“Mercy Multiplied is subject of Slate exposé”

This article by Warren Throckmorton was originally published by Patheos and can be viewed here.

Mercy Multiplied (formerly known as Mercy Ministries) consists of several in-patient facilities which claim to assist young women recover from abuse, eating disorders, and various other mental and emotional conditions. On Sunday, online magazine Slate revealed unflattering and disturbing results of an investigation of the ministry through the eyes of several former patients.

If the reports are true, then Mercy Multiplied should be shut down.

These stories reminded me of the 1990s controversy over repressed memories and especially the Philadelphia area counseling center Genesis Associates. Former Mercy girls told Slate they were led to believe they had been sexually abused and involved in sex trafficking via imagery techniques. They claim that in counseling sessions girls were told by their counselors that God had reveal certain past abusive events. Residents were urged to cast out demons and refuse needed medications.

There seemed to be some similarities to the demon trials described by Mark Driscoll.

This morning, I asked Mercy Multiplied’s Director of Communication Jackie Quinn for a response to the Slate article but did not get a response.

One cannot know if these allegations are true or wide spread but it does provide a cautionary tale to people who are considering counseling to avoid these kind of techniques. I hope Mercy Multiplied will address the possible use of visualization techniques where false memories might be implanted.

From the mid-1990s, here are some clips of Genesis Associates from the documentary Divided Memories.

“The Mercy Girls”

This investigative piece by Jennifer Miller was originally appeared as a cover story in Slate, and can be viewed here.

These young women enrolled in an influential Christian counseling center for help.  That’s not what they found.

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1. “He grants sleep to those he loves”

Life wasn’t easy for Hayley Baker before the rages began, but it was tolerable. She attended a small Christian college near her home in Folsom, California, where she majored in architecture, studied astronomy in her spare time, played the harp, and taught herself to make sushi. But Hayley also suffered from major depression, social anxiety, occasional suicidal ideation, and an eating disorder. Doctors couldn’t agree on how to help her—since childhood, they’d cycled her through 15 different drugs—though most attributed her problems to childhood abuse. Caretakers had repeatedly molested her between the ages of 3 and 6, and she’d been humiliated at age 4 by a babysitter who tied her to a chair and taped her mouth shut while the sitter’s own kids ran around her in circles. Her anxiety became so extreme that she dropped out of school.

In her mid-20s, Hayley was diagnosed with a heart condition, which doctors told her was a side effect of her medications. But when she stopped taking the drugs, she lost control, punching walls and cutting herself out of frustration. Once, her mother became so frightened for her own safety that she called the police. Hayley spent the night in the psychiatric ward. Meanwhile, the family could barely cover its expenses, let alone Hayley’s therapy. “It was a dark time,” she says.

Then, in 2009, something cut through the darkness like a signal fire. Mercy Ministries, a network of in-patient facilities that treat young women with mental illness, addiction, and life trauma, and which has the backing of some of the most prominent names in evangelical Christianity, was opening a new residence in Lincoln, California, close to Hayley’s home. Hayley knew about Mercy because a Christian band she liked, Point of Grace, supported the program. And she learned online that Mercy’s unusual fusion of biblically inspired healing and what it described on its website as “best-practice clinical interventions” could help hurting women like herself “break free from the destructive cycles controlling their lives.” Mercy’s literature boasted that its four U.S. residences were state-licensed and that 80 percent of its counselors had master’s degrees in psychology, social work, or a related field. Hayley’s family believed that the Lincoln home would provide her with a truly integrated approach to mental health—the secular and the spiritual. Best of all, Mercy was free.

Hayley, who is a devout Christian, believed God had answered her prayers. “I thought the new home was a sign,” she says. “I wanted to believe that God would make a change in me. I wanted it desperately.”

Like all new applicants, Hayley landed on a waitlist. She was instructed to read books by Mercy’s founder, Nancy Alcorn, and testimonials from Mercy graduates who had overcome all manner of mental illness and trauma. She discussed audio sermons and response papers over the phone with a Mercy intake representative. After seven months, Hayley’s acceptance letter finally arrived.

Compared to the tidy bungalow where Hayley lived with her mother, Mercy’s sprawling, light-filled facility was magnificent. On the first day, the staff was every bit as welcoming as Mercy’s literature had promised. But that night, alone in a strange dorm room, Hayley roiled with panic. She asked attendants for her prescription Xanax but says they refused. Instead, they offered to pray with her and gave her a sheet of paper titled “Peaceful Sleep,” with a bolded line from Psalm 127:2: “He grants sleep to those he loves.” Hayley tried to pray, but sleep didn’t come. For the rest of the night, she lay awake, still panicking, wondering if God had abandoned her.

Peaceful sleep

Over her seven months at Mercy, Hayley says staff often denied her requests for Xanax, instead emphasizing prayer as a better way to treat the panic attacks. She also says she was punished with extra reading and chores for infractions as minor as sharing her CD player. When her brother died unexpectedly a month into her stay, Mercy didn’t bring in the certified grief counselor that her parents had requested, she says. According to Hayley, Mercy staff unswervingly held her and others to a one-size-fits-all counseling curriculum. Six years after leaving Mercy, Hayley continues to wrestle with mental illness.

Training opportunity

Mercy—which, after 32 years of operating as Mercy Ministries, rebranded as Mercy Multiplied this past October—touts that upward of 3,000 women have come to one of its centers somehow broken and left feeling whole. Hayley desperately wanted to be one of them. Instead she says she encountered a program that demanded total submission to its methods and to God. It was, and is, a place that treats the devil as something frighteningly real—the kind of approach that may work for many residents but overwhelms others with guilt and fear.

In a larger sense, Mercy illustrates what happens when a hard-line, religiously oriented organization inserts itself into a gaping hole in the United States’ mental heath system. Because organizations like Mercy are barely subject to government oversight, it’s likely not an anomaly.

For all these reasons, Hayley and others want to drag Mercy’s transgressions into the light. In the years since her time at the Lincoln facility, Hayley has connected with a group of Mercy alumnae, their families, and former staff. They call themselves the “Mercy Survivors,” and since 2009 they have communicated through two private email lists. The 14 former residents and five families I interviewed for this story—all members of those lists—say that Mercy emphasizes faith healing, despite marketing language that suggests a strong embrace of scientifically based treatments. They say the program pressures, guilts, and spiritually manipulates residents into following a counseling model that treats every problem, from anorexia to childhood abuse, the exact same way. They say Mercy staff’s lack of formal clinical training puts mentally ill or traumatized clients at greater psychological risk, even pushing them deeper into depression and addiction. Some say that under the guidance of their counselors, several Mercy residents falsely accused their families of horrific abuse. Parents have watched their daughters vanish from their lives after exiting the program, in some cases without any explanation.

These accusations shouldn’t damn all religiously based therapy. Academics in psychiatry, neuroscience, and biomedical ethics acknowledge that purely secular mental health approaches may have little success with devout patients. The fusion of secular and spiritual interventions has been shown to succeed where the former alone has failed, sparking a debate among mental health professionals over the most effective ways to combine the two. Proponents of such joint approaches are now actively trying to bridge the wide historical gap between the secular mental health community and the church.

At the same time, the booming field of strictly Christian counseling is almost entirely unregulated by the medical and psychological establishments, in part due to a lack of consensus among Christians about what “Christian counseling” should look like. It is here that a program like Mercy can flourish, by harnessing Christian skepticism of the country’s secular mental health system while simultaneously taking advantage of that system’s language and regulatory holes.

Hayley Baker and the other Mercy Survivors did not understand that impersonal medical bureaucracy offers certain standards and protections that a religious organization lacks. What they saw was an organization that claimed to be an engine of God and that would heal them.

2. “Jesus did not say to medicate a demon”

With its purported emphasis on clinical best practices, Mercy plays both sides of a tension within modern psychiatric practice that stretches back to its roots. The first psychiatric communities were church-based—the Catholic Church provided unprecedented care for the mentally ill in 14th-century Geel, Belgium, and 19th-century Quakers started America’s first psychiatric facilities. But the “fathers of psychology,” like Sigmund Freud, Ivan Pavlov, and Erich Fromm, were atheists. “Many saw faith as mental illness,” says Matthew Stanford, a Baylor University psychologist who studies the fusion of secular medicine and religious belief, as well as CEO of the Hope and Healing Center in Houston. “Freud thought religion was neurosis.”

Meanwhile, some faithful were angered by the growing popularity of psychotherapy and believed that proponents of psychopharmacological treatment were playing God. This response crystallized in the 1970s with the Biblical Counseling Movement, founded by Jay Adams, a Presbyterian pastor who believed mental illness was a sign of spiritual and moral corruption. Mercy doesn’t fit squarely in the Biblical Counseling camp, but at least some of the time, it channels the movement’s suspicions of mainstream care. When Mercy’s leaders speak to mainline Christians, they present themselves as “integrationists” in favor of fusing spiritual and secular health interventions. But when Mercy’s founder, Nancy Alcorn, addresses a more conservative audience, she offers an entirely different message.

Alcorn became born again as a young woman, after injuries ended her dream of playing college basketball. She went on to work as an athletic director for at-risk youth at the Tennessee Department of Corrections and in the Emergency Child Protective Services unit at Nashville’s Department of Children’s Services. But in 1983, she claims in her writings, God told her that if she committed to healing troubled girls free of charge and without government funding, then he would personally set up “divine connections” to help her succeed. The first Mercy home opened in Monroe, Louisiana, that same year.

Divine or not, those connections have grown Mercy’s operating budget to $8.5 million (and Alcorn’s salary to $242,598 as of 2014, according to tax documents). Its funding stems from churches nationwide and wealthy Christian power players such as personal finance guru Dave Ramsey, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Grammy-winning gospel singer CeCe Winans, and Los Angeles Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who donates annually to Mercy through a celebrity softball game fundraiser. Popular Charismatic Christian movement evangelist Joyce Meyer has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Mercy and helped open the program’s residence outside St. Louis. Mercy runs four homes in the United States (three solely for adults and one that also houses pregnant teens) and has affiliates in Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand. It has also purchased land in North Carolina and Florida for more homes. (Alcorn declined to be interviewed for this article.)

The 61-year-old Alcorn resembles a smoothly preserved woman of about 45, her cornsilk hair and tanned skin as flawless as her favored leather jackets and vests, her friendly twang and photogenic smile masking the fierce intensity of her faith. She believes that mainstream programs like the ones she used to administer don’t address the generational patterns and underlying traumas that make young adults unstable. “In secular treatment, the focus is on changing behavior, which is temporary and gives surface results,” she writes in her book Ditch the Baggage, Change Your Life. “Behavior modification is not the answer. It offers no heart change.”

The seven-part counseling model Alcorn created was originally called Restoring the Foundations. It leads residents through steps including choosing to forgive one’s abusers, eradicating negative self-perceptions, and overcoming toxic behaviors that Alcorn believed passed spiritually through the family line. Through Jesus Christ, Alcorn writes, women can overcome oppressive forces in their lives, which she describes as the schemes and deceptions of the “enemy.”

Generational patterns

Mercy doesn’t require its counselors to be licensed mental health practitioners, which Christy Singleton, Mercy’s executive director, confirmed in an email. Moreover, Mercy’s licensed counselors or those in training are forbidden to practice psychotherapy, alleges one former counselor who worked for the organization between 2011 and 2012. “They say they do clinical interventions, but I wasn’t allowed to use my clinical experience,” she says. (She requested anonymity so as not to jeopardize her current employment as a secular psychologist.) Instead, the counselor said, executives in Nashville instructed her to walk each woman through the same seven-step counseling model and assign a prescribed regimen of readings, response papers, and audio sermons, which residents were meant to complete as homework before their weekly one-on-one counseling sessions.

Alcorn doesn’t describe the doctrinal origins of Mercy’s counseling in her writings, but Stanford says the Mercy model appears to combine two religious philosophies, Theophostic Prayer Ministry and Restoring the Foundations Ministry. (Alcorn’s original counseling model and RTF Ministry share a name and are similar but not identical.) Both are rooted in the Charismatic Christian movement, which believes in spiritual warfare, the gifts and healing powers of the Holy Spirit, prophesy, the laying of hands to anoint or empower an ailing individual, and salvation from demonic forces through deliverance. “We’re talking about demons in the literal sense,” says Stanford. “[Practitioners might say] ‘You have a spirit of depression,’ meaning an actual demon is causing you to be depressed. Or you could be experiencing depression because generations ago in your family, someone gave an opening for the demonic.”

Multiple former Mercy residents told me that staff members shouted at demons to flee their bodies. Bethany M., a 2007 resident of Mercy’s St. Louis home (who asked that Slate withhold her last name due to privacy concerns) says staff threatened to expel her from the program if she didn’t let a visiting evangelist lay hands and prophesy over her during a sermon. When mononucleosis swept through the Lincoln home, Hayley says staff blamed the outbreak on evil spirits and asked the residents to walk through the halls calling for the spirits’ banishment.

Mercy’s public statements on demons are inconsistent. Its website states that the group does “not perform or endorse exorcisms.” And Singleton says Mercy neither emphasizes Charismatic teachings nor mandates the laying of hands on residents. The enemy, she says, isn’t some evil force “but the lies we tell ourselves.” Yet in a 2008 speech at the Capital Christian Center in Sacramento, Alcorn said that Mercy “deals with areas of demonic oppression.” Then she laid out her feelings on the matter: “If there’s demonic activity, like if somebody has opened themselves up to the spirit of lust or pornography or lots of promiscuous sexual activity, then we’ve opened the door for demonic powers. And secular psychiatrists want to medicate things like that, but Jesus did not say to medicate a demon. He said to cast them out. And that’s supposed to be a part of normal Christianity.”

Today, the sixth step in Alcorn’s seven-step counseling model is called Freedom From Oppression—but before 2009, it was called “Demonic Oppression,” according to three former residents. Mercy changed the name shortly after administrators at Mercy-branded facilities in Australia were found to have stolen residents’ welfare checks and local papers reported that employees at these homes were practicing exorcisms. Sarah Grech, a co-manager of the Mercy Survivor network, who lived in Mercy’s Sydney home in 2006, knew of girls “who were kind of pounced on without notice, being held down to the floor, with staff screaming at the girl saying ‘shut up!’ when she tried to speak or protest because that was seen as a demon speaking.”

After Australian authorities shut down the country’s two residences, Alcorn said that Mercy had no direct relationship with those facilities. Yet Charisma magazine, a leading publication of the Charismatic movement, reported that Alcorn visited Mercy’s Australian homes 22 times between 2001 and 2004.

Why would Mercy publicly distance itself from a form of treatment it appears to believe in? Candy Brown, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University, speculates that the organization downplays its Charismatic influences because such things might make mainstream Christians—men such as Gov. Haslam and Coach Fisher—uncomfortable. “Anytime you’re talking about the demonic or deliverance, it’s very controversial,” she says. “And if a group is trying to solicit donations from a broad spectrum of evangelicals, they wouldn’t want to advertise that.”

3. “The choice is yours

With its lofty ceilings and ski-lodge stonework, Mercy’s 22,000-square-foot Lincoln home, located about 30 miles north of Sacramento, has the look and feel of a vacation retreat. When I visited in November 2013, residents in their late teens and 20s were sprawled around the premises on couches and armchairs. They read from assigned books and listened to sermons on portable CD players. Multiple times a week, they also worked out at a local gym, took classes on money management and nutrition, or studied for their GEDs. They cooked communal meals, cleaned their bathrooms, and did laundry. They bunked two to a room and were allowed to call home once a week, on Sunday.

During my tour, the staff repeatedly stressed that residents knew they had signed up for a biblically based counseling program. “The last thing we want is for women to be surprised,” said Singleton, who had flown in from Mercy’s Nashville headquarters to meet me. “It’s assumed that people who are coming to Mercy know that ‘best-practice clinical interventions’ really means Christian counseling.”

But even within the religious community, “Christian counseling” can mean just about anything. It could range from “didactic Bible-oriented counseling”—that is, treatment hostile to secular medicine—to psychotherapy that’s simply “informed by Christian values,” says John Peteet, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. There’s no agreed-upon definition, whereas clinical interventions andprofessional counseling staff have very strict meanings. “From a professional ethics perspective, what’s on [Mercy’s] website is deceptive,” says Baylor’s Stanford, a devout Christian, who himself believes in the healing power of prayer and the existence of demonic forces. Because Mercy doesn’t actually require its counseling staff to be licensed, they’re not subject to state-administered standards of clinical knowledge, a minimum number of training hours, or legal oversight. That, says Stanford, means “they’ve overstepped their bounds.”

As members of the Mercy Survivors group tell it, much of Mercy’s Christian counseling methods did indeed come as a surprise. Hayley was particularly bothered by step five in the seven-step treatment. Here, a Mercy counselor asks a resident to recall a traumatic memory or to let Jesus reveal a moment of past trauma and then imagine that Christ is there, absolving her of any guilt related to the event. “I couldn’t make up Jesus saying something to me,” Hayley says. “I didn’t blame myself for the abuse.” Hayley says she appealed to her counselor, who replied, “This is what we need to do. This is the only way.” Week after week, Hayley repeated the exercise but to no avail. (Peteet, of Harvard Medical School, allows that some patients could benefit from this kind of visualization—“but if it’s being presented as the only way to go for everybody, that would concern me,” he says.)

Other women described feeling similar pressure to follow the counseling model or risk being called insubordinate. When Lily Mershon entered the Lincoln home in 2009 at age 23, she was anorexic, barely weighed 80 pounds, and had no health insurance. Because Mercy homes aren’t licensed by state departments of health, they can legally only accept people who are deemed medically stable. But Lily had convinced her doctor to sign off on the medical records, telling him that the program was her only option. Then, just after Lily was admitted, she realized that she had forgotten to bring her Adderall. The Mercy staff wouldn’t immediately connect her with a doctor and instead had her sign a form confirming that she’d willingly given up the pills. Lily soon decided she wanted to go home. “They prayed over me and put hands on me,” she says. “They made me feel like this was my only chance to live and if I left [early] there would be no more chances.” And so she stayed.

Exorcism

Whenever Lily brought up her anorexia, her counselor would say, “Have you prayed about it? Have you talked to God about it?” “And I thought maybe I’m the weird one for not having this open heart,” Lily says. In order to please her counselor, she began praying out loud and saying that God had spoken to her. The performance eventually felt real; it was, she says, “a slow brainwashing.” Mercy would later present Lily as a model of success in its promotional materials. Today Lily is married and has a young son but continues to struggle with anorexia and describes herself as emotionally broken. In fact, she’d purged daily while at Mercy and says her counselors never noticed. “I don’t trust people anymore,” she says. “I feel very empty inside. I’m trying to get better for my son.” (Asked about Hayley, Lily, and other former residents, Mercy declined to comment, citing a policy of not discussing its clients.)

At Mercy’s St. Louis home, Bethany M. experienced a similar cycle. If she didn’t participate enough in group therapy, the staff reprimanded her, which pushed her to cut herself—the very reason she’d come to Mercy in the first place. After months of this, the staff discovered her cutting; Mercy was legally obligated to admit her to a state psychiatric facility, which it did. But upon release, Bethany begged Mercy to take her back—and the organization complied. “They made Mercy seem like God or even above God,” Bethany said. The way she’d come to see it, getting kicked out would mean that God had rejected her. But her cutting continued, and Mercy released her for good. “I felt like I’d lost my life,” she said. To fill the void, Bethany turned to drinking and drugs.

“The way the spiritual is executed is very abusive,” says the former Mercy counselor. “Taking women who have very severe mental health issues and saying they’re not choosing freedom when they’re not ‘healed’ in a certain period of time—it puts the problem back on the girls. And they’re already really broken and hurting.” She says women like Bethany who don’t graduate believe “it’s their fault,” and those like Hayley and Lily, who do graduate, “struggle because they’re supposed to be healed and they don’t know why they’re not.”

4. “The Lost Girls”

According to her parents, Ellen developed endometriosis at age 16. The painful disease required hormones, medications, and surgery and sent Ellen into a depression that a series of doctors were unable to cure. But at the age of 20, Ellen discovered Mercy Ministries and asked her parents if she could attend. She and her parents are devout Christians who believed Mercy would provide a valuable mix of spiritual guidance and mental health support from board-certified psychologists. Ellen applied in May 2010, arrived at the Lincoln home the following October, and graduated eight months later.

After Mercy, Ellen no longer seemed depressed, but she was acting strangely. One day she was affectionate with her parents; the next day she was reserved. Then she left their home in Elk Grove, California, moved in with a family friend, and sent her parents a letter that changed their lives. In it, Ellen described multiple ways in which her parents had abused her, including rape at her father’s hands and sex trafficking. “If any of this was true, we should be in jail. We should be hung,” says her mom, Sherry. Hearing this from her only child, Sherry says, “just broke me.” (No charges were ever filed. I spoke to Ellen’s parents, pastor, best friend, and the family she moved in with, all of whom affirm Sherry’s side of this story. Ellen, who has since changed her name, could not be reached for comment.)

Ellen’s parents begged for an explanation and finally received one. At Mercy, Ellen had met with her counselor and, as she described it, emptied herself before the Holy Spirit. “ ‘Whatever the Spirit told us, that’s what happened,’ ” Sherry recalls her daughter saying. “She called this event her ‘deliverance.’ ” Ellen and her parents met a few times after that but could never reach an understanding. In March 2012, Ellen sent her parents a note saying that she was leaving California and not to contact her again.

It’s nearly impossible to verify or disprove Ellen’s accusations, but the events described by her parents fit into a larger pattern that at least nine families of Mercy attendees have experienced: A young woman enters Mercy for issues unrelated to abuse and comes out accusing her family of horrific sexual violations. Of the nine families, seven have lost contact with their daughters.

Stories like this used to be common. In the 1990s, some psychiatrists used a treatment called recovered memory therapy, which encouraged patients to dig deep into their memories and find trauma that could explain their suffering. Instead, it led patients into their own imaginations; a wave of false memories of childhood abuse followed. Recovered memory therapy is now widely discredited.

The therapy isn’t mentioned anywhere in Mercy’s materials, and Singleton insists the organization has never used it. “Sadly,” she says, “our patients are often from fractured homes and challenging backgrounds and don’t need to be coerced to create accounts of heart-wrenching childhoods and upbringings.”

If that’s true, what explains these accusations and their striking similarities? It could be a confluence of factors, according to psychologists I asked about Mercy’s methods, and it may start with the organization’s emphasis on sexual abuse narratives. From the waiting list onward, women receive testimonials by Mercy girls who were molested, as well as books and sermons by author and speaker Meyer, who talks about being raped by her father. This focus on abuse stories—and the preaching of God’s power to heal such trauma—is central to Mercy’s counseling process, regardless of why a woman entered the program. This could create a culture of peer pressure, in which women feel they need to be saved from a sufficiently terrible event, psychologists say. A number of the women I interviewed describe an environment in which the more dramatic a woman’s graduation testimonial, the more she was considered the perfect “Mercy girl.”

“Any time there’s a power differential, therapeutic interventions are susceptible to manipulation,” says Keith Meador, the director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society and a professor of psychiatry and health policy at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Secular or religious. That’s why it’s so important that there be systematic training, licensure, and regulation in any type of context of intervention.” Mercy survivors report feeling this power imbalance acutely—they came to believe that the staff spoke with God’s authority.

Affected families tell similar tales. One woman, Asja, went to the Lincoln home to work through complicated feelings about her childhood: Her father abused prescription drugs and alcohol, and her parents had split up. But after graduation, Asja cut ties with her family. Then, in a promotional Mercy article, she said God helped her overcome molestation at her mother’s hands. Asja’s sister, Danielle, theorizes that her sister had “heard a lot of bad stories and maybe [her accusations] were a way to fit in.” Another woman, Christina, went to Mercy’s California home in 2010 for an eating disorder. While there, she said she’d dreamed that her grandmother’s boyfriend had molested her. “Christina’s therapist told her that dreams were God’s way of showing hidden trauma,” her mother says. After graduation she moved in with another Mercy girl, who alsoreported being molested by her grandfather. Soon, Christina’s story expanded further: She claimed that she’d been raped by her father and sex-trafficked by her parents—the same accusations made by Ellen.

Of the nine severed families I spoke to, only two of the actual Mercy attendees were willing to discuss the incidents, both on the condition that they not be quoted or identified in any way. One offered a basic outline of how her accusation came to be. It began, she said, with nightmares she had at Mercy about being sexually abused by a neighbor. Her counselors interpreted this as evidence that she was involved in a sex ring. Under Mercy staff’s guidance, the woman says, she described horrific details about her life as a prostitute—which seemed and felt true at the time. But later, she says, she realized that her stories were nearly identical to testimonials that other Mercy graduates had written and were posted on the “Success Stories” section of Mercy’s website. That’s what caused her to begin questioning herself.

The second woman I spoke to went to Mercy to address her drug addiction and other self-harming behaviors, including multiple suicide attempts. Her counselor interpreted a cryptic dream as evidence that her father had raped her. The woman had no recollection of such an event but says she felt pressure to believe her counselor’s assessment; after all, the staff seemed to speak with God’s authority. Guided by Mercy staff, the woman sent her father an email accusing him of rape. It took many years of distance from Mercy for the woman to begin to doubt her accusation. And it was only after months of professional therapy and treatment for previously undiagnosed bipolar disorder that she was able to reunite with her parents.

Singleton wouldn’t discuss specific accusations of abuse, but allegations have been raised enough times that Mercy put this disclaimer on its website: “Mercy Ministries does not practice Recovered Memory Therapy.” This past October, when the organization rebranded itself as Mercy Multiplied, the disclaimer disappeared.

5. “Licensed by Jesus

In 2011, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals received a call about Mercy’s home in West Monroe. The caller said the residence was operating without a license from the department, according to a DHH spokeswoman. But when DHH investigated, it determined the home didn’t actually need a license because it wasn’t providing “services for compensation.” Instead, the program was “operating in a way that is similar to a homeless shelter,” where residents receive food and lodging for free, according to the state’s DHH lawyers.

In an email last April, Singleton told me that Mercy’s three adult facilities are licensed by social services agencies in their respective states. But agency representatives at both Louisiana’s and Missouri’s departments of social services, health, and mental health could find no records of Mercy in their systems. When I emailed Singleton in April 2015 to ask for clarification, she stopped responding. When I wrote her again this month, a full year later, she said she had nothing to add. (At that time, Mercy’s website also said its homes were state-licensed. When Mercy rebranded, the licensing statement disappeared.)

Had the homes in fact been licensed, they would have been unusual among residential treatment facilities. Such residences are generally not equipped to care for women withserious mental health issues, according to lawyers for the National Disability Rights Network. In California, such facilities “cannot accept a resident whose primary need is acute psychiatric care due to a mental disorder,” says the California Department of Social Services. Mercy requires all incoming residents to provide medical histories and proof of medical stability. Yet the organization targets a client base whose untreated mental illness makes their physical or emotional instability a real possibility. Women like Lily, Bethany, and others interviewed for this story—all likely unstable when they entered the program—slipped in anyway. Of course, even facilities with licensed mental health providers can make assessment mistakes. But with no licensing body or standardized training available for Christian counselors, it’s likely that their clients will end up in programs that Meador says are “trying to do work that they’re not trained or equipped to do.”

Lily’s discharge summary—a one-page document signed by her counselor—is a snapshot of that problem. Upon graduation, her counselor wrote that Lily had overcome the following alphabetized list of issues: “Abandonment, all abuse, ADHD, anger, anxiety (social), apathy, attention seeking behavior, authority issues, Bipolar, Borderline, chemical dependency, compliance, depression, desire to be here, detox, eating disorder, family issues, general suitability, impulsive, lesbianism, lying, marital issues, medical suitability, occult, OCD, PTSD, relationship difficulties, rejection, self-harm, self-esteem issues, sexual promiscuity, stealing, and suicidal thoughts.” The counselor concluded that “[w]hen Lily chose to fully surrender to God, she experienced significant behavior and emotional changes.”

Discharge summary

With Lily’s permission, I shared the document with Meador. “This lacks coherency in its run-on usage of a mix of clinical terms and is generally lacking in professionalism,” he said, after reading it. The discharge suggests that Lily’s counselor is working “in territory they shouldn’t be in.”

Christian counseling has two schools. One is open to a fusion of religious and secular approaches and is represented by the umbrella group the American Association of Christian Counselors, or AACC. The organization’s lengthy ethical code outlines the need for individualized treatment, of never forcing one’s point of view on clients, and making sure that clients are fully comfortable with the religious beliefs and practices used in counseling sessions. Singleton says the head counselors of Mercy’s homes are AACC members. But many of Mercy’s former clients allege methods that would be in violation of AACC guidelines.

The other school is entirely biblically based and comprises programs that disregard secular mental health practices. Some of these residential programs geared toward troubled teens across the country have been criticized for their harsh practices. In 2002, the St. Louis Post Dispatch ran a seven-part investigative series about Christian reform schools in Missouri. Two schools closed as a result. In 2012, Time ran a story outlining similar abuses in Florida. These programs focus on minors and don’t explicitly address mental illness, but like Mercy, their Bible-based approach appeals to a population that has little faith in secular support services.

Meanwhile, programs like Mercy are rapidly multiplying. In 1999, the AACC reported 15,000 members; today there are 50,000. And they’re embraced by an audience of believers—not just in Christ but in Christ-driven treatment. Forty-eight percent of self-described evangelical, born-again, and fundamentalist Christians believe Bible study and prayer can cure serious mental illness, according to a 2013 study by the conservative Christian body LifeWay Research. And in fact, spiritual interventions can be highly effective. A 2011 meta-analysis of 46 studies, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, found that that religiously or spiritually integrated therapies for individuals from devout backgrounds can have “better psychological and spiritual outcomes” than nontreatment controls. Meador says a program like Mercy could provide “substantive and enduring benefits” for some people—not necessarily those with serious mental illness but individuals facing various developmental challenges. “What they really benefit from is the structure, boundaries, and someone telling them, ‘This is how you live well.’ Hearing women say that the program saved their lives doesn’t surprise me at all.”

And many Mercy clients say just that. Ninety-four percent of respondents on 2013 surveys (commissioned by Mercy and conducted by independent firms) answered “yes” to the question, “Did Mercy Ministries help you transform your life and restore your hope?” Eighty-two percent said they were “well adjusted to life” after leaving the program. And 85 percent said they had spent time at other treatment centers before Mercy, without long-term results. Roughly 10 percent of Mercy’s total graduate pool responded to the survey,according to Mercy’s website.

Mercy contends that this overwhelmingly positive feedback proves the program’s effectiveness, even if some former residents don’t agree. “We’re [working] with women who need help from self-reported destructive patterns,” says Singleton. “They are going to be unhappy with us, if they don’t get to the place they want.”

6. “He will give you the desires of your heart

Hayley eventually gave in. She says she stopped resisting her counselor’s instructions and stopped questioning the system. Maybe she was to blame for her own failure, she remembers thinking. Maybe she hadn’t tried hard enough. Before graduating from the Lincoln home, Hayley wrote the following testimonial: “Mercy has taught me a new way to live. I never thought that I would be capable of living a life on my own—a life dependent on God and not on medication or the approval of other people. A life filled with joy and peace instead of guilt.”

Mercy told Hayley that if she tithed to the organization, God would bless her. She donated $1,000. (Four women, each of whom attended a different Mercy home, told me the organization heavily stresses the importance of tithing to Mercy.) On her graduation day, Hayley’s parents presented her with a leather and gold-plate bracelet, etched with Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

But at home, Hayley’s anxiety and depression returned. She grew increasingly introverted, finding it impossible to trust anyone. Before Mercy, she’d suffered from low self-esteem; now, she says, she felt worthless. “I thought Mercy would be this place where the staff would love on you and be there for you,” she says. “Instead they beat the spirit out of you.” Mercy had taught Hayley the dangers of having too much hope and too much belief—not in God, she says, but in other people. These days, she believes that she alone—without regular therapy, Christian counselors, or Jesus—must forge her way forward.

Hayley is still living at home, still without a job, and her family remains in tough financial straits. She fills her days by cooking and practicing the harp. She’s planning to go back to school, possibly to study psychology. And she’s been writing about her Mercy experience, which she hopes to one day share with others—young women like herself who might believe they’ve found a godsend. Today, much of the graduation testimony she wrote sounds hollow, but her closing words are starting to ring true. “Through Mercy Ministries,” she wrote, “God has removed the tape from my mouth and given me back my voice.”

Not a medical facility

This piece by Mercy Survivor Anna was originally published on her personal blog, External Mercy, and can be viewed here.

Not a medical facilityI’m going to take a bit a break from the manual review for this post.  The holidays are impossible to get away from, and it got me thinking about how Mercy Multiplied handled the Christmas holidays.  Because Mercy Multiplied is not an actual treatment facility, residential facility, medical facility, anything facility, they simply close down for two weeks for the winter holidays.  Anybody who isn’t familiar with quality treatment programs might think that this is normal, but it’s definitely not.  I’m been in multiple different treatment centers over the holidays various different years and while there were definitely more “passes” (treatment team permission to leave the facility to visit with family or friends), they never just shut down.  Think about it…hospitals don’t shut down.  They might discharge anybody and everybody they can, but when illness is so extreme to need 24-7 round the clock care and supervision, the assumption is that there are those who aren’t well enough to leave for two weeks.

One of the excuses reasons that Mercy Multiplied would most likely offer in response to this is that they are “not a medical facility.”  Mercy Multiplied is very careful (and has become increasingly more careful) in the words they officially use to describe their program.  I’m all about accuracy in description and reporting, but usually the purpose of this is to make sure that individuals are well-informed about a program and able to make a decision as to whether the program will be a good fit for their needs and beneficial for them.

Mercy Multiplied seems different than other quality programs (and even some non-quality programs) because while they are very careful to keep from using phrases such as “treatment facility” or “medical facility,” they are also simultaneously reaching out to specific populations of young women who are seeking treatment for various different reasons that require treatment or medical monitoring.  This leads me to believe that the care in their language and descriptions has much more to do with possible legal issues (because as we know from the manual’s review they definitely recommend getting well-qualified legal advice) than it does to making sure they are serving the right clientele and able to meet the needs of their residents.  Seems more like they’re following the advice of their lawyers to protect their organization at the cost of appropriate care for those they are claiming to help.  That’s just my take on it, though.

Think about it…have you ever tried going to a podiatrist for your toothache?  No, because you know that if you do they’ll turn you away and send you to a dentist.  They know  they are not qualified to care for you teeth.  Now they might tell you that taking care of your feet will help your teeth (it’s all part of the same body afterall), but they can’t tell you that they’ll take care of your teeth.  This is good, because you don’t want a foot doctor caring for your teeth anymore than you want a dentist doing your foot surgery.  You want a medical professional that is trained, certified, and experienced with the problem for which you are seeking help.  In other words, you want a dentist.  Mercy Multiplied claims that they are able to care for young women with mental illnesses, eating disorders, past abuse, self-harm, etc., but they aren’t actually qualified to do so.  Like they say, they’re not a medical facility.

I wouldn’t have a problem with this if they were to be responsible, make clear that they only offer basic prayer ministry from laypersons, and send applicants that need treatment to actual treatment facilities.  After all, when’s the last time you saw a podiatrist telling success stories about someone who needed a root canal? Eating disorders are a prime example.  While classified as a mental illness, eating disorders have significant medical and nutritional issues that must also be addressed in fact anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder (Arcelus, Mitchell, Wales, & Nielsen, 2011).  But does Mercy Multiplied tell those applying that they are not qualified to treat eating disorders?  On the contrary, they actively promote the idea that they treat eating disorders.  I think when it comes to eating disorders, they are deceptive and medically negligent—and the same goes for other disorders and struggles.  Mercy Multiplied should not get to specify that they are NOT a medical facility while simultaneously acting as if they were. But that’s what Mercy Multiplied does.

I hear the comeback of course, you have to be “medically stable” in order to be accepted into the program.  An MD has to sign off on that, but there are several issues with that.

  1. The doctor signing off on a future resident’s medical stability does NOT have to be trained, certified, or even knowledgeable with regard to psychiatric diagnoses and their effects on medical stability.  (For those of you who have been spared the experience, most doctors are horrifically unknowledgeable about eating disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, or trauma issues.  The last doctor that I saw asked why I was on Prozac.   When I told him it was for depression his response was “You don’t look depressed.”  I guess he wasn’t expecting me to be smiling?)
  2. Medical stability is often not well-defined, particularly for psychological disorders. Plus once a resident is in the program, is it simply assumed that they will maintain their medical stability?  (Maybe it’s changed since then, but I was there with an eating disorder for 9 months, and I don’t remember ever getting my blood pressure taken. And there was definitely not anyone there qualified to evaluate my state of mind or psychological distress levels.
  3. Even programs that are medical facilities often require medical stability.  (For instance, residential treatment centers for psychiatric issues require medical stability as do psychiatric hospitals that are not part of a medical hospital.  Not needing immediate medical care is not the same as not needing treatment or care whatsoever.)

If Mercy Multiplied is truly following their “not a medical facility” and not “treatment” line of reasoning, why aren’t they up-front about their lack of qualifications, denial of evidence-based care, and lack of validated proof of their claimed success rates? If the podiatrist treating your dental problems failed to make that sort of information clear, would you be okay with it?

Here’s the thing Mercy Multiplied —you don’t get to have it both ways: You don’t get to claim you’re not a treatment facility but promote yourselves as caring for individuals who need a treatment facility.  If you want to take your brand of ministry and spread it to the ends of the earth, fine, but you don’t get to lead people to think that it’s appropriate for those who need a treatment facility.

I wouldn’t have any problem with Mercy Multiplied saying that they’re a place where someone can come and spend time going to church, watching sermons, doing chores, listening to Joyce Meyer, and meeting with a prayer counselor–at least that description is somewhat accurate.

For all their talk of authenticity when it comes to finances, they are quite the opposite when it comes to information about the actual program.  They may have consulted a lawyer when putting together their promotional materials, but I don’t think they consulted a doctor.  But that’s okay right?  I mean, what matters is the organization and its reputation right?  It’s not like someone’s life is at stake…oh, wait…it is.

Let’s look at how the medically stable process went down in my case.  I was struggling with an eating disorder and other various self-destructive behaviors.  I saw a doctor that I’d never seen before who had no experience with any of these things.  That’s right, any old doctor would have done as long as there was a signature.  If I remember correctly the doctor that I saw was actually an orthopedic specialist because I didn’t have insurance and couldn’t afford a doctor’s visit so a friend of a friend got me in.  The doctor was required to sign off on a “medically stable” weight for me.  He put down the weight that I was because I was obviously “fine” if I was there seeing him.  I presented Mercy Multiplied as a treatment facility because that’s what I thought it was—after all, Mercy Multiplied knew what my issues and diagnoses were, and they accepted me, so I assumed they must be able to help me.

Mercy Multiplied themselves often shares the dire nature of a young women’s plight prior to coming to Mercy Multiplied in their success stories and information about the program.  They’ve taken in individuals from across the world that didn’t even have a doctor’s permission to fly due to their medically precarious state.  They’ve required individuals to remain unhospitalized while awaiting placement with Mercy Multiplied despite immediate medical and safety concerns that recommended hospitalization.  This is not just irresponsible, it’s dangerous and putting the lives of young women in jeopardy.  But they apparently can get away with this because they are “not a medical facility.”

After my time at Mercy Multiplied, I remember my treatment team and I seeking a residential or inpatient facility that would accept me because I had deteriorated far beyond the realm of outpatient care.  I remember being frustrated that there were facilities that refused to take me simply because of various diagnoses.  Now, while I still find the lack of facilities that specialize in certain various issues, there was wisdom in that.  At least they weren’t telling me that they could help me and take me in knowing that they couldn’t.  Mercy Multiplied didn’t offer me that kind of respect.  And as horrible as it would be for a facility to purport to be able to help someone and realize a bit into it that it was outside their realm of experience and then refer the patient out to appropriate care, Mercy Multiplied didn’t even do that.  Instead when Mercy Multiplied is faced with an individual who is failing to make “progress” in the program, the individual is blamed for not working the program, trying hard enough, submitting enough, or believing enough. Mercy Multiplied, their staff, and their program get immunity from any responsibility and don’t have to be accountable for the damage they are doing.

Think about being desperate for help, being evaluated by staff and doctors, being told you’re a good candidate, and being accepted into a program that doesn’t have the ability to help you.  Now imagine you’re in the program and finding the program is not helping you (surprise, surprise), but you’re told that it’s your fault the program is not helping even though they never had the ability to help in the first place.  This is the situation that many residents and former residents have found themselves up against at Mercy Multiplied.

And people give Mercy Multiplied a pass because they say they’re “not a medical facility.”  I wonder if people would have the same response if a podiatrist advertised for and knowingly accepted patients, specifically with dental issues, telling stories of a wildly successful cure?  Or maybe it’s only okay if you call it a ministry.

How to create a monster (Mercy Multiplied’s Guidelines Manual Part 7)

This piece by Mercy Survivor Anna was originally published on her personal blog, External Mercy, and can be viewed here.

A review of Mercy Multiplied’s Guidelines for Establishing a Residential Counseling Ministry.

monsterI’ll have to admit that I was excited when I first came to the section in the manual that was titled Operations Fundamentals.  I naively expected this section to cover aspects of residents’  treatment that had been so sorely lacking in the content up until this point.  I was disappointed (but not surprised) to realize that the operations that they are referring to are not the operations of the residential counseling ministry, but rather the operations of the non-profit that runs it.  This section is over halfway through the manual, and readers haven’t heard anything about the residents that this entire manual is supposed to enable them to minister to.

I’ll also say right from the start that Mercy Multiplied specifically states that they are covering the concepts in this section on a “high level” stating the importance that readers “seek knowledgeable resources to address the specifics as they relate to your individual vision, mission, and actual legal requirements you will need to comply with.”  We see the foreshadowing of the disconnect between recommending professionals for aspects of the organization’s finances and legal decisions and the obvious eschewing of any professionalism with regard to the residents’ treatment or care.  Over and over again, the manual encourages legal counsel to be sought early and often and while they do encourage finding pro-bono or discounted services (because what Christian organization doesn’t feel entitled to having professionals do things for them for free), they don’t suggest that you get prayer ministers to do this work for them.  Even the pro-bono work is assumed to be coming from, professionals, i.e. lawyers and accountants.  In fact they not only recommend that these individuals be professionals (read: passed the certifications and requirements necessary to prove that they are knowledgeable and experienced in the areas they are advising in), but they even strongly encourage a “reputable attorney” with expertise in non-profits and a “reputable Certified Public Accountant”.  So not only do they expect their financial and legal information to come from experts trained and certified in their field, they’re even wanting to make sure that these individuals are especially good at what they do.

Now let’s just contrast this with Mercy Multiplied’s attitude concerning the expertise of their staff that are actually interacting with residents that have major mental illnesses and require round the clock 24/7 supervision.  This staff is not recommended to have any qualifications or certifications barring a general college degree.  This staff is not recommended to come with reputations of successfully treating individuals with specific struggles that are common to the residents.  It’s not even suggested that people consult with people who are qualified in psychology or mental illness.

What kind of priorities are reflected when an organization is requiring certified professionals for dealing with legal and financial issues to cover their rear legally, but has no requirements for individuals that will actually be caring for the individuals all of this is supposed to be about?  Better make sure you get someone experienced to deal with your organization’s operations because everyone knows how important that is, but anybody can care for the residents—what kind of a double standard is this?  What kind of message does this send to the residents about their worth?  Does Mercy Multiplied really think that recovery from illness with high fatalities is simpler than doing their taxes?  And the answer of course is, yes.  After all, taxes takes someone who knows what they’re doing…training, education, even experience, but recovery from mental illness is as simple as praying and memorizing Bible verses so why would you need anyone special to help residents with that?

Oh, and they even recommend having an independent auditor review financial practices yearly to provide accountability to donors.  And what kind of accountability checks are their for the treatment of residents?  (In case you’ve forgotten, the residents are the people that they are so keen on helping and ministering too…it’s hard to remember since most everything that is recommended has nothing to do with them and everything to do with the organizations’ image and potential donors).  So if you’re a donor, you get to make sure that your money is doing exactly what they said it would, but if you’re a resident you have no recourse if they fail to live up to the minimal expectations commonplace in treatment.  Think about it, what can residents do if they are abused by this organization?  There’s no professional ethics board when you don’t employ professionals to do your counseling.  There’s no certification to revoke when the complaints come pouring in when you don’t submit to any treatment guidelines or certifications.  There’s not even a way to show that their claims about “treatment” are even remotely true.  But that’s obviously not the important thing…because the important thing is that there’s accountability to the donors.  After all, they are the ones who are really running the organization, right?  They’re the ones that matter.

Along the lines of this same disconnect between how money is handled and how residents’ LIVES are handled, there’s plenty of encouragement to keep detailed and accurate records for the organization, but if you’ve seen any of the stories about residents attempting to get records from their time in the program, you’ll know that this sort of record keeping is not considered important.  Because, you can get in some serious trouble with the government for not keeping records on your organization’s tax-exemption, but who is there to get you in trouble if you’re not keeping treatment records?  In Mercy Multiplied’s set up there’s nobody, and for an organization that claims excellence in caring for these ‘poor souls gone astray’, there’s not really any evidence to back those claims up.  ‘Cause who would listen to a bunch of mentally ill young women anyways?  And what would it hurt the organization if those women aren’t satisfied with the treatment or care they get?  I mean, it’s not like they’re paying for it anyways…as long as the donors are happy the revenue stream is stable.  Nothing else matters…nothing…as long as the organization can maintain its public image and engender financial support, there’s not any way to hold the organization accountable for any of its actions with regard to the residents.  This is how Mercy Multiplied is set up.  This is how they recommend similar ministries to be set up.  The focus is not on the residents or the ministry as much as they want to make people think that it is, the ultimate priority is the organization, its leadership, and its financial backers.  And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how you establish a residential counseling ministry that abuses the very people they are claiming to help.  This is the secret of Mercy Multiplied’s success that they are so eager to share with other people.  This is Mercy Multiplied sharing how to create a monster that looks just like them.

**All quotes are from Mercy Multiplied, Guidelines for Establishing a Residential Counseling Ministry, Retrieved October 2015.**

If Mercy ran an accounting firm… (Mercy Multiplied’s Guidelines Manual Part 4)

This piece by Mercy Survivor Anna was originally published on her blog “External Mercy” and can be viewed here.

A review of Mercy Multiplied’s Guidelines for Establishing a Residential Counseling Ministry.

accounting

Mission is the topic of the next bit of the Guidelines Manual from Mercy Multiplied.  Once again we have some fairly good advice (although nothing that I didn’t find when I googled these sorts of key words).  They talk about a “values-based mission statement” and emphasize that this is what can be used to inspire materials and used as a “talking point” when recruiting volunteers.  They also say it should be the core of speeches and presentations.  I find it just a bit strange that these are the first points they make about a mission statement.

I think of a mission statement as being the heart of an organization…that serves to inspire the people within the organization and keep the organization on track.  I don’t know that my first thought is that a mission statement is good for (basically) fundraising, but then again there’s a lot in this manual overall that seems to have way more to do with fundraising and creating an organization than it has to do with any sort of interaction with the people who are supposedly going to be served.

True, you need to fundraise because you need money to do pretty much anything, but if Mercy Multiplied’s got this amazing monopoly on the “only” thing that works to fix all these problems like they claim, shouldn’t that sort of thing be in this manual?  I mean, you can get advice on fundraising from anywhere.  Is the secret to Mercy Multiplied amazing work with young women actually their fundraising?  Is this the advice and guidance they’ve gained through their vast experience of taking people whose lives were a complete mess and making them into a neat little box complete with a ribbon on top?  Why are we even talking about fundraising and promotional materials at this point?  Shouldn’t we at least talk about the individuals that are to be served and what they might need and how best to go about offering that?  Those things seem to be minor details when it comes to establishing a residential counseling ministry at least from what Mercy Multiplied has shared so far.

Next they go through specific steps to creating a values-based mission statement.  And when I say specific steps, I mean SPECIFIC steps.  Like a one two three how to list that a five year old could follow complete with what to tell people to write down and to have one person write this all up on a large board and making sure that you’re using the correct verb tense.  Do I think that it’s wrong to list specific steps?  No…but it’s not like this is novel information to well, anyone.  Remember too that it hasn’t even been suggested that perhaps consulting social work, counseling, psychology, psychiatry, or even medical professionals, but they’re being very sure to write out in a “simon says” sort of instructions how to write a mission statement.  Perhaps my expectations are higher for the individuals who might be reading this manual than the authors thought, but if you have to get step by step instructions on how to create a mission statement, don’t you think that maybe, just maybe these individuals are probably not ready to be opening a residential counseling ministry?  I’d love to give Mercy Multiplied the benefit of the doubt and think, well, it’s just common sense that you would consult professionals who work with the populations you are wanting to serve, but they leave me no room to do that when they specifically spell out something that in my opinion is so much less important.  I don’t know though, maybe the secret to Mercy Multiplied’s supposed success (unbelievable some may even say) is that they used the proper form of the verb in their mission statement brainstorming session.  This is obviously important enough to take up some of the very limited 41 pages (and in that 41 pages I’m counting the title page for each section that has just the sections title on it…now if we want to talk about people giving grace, I’d say that’s pretty gracious of me).  Remember this document contains the information to share the “depth of experience [their] remarkable team brings” and to explain “fundamental functions” for the establishment of this kind of ministry.

Is vision and mission important?  Absolutely.  The worrisome thing is that Mercy Multiplied seems to think this is all it takes to make people qualified to care for individuals with life-threatening medical and mental illnesses?   I know it sounds almost humorous…as if the best response would be to roll your eyes and laugh at the idea, but these are the people who are running residential treatment centers for individuals with eating disorders, psychiatric disorders, abuse histories, suicidality and histories of suicide attempts, self-harm, drug addictions, and anything else they can think of…these are real people who are using these principles to take care of young women who are being told that they are qualified to do so and have an insanely high success rate to back their claims up.  There are real people who are being offered “free help” from people who think that this is what it takes to establish a residential counseling ministry.

Let’s take a little side trail to an analogy.  What if this were a manual about how to establish an accounting firm?  What if they never said anything about needing there to be people who know anything about accounting?  What if they emphasized that what’s really important to establish a good accounting firm is that you have a good mission statement and to use to recruit people to do book work?  How would you feel about taking your taxes to an accounting firm that has decided that they won’t be licensed or certified by the government because they don’t want anything to keep them from giving you the keys to become prosperous which they solely have discovered?  Would you take your taxes to an accounting firm that offers “Bible-based” accounting leaders who instead of being certified public accountants or having experience in the financial field have instead gone through the firms special two week course on the new financial principles that they’ve found that are nine times more effective than those of certified or experienced accountants?  Would you like that accounting firm to do your taxes?  Would you hand over all your company and personal finances and just trust that they’ll take care of all of it as God tells them to?  Would you worry at all that you might have to pay penalties and fines because they didn’t do things properly?  What if there were stories of people taking their taxes there that have years later still been trying to undo the damage that the firm’s lack of qualification had caused them?  What if no one could do anything to hold them accountable because they aren’t a “real” accounting firm so they don’t answer to any certification boards or ethics rules or minimum quality standards?  What if they blew off any criticism by saying that they “meant well” or that their “hearts were in the right place”?  What if they said that having good intentions provides magical insight and training that qualifies them to be accountants…or counselors, or directors of residential treatment centers?

Would you be okay with them doing YOUR taxes?  Is that a risk you’d be willing to take?  Don’t worry about it though…I mean, it’s not like Mercy Multiplied’s doing anybody’s taxes–they’re just caring for people with mental illnesses…illnesses that people die from…no big deal, right?

No real Mercy (Mercy Multiplied’s Guidelines Manual Part 3)

This piece by Mercy Survivor Anna was originally published on her blog “External Mercy” and can be viewed here.

A review of Mercy Multiplied’s Guidelines for Establishing a Residential Counseling Ministry.

No+MercyThe next pages in Mercy Multiplied’s manual are dedicated to the idea of vision.  There’s actually a lot in this section that I agree with — at least on the surface.  I do think that it’s important to know where you want to go with something, what your goals are, and how you intend to build the organization or business or ministry.  These are important things to consider regardless of what your endeavor is.

Mercy Multiplied says that in order to determine your ministry’s vision, you need to know your “target group” — who it is that God is asking you to serve.  They also suggest additional questions to ask that would be important while considering the question of vision.

To me though the interesting questions are the ones that aren’t being suggested.  There are questions about who the ministry will serve…criteria for acceptance…age group…etc., but there are also important questions that are missing.  How will we help the people we are “serving”?  Do we have the education, qualifications, and experience needed to accomplish this “vision”?  How will we know that we are helping and not harming the people we are “serving”?  How will we prevent the “vision” of the ministry from overshadowing the humanness of those we are claiming to “serve”?  How do we make sure that the idea or appearance of integrity doesn’t become more important than it’s actuality?

These are questions that are mysteriously missing from this section of “big questions”.  It’s not that I think that the questions suggested by Mercy Multiplied are unimportant — it’s just that there are some very important questions that they aren’t asking.  I’ll leave you to think about what other important questions they’re not bothering to ask.

There’s an interesting sentence that’s slipped in after the suggested questions.  “We strongly encourage you to seek legal counsel early on in the process regarding what licensing requirements will impact you in your location” (page 9).  Once again, it’s not so much what IS said that is of concern, but rather what is NOT said.  There’s nothing here about finding out what kind of licensing requirements will be beneficial to your ministry.  There’s no suggestion of consulting with professionals who are trained to deal with the issues your “target group” is facing to find out what best and most successful practices are.  The only professional that MM has yet suggested that someone wanting to establish their own residential counseling ministry contact is a lawyer.

See, here’s what I don’t really understand.  I agree that when you need legal advice you should consult…a lawyer.  After all, lawyers are people who have been educated by leaders in their field, trained for years in the subtle nuances of the law, have passed rigorous certification processes, and been mentored by experts in particular areas of legal matters.  This is why they are professionals — and when Mercy Multiplied says in this sentence to seek “legal counsel” it seems fair to assume that they are referring to finding a lawyer who is educated, trained, certified, and experienced.  You should remember this assumption because as foundational as it might seem, this is an assumption that Mercy Multiplied makes with regard to legal and financial matter, however, as you’ll see in future sections this is an assumption that they do NOT make with regard to other areas (i.e. psychological, medical).

Before moving into the mission section of this portion, Mercy Multiplied offers a few more suggestions to the end of “Mentoring Your Ministry”.  Two of these stood out from these bullet points:

  • There’s the recommendation that those in ministry or wanting to create a ministry should know their limits.  Now, if there’s one thing in this manual that I can heartily agree with it’s that those who are in ministry, particularly those who are interested in establishing a residential counseling ministry should KNOW THEIR LIMITS.  Too bad that Mercy Multiplied didn’t take their own advice on this one, they might have actually been able to help people.
  • Another recommendation tells would-be ministry leaders to be wary of straying from the ministry’s specific mission.  They offer an example of this from Mercy Multiplied’s personal experience, saying that since God directed Mercy Multiplied to minister to people who are “serious about working through their problems” and that if they were to “take in residents who are not sincere about changing their lives” they will decrease their “effectiveness with the residents who really want help…” (page 10).

Let’s take note though of who this puts in charge of deciding about residents’ sincerity…

Mercy Multiplied.

Think about it — this is a specific example from Mercy Multiplied’s program and highlights a foundational principle of their program that many former residents have spoken about.  Mercy Multiplied sets themselves up as all powerful in knowing and judging motives, sincerity, and willingness to change.  So what if I sincerely want to change but Mercy Multiplied thinks that I don’t?

Pretty much, too bad, because it’s Mercy Multiplied that has the final say on what’s going on in a resident’s heart.  If that seems rather judgy and condemning and un-Christ-like, that’s primarily because it is — there’s no way around it.  Many former residents from Mercy Multiplied have shared stories of Mercy Multiplied deciding that they didn’t want help or deciding that they didn’t want to “get better” even while staff was perpetuating the belief that only Mercy Multiplied had the ability to help them.  My own personal experience at Mercy Multiplied’s residential home in Nashville was tremendously impacted by the staff’s decisions about the motivations behind my actions.  But there was a big problem with that: they were wrong.  They were wrong, and they wouldn’t listen to me because they’d already decided for me.

It’s true that I’ve seen this in qualified treatment facilities as well, in my opinion negatively correlated with positive treatment outcomes, but one of the things that makes it so damaging at Mercy Multiplied is it’s not just the staff, counselors, or doctors that are declaring that a person does not want to get better (as at some treatment facilities), at Mercy Multiplied it’s “God” who is saying that.

I can’t think of a more hopeless situation to be in than to be told that you don’t want help (when you desperately do) and given no recourse to prove otherwise. I can’t think of a more hopeless situation to be in than to be told that you don’t want help (when you desperately do) and given no recourse to prove otherwise, because the last thing you need when you’re already hopeless and desperate is more hopelessness and despair handed to you by the people who are supposed to be helping you.

Guess what?  Nobody gets to decide if I want help.  Not Mercy Multiplied, not doctors, not psychiatrists, not therapists or counselors (regardless of their qualifications or lack thereof), not ANYONE except for me.  It is important for my actions to show this desire and that’s something any treatment center has to look at.  But when Mercy Multiplied narrowly defines what it means to “want help” as questioning nothing, being emotionless, and hiding struggles and has the power to tell you that you can’t be helped because you don’t “want it”, everyone gets hurt.  The people who are kicked out are hurt, the people who become convinced they don’t want help and give up are hurt, and the people who tow the party line and pretend to be better are hurt.  This is not healing…this is not transformation…this is not real mercy.

**All quotes are from Mercy Multiplied, Guidelines for Establishing a Residential Counseling Ministry, Retrieved October 2015.  (I’d give you the link so you can buy it yourself, but as far as I can tell it’s no longer being offered for sale.  Not sure why, but don’t worry…you’ll still get my commentary on it.)

All you need is VISION…and this manual (Mercy Multiplied’s Guidelines Manual Part 2)

This piece by Mercy Survivor Anna was originally published on her blog “External Mercy” and can be viewed here.

3d7d0f901ec7ba1d4003fdc45b285fb1In the introduction of Mercy Multiplied’s “Guidelines for Establishing a Residential Counseling Ministry“, Mercy Multiplied lays out what information they are going to be giving you.

They say that “Certain fundamental functions, processes and structures will provide a solid foundation to establish your ministry to serve your God-given vision for years to come.” (page 5)  And then tell us that Mercy Multiplied is sharing their “wealth of experience, knowledge, and information” that they have acquired.

I think it’s fair to assume that they are going to include what’s important, right, or at least what they think is important for this sort of ministry, or at least what they think is important for theirs.  So let’s take a look at the manual from this perspective…we’re getting a peek into what Mercy Multiplied considers foundational for accomplishing the same “success” they have with a similar method.

They also say that they’re not including specific details (not that that would even be possible in 41 pages).  They point out that the details are specifically serving THEIR vision and mission and that individuals establishing their own ministry need to work these out according to their ministry’s specific calling.  Keep this in mind as we’ll be coming back to these two points: Mercy Multiplied is sharing what they think is foundational and they are NOT sharing details.

Next comes the ever present, ever shared story of how Mercy Multiplied began.  Also known as the epithet to Nancy Alcorn, this tells how Nancy Alcorn worked in a correctional facility for youth and became disillusioned because the programs were not working.  She worked for Teen Challenge for a bit (who has their own sordid history and those who were harmed more than helped by the program) and then she starts Mercy, emphasizing that secular, governmental programs were tremendous failures when it came to helping these “troubled girls”.  Thus the birth of Mercy Ministries, now Mercy Multiplied and of course the three principles that are emphasized by the ministry:

  1. Don’t charge the girls to come;
  2. Tithe 10% (even though most people are donating the money to mercy as their 10% tithe); and
  3. Don’t accept state/government funding.

Next, we skip forward to the current Mercy Multiplied: Listing the locations of the homes in the US and the homes outside the US.  Funny though that Australia is no where to be seen in this “history”.  The other locations are heralded as the spreading of Mercy Multiplied beyond the US’ borders…not sure what they really thought the Australia homes were if not for that…apparently they were orphan ministries that had nothing to do with Mercy Multiplied (after they got shut down of course).  This makes me wonder, does Mercy Multiplied not learn from its own mistakes?  From my point of view they got themselves in trouble with associated homes in Australia, then backtracked to de-associate from them when those homes became the “black sheep” of the Mercy Multiplied family.  So now they’re publishing guidelines on how to replicate their ministry?

Just a warning to anyone who might use these guidelines (besides being prepared for a lawsuit), Mercy Multiplied will claim you as long as it looks good for them, but once you reflect badly on them, you will be cut off and disowned like an unsightly growth—or at least that’s what their history (the part that’s not told in this manual section) seems to show.

They go through the usual lines about who they are and what they do…and how well they do it, specifically pointing out that they often receive residents who “have been in various treatment facilities with unsuccessful long-term results”, to contrast this they claim that their approach to healing is a permanent solution that is unattainable in any other way. (page 6)

They also describe their program as “extremely successful in equipping young women with the tools they need to understand their self-worth” and share that they get daily communication from graduates “walking in freedom” (page 7).  Mercy Multiplied’s always had this thing with comparing themselves to other treatment facilities. You hear it again and again in Nancy Alcorn’s speech and even in the request of materials from graduates.

Walking in freedom is another huge buzzword for them – the implication of course is that if you are a Mercy Multiplied graduate who is still struggling, then it’s simply because you’re choosing not to “walk in freedom”.  There’s no possibility that maybe there are still things that need to be addressed, still education that needs to take place, still resources and support that need to be built up; and ultimately, there’s no possibility that Mercy Multiplied didn’t hold up their part of the bargain to get you permanently better.  It’s a syntax they emphasize that conveniently allows them to shirk all responsibility while still claiming that they are being accountable.

[All quotes from Mercy Multiplied, Guidelines for Establishing a Residential Counseling Ministry, Retrieved October 2015]

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