Austin Gardner and Vision Baptist Missions: Testimony of spiritual abuse

I am writing this statement to describe what it was like to live and work under the spiritual abusive leadership of Austin Gardner and Vision Baptist Missions.

I write so that:

  1. Austin Gardner (who I will refer to as AG) and the leadership of VBM will be held accountable for their actions (and lack of action when it was required), acknowledge their sin, and repent.

  2. Those within the organization will know the truth.

  3. Other potential recruits might be warned.

This testimony will primarily focus on the actions and words of Austin Gardner, but I hope to also show how his abusive behavior has shaped the culture of the institutions that he has founded. When I first began to understand the reality of what I and so many were experiencing, I attempted to speak to those I worked closely with at VBM. One of my closest friends and teammates, Travis, told me that ‘spiritual abuse is a made up term’ and that ‘everyone manipulates in one way or another’. He is not alone in his thinking at VBM, as others within organization have expressed similar thinking to downplay the reality and effects of spiritual abuse. When I attempted to share my concerns with Jeff Bush, the general director of VBM, Jeff told me that he would not hear my accusations because Austin was his friend, mentor, and boss. The same pattern of denial, without ever having a meaningful conversation, was repeated with each VBM leader that I would attempt to speak to.

I think it would be helpful to define what spiritual abuse is. Michael Kruger defines spiritual abuse as the following – ‘Spiritual abuse, then, is when a spiritual leader—such as a pastor, elder, or head of a Christian organization—wields his position of spiritual authority in such a way that he manipulates, domineers, bullies, and intimidates those under him, as a means of accomplishing what he takes to be biblical and/or spiritual goals’.

My story begins in 2008 when I first met AG. My former pastor Derik Lawrence took me on a missions trip to Peru and introduced me to AG. I was a young, newly married father of two, working in a family business. I had a desire to follow the Lord with my life whatever that would look like. During that week in Peru, AG would take us around and show us all that he had built during his time as a missionary. I was overwhelmed with it all and couldn’t believe how successful he appeared to be. That week was particularly impactful because it was his annual pastors school where hundreds of Peruvians would come to see the ‘Jefe’ as AG is referred to by both Peruvians and the American missionaries that serve under him. One evening, Jefe put his arm around me and pointed to all his men in the crowd and said ‘you could have all this one day if you let me train you’. I was hooked. I was a young man who needed direction in my life, and I was willing to follow this man anywhere he led me. He had convinced me that to do anything else with my life, other than what he told me to do, would be a waste of life. He was what I thought to be a well-respected and highly successful minister of the gospel, so naturally his words carried a lot of weight.

I started to spend as much time as I could around AG and his disciples. It was an exciting place to be. There seemed to be something special about all that was going on around him. A sense of grandiosity that I had never seen before. It was like a drug in that any time I was around him and his disciples, I felt as if I was on some sort of high. Similarly, however, I grew to become dependent on that feeling. Austin would flatter me with kindness and promise me that if I would just follow him, that I could really do something rather than waste my life.

What I did not know then, I can clearly see now that I was falling into a web of spiritual abuse that has taken years to get out of. I was blinded by it in those early years, but the tactics he used, whether consciously or unconsciously played out in the following ways:

Flattery/use of gifts

When I first started to come around, it seemed that I was quickly in the good graces of AG. He would say things to me, or about me during our Friday classes (this is a regular time of teaching where we would sit in a circle around AG for 4 hrs and ask him questions) that would suggest that I was one of his favorite students. He would praise me for being teachable, loyal, a team player. This would feed my ego so much then that I would want to make sure that I would continue to prove those qualities to be true. He would lift up each of us at different times creating a bond over time to each one of us. He would give gifts when needed and do anything that he could to provide for us in ways that other leaders perhaps had not. He would be sure to tell us often that ‘no one has every loved you the way I have’ or ‘who has ever been willing to give of themselves to you the way I have?’ Over time, the use of flattery and gift giving would draw those like myself in. He would groom us to believe that anything we did outside of his influence was a waste of life, but anything done within his influence was making an eternal difference.

Dismantling the inner world

This flattery would come and go however. Whereas in the beginning he would use nice words to draw me (and others) in, those words would quickly turn ugly. He would speak to us in a way that would tear us down. He would tell us that we don’t love God enough, that we would never make it without him as our mentor, that if left to ourselves we would be like ‘all the other losers out there’. He would constantly call into question our integrity, our work ethic, our love for Jesus, our marriages, our family life, etc. Everything about ourselves it seemed never measured up to his standard. As THE spiritual figure in our life, that was devastating. Austin would publicly humiliate people, use tactics of shame, guilt, fear, or would suddenly give the cold shoulder when you weren’t doing exactly as he wanted. He would play mind games with people, keep them on edge so that we would feel the need to constantly try to prove our love to him and to prove that we weren’t the terrible things that he would say about us. With our inner world torn apart, he would then turn to our outer world.

Dismantling the outer world

Austin is infamous for saying that ‘if you shot 95% of the missionaries, you would be doing the world a favor!’ Of course, none of those missionaries were part of his group, only those outside of his mentorship should be shot it seemed. He would regularly call other good pastors losers, poop-for-brains, idiots. He wouldn’t only say this about those he didn’t know or like, he would say this about preachers who would come and speak for him. On many occasions he would have a preacher come and speak at his church on a Thursday evening, only to spend much of the next day in our private class tearing that man down. I can remember distinctly a time where he held a Bible expo with a good pastor from Baltimore, MD. Many of us young guys were very impressed with this pastor. I went to AG and said how great I thought this man did that week. Austin then told me what a loser that pastor was because ‘yeah he has a big church, but how many men has he trained!?’. I was so confused by his comments, but it was not the last time I would hear him speak of good pastors that way. In my own home he warned me and my teammate Travis to not ‘become a loser like pastor Lawrence, or pastor Howeth’ but that I needed to listen to him and do what he says. Of course, to these men’s faces, and to the countless others, he would act as if he never spoke this way about them and would continue to have them come to his church. One can only surmise that he would keep them around close enough so as to recruit their people and to take their money. There were no other people, churches, or organizations that AG would speak highly of or be supportive of unless they gave him the same level of loyalty that us missionaries gave. This left us totally dependent on AG. AG would even speak poorly of his own deacons and the business man who had funded his ministry for years. Regularly good pastors all around the US would be slandered in private meetings. And because imitation of Austin was a natural byproduct of his teaching, his disciples would then follow after the same pattern, myself included at times. This type of culture would start to tear long-time relationships apart, but it seemed as if that was exactly what he wanted. What is even more difficult to understand is that many of Austin’s most loyal supporters are those whom Austin would slander in private the most. One example of this came during a trip Austin took to England. During that trip, he would speak very poorly of one of our good British pastor friends who now pastors in the US. This man was a good friend of mine. It was this slander against such a good friend that would be one of the biggest examples of why I would ultimately leave. Because this man is a supporter of Austin, and is not aware of the terrible things said about him in private, he has sadly separated himself from me and remains loyal to the very man who slanders him behind his back.


Because of the way in which AG would speak about other people so often, there was a natural division that took place. Everything outside of his influence was bad, while everything on the inside was good. That division would then take place internally. Those who were not deemed loyal enough to him were placed on some sort of unwritten list of outsiders even if they were still ‘on the team’. This would go on to harm many relationships including ours that we had with dear friends. AG would teach that there needed to be a certain amount of competition among the missionaries in order to get them to do what he wanted them to do. He would manipulate us into thinking that if we could out do the next guy, then we would be more of a success in his eyes. We were told not to befriend other missionaries that were not VBM missionaries, and that we were to even avoid VBM missionaries who weren’t showing themselves loyal enough to the brand. Some days you could be on the good side of his divided line, and other days find yourself as suddenly one on the outside. To get back on the good side, you would need to pledge your loyalty to him in some way.

Demand for loyalty –

AG demands exclusive loyalty to himself. If you are seen as not exclusively loyal (meaning you can’t have other mentors/pastors who you are close with), then you get the cold shoulder from him. You are talked bad about, told you are not teachable, not a team player, etc. He would say things like ‘if you need other men, then why are you even here’. Again this just further instilled this fear to openly have outside relationships. On one occasion, one missionary didn’t act loyal enough for AG’s liking. This missionary admitted to this fact years ago. For the years to follow, AG would humiliate this missionary publicly saying how disloyal he was one time. This put a fear not only into that missionary, but into all of us to never do that again. He was slowly setting up a culture where people would be afraid to speak truth if it meant seeming disloyal to AG. On one occasion, I spoke up to defend one of the missionaries that I thought was being treated poorly. In a private email, AG wrote me a one sentence email that stated “et tu brute”. I was devastated to think that he was disappointed in me. For years to follow, I would be labelled as one who had attacked him simply for disagreeing with his actions and words.


If there is one thing that VBM missionaries are known for, it is being sharp. We were taught how to say just the right thing at the right time. We would have entire classes on how to talk to supporting pastors and how to give non answers. The outside perception of VBM is that they hold to high standards of the Independent Baptist world. This includes using the King James Version exclusively and women not wearing pants just to name a couple. However, these things aren’t true. He would teach us how to answer without lying. When it came to fund raising, we were told to raise at least $10,000 per month (many of us had much more than that) but to never admit that fact. There are many examples that could highlight the dishonesty of both AG and VBM leadership as a whole. I do not claim to be innocent in this and regret going along with the teaching. Austin and VBM as a whole do a great job of presenting themselves as something that they are not in order to secure financing and to recruit more workers.

A culture of superiority

We were taught that VBM was the green beret of missionaries. We were an elite group of missionaries. The seal team 6. We would look down up all the other loser missionaries out there because we were told over and over again how terrible they all were. If we did try to speak highly of anyone on the outside, we would face consequences of being shamed publicly or being shunned altogether. If you were on the team, you were considered to be part of the elite. There were of course special inner rings for the most loyal, but simply being part of the team meant that you were better than all other missionaries. Austin’s stated goal was that he wanted to be the biggest and the best mission board and would often compare himself to his former mission agency Macedonia. He would of course tear them down any chance he could.


All of this led to a culture of codependency. Austin was dependent on us missionaries to lift up his ego, raise money for him, and build his empire, while we were dependent on him to bring us purpose and meaning in life. Without him we were nothing and we needed him, so we thought. We were charmed by his flattery, lifted up in pride by the air of superiority, dismantled from the inside out, and left alone with no one else but Austin to turn to. This would lead to us missionaries doing all that we could do to prove our love and loyalty to him. We have purchased him and his wife cars, guns, bbq grills, countless international trips, and have given tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of dollars to fund his personal ministry projects. To not take part in this gift giving would place you on the outside of his inner ring of power and prestige and you would be shunned or shamed into always giving more to him. It is because of this codependent and sycophantic culture that Austin has produced that the missionaries and leaders will blindly defend him and his actions. There is simply too much to lose and too much at stake for the truth to be uncovered. Many lives have been completely built around the identity of Austin which is not easy to let go of.


Public shaming is a tool that Austin would use regularly. When someone would try to ask a question that he either didn’t know the answer to, or didn’t like the direction of where the question was headed, he would quickly turn on that person and shame them into silence. He would regularly share personal and intimate details of people’s lives that he had no business sharing. He would speak of confidential marriage counseling, porn problems, affairs, and other private matters that would humiliate people. He would do so in a way that he seemed to always have plausible deniability where he might not say the person’s name, but everyone in the room knew exactly what he was speaking of. This culture of shame would instill fear into people that they knew better than to say or ask anything that might cause Austin to lash out in anger and to heap on the humiliation for that person. During a retreat in Thailand in 2018, two very heavy questions were asked to Austin. One question was from a missionary that asked “what should I do if my wife doesn’t want to go to the mission field?” He answered by saying that the man should go anyway, and if the wife doesn’t want to go then God would have to deal with her. His answer for how to deal with wives could be generally summed up with making sure to buy them enough things, and if that doesn’t work, make them shut up and have no voice. Austin’s mission always seemed to trump the real needs of others. Another question was in regards to a VBM missionary who had recently had an affair. This affair was not disclosed to the public and that missionary couple was soon back on deputation where they to this day continue to raise support. The question was asked “how could this affair have been prevented...how did this happen?” Austin then began to give graphic detail about how the affair happened, how it was exposed, and why it happened. He laughed and said “the reason this missionary wife had an affair was because she didn’t have enough pillows to fluff around the house. The problem is with you men, you don’t give your wife enough work today. You are hen pecked and you don’t put them in their place”. Not only did he openly shame this missionary couple, but he continued his pattern of speaking down to and about women. Stories like this are common place at VBM.

Twisting of Scripture

One of the things that first drew me to Vision was the emphasis placed on expository preaching. On one hand, Austin seemed to always give clear Bible sermons at the church that seemed to reflect what the text was saying. On the other hand, during his teaching times and in counselling sessions, Scripture would often be twisted to fit his own narrative or to promote his own goals. If someone would question him on this tactic, he would throw up his hands and begin to berate the person and humiliate them. To those who would speak out against his actions or words, or to be critical in any way, it would be said that they were being used by Satan as a distraction of sorts. It seemed that Austin would teach that anything he was doing must be of God, and by default, anyone not in complete agreement with him was doing the work of the Devil. Examples of his twisted Scripture use are numerous and include mishandle texts on forgiveness, authority, women, and missions.

Abuse in leaving

One sign of the health of any organization is in how people are treated when they leave. Since 2014, I began to notice that some people were leaving our group. These were men and women who were a foundational part of the team. I did not understand why they left as I could not yet see or understand what was really going on. All I knew was there something wasn’t right. Most would leave suddenly and without any explanation. Since we were such a tight knit family, this was very strange to see happen. We were told not to speak to those who left, and if we did, we were being disloyal. I came to later find out that the many who had left before me had already seen what I was now starting to see. I reached out to them and for the first time heard their side of the story. For anyone who had left, the narrative around their reasons for leaving was generally something about being unhappy with doctrinal issues, philosophy of ministry, or that they were simply bitter and angry. Sadly, I believed the VBM leadership when I was told these things. It wasn’t until years later that I would learn the truth. For years these people would be slandered and I believed what I was being told about them by Austin and the other VBM leaders and missionaries. The stories do not stop since I and my family have left. This abusive way in which Vision handles those who try to leave continues to this day.

In Dec 2019 I had reached a breaking point. After a very difficult week in Aug 2019 with AG and Jeff Bush, I realized that we could no longer stay with VBM. It became clear to us that we were living and working in an abusive place and that their values no longer matched what I saw in the Bible. That week it was clear that AG had in just his short time there destroyed the deep friendship that we had with our teammates Travis and Teri. I thought that we were alone until I started to reach out to others who had left. To my surprise, all of us shared similar stories and similar reasons for wanting to leave. What also surprised me was that these matters had already been brought to the attention of leadership but were covered up.

That Dec I wrote a letter that I addressed to Austin, and sent it to the VBM leadership and those close to AG. I hoped that by me confronting AG with his pattern of sin and abuse that he would take action, and if not, the leaders around him would do so. I was saddened to see that not only did AG do nothing at all, that each of the men who received that letter also remained silent, including the current pastor of Vision Baptist Church. Not only that, I and my family were then, months before our official resignation, slandered, removed from all forms of communication from the team, and had missionary funds withheld from us without notice or explanation. AG and the VBM leadership, including the general director Jeff Bush would continue to spread lies about our family. I came to understand then that others were in the same process as we were in leaving. They tried to blame the departure of other missionaries on us, which even further caused division between us and those we considered close friends.

When I would try to speak to VBM leadership about these issues of abuse, I would be told that AG was their friend, mentor, and boss and that they would be standing by him. Not one person inside of VBM or VBC leadership would take what I or others were saying seriously. When pastors would ask me about my reason for leaving VBM, I tried to avoid telling them our true reasons for leaving. I knew that many of them either would not understand or would not believe me. If a pastor were to call VBM and speak to one of the leaders there, VBM would share a narrative about my (and all the other’s) departure that simply was not true. They have withheld our testimony of abuse for years. It is not simply Austin Gardner who has inflicted pain on the lives of those he was meant to serve, but by the covering up of sin to protect their leader, VBM as a whole has done much damage to the lives of many people and continues to do so even now after Austin’s sudden departure from Vision. Austin has given many insincere or passive aggressive apologies in the past only to soon after begin to repeat this same pattern of abuse.

In regards to the recent allegations against Austin brought forth by Becky Earnhart I can make two statements. The first is that despite my not being present 40 years ago during the alleged time of abuse, nor during the 2004 mishandling of said allegation, I can confirm a similar pattern of abuse outlined by Becky. Secondly, I can distinctly remember being told by Chris Gardner (Austin’s son) to never speak to Becky. Oddly, I was told this by Chris on my very first day as an intern in Peru in March of 2010. I had never heard of Becky or her allegations, but Chris felt it necessary to warn me of every speaking to her. A Peruvian lady named Yolanda who helped my wife look after our children during language school in 2010 was scorned after attending an event that included the Earnharts. It was made very clear that we were to stay well away from them and to never listen to anything they might have to say. This type of silencing would certainly not be the last of my experiences as a Vision Missionary.

VBM has functioned in a mafia-like way that is centered around one Jefe, one boss, one mentor. Like a member of the mafia, the life can be exciting and is filled with a lot of perks that we got to enjoy for over a decade. Those benefits came at a high cost, one that I am ashamed that I was willing to pay for as long as I did. It saddens me that so many others continue to pay that price, and it is my prayer that his system will soon be uncovered and dealt with in a biblical manner.