• Sat. Jun 19th, 2021

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A megachurch’s ministry program used inappropriate tactics to ‘train’ teens, ex-interns say

Teenagers pitted against each other during “fight nights” staged by a youth pastor running a Christian leadership training program.

“Boot camps” where the trainees learn the Way of the Cross by exercising until they vomit or soil themselves — and by hefting heavy logs on their shoulders through the sweltering summer heat.

Participants who are Black or suspected of being gay being taunted with racist and homophobic slurs, and female interns being fat-shamed.

Those are just some of the alleged abuses that were described for this article by more than a half-dozen people who took part in the “220i” leadership program that Bethany Church, based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, ran from 2005 to 2013. The program promised to turn participants — referred to as interns — into minister material while providing them with marketable skills like media production.

Among those interviewed was a woman who felt the program was a cult from which she had to “rescue” her daughter.

NBC News reached out to them after the church’s current lead pastor, Jonathan Stockstill, posted an apology on his Facebook page on April 28 for the “painful experiences” many of the 500 or so young Christians endured in the program, the stated goal of which was to “train young leaders.”

“While there was some positive fruit that came from that ministry, there were also leadership and cultural flaws that led to painful experiences for many,” he wrote. “It’s obvious to me now and to the current leadership at Bethany Church that we significantly missed the mark in that program in many ways.”

The former interns — some of whom spoke on the record, while others used pseudonyms out of fear of retaliation from the powerful megachurch, which has thousands of members — said he was aware of what was going on and did nothing to stop it.

They said the ringleader was his older brother, Joel, who tormented the interns with the help of aides known as “second years,” as well as Joel’s late wife, Amy, and his current wife, Amie.

Founded by the Stockstill brothers’ grandfather Roy in 1963, the nondenominational Bethany Church grew from having Sunday services in the living room of the family home into one of the biggest megachurches in the country. It has more than 8,000 members spread across five campuses in Louisiana and is opening another in New Orleans, runs a television ministry and supports missions at home and abroad.

In a statement that was signed “Bethany Church,” it denied the most serious allegations but also apologized to “those we have disappointed in any way.”

“This highly disciplined program that was totally voluntary to participants was not perfect and we chose to end it 8 years ago,” the church said. “As we reflect on the program, it pains us to know that although so many lives were changed for the good, it’s clear the one-size-fits-all approach to physical and spiritual discipline was not effective in some areas.”

“As the lead pastor of Bethany, I would like to take responsibility and repent to anyone that had a negative experience. Please forgive us,” he added.

Several people who commented on Jonathan Stockstill’s Facebook thread praised him for the apology. Those who spoke to NBC News, however, dismissed it as a public relations stunt aimed at pre-empting a possible lawsuit by the more than 100 men and women who have organized a survivors group that regularly meets online.

They said the 40-year-old pastor is trying to preserve his public image as a hip preacher who relates to younger people and who is also the frontman for a Christian rock band called Deluge.

“I see it as damage control,” said Gume Laurel, 34, a Texan who took part in the 10-month program in 2007 and 2008. “It looks like he’s trying to shift the blame and say, ‘The leadership at the time.’ He was ‘the leadership’ at the time.”

Not all of the interns had negative experiences. Former intern Bridget Linville said she joined the program to follow in the footsteps of two of her friends who recommended it to her.

“I actually had two of my friends from my church who had gone the previous two years. And they had much more positive experiences,” Linville said. She said they fell into a more “favored category” and that her friends didn’t “really deal with a lot of the awful treatment” that she experienced.

So far there doesn’t appear to have been an apology from Joel Stockstill, who boasted at a 2011 leadership conference that “the Lord has given me a creative ability for servanthood and discipline.”

“I just have supernatural creative ideas on how to administer the rod of brokenness to the backside of a foolish intern,” he said in a video posted to YouTube.

Joel and Amie Stockstill, 35, who markets herself as a life coach for Christian women and runs a site called Let’s Echo, did not respond to requests for comment via email.

Joel Stockstill, 42, continues to run a Bethany Church ministry called Surge, which was started by his father, Larry, according to the church website.

‘A cult mentality’

Laurel said God-fearing teenagers like him who were raised in ultraconservative churches were easy prey for the Stockstill family.

“It was a cult mentality,” said Laurel, adding that for them the biggest punishment was “being expelled from the program because then you would just be essentially excommunicated.”

Bethany Church marketed the 220i ministry to other churches, drawing participants from across the United States and from countries as far away as Malaysia, the ex-interns said. The interns lived at the church in a dormitory-type setting for the duration of the 10-month program.

“Their whole pitch was if you wanted to be the elite of Christianity, you needed to be in this program,” said another former intern, who asked to be identified only as Emerson.

Former members of Bethany Church in Baton Rouge, La., who took part as teenagers in the 220i youth program say there were often made to take long hikes, do manual labor and perform calisthenics for hours in the sweltering summer heat.Obtained by NBC News

The program wasn’t cheap, either, the former interns said. Tuition was, in the first years, around $5,000 for the program, which ran from August through June, and that didn’t include food, travel or living expenses.

While the leaders of Bethany Church “talked about crushing you to make you into a true Christian,” that wasn’t all they were after, Emerson said.

“They preyed on young people’s passion and desire to change the world,” she said. “But once you got there, it was brainwashing and submission to the church.”

And it worked, at least at first, Emerson said.

“I felt great,” she said, recalling how her program began with a pizza party that quickly turned terrifying when they embarked on a midnight march through chigger-infested woods while blindfolded. “I’m doing this great thing for God. I’m purifying myself. I’m miserable, but I’m cleaning everything impure out. It took me many more years before I started thinking that this was not right.”

Even the name of the student ministry was designed to keep the young Christian teenagers under the church’s thumb, the ex-interns said.

“The name ‘220’ came from Galatians 2:20, which we all had to memorize during the boot camps,” said a former intern who attended the program in 2007 to 2008 and asked to be identified as Claire. “The emphasis of the verse was placed on ‘It is no longer I who lives.’ The verse was misinterpreted to control us and our will. In 220i, there is a lowercase ‘i’ to denote that we are not worthy of being called uppercase ‘I’, that we did not exist anymore. It was like self-flagellation. This ideology set us up for mind control.”

Claire, who said she put off going to college to take part in the internship, said that after she finished the program the church pressured her to stay on and tried to dissuade her from continuing her education.

“You only could graduate [from the internship] at 10 months if they deemed that you were submitted and loyal enough to them,” she said. “You also were required to go through an exit interview with them, during which time Joel, Amie or his youth staff pastors would tell you what God’s plans were for you upon leaving.

“If you planned to go to college and they did not agree, they would tell you that was not God’s plan for you,” she said. “They spoke to us as if they were God.”

So almost nobody protested when they were forced to pray for hours or endure punishing physical abuses in the name of God.

“If a church who’s been in the community almost six decades, who loves all people, loves the Lord, teaching and following biblical principles, and engages in numerous ways with community assistance & support is classified as a cult then perhaps those who are accusing us of being a cult do not fully understand the definition of the word Cult,” a Bethany Church spokesperson said.

Cult expert Rick Alan Ross, who runs the nonprofit Cult Education Institute, said it is possible “for a small group to function without meaningful notice in a megachurch.”

“However, it seems very specious to claim that such a group is led by the pastor’s brother, could or would go unnoticed,” he said.

The Stockstills went to great lengths to keep the interns isolated from their families. Amie Stockstill, in particular, insisted on that, the interns said.

“She made us cut ties with our families and our parents, disregarding their authority in our lives and telling us that she and Joel were now our authority figures,” Emerson said.

While some contact with families was allowed, members whose parents didn’t support their decision to be part of the program were encouraged to limit contact.

“They would say the Bible says to obey your parents but if your parents are keeping you from serving God, then you can disobey them and you should not listen to them,” Emerson said.

And the housing the church provided was described as spartan.

“I lived in a four-bedroom house with 21 girls,” Claire said. “We only had two bathrooms. We only had one kitchen, one laundry room. The house’s A/C was broken during the summer, and they never fixed it. We were constantly sick because of the close quarters and how old and moldy the house was.”

There was next to no privacy, and they were monitored by “housemoms” only slightly older than them “who would punish us for minor ‘infractions,’ like talking to a boy, by making us scrub floors and do other menial labor,” Claire said.

Things were no better for the male interns, especially the Black male interns, who were relegated to the filthiest rooms in the dorms the church used, the interns said.

“They basically separated all of the Black male interns onto one floor and everybody else was on a different floor,” Laurel said.

A woman who spoke to NBC News — and asked to be identified as Sharon Adams — said she “rescued” her then-17-year-old daughter from the program in 2012.

“At first, everything seemed OK,” Adams said. “What I learned later was that they told them not to rely on their family, that they were their new family.”

Even after her daughter was kicked out of the program, Adams said, her daughter was told she would be out of the will of God if she returned home.

Adams said her daughter is now 27 and that after years of therapy “she’s absolutely OK.”

“She told me that she contemplated suicide and that the only thing that stopped her was because she was told that would be a sin,” Adams said. “But she still hasn’t opened up completely about what they did to her down there. They were all told that what happens in the program stays in the program.”

Physical abuse

By day, the 220i interns took part in “boot camp,” where they had to perform calisthenics, run and sometimes dig trenches in the stifling heat for hours in a field behind what was then the Stockstill family home on Oak Bend Drive, the former participants said. One intern described the conditions as a type of “hazing.”

“This was happening literally outside [Jonathan Stockstill’s] window,” said a former intern, who asked not to be identified.

Former members of Bethany Church in Baton Rouge, La., who took part as teenagers in the 220i youth program say there were often made to take long hikes, do manual labor and perform calisthenics for hours in the sweltering summer heat.Obtained by NBC News

Joel Stockstill personally supervised many of the grueling workouts, often while riding on a Segway, the ex-interns said. He would make the exhausted interns recite Scripture, and anyone who got the verses wrong was targeted.

“At times, he and his brothers and friends would drive by on golf carts to shoot paintball guns at interns during boot camp to haze them further,” Claire said.

Former intern Linville said that she had knee surgery three months before she started the program in 2007 and that program leaders knew she was in no shape to do strenuous exercise.

“They didn’t care,” said Linville, who is 34 and from Oregon. “They would yell in our faces … tell us to get down and do pushups, just scream.”

It was extremely hot, and the pace of exercise rarely let up, Linville and the other ex-interns said.

“We were running and running and running and running and not being given enough water,” Linville said.

Lunch was often cans of tuna and crackers washed down with tepid water. And the bugs were relentless.

“My main memory is just being in pain from my surgery and literally standing in a fire anthill with fire ants crawling up my body,” Linville said.

Laurel, who is now openly gay, said male interns who were thought to be homosexual were targeted for torment. He recalled one day in particular when the interns were ordered into a pool and made to tread water for hours as part of a workout. Some of the program’s leaders zeroed in on a teenager who had displayed “less traditionally viewed masculine behaviors.”

“They would be calling him f—– and they were spraying water from a hose into his mouth while he was trying to tread water,” Laurel said. The former interns also said Joel Stockstill and his aides openly used the “N-word” and belittled the Black interns as “thugs.”

The church insisted it has opposed racism “since our ministry began.”

“We are unaware of any so-called reported incidents of bullying related to racism or sexual orientation,” the church said. “We condemn such behavior in the strongest way and never tolerated it.”

In addition to the grueling outdoor workouts, interns described “fight nights” when they were pitted against one another.

“There were two different fight nights,” said Danielle Ferguson, 31, who took part in the program from 2007 to 2008. “One of them was for the guys. And they really pumped it up. I mean, this is like the thing to do whether you wanted to fight or not.”

The bouts often ended with one of the combatants badly beaten and bloodied, Laurel said.

“A lot of the time they would pit somebody who was like really small against somebody that was really big,” Laurel said. “Just like a hypertoxic view of masculinity being important and a vital part of Christianity.”

The female interns were also forced to fight, said Ferguson, who recalled how one night they were taken to a hill on the nearby Louisiana State University campus and told to form a line.

“And they had the guys and the girls just fight. It didn’t matter,” she said. “There were no rules.”

Joel Stockstill “was the main one doing the pitting and mocking,” said a former intern who attended the program in 2007 to 2008 and asked to be identified as Frank.

“I remember church leaders picking either interns or youth members to fight each other as they spectated in order to prove who was the most manly,” Frank said. “People were mocked with different terms, such as being ‘weak’ or ‘a fag,’ if they lost.”

The church denied the allegations. “There were no ‘fight nights,’ this is a totally false claim that never took place,” it said. “There was no public shaming of anyone who struggled with a health issue or weight concern.”

Mental abuse

The interns were also made to participate in marathon praying sessions at night, especially in 2007 and 2008, when Amy Stockstill was battling cancer. Linville said they were made to take part in “24-hour prayer nights” for her recovery and that when she died they were blamed.

“You guys didn’t have enough faith for her to be healed,” Linville recalled being told. “Looking back now, they were all hurting and they were taking it out on us.”

Joel Stockstill eventually remarried, and ex-interns said his second wife, Amie, would “police our clothing, our hair, or makeup, even our weight,” Emerson said.

“Every week, she checked our BMI, and if you were above a certain BMI, you got called out publicly and put on restricted diets. There are girls still suffering from eating disorders because of this,” Emerson said.

Amie Stockstill would tell the female interns “to be fat meant that you had sin in your life,” Claire said. She would also force the Black interns to “succumb to whiteness” by relaxing their hair and “conforming to white beauty standards,” she said.

Joel and Amie Stockstill also took a keen interest in their personal lives, the ex-interns said.

“There was a scheduled ‘date night,’ and you had to go on a date or you were shamed and called in for discipline,” Claire said. “After the dates, the girls were interrogated by Amie and the boys were interrogated by Joel to assess whether or not we had ‘sinned’ or been tempted while on the dates.”

The interns said they were also pressured by program leadership into pitching in to buy “extravagant gifts” for Joel and Amie Stockstill on their birthdays, like a $500 gift card to Anthropologie for her or courtside seats to a Los Angeles Lakers game for him.

“Each year, there was some new thing for us to buy for them. All the while Joel and his wife both drove Escalades, owned a penthouse in West Palm Beach and were flaunting designer clothing,” Claire said.

Several former interns have found community with one another through an online survivors group in which they talk about their shared experiences, and they have mobilized to bring to light the abuses they say they suffered in the program.

“It’s important that people know what they did to us,” Claire said. “Lots of us are still dealing with what happened.”