One from the archives: Dysfunction in the Fellowship Family

A few years back, I wrote an article for Beliefnet on the Fellowship, a well connected Christian organization based in Washington D.C.  Initially, my editors at Beliefnet were enthusiastic about the piece, but eventually their excitement waned, and Beliefnet never published my piece. But the Fellowship is starting to be a hot topic again, with the publication in Mother Jones of a piece by Jeff Sharlet and Kathryn Joyce (former editors of mine at the Revealer), so it seemed like a good time to publish this piece. Since Beliefnet killed the piece it has had a good life as a PDF file on my church’s website. Now, for the first time, you can read it on a regular web-site. Enjoy!

The Fellowship Foundation, a secretive organization of wealthy and powerful American political, religious, and business leaders, would rather that you not be aware of its existence.

The Fellowship Foundation is an organization that goes by many names, but members mostly call it “the Fellowship,” or just “the Family.” It is a loose, worldwide affiliation of mostly wealthy, mostly powerful, mostly men, using the Mafia as an organizational model. Preaching a simple gospel of “Jesus plus nothing,” and, being adverse to institutionalized forms of Christianity (even shunning the name “Christian”), the Fellowship eschews organized churches, choosing instead to build strong relationships in the community of small cell groups. Each year the Fellowship hosts the National Prayer Breakfast and hundreds of prayer breakfasts worldwide, and through the relationships developed in these cell groups and prayer breakfasts, the Fellowship quietly exerts great influence within our nation’s corridors of power. For years, the Fellowship has operated without accountability, oversight, or restraint, in ways that are cult-like in the spiritual, emotional, and personal control that is exerted over members.

Within the community of American Christianity, the Fellowship has very few critics. In part this is because the work of the Fellowship remains largely unknown. For those in the know, there is a great temptation to look the other way when confronted with the Fellowship’s moral and ethical failings. The Fellowship’s connection to power and wealth has has created what Chris Hayashida Knight, an ex-member from San Francisco, describes as “a priesthood of rich white guys,” men who are admired for their faith, respected because of their wealth, and feared on account of their power. These are men no one really wants to piss off.

In fact, while soliciting interviews for this article very few people were willing to be interviewed on the record. “Don’t use my name because I’m afraid of these people,” was an oft-repeated refrain. Others expressed hesitancy to talk saying “I don’t want to break down the Body of Christ.” The frequency with which both mantras were repeated is emblematic of the kind of control exerted by the Fellowship over its members.

At the heart of the Fellowship’s life and work is a mansion in Arlington, VA called the Cedars, where people of power, consequence, and connection are invited to pray, retreat, and find quiet solitude. Researching this article I learned of guests as diverse as Lee Atwater, Laura Bush, and Michael Jackson, along with a long list of congressmen, senators, executive branch bigwigs, and foreign dignitaries. The grounds of the Cedars also houses the Fellowship offices, the home of Doug Coe, the group’s leader, and it has become the center of a neighborhood increasingly peopled by Fellowship members.

In addition to the Cedars, the Fellowship runs a retreat center in rural Maryland, a house on Capitol Hill whose residents include several members of Congress, and two houses for young recruits who pay for the privilege of deepening their devotion to Jesus while cleaning and maintaining Fellowship facilities.

Life among the young people who live in the Fellowship’s homes is spiritually, emotionally, and physically regimented in ways that are cult-like in their intensity. Absolute commitment is required. In all things members are obliged to subject themselves to the will of the group, becoming empty vessels ready to be filled with Jesus and a vaguely articulated Fellowship vision. In an interview for this article, Jeffrey Sharlet, who for nearly a month lived at Ivanwald, the Fellowship house for young men, and who later wrote about his experiences in the March 2003 edition of Harper’s Magazine, reports a constant striving for “an almost Buddhist commitment to nothingness.” Mild hazing and intense scrutiny of the men’s past sins and shameful habits were used to keep the men mindful of their humility.

Living at Potomac Point, the house for young women, is no less an act of self-deprecation. The young women’s chief work is to keep the Cedars in a constant state of tidy efficiency, all the while inefficiently attired (a uniform of long skirts and “feminine” shoes is required). Work that does not meet strict standards can result in a worker’s public humiliation.

A former resident of Potomac Point told me about her nine months there. Having been encouraged to share her every thought and to expose her secrets and sins, she found her confessions and confidences used against her when she would ask questions or resist Fellowship authority. As the Fellowship exerted control over every aspect of her life she became angry and bitter. Something broke inside her. “When I came to Potomac Point I struggled with self-esteem issues” she told me. “While I was there my low self-esteem moved from a personal to a spiritual level.” When, at last, she expressed a desire to leave, she was told that, without the teaching and company of the Fellowship, her well-being would disintegrate. She became terrified of life on the outside. She believed she would fail, and she delayed her departure for three months.

Jeffrey Sharlet told of observing a similar pressure to stay at Ivanwald. A young man, whose parents had sent him to Ivanwald to amend his fratboy ways, was feeling renewed, reformed and ready to leave. When he expressed his desire go home, a confrontation ensued. Fellowship higher-ups assured him that his confidence was misguided and that, once beyond the Fellowship’s influence, his life would fall apart. When the young man stood firm in his resolve, the Fellowship notified his parents who, in turn, threatened to cut off the young man’s financial and emotional support if he left. The young man stayed.

When Jeffrey Sharlet announced his own need to leave in order to attend to family business, Fellowship mentors pressed him to stay, using misguided scriptural quotation as a means of spiritual manipulation. “If anyone loves father or mother more than me he is not worthy of me; if anyone loves son or daughter more than me he is not worthy of me.” (Jesus’ words from Matthew 10:37) He left anyway.

When asked about allegations that the Fellowship, among its young volunteers, fosters a spiritually abusive and cult-like environment, a fellowship-employed evangelist and organizer told me, “the Fellowship is like the early Church. It is misunderstood.”

Recently, reluctance to criticize the Fellowship has begun to break down. An Evangelical leader with a lifelong Fellowship affiliation told me that, while on balance he thinks the Fellowship’s work is positive, he has concerns with the Fellowship’s spiritual elitism, its rejection of the institutional Church, and its lack of an organizational structure that provides accountability for Doug Coe and other Fellowship leaders.

In addition, some Christian leaders are beginning to raise cautious and thoughtful questions about the Fellowship’s attitude toward women. An Evangelical scholar told me of being troubled after a chapel service at the college where she works. Doug Coe’s sister, a Fellowship adherent, had delivered a message promoting a spirituality that the scholar described as being “overly prescriptive of men’s and women’s roles and differences in function.”

Such attitudes toward women often are lived out in the Fellowship with painful consequences. Despite the spoken promise that they are to be considered equal partners in the Fellowship’s ministry and honored sisters in the Fellowship family, the women of Potomac Point are treated as servants and are reminded that their role, both in life and in the work of the Fellowship, is one of quiet, strong support for the work of the men.

One gets the sense that in the Fellowship’s spiritual geography women are seen as roadblocks on the path to male spiritual enlightenment. One woman told me of her experience dating a man who was part of a Fellowship cell in Southern California. As her boyfriend’s involvement grew, he pushed her to the margins of his life. “In my life,” he told her “the guys from the Fellowship are at the center, and my wife, whoever that will be, will be somewhere off to the side.” In the waning days of the relationship she was approached by the wives of older Fellowship members. “Get out while you still can,” one warned. Another described her life as a Fellowship wife: “I’m always third. The Fellowship comes first in my husband’s life. Then our children. Then me.”

Many of the women with whom I spoke reported being treated, at the same time, as children in need of instruction and as sexual deviants worthy of reproach. Such perceptions are not unfounded. One deeply committed Fellowship member spoke of his marriage apologetically, comparing it to the marriage of the Biblical prophet Hosea, who was directed by God to marry a harlot so that the prophet might learn of the hardships God endures.

Though young women are admonished not to lead the men into temptation and the men are advised to be wary of feminine charms, there exists a strong emphasis on accountability through the absolute disclosure of real or imagined sin, which means the women’s private lives are necessarily exposed. A young woman told me of how, after ending a relationship with a Fellowship member, other men in the ex-boyfriend’s cell began to show up in her life, making her feel as if they, having been privy to the intimate details of the relationship, were willing and ready to experience temptation for themselves.

Questions also are being raised about the Fellowship’s honesty. The Fellowship Foundation is registered as a public charity in IRS Publication 78. According to a September 2002 article in the Los Angeles Times, they have a large annual budget, significant real estate holdings worth millions and dozens of employees. The Fellowship also has a clear leader in the person of Doug Coe, and their records are archived at Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Library. Yet publicly the Fellowship claims not to exist as an organization. Followers insist they are a “movement,” a “vision,” a “family,” a “network of brothers,” but they tend to downplay and even deny the existence of the Fellowship as a legal entity.

Fellowship members also downplay and sometimes deny that the Fellowship’s primary goal is to evangelize wealthy and powerful men. There are frequent reminders that the Fellowship is a cross section of the Kingdom of God, that the Fellowship is for everyone, and that everyone within the Fellowship’s family is equal. And while the Fellowship certainly encourages ministries of mercy and service among the poor, there remains an air of elitism, a celebration of power, and a community of insulated wealth.

A former Fellowship employee remembers being chastised for offering a drink of water to the chauffeur of a foreign ambassador who was attending a prayer meeting at the Cedars. This same employee also described organizing a prayer group for his fellow workers in maintenance and construction, since they had not been invited to regularly scheduled Fellowship gatherings. “At first our meetings were great,” he said, “but then the higher-ups found out what we were doing and they sent people to run our meetings for us. We no longer shared our lives. Instead, the leaders would talk to us about politics and current events. We were blue-collar, they were white-collar, and they didn’t even trust us to pray together without direction from above.”

Now, it must be said that not everyone with whom I spoke had bad experiences with or negative observations of the Fellowship. Most people had mixed experiences and textured observations; some experiences were entirely healthy and some observations were only good. And without a doubt, much of what the Fellowship accomplishes is positive. The Los Angeles Times article reported the Fellowship’s vital role in brokering a recent ceasefire between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and it told of the quiet ministry of healing and restoration the Fellowship works among Washington’s powerful and often very lonely leaders.

Beyond that, countless men all over the world have been given deeply meaningful experiences through prayer, Bible study, and mutual support within the Fellowship’s local cells.

And yet, in the Fellowship’s eccentric ministry, people are spiritually and emotionally wounded with a regularity that should raise concerns.

To say that the Fellowship Foundation is a layered and complex organization, mixing elements that are healthy and destructive, positive and negative, is to place the Fellowship in the good company of every other human organization.

But the best organizations are those which are willing and even eager to expose themselves to critical observation, in the hope of finding and addressing any failings and weaknesses to make them stronger, healthier, and more effective. To my knowledge the Fellowship encourages no such scrutiny and allows no such criticism.

For the time being, the Fellowship Foundation remains committed to secrecy, using the Godfather rather than the Gospel as an organizing principle. For the time being, the Fellowship would rather you not know of its existence.

11 thoughts on “One from the archives: Dysfunction in the Fellowship Family

  1. Dear Ben,

    Dotti and I have been to the Cedars in Arlington for a two week service stint. While there we found a well-functioning Christian Hospitality house that featured Prayer Groups for the leadership of our government and a sanctuary for many foreign leaders who were going through difficult times. We found a caring group of male and female Christians from various denominations who were working together to forge a Christian community that was marked by service to its guests. I could compare the “staff” to any other para-Church organizations….Mount Hermon, Calvin Crest, Campus Crusade, Navigators, Young Life, Sojourners, the Victory Mission. It is male oriented, but there are women in places of leadership…much like most Presbyterian Sessions. The discipleship programs for the young people who voluntarily serve at the Cedars for a season, are no different than any other “boot-camp” Christian disipleship efforts I have seen. I went through similar experiences as a new Christian in my initial introduction to the faith, being a resident for a time at the Beloved Brethren’s Bunkhouse at UCLA. No one in “the Fellowship” is held captive, and many are helped to re-order their lives with some Christian disciplines and counsel.

    Dotti heard Doug Coe speak at a Navigator’s meeting at Whitworth back in the 50’s (Sorry Dotti!) He laid out his seminal plan to go to Washington and to try and reach our nation’s leaders for Christ. He has had some success and much of his success has been because he has flown under the radar of the NAE and NCC. His refusal to identify his ministry with any denominational affiliation should not be interpreted as being “a cult”. It would be counter-productive to be identified with either political party or any one denomination.

    I think “The Fellowship” does one thing well. It put’s on a fine Prayer Breakfast.

    I close with one personal anedote. While we were working at the Cedars, a US Congressperson’s teenage son committed suicide. The folks at the Cedars moved quickly to minister to the family. They moved the family out of their Washington Home and cared for them at the Cedars for several months. There, out of the spotlight, and in seclusion, they could heal and be ministered to with a sensitivity that most churches could not have mustered. The Cedars was there to give some very public people a protected space during their grief. Along with the Congressperson’s family, were refugees from Burundi, China and several undocumented aliens taking sanctuary.

    The Fellowship is not a cult; it simply can’t operate with a lot of transparency and do the things it does best: minister to people who are in need of privacy.

    I would suggest that the Daniels visit the Cedars for a period of respite.


  2. Ronn,

    As always, I thank you for the post.

    We have different observations and experiences with the Fellowship. I know that they do a lot of very good work, and that many, many lives are touched in positive ways through their efforts.

    However–and it is a big however–I think the Fellowship has fumbled in a big way when it comes to how young people are treated at Ivanwald and Potomac Point. The stories I heard while researching this piece were terrible–some go beyond what I published here–and they are more or less consistent with what I personally experienced as a Fellowship recruit at Westmont College. For whatever reason the Fellowship seems to be good at ministering to rich and powerful white men, but young people and women seem not to fare so well.

    What seems most troubling to me is that the Fellowship, to my knowledge, seems unwilling to admit that it may have messed up in how it treats and relates to the young folks in its employment. As far as I can tell, their primary way of responding to criticism is denial and mild intimidation. When I was writing this piece, and before Beliefnet decided not to publish it, an early draft got into the hands of the Fellowship and I got a visit from a member of the Fellowship. Never was there any concern expressed for those who may have been hurt, never was there any interest in amending the processes and procedures that were leading to spiritual abuse, all I ever got back was justification and anger.

    An anecdote from the Prayer Breakfast–a friend and I attended one year while we were in seminary. We arrived wearing what to us were nice cloths (I was wearing an oxford cloth shirt, chinos, and oxford shoes), and we were told to leave and come back in wearing suits, which we did, but our shoes needed polishing, so we stood in line to get our shoes shined, and as we did we saw a number of men in fancy suites, reading books by Charles Swindoll getting their shoes shined, and when it was our turn to get shined we got to talking to the man shining our shoes. Turns out he was a Christian, who, like my friend, played in his Pentecostal church’s worship band. We asked him if he was enjoying working with all of the Christians who had come to the hotel for the Prayer Breakfast, and he looked at us like we were crazy.

    At the Prayer Breakfast there was a lot of talk about how everyone was equal and about how Jesus made everyone on the same level, but somehow that didn’t extend to a Black man shining shoes. It was a turn off.

    I guess many things are layered and textured. I understand that much healing has been achieved by the Fellowship, but somehow a black man shining shoes gets treated like he’s non-existent, and young people get spiritually abused. I wish the healers would, themselves go to the doctor. Maybe that’s why I wrote what I did.

    Incidentally, Jeff Sharlet, whom I interviewed for this piece, wrote a powerful article for Harper’s Magazine called “Jesus Plus Nothing,” in which he tells about the month or so he lived at Ivanwald. A book form of the article will be published by Harper Collins this Spring. Look for a book review on the Lions’ Den.



  3. I think we may have touched too different parts of the elephant. Your experience at Westmont obviously has colored your opinion of The Fellowship, and our experience of two weeks, a few years ago, has colored ours. We dealt mostly with the young women at Potomac Point and the refugees of color that had found refuge at The Cedars.

    I have a pretty good nose for smelling theological heresy and spiritual abuse. While I was at The Cedars the dress code for women was being challenged and successfully. Most days I didn’t wear a tie to the gatherings and no one checked my shoe shine. Incidentally, at the same time, the dress code was being challenged in La Jolla, at the Presbyterian Retirement Home, White Sands. The issue was coat and ties for white males at dinner. There were no people of color in residence. Perhaps it is a national movement, inspired by Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

    If participants of Christian organizations have been “spiritually abused”, there are appropriate venues for seeking help, counsel, restitution and justice. I believe that members of the governing body of The Fellowship would want that to happen also. If not, then your efforts to expose their “spiritual abuse” are most welcome.

    Keep up the good work, Ben. Pero, ten cuidado, la pluma es mas fuerte que la espada!


  4. Thanks Ronn.

    A professor of mine used to remind us “There’s no such thing as immaculate perception!”

    How true.


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  7. I’m a social conservative, and fairly moderate fiscal Democrat living in the very liberal western Conn. river valley part of MA. And I’m also an alum of the conservative National Journalism Center in Washington,DC (Sp ’83). Until a year ago, I was fairly active in a local Baptist congregation until I simply had enough and returned fully to the Catholic Church. I’m pretty aware of the political-religious landscape … but this Family is something else.

    Moreover, it embodies what I’ve long suspected, yet never could actually put a finger on, for many years: the existence of a predominately uber-conservative evangelical Costra Nostra that far exceeds the wildest imaginings many liberals have worked up over Catholicism’s Opus Dei for that matter. (Unlike Opus Dei, which also opens its arms and doors for men and women from all social classes, The Family is — or was — primarily geared towards the recruitment and development of a secretive elitist caste system within Washington’s Christian circles.

    This is a blatant misuse of what both Scripture and Tradition has long taught concerning the proper development of Christian organizations designed to assist fellow Christians in social settings which are indeed sometimes hostile.

    A great deal of consternation and eyebrow-raising occured when Pres. Obama declined to attend this year’s Prayer Breakfast. While I have many substantive disagreements with the President and at first raised my own eyebrows, it’s plain to see why he didn’t want to get pulled into this group’s orbit.

    As for myself, it’s one thing, for example to support fellow Christians in efforts to stop abortion, it’s another to keep as a spiritual leader somebody who extolls the “leadership skills” of a Himmler, Hitler, Goebbels or Mao and even gamely try to equate them with Jesus’ methodology, even for rhetorical purposes. This group has gone way too far with its secretiveness, its religio-backscratching clubbiness, and simple desire to create a Christian super-elite group. What’s even more ridiculous is to watch so many conservative Christians whine about liberal elitists while they allow this kind of “spiritual” Mafia not only to exist, but to flourish.

    So much for religious/social-conservative pols and “family values.”

    The shameless arrogance and violations of the public’s trust, and their swarmy religious excuse-mongering has done for social conservatives what Joe McCarthy’s excesses a half-century ago have done for any conscientious citizen seeking to root out treason of any kind, including religio-right wing kind, within high governmental offices. Thanks to Ensign, Pickering, and most disgustingly … Mark Sanford’s example(s) … social conservatives face an enormous uphill and possibly twighlite struggle ahead.

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  10. What an amazing story–years before most people know about the fellowship. I am intrigued you were able to speak to the young women of Potomac Point. I so wish I could find a few to tell about their experiences on our site for womens news. I’ll keep digging.


  11. Good luck. Keep digging. Try to find people who have lived at Potomac Point, and feel free to contact me using the contact function on this website.


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