Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Savage Shepherds – Adam Harbinson

I caught up with a fair amount of reading over Christmas and the New Year. One book I haven’t commented on was Adam Harbinson’s Savage Shepherds.

Adam unexpectedly joined a church fellowship in the 1980s. He refers to it as “The River of Life Fellowship”, though that wasn’t its real name. Part of the shepherding movement that came out of the charismatic church in the US, and had quite a following around Belfast and Bangor.

Members of fellowships were accountable to a shepherd (an elder or suchlike) who was their point of accountability. Except that it was a very structured and all encompassing accountability. Sheep were discouraged from having their own original thought about the Bible and about God. Instead, their revelation was to come through their shepherd.

The relationships within The River of Life Fellowship also involved the sheep putting the needs of their shepherd above their own. You’d be expected to cancel your evening’s dinner plans to come across and baby-sit for your shepherd and allow him (always a him) to go out. Gardening, painting, lots of work to go around. And your 10% tithe was funnelled through your shepherd.

God’s amazing love funnelled into weak human structures and constraints.

While there were positive aspects to the shepherding movement, there were also abusive relationships and corruption. Some of the original US leaders (two of the Fort Lauderville Five) apologised and publicly distanced themselves from shepherding.

Despite having reservations about the way the fellowship ran, Adam remained attached to the fellowship for quite a long time. When he tried to leave, the ranks closed and he was hounded. Rather than leaving things in the hands of God, personal criticism and human intervention seemed to rule. His business was wrecked by allegations of financial irregularities, his family was put under immense strain, and his health suffered.

As well as telling Adam’s story, this book highlights the dangers of life that can lie in a close-knit fellowship, and discusses some of the tell-tale signs that point to spiritual abuse and unhealthy power structures. Adam remains surprisingly balanced as he recounts his experiences and describes the problem. His grace and forgiveness make the warning so much more powerful.

You can catch Adam on his website and blog. He was interviewed on Sunday Sequence a couple of weeks ago too.


John Self said...

"Sheep" does indeed seem the appropriate term.

I do wonder just how 'charismatic' the church or its leaders would have to be to get away with this sort of thing even initially. Or do they aim themselves specifically at the weak-willed?

Perhaps there's an allegory with Scientology, where you finally learn the 'truth' behind the religion (intergalactic superbeing called Xenu who travelled to earth billions of years ago and trapped millions of souls inside mountains or something like that) only after you've devoted so much time and money (tens of thousands and then some) to the cause that you're too embarrassed to admit you've been had.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

I think quite normal, sensible people can get trapped in all kinds of organisations. The spiritual aspect makes it easier for people to accept circumstances that they wouldn't normally buy into or would at least stand up to in normal society. But the feeling of "these people are Godly" and "I'm disobeying God" means that the normal common sense doesn't override. And abusive relationships are common enough in everyday society, with children and partners pressurised into all kinds of situations that outsiders find it hard to believe they didn't stand up to.

Scientology ... as a teenager, having read through L Ron Hubbard's Mission Earth ten volume sci fi series while still a frequent customer of the old Lisburn library, it seems ludicrous to accept that he could define a sensible religion!

neville mccullough said...

mr harbinson appears not to move on
when if truth be told he suffered very little and it has been said he always yearned for a pulpit but some say he has got it ie local media

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

I dont think that

> His business was wrecked by allegations
> of financial irregularities, his family was put
> under immense strain, and his health suffered.

really counts as "he suffered very little"?

Unknown said...

It would not be helpful to get into a slanging match about who suffer what and how much, but Mr McCullough should know better! However, there's a number of things that surprise and sadden me. Firstly, there's the stoicism; the 'keep it in the family', the 'don't talk about it' attitude that deceives people into believing that you can move on, while unresolved hurts and wounds remain unresolved.
My plea is, don't bury your grievances and pain, for you bury them alive, and as surely as night follows day, they will fester, and spring back to life. You cannot properly move on until you have dealt with them.
The other thing I would say, without gloating, is this. Your leader has fallen, he's human, he has already been forgiven and the penalty paid, but don't brush over it. Forgive him? Of course! But recognise that a great wrong has been done by one who for decades made his people believe - including me for a while - that he was placed above them in a chain of command that reached back to God. Jesus specifically said that this must not be the case (Matt 23 8-12). Please, see this difficult time as a window of opportunity to find out where things went wrong, and why. I do not intend lecture anyone, rather I appeal to the members of the church to rebuild your life on the solid rock of your relationship with Jesus - no one in between.
And believe me, there are many of your brothers and sisters in Christ in Bangor and beyond, who are praying for you and your leader - including me. This is a time to focus on redemption.

Anonymous said...

I am quite shocked by Neville McCullough's comment for several reasons. Firstly, he appears to be of the opinion that the publication of Adam Harbinson's book, Savage Shepherds is an indication that Adam has not moved on. If he has read the book he would see that is not the case. Secondly, I fail to see how Mr McCullough can claim that Adam Harbinson suffered very little unless he hasn't actually read the book! If he hasn't read the book how would he know what Adam Harbinson and his family suffered? Members of the particular church involved totally distanced themselves from anyone who left the group. James and Phyllis Alsdurf quote in their book Battered into Submission "the only ones who don't think abuse is bad are those doing the abusing." Although I was never part of this group I am constantly in touch with many ex-members who have been deeply hurt, some of them recently. Knowing Adam Harbinson the 'pulpit' is the last place he would like to be as he relates the true message of Jesus to an eager audience who has been so battered and bruised by religion and what better way than through the media.

Anonymous said...

After leaving the Shepherding movement twenty years ago I still feel the pain it inflicted to myself and many of my friends. I do not understand how those who are still in it have survived. My heart always goes out to them. WE have only one life. God will not be angry if you leave. He will not be angry if you give your offerings to the poor. Ezekiel 34 tells us about abusive, brow beating Shepherds who control and rip off the weak while the strong get stronger.
He loves you. I have set before you an open door which no man can shut. You can go through it now in Christ's name.