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SAN ANTONIO, Texas—For years, the sinking of the Titanic fascinated former Vision Forum Ministries (VFM) president Doug Phillips. He founded the Christian Boys’ and Men’s Titanic Society in 1997 to promote lessons from the disaster, including “women and children first.” (Many men yielded seats on lifeboats to save others.)
The following year, Phillips wrote in WORLD: “Simply stated, that principle is this—the groom dies for the bride, the strong suffer for the weak, and the highest expression of love is to give your life for another.”
April 15 is the 102nd anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking. It’s also more than five months since the closing of VFM, a once-prominent Christian organization that also met a tragic demise. In the end, losing sight of “women and children first” helped sink Phillips’ own ship.
On Oct. 30, Phillips resigned from VFM, confessing to a “lengthy, inappropriate relationship with a woman.” He also wrote the sin was serious and “absolutely does merit my resignation.” Two weeks later, the board of VFM announced the ministry would close immediately.
But the travail is not over: On March 13 Phillips’ attorney sent a letter to three of Phillips’ former friends and associates charging that “the three of you have conspired together, and with others, in an attempt to destroy Doug Phillips, his family and Vision Forum Inc.”
Many stunned Christians have wondered: How did this ship sink? Phillips—a husband and father of eight children—had become an icon of the homeschooling movement and a well-known proponent of “biblical patriarchy.”
To learn more, I spent a week in San Antonio—the site of VFM’s former headquarters—and I also spoke with more than a dozen people who had been associated with Phillips or his ministry. WORLD gave Phillips a two-week window to grant an interview or respond to written questions about this story, but Phillips’ attorney sent a statement saying he advised his client against speaking to the press due to the threat of civil litigation against him.
Still, a wave of other recent ministry scandals adds urgency to a core question when someone like Phillips falls and his ministry closes: How can other Christians guard against similar tragedies on the sea of Christ’s kingdom?
ON A BUSY ROAD in San Antonio, the former headquarters of VFM sits empty behind a chain link fence. On a recent afternoon, trash littered the back alley, and a pair of young men rummaged through a dumpster. Wooden pallets nearby bore the stamp: “Vision Forum Ministries.”
The VFM building on Blanco Road was never opulent, but it once was busy. It housed the nonprofit ministry and the for-profit company Phillips founded 15 years ago. The for-profit Vision Forum Inc. (VFI) sold books, toys, and teaching materials aimed at Christian families.
Phillips launched Vision Forum, with its emphasis on the leadership of fathers in families and societies, after working as an attorney in Virginia for the Home School Legal Defense Association. He helped start a church, and became one of the first elders at Boerne Christian Assembly—an independent, Baptist congregation outside San Antonio. He served in a pastor-like role, eventually preaching hundreds of sermons.
As the ministry grew, so did Phillips’ influence. He spoke at homeschool conferences across the country, held national conferences, launched a Christian film festival, and helped start the National Center for Family Integrated Churches (NCFIC)—a network that now includes hundreds of congregations. Bob Renaud, a former Vision Forum staff member and former personal assistant to Phillips, remembers that eventually “every time we went into an airport somebody knew who he was. … I watched him go from being an unknown to being a big player in the conservative homeschool movement.”
Phillips’ prominence made his October resignation even more stunning to ministry supporters who had lionized him. One homeschooling association grieved Phillips’ fall, but also encouraged supporters to send cards and thank-you notes to Phillips and his family, and noted, “He was our hero—the man who could lead us to victory through this horrific war.” One blogger similarly wrote, “He was our Hero. We thought he was unsinkable. …”
His Oct. 30 resignation announcement on the VFM website revealed Phillips wasn’t unsinkable. Phillips confessed to an inappropriate relationship with a woman, though he said the pair “did not ‘know’ each other in a Biblical sense.” Nearly two weeks later, he clarified the relationship with an unmarried woman had “an inappropriate physical component” and was “intermittent over a period of years.” (Phillips hasn’t identified the woman publicly, but several on-the-record and off-the-record sources confirmed her identity to WORLD.)
Phillips wrote on the VFM website, “I have acted grievously before the Lord, in a destructive manner hypocritical of life messages I hold dear, inappropriate for a leader, abusive of the trust that I was given, and hurtful to family and friends.” (His full statements are still available online.)
The confession, though, didn’t include at least two significant details: The unmarried woman had been a member of his church, and Phillips had continued in his public ministry at VFM for at least eight months after he confessed to church leadership.
PHILLIPS' OCTOBER RESIGNATION came the day after five men arrived at his San Antonio home to ask him about reports they heard concerning his indiscretions.
The five were all former ministry colleagues or friends: Joe Morecraft, a respected Atlanta-area pastor; Peter Bradrick, a former Vision Forum staffer who worked closely with Phillips; Mark Weaver, a close college friend; Jordan Muela, another former Vision Forum staffer; and Bob Renaud, the former assistant to Phillips.
Morecraft, the Atlanta pastor, didn’t give me a formal interview, but he did confirm that he asked Phillips two questions at the meeting: (1) Did you have an inappropriate relationship with an unmarried woman? (Morecraft confirmed he identified her by name.) (2) Was it sexual?
Morecraft confirmed Phillips answered yes to both questions.
Bradrick and Renaud confirmed the language of Morecraft’s questions, and said Phillips emphasized the encounters did not include sexual intercourse. The two other men—Weaver and Muela—remembered Morecraft asking about an inappropriate relationship as well, and confirming the woman’s identity.
Her identity is significant for at least one reason: Phillips had been an authority figure in her life for more than a decade. The woman and her family were members of the church where Phillips served as an elder until January of last year.
In 2003, Phillips wrote in a web post that he and his wife, Beall, had sponsored her high school graduation: “We consider her to be a member of the family, and her parents to be the dearest of friends. She has assisted my wife on more occasions than any of us could count and even traveled with us on adventures with Vision Forum.” It’s important to note that multiple sources say the woman, now 29, was over 21 when inappropriate encounters began.
IRS documents also show VFI paid her $4830 in 2008. VFM paid her an additional $1750 in 2009.
In on-the-record interviews, three of the men at the October meeting—Renaud, Weaver, and Muela—said they were particularly dismayed about the dynamic of authority in the relationship, and said church leaders have a weighty obligation regarding the power they hold over congregants in their care.
Another dynamic also troubled the men: Phillips had continued in his public ministry without revealing his sin for more than eight months.
In January 2013, Phillips stepped down from his position as an elder at Boerne Christian Assembly (BCA), saying he wanted to devote more time to his family. By February, he had confessed his inappropriate relationship to the church leadership. At the time, the church had only one other elder.
The church and ministry communities are tight-knit, and it’s unclear how many others knew about the relationship and when they knew it. But the church didn’t publicly announce Phillips’ sin until November.
During the eight months before he resigned, Phillips continued with public ministry at VFM. At a “History of America Mega-Conference” sponsored by VFM in July, Phillips spoke about crafting a new culture for Christ and declared: “We are legacy-builders.”
In August, VFM encouraged early bird entries to its San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival, then slated for February 2014. In September, Phillips spoke at the FORGE conference in Kerrville, Texas. (FORGE is an acronym for Families Obediently Restoring Godly Education.) Phillips’ teaching sessions included “The Secret of Happiness in the Home” and “Successful Habits of Multigenerational Visionaries.” (The group’s website still offers the sessions for sale.)
VFM continued to accept donations: $2.6 million in contributions and grants in 2011, and $1.3 million in 2012, according to IRS filings. But the waters were troubled: Scott Brown, a VFM board member and head of the NCFIC, said in a year-end letter to NCFIC supporters that he learned in September 2013 “of the infidelities of Doug Phillips spanning many years.”
Brown and other board members didn’t return calls seeking comment on how they learned about Phillips’ indiscretions or how they responded. But by Oct. 21 of last year, VFM announced it was postponing the 2014 film festival: “Due in part to financial concerns and for other reasons, the Board of Vision Forum Ministries is looking to bring greater accountability to our practices and events. …”
By Oct. 29, the five men were confronting Phillips in his home in San Antonio. They say the meeting didn’t go well. Though Phillips admitted his sin, Muela says Phillips argued about the process the men used to approach him. They say the meeting grew contentious, and Morecraft walked out.
In a Facebook post a few weeks later, Bradrick—the former staffer who considered Phillips a mentor and spiritual father—said the meeting was like “experiencing the scene from Braveheart where William Wallace finds out he’s been betrayed by Robert the Bruce. …”
Weaver, Phillips’ friend from college, said he was disappointed too: “The goal was to be a Nathan [the Old Testament prophet who confronted King David over sin]. I thought if we could say: ‘You are the man,’ he would break. But it didn’t work out that way.’”
By the next night, Phillips had posted his resignation. (Phillips’ attorney said he resigned voluntarily after much prayer and counsel.) In his letter, Phillips didn’t mention that he had concealed his indiscretions from the public for eight months. He indicated he would leave public life and said his family had forgiven him. He said his church leadership “came alongside me with love and admonition, providing counsel, strong direction and accountability.”
BOB SARRATT—the lone elder when Phillips privately confessed last February—didn’t return requests for comment, but in January 2014 Sarratt and a provisional elder, Jeff Horn, posted a statement on the church website. They said that following Phillips’ confession in February 2013, the church leadership had worked with the involved parties to bring restoration and repentance.
They noted Phillips had professed repentance for his sin before the church body, and that the elders had publicly rebuked him. The statement didn’t indicate when they rebuked him or why they waited for months. Jeff Horn—the church’s provisional elder—did respond to written questions in an email. Horn said he became a provisional elder in March 2013, but didn’t learn about Phillips’ sin “with and against a woman in the BCA congregation” until late August 2013.
Horn said Phillips was rebuked before the church in November 2013 for “marital unfaithfulness, hypocritical deceit, and dishonesty as grievous sins against God, his church, against his family, and against those who invested their trust in Doug as a leader.” He said Phillips’ sin “should have been shared with the members of BCA sooner than it was”: Goals of healing and reconciliation “should not have trumped the responsibility to address the sin before the congregation and hold Doug accountable on a congregational level in a more timely fashion.”
Holding Christian leaders accountable isn’t always easy. Concerns to follow a biblical process for confronting sin are crucial. But when a public figure privately confesses serious sin, it’s still critical to ask whether his leadership position makes public disclosure necessary.
Some connected to the VFM and church community said a heavy emphasis on avoiding gossip could lead to suppressing issues that should be discussed more openly. Some had earlier concerns about Phillips and the woman, but said they didn’t have evidence to press it.
It’s also worth noting that accountability starts long before the disclosure of serious sin. Evangelist Billy Graham traveled the world, but said he would never go into a room with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Plenty of other Christian ministries have prominent leaders who avoid scandal, and strong ministry boards can help set and enforce good standards.
Phillips appeared to have some safeguards in place as well, including traveling with assistants and family. It isn’t clear where the safeguards broke down, but that offers another valuable lesson: Even systems that encourage protecting women and children can only work if the people who teach them follow them.
Indeed, ministries and churches sometimes coalesce around worthy, biblical ideals like building strong families and promoting certain kinds of education. Personal sin doesn’t invalidate those ideals, but it does offer a reminder that the most fundamental safety comes as Christ and the gospel remain the center of Christian churches, ministries, and lives.
In Phillips’ case, it’s at least clear that some wish they had known about the problems earlier rather than later. Horn—the provisional elder who also worked at Vision Forum for over eight years—acknowledged as a former employee, “I would have preferred to learn about Doug Phillips’ grievous sin sooner than I did.”
James Leininger said he also would have preferred to know earlier. The Texas conservative and billionaire businessman supported VFM for years: He said his donations included the building on Blanco Road and the home that Phillips and his family lived in while they worked for the ministry.
Leininger said he was particularly drawn to Phillips’ love of history and his work in the independent Christian film festival. Leininger funded and produced the film Alone Yet Not Alone, which drew national attention when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences suddenly rescinded the Christian film’s nomination for best original song in March. Both Phillips and the woman Phillips was involved with appeared in the film.
Leininger said parts of those short scenes will likely remain, and that he hopes they won’t detract from the film, slated for a June release. He hasn’t spoken with Phillips since the resignation, but called the developments sad: “It’s just very disappointing for what a long time looked to be a very promising witness for Christ.” He’s glad Phillips acknowledged his sin and stepped down, and hopes his repentance is genuine: “Time will tell.”
Jason Dohm, an elder at Sovereign Redeemer Community Church—the same church VFM board member Scott Brown serves in North Carolina—wrote about Phillips earlier this year, “pray for him, but don’t mistakenly hope for his return to Christian leadership.” Dohm wrote that when “a shepherd has cultivated a life of deception and manipulation for many years,” it rightly takes a long time to regain trust.
HOW WILL LITIGATION affect repentance? Phillips’ attorney sent a letter on March 13 to Peter Bradrick, Jordan Muela, and Bob Renaud—three of the men who confronted Phillips last October. The letter accused the men of orchestrating a campaign of slander against Phillips, and conspiring to “destroy Doug Phillips, his family, and Vision Forum Inc.” (VFI stopped selling products from its website at the end of last year, but it appears Phillips retains ownership of the company.)
The letter threatened a lawsuit but also discussed Christian conciliation. The letter noted Phillips plans to advance claims against “Vision Forum Ministries and its board members,” though the nature of those claims is unclear. Meanwhile, the woman may sue Phillips. She declined comment through her attorney, citing possible litigation, and Phillips’ attorney said her legal claims (still undefined publicly) are “false, defamatory, and made with malicious intent. …”
Despite the litigation fog, some lessons do remain clear, including the need for early disclosure, robust accountability, and serious care with positions of authority. Other scandals reveal that fame brings danger, and pride can infect anyone. Phillips hinted at that reality himself by noting, in his resignation letter, “I thought too highly of myself. …”
Cults of celebrity
Doug Phillips is not the only Christian ministry leader who has hurt his organization and the cause of Christ over the past year. In recent weeks the World News Group’s website, wng.org, has had the sad task of running stories on Bill Gothard leaving his ministry following charges of sexual misconduct, Seattle’s Mark Driscoll buffeted by charges of plagiarism and possible misuse of ministry resources, and Charlotte’s Steven Furtick building a mansion and using crowd dynamics to increase baptism statistics.
While these stories and WORLD’s reports on leadership problems at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities are all different, they are “not a new phenomenon,” according to church historian Mark Noll, who notes that “the burden of celebrity is greater than ever before. The publicity machine operates with more energy.” Noll’s advice: “Wise leaders will build structures around them to prevent or diminish temptation.”
Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, said he often sees scandals occur when organizations lack “sound board governance” and a “focus on the basics.” Scandal-prone organizations also have a concentration of power at the top of the organization and a lack of transparency. If ministry leaders are secretive and attempt to squash criticism, that’s a bad sign: WORLD’s website has also examined the nondisclosure agreements that some megachurches now require staff members to sign.
When scandals erupt, Noll said, our reaction “should not be to gloat or point to the problems of others. This is not an evangelical problem or a Catholic problem or a Pentecostal problem. It’s a human problem.” —Warren Cole Smith