Back From the Brink: An Abusive Church Movement Recovers Its Balance
by Lawrence A. Pile
How does an abusive church or organization recover its spiritual integrity? The only answer I can give is to tell how one such group
did so. That group was the organization of which I was a member for five and a half years, Great Commission Churches (GCC). If and when other cults or cult-like groups seek to reform themselves, they may find lessons in the journey of GCC.
So how did GCC do it? Like most groups that end up either as destructive cults or abusive churches, GCC did not begin that way. From its origins in the late 1960s, GCC provided a caring environment for many young Christians to begin a spiritual life and to grow in that life. This church had a lot of the features that one expects to characterize a church. Its members were a warm, friendly bunch of people (mostly in their twenties, but also a few older couples and their families). It was not bound by tradition but sought to emphasize knowing and serving God according to the teaching of the Bible. There was no emphasis on money—in fact, there were no collections taken at all in those days. And there had so far not been any drive to erect or purchase a building to serve as a meeting place (most meetings were held in homes or on the campus of the University of Arizona). In addition, church members often sought to help the needy. In other words, the emphases seemed to be in the right place.
However, things changed. Even in the early years, some of the seeds of later abuses showed themselves to those with the courage to look. Initially, GCC welcomed spiritual help from men associated with the so-called “Open” or “Christian” Brethren (from which many early GCC leaders had come); although, after a few years, GCC founder and chief elder Jim McCotter counseled local elders against inviting such “outsiders” to address their groups. He was afraid these outsiders might teach something he would have to correct afterward. Thus, GCC gradually became more insular and exclusive, believing that it was closer than any other church to reflecting the first-century-church lifestyle and beliefs.
There were other things that made me uncomfortable. At the time, however, they were things with which I felt I could live. For example, the church leaders tried to get the members, including those with growing families, to participate in the on-campus “witnessing.” I thought this focus was an inversion of priorities, at least for the latter. But I concluded that it was not really a major error, and I was willing to participate occasionally in the campus outreach; so I let it slide.
Later, other things began to bother me, and I learned that I was not the only one. Some examples were doctrinal, although they did not affect primary beliefs of historic Christianity as they are contained in the Apostles’ Creed and other early, historic church statements of faith. The most troubling concerns were behavioral in nature; namely, authoritarianism and inconsistent and hypocritical ethical standards. For example (based on a list by a former elder),
Domination over members’ personal lives outside biblical moral directives—e.g., telling them who could or could not be their roommates, whether or not they could visit their parents during the Christmas season, whom to marry or not marry, and many other things. The tendency to make the elders’ interpretation of the Scriptures the last word on the subject, virtually “sanctifying” the elders’ teaching. Cultivation of uncritical submission and identification of criticism as stemming from a “bad heart,” thus creating a “non-falsifiable system.” A focus on eradicating and preventing “faction” and “slander” (redefined as any criticism of the group, its leaders, or its teachings, true or not, and even if it was not intended to be negatively critical) as crucial sins. The cultivation of an “imitation principal [sic]” whereby the members were encouraged to pattern their thinking and behavior after their leaders, without critically evaluating whether or not that thinking or behavior was biblical, correct, or just. The movement had become basically a closed system that allowed very little, if any, influence from the rest of the Christian community, let alone the rest of society. Any such influence tended to be carefully controlled. A sense of elitism was cultivated from the self-perception that GCC was the only group that really followed the New Testament pattern of church life. Loyalty to the movement, and especially to founder Jim McCotter, who was the ultimate source of any developing changes in the theology or practice, was highly cultivated as a result. Ethics drifted in a pragmatic direction, becoming ethics of expediency, with a lack of integral consistency; this shift led to the justification of exaggeration, half-truths, and, at times, outright lies and injustice in the treatment of people. In fact, this atmosphere is what finally led Paul and Barb Martin and others to break their ties with the movement.
Failure to go along with the plans, programs, and lifestyles that national and local GCC leaders promoted often resulted in those persons who opted out being regarded as less spiritually mature and disobedient to God’s will. In short, these individuals were looked on, often, as “dead wood.” Consequently, many concluded they couldn’t live up to God’s standards and could only look forward to living as “second-class” citizens in God’s kingdom.
The bottom line in all of this and more was that, in various ways and to different degrees, people were being hurt.
Another individual who became alarmed at the gradual deterioration of GCC was one of the elders in Columbus, Ohio, Bill Taylor. During a meeting of national leaders in 1974, Bill expressed his displeasure with the cultural ethos that founder Jim McCotter was introducing into the movement. Bill accused McCotter of acting like a “king-bishop,” compelling (or trying to compel) members simply to accept his interpretation of the Bible and fall in line with it, among other things.
To make a long story short, 2 years after that meeting, Jim orchestrated Bill’s excommunication from the Columbus church (the Solid Rock Fellowship [SRF]) and from the movement at large for being “factious.” Jim made it look like the decision was simply the action of the Columbus elders and obscured the fact that he was actually plaintiff, prosecutor, judge, and jury. The only role he didn’t play was that of defense attorney—a role no one played, the verdict and sentence having been decided beforehand.
Taylor’s excommunication in 1976 was the event that, for many, showed up the spiritual decay that had been moldering at the core of GCC. In consequence, many SRF members also left, including my future wife and me, and one of the other elders, Fred Colvin (see below), who had been manipulated to act against Taylor. In addition, Taylor’s excommunication became the pattern for dealing with many other dissidents over the next decade and a half. Former leader Jerry MacDonald wrote his master’s thesis in sociology for the University of Virginia on GCC’s handling of dissension and other internal troubles. An abridged edition of this important paper (’Reject the Wicked Man’) was published in the Cultic Studies Journal, 1988, Vol. 5, No. 1. Much additional material was written and published, privately and publicly, over the succeeding years, in the form of personal letters, testimonies, affidavits, and so on. These publications included Ronald Enroth’s treatment of GCC in his books Churches That Abuse (1992) and Recovery From Churches That Abuse (1994). Finally, the Internet coughed up a Web site, gcmwarning.com, which made some of this information available and directed interested parties to a blog where former members (and some members) shared their stories and debated the merits and demerits of GCC.
As a result of all the bad press targeting GCC both publicly and privately, the leaders expended a great deal of time and energy on damage control. Often, however, those efforts made things worse rather than better. Oddly, GCC pastors frequently felt the need to explain to their congregations why certain members had decided to leave; and most often the reasons they gave had little, if anything, to do with the facts. Such meetings were held in many different GCC churches throughout the country; rather than healing rifts, those meetings often convinced others to leave.
In May 1985, in response to a major crisis in Kansas City, Missouri, several former leaders decided to hold a weekend get-together to help heal spiritual and emotional wounds. Thus, over the long weekend, some 70 to 80 people gathered to listen to and share their stories of life in GCC. Most importantly, many shared how they had recovered, or were recovering from the hurts they had suffered. A second such conference with a similar agenda and similar attendance was held later in Norman, Oklahoma.
Many of the former leaders of GCC who either arranged the conferences or spoke at them kept in touch over the following years to share news about GCC, discuss possible ways to work for reform from outside it, and discuss how to help those who left it. To our surprise, we learned in 1987 that McCotter had resigned his leadership in 1986 and then withdrawn from GCC entirely in 1987 to concentrate on his business interests.
With McCotter’s departure, it seemed that the remaining leaders—both national and local—slowly began to feel more freedom to move toward reform. The men who were left in charge were basically good, decent men who really wanted to serve God and people, with sincerity and integrity. Unfortunately, I believe that McCotter’s charismatic presence had squelched their natural inclinations and carried them along his path to power and control. In the years since McCotter’s departure, GCC leaders have taken significant steps to bring the movement back to its original purpose and to restore the leadership to the servant leadership model of Jesus Christ. Several local and national leaders have sought out former members and apologized for their roles in hurting those members Some of the latter were satisfied with this, although others thought more needed to be done.
But now the negative side of GCC had been exposed; and with the coming of the Internet, that negative side was visible to anyone who cared to look. Consequently, the leadership seemed desperate to sanitize their image; and short of trying to remove all critical information from the Internet and elsewhere (an impossible task), they set about to turn their critics into supporters.
Through a somewhat circuitous route, Paul Martin and I were invited to meet with two national leaders of GCC—Dave Bovenmyer and Tom Schroeder—in Lancaster, Ohio in February 1991. The 2-hour meeting was a good “ice breaker” and served mainly as a preliminary face-to-face to arrange a more substantive meeting between Paul and me and the full GCC Board of Directors the following July. The latter meeting (3 hours) broke more ice and helped remind all of us that we were human beings able to think and reason and act civilly toward one another. In fact, at one point toward the end of the scheduled time, one of the board members remarked to the effect that “One of the reasons this meeting is even taking place is because [sic] some of us have had concerns of our own.” This revelation was a surprise to Paul and me.
The same day as this meeting, the GCC board ratified a “Statement Recognizing Early Errors and Weaknesses….” Paul and I had been provided draft copies of this statement for our information, with the request that we suggest improvements. (Not all of our suggestions were adopted, but the statement did address many of the issues that concerned us. Further, the statement did not receive a wide circulation, being given primarily to those who asked for it.) A fact unknown to us until much later, GCC had also newly inaugurated a program called Project Care. This program established guidelines for pastors in the hope that they would avoid at least the worst abuses. Also as part of Project Care, GCC pastors and other leaders were urged to seek reconciliation with the many men and women who had left the movement because of abuses they had suffered and/or witnessed.
The next day, another meeting took place. This meeting was between former leaders Bill Taylor, Rick Harvey, Paul Martin, and me, and then-current GCC leaders Bovenmyer and Schroeder, with the addition of John Hopler (now director of GCC) and Mike Keator (then an elder in Columbus).
In a heavy exchange of letters following these three meetings, a number of other matters came up and were dealt with in some detail. (Two issues were the definitions of slander and faction, biblically, legally, and according to Webster.) One thing Bovenmyer told us during the sixteen-and-a-half-hour meeting in July was that the GCC board acknowledged a number of “procedural errors” in the excommunications of various individuals, including Taylor.
Unfortunately, GCC took no action, although Paul and I and others continued, in a sense, to hold GCC’s feet to the fire by withholding any public statements to the effect that the movement had adequately reformed. We told the leaders we needed not just to hear about changes, but also to see a good track record of positive reports and few to no bad reports. In fact, however, throughout the ’90s, and even into the new century, I kept receiving calls and emails from recently departed members saying that the situation continued as before despite GCC’s protestations to the contrary.
The situation remained pretty much status quo, with minimal communication between GCC and us, until 2007. That year, former GCC member Dan Lilly decided to try to arrange a reunion picnic of current and former members in Ames, Iowa. This reunion took place in August that year and, with some three hundred people in attendance, served to mend, or at least begin to mend, a number of fences. Dan invited Bill Taylor to attend also; and on the day after the picnic, Bill and Dan spent 2 hours with Dave Bovenmyer, again rehashing some of the same ground covered in 1991. In addition, Dan began an email correspondence with Jim McCotter himself, urging him to seek reconciliation with Bill Taylor, but to no avail. Jim still seemed to be hiding behind the mockery of church discipline by which Taylor had been put out of the movement, and thus Jim could not speak to him.
In 2010 the exchange of emails became a virtual blizzard, with Dan Lilly still the main “mover and shaker.” In fact, former Columbus elder Fred Colvin, in a reply to a message from Lilly, wrote, “Your email forced me to open a file I hadn’t looked at since February, 1978. For 32 years it has been closed. It was part of my ‘therapy’.” Besides his emails to Colvin, Lilly wrote to GCC leaders Bovenmyer and Hopler, and to former leaders Bill Taylor, Mike Royal (former editor of GCC’s campus paper), and me; and, of course, this got all of these men corresponding with (and phoning) each other.
So Dan Lilly was the first of three “energy centers” that came together to form a “perfect storm,” but with positive results. A second energy center was JoAnn Taylor, Bill’s wife, who, as Hopler put it later, had “a deeper prayer burden for a resolution” of the issues separating Bill and her from men and women with whom they had once worked in love and harmony. And finally, the third energy center was Hopler himself. In his words, “In May 2010, while reviewing the history of our movement, I began praying for reconciliation.”
To continue from Hopler’s account, after he had mentioned Lilly’s email to Colvin:
This resulted in many emails back and forth and some conference calls in late 2010. At that time, I was affected by 1 Peter 3:8: “To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit.” Harmony comes when there is sympathy—seeing things from the other’s viewpoint. So we made extra effort to see things from Bill’s viewpoint. For example, I was sympathetic that in the 1970s there was no defined appeal process (as there is in GCC today) for Bill to express his concerns with a pastor who had national influence. Even though we in GCC still questioned some of Bill’s conduct, God used 1 Peter 3:8 to prepare us for our meeting in January.…
On January 6–7, 2011, I invited Bill Taylor and Fred Colvin to Columbus to meet with Mike Keator, [and GCC directors] Herschel Martindale, Tom Short, Dave Bovenmyer and me.
The January meeting began with the GCC men immediately declaring Taylor’s excommunication to be null and void—in legal parlance, they “vacated” the judgment; it was no longer an issue. They agreed that so many errors were made in 1976 that there was no point in revisiting the case. The rest of their time together consisted, in Hopler’s words, of “rich fellowship, characterized by humility, brotherly understanding, forgiveness, and grace.” Thus, the single biggest hurdle in the way of reconciliation between the “ins” and the “outs” of GCC had been moved aside.
I was happy to hear of this, although I knew it was only a beginning. At Hopler’s request, I gave him a list of other issues I felt also needed to be addressed and to have steps taken to correct and/or prevent the situations from occurring again. In a subsequent series of lengthy phone calls, John and I discussed those issues in detail. He later wrote up and sent me a list of “Proposed Action Steps” based on our discussions. He assured me that he had already initiated most of those steps and would ensure that the rest would be followed through on as well (some of the steps would require some time to fulfill).
In addition to the process rehearsed above, over the past several months reconciliation has been effected between current and former leaders and members of GCC. We will attempt more as time goes by. At the same time, I recognize that there may still be problems in the future, just as there also may be within and among churches of mainline denominations. In such cases, it is my strong recommendation that these problems be brought to the attention of GCC Director John Hopler, at firstname.lastname@example.org As in the past, I will remain available to offer counsel and information to anyone with questions or concerns about GCC. I want to be informed of any current or future problems in teaching or action in GCC.
I think it important to clarify that Great Commission Churches (formally Great Commission Association of Churches) and Great Commission Ministries today are organizationally independent of each other. Therefore, one should not assume that what I am saying here about GCC applies to GCM. I have had no communication with anyone from GCM for several years. For this reason, I suggest that any concerns regarding GCM be addressed to GCM director Tom Mauriello at email@example.com