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Spiritual Abuse a Common Complaint for YWAM Students

Leader acknowledges “manipulation, deception, and abuse of power”

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Hundreds of alumni from Youth with a Mission’s training and outreach programs say they were spiritually abused by immature leaders, who claimed to speak for God, and warned that questioning their absolute control equaled rebellion against God.

In painful videos posted to social media, victims of the abuse share their stories and forgive the local leaders who abused them, but blame their suffering on YWAM’s international leaders for their lack of oversight.

The videos have generated hundreds of comments from fellow ex-YWAMers who applaud the girls’ bravery, and say they’ve experienced similar abuse at YWAM bases in France, Australia, and California.

YWAM has had the same problems resurface year after year around the world & each response had been to make it circumstantial rather than recognizing there’s a major problem with the structure of the organization,” said one commenter.

Hundreds more YWAM abuse survivors gather virtually in public and private Facebook groups and other online forums.

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“Donors and parents sending their kids off to serve Jesus with YWAM need to understand the model is flawed and their kids are at risk,” said Robert Charach, principal and CEO of Linden Christian School in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. One of Charach’s teachers saw her daughter suffer spiritual abuse with YWAM last year.

As MinistryWatch recently reported, YWAM has a unique non-structured structure that lacks the standard management, governance, and accountability functions that most ministries rely on to assess and address problems. YWAM isn’t incorporated, lacks any central organization or headquarters, and has no president or board of directors. Rather, individually organized YWAM ministries around the world are part of a network or “family of ministries.”

As some abuse victims have long charged, YWAM’s loose structure of independent ministries allows its international leaders to evade responsibility and legal liability, making it extremely difficult to hold abusive leaders accountable and allowing abusive practices to continue unchecked at some bases for decades.

YWAM boasts of “launching waves of missionaries into the world since 1960,” but its approach to developing its leaders and training its new recruits has unleashed waves of ex-students who’ve struggled with trauma, flashbacks, insomnia, panic attacks, self-isolation, doubts about God, an aversion to worship songs that trigger bad memories, and even suicide attempts—some of them successful.

YWAM Leaders Respond

At least two YWAM leaders have responded publicly to the videos and other charges of abuse on social media. Their responses suggest nothing significant will change.

Lynn Green, who leads a YWAM base in Harpenden, England, responded by video. Green  identified himself as a 50-year veteran of YWAM, a senior leader, and “part of the Founders Circle,” but quickly added the standard disclaimer: “I am not speaking anything official on behalf of YWAM,” but only providing “my teachings” and “perceptions.”

Green acknowledged that spiritual abuse happens at YWAM bases, and said he had personally talked to “a lot of people on the receiving end of manipulation, deception, or the abuse of power.”

But Green then suggested that spiritual abuse within YWAM was inevitable, and that there is little that can be done to stop it given YWAM’s unique DNA and methodology. It attracts, quickly trains, and hurriedly sends out passionate young evangelists, often entrusting them to equally young—and often spiritually and emotionally immature—leaders-in-training who, Green admitted, are often “out of their depth.”

“I do know of many occasions where young leaders have made the same mistakes we’ve made before,” Green said. “That’s going to happen when we’re committed to the call of mobilizing young people into all the world. They’re going to make some of the mistakes that I made when I was 18 and 19 and 20 years old.”

Green defended YWAM’s record, saying that for its size it had seen relatively few cases of spiritual abuse, which he claimed “happens all over, in all kinds of churches and Christian organizations.”

In making this defense, Green claimed YWAM’s network is bigger than previously reported: 30,000 to 40,000 full-time (but unpaid) workers, 25,000 young people trained every year, and independent bases in 1,200 to 1,300 locations around the world.

God Speaks to Us, Not You

Brainwashing and thought reform. Condemnation of parents. Financial, emotional, and social dependence. Hours-long group sessions where people confess their “deepest, darkest” sins while leaders reveal God’s responses. Shunning of young people in “rebellion” against God and his anointed.

Former students say these “cultic” practices are a regular feature of YWAM’s Discipleship Training Schools (DTS), which cost anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000, depending on location, and are a major source of funding for hundreds of independent YWAM ministries. DTS includes three months of classroom work and two to three months of outreach, and is the required first step to volunteering with the organization full time.

“YWAM is an enabler of spiritual abuse,” says Abby Townsend in her wrenching video about the abuse she suffered at DTS in Newcastle, Australia. “These things happen at every single base.”

She posted her video in October 2019, and it has since attracted 16,000 views and hundreds of mostly supportive comments, with many viewers saying they, too, suffered abuse.

Abby is among many ex-YWAMers to describe leaders who claim to speak for God, say they can see into students’ souls, and demand students’ total submission and obedience.

“Their ability to ‘hear God’s voice’ always trumps your own connection to the Holy Spirit,” says Abby, who endures daily flashbacks, anxiety, and cloudy thinking. Those who asked questions were “in rebellion.” Those who tried to employ critical thinking had “big red targets on their backs.”

“I’m not the least bit angry or bitter about my experience,” Abby said. “I’m just heartbroken. I’m trying to reclaim a lot of things that have been ruined for me, and that’s a process that will take time.”

David Stephenson, managing director YWAM Newcastle, responded to Abby’s YouTube video with a convoluted comment that praised her courage, acknowledged “there were mistakes made” in her case, apologized, and said Abby’s comments “have been taken seriously with appropriate corrective measures in place,” without providing any specifics on which measures were taken.

Stephenson added, “We honour your bravery in speaking up, we also ask that you examine your own motives and behaviours.”

That brought a frustrated response from Adam Green, a YWAM Newcastle veteran. “I was in YWAM Newcastle from 2002-2005. This type of thing has been going on for 17 years and nothing has changed even though many have written their concerns to YWAM leadership about this base and others,” Green wrote. “David: It’s time for you to step down, your leadership has hurt enough people.”

When God Speaks, He Sometimes Curses

Faith Rowe, who attended DTS in Washington state, posted her victim video in April 2020, and it has generated more than 22,000 views and hundreds of supportive comments.

Faith graduated from a private Christian school, had a “heart for missions,” and also enjoys a great relationship with her parents, which seemed to be a problem for DTS leaders and speakers, as she dutifully recorded in her class notebooks.

The speaker at one session urged students to “find ways our parents had done us wrong.” Then, speaking directly to Faith with a “word from God,” the same speaker told her, “You’ve dealt with rejection from the time you were inside the womb.” Another speaker, also speaking on God’s behalf, told her that her parents were “never proud of you.”

When she grew confused and left class to pray in the girls restroom, she was told that was inappropriate, and shunned until she went home early, three days later. “You should blindly follow your leaders, even if you know they’re wrong,” she was instructed.

Faith also described coming to class one day and finding the chairs in a circle. She said the next 7.5 hours were spent with students “confessing” their deepest sins, followed by leaders speaking what they were “hearing directly from God in regards to everyone’s situation.” God apparently has a salty tongue, because the leader hurled F-bombs as part of his divine revelations.

Faith’s posting includes a reference to Laurie Jacobson’s article, “My Experience in YWAM,” which compares YWAM’s tactics to those employed by cults: “She finds that her YWAM training, and the philosophy which undergirds it, are similar to that described for cultic groups. Features common to YWAM and controversial religious cults include manipulation of fear and guilt, authoritarianism, the denigration of critical thinking, social exclusiveness, and suppression of individuality.”

“Is This Close to What Jesus Endured?”

Lynn Green is the most senior YWAM leader to acknowledge that spiritual abuse is a common and recurring experience at DTS classes and outreach activities. Unfortunately, his video response offers nothing that can help root out the problem.

Green protested that the phrase “spiritual abuse” is “a toxic term, quite a condemning term,” and suggested that the term is often misapplied to YWAM.

Green expressed disdain for mission agencies that put missionaries “through seven years of training first so they don’t make any mistakes.”

Green claimed that growing condemnation of spiritual abuse isn’t due to an increase in spiritual abuse, but is instead due to “a major culture change where people really feel they have a right not to hear anything they disagree with.” Some of these people claim “the Bible leads to spiritual abuse,” Green said.

Green said social media has introduced a new form of “social media rage” that’s akin to road rage, and which encourages “people to say disgusting and hateful things on social media, because there’s no consequences.”

And Green reminded everyone that Jesus suffered worse abuse than any YWAMer did. “When I’m tempted to take offense at somebody, I ask, is this close to what Jesus endured? If he didn’t take offense, I don’t have to take offense.”

“We’re Doing Our Best”

In his video, Green discussed a number of alleged abuse cases he has heard about personally, weighing whether each case constituted abuse, or merely incompetent leaders engaged in “serious mistakes.”

Green described one case of abuse in which he intervened. A young woman had been pushed to the point of “breakdown” by a young male leader who “had been thrown into the deep end, had not intended to lead, and did not feel qualified to lead.” This leader used rules, biblical teaching, and manipulation to coerce students. He focused on the girl who later broke down, having her stand in the center of a circle as fellow students talked about what a “rebel” she was.

Green acknowledged this case constituted significant abuse, but didn’t address the girl’s suffering. Instead, he said the incident had helped the immature young leader grow. “This guy has gone on to become a really able, fruitful, loving leader.”

Green assured viewers that YWAM leaders feel victims’ pain. “Any time persons are damaged in any way, or leaders behave inappropriately to them in any way, we take that really seriously, and take it to heart,” he said.

But even though Green has personally intervened in individual cases of abuse when they manifest, there’s apparently nothing he or other international leaders can do to combat this recurring tragedy.

“Newcomers coming in will inevitably…some will be insecure, and we’ll get some of the same mistakes,” Green said, referring to the immature leader who caused the girl’s breakdown.

“Every time that happens, we’re really sorry about that. We’re doing our best, but sometimes we do slip up.”

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Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.