Mercy Ministries: Lives damaged. Hope destroyed.

This piece by Mercy Survivor Grace is a poignant and sobering reflection on the damage that Mercy Ministries continues to cause countless young women.  This piece was originally published on her personal blog and can be viewed at To The Light.

I have hidden previous posts due to information that could potentially identify me, but this one is important enough to re-post. (Admittedly, there is always a risk of being identified when sharing personal stories, but I’d rather not have my name out there for all to see anymore.)

Note: This is an essay I wrote for my composition class. I have cited sources where appropriate – if you see one I missed, comment and let me know.

I had just finished my first year of college. I had wanted so badly to succeed academically, but my recurrent depression had gotten in the way once again. With a GPA of less than 2.0, the college would not accept me back for another year. I was on my way home, back to an emotionally abusive environment that I knew would only make things worse. I wasn’t sure I’d survive the summer; I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

One thing gave me hope: a program called Mercy Ministries. They offered free residential treatment for young women dealing with “life-controlling issues,” including eating disorders, self-injury, chemical dependency, depression, unplanned pregnancy, and abuse issues. They promised individual and group counseling, Biblical teaching, discipleship, and true healing and transformation in six to nine months. With three homes in the United States (along with several others worldwide), a 20-year history, and impressive success stories on the website, I was sold.

I entered Mercy’s St. Louis home on November 15, 2006. One month later I returned home, confused and withdrawn. Mercy Ministries, rather than being the successful Christian treatment program it claims to be, is an unqualified organization that uses questionable treatment methods that have a damaging effect on the women it attempts to help.

One former resident describes Mercy Ministries’ staff as “power tripping 20 something year olds with no qualifications in mental health, no compassion, and no Jesus.” (Sean the Blogonaut). While this is very much a generalization, and by no means true of all Mercy Ministries staff members, other women have also spoken about negative experiences with staff. When Megan Smith, a former resident of Mercy Australia, talked to staff about her increasing problems with self-injury, she was reprimanded and called a “fruitcake.” “The [staff member] said I was attention seeking, bringing negative energy to the environment and taking her valuable time away from girls who really need her.” (Pollard, “Prayed to cast Satan”). Another resident who had problems with panic attacks was also accused of “acting for attention.” She says, “It was obvious that the staff had little to no knowledge of how to help me, or how to let me help myself.” (Sean the Blogonaut). Personally, I found most of the staff members to be distant and unapproachable. None of them really seemed to care to get to know me, and I felt that they always had the attitude of “Don’t bother me; I’m busy.” Yet each one had their three or four favorites that they always greeted warmly and took time to talk to. The rest of us were simply overlooked.

Psychological treatment in the home was also inadequate. Judy Watson, the executive manager of programs at Mercy Ministries Australia, told the Sydney Morning Herald that, “Mercy Ministries counseling staff are required to have tertiary education and qualifications in counseling, social work, or psychology.” (Pollard, “Prayed to cast Satan”) The women who have been through the program, however, say differently. “The ‘counsellor’ I had was not qualified to treat mental illness…nobody there was,” said Megan Smith. “She was in the middle of a Mercy ‘in-house program’ to teach her how to prayer counsel.” (Brunero). Victoria Lucas, one of the few American women who has spoken out about Mercy, also states that her counselor “was not a licensed psychologist, or trained in any sort of eating disorders counseling.” (Sean the Blogonaut). My own counselor in St. Louis told me that when she first started working at Mercy Ministries, she did not feel qualified and was unsure if she really could help the young women she was required to counsel. I was never told what qualifications she had, and that statement has made me wonder if she had any at all. I agree with an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald that states, “An organization holding itself out as providing mental health services should be subject to rigorous medical standards, and employ qualified staff for accredited programs of treatment.” (“Quality of Mercy”) Mercy Ministries clearly does not.

Mercy makes it clear that they are not a medical facility, but tells women that they will have access to medical treatment if needed. What the women are not told is that they will not be allowed to talk to a doctor alone, but will be accompanied by a Mercy staff member. Judy Watson confirmed this to the press. The Australian Medical Association said in response that, “forcing sick, vulnerable patients to see a doctor in the presence of an unrelated third party was both dangerous and potentially unethical.” (Pollard, “Ethics, financial probity”).

Some former residents have also disclosed that they were denied medical treatment or medication when it was needed. Rhiannon Canham-Wright, who spoke to the Sydney Morning Herald about the program has asthma but was not allowed to carry her inhaler with her. “Every time I had an asthma attack they told me to stop acting,” she says. “I was punished, I had to do an assignment about why God believes lying is wrong.” (Pollard, “Prayed to cast Satan”). While I was in the St. Louis home, there was one girl who would get very carsick. I remember seeing her crying and telling staff that she felt sick. She was told to stop crying, to pray about it, and stop speaking negative things (i.e., that she felt sick) over her life. Other residents have told stories of not being allowed sleeping medication or basic painkillers when they were needed (Pollard, “Hell or a godsend”). One woman got a skin infection that became an abscess before staff would allow her to see a doctor (Sean the Blogonaut).

The counseling methods used at Mercy Ministries have also been found to be questionable. They follow a controversial treatment model known as “Restoring the Foundations.” It was originally devised by charismatic ministers Chester and Betsey Kylstra, who claim the program was revealed to them by God while they were in Bible college (Smietana). Training people to counsel using this method can be done in as little as two weeks. RTF “counselors” do not need to have a degree or any sort of accreditation (Mercy Ministries: Truth). The program is split into four different areas: Sins of the Fathers and Resulting Curses, Ungodly Beliefs, Soul/Spirit Hurts, and Demonic Oppression (Smietana). Mercy claims to offer individualized programs, but according to one former resident, “The RTF counseling model was used for all residents across the board regardless of their individual illnesses…The sole focus of my treatment was on taking me through the generic steps listed in the RTF counseling manual.” (Mercy Ministries: Truth). Other women have confirmed that Restoring the Foundations was the focus of their treatment as well (Sean the Blogonaut).

My counseling sessions at Mercy Ministries were once weekly, and consisted of prayer and going over the next few pages of the Restoring the Foundations materials. My counselor would then give me my assignments for the week, usually the RTF materials along with a book to read or tape series to listen to and a handwritten one-page response. I have seen several counselors, both before and after my time at Mercy, and each of them worked to help me specifically with the issues that brought me to see them. At Mercy, my depression and emotional abuse issues were barely mentioned, and my self-injury was only mentioned to put more restrictions on me. Instead, my first major assignment was to listen to Joyce Meyer’s tape series on “Bitterness, Resentment, and Unforgiveness,” and make a list of everyone in my life I needed to forgive. This confused me. I was still very hurt by the actions of certain people on that list, and the effects of their abuse have permeated my entire personality and sense of self. Rather than helping me, the tape series and immediate focus on forgiveness made me feel like I was at fault rather than the people who had abused me. I wrote in my journal:

I’m learning some things about myself. Some things I don’t really like. And it’s hard. And confusing. I don’t know what to think. Because as I look at myself, I’m realizing that maybe some of my problems are my fault. Some of my issues with my family are my fault. Some of the things they say about me are true. I am selfish and lazy. I can’t help but feel like maybe it’s all my fault. Maybe it was all in my head. Maybe I brought it on myself. Did I? I don’t know anymore.

One part of the Restoring the Foundations model that I did not experience in my short time at Mercy was the final section on Demonic Oppression. Nancy Alcorn, the founder of Mercy Ministries, claims that Mercy’s approach to issues is “superior to conventional psychology, which often relies on psychotropic medication…girls with issues like sexual promiscuity or eating disorders have opened themselves up to demonic activity.” (Smietana). Mental illnesses are also seen as demonic activity or “spirits of oppression,” rather than severe medical conditions (Sean the Blogonaut). These beliefs have led to one of the most disturbing experiences described by former residents: exorcisms. When her panic attacks did not improve with prayer and Bible reading, staff members told one resident that demons were causing her symptoms. She was taken into an office and forced to have an exorcism:

They shut the door and pulled the curtains so that nobody could see in, then had me stand in the middle of the room while they laid hands on me, and cast the demons out of me, one by one, calling them by name. They spoke loudly, then quietly, then loudly again, alternating between speaking in tongues and speaking in English. I wanted to cry. I didn’t understand why they were yelling. I was so frightened.

She was then told that the panic attacks would not return, since the demons had been cast out. When she had another panic attack two days later, Mercy staff told her that she was either “acting for attention,” or she had “knowingly and willingly” invited the demons back in (Sean the Blogonaut). Despite similar stories from other residents, Peter Irvine, Mercy Australia’s former managing director, insists, “Claims of exorcism are simply untrue.” (Irvine).

Although Mercy Ministries is the only long-term residential program I have ever had experience with, I have also spent time in the adolescent behavioral health ward of a local hospital, as well as a county-run group home by the name of Willow Haven. I look back on both of these experiences as beneficial, yet I believe my time at Mercy did more harm than good. In Willow Haven and the hospital ward, the rules were sometimes strict but very clear and simple. Mercy’s rules were complex, and sometimes seemingly made up by staff on the spot. Rather than making me feel safe, the rules at Mercy kept me in constant fear of being disciplined for unintentionally doing something wrong.
A feeling of being safe and protected, something I rarely experienced at home, is one of my best memories of both the hospital and the group home. Unlike Mercy, the staff were warm and approachable, and I felt free to express my emotions and talk about my struggles. Mercy Ministries discourages the expression of negative emotions, and does not allow residents to speak to each other about what brought them to the home or any related issues. I had a hard time knowing what was acceptable to talk about and what was not. One issue with the emotional abuse I have experienced was being made to feel that I talk too much, no one wants to listen to me, and I have nothing to say worth hearing. I had been a very quiet and closed-off person for years because of this. It was an area I had been making progress in before my stay at Mercy Ministries; unfortunately, my time there resulted in a major setback. I have often said since leaving the program that I feel like Mercy stole my voice. Although there are still many improvements to be made in public mental health services, in my experience they have been many times more helpful than Mercy Ministries.
Just because Mercy is a Christian organization, that does not automatically mean it is a trustworthy one. This is an assumption I was guilty of making when I first looked into the program, and I believe many people who support Mercy Ministries have made the same mistake. I do not fault them for this; Mercy is a secretive and deceptive organization, and until recently the only information widely available has been from the organization itself. I am very grateful to the three Australian women who chose to speak to the Sydney Morning Herald about their experiences in March of 2008, triggering many other women to speak up as well, revealing the truth about Mercy to the world. A friend of one of these women commented, “If Mercy Ministries was run the way they claim to run on their website, then nothing would really be wrong. It’s what goes on behind closed doors that is secretive, and extremely abusive.” (Journeys in Between).
Some people have accused these women of being bitter and angry towards Mercy, and Peter Irvine responded to the news articles with the statement that the girls “have psychological issues” and “make a lot of things up.” (“Group denies claims”). It is important to note that not all of the girls who have spoken out about the program since the news articles were kicked out of Mercy. Some left of their own accord, and others are even graduates of the program (Sean the Blogonaut). Naomi Johnson, one of the women who spoke to the Sydney Morning Herald, even admits that she does not believe Mercy intended any harm, although they certainly caused plenty in her life alone (Journeys in Between). “Even now, three years on, I don’t socialize widely,” she says, “I don’t work full time, I don’t study full time…there is still a lot of remnants hanging around from my time at Mercy.” (Pollard, “Prayed to cast Satan”). In response to the claims that she is simply bitter, Naomi says, “…it’s not bitterness I feel…what I feel is a heartbreaking cry: ‘Why wasn’t I worth it?'” (Journeys in Between).
Despite the harm Mercy Ministries has done to Naomi and countless other young women, Peter Irvine claims that the program is ninety-five percent successful (“Group denies claims”). There are many success stories on the website, and I know several successful graduates personally. I do not doubt that Mercy Ministries has helped some girls, and many others may graduate from the program fully believing that they have been cured. Unfortunately, as one former resident writes:
There is little said of individuals who do not maintain recovery after leaving the program and by coercing its residents into submission, thus removing their ability to think critically or make independent decisions, it is likely that, far from “walking in freedom, a sizable number of its graduates relapse upon leaving the program’s cult-like, closely controlled environment (Mercy Ministries: Truth).

Even if some girls have been truly helped by the Mercy Ministries program, the truth is that many other girls have been harmed, myself included. Over a dozen women have come forward in Australia, and as the news is reaching the United States, more women here are speaking out as well (Pollard, “Mercy to close home”). However, due to the cult-like mind control techniques used by the organization, many women are still too scared to speak up. I still struggle with a lot of shame and fear myself. As Naomi Johnson explained, “even though [you] know that they were wrong, there is still a part of you that just even now wants to be accepted by Mercy. (Pollard, “Prayed to cast Satan).

Mercy Ministries promises true healing and complete transformation to hurting and vulnerable young women around the world. As the tagline on their website once read, “a place where unconditional love conquers all.” Unfortunately, without qualified staff and proven methods of treatment, love is not enough to cure women from severe problems such as mental illness and addiction. People need to know the truth. This organization is not what it claims to be. The extravagant promises, for many, go unfulfilled, and when the program they believed was their last hope has failed them, they are left broken. Mercy Ministries may have began with good intentions, but the damage it has done outweighs their most impressive success stories. We must not let this debacle continue.
Works cited
Brunero, Tim. “How to cure anorexia with exorcisms.” Live News. 18 July 2008.
“Group denies occult claims.” The Advertiser. 19 March 2008.
Journeys in Between. Matt Stone. 17 March 2008.
Irvine, Peter. “On a mercy mission to rescue lives.” Sydney Morning Herald. 24 March 2008.
Mercy Ministries of America: Truth Will Out. 21 June 2008.
Pollard, Ruth. “Ethics, financial probity for review.” Sydney Morning Herald. 18 March 2008.
Pollard, Ruth. “Hell or a godsend: women tell their stories.” Sydney Morning Herald. 18 March 2008.
Pollard, Ruth. “Mercy Ministries to close home.” Sydney Morning Herald. 7 June 2008.
Pollard, Ruth. “They prayed to cast Satan from my body.” Sydney Morning Herald. 17 March 2008.
“Quality of Mercy looks strained.” Sydney Morning Herald. 18 March 2008.
Sean the Blogonaut. 17 March 2008.
Smietana, Bob. “Mercy Ministries has high success rate.” The Tennessean. 1 August 2008.

Written By Mercy Survivors

Support for survivors of Mercy Ministries

One Comment on “Mercy Ministries: Lives damaged. Hope destroyed.

  1. Drew

    August 5, 2014 at 6:26

    terrific article. as a theophostic counseling surivor this one really hit home for me. you’ve accurately captured the other side of the story. the darker side of the business itself. thank you for taking time to out a spotlight on this program. hopefully it will help people make the wisest choice when searching for a therapist.

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