I stumbled across your blog a month or 2 ago and have been unable to stop reading it since. I was never an intern, I was asked to be on staff of the internship but declined because I witnessed the burnout and dysfunction that was rampant (even after several different times I heard TM was “turning over a new leaf” or it was now a “kinder, gentler, TM”).
My TM first mission trip was to Guatemala in 1989 and it literally changed my life. Scott B. was my Team Leader, Dave Hasz was a Mission Advisor (on another team) and Teen Mania only went to 3 different countries for the summer.
It was hard, and good for me as a 17-year-old. I decided to go back as a Team Leader in 1993, 94 and 95, then was asked to be a PD in 1996, which I did. I learned some great things from TM and the leadership opportunities they provided me. I also, like you, agree that they are dangerous, and it sounds like they’ve gotten more-so since they moved to TX.
By the time I was in leadership with Teen Mania, my experience was already quite different than my first summer as a 17-year-old. When TM was new, they really prided themselves on having almost no “rules.” Scott B. used to make it clear they wanted to be very light on rules, and there were basically 3 rules (I believe) that would get you sent home, and other than that there were some other “guidelines,” but they made it clear that the rules they did have were for our safety, etc. and I really agreed. (Things like if you wander off by yourself and don’t tell anyone else where you are…. )
All the things I’m reading now about people not being able to sit by the other gender on a bus are absolutely shocking. This (among many other things) tells me Legalism is eating TM up from the inside out… it’s like TM’s own auto-immune disease, and it will only get worse unless DRASTIC steps are taken.
While I appreciate the opportunity provided for leadership at a young age, there were some difficult things I experienced that were exacerbated by the caustic environment at TM. In particular I’ve seen stories about GE trips gone awry on the blog but haven’t seen many contributions about how painful/hard & pressure-filled it is for Team Leaders/Project Directors (TLs/PDs) as well.
My first year as a TL I went to India. It was a first-time country for Teen Mania. None of us knew what we were getting into in India and my PD was clearly exhausting herself running everything all alone (her co-leader was brand new and had no business in that position, so was no help). Sickness was rampant on our teams, much of which could have been averted if we had basic sanitation, decent water & uncontaminated food at the place where we lived, I had one girl dislocate her knee on the bus while on our village trip, and we rode 5 hours over dirt “roads” looking for help with her screaming in agony. I remember no assistance or support from my PDs, when I finally got us home. I had no resources in the way of medical help; it was a miracle I found a hospital that was in any way clean. In fact, the only interaction I remember from my PD when I told her I was struggling with self-doubt as a leader was for her to tell me “watch your internal dialoguing.” So…basically, instead of helping me know how to lead, I was just supposed to not think negative thoughts. This was one of many, many, many crazy and dangerous things that happened that summer.
I literally couldn’t talk about that trip for weeks, if not months after. I felt like I had survived living in a warzone. I know that sounds ridiculous, it was just a 2 month trip, but it literally felt like I was trying to survive every single day. I think the teens & MAs that were on that trip with us are rock stars… they pulled together and helped each other through it.
My 3rd year as a TL, I was arrested by the Chinese government. I was detained and questioned by myself for several hours. We had been smuggling Bibles and passing out tracks in mainland China for a couple days (our trip was based in Hong Kong). Half of our team got arrested with me, but most of them were allowed to sit together in a room at the police station & drink tea without being “bothered.” I and a 15-year-old boy were both separated from the group and individually interrogated at length. It was one of the most mentally trying experiences I’ve ever gone through.
When we were finally released I was shaking, completely exhausted and felt like I needed some kind of debriefing/counseling. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders as the police questioned me, pressing for names of our contacts, etc., knowing I literally had the fate of believers in China in my hands. It is not an exaggeration to say their lives were at stake. It was nothing like I was expecting from a summer trip. Again, I feel like my team was the most amazing group of young people; those who were not arrested had no idea where we were, so they organized themselves and stayed up praying until we were released & could get back to them.
When we returned to Hong Kong, I told my PD what happened. I do not remember a single discussion about it (beyond him saying “WHAT???” after I told him we were arrested). There was no process, no debrief. When we got back to Miami there was no acknowledgement from the leadership of TM that a team had gone through this, no offer of empathy or support of any kind. It’s like it never happened. And to be honest, for the longest time I never would tell anyone about it either, because it shook me so deeply. I still rarely tell people about it.
I can guarantee that whatever village simulations it sounds like they’re putting interns through during the internship are not helpful. In my opinion TM is needlessly placing young people in very stressful & dangerous situations. I could not have been prepared for what I went through by a simulation in Texas, and what’s more, I think life brings enough challenges without creating false “trials” like those “Life Transforming Events” I’m reading about on your blog.
When I was a PD my co-leader and I both contracted malaria at the same time, and we both had severe upper-respiratory infections to boot. I (truly not trying to sound dramatic) had thoughts that I might die right there in Africa. We phoned the office in Tulsa (at the time they hadn’t yet moved to TX) to ask for help, and the person on the other end of the phone told us to turn to the malaria page in the book “where there is no doctor.” That was it. When I got to Miami, I heard that Ron had been clearing his schedule to come to Ghana and relieve us, and that they had sent out notes to the other PDs to pray for us, but we turned the corner & started to improve before Ron actually came. The thing is no one ever told us all this was going on. We felt 100% out there on our own.
The entire time I was in leadership I felt a sense that I was failing. I feel sorry for the ways the teams I led did not get all they needed at times, because I had no more left to give myself. The leadership lessons I learned I would say really help me better in the corporate world, where they want you to be able to “perform” at all costs. I don’t remember loving Jesus more as a result of my experiences in leadership with TM. Usually I was so exhausted from lack of sleep and the feeling that I’m being held responsible for 30-100 people’s behavior (and that’s the truth…just how they look on the outside) that I could barely get much from quiet time or worship. There were OF COURSE good things and good memories and good friends that came along with my experiences too, and I’m not negating those. But I find myself gravely concerned about the ethos of TM, especially given the fact that I don’t see true Gospel actually being portrayed or preached. I see something called “Gospel” that is actually poison. People may come away from the HA feeling like they “grew”, or had a “positive experience”, but I question whether they actually grew in knowing CHRIST. The Gospel (as you know, from what I can tell in reading your blog) is this: we’re hopelessly lost, even the “strongest” of us. Jesus said “let me give you a gift that you will never been able to repay.” I said “okay, I believe you!” That’s it. From start to finish, that’s it. We’re in the Fam! I do not hear or see that expressed at TM or through the words of those who say they grew at TM.
One of the main reasons I chose to decline Dave Hasz’s invitation to be on staff was because of the way I saw friends who were on staff become burned out. I saw people who were unhealthy & co-dependent being drawn to TM, mistreated horribly, and who kept coming back. I saw a machine that had no time to listen to its people. Those I know who were in the internship (years ago) and would now still say it was a good experience, also are those who tend to be very performance-oriented and guilt-ridden or extremely unmerciful themselves…I tend to think those are the ones who “succeeded” in the performance game and don’t realize they’re even in it.
I honestly have long since let go of resentment that I felt toward TM. I am sharing these things because I believe it’s important to speak up when a system is so fundamentally flawed it literally victimizes people who operate on EVERY level.