thank you for taking the time and emotional energy to describe it all, so well that it makes perfect sense if one wants it to – if one wants to keep believing as we did for years that your SGM church is “the happiest place on earth.”

    Our family lived through this, though since we joined very early all the sin-sniffing methodology had not yet been “baked-in.” We also had been taught for years that the Holy Spirit was great at revealing things all by himself if we’d just listen to him, and that sanctification, not “perfection,” was our goal.

    Plus, we simply didn’t think anyone had a right to delve so deeply into our personal lives, without the foundation of a true *friendship* having *equal* accountability and transparency. The question I could never answer satisfactorily was this: If I open myself up to my “care” group leader or my “pastor,” is he truly going to do the same for me, and be my friend rather than treat me as a project? Experience over the years showed that, sadly, this would never be the case.

    God saw to it that, because of those early years in which the Holy Spirit was truly present in our church and the teaching, we received a wonderful foundation for our salvation and how to live Christianity in practical ways. (If you’re interested, last night I left a long comment on The Wartburg
    Watch describing how God used my early involvement in the ministry –
    which began with the TAG meetings – for great good in my life: )

    But we left after nearly 20 years when our church (led by CJ) rejected the Holy Spirit’s presence, and turned to the malignant focus on “indwelling sin” and restricting salvation and Christian inheritance to “the Cross alone.” It was so painful to watch long-time Christians who were doing well in their faith, suddenly turned into tortured worms from overemphasis on the Puritans’ overemphasis on a few Bible verses (primarily the tail-end of Romans 7). I ran into one friend after leaving and asked him how he was doing. “I’m just dealing with my sin” was the best he could do. It was heartbreaking.

    He and the rest had forgotten Paul’s and the apostles’ additional (revelatory) teachings about having passed from the control of the flesh to the control of the Spirit, through the *entire* salvation of Christ: scourging, crucifixion (with Jesus), burial (with Jesus), resurrection (with Jesus), ascension to the throne of Heaven (with Jesus!) and giving of the Spirit in power at Pentecost (to have the same power to experience God and do his will on earth that Jesus had!).

    Despite having escaped the worst, we had been scarred by teachings on “gossiping,” having to keep everything hush-hush like an alcoholic’s family, being shunned when I stopped toeing the line and asked innocent questions, and “believing the best” about everything the “pastors” saw fit to hide from us (which was quite a bit).

    Reading and interacting in the blogs has been wonderfully healing. And reading Brent Detwiler’s documents in 2011 finally convinced me that my “believing the best” about CJ and the “pastors” all those years had been a fool’s errand – the truth about what had been going on was so far worse than I ever would’ve allowed myself to imagine. And, as you say Hannah, “now this.”

  7. “You have the perfect storm for socially quick, manipulative
    personalities to rise quickly in the ranks of the church leadership, for
    the depressed and hurting to beat themselves up for their sins and keep
    accepting any critiques of their attitudes or actions, and the insecure
    to always, always second-guess their own instincts and instead choose
    to follow the advice and corrective teachings of those in authority over

    This is absolutely true in my experience at an SGM church. Since I never went too deep into the culture, and mostly stayed on the fringes, I could see a lot of this happening and it made me sad and angry. Not to say that I wasn’t impacted by the culture. It definitely had me in its clutches in many ways. But it was hard to see that something was totally not right, and to feel like I was crazy for seeing it. Like living in the twilight zone. Everything seems to work oppositely to common sense.

  8. Pingback: Jori’s Story
  9. This is what justification by faith alone gets you. Faith alone is not
    enough. Wake up people. Unless the churches start preaching that
    morality is essential to salvation, they’ll all end up like this. And
    pastors must no longer be viewed as authorities. You’ve got the Bible
    — you don’t need a priest. Believe in Jesus AND live morally, and if
    anyone says to you “faith alone” then spit in their face.

  10. They think that justification by faith alone means they are forgiven in advance for all their sins, so they can rape your child and its ok because God already forgave them before they even did it; and they also believe that if God forgave them that you and the child have to to, and if you don’t, then you’re the one in sin.

    What can solve this kind of problem? Only a church that tells these sickos they are going to hell because justification by faith alone is false, forgiveness of sins in advance is false, and you better not molest a child or you will be damned irrevocably and no death of anyone on a cross will be able to save you damned pervert piece of human shit. Any message even approaching to acceptance of “faith alone” will simply create more of these pieces of human feces.

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