Dana’s Story: The Potters Field Case
It is equally hard to know and admit you’re actually in one.
I don’t even know where to begin this story. This is the first time writing just a small part of my experience with Potter’s field 11 years ago.
When I first arrived at PFR, it didn’t take long to become aware of the power structures in place and how unhealthy they were.
It was the class of 2008 and I was among the older students attending the session. Newly graduated from college, 24 at the time and already coming to PFR with a history of trauma, I was searching outside of myself for peace and understanding. I was serious about growth, my relationship with God and the Bible, correct biblical interpretation and application.
From the beginning, I knew that I didn’t fit in.
I was vocal about questioning certain interpretations of scripture and it’s misuse to manipulate and exercise power over people in our class that were viewed as “unsubmissive”.
When I applied to PFR and was in touch with the admissions pastor at that time, I was told that the program was much different than it was before, which had previously existed as a type of boot camp style missionary training ground. I was told the program was more of a Bible School centered around theological studies than it was a “discipleship training school” as it had been in the past.
It wasn’t long after the session began that this pastor abruptly left.
I was financially supported to go to PFR and didn’t want to disappoint those who made it possible for me to be there.
I had my doctrinal disagreements, called out the ridiculous power structure and supported fellow classmates that were being mistreated. I was expected to yield to interns that were immature, with far less and far different life experience, and was accused of being full of pride and out of God’s will because of my unwillingness to submit, however that was defined to mean.
I tried to be respectful, pliable, and agreeable, as I truly was seeking to understand, but early on in the session, I came to the realization that I was not in a safe space to grow and the program wasn’t what I thought it was. Mike came in one day to address our class, saying that the authorities in place at the ranch were appointed by God and that in the Bible “authority” is a “military term” and we are called and required to submit to the authorities above us.
We were also required to do bizarre physically strenuous exercises for “team building”. One of the first things we were made to do was carry a huge solid wood cross to the top of a mountain. At the top, one of the classmates had what seemed to be a severe panic attack. She had to be carried back down and was almost air lifted to the hospital. This happened twice to her during these physical challenges. It was treated as a spiritual attack from satan.
I remember so clearly one of the first experiences I had that made me feel unsafe.
There was one person in particular I felt deeply uncomfortable around.
I had gone horseback riding one day, and while there, this particular employee smacked the horse’s rear, nearly making the horse take off.
I let him know the next day that it was not only extremely inappropriate but dangerous to come up behind a horse and hit them, especially when someone is riding.
He responded at first with an obviously insincere ‘thank you’, but when everyone started leaving to go to class, he approached me in the dining room.
Instead of an apology, he said, “I only did it, like, this hard” and proceeded to hit me on the arm to where it physically pushed me backward and knocked me off balance.
I was in shock and completely shut down. I didn’t speak in that moment, and I haven’t spoken about that moment until now.
Something interesting happens with those who have experienced past trauma. They learn to disassociate, disconnect, compartmentalize, and minimize.
They are quick to doubt themselves and place blame on themselves in the aftermath in an attempt to make sense of it. It makes abuse survivors extremely susceptible to further abuse. It’s the perfect set up for being at the mercy of dysfunctional humans that lack accountability, love power, and can’t stand to be anything but right.
Instead of reporting this employee, I regretted saying anything at all, and just set out to avoid him as much as possible.
I got extremely sick at PFR twice.
Once with the worst case of food poisoning I have ever had, and then a separate time with a severe cough.
The time I was sick with the incessant cough, I was exhausted from lack of sleep, and needed to rest. Instead, I was coerced by one of the interns to participate in a ridiculous and pointless ‘ropes course’.
The leader of this particular group exercise was minimizing how sick I was and accused me of not wanting to “work as a team”. At that point, I was completely fed up and told the leader that I was done and going to bed.
He pulled me aside and told the group to go on and proceeded to say, “what is your problem? Your attitude is horrible”, and continued to make it known that I was rebelling against God and needed to repent. Later, the interns admitted that this ploy against me was about ‘humbling and disciplining me’.
Then came the mission trip to El Salvador.
I didn’t pay for the trip and didn’t want to go based on the experience I’d had thus far, but at a meeting called by Mike, we were told that the trip was required. We traveled on a bus through harsh weather conditions, driven by one of the employees that wasn’t even comfortable driving a travel bus, let alone in snow. We visited the Calvary Chapels in Nevada and Utah along the way, stayed at various people’s homes and were forced to serve and work in whatever capacity needed.
This infuriated me, because not only was this not at all what I signed up for, I felt extremely taken advantage of.
One night, after working all day at a church event, some classmates and I walked to a restaurant to get some food and have a break. We got back a little late and my small group leader lit into me and shamed me for not getting to my assigned “job” on time.
When we finally made it to El Salvador, I loved being with the people and the children but there were so many things that just didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t want to participate in short term missions for multiple reasons, and ultimately felt that we really made no lasting positive difference in the lives of the children and there was little reason for being there. I felt deeply ashamed that it felt more like a plug for PFR. I didn’t agree that building relationships with the kids to leave shortly thereafter was healthy. I was harshly judged for my stance.
When we got back to Montana, I was asked into one of the cabins one night along with another classmate and at least two interns, and more came and went throughout the conversation as directed by Mike. My memory is unclear on who exactly was there for what, because there was a point in the meeting that I shut down and detached from the experience.
When Mike entered the room his haughtiness was palpable the moment he opened the door.
“It’s like the principle’s office in here…” He started as he walked in, but I was confused. I had no idea what to make of it and was completely caught off guard.
So I let out a nervous laugh and said something like, “yeah really” trying to figure out his reason for calling this meeting.
“Well, tonight it is”, he said and proceeded to point in my face and tell me I was the biggest disappointment of his ministry, that every single member of his staff had a deep problem with me, that I was a false prophet, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a disgrace, a gossip, and leading people astray.
He told me he would call every single Calvary Chapel leader in the nation and tell them to never hire me, because I was a liability.
The conversation was hours long. No one stood up for me, except for the classmate that was there in the beginning when she told him, “Dana has done nothing wrong. She has only ever encouraged me, and if anything has brought me closer to God.” After that, she was asked to leave.
By the end of the conversation, he said I was forbidden to talk to my classmates for the remainder of the session. He got very close to my face, as I sat there in a blank stare, tears trailing down my face, and then did this…
He held up his hand as if he were holding a knife and motioned as if he was cutting into my chest and said, that darkness… you have to cut it out of you.”
Our final assignment was to present a sermon. I chose to teach on the topic of love. I stood before him and everyone that stayed silent or betrayed me, and everyone who knew the truth and supported me. I spoke about the love of God that does not involve punishment, because punishment is fear and control based, but true love is freeing, and yields healthy growth for all.
At the end of my sermon, he pulled me aside and critiqued me, saying, “your ministry will be to teach and guide, but you can’t just give the good news. You have to give the bad news first.”
After the graduation ceremony, he hugged me and said, “Out of everyone, I’m going to miss you the most” and asked me to return to the ranch. He said he was shutting down the program for a time to revamp it and solidify his staff but that I could help care for the horses.
I knew there was no way I would ever return.
He is pathological and capitalizes off the trauma and vulnerability of others. The system itself is parasitic and the reason why people like him are given an environment to flourish and carry out their abuse. He gets his ego trip, and those who don’t question get belonging. He absolves himself of responsibility, because in his mind, he is appointed by God. It is, by definition, a cult and is upheld by a culture that preconditions people for exploitation.
And this is just a small part of the story.
Now, it’s been 11 years, and I continue to do the hard work of healing. PFR is far behind me, but the work I do daily to challenge my thoughts and beliefs that landed me there in the first place remain. The experience has made me so much more aware of spiritual abuse and also, the importance of my own intuition.
I stand with all who have suffered at the hands of people that have been given a platform to thrive and feed their egos through damaging others.
I stand for them, and for myself, holding space for the pain and the hope ahead for healing and resolution and admire those who are working to end the abuse.
Enough is enough.
In spite of it all, I have been honored the bear witness to the healing process of others, as well as my own, and have found that the love and strength was within all along–and none of us needed a Potter’s Field, a Mike Rozell, or anyone for that matter, to show us where to find God.