A Christian cult, 30 years later
Art and article by Anna Cain
Beth looks like a perfectly average American mom. She works as a school librarian and frets about the gaps in their literary fiction collection. Her guilty pleasures include dark chocolate and Welsh tea. She enjoys reading Jane Austen and travel literature. She describes herself as normal, even boring.
Also, Beth spent most of her childhood inside a Christian cult called the Shepherding Movement.
The story begins in 1970, with four men in a hotel room in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. All four were pastors associated with the Charismatic Movement, an interdenominational Christian trend that had gained traction in the 1960s. The men had come to Florida to fix a financial crisis and a personal scandal. A fellow Charismatic pastor had fallen into sin, something that seemed to happen with alarming frequency. Their ministry jobs required constant travel, meaning they were often away from church and family oversight, or facing temptations on the road.
Aware of their own vulnerability to sin, the four pastors made a pact of total mutual accountability. Each preacher would share his most intimate secrets, desires and fears with the other three, who would respond with love and guidance. The circle later expanded to include a fifth pastor, and the so-called “Fort Lauderdale Five” returned to their separate congregations, inspired by the new strategy of personal pastoring and accountability.
Many of their co-religionists were skeptical. Two of the five pastors were controversial for believing that a Christian could “have a demon,” and their consequent performing of public exorcisms. However, for many young Charismatics, the five pastors had hit upon a winning combination. Ron Burks, one former church member, remembers being able to “sense the spiritual security they talked so much about. We wanted the same protection from temptation and the same encouragement in righteousness.”
The movement soon expanded to dozens, then hundreds, of mutually-bound believers. They referred to themselves as covenant churches, but outsiders called them the Shepherding, or Discipleship, Movement, as the personal pastor model echoed the Christian metaphor of shepherds and sheep. At the time, it was a fringe movement, but one with good intentions.
A few years later, in 1973, Beth’s family got involved with the nascent Shepherding Movement. They had recently moved to the small coastal town of Pascagoula, Mississippi after her father got an engineering job in the shipyards. Her parents were church-going agnostics: they liked Christians, and enjoyed being involved in church social life, despite not actually believing in God.
They didn’t realize then that they had moved into a hotbed of the growing Shepherding Movement. One of the five original founders, Charles Simpson, was based 40 miles away in Mobile, Alabama, and had sent a top lieutenant to oversee around 100 families in Pascagoula.
Her mother stumbled into the Movement almost by accident. “When she was invited, she thought they said ‘Share Meeting’,” Beth remembered. “She thought it was gonna be like a book club or a discussion group. Instead it was a ‘Prayer Meeting.’ They were sitting around praying and speaking in tongues. It kinda blew her away, because she was a southern California liberal lady.”
Beth’s parents were initially skeptical, but something in those Charismatic Bible studies resonated with them. By 1974, the entire family was heavily involved in the Shepherding Movement, where they would stay for the next 20 years.
They belonged to a circle of 40 families ministered by a pastor called “Brother Ed.” This was the basic unit of the Shepherding Movement: “the cell group,” or several families overseen by a personal pastor. The cell group was a lifelong commitment, the pact between “sheep” and “shepherd” as unbreakable as marriage. On the rare occasions when a believer was moved to a different pastor, it was a traumatic upheaval, essentially a divorce.
The Shepherding Movement was made up of cell groups all across the nation stacked into a pyramid. At the tip of the pyramid were the five founders, who were mutually accountable to each other. Each founder ministered to a handful of experienced pastors. These senior pastors were scattered around the country to lead far-flung chapters of the Movement. For example, the head pastor in Pascagoula, Glen Roachelle, was ministered by founder Charles Simpson.
The structure only becomes more complicated from here. Roachelle himself shepherded seven to 10 career pastors, such as “Brother Ed,” who guided Beth’s family. These career pastors led cell groups of five to 10 lay pastors. The bottom rung of the pastoral hierarchy, lay pastors were people who led cell groups but had separate careers and were not formally trained in ministry. Beth’s father became a lay pastor, and he shepherded anywhere from three to 10 families.
“I don’t actually know how we supported so many pastors,” Beth said.
In fact, the Shepherding Movement was carefully designed to permit such an unbalanced ratio of pastors to disciples. In mainstream churches, most tithe money goes to paying the bills. However, at the time, the Shepherding Movement had no permanent facilities, so all tithes could be used to support pastors. In theory, each pastor would shepherd around 10 families, who would each tithe 10 percent of their pre-tax income directly to him. Thus, the pastor’s salary would be the exact average of his followers’s incomes.
In practice, the shepherds ended up making more than the sheep. Lay pastors like Beth’s father had careers outside the church, so they passed tithes from their cell groups further up the pyramid. Higher-ranking pastors thus collected tithes not just from their own flock, but from the flocks of all their lay pastors.
When pastors travelled to different congregations, they had the opportunity to collect another windfall. When visiting speakers preached in Pascagoula, church authorities levied an additional tithe, “a love offering.” Beth said “There was always a lot of pressure, and kinda some haranguing, from the pulpit about ‘We want to really show this pastor our love and how much we appreciate him, and I’m challenging you to put in enough money to buy him a new car.’ And occasionally, they’d say something like ‘Our love offering was able to buy so-and-so a new car.’ And people would cheer!”
Unsurprisingly, pastors always had the nicest homes and cars. Beth’s father was an engineer, one of the few professionals in the Movement, but was out-earned by the career pastors. I asked Beth if ordinary members saw this pyramid scheme as exploitative. “No, I don’t think anybody ever resented it,” she said. “It was a way to show your loyalty… and people took pride in it. ‘We take good care of our pastor!’ They did. They took pride in it.”
From some angles, the Shepherding Movement looks like a cult. From others, merely a strange, authoritarian church. Former member Ron Burks makes the dubious argument that the Shepherding Movement wasn’t a cult because they weren’t as bad as Jonestown. Beth doesn’t take a strong stance either way, but said it was more than just an odd church, because “the goal was to make people fit into a certain mold and to follow a leader. It wasn’t really to follow God. A church is more concerned with your spiritual growth and following a deity, where this was more concerned with following a leader, which seems to me cult-like, because it’s focused around a person and a personality.”
I gave Beth a 15-question quiz developed by Janja Lalich, a professor of sociology, and Michael Langone, a psychologist. This quiz lists the precise characteristics that separate cults from religious fringe organizations. When Beth took the quiz, the Shepherding Movement fit 12 of the 15.
Early in 1977, Glen Roachelle, head of the Shepherding Movement in Pascagoula, announced a move. The traditional, conservative people of Mississippi had always been wary of “the wacky church,” and the general consensus among the pastors was that Pascagoula had become “too hot.” They hoped that in a bigger city, their congregation could blend in. Roachelle decided to move to Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. The roughly 75 Shepherding families in Pascagoula were expected to move with him.
“[Roachelle] announced that he was moving to Texas,” Beth said. “After that meeting, men would come up to their pastors and say ‘Wherever you go, I’m gonna go. If you’re going to Texas, I’m gonna go with you.’ And the attitude was, the people who decided not to go, they were looked down upon. They really missed out on something. They weren’t able to take that step of faith and commitment.”
Beth’s family did take that step of faith. Her father left his engineering job and, with no employment lined up in Dallas, moved his family to Texas.
This is not an isolated example of the obedience the sheep showed their shepherds. Pastors expected total submission. No matter was too large or too small to hand over to the pastor. They made career decisions for their flock, brokered marriages, selected which car a believer should buy, even weighed in on home decorating. Looking back, Beth laments that she never really thought for herself. No one did. “Talk to your pastor. They’ll solve your problems. And part of that’s attractive, because you don’t have to work through the hard business of living yourself. You can let a pastor help you.”
Obedience to pastors often took the form of service. A pastor in the Shepherding Movement delegated his household chores to the families he oversaw. Once a week, all the boys and men in a cell group would do their pastor’s lawn care, and all the girls and women would clean their pastor’s house. Some pastors were gracious, thankful for the help. Others saw their disciples as servants and verbally berated them for any mistakes. “If there was ever any justification given for [the chores], like ‘It frees us up for ministry,’ I never heard it,” Beth said. “Never heard any kinda justification. It was more of: ‘This is just what we do’.”
Mirroring the submission of disciples to pastors was the submission of women to men. The cult explicitly placed themselves in opposition to what they saw as a decayed, morally corrupt, feminist mainstream society. Women thus did not fully participate in the personal pastoring experience. A woman’s husband would meet with their pastor and bring his spiritual guidance home to her. Her spiritual experiences were channeled into making her a better wife.
Women in the Shepherding Movement did not work, and girls did not go to college. The main goal was to marry, and in this matter too, believers needed only follow their pastors.
“Every single person I knew went through their pastor to get married,” Beth said. “That was my entire experience through my teenage years. And if you were a girl, you never had any choice in the matter at all. You just sorta sat at home and waited and hoped that some young man was interested enough in you to ask his pastor to talk to your pastor to see if you could go on a date.”
If the pastors instructed a young woman to date, marriage was all but inevitable. “I cannot think of a single example of a dating relationship that did not end in marriage,” Beth said.
She then told me about a single girl who was made to date a man she disliked, but nevertheless married. Beth implied, though did not say outright, that the young woman may have been coerced into marriage. In response, I read Beth a passage from a couple’s memoir of their time in the Shepherding Movement. “Pastors did not usually insist on obedience in the decision of marriage partners,” I read. “But ‘usually’ means there were situations where pastors insisted on obedience and forced girls to marry. Do you know anything about this?” Beth looks disgusted but unsurprised.
There may be a simple reason why every date eventually led to the altar: desperation, on the girls’ part. The pastors were actually inefficient at arranging marriages. “There was hardly ever any dating going on,” Beth said. “So when people did get asked out on a date, there was all this pressure, because it was such a rare occurrence.” Everyone may have married their first partner simply because the odds of ever being asked out again were very slim. And for women who did not marry by their mid-20s, the consequences were grim.
After graduating high school, young women simply learned how to be wives. Many stayed home with their mothers, cooking and cleaning. Girls who joined the Movement without their parents were apprenticed to a pastor’s household, to train under his wife. Four girls lived with Beth’s family in an arrangement like this. One stayed for six years.
Beth feels only pity for these girls. “Just to have to live with this family, be nice, be kind all the time, not have any outlet, have no money. The only time you’d ever get to buy anything is if the pastor had pity on you and maybe gave you $5 or $10. And you’d have to help the mom of the house fix meals and do housework. That was your life.” Cooking, cleaning and being dependent on others until a man claimed you, and decades of the same if a man never came.
She remembers watching in horror as women passed their 30th birthday, all possibility of marriage gone. Since women did not work, no marriage also meant no chance to ever live independently. “You were gonna be a spinster, and it was dreadful,” Beth said. “There were single girls in the church that never got asked out on a date, and it was—you just felt like their life was over. What are they gonna do?”
Even though women were nominally in charge of the home, they were obedient to their husband’s ideas on family management. The worst example of this came when the church introduced new teachings on child discipline. “I remember Glen Roachelle in a meeting telling fathers to discipline their children until it broke their spirits,” Beth said. Fathers who were gentle before joining the cult would now, following their pastor’s instructions, hit their children with rulers or belts, beatings that could last 25 minutes to an hour.
Beth remembers sitting with the women at a swimming pool one summer and seeing that the children’s bathing suits revealed bruises on their bottoms and thighs. “‘Yeah, that teaching on child discipline has really been effective’,” Beth remembered hearing the women say. “And they were kinda laughing about it, but it was child abuse, no way around it. And it was taught institutionally. It was institutional child abuse.”
I wondered how Beth’s father, an intelligent, well-educated agnostic, got ensnared. Even more, I wondered how hundreds of thinking people could devote so many years to a Movement that was clearly parasitic. According to Beth, the Shepherding Movement got at least one thing right: they hit upon the formula for the most elusive drug high on Earth.
Whether you want to call it the Holy Spirit or simply the right neurochemical cocktail, even the most cynical atheist should not discount the power of transcendent spiritual experiences. Believers become aware of their own tiny place in the universe, but can feel the ties of love and fellowship connecting them to everyone else in the room. They sense a great, universal presence, terrifying in its power, that looks upon them with kindness and wants to bend all its omnipotence to guiding their small life. Believers feel wonder, awe, ecstasy. They might walk away from the experience shaken, but with their commitment to God reforged, stronger than before. Someone in a mainstream church might experience this once or twice in their entire life. But the Shepherding Movement had found the right combination of music, praise and prayer to trigger experiences like this virtually every time they met.
“I don’t know what it was, but it was a true spiritual moment, and you’d get it at almost every worship service. There was something there, and I can’t describe it,” Beth said. “Every meeting, people would have a worship service that would last 10 to 30 minutes. Just singing praise songs. And it was extemporaneous—it wasn’t planned. There was no bulletin with what hymn to turn to. People felt led, and they would lead out with a song, and the musicians would have to figure out the key and play along. People would raise their hands, they’d start talking, speaking in tongues, singing in tongues.”
Members of the Shepherding Movement knew, rightly, that they couldn’t find these spiritual experiences on the outside. When Beth eventually left the cult, every other church felt lifeless to her. She compared it to going to a nice restaurant, but only being allowed a few mouthfuls of the blandest food.
Beth’s exit from the Shepherding Movement began after she graduated high school. Like all girls, she then learned how to be a wife, cleaning pastor’s houses with the other women. After a few months, she felt listless. To fill her time, she taught music lessons at a school run by the Shepherding Movement. “For that hour and a half every day when I’d teach a piano lesson, everything was great, and then it was just right back into ‘What’s my life?’” Beth said. This went on for two years.
She realized with horror that this idleness could very well last the rest of her life. Marriage was the only way to change her situation, but when she surveyed the young men in the church, she understood there would never be an offer. She would be one of the single girls who watch their 20s wane with growing hopelessness.
The change came when an intelligent girl from an eccentric family announced she was going to college, the first woman in the Shepherding Movement to do so. “And when Becky announced she was going, I thought ‘Ugh! What am I doing? Why am I sitting at home, waiting for something that’s never gonna happen?’” Beth said. She told the church authorities she would attend college part-time to get more music training and become a better piano instructor. Thus, Beth became the second young woman from the 300 Dallas Shepherding Movement families to attend college.
Over the next few years, she quietly moved from a part-time to a full-time student, from commuting to school to living in the dorms. Then, in 1985, she met a young man outside the cult. They got engaged in early 1986. She understood then that her time in the Shepherding Movement was coming to an end.
When I first heard this story, I assumed Beth had deliberately set out to marry outside the cult, in order to escape. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Leaving the Shepherding Movement was the greatest possible scandal, too shocking to even speak about. “Just the words ‘Left the church’ would strike horror into your heart,” Beth said. “People didn’t even want to talk about it. And if you saw [someone who had left] out in public, you just, you wouldn’t even go to talk to them. It was almost a scary thing. ‘Left the church.’”
Beth didn’t want to leave the church. It would sever all her childhood friendships and perhaps hurt her parents’ position in the cult hierarchy. She would lose the respect of adult mentors who had watched her grow up. All of that to move into mainstream churches that could never give her the spiritual experiences she felt in the Shepherding Movement. She knew all this, but she loved her fiancé.
Beth married in August 1986, ending her association with the Shepherding Movement.
She wonders throughout our interview if her story is even that unusual. “I don’t know if this, the Shepherding Movement, is really unique. I just wonder sometimes if it’s part of the human experience, to let ourselves be led astray,” she said. Beth may not be wrong. Thousands of people spent time in Shepherding Movement, and as far as cults go, this one isn’t even widely-known. It is one of many organizations that manipulate people through fear of God or hope of salvation. Her story isn’t unique, and that’s what makes it terrifying.
Don’t assume that when Beth married, she immediately joined mainstream, secular life. Her new husband also practiced a toxic form of Christianity, nowhere near as abusive as the Shepherding Movement, but still on the fringe. You know the “You Deserve Hell” types that preach outside Worner? That’s the kind of church Beth entered, and that’s where she and her family stayed for decades.
What ended up saving Beth was the liberal arts. In 2004, she got a part-time job teaching the Humanities online. To prepare for the position, Beth began reading extensively on art, architecture, philosophy, history, literature and science. While reading, her mindset began to change. This side of the Christian right implicitly presents themselves as the only righteous people left, with the rest of the broader culture being immoral, corrupt, rotten to the core. However, Beth began to understand the great achievements of art and science, against which were pitted the fundamentalist religions that kept their followers in willful ignorance. The inscription above Palmer Hall reads “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Beth looks back on her study of the liberal arts as what set her free.
Today, Beth identifies as an atheist and a feminist. Knowing the impact of books on her own life, she pushes her students toward challenging, previously-banned literature. She votes Democrat and writes her Congressman in support of gun control. In January 2017, she joined her local Women’s March against Donald Trump. None of these things are unique in themselves¬—many people hold positions like this. But not many people had to evolve so much, and come so far, to hold these views.
The Shepherding Movement has been dead for almost 30 years, but the people who grew up in it are still very much alive.
Beth was in the cult for 12 years, and needed a further 20 to totally escape it. Beth’s son is still religious, but is naturally too kind-hearted and empathetic to accept the preaching of hate. He suffers over the belief that the non-Christian people he loves are damned to an eternity of torment. Beth’s daughter lost her faith when she was very young, but didn’t meet another atheist until she was 16. She had a strange childhood delusion that she was the only person alive who didn’t believe in God, and spent years terrified she was going to Hell. Beth’s father carries the guilt of dragging his family through a toxic religious fad and teaching his wife and daughter they were made only to serve men. The movement has been dead for decades, but it still impacts countless scattered lives.
I can write this with authority because Beth Cain is my mother.
This is the chapter of our family history we all know about, but never talk about. Prior to starting this article, my mom and I had had a total of two conversations, my entire life, about her background. The Shepherding Movement doesn’t affect the daily lives of me and my brother, but we know we came into the game late, that the Shepherding Movement set the board and put the pieces in play.
Over Christmas, my mom and I went through her old files. We found:
A group photo where my mom stands behind Charles Simpson, one of the five founders of the Shepherding Movement.
A newsletter article about the Bible study she ran in her dorm, a transparent attempt on the church’s part to make her decision to attend college seem like part of their plan, not a rebellion against their authority.
A cruel and manipulative letter Glen Roachelle, the top pastor in Dallas-Fort Worth, sent my mom after she announced her engagement to my dad.
“Can I take these back to school with me? I’ll bring them back at spring break,” I asked.
“You know,” she replied, “I never want them back. I’m done with that part of my life now.”
Part of the Toxic issue