A Teen Mania alumnus recently posted his story. It’s quite long so I’ve summarized the main points. Everything in italics is a direct quote. Even though the following story is about a mission trip, it is very pertinent to the Honor Academy. Read all the way through and you will see why…This is a long post, but its worth it.
I was so excited to go on my very first trip with Teen Mania for a month in Russia. I just knew God was going to do awesome things that summer. At first, everything seemed to be going great. Our team was really bonding and having good ministry experiences. I had no idea what was about to happen.
Following rules was always very important to me. I always tried to be moral, ethical and above reproach in everything I do. One day, while walking around town, our team leaders led us across the street. We were jaywalking and I felt that it was not a safe situation. I shared my concerns with the male team leader, who happened to live full time in Russia. He said it wasn’t a big deal there and I left feeling like he was unteachable and not open to correction. Looking back, I can see that was not the best assumption to make over something so minor. However, I just really couldn’t understand how breaking the law and putting our team in a potentially unsafe situation was ok and it continued to bother me.
The second incident happened while we were on our village trip. All the guys were hanging out in his room just having fun. My team leader decided to do some karaoke and he started singing some lyrics that made me very uncomfortable. Afterwards, I talked to him about it because I didn’t think it was setting a very good example. Even though he was nice to me about it, I was frustrated at not being taken seriously.
Other than these two minor things, the trip was going great and I was making good friends. Then one day, out of nowhere, while we were in the town square preparing to share the Gospel, my team leader came up to me and told me I was no longer allowed to speak with my closest male friend on the trip, Shane. I couldn’t even respond to my team leader because I was so taken aback. Shane seemed like a good guy and I thought we had a positive influence on each other. My team leader asked me if I understood what he was asking me to do and I said yes. He never told me why I shouldn’t talk to Shane but I just figured he would tell me later. For the rest of the day, I kept my distance from Shane as I was told.
In the late afternoon, we were walking through Moscow when Shane asked me to grab this pole and push people in front of the sound box. Our team carried a sound box everywhere we went as that was how we had our soundtrack playing during the drama we presented. Our leaders had a rule on the team that everyone must always be in front of the sound box.
So, Shane asked me to grab this pole and push people in front of the sound box. I grabbed the pole and we began to push people in the sound box. It was all in fun. As we were pushing the people, one of the girls fell down and got up but she scraped her knee when she fell. I didn’t even think about that incident being a big deal. But, later on I would find out that my team leaders thought differently.
We continued the rest of the day in ministry and headed back to our dormitory. When we got back to the housing, I was notified by my mission advisor (my small group leader) that my team leaders wanted to talk to me. I headed down to their room and they asked me what happened in the afternoon. I started telling them all of the great things that happened in ministry, but that wasn’t what they were talking about.
They asked me why I was talking and hanging out with Shane when they had told me to not talk to him. My team leaders said at this point they had already given me a warning earlier in the town square and now they were going to ground me that night in the dorms while the rest of the team went out to eat.
I couldn’t believe it. I don’t remember if I tried to explain or had the chance to explain to them how that I was not talking to Shane earlier but that we were just trying to move people in front of the sound box. I found out from my mission advisor that one of the team leaders saw the girl with the scraped knee and asked her what happened and she told them what Shane and I had done.
That night I had to stay back in my dorm while the rest of the team went out to eat. Shane also stayed back and he was in one side of the dorm while I was in the other. They had one of the team leaders or a country assistant stay back in the dorms with us while everyone went out. My team leaders instructed me to read the book of Romans and they wanted me to write a summary of each chapter and what I had learned from each chapter.
I remember sitting in that room thinking, I can’t believe this is happening. This is a complete misunderstanding. I was in state of confusion trying to figure out why earlier in the day I was with my team, but now I was confined to my room and had already been given a warning and been grounded. I remember back in training that they told us that Teen Mania had a discipline process and that at first you would be warned, then grounded me to my room, then loss of your free day, and then BVed’. The BV stood for Bon Voyage which meant you would be going back to your home during the trip.
So, I did as I was told and starting reading the book of Romans and writing my own commentary and summary. I really enjoyed it and the hours flew by. I wasn’t in my bedroom, I was in a common room that we sometimes used for team meetings, so I had to wait for my team leader to come and get me. After a while, I got tired and fell asleep. About midnight, my team leader came and woke me up. He had forgotten about me and left me in the common room on accident. He told me I could go take a shower since I was still wearing my drama make-up. I gave him the papers I wrote, about 20 pages or so. After my shower, it was about 1am and I was ready to go to bed and start a new day in the morning. I was still wondering why in the world I wasn’t allowed to talk to Shane but I figured I would find out the next day. That never happened.
Around 3am in the morning, my team leaders called me in for a meeting. I was half-asleep from a long day of ministry and it being the middle of the night. Although this meeting was years ago, it is still imprinted in my brain like it was yesterday. They asked me how I felt about my assignment to read Romans and write a summary of each chapter. I told them that I had learned a lot from it and I was glad to have done it.
The conversation quickly changed from good to bad as they said they had read my summary of Romans and were very concerned by what they read. They said that they could not believe what I wrote and then began to make some statements to me. Because this is so many years ago, I don’t remember them all, but I do remember one. The one that was seared into my memory was this, “We are sure that you have had other problems with leaders in the past. What has your relationship been like with your youth pastor, coaches, teachers, etc?”
My team leaders began to ask me about what I wrote on Romans 13. I had written in the summary that the Bible says in Romans 13:1 that everyone needs to submit the governing authorities for there is no authority except what God has established. I wrote in my commentary that when we were jaywalking we were breaking the law by not walking across the crosswalk. I said by us not doing that we were supposed to do we were in rebellion and specifically my team leader was because when I talked to him he did not take it serious. I probably wrote that as a jab to my team leader.
Because of these Scriptural convictions, my team leaders woke me up in the middle of the night for this interrogation. I was already in a state of confusion about all the events that had transpired that day. I had never tried to disobey or cause trouble and here I was getting in trouble for things that didn’t make any sense. As they continued to talk to me about the “rebellion” I probably had with other leaders back home, they told me that my upcoming free day would be taken away. At that moment, I realized that I had been warned, been grounded, lost my free day and was one step away from being BV’ed from the trip. It was then that I began to seize up and become very compliant to what they said.
I told them that they were right and I was in the wrong. I don’t remember everything else that was said, but I do remember agreeing with what they said. I left that room that night realizing that I couldn’t do anything wrong in the next few days or I would be going home. Over the next two or three days that we had left in Russia, I became very quiet as I did not want to say or do anything that would get me sent home. The rest of the trip passed without incident and I didn’t get in trouble anymore.
We flew back to the States, had our debriefing and I said goodbye to my team leaders. It was a good ending I thought. When I got home, I decided I wanted to come to the Honor Academy in January. I filled out my application and sent it in along with my references.
I probably sent my application in early October and then in mid-October I received a call from the Director of the Honor Academy. I was excited as I thought that I had been accepted. That excitement quickly turned to dismay.
I was told that the Honor Academy staff were not sure if I should be accepted to the Honor Academy. I gasped. I could not believe it. I wondered what part of my application did not make the standard. I thought about my GPA, but it was an average GPA. I thought about the essays I had written and couldn’t think how those could disqualify me.
Then these words came: “We are not sure if you are the right fit because of your experience on your Russia trip.”
I never thought that trip would be brought up. That trip was an anomaly in my life. I had never had an experience like that where I had problems with my leadership. I said that I did not fully understand what happened on that trip, but that I have never had problems with my leaders before that trip. I knew my recommendations from the leaders in my life had to be solid but they asked for more names of some references so that TM could make sure that insubordination was not a trend in my life.
A couple of weeks later, I was accepted to the Honor Academy BUT I would be coming in on probation. If I had any trouble with leadership, I would be dismissed.
The rest is history. I went into the Honor Academy and did not have problems with my leadership.
It wasn’t until facebook came onto the scene that I came in contact with my male team leader. I asked him what happened on the trip. I received the response I thought I would receive, hoping that it would be much different. Here was his response:
“Hi Keith, I wish I could tell you what I remember about it. Unfortunately, I don’t remember that situation. I could only speculate at this point. From what I remember, you were a strong young man of God with a big heart. If I did say something like that, I must have had good intentions and your best interests in mind.”
Now, I wanted him to say in detail everything that happened from his point of view. I wanted to hear from why he came up to me in Russia out of the blue and told me to stop talking to Shane. I wanted to hear what I did that caused him to do the things that happened to me.
But, he didn’t remember. That is the response that I thought I would receive because it had been so long. I was at peace with his response because he didn’t have it out for me even though I used to think that way.
So why is this story relevant to the Honor Academy? Because this story belongs to Heath Stoner, current director of the Honor Academy. This incident happened 18 years ago and he recently posted it to his blog. You can read all 5 parts for yourself. I won’t link to it, but just search for the Honor Academy Director blog and you will find it. The series is called “When Bad Things Happen to Good Interns.”
What’s remarkable about this story is that Heath is using it as an apologetic for the Honor Academy and how to overcome your bitterness when bad things happen to you. In the midst of that, he actually fails to recognize the abuse he was subjected to while simultaneously pointing out that this type of abuse has been going on in Teen Mania circles for at least 18 years. When he finally confronts his team leader about it, he never even got an apology.
Frequent commenter, Eric P. summed up lessons that we can learn from Heath’s story:
Heath’s series of blog posts follows many of the same principles as the Recovering Alumni site. He’s revisiting negative things that happened to him with TM 18 years in the past, even doing what some would characterize as “speaking ill” of Teen Mania and “slandering” his team leaders. That’s perfectly fine; it’s his story and he’s entitled to tell it, even the painful parts. Of course, if he does, he shouldn’t have a problem with other alumni who decide to do the same.
The story is a case study of manipulation. Running down the list of mind-control techniques Heath describes being used on him is eye-popping:
– Arbitrary control of friendships and personal relationships
– Sleep deprivation
– Indefinite solitary confinement
– Shaming by leadership
– Threat of dismissal and losing position
– Scripture twisting–That misinterpretation of Romans 13 is rampant among cults; I saw it coming a mile away as soon as Heath mentioned Romans. (For the record, Paul is actually writing about government in that chapter, not spiritual leaders.)
– Language loading–“Problem with authority” and “rebellious” are classic spiritual abusers’ terms for “Not willing to let us control your life.”
– Authoritarianism–Anybody who doesn’t go along with the leaders 100% is considered “not a good fit.”
Experiencing all those manipulative techniques at once is hard for anybody to resist, and unfortunately it seems to have done quite a number on Heath. At the end of the story, Heath takes his leader at his word, without any evidence whatever, that they “had his best interest at heart.” The leader justified himself but didn’t address Heath’s emotional pain, let alone give any rationale for the arbitrary authoritarian control over Heath’s friendships. And Heath thinks this is acceptable.
No, Heath, it isn’t. Here’s what the Bible tells godly spiritual leaders to do: “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2–3, NKJV) How does the example of your leaders measure up?
The take-away is this: Teen Mania is consistently manipulative, authoritarian, and abusive, and has been for many years — at least 18 years by Heath’s count. For some people, the manipulation works, and they are molded into achieving “success” in the organization. For others, well, their stories are told on other blogs than that one. Either way, as even the “Honor Academy Director” himself can’t deny, Teen Mania Ministries hurts people. It systematically abuses, manipulates, coerces, dominates, and controls them. And that’s wrong.
Some people see the wrong of it. That makes them “recovering alumni.” Others, like Heath and many people who still try to see TM in a positive light, try to justify it. The problem is that if you try to justify a behavior enough, you will become like it. As this video shows, Heath himself currently bullies and manipulates his students far more cruelly than anything in his own experience of spiritual abuse. The saying has it right: “Hurt people hurt people.” My heart goes out to Heath. Like the rest of us, even like the teens he’s bullying himself today, he’s a victim of the cult of spiritual abuse known as Teen Mania. I pray that one day he’ll recover.