(Originally posted 9/6/21 on projectthailand.net)
In early August, you received my latest prayer letter, which stated that we finally had our visas and would be returning to Thailand September 23. The day after I sent that letter, there were serious public accusations made against the founder and president of our home church and mission board, Austin Gardner.
I have decided that a ministry change is necessary for me.
As background, I want you to know that I love Bro. Gardner. He played a large part after my college graduation in getting me to where I am today. I served a 6-month internship under his leadership in Peru in 2005, then helped him and others start Vision Baptist Church when he left Peru and came to Georgia. He was like a father to me, and was my father in the ministry.
I am gravely concerned about the recent allegations. There are two reasons for that.
First, I have witnessed, not sexual improprieties, but numerous leadership behaviors that go hand-in-hand with the characteristics described in the accuser’s testimony.
- Sinful treatment of subordinates
- Sinful attitudes about church members, other churches, ministries, pastors, and missionaries
- Pride and egomania
- Mishandling of God’s word and ungodly counsel
- Gossip and untrustworthiness
Second, from inside VBM, I have seen their response to the allegations of sexual abuse have been unethical and wholly inadequate, indicative of the idolization of Austin Gardner.
Our hearts break to conclude this way, compelled to expose ungodly behavior, knowing that it will be misunderstood by many, and it will hurt many of our closest friends, but the sin and pervasive culture at Vision Baptist Missions must not continue as it is.
For a documented expose of VBM’s response in the wake of these allegations, click here, where I have documented the accusations and detailed VBM’s inadequate response.
HOW VBM HAS HANDLED THE SCANDAL →
My perspective recognizing the ungodly ministry culture, and why we must leave, is below.
Please read it prayerfully.
Our VBM / Austin Gardner Story
This scandal has forced me to process things that I have been struggling with for a long time.
I have been trying to figure out the right thing to do about glaring problems in our organization and its leadership for a long time. An event like this exaggerates and consolidates situations to actually clarify suspicions, but in the midst of the fog, it is not so easy to discern. It starts wonderfully. If it were otherwise you wouldn't have joined in the first place. And as time progresses you start to see cracks and flaws. But that is natural -- we are all sinners after all, so you learn to forgive and show patience and grace. I told myself a thousand times, "There is no perfect organization. If I went to the most perfect one, still, I would eventually start to see problems there as well, only different ones. So just learn to deal with it, be patient and gracious with people, and do right, no matter if others are or not." I still think that is fairly good logic. But when you are in a dysfunctional system that is "doing so much good" with so many good people, it takes a long time to see the subtle, manipulative and egocentric behavior is far more than run-of-the-mill human weakness. And it is quite confusing, because now you are in deep, and everyone around you is largely gung-ho, so you think you are just taking things too personally or reading into it too much. When you confront, there are concessions and admissions made that sound genuine, but you later realize were meaningless. Your desire to show grace and forgiveness is taken advantage of, but nothing of substance changes. Your trust score just goes down, and that sin is hidden more from you in the future.
I helped start Vision Baptist Church. I was missionary #2 with Vision Baptist Missions. When I first came around there was already a group of several smart, strong, spiritual friends, most of whom had graduated from a Bible college. These acted as a restraint to some of the worst tendencies of Austin Gardner. But over time, they left, mostly to the mission field. The new recruits got younger, and at the same time, the missionaries with the most discernment that I most respected began to resign one-by-one over years. I remained friends with them so it felt much the same to me, but what was slowly happening was that the most mature and strong among us, that provided much-needed balance to our organization, were slowly disappearing and being replaced by younger zealots that did not yet have the discernment or maturity to recognize what was going on, or the strength to stand up against it.
Disciples of Who?
There was a day in Thailand when something clicked for me. We had started a church, and something wonderful was happening. There was a growing group of people that were excited and hungry to grow in their new faith, so we gathered around a large table every day at the church, and just opened up the Bible and spent hours every day falling in love with it -- amazed every day at God's wisdom and grace displayed therein. It was glorious. No Bible college class I ever had held a candle to what we learned through that time together. But one day, I distinctly remember looking up from the head of the table to see about a dozen of the most excited and eager eyes looking back at me. I thought to myself, "I know I could talk every one of these people into going into full-time ministry." Most were young, and in an overwhelmingly Buddhist culture, they had zero preconceptions of what it meant to live the Christian life. They were a blank slate, and it was my grave responsibility to help guide them to maturity. I had a choice to make. Was I going to continue to allow the Holy Spirit and scripture alone to guide their growth, as we had been doing, or should I subtly begin to start hinting that the 'superior' life was full-time ministry, and anything else was inferior. I know what I had been modeled for me, and taught directly by Austin Gardner. Use their genuine desire to grow and serve *God*, and give them small ways to serve *you*. Have them carry your bag for you, be your "personal assistant", serve you. Tell them that by serving 'the man of God' they are serving God. Have them display their humility by showing their submission to you. And as they follow your 'training', you lead them down a trail, step by step, in submission to you, where soon, they are in training to become a pastor / church planter / etc.
The ministerial temptation to manipulate became clear to me that day. Would I choose to make disciples of me, or Jesus? Would I use my trusted place of authority to submit these young believers to the care and direction of the Holy Spirit alone, or would I allow my ambition and desire to be respected by others to move me to consolidate a little power here and begin to establish my kingdom?
As I looked at that room of people that I was taught to manipulate into ministry, I could not do it. The genuine work of God was far more beautiful than Austin's little kingdom. But official policy is that you must start a second church by your 2nd term. Sure it is possible, but numbers are not more important than health. But at Vision, your “accomplishments” determine your rank; and the number of churches you have started is the ultimate bragging right. It trumps all else. The concern for the nationals under your leadership extends as far as they are able to make you look good. Their health and the health of the congregation is faaaar less important. Produce, produce, produce. Pump out churches.
This is also when I realized that what I used to perceive as strength in Austin was not strength, but weakness. So many people so submissive to him used to impress me. "Wow, he is a great leader to have so many devoted followers." In reality, he had failed to resist the temptation time and time again— directing people to submit to him, in the place of God.
After 10 years of distance from the heart of what was happening at Vision, I returned on furlough to a much more radical version of what I left. Many needed restraints (mature believers) were no longer around to bring balance to the force.
I soon became extremely uncomfortable. We had pioneered a new work, alone, in a difficult place. We learned a very difficult language, planted a wonderful and thriving church in a land that was 99% non-Christian. We saw God do some truly amazing things. I had grown more through that experience more than I could have ever imagined. My heart was enlarged, and fresh back from the front lines, I was eager to help the next generation. But anything that challenged Austin's opinion was drowned out by enthusiastic and unquestioning support for whatever Austin's opinion was on the matter. He is the arbiter of truth. Any dissenting opinion was reported and ridiculed. It didn't make sense to me.
This attitude was also in the church, and it made for a very unhealthy church. Also a very segregated one. Missionaries are definitely the higher class, and they are honored in every way imaginable. But your average church member? “Losers”, mostly—except for the ones that were rich and could help fund him. But the pinnacle of spirituality is being a missionary -- specifically a missionary exactly like him, and therefore necessarily submissive to him.
This was my home church, and I was seeing the mature result of what I had been taught to reproduce.
And it was wrong.
But I am leading a ministry in Thailand and need this to be crystal clear so that I don't reproduce what is clearly extremely weak. I talked to everyone I thought might be able to help me clarify things including pastors, missionaries, in our circles, out of our circles, ones that know me and don't. I read books, and tried to figure it all out. I've learned and considered and sought. I don't have it all figured out, but I have enough figured out to know that the current road I'm headed down isn't going to lead to the healthy, God-honoring ministry and fruit that I want to have a part in.
I know it sounds like a few counsellors will be able to make it all clear real quick, but this just culminates what I have been considering for 10 years, and intently for the past 5, and it is difficult to discern. Especially when you are alone in a country and culture that is so void of Christianity and you are supposed to be the one that pioneers the path for everyone to follow.
The weakness of Vision's ministry philosophy, embodied in Austin's narcissistic personality is extremely clear to me, but so is my own weakness. I now know that I desperately need others to strengthen me and correct for my weaknesses. The man-centered ministry culture that Austin has created is a path of destruction. Missions is already a high-casualty occupation, but sending out dozens of lightly-trained, theologically anemic Austin-clones is a recipe for disaster. Too many of my close friends have been broken trying to copy-paste what he taught them to do, and then made fun of in a million different ways if it wasn't ‘successful'. If you do what he says, you will succeed 100%, and if you did not succeed, it was because you didn't do what he said.
You see how that works? He is always right, and you are always wrong and should listen to him more. It shames anyone who doesn't measure up. So you act stronger than you actually are, for fear of being categorized with the losers, and you don't get the help you desperately need.
I would like to return to Thailand and work in a healthy team environment that includes others above, below, and around me, but that is just not the situation, and this has made that abundantly clear. And now, we have no home church that knows us. We have no mission organization that we trust and that knows us. Sure, we could join a church, and join a different board real quick. But that would just be symbolic, and I need real support, accountability, and help. I just think it's far too dangerous to put myself and family back into after all of this. I don't know what “missions” should look like, but it is something different than this. And since I don't even know what it should look like, I don't know how I am supposed to create it, or even recognize a place of ministry that I could join and thrive in. So, even with the greatest of intentions and all the spirituality I can muster, it doesnt change the perilous circumstances I’d be walking into.
The isolation that this scandal creates for us is bad, but it is 10x worse in Thailand. While adding 20x the pressure and responsibility.
So, I have tried to meditate on these things and hopefully things would marinate and become more clear, but they aren't clear enough. It's too much for me. And it's not just a ‘you need to trust God more’ kind of too much, it is a ‘this is too much to be correct or wise’ kind of too much.
I’d like to continue this experiment and come out the other side having figured it all out, and write a book and amaze everyone, but I just don't see that happening. I’ve learned a ton, gained lots of grey hair that fell out, and I think our hearts have been enlarged, but they are also breaking.
I have disassociated myself from Vision Baptist Missions and Vision Baptist Church. I must also resign my full-time missionary role for now.
Of course it hurts to leave what has been my purpose for a long long time, but the work accomplished wasn't about me and doesn't end with me. I have had a part in it, and I am thankful how we were able to invest in and help people— I think we have done that in a good way having invested thousands of hours in discipleship, help, and loving people, so there is no regret there. But I'm concerned about leading my family and Thailand well, and do not see how returning will be leading either one well.
Some may interpret this frustrating pursuit, ending here with a scandal, as not being spiritual or strong, but I disagree. These are high and heavy questions and hard to discern. And I think we can trust the Lord to lead us, despite us. We aren't running from Him. But following Him doesn't mean that there is going to be a simplistic and satisfactory answer to all our questions here and now, or even in this life. We are broken, the situation is broken, and the world is broken. And he will restore it all one day—not I. I look forward to that day when everything is made right, and I hope in that. He is the Savior not I. He is Sovereign, not I. I am just a servant that He allowed to serve a while in Thailand, and now looks like I'll be serving somewhere else. I am ok with that. And everything I know about God’s tender and gracious heart displayed in the Gospel tells me that he is too.
I realize that this is a virtual “overturning of the tables in the temple”, but I am thankful that this is consistent with the character of Jesus who died for His church, and calls it to stand for the truth. Calling out unrepentant and ungodly leadership is not hurting the church, it is serving it.
But it is going to be costly. I do not know how God will provide for us next, but I trust that He will.
As our family makes this sudden and unplanned transition, would you consider helping us financially for a few months?
It was very clear up to this point what we must do for the sake of the truth and for the many voices/victims that have been hushed in the past, to stand against it before more harm is done, but from here it is completely unknown. I believe the wisest thing for our family at this time is to take a break from full-time ministry for a while, and allow some time to regroup and heal. We want to find a healthy church, centered on the glorious God of the Gospel, and a healthy community of believers that we can serve with, and maybe one day the Lord will lead us back to Thailand.
We still have much to do in Thailand as well to wrap things up there. We must help the church there to transition to life without us. Basically everything we own is there, so we have to determine what to do with our personal belongings, whether that be shipping, selling, or what.
Once that is done, I will be identifying possibilities and looking for a job while we also secure a place to live, find another church, decide on school for our three daughters, etc.. Please, please pray with us for the people in Thailand, for God’s healing, and for his will to be done as we move forward in His grace.
Vision Baptist Missions has committed to handle our support for 3 more months, but I have set up a separate donation form that does not go through Vision, if you would like to help us that way instead.
If you want to give monthly for a few months, your email confirmation will contain a link where you will be able to manage (stop) your donation at any point in the future.
Some Quick Rebuttals for what I anticipate defenders of Austin will say of me:
“He’s against church planting and man training, Bc that’s our philosophy” - No, I am against leadership and training that rejects biblical accountability, invokes God’s name to build their own name, and tears down everyone outside of you.
“He couldn’t hack it as a Vision missionary, because we are ‘elite’ and have high standards.” - One of their Classic put downs of people that leave them with prejudice. But sorry, no. I would argue that I hacked it just fine.
“Austin is gone, so all better!” - No, now it is Hydra. The men that questioned him the very least were put in leadership from the top down, and they continue to defend and perpetuate this exact culture and philosophy.
- Jeff Bush - General Director
- Jason Holt - South American Director
- Mark Tolson - Asia Director
- Mark Coffey - Africa Director
- Travis Snode - European Director
- Robert Canfield - African Representative
- Brendon Wung - Deputation Director (update: Brendon has since resigned)
”Isolating himself is his own fault, we offer more help than anyone.” - And when your help is twisted and insufficient?
“He’s bitter / discouraged / depressed / Calvinist / a loser” - the Classic reasons given for anyone who has had a problem with them.
“He is being vengeful because he’s angry. He should forgive and move along quietly if he disagrees.” - I am angry at the sin that continues unrepented of after multiple confrontations. I am concerned for the victims that have their lives ruined. Half-measures have not worked.
“This is Gossip, talebearing, etc.” - When we point out sin in the church we are doing what Paul did with Peter: withstanding him to the face, calling him to live out the gospel that he preaches and believes in. We are saying that the gospel should inform leadership in the church and that if it does not, we have no message left worth preaching. To publicly expose the sin of elders (I Tim 5:20-21) is a good and gospel fight. We are engaged in a battle that has the gospel at the very center. We are attacking cancer in the bride of Christ.
Furthermore, it is common for people to ignore Austin’s daily gossip and slander and to excuse it as his style of helping others, but then when someone speaks the truth (not gossip, not slander) suddenly these defenders of Austin have all sorts of time and energy to call that person out.
"This is not the Biblical way of handling it." - This is not a new issue that began August 3rd with Becky's video. It is sin that has been confronted MANY times by MANY people in the past— individually, and in groups—following the Biblical pattern. But rather than it resulting in repentance, the biblical process has been short-circuited by those required to hold him accountable, and the sin of Austin Gardner has been covered and continues. More than that, the leadership that has covered his sin in the past, now lead in many of the same ways themselves. It has grown into the culture of the organization as a whole. This is evidenced in the recent handling of the allegations, but it is only the latest symptom of a much deeper problem at VBM that I and others have confronted in the past. So, what do you do when those in authority refuse to hold him accountable? What happens when you take it to the "church" and the church excuses the sin?
- 1 Tim 5:19-21 - __19 Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. 20 Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. 21 I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality.__
- "2-3 witnesses" (19) - MANY have addressed these issues privately, then with a group.
- "rebuke before all" (20) - Disqualifying sin should be publicly exposed and denounced, because sin is serious, especially in leadership. New Testament examples include within a local church congregation, and between churches (Paul rebuking Peter, for instance.)
- (21) Partiality and preference for leaders we love tempts us to overlook sin, but it must be done.
"All of this because of ONE accusation against one man??" - The public accusation by Becky definitely accelerated and clarified things. But if you read the above, it is clear that there are deeper issues only further displayed in the recent handling.
"This is slander" - Slander is false.