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.