The Shepherding Movement

The Fort Lauderdale Five I’ve mentioned the Shepherding Movement a few times, and lately have had a couple of request to explain something about what this movement was all about. Rob McAlpine‘s forthcoming book, Post-Charismatic contains a good overview of the movement as well as the Latter Rain and other charismatic movements… the book should be out shortly, but I can’t just link to it yet… so here goes.

In the early 1970s, four well-known charismatic leaders responded to a moral failure among charismatics in south Florida. Bob Mumford, Derek Prince, Don Basham, and Charles Simpson felt a need for personal accountability and covenanted together for this purpose, submitting their lives and ministries to one another. Ern Baxter, who had ministered with William Branham, was later added to the group and they became known as the “Ft. Lauderdale Five.” They formed Christian Growth Ministries in 1974, and in the movement that they began, the accountability they shared became an emphasis that all believers should submit to a “shepherd” in order to be discipled in the Christian life. Their prominence helped gain wide acceptance for their teaching, which included what was felt to be correctives to the charismatic movement at the time. Other charismatic leaders began submitting to the authority of the Ft. Lauderdale Five in what was known as “covenant relationships.” A network of cell groups was formed, with members submitting to a shepherd who in turn was submitted to one of the five or a representative who was submitted to one of the five. At its height, it was estimated that some 100,000 people were involved in this network in the USA. In conjunction with this pyramidal authority structure, the movement taught that every believer needed to be under a “spiritual covering” from a leader in authority over them. Other doctrines taught by the movements included echoes of Latter Rain theology, such as restorationism.

Without mentioning the Latter Rain Movement, Don Vinzant identifies five roots of the shepherding movement: Roman Catholicism (confessing to a discipler, but without the safeguards the Catholic Church implemented); Pietism/Wesleyanism (small groups, discipling through rule-keeping, legalism); Watchman Nee (authoritarian approach to discipling, “covering” and “City Church”); parachurch organizations (discipling approach of Navigators and Campus Crusade); and the Charismatic Movement (non-denominationalism and loose church structures, Juan Carlos Ortiz).

The movement gained a reputation as exhibiting abusive and controlling behaviour through its emphasis on obedience to one’s personal shepherd. In spite of its acceptance among some charismatic leaders, the movement was denounced strongly by others, such as as Pat Robertson and Demos Shakarian. In 1975, a meeting that became known as “the shoot-out at the Curtis Hotel” to place to resolve the dispute, but as implied by the title, the endeavour failed in its objective. As Lawrence Pile writes,

As long ago as April 1976 Russel T. Hitt wrote an article for Eternity magazine entitled “The Soul Watchers” in which he described spreading abuse of pastoral and discipling authority in several well-known Protestant Charismatic, Evangelical, and Roman Catholic movements and denominations. In an editorial entitled “Of Shepherds, Fiefs, and the Flock” the editors of Christianity Today wrote, “The temptation to control people is often Christianized by spiritual strong men who present a benign persona.” And in a 1985 article with the title “Disciple Abuse” (Discipleship Journal, Issue Thirty) Gordon MacDonald wrote, “Abusive disciplemaking begins when someone seeks people with the conscious or unconscious aim not of growing or leading them, but of controlling them. Sadly, this can be — and often is — effectively done in the name of discipling. The extremity of this tendency is cultism” (emphasis added).

By the mid-1980s, the movement was in sharp decline. Derek Prince severed his ties with the group in 1983, and the movement’s magazine, New Wine, folded in 1986 in the face of ongoing revenue losses. In the late 80s, “Baxter, Basham, and Mumford officially ‘released’ their disciples from their previous pyramidal authority structure.” Prince and Mumford particularly distanced themselves from the movement’s teachings, and in 1990, Bob Mumford went a step further and issued a “Formal Repentance Statement to the Body of Christ,” saying,

Accountability, personal training under the guidance of another, and effective pastoral care are needed biblical concepts. True spiritual maturity will require that they be preserved. These biblical realities must also carry the limits indicated by the New Testament. However, to my personal pain and chagrin, these particular emphases very easily lent themselves to an unhealthy submission resulting in perverse and unbiblical obedience to human leaders. Many of these abuses occurred within the sphere of my own responsibility.

The January/February 1990 issue of Ministries Today displayed on its cover the words, “‘Discipleship was wrong. I repent. I ask forgiveness.’ — Bob Mumford.” Charles Simpson was left alone with the movement — apparently it continues to this day, though Simpson prefers to call it the “Covenant Movement.” Even he has distanced himself from some of the movement’s earlier teachings.

At its best, the Shepherding Movement endeavoured to provide spiritual support and teaching to believers, helping them mature in Christ. At its worst, its teaching was a mechanism for systemic manipulation, control and abuse of the “disciples” within it. Few positive accounts can be found in the aftermath of the movement, with negative ones being by far the majority of experiences being talked about. It seems unlikely that none of the movement’s participants experienced any positive effects, but the ones reporting abuses tell common stories of practices that are clearly abusive, to the point where the movement as a whole is deemed to have been in err. Such accounts reveal that disciples who were expected to consult their “shepherd” before making major decisions such as marriage or career choices were not isolated cases — or even rare ones. Wealthy disciples were forced to reveal personal financial information, and secret sin and confidential family information was demanded to be revealed. According to Pat Robertson at the time, one individual “was warned that he would miss out on the Kingdom of God and be ruined spiritually, physically, and financially if he did not submit to the shepherd’s authority”, and “a key figure in the shepherding movement [was quoted as saying] that if God spoke to him and he knew that it was God speaking, but his shepherd told him to do the opposite, he would obey his shepherd.” It seems that the establishment of a hierarchy with sanctioned authority given to leaders over subjects tends to instill notions of the kind of power that corrupts.


  1. To Johnny Freewill,

    Thank you for your comments. People need to know the truth. As far as California goes, abuses took place there also. But I choose not to comment on this. I think if we all were to just read our bibles and allow God’s spirit to guide us into God’s truth, we will remain on safe ground. Thank God there are Bible teachers out there who love the truth of God’s word and who know their limits. I hate to be a name dropper but Chuck Swindoll is a good pastor. He is by no means perfect, but at least he knows his limits relative to shepherding.

  2. I was largely outside of charismatic/pentecostal churches for over 20 years. I tried to please my Catholic wife more than God.

    When I came back, I noticed a couple of doctrines that were quite different from the way I was raised and for which I could see little scriptural support, namely, the use of the phrases “cover” and “covering” to describe how a pastor, teacher, or even an apostle, prophet or evangelist provides protection from bad decisions or striking out in ministry on one’s own.

    The other teaching was the use of the title Apostle or Prophet in front of a leader’s name. The idea being that to receive a prophet’s reward, you must receive a prophet in the name of a prophet.

    Now I took the Assemblies of God position paper on the Discipleship and Submission Movement written in 1976,, and instead of using the word “shepherd”, read it with the word “cover”. And much of it is applicable today. But instead of interposing a leader as a gatekeeper to the door of heaven, now it appears there is a need for a “cover” according to some.

    Yet, it is clear that in Psalm 91, the Lord is our covering. There are few references to “cover” in the new testament, except that of women covering their heads as a show of submission to husbands.

    There certainly are many mentoring type relationships in the Bible: Eli and Samuel; Moses and Joshua; Elijah and Elisha; Paul and Timothy; Saul and David; and Daniel and Joseph to their kings. But these were bilateral agreements. David, indeed, left when it was clear he had to follow the Lord. He respected and protected Saul as King, but he did not submit to his authority as a servant would. Saul kept trying to kill him, after all.

    Even Bill Gothard, who speaks so eloquently about the umbrellas of authority in his Basic Youth Conflicts seminars, did not go so far as to say that you must stay under the “covering” of a ministry to form another. Indeed, his ministry fired him when they learned the details of what was to become his lifelong ministry. And he tells seminar attendants that if you disagree with the direction of your authorities, you either obey or you leave.

    It is the insecure who say that you must be under my covering if you leave, otherwise God won’t protect you or that somehow you will be cursed.

    One scripture that really struck me was Isaiah 30:1

    Woe to the rebellious children, saith the LORD, that take counsel, but not of me; and that cover with a covering, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin:

    So it is not a light thing for one to say they are a covering for their constituents. If they stray from the Spirit, then they become accountable to God.

    The other trend I’ve seen is that leaders call themselves, perhaps with apparent authorization of others, and sometimes a whole congregation, Apostles and Prophets. Thus instead of “Paul, a servant and an apostle” or “Paul, a prisoner of the Lord and an apostle” or “Peter, an apostle”, we see Apostle ________ or Prophet ________.

    Certainly there are those who move in the various offices. And the influence some country leaders have is in the millions. And there are those through whom God moves mightily through signs and miracles.

    But the titles can lack credibility to outsiders, unlike the title, “doctor (of philosopy)”, which is awarded through accredited universities.

    Even Paul, (clearly an apostle to the whole church!), deprecatingly said to the Corinthians (I Cor 9:2), that while he may not be an apostle to all, he was an apostle to them. So it seems that a church can “ordain” or “accept” their own apostle out of love and respect. But to demand such treatment is clearly of order. Even our Lord said not to have people call you Rabbi. No wonder no one calls themselver Teacher so and so. And yet they take on highter titles.

    Yet, when I see someone sit down at a church lunch that no one knows wearing a name tag Apostle _________, and who asks that his business card be passed from person to person, instead of simply talking to the pastor, it seems something is wrong. It should not be where anyone can go around from church to church, and say they are an apostle or evangelist. There should be some widespread recognition, and certainly some kind of invitation from a pastor before such a person starts mininstering using those types of titles.

    That this title should not be taken on lightly is seen in Revelation 2:2, I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars.

    In all, it seems the the Bible covers everything, even the topic of “coverings” and apostles.

  3. Michael,
    Praise God that your eyes were opened to seeing that you were trying to please men (or in this case, your wife) instead of Father God! You do not have an easy existence, but the Lord will see you through as you abide in him.

    Yes, out only covering is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is covering over all the sheep. There in no way exists one sheep above another: we are all equal, but each has different gifts to offer the body of Christ.

    If we are truly seeking to become one with Christ and with God, doctrines do not matter. What does matter is fully submitting to the Lord, cultivating a maturing relationship with the Lord and with those in the body of Christ. As the relationship grows, we all become of one accord with each other, the Lord and Father God. Then the Father can use us to further his purpose on earth. Every other thing will eventually become clear to us. We see thru a glass darkly, until the scales are removed. Jesus Christ Lord and Saviour is not a doctrine, tho men may make him such. He is The Way, The Truth and The Life. To reduce him to doctrine is to bring him down to our level of understanding. He wants to life us up, but requires our cooperation. He is our blessing!

    As for a visiting apostle or any of the 5 fold ministries: these are functions, not offices. Just as a “pastor” is a function, not an office. If one is sent by God (which is what an apostle is), one does not require an invitation. God is above all men and sends who he pleases to where there is a need. That said, it is up to those who are to receive the message to discern by the spirit whether or not it is actually of god.

    Men do not decide how, when, where, who or why a messenger of God appears. They are only fellow servants of he who is sent among them. And quite frankly, a person sent by God does not act in an elite manner, drawing attention to himself by high or haughty words, dress, mannerisms or announcements. He does not need to if truly sent by God. He gives his message and continues on. Why a true sent man of God would wear a name tag beginning with a title is baffling: unless he was not really sent of God. His words and proclamations would need to be discerned whether of the Spirit or not.

  4. Michael and Linda, even in the early days of the Charismatic Movement there was a powerful move of the Spirit with the Catholics. I knew Bill Gothard in his beginning days, but it seems that Jesus’ prayers for true visible unity can never happen as long as we make it ALL about doctrine. It isn’t really about how much we know, but “who” we know. This is not to say doctrine is not extremely important, but as pointed out many places in this string, our flesh wants to have control and even Paul struggled and relates it in Rom7.

    You correctly identify gifts that are erroneously turned into titles, while the distinctions are there to enable us to be inter-dependent upon one another, not our popular rugged fleshly independent tendency. The familiar passages by Paul in 1 Cor 12 should dismiss equalitarianism, as we are different members of His one Body. I need you because of my limitations.

    The well known chapter on love that follows puts much of the Church’s motives to task. Even Elders when operating in an authoritative situation within the congregation are seen to be as a plurality, and perhaps why Jesus mentions where two or three are gathered, He is there, but in a different context (authoritatively) than with us as individuals.

    Jesus exhorts us to not call any man teacher or even father, yet Paul told us that though we have many teachers, not so many fathers. It appears that as far back as Saul, we have chosen a vertical hierarchical structure for authority, instead of the horizontal flow of family with elders who are heads of families. What good father doesn’t want their offspring to be even better than preceding generations, including himself? But hierarchy has even destructively crept into natural families. It seems significant that Malachi, as he ends our Old Testament, prophesizes John the Baptist’s announcement of the mission of the Messiah who will restore the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers.

  5. Thank you to all for your comments. I met my Lord Jesus Christ at the age of 43 years old 6 years ago. I am still a young Christian even at the ripe old age of 50. I am in a home church fellowship that is led by a group of 4 elders. The problem is one that has been discussed here, namely we are being led by men and not the Holy Spirit. One of the elders met Mr Mumford during the 80’s and still practices the SM. He is married but does not live with his wife but with a young single women of the church who is basically is handmaiden. He said God told him to do it! I have brought this subject up with the other elders but have been rebuked. They tell me I need to submit to authority. What they mean his theirs and not Christ’s. I was not aware of the SM until about 2 years ago. After researching it my eyes were open to what was going on. It’ ironic that one of the first books I was giving was Watchman Nee’s book on Spiritual Authority! I truly believe The Lord led me to this small fellowship for a reason. Was it to stir the pot or show the other members what was wrong, I am not sure. I do know that my Lord Jesus Christ will prevail in the end. I firmly believe that The Lord has not released me yet from being a member of this small group. It is on his timeline not of mine. I ask that you all pray for me that I hear his voice in this matter. Like it was said above your either obey the authorities in the way they are leading us or leave. Thank you for letting me rant.

  6. HI Everyone, HELP!
    My church has begun to take a drastick direction into discipleship. In fact, that is the only thing they say they are about now. Having been somewhat in the Shepherding movement of the 70’a and 80’s, I am seeing some of the same things happening. first off, love seems to be getting colder. If you are not with it, then leave is the new motif. The pastor used to be a “hands off” kind of guy. I am the youth director in the church. As a youth director, control is the new paradyme. If it is not “discipleship” then we really don’t want it is the new motto. I am getting to HATE the word discipleship. How sad. I am so burdened by the direction of the church now. The pastor says the building won’t be here in 5 years because they will all be meeting in homes. so the 40 year old preschool will now be shut down in the next fews years. It seems he is trying to dismantle the church in the name of discipleship. Many people are leaving and many are confused. Any suggestions?

  7. Ann Marie,

    Obviously I don’t know all the intricacies involved, by in general I suspect you need to leave, and be candid about why. It doesn’t sound like this is a situation that’s about to change, but getting people to talk about it and about what’s going on that is wrong may help others to find the courage to move on to a safer place.

    Look at Barb Orlowski’s website and book, as well as Rob McAlpine’s book referenced above. Searching online generally for information on spiritual abuse will get you pointed in the right direction. The shepherding movement is spiritual abuse, pure and simple, though people don’t use the same terminology as much now — hence the more general search terms.

    At the end of the day, it will be difficult, but the last thing that will be helpful for you and your spiritual growth is to stay put, even if you’re convinced that you can help bring change. From all I’ve seen, bringing the kind of change necessary is extremely unlikely without a significant number of senior leaders on your side against the direction that’s being taken.

    Hope this helps!

  8. Ann Marie,

    You are caught in the cross hairs of what is becoming a huge topic in Christendom today: disciples are NOT being made in the institutional churches today, and the church system is wondering why and therefore trying to remedy the problem with changes and ultimatums.

    The reason why there are these types of abuses today in the institutional church system is because it is patterned after the worldly corporate systems. After all, man is far from perfect and a man running a church is going to get pretty agitated when people start leaving, grumbling etc because there goes his livelihood. There were no “leadership offices” in the first century church. Christ was and is the ONLY Shepherd or leader of the church. I strongly urge you to find those who are truly devoted to serving God above all else, who see Christ as the one true Shepherd and gather with them.

    Please do not throw out the baby (discipleship) with the bath water (the church you are in). Go back to the New Testament and read about Christ choosing the disciples, how they lived and learned together. Read about the women who became Christ’s disciples. Read about the love all had for one another in the first century church. Then realize this: when Christ called the 12 men to “follow me and become my disciples”, fishers of men, they left everything and entered the inner court to reside with Jesus and learn from him. He called, they answered and became obedient.

    The reason why there are so few disciples today is because most to profess to belief in Christ remain in the outer court, ministering to each other, doing whatever they want to satisfy their spiritual longings with a minimum of output to God. They are not maturing and God cannot use them. That is why the church today has no power or authority over all the growing evil here and abroad. Being ‘commissioned” by men to do this or that in a church made with hands does not a disciple make. Doing does not make one a disciple. Christ first said, “follow me”. He did not send out the disciples until later (for instruction). God can not send us out to minister horizontally until we first come to him and learn to minister vertically to him (as did Moses and many others).

    You state you feel burdened: if we remain tethered to the world in us, in others, in some church system we reside in presently, this is going to be the case. Christ said to come to him, all who are heavy ladened and he will give you rest! Can you see the difference, between how this church you belong to is run compared to how the true Shepherd and leader, Jesus, cares for his sheep?

    Ann Marie, I suggest you set aside all your present agenda and enter the inner court to minister to Father God. Hear and obey what he tells you and move forward into true discipleship/maturity. I guarantee you will not regret it. It will take courage and you may need to be in the desert while he teaches you, but it will be well worth it! Count the cost – move forward into freedom with Christ!

  9. I was a member of a shepherding church in Chicago during the ’70s and 80s. Gotta say it … I think many abuse problems stem for male-only. patriarchal leadership.

    The ciurrent complentarian movement to define Bilblical Manhood & Womanhood is more about ‘manhood’ than anything else. It is good that they call males to greater acoountability and integrity, but they need not accomplish this by surpressing the movement of the Spirit among women.


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