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Attempting to Set the Doug Phillips Record Straight: The Puzzle, Types of Control by Church Leaders, Vision Forum, Boerne Christian Assembly, and a Characterization of Phillips
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BEFORE WE BEGIN: In this series of articles on Doug Phillips and Vision Forum, I will talk about my “Source.” Although I have been conferring with just one person who knows the people and situations involved first-hand, that person in turn checked the perspectives with a number of other first-hand witnesses in order to confirm things. So while I refer to Source in the singular, please be very aware that my Source has conferred with other primary sources. So, there actually is responsible confirmation by multiple witnesses going on to help get to the most accurate account.
Well, this has been quite an interesting experience, trying to compile an account of Doug Phillips as told to me by a key Source who was close to the goings on of Doug Phillips. Three days ago, I had typed the bulk of an article, but something wasn’t sitting right with me and I wanted to confer with Source to make sure everything was accurate according to Source’s perspective. It was not. I had put Doug Phillips into a box – into a pattern of abuse that was familiar to me, but not accurate. How did this happen?
My previous conversations with Source were primarily discussing the timeline of events to help me understand the key people/details. But what was missing from that discussion was an understanding of what Phillips was like on a day-to-day basis at church, at home, at Vision Forum. I had based that original article on information from second-hand sources and articles on other blogs – not from people connected, day in and day out, with Phillips.
This has been a very valuable lesson to me – I initially interpreted all I was learning about Doug Phillips and the demise of Vision Forum from what’s become my default pattern of what spiritual abuse looks like. Those who have followed my blog know that I am really into patterns of abuse that leaders use. I was able to identify my pastor/church when reading other survivors’ stories of abuse. When reading some of their stories, I felt like they were writing my story: That’s ME!!! That’s exactly what happened to me!!!! It was like a lightbulb went off and I had an instant connection with someone else who understood. I was not alone. The pattern of abuse matched what I experienced and was a turning point for me.
Many people who read these stories and identify with them may for the first time realize they have been in an abusive church situation and will finally have the strength to leave. These lightbulb moments can change the course of entire families, bringing them emotional and spiritual freedom. I will never minimize the importance of this and it is always my prayer that the personal stories shared here lead others from spiritual bondage to freedom.
But the new lesson I’ve learned the last few days has been disturbing. It was a different kind of lightbulb “ah-ha moment” to realize that I, along with countless others, may have believed things about the Doug Phillips/Vision Forum situation that were grounded in partial or second-hand information and speculative conclusions. This has most likely led to some wrong conclusions. I want to be clear. I am not invalidating the conclusion that Doug Phillips was an abuser, but the route I took to get to that conclusion was inaccurate and I hope to clear up some of why that happened.
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Three different types of control that are abusive.
After my phone call with Source, I called my friend, Brad/futuristguy, who has spent years studying and writing on the topic of systems of abuse, especially in faith communities. After I explained to Brad where I had gone off in my wrong interpretation of Doug Phillips, I shared the new information to see if he could provide some feedback for me. He sure did and I think the information he gave me might help others. Brad identified three ways in which church leaders can exert their control, and by that, their abuse:
- Control by Compliance: The leader sets up a rigid system full of rules and regulations, “correct” theology, legalistic treatment of people, punitive (punishing) treatment for those who fall short, being very black/white in thinking. All this helps some people feel safe, secure, and competent because they supposedly know they are believing the right things and acting the right ways. But others feel locked in, blocked off, stifled.
- Control by Chaos: When there are no clear rules/boundaries, it can lead to a chaotic environment. This may amp up a supposed creativity factor, but can also make people feel unsettled, insecure, and self-doubting because they don’t know what is going to happen next. So they get spiritually chained to the leader and expect him or her to take charge. But there is little consistency because the leader is always chasing the next new idea. You will also find little-to-no accountability or follow-through by someone who controls by chaos.
- Control by Charisma: This leader thrives on being in the public spotlight, and easily attracts an audience by the way they look, their eloquent speaking, their passionate emoting, their awe-inspiring vision. There is something magnetic there, and people following this charismatic leader get enamored by their vision or success. He represents something new and exciting and they want to be a part of that success.
Brad talked about how in any of these different systems, people put their hope in a leader or a system, and no longer directly in Jesus. So, if something happens to show the leader or system to be fake or flawed, it can pull the spiritual rug out from underneath these followers. (But that actually can be a saving grace as a puffed up person or system implodes, because it can force us to see what we chose to chain ourselves to, and maybe will start us on a pathway to peace and freedom.)
Ok, so here’s the main take-away for this situation. Before talking with Source, I had Phillips placed mostly in the Control by Compliance category. Although I had always considered Phillips to be showy and wanting public attention for himself, I was not considering that his charisma was a method of control, or that maybe he used chaos inside Vision Forum or Boerne Christian Assembly (BCA) to control. Now, after this new information from Source, it is my opinion that Phillips’ primary methods of control were by chaos and charisma. (Methods of control can and often do overlap.)
We will soon see how these different methods of control played out. Please be patient. They may not all seem to fit right now, but I think you might see eventually that they do fit and that they form a different picture about the forms of abuse perpetrated.
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Ok, first off, I want to discuss one of the key questions I have read about Doug Phillips and Vision Forum (meaning both VF Ministries and VF Inc. business) in comments on news and blog articles:
Who knew what was going on
and why didn’t they do anything about it?
I asked my Source this question and the response rang true to me. It will be easier for me to explain this in a personal story.
When I left my church and friends heard what had gone on while we were there, they asked why it took so long for us to leave. It was because I had bits of information, but not a full enough picture yet. After a friend was fired, a large group of people left the church. Slowly over time, we got together and compared stories/notes. It was like we were all individual pieces of a large puzzle. We were shocked to find that each of us had part of the complete picture, each had information, some significant, some not so significant, that connected with information from others.
I think that is what happened with the Vision Forum situation. Had everybody been together at one time to discuss their individual pieces, the abuse story could have been put together earlier. But it is common in controlling systems that circumstances, whether intentional or not, prevent puzzle pieces from coming together in a timely fashion in order to put a stop to the abuse. In this case, as you will soon see, once key people did finally get their puzzle pieces joined together to see the big picture, they did in fact act upon it.
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I think what I’d like to do now is clear up some common misinformation – information that I’ve read numerous places (which was also what led me to wrongly categorize Phillips’ control methods). The information I am clearing up came from Source, but which is now written in my own words. This is Source’s interpretation. The bolded sentences below are bits of misinformation I have read, with corrections coming from Source given beneath. Again, a reminder that when I say “Source,” it is not an individual, but multiple individuals who have conferred and agreed that this account is accurate.
Who are Doug Phillips, BCA, and VF actually,
and how is that different from what’s been presented?
There has been discussion of Doug Phillips as a very controlling and legalistic elder with rigid rules, who interfered with personal lives at church.
Although Doug Philips was one of two teaching elders at Boerne Christian Assembly, he was gone more than he was there. He didn’t have time to act like a pope or to be highly controlling. He was very wrapped up in his Vision Forum efforts, speaking engagements, travels. He also did not have time to devote to being a good shepherd or care for his flock the way a full-time pastor could and should. He was unable to do much counseling of families in crises. Being gone so much prevented Phillips from being able to enforce rigid rules.
I have read that Doug Phillips controlled the flow of information by enforcing “no-talk” rules, that people were not allowed to criticize or question his authority.
This, too, was said to be false. Phillips was not around enough to enforce a no-talk rule which is commonly used by tyrannical spiritual abusers. Source relayed to me several accounts of people challenging Phillips on church- and business-related matters with no repercussions whatsoever. In fact, Phillips would often solicit the opinion of others, including his wife, on matters. Leaders who control by compliance most likely would not seek advice on church/ministry-related issues.
Boerne Christian Assembly was represented online as a legalistic, elder-controlled church in which women could not talk or even introduce guests, and only heads of households distributed communion to their families.
The people at BCA were diverse, but were common and ordinary Christians. They came to BCA to hear hymns and a Biblical message. Some wives wore headcoverings, others did not. There was no formal position on head coverings at BCA. While the women wore dresses on Sunday, some ladies/daughters chose to wear pants at home. It is true that after the sermon, women were not permitted to talk (based on the passage in Scripture where women are not to talk); however, during announcements, it was fine for women to participate, ask questions, or introduce their guests.
BCA was described to me as dysfunctional. BCA elder Bob Sarratt was described as a bit more fundamentalist and black/white in his thinking, while Doug Phillips was not. People came to BCA because they liked the church and perhaps the image that Doug Phillips presented and wanted to be a part of that vision. But they also knew what they were getting into, in that Phillips was gone so much.
Doug Phillips led a strict and upright Christian lifestyle that we would expect from a Patriarchal Homeschool leader – no drinking, etc.
While it is true that BCA elder Bob Sarratt was more strict in his behaviors – doesn’t dance, drink, etc. – that is not the case for Doug Phillips. In fact, Doug Phillips occasionally drank, danced, and went to movies. Doug Phillips’ wife, Beall was more liberated than we would envision of a typical mother in the Homeschool Movement. She took care of herself by going to get her hair done, her nails done, etc.
The Vision Forum employees as well as BCA church members were a diverse group. It was estimated that maybe half of the staff at Vision Forum drank recreationally. Some at BCA and Vision Forum truly embraced their religious beliefs in appearance and behavior, both at church and at home. While others donned the religious image at church, and then relaxed the rules at home. It really was a mixed bag of practices.
Ok, back to my own thoughts and conclusions again: Much of what has been presented online portrays Doug Phillips as leading by compliance and legalism. From details given by Sources, I can see how it was actually more by charisma and chaos for Phillips, though others around him could be more control by compliance. And again, this does not let Doug Phillips off the hook for the spiritual abuse he inflicted. It just means it came about in different ways than we’ve mostly been led to believe. So we need to see it for what it was so we can deal more truthfully with who it affected and how.
So below is the picture I have of Doug Phillips now, after readjusting my puzzle to some new ways of characterizing his patterns of abuse. It’s different from the legalistic ruler I used to have in mind, but it’s more clear and accurate than the characterization I had before.
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Doug Phillips – A Characterization
Based on my understanding of Source’s interpretation of Doug Phillips, Mr. Toad, one of the main characters in the novel, The Wind in the Willows, seems to best characterize Doug Phillips. I like Wikipedia’s description of the song that Mr. Toad performed:
During the course of his adventures Toad alternates between deep remorse for his arrogance and having relapses of it. An example of his arrogance is seen in his self-centred ditty, Toad’s Last Little Song, a song he performs to an enthusiastic audience which exists, of course, only in his mind;
Here is a brief portion of that song:
When the Toad-came home!
Bang! go the drums!
The trumpeters are tooting and the soldiers are saluting,
And the cannon they are shooting and the motor-cars are hooting,
As the- Hero- comes!
And let each one of the crowd try and shout it very loud,
In honour of an animal of whom you’re justly proud,
For it’s Toad’s- great- day!
This description at Wikipedia also rang out to me:
In the system that Doug Phillips created, he had a certain persona and image to maintain. His primary focus was that image and his team at Vision Forum aided him by doing behind-the-scenes work to free Phillips to be in the spotlight, speak, and travel. He had an expectation to be praised, even by employees.
When Phillips was present, he could suck the breath right out of a room. He wanted to be the center of attention and his mere presence dominated a room.
Essentially, Doug Phillips has been the prominent figurehead for the Patriarchy Movement. Few can match his charm and charisma and capture an audience the way he could. His words were compelling. He made you want to join forces with him. And he relished that attention.
He drew people into his orbit. Now he must deal with the destruction as gravity retakes hold.
Pride goes before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall.