Saturday, July 16, 2011

My Recommendations for CJ Mahaney and SGM (From the Cheap Seats!)

Dear friends,

A week ago, I wrote an article with my thoughts about CJ Mahaney and the current crisis in Sovereign Grace Ministries.  There have been nearly 4,000 page loads on this blog since then.  This is quite unusual since prior to that, my average per day was only about 30-50. 

Last night, I substantially revised, reorganized, and updated my original post.  If you just stumbled on this blog and you aren’t already really familiar with the issue, or even if you read the article when I first wrote it and want to see the new information and links, you may can read it here: My Thoughts on CJ Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries.    

In today’s post, I would like to do offer five things:
  1. A brief background refresher
  2. My recommendations for CJ Mahaney
  3. My recommendations for the SGM board of directors
  4. My recommendations for local SGM churches
  5. My response to concerns brought up by those who read my original post 
A brief background refresher: Before I start with the recommendations, the short version of the story is that CJ Mahaney is the co-founder of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), formerly known as People of Destiny International (PDI).  SGM is an association (or denomination) of about 70 churches, mostly in the United States but some in other countries.   Over the past 30 years of its existence, serious complaints have been made about the organization about abuse of spiritual authority, mismanagement of members’ crises, and a pervading overemphasis on the sinful nature.  In the past few years, these concerns have been expressed by an entire on-line community of ex-members on two protest blogs, and   A former SGM insider, Brent Detwiler, also compiled hundreds of pages of careful documentation with his allegations and evidence, and circulated them among SGM pastors after trying unsuccessfully for many years to bring correction directly to Mr. Mahaney.  After Mr. Mahaney announced last week that he was stepping down temporarily from SGM for a period of evaluation and correction, these documents were uploaded to the Internet by an anonymous person.  Since then, a flurry of commentary has exploded on the Internet.  I was a member of the Metro Life Church, one of the two SGM churches in the Orlando area, for eight years.  We left the church one year ago this week, along with about 300 other people.

What should CJ Mahaney do?  I believe that he should, of his own volition, resign immediately and permanently from any kind of leadership within Sovereign Grace Ministries.  Through his mismanagement and the subsequent scandal (if I may call it that), he has permanently damaged the trust of a significant percentage of the people who were/are in these congregations, as well as in the larger world beyond SGM.  (As I noted in the update to my previous post, his personnel history alone would disqualify him from leadership in any other corporate or non-profit organization.)  He has also, perhaps unwittingly, fostered an atmosphere of hero-worship and “fear of man” which is unhealthy for a church that claims to worship God alone.  I believe that he should devote a few years to spending some time with God and his own family outside of the public limelight.  He can use this season to nurture a fresh reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit to change his life as he seeks to evaluate and correct what has gone wrong.  During this time, he should, to the best of his ability, reconcile with those who have grievances against him – not just fellow leaders, but ordinary people.  This includes making full public apology and appropriate restitution.  After that, he could return to public conference speaking and writing.  Those in the larger Christian world who still wish to hear what he has to say can do so.  I believe that his gifts and his passion for the gospel of Jesus can flourish better outside of the pastorate and organizational leadership.

What should the SGM board of directors do? If CJ Mahaney does not choose to immediately and permanently step down from any leadership in SGM, the board members should make that decision for him.  Then they should follow suit. The board members should also acknowledge their own abuses of authority, make fully public apologies, seek out those they have offended, make restitution where appropriate, and attempt reconciliation.  Then SGM should disband as an organization and let each congregation become completely autonomous. 

What should local SGM churches do?  If the CJ Mahaney and the board of directors fail to resign and disband SGM, local pastors, bolstered by the support of their members, should continue to put pressure on them to do this – and not be intimidated by fear of being fired.  Once SGM has disbanded, local pastors will be free and empowered to deal with the crises in their own congregations without having to wait for and follow what upper level SGM leaders are deciding for them.  They can seek the fresh guidance of the Holy Spirit and consult with their own members as they move forward in ministry. They can also redraft their church constitutions, as SGM’s flagship Covenant Life Church has promised to do.   The pastors in each church should renounce and repent for any authoritarian leadership.  They should seek to humble themselves and submit to their members rather than demanding respect and obedience because of their positions.  Pastors should also seek out those who have left their churches to offer reconciliation and restitution, without expecting them to return.  In addition, they should start recommending, and in some cases funding, professional (non-church) Christian counseling for those who need it.

So, dear readers, what do you think?  Leave a comment for all of us to read!

UPDATE: After I posted this, I was alerted to this note on the SGM web site: An Honest Take on a Difficult Week.  What is very encouraging is that they are allowing dissenting comments.  That's a start!  There may still be hope for SGM as an organization, but I guess we'll all have to wait and see!

May I also present…

My Response to Concerns Brought Up by Readers of the Original Blog Post

Since posting on my blog last week, I have received a lot of e-mail in my inbox.  A friend warned me that I would want my children to look at my life through a thick lens of grace if they were writing about me in public, and that I would not want a response from others of "too little, too late."  As she wrote, "According to Scripture, anyone is only one step away from God – a step of repentance.  So, please be careful what you say and send out.  You will reap what you sow."  That is all so true. It is a sobering thought.  I know my children could find a lot of unpleasant things to say about me.  I mess up a lot as a mother.  There is always time for looking at the log in your own eye before trying to remove the speck from someone else’s.  But that doesn’t mean we need to be perfect before we open our mouths.  It means we need to acknowledge our own problems, not entirely fix them, before speaking out. 

Other friends have questioned whether those who protest against SGM’s abuses are properly following the corrective procedures set forth in Matthew 18.  I think theologian D.A. Carson ably addresses that issue of bringing public correction to public figures and teachings (in his case, the Emergent Church movement) here: Editorial on Abusing Matthew 18.  Australian born blogger, Anna Blanch, who is in her final year of a PhD at the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Artsat the University of St Andrews, Scotland, also recently wrote the article Calling Out Christian Leaders in the Age of Digital Media in light of the some of the controversies surrounding popular preacher Mark Driscoll.

Another thought for those who object to publicly questioning Christian leaders and institutions, is that this is following the example of reformers like Martin Luther, who posted his 95 Theses on the Wittenburg Door, or the Puritans, who called for reform in the Church of England. (Note that I am not a huge fan of the Puritans since my ancestor Margaret Scott was the last and oldest person that they hanged during the Salem witch trials.  She was no witch, just a cranky old lady in the wrong place in the wrong century.)  Just within the past decade, think about the people involved in the International Church of Christ - also known as the Boston Movement – who spoke out boldly to warn others about the abusive (even cultic) leadership and doctrine. It certainly made a change in their organization as the leader, Kip McKean, stepped down. (See here for a start:  Shall I go on?

Another reader asked me, “How's the view from your high seat of judgment?”, then suggested that I “seem so overly eager to jump into the fray” and asked if I felt that my blog post glorified God.   I replied to the last question, “That is always my intent in whatever I write, as you will see consistently on all of my blogs. It is very difficult for me as a mother and friend of SGM members to put myself out there like this, but what I do is with firm conviction and peace.” And, “I have prayed much about when would be the right time to speak out more publicly. On Friday night, it was time. I do not rejoice in this situation. It grieves me deeply. It would be so much easier to ignore it and wish it would go away. It will not.”

So I know that my words have hit a nerve.  A few people have asked questions like, "Why don't you just move on?" or "Why don't you just go settle your grievances with your former church?"  Please understand that while I did have some difficult experiences there, I don't write to redress or avenge them.  That is totally not the point.   My problems were actually quite minor compared to most, and they were (as necessary) resolved with those involved.  None of those people were trying to cause me harm, and I wish them the very best.  What is at stake are life-giving principles of liberty, justice, grace, and truth.  I care about others, and want them to be able to see and avoid the pitfalls that have caused so many such distress, not only with the Sovereign Grace movement but within other movements.   If you don't know what I mean yet, please take the time to read at and  Or, if you would like the perspective of individual ex-members, read the blog posts about SGM by a young college student or a former member in Canada or at Spiritual Tyranny.   Please note that I do not endorse everything you will find at these sites. They are only provided FYDI (for your discerning information).  The stories are both plentiful and painful to read.  Yes, you will find rancor and angst and harsh words.  This begs the question, “Why don't you all just move on and forget about SGM?”  Part of it is that people are still processing their pain, and it helps read the similar experiences of others, to write about their own stories, and to talk it through, back and forth, bit by bit.   And part of it is that they want to warn people of what to expect as members of Sovereign Grace affiliated churches. 

Granted, some SGM members are perfectly happy in their churches and suffering no ill effects.  They don’t see any significant problems.  I’m glad for them.  But others are hurting deeply and wondering if something is wrong with them.  In their SGM experience, they feel like they are being spiritually oppressed or that they are in a dark and dismal place.  (This was my experience, and I wrote the poem “It Became to Me a Dark Thing” the same week we left, which is, coincidentally, almost exactly one year ago.)  It was, in a way, a form of spiritual bondage to inward legalism, and I would love to spare other people from my experience with it. While I certainly don't equate SGM with the barbarity of 1800's slavery, I do think of Harriet Tubman.  She was not content with her own freedom if she could not share it with her people, so she went back over and over and over again, at great risk to herself.  How dare I compare myself to her?  How hard is it to write a blog post in the comfort of my home, as compared to facing the swamp, the whip, and the "Wanted, dead or alive" signs?  I’ve got it easy.  So, I don’t wish to compare myself, just aspire to her nobility and courage in my own little 21st century techno-mommy ways. 

In closing to this postscript, I leave you with a few recent related blog posts.

On Mommy Blogging: Image, Identity, Authenticity and Freedom – writing in late June, I hinted at the issues within SGM without naming the organization

Weekend Gratitude: Lord Have Mercy – reflections from a mellow little PCA church service post-SGM

Spiritual Warfare Prayer - for those who are praying for SGM leaders and members.

All blessings of grace, joy, and peace to you,

Virginia Knowles


  1. Virginia

    Thanks for your new post on SGM.

    If nothing else it should be a long time before Mahaney is allowed to be back teaching or a leader. It definitely shouldn't be the short period that Mahaney seems to be assuming. Mahaney assuming he will back soon really shows how in denial he is of his sin and how egregious they were not to mention the effect they have had on so many people.

    Mahaney needs time to come out of denial.

    Just the fact that Mahaney blackmailed Larry Tomczak over 10 years ago and only recently the truth about this has come out shows Mahaney will have to do a lot before he can be trusted.

    One should really question letting someone come back when it has been shown he didn't follow his own teaching. How can someone who claims to be so in touch with God hide his sin for so long?

    In Josh's "family meeting" he did say that having Mahaney resign might have been too easy of a route. It would be saying that Mahaney was the only problem when he wasn't the only problem. I tend to agree with this thinking

    In that same family meeting, Harris said something about wanting new board members for SGM. He asked something along the lines how bad did it look to have SGM Board Members that were the same people mentioned in the released documents being who this “independent” investigative panel reported to. Harris called for having different board members that didn’t portray a possible conflict of interest.

    People need to push for new board members that don't have this conflict of interest.

    One thing that needs to be mentioned is that the environment that was created in SGM where Mahaney was essentially the group's pope and was surrounded by men for so long that didn't question him enabled this behavior. Books like "The Lucifer Effect" talk about this. Mahaney is responsible for his sin but structure set up enabled this to happen.

    Thanks again.


  2. Virginia, Excellent post!! I love your heart and I truly believe God is honored by your words here. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Hi Virginia:

    Thanks so much for the link. Some solid thoughts in your post, and I'm sorry you are taking flack.

    I'm not a former member of an SGM church - there are two in Canada, one in British Columbia and one in Ontario. It is my hope that Canadian SGM members have a safe place to speak up, if they need one as their brothers and sisters in the US wrestle with the events of the past week. My hope is also that any Canadian SGM members who don't know where to find clear information are able to use BDBO as a jumping off point.

    There is nothing about what is occurring on either Canadian church website. I suspect Canadian members are following events closely.

    Blog on!

    Bene D

  4. I would take it a step further and say the local pastors should:

    1) Immediately setup a local elder board made up of the congregation

    2) Strongly consider resigning immediately

    3) Repent of their sins against the congregation

    4) Recognize their part in all of this (however small it might be)

    5) Petition the newly created local elder board to reinstate them as pastor (assuming step 2 was followed)

    6) Begin a message series on TRUE grace and the danger of focusing on sin

    7) Take a look around the neighborhood and see where the church can plug-in and make a difference

    That would be a strong sign of humility and of their desire to move forward with a clean heart

  5. Virginia,

    My own opinion is that the local churches currently in the SGM should withdraw from SGM. Then the churches should adopt a biblical model of church leadership.

    I am an ex-member of Metro Life Church. They don't need to look to an outside organization for anything. They are lacking nothing. God has given every local church what they need to do what He has purposed. Every local church needs to trust in that. Denominations are so unnecessary.

  6. Thank you, again, Virginia! Well stated!

    You may be interested in my latest post found at the site below. I was involved in SGM for the majority of my life.

  7. p.s. - I actually posted your last post about SGM on my Facebook page and was defriended!!!! Goodness, this issue has raised so very much emotion.

  8. One strong argument for making Mahaney resign is that if you listen closely to what Josh Harris it sounds like Harris is saying Mahaney still hasn't seen all of his sin etc.

    As Harris also indicated, Mahaney is keeping his office at SGM Headquarters (located at CLC). One problem with Mahaney still being there is that he can and apparently has still been influencing the group. It wouldn't surprise me if Mahaney was still using his same antics since he still has fully seen them like bullying others etc.

    Even on SGM's website they show Mahaney as President (on leave).

    Through all of Mahaney's Christian life he has always been the leader. He has never been under leaders to put another way reported to a leader. This was the case with TAG, Gathering of Believers, PDI(now called Sovereign Grace Ministries).

    Some of the time he may have been a co-leader with Larry Tomczak and perhaps under Tomczak when Tomczak lead PDI but we know how Mahaney even replaced Tomczak.

    Thus is it would be good for Mahaney's "psyche" and a great learning experience for him not to be "top dog" for a while. Mahaney's questionable actions apparently show the results of never being under other leaders.

    I agree with you that it would be for the best of the group for Mahaney to resign. If they still need him around for all this reconciliation then give him a little office at SGM and not the big opulent one he has.

  9. If nothing else that shows just how bad of a "leader" Mahaney look at what he did when he visited the Richmond VA Kingsway SGM Church. This is where due to some exposed sins of the Sr. Pastor (Gene Emerson) 1/2 of the church has left.

    What did Mahaney do? He gave one of his "canned" sermons. Did he talk about what had happen etc? No

    Was that the best that Mahaney could have done? Couldn't he have done something to try and help with the situation there?

  10. A lot of opinion floating around - has anyone investigated some of these claims? I'm sure some have been burned but what opinion to throw around second-hand looking at the opinions of others. I would be nice to seem some biblical content in context rather "what I THINK". And how come some of those leveling accusations publicly as pastors are not necessarily bringing up all these allegations? I find that interesting.

  11. "Part of it is that people are still processing their pain, and it helps read the similar experiences of others, to write about their own stories, and to talk it through, back and forth, bit by bit."

    Why, so they can breed contempt rather than try to deal with things biblically?

  12. Anonymous,

    I only have a few moments to comment right now (as per my husband's request), and we obviously have different opinions about how to deal with things Biblically so I'm not going to get pulled into a debate on this. I believe that I have sufficiently answered the questions already.

    I am assuming you do not have much background knowledge of SGM since my blog stats indicated you linked in from Still, from the tone of your comments, it seems like you have some strong opinions.

    If you really care about this situation and you are not just reacting at my words, I would suggest that you do a little more research and have a little compassion for those have been badly damaged by their association with SGM, as well as for those who have invested significant amounts of time to call for stop to the abuse. This cannot be a private matter, and it is not easy for any of us.

    Virginia Knowles

  13. Thank you for all the work you are doing. Being a former Langley BC Crossway member, I can tell you that the same type of authoritarian leadership takes place there as well. These blogs are being dismissed by Tony Walsh and co. as gossip and slander and the congregation are being encourage to stay away from them. An acknowledgement of the abuse that takes place in SGM churches would go a long way to bring healing and needed change.