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CJ Mahaney Death Match


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"…we were guilty of the Galatian error: having begun in the Spirit, we quickly degenerated into the flesh." – Derek Prince, 1983


I sort of vacillate between boredom and fascination whenever I encounter news of a conflict among prominent Christians. These conflicts, which often center on matters of leadership and doctrine, are usually weighted down by arrogance and pride – and they’re especially appalling and embarrassing to average members of the faith when tawdry, self-serving private correspondence comes to light.


The most recent of these conflicts involves a controversial parachurch organization called Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), which is headed up by popular reformed pastor CJ Mahaney.


Last week, Mahaney announced he is taking a temporary leave of absence from his position as head of SGM while under investigation for "pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy."


Most of these allegations seem to stem from a massive document collated by a disaffected member of Mahaney’s senior staff, Brent Detwiler, and released to the public last week by parties unknown.


This document includes approximately 600 pages of e-mails and other correspondence collected over a period of around ten years, and was apparently released to prove that leadership at SMG is corrupted by sin and that CJ Mahaney is an especially intractable example of human frailty. (There are also some allegations of blackmail and a few relatively minor concerns about how travel funds at SGM were allocated.)




SGM is an evangelical organization dedicated to widening the influence of reformed, charismatic Christianity through church-planting and media development. There are approximately 95 member churches currently working together on funding world missions and the publication of books and CDs related to Christian conduct and church government.


Formerly known as People of Destiny International (until 2003), SGM was founded in 1982 by CJ Mahaney and Larry Tomczak from their base of operations at Covenant Life Church in Maryland. (Tomczak left the movement in 1998, citing differences of opinion over the doctrines of Calvinism, which SGM heavily promotes.)


Mahaney and Tomczak appear to have been influenced by the Shepherding Movement, which began in the 1970s as a response to what some people saw as growing corruption in charismatic circles. The Shepherding Movement sounded good on paper, with its spotlight on mutual accountability and character development, but the focus on confession and obedience also opened avenues for blackmail and coercion as directed primarily against dissatisfied junior members.


These same concerns are turning up in discussions of SGM and the heavy-handed, top-down leadership it seems to inspire in many local churches.




Oh yes, now those e-mails – they’re something else! The format is such that each e-mail is framed by Detwiler’s personal reflections. He offers editorial comment throughout the document.


He sets out to demonstrate not only that SGM leadership is intractable, but also that troublemakers are systematically discredited and eventually discarded by nearly any means necessary, including through the planned release of sensitive and potentially damaging personal information initially gathered in confession.


Detwiler claims this is what happened to him, and indeed he presents some compelling evidence for it.


Unfortunately for Detwiler, however, he also comes out looking like a pompous ass:


In his March 17, 2010 document, “Perspectives Regarding Friendship and Dotrine,†Detwiler wrote the following:



C.J., I have a great love for you. I sought to demonstrate it over the years. That love was most poignantly expressed on August 20, 2004. I knew the outcome of that meeting could (not would) have terrible consequences for me.


I went into the meeting with fear and trembling. I also went into the meeting with hope and faith. I knew the result could be greater fruitfulness for you and greater glory for God. Afterward I told Dave it was the most loving and sacrificial thing I‘d ever done. He understood my meaning in context. It was not a boast.

My love for you continues. I‘ve always protected your reputation, honored your labors, advanced your interests, and sought to care for your soul. At times, care for your soul included honest input. You now offer ―to fly to Charlotte to hear your heart and consider your perspective in hopes of discovering if I have sinned against you.‖


For reasons that will become apparent, I am not prepared to meet face to face at this time. I will instead share my heart and perspective in writing. I appreciate the sentiments you express in the e-mail above; but, I also find them disconcerting. On the one hand, I hope they represent a change of heart. On the other hand, I find them disingenuous. Let me briefly explain.


During the last decade, many people brought to your attention numerous ways they thought you sinned against me. I did the same either directly or indirectly through others. Unfortunately, this never resulted in any personal confession. You either rejected our input as unfounded or failed to apply it to any actual occasions of sin. For instance, you denied ever being bitter, resentful, or angry at me – a concern raised by many people.


Therefore, I don‘t know how you can say that ―Recently I was informed that you might have some offenses with me. [etc.]


Yeah, you get the idea. Most of the e-mail exchanges I reviewed were much like this one, with passive-aggressive and self-righteous posturing on all sides. (It got me to wondering when or even if they ever have time for actual work over at the SMG offices.)




Mahaney’s announcement, which seems to have been prompted by the impending release of these documents, was quickly followed by expressions of confidence from friends such as Al Mohler.


It seems Mahaney is taking this opportunity to position himself as a meticulous and conscientious, if perhaps overly-cautious, example of proper humility in the face of criticism. His efforts will probably pay off in that he will achieve even greater organizational control when he resumes his seat in a few months.


If anything, these e-mails prove beyond any doubt, at least to me, that SGM’s biggest problems aren’t specific to Mahaney but instead affect the whole leadership team - and through them, these issues then go on to affect many of the member churches.

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I've been following the SGM thing for several years in the sgmsurvivors blog (Kris & Guy) and the sgmrefuge blog (Jim). Survivors, in particular, is a very active blog. Where there's that much smoke, there's gotta be some fire. I actually think that the blogs/forums played a role in the current situation coming to this point. You know the blogs are bothering the leadership when they start advising congregations from the pulpit not to pay attention to the internet re: SGM.

I have in a very cursory manner read through the documents and agree with your assessment. To Detweiler's credit, he has given a statement to both blogs where he acknowledges his general asshattiness to an extent and attempts to apologize for the hurts that he caused:

I want to thank everyone for their prayers and concerns including Jim, Kris and Guy. Survivors and Refuge have been used of God to get the attention of SGM. People have been hurt by us. There are problems that need to be fixed and sins that need to be acknowledged. If you have written me, please pardon me if I am slow to respond. I’ve been inundated with messages and I am trying to keep my focus on private appeals to SGM. And as you can imagine, I’ve been attacked from many sides but I’ve also been encouraged by many dear folks – including some I’ve sinned against in the past like Canary. Please write me if you feel I’ve harmed you in the past. I may not be able to respond quickly but I’d love to hear from you.

ETA: Josh Harris, whose book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, is probably Mahaney's biggest disciple. So SGM is into the whole courtship thing, I know that many of their churches push Ezzo and the whole "shepherding" parenting movement (Ezzo, Pearls, etc.) The forward of Harris' book is written by a couple we've recently discussed here who followed the courtship model and then divorced and went public, which has got to be kind of awkward for Harris. :shock:

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Thanks, Burris. Good overview. I scanned through the document dump as well, and came away with disgust for these males who call themselves pastors. What a bunch of frauds.

I've also been following SGM Survivors for a few years & think they & the Refuge folks have done a yeoman service. Courtesy teh Google, there's a chance now that people investigating SGM as a church for themselves or their family will at least encounter the compelling accounts on these blogs.

The thing that strikes me about all of this is the amalgamation of all these Christianist leaders; it's like Clear Channel buying up local radio stations. It's so clearly all about the power & control (and money) and so clearly NOT about Christianity. Now they're circling the wagons around CJ - must be a big pay off coming down the pike.

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Here is a new message received last night by Jim (SGMRefuge) and Kris & Guy (SGMSurvivors) from Brent Detweiler;

Dear Jim, Kris and Guy,

I am not a fan of Survivors or Refuge. I’ve been blistered by anonymous writers with no ability to share my perspective or correct libelous statements. I’ve been defenseless. Some bloggers accuse me of abuse while they abuse me from their secret hideouts. Hardly a fair fight. And oh, Jim, I don’t believe I’m the incarnation of Jim Elliot (or Elizabeth for that matter).

But here’s why I’m writing. Some of the big issues addressed on the blogs are true. SGM is trying to silence my voice. I love those guys. I gave my life to build SGM. I want to see it emerge stronger and better. But I am concern the new Board is up to the same old tricks. I could not have been more disappointed with their post yesterday on the SGM blog. It contained so many untruths.

So in the days ahead, I will occasionally write you with my perspective. I’d appreciate if you posted my thoughts. I’d also like to ask your writers to work hard at reforming their attitudes. In some cases, they have good things to say. I don’t want new readers to be put off by how they say it. We are all learning from this process.

Well, thanks for your kind consideration.


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Burris, you nailed it beautifully with "Calculated Damage Control."

Every cultic group has unwritten rules that are punishable when not observed by the group. Perhaps one of SGM's most significant unwritten rules is the demand to "stay sweet" in all your communications, drawing on passive-aggression, duplicity, flattery, and feigned humility, all in the name of love. It is nothing more than deceit. I agree that the public statements are dripping with "devotions visage and pious action."

People buy it, too, even after they've been abused. SGM may have kicked them square in the teeth, and they will say, "But if I can get an audience with CJ, it will all be made right." These are people who will readily admit that they were spiritually abused. I do understand it, but then I also don't and find it frustrating. I have no idea how to penetrate that aspect of this group to get them to question the deceit of what SGM calls love and humility.

Someone wrote to me and said that the people may finally be ready to reject the "Moses model." I'll believe it when I see it.

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While I am sure that the commenters on Survivor and Refuge are not always measured in their commentary, I have to say that excessive concern about the "tone" and "attitude" used in expressing criticism is both a classic way of silencing critics and part of the reason the SGM style of communication is so impossibly passive-aggressive and vague.

(As someone who is struggling to emerge from a background in which one is not allowed to critique the "authority" -- or anyone else -- unless all of one's own motives and emotions are perfectly pure and rational, which turns all legitimate grievances into blame-the-victim sessions conducted by the victim herself... I react to statements like Detwiler's however gently intended. Actually all the SGM verbiage makes me want to scream and run into walls.)

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(As someone who is struggling to emerge from a background in which one is not allowed to critique the "authority" -- or anyone else -- unless all of one's own motives and emotions are perfectly pure and rational, which turns all legitimate grievances into blame-the-victim sessions conducted by the victim herself... I react to statements like Detwiler's however gently intended. Actually all the SGM verbiage makes me want to scream and run into walls.)

I hear you!!! I can't get past the language in a lot of these docs - I keep scratching my head and thinking "but what are you trying to say???

I get that the survivors have some pretty big issues with the leadership - and they seem pretty specific, like abuse of power, covering up sexual abuse, etc. So then the pastor guy's response about "sin" and "repentence" seems false to me - how long does it take to figure out if you've been a jerk? I really don't get it. Also, if they really did cover up sex abuse, "repentence" is useless. You go to the cops. Period.

If he's misbehaved (or any the board/leadership, for that matter) than say so. In plain English.

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I can't pass up an opportunity to talk about Robert Lifton's thought reform criteria!

The verbage and language in these documents is specialized speech that has full meaning only within the confines of the group. That's why it's difficult to decipher, and it's annoying because it's meaning is not clear.

Lifton identifies this as "Loading the Language" and is one of the eight characteristics of a group that practices ideological totalism. It's part of brainwashing, essentially.

Every group has specialize language, but in a cultic group, the language serves to further isolate the group from outside scrutiny while galvanizing the milieu control that the group wields to control followers. It makes communication outside of group (with the outside world) more difficult, so it makes it harder for people to seek help -- it is an extra burden to explain all this stuff to an outsider. This fosters greater dependency on the group itself. It also demonstrates to the people in the group that they are special to God (more special than everyone else) because they have a specialized language that is seen as somewhat divine. And the group can also influence people's thoughts through this type of language as part of the overall thought reform program. It's a clever thing.

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Josh Harris just resigned from SGM's board (hat tip to Karlton who comments at TheWartburgWatch.com):


An hour later, the Board posted another disclaimer/damage control statement:


And Christianity Today has apparently reported on the matter (I couldn't find the articles others at TWW mentioned), but CT already commented on Josh's resignation from SGM's Board. Apparently, he preached on Sunday that they are being "brought low and humiliated."

http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctliv ... ris_r.html

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I hear you on the cultic language thing!

Also, I can't help but think that they're trying to cover up something massive with all this flowerly language about God "testing" them and "humiliating" them. How is that happening? According to their statments, the senior guy stepped down to deal with "sin" - well, what sin? I mean, if he just wants a season to reflect, ok, no problem. If it's something else, then say so!!

But yeah, I can see how all this language and talking/writing without saying anything is yet another control mechanism.

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What if everyone with a molested kid got together and filed a class action suit against SGM? Maryland has a fairly broad Statute (I think 7 years which extends beyond 18 for the kids), and Virginia's I believe is 2 years past 18. That would give many of those kids who were molested a window to still sue

There are the cases discussed on SGM Survivors, and there were whispered rumors about molestations dating back to PDI (the pre-SGM incarnation when Larry T was in charge). I still find it suspect that Mahaney's letter mentions Larry and then includes a disclaimer that his resignation had nothing to do with these sexual scandals in his churches, with so many so close to home. Or maybe there are some civil suits in play now, and they just haven't hit the press????

I don't know, but this history and SGM's "we love you, we're humble" with their simultaneous authoritarian behavior concerning these families where these kids were violated just ticks me off. I don't think that this floats well outside of SGM, either.

But I find it entirely believable that Mahaney could be proving in advance that he's humble and a fit pastor, all in advance of a really big scandal.

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I can't get past the language in a lot of these docs - I keep scratching my head and thinking "but what are you trying to say???

This was, by far, the most irritating thing about the whole affair for me. My goodness, but those guys couldn't say something straight if their lives depended on it.

I came across one especially telling example of this in the documents specifically pertaining to CJ Mahaney's vacation days and allotted travel expenses. He had made a request that his son's airfare to a specific conference be paid by SGM, but expressed concern that his request might violate protocol.

Here's how normal folks would have acted:

CJ: I don't know if this is a violation of the rules or not, but I was wondering if my son can travel to a conference on the corporate dime.

Brent: Sorry, no. That would violate corporate travel rules. I can front you some money if you need.

CJ: No, it's okay. I just wasn't sure how this thing works. kthxbai.

Through the course of his investigation, Detwiler discovered Mahaney was reaching the end of his allotted vacation days for the year. Here's how normal people would have handled that:

Brent: While I was looking into your request for travel funds, I noticed you're reaching the annual vacation-day limit. If you need more days, please let the board know and we'll accommodate you. After all, you're a consistently hard worker and are probably owed a bunch of lieu days for overtime you've put in this year.

CJ: No, that's okay. I should have kept better track of my vacation days. No need for additional ones, but thanks for the offer.

Brent: Okay, but let me know if you change your mind. Kthxbai.


CJ: Thanks for the heads-up. My personal records indicate I still have some vacation time left, though, so could you please sent me a break-down.

Brent: k

CJ: Oh, I see where you're coming from. Here are my records. Please review them and let me know what you think.

But noooo! The simple asked-answered request for travel expenses and additional vacation time ballooned into 38 pages of correspondence that took place over a period of about two weeks.

All the acrimony and drama resulted in Mahaney's forcing Detwiler to hand the care of his personal schedule to another guy! WTF? Did these guys even have time to piss amid all that hoopla?

They could have all used some weed.

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