Even though it has been two years since I was at Ellerslie, there is still unfinished business in my mind since I was there that I would like to share with you and my fellow Ellerslie-mates. Since I left Ellerslie, I have often felt terrible when friends of mine who have read your books would ask how it went for me there, and I would just answer, “Fine,” knowing that it wasn’t the truth. I have kept the truth inside me too long, and Jesus says, “the truth shall make you free,” which I am really counting on in this case.
Some may question my doing things this way, making my views public. However, I see nothing unbiblical about doing thing this way. I am not making an accusation, simply relaying my story of what happened to me while I was at Ellerslie. Yes, you happen to be at the top of this, so that’s why it is addressed to you. Also, since Ellerslie is not a church, and since you are not a church leader over me, I do not have to follow protocol for bringing an accusation against an elder. Also, the last time I attempted to privately address some concerns about Ellerslie with you, my letter was read publicly, out of context, without me being consulted, so I am removing that possibility from the equation by making the letter public in the first place.
I would like to preface my story by saying that God does indeed work all things together for good for believers and even though, as you will see, my experience at Ellerslie was largely miserable, I did have a few positive outcomes from it. I have kept in touch with some wonderful people, some who have made me welcome in their lovely family, who I am very excited to be visiting again next year. Also, I did learn a greater boldness for praying aloud during some of the public prayer times, which is something that I definitely was wanting to be able to do. I often used to be timid about praying in groups, but with the opportunity to pray out loud in a group setting so often at Ellerslie, I then became much more comfortable with it, which I am very happy about.
That being said, I will declare the main point of this letter: I do not like Ellerslie, I largely did not enjoy my time at Ellerslie, I would not recommend that anyone go Ellerslie, and I do not believe that principles of Ellerslie are grounded on the Rock of Christ, as they claim to be. Rather, while the core principles of Ellerslie do contain many biblical truths, but are based on the preferences of you, Leslie, and Sandi McConnaughey. At Ellerslie, there is a general implication that if Christians are not living by the same principles that Ellerslie upholds, then they are not following God wholeheartedly, and may not even be Christians. This is simply wrong.
The main issues I have are with the rules that are forced under the pretense of being based on biblical principles, but are in fact preferences. One of the big ones is the rule on male/female interactions. I understand the rules about no dating on campus, and no deliberate one-on-one pairing up of males and females. However, I think this principle went too far, though. Concerning the happenings in the computer room computer room, there were very limited times to check the internet in the first place. Then, if I entered the computer room and only one guy was already there, I was compelled to leave in order to follow the rules. What does this say about how we trust people? This sets up a whole environment of distrust. When I leave the room, it is if I am saying to the guy, “I don’t trust you.” And when he lets me leave without a word, he is saying, “I don’t trust you either.” Either that or we’re both saying, “We’re following the rules.” But what is the purpose of the rule? It is to prevent people from thinking anything bad was going on between us while we were unsupervised. But then, isn’t everyone on campus saying, “We don’t trust the two of you”? I see no other reasonable conclusion. I don’t think we should assume that our brothers and sisters in Christ are so weak that they cannot be in a room with no other people without something romantic or sexual transpiring. Perhaps other students would be jealous if they discovered a guy or girl they liked in the same room with another guy or girl, with no one else around? I never thought we were supposed to base our rules around the sins of others. I think another intention behind this rule was that the guys and girls at Ellerslie wouldn’t be distracted by those scenarios, but I found it far more distracting to have to be hyper-aware of when I happened to be “alone” with a guy, even if it was just at our assigned lunch table. There have been so many times in life when I’ve been alone with a guy for very legitimate reasons, such as when it was just me and a male coworker at the restaurant I worked at, when I was painting a room for a safehouse for sex trafficking survivors where only one other guy was working with me, and when I was doing office work for a local charity with only another man there. The rule at Ellerslie was so absurd that one time when I was walking back from the grocery store with a lot of groceries on a frigid day, one of the Ellerslie guys who was driving by stopped and said, “I normally would give you a ride. I wish I could, but I can’t.” In any other life situation, I would have been offended, but I had to just smile and thank him, because I understood he didn’t want to break the rule.
Although the following is not a huge deal, it is definitely worth mentioning: Ellerslie claims to uphold high standards of decorum for guys and girls, particularly in regards to sexuality and bathroom behavior. Why in the world, then, were the girls made to clean the guys’ bathrooms?! Until I was put on chapel bathroom duty for the weekends, I had never entered a guys bathroom, had never seen a urinal, and had never cleaned one. Furthermore, I never desired to be in that situation in the first place, and never intend to again. Which brings me to my next point about “community outreach” on Saturdays...
Where were the guys while us girls were cleaning the bathroom? On community outreach. Since there were always way fewer guys than girls, they guys almost always were assigned to community outreach. Don’t get me wrong, community outreach is good, but I find it unfair that the guys got to do this every week, while many girls were cleaning the campus. Also, how is it “community outreach” for students to be helping out at your house with moving things, and painting, and cleaning at the McConnaugheys’ house? That’s not outreach, that’s in-reach. Unless I missed something important, I thought the point of community outreach was to do good things for the community so that they may see Jesus through our love. Forcing students to clean your own house for free hardly has that same effect. If people offered to clean yours or Sandi’s house as a gift, that would be one thing. But that’s not what was going on here.
Speaking of the cleanliness of your house... Leslie has referenced in talks, and in one of her books (I don’t remember which one), the time when you two stayed with a homeschooling Christian family while in town to give a conference. She complained about the state of messiness the house was in, and how the mother was resigned to it, saying that you two would understand when you have kids. I believe Leslie set her mind to the fact that it would never happen. And it hasn’t. Your house is indeed very tidy and you two hold up your home as a standard of how a Christian family’s home should look. But what a lot of people may not know (I didn’t realize this until I asked some specific questions) is that you have two girls work at your house (or at least, it was two when I attended Ellerslie). Actually, work isn’t even the right word, since they are not paid fair-market wage, but only a stipend as they are “interning” at Ellerslie. I believe these girls believe they are doing ministry work, because that’s what you have taught them. However, I do not believe that keeping your home spotless can be counted at ministry. While the girls of Ellerslie were floundering with lack of female leadership, there were two female Ellerslie leaders taking care of your children and cleaning your house, freeing up Leslie to write more books to help more girls...while the girls on your own campus were neglected. Isn’t quality more important than numbers?
The most upsetting part of my whole experience at Ellerslie was the lack of women leaders for the girls. There were no women living on campus that the girls had access to, to talk to, spend time with, pray with, and be mentored by. While the guys were going up front many mornings to share stories of going out to coffee with the various accessible male interns, the girls were floundering. Sandi was so busy that a meeting needed to be scheduled with her if someone wanted to talk to her, which is hardly the mode of natural close interactions (if I had to schedule time to talk with my mom, I would not feel comfortable sharing close things with her). There were indeed many female staff and intern members living on campus, but they were either watching your children and cleaning your house, working in the office, or tied up with Set-Apart Girl. What is the point of having a magazine that ministers to girls, when the girls on your campus are neglected?
Even though us girls may have been neglected by people, God didn’t neglect us, and our fellowship increased and we started through-the-night prayer shifts (I forget what started that). We used the Set-Apart Girl office, at the permission of staff, because it connected both wings. I had wonderful nights, where I stayed up for hours praying with the other girls. Those times were the times I was looking forward to at Ellerslie. Sadly, it only lasted for a week. Although we did nothing wrong to the office, and did not disturb anything, we were then kicked out. Annie stood up front, sweetly smiling as she told us that we couldn’t use the office anymore, but must stay in our common areas. I like to think she didn’t know how devastating that was, but how could she not? And why did she do that? What kind of a power trip is that? There were no reasons given for us not being able to be there, and I could think of none. Us girls then talked about letting each other into the other building’s common area in the middle of the night, so we could continue unified prayer, but Sandi immediately nixed that idea. Again... why? We tried to continue prayer times in our own wings, but there were not enough girls to have more than one girl per shift. The beauty of us all praying together was that “two or more were gathered together in Christ’s name.” The ability to do that ‘round the clock was stolen from us, with no explanation.
There are some things that you and Leslie say that I believe are taken out of context. The one that has bothered me the most was the quote that Leslie used in her book, Set-Apart Femininity. Leslie quotes Adriana Lima, a famous supermodel as “admitting,” ‘“Everything about me is fake!”’ Leslie continues, “Then, as if suddenly struck by the emptiness of it all, she adds, ‘Even my heart is fake.’” Leslie says that this girl has a relationship with God, implying that she is a Christian that has just made some lousy decisions that she regrets as indicated by these quotes. I happened to look up the original article, and interestingly, Adriana Lima is a Catholic, not someone that I would consider to be a Christian, not someone that should be upheld as a Christian feeling remorse at her decisions to model in sexual photos. Her quote, indeed, is taken out of context. When asked, “And all of you is natural?” she answers, arguably sarcastically, “No, it’s all fake. From my hair to my toes to my nails. Everything’s fake. Everything! Even my heart is fake,” an appropriate response to such a rude question. I do not like the way Leslie framed it, because it is misleading as to the original intent. It makes me wonder if many other well-known people’s comments were taken out of context as well.
I wrote you a letter while I was at Ellerslie, trying to address some things that I had a major problem with. I greatly objected to the “Epic Ellerslie Games” as being an utter waste of time. I thought it was ridiculous that we could not opt out of that to spend time in prayer instead, which both me and my sister greatly wanted to do. Why in the world would you want to discourage us from praying more, so we could stick our feet in a bucket of mustard in the name of “teamwork” and “sportsmanship” (what a waste of food, too)? There are SO many better team building activities, I don’t even know where to begin. I don’t even see the need for all the student life activities in the first place. I have a very thriving social life at home, and I didn’t fly across the country to play frisbee at the park. I expected a lot more focus on prayer during normal waking hours. But corporate prayer was pretty much just relegated to the mornings, before most normal people even wake up, and then the afternoons and weekends were spent on many frivolous activities. What is the point of losing sleep to spend time with God, when waking hours are spent doing silly things? I would have preferred more “body-building,” as in building up the body with more times of corporate prayer. Or more corporate Bible study. Or longer community outreach times. I did absolutely LOVE the prayer walk time in Fort Collins. Because of that, I now pray for Boston and New York City more as I trot through the cities to my various engagements. But what was the deal with the ugly t-shirt contest? First, it was an utter waste of our money. Secondly, I did not find it entertaining, let alone beneficial at all. Most importantly, it made members of our groups look like idiots while we were walking through a city of darkness praying for them. We already stood out enough, praying in front of the Drunken Monkey, without one of our guys wearing an ugly flowered sweater. When several of those in my group asked the Ellerslie staff leader in charge of our group about it, she said she couldn’t give us permission to opt out, but that we needed to ask Ben, because it was his idea, but we couldn’t find him the rest of the night.
So, I wrote you a letter about this, hoping that I wouldn’t just have pent-up frustration, but that we could have a conversation about it. Instead, you read it in front of the whole room the next morning. For all I know, there were people that could have told that it was me from the writing style and choice of words. I didn’t want my letter to become public without my permission. I was hoping to start a conversation with you, and the reason I wrote it down was because I never had opportunity to casually talk to you about it, because you were always so busy. The craziest thing was that you hadn’t even read the whole letter. You read pages 1 and 3, missing the fact that there was page 2 on the back of page 1, which you noticed while reading it in front everyone. Since page 1 cut off in mid sentence, you must have only skimmed it before reading it in front of everyone. I didn’t want the whole student body to voice their opinions on my letter--I wanted to talk with you about it. I know you did later apologize about this, which I appreciate, and you are still forgiven for that. But it still warrants an explanation.
Sandi did not treat me kindly while I was there, and I am still not sure why not. I thought about asking her about it, but felt that I would be reprimanded for “questioning authority.” One of the recurring issues was where I stood during morning music. I get very claustrophobic tightly packed into a crowd of people in a building. At my church here, I usually sit in the back, or in a row without many people. Because the arches in my feet are screwed up, I also don’t do well standing still for a while--I prefer pacing while I sing. So I would walk around in the back hallway while I sang. Then Sandi said that people couldn’t do that because they could hear their own voices too well, which was distracting (huh?). I then moved to the back of the room. She told me one day that I had to move, because it was too crowded. The main issue appeared to be the fact that the staff members kept coming and going and I was in their way. I moved out of their way and stayed in the back of the room. On another occasion, I was standing in the back of the room, not five feet from another student. Sandi approached me and said, “I’m sorry, it’s getting crowded back here.” I did not move, because she did not request me to, and I never do things that are not explicitly asked of me, because I don’t respond to passive aggressive requests. Later she expressed dismay at the fact that I had “ignored” her. I didn’t ignore her. I simply nodded my head in agreement that it was crowded there, and stayed where I was. Interestingly, she did not approach the male that was standing only a few feet in front of me.
I was called into your office near the end of the semester. There had been a girl that was uncomfortable with regular “front hugs”, and I kept forgetting that about her, because I never have experienced any other girls having that issue. I always give my female friends long hugs. I was close to this girl, so I expressed that by hugging her. There was one time she told me she didn’t like it, but I didn’t really believe her, because I just didn’t understand that she was really saying that she didn’t like being hugged in a normal fashion. She only liked “side hugs.” To the dear girl who I didn’t mean to hurt: as I said to you before, once again, I’m sorry. Apparently after she told Sandi, and you made an announcement to all the girls about unwanted girl-to-girl contact, I hugged someone else that was uncomfortable with it, which led me to your office to talk about it. Supposedly there were multiple girls who reported me, but I am still skeptical about it, since no other girls expressed their disapproval. I have no idea who the other girl(s) were, because none of them came to me. Isn’t that unbiblical? Aren’t brothers and sisters in Christ supposed to come directly to the person that offends them before going to authorities. At the very least, shouldn’t you and Sandi have tried to mediate between us. I had no chance to defend or explain myself, because I didn’t even know who I hurt. I was forced to give a public apology, unless I wanted you to tell all the girls about it (which I clearly didn’t). Many girls told me that I was brave to do it. What I didn’t tell most of them was that I barely had another option. I suppose I was brave anyway. Mostly, I just wanted to survive the past few weeks and not have to buy a plane ticket home, although one of my good family friends did offer to buy plane tickets for me and my sister since she was appalled at how I was ganged up on by you and Sandi.
Ganged up on? Yes. I had no chance to defend myself. I was only presented with the option of having my “bad behavior” publicly announced. I was also told that I couldn’t speak with anyone else on campus about it. But you were allowed to talk with your whole staff about it for their opinion. Why wasn’t I allowed to talk to my friends on campus for their opinion? Thankfully I have become a much stronger person since then, partially because of my time dealing with you, Sandi, and Ellerslie. If I was this strong then, I simply wouldn’t have put up with any of this coercion. The funny thing is that you almost got me to keep silent about it forever. But justice and truth compel me to speak about my time there in the desire to help others not get trapped in a bad scenario there like I did.
One of the things Sandi accused me of was deliberately seeking out tables with many guys or only guys to sit at. I was clearly confused at her accusation since lunch and dinner have assigned seating. She said that it was during breakfast that I did this, which was a complete lie, which I know, because I went out of my way to start new tables at breakfast. I almost always sat at an empty table with Tatiana so that it wouldn’t be awkward for other people to start a new table (who wants to be the first lone person at a table?). Also, she mentioned that at the pie social, I sought out a table of only guys to sit with to play a game. Again, this wasn’t true, as I was speaking with another girl at Ellerslie about this accusation and she reminded me that she too had been sitting at the table! The reason I had picked that table was because they were playing one of my favorite games. I don’t know why Sandi would have lied and said I was the only girl there when I wasn’t. Interestingly, that other girl was never called into your office and accused by you and Sandi.
When I was called into your office for my supposed insubordination, or whatever you would title my behavior, after all the accusations were presented to me, Sandi said, “I am just really concerned about your relationship with Jesus.” I found that very offensive, because not one other time during the semester did she try to approach me with kindness and address the issue. Never at any other time was I given the indication that any of the leadership were questioning my relationship with God. The fact that she questioned it indicated to me how wrong she was in her observations of me, considering the fact that I was very close to Jesus during that time. The internal struggles and trials at seeing all the bizarre things at Ellerslie drove me to Him for stability. I was very close to Him, ever drawing closer, and because I had some confusion about Ellerslie rules and discussed that with a few girls, my relationship with God was called into question. That is a very destructive response, which deeply hurt me.
Speaking of people not having a chance to defend themselves, what happened with Jade? It does not seem right that she was publicly denounced, without any reason for that happening. She was publicly shamed behind her back, with no chance to defend herself publicly. That hardly seems like the way that the Christians are supposed to deal with people who have sinned so greatly that they need to be thrown out of the body of believers.
I think the main thing that I questioned to other girls about the rules was the dress code for morning prayer. We were supposed to dress fancy for the sessions because it would “make us take it more seriously,” but then why on earth were we allowed to wear sweatpants for morning prayer?! Personally, I get a lot of good work done in my athletic pants and t-shirts, because I am comfortable and not worrying about my clothing. So, I would argue that the dress code wasn’t necessary for the sessions anyway, but if you were going to have a dress code at all, shouldn’t it have been for both prayer and the sessions? Otherwise, it seemed to say, “You need to dress up for Eric, but it doesn’t really matter for God.” In a way, that is true, but you seem to care far more about what people look like on the outside than God does.
This following observation may seem nitpicky, hopefully you’ll see that it is not. When I say things like, “the core principles of Ellerslie do contain many biblical truths, but are based on the preferences of you, Leslie, and Sandi Mcconaughey,” this is an example of what I’m referring to. In the Ellerslie handbook, it says that guys and girls cannot attend Ellerslie if they have dreadlocks. I have a little story about dreadlocks. I am volunteering with a group of people that are helping with the problem of sex trafficking in my area. I’ve had the privilege of hearing the stories of many sex trafficking survivors. One woman that was rescued and has been on her own for many years had really struggled with the concept that she actually had her own identity, because when she was trafficked, her entire identity was stripped from her, including her name. This feeling of having no control in her own life was so pervasive that it took her eight years of being free to realize that she could style her hair in any way that she liked. She then decided to get dreadlocks, and looks very beautiful with them. This was a significant moment when she realized that others did not dictate what her life was like, but that she is that one that gets to make decisions about herself now. This decision to style her hair differently was instrumental in her healing. But with your rules, you would again take that freedom away from her... for no apparent reason except that you don’t like the hairstyle. How many people like her are you discouraging from going to Ellerslie when they read that handbook?
I really was quite shocked at The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe reading nights. C.S. Lewis’s theology is flawed through and through. I was not the only student who was bothered by it being read. I actually left in the middle because I was so offended by it being read. My eyes had been recently reopened to the great dangers of alcohol, but in the book, very early on, Ben read the line, “then the streams would run with wine instead of water and the whole forest would give itself up to jollification for weeks on end.” That is... not good. I wouldn’t think you would want such happenings as described happening at Ellerslie, so why be entertained by a book referencing it? Isn’t that a double standard?
I am greatly concerned by the fact that you do not submit yourself to the eldership of any older male spiritual leaders. You have lifted yourself up as being a great beacon in this generation, with other lesser beacons under you. All your role models that you cite are men that have long been dead. You make it seem that no other pastors in this country are following God. This is extremely dangerous, and wrong. There are many wonderful godly men that you could place yourself under and whose teaching you could share with Ellerslie students. John Piper. Francis Chan. Jim Cymbala. Ravi Zacharias. Josh Harris. As an Ellerslie student, it could be very easy to come to the conclusion that since all the men lifted up as heroes at Ellerslie are dead, and that the only current pastors you mention are ones that you dis, that there are no good godly men now, which is a much bleaker thought that needs be, and places you on a higher pedestal than you deserve.
One evening, while I was outside the dorms at a picnic table, while other people were around, I asked one of my male friends at Ellerslie to take a quick listen to one of my songs I was working on. I chatted with him for a minute in clear view of everyone around, obviously not pairing up with him, but simply conversing in public. Ben then came outside and asked him to come into the dorm. After that, this guy wouldn’t speak to me. Finally, about six weeks later, I asked if he was deliberately avoiding me, and he said yes. I asked if he was told to avoid me, and again, he said yes. That is just thoroughly ridiculous. Firstly, we were not breaking the rules, since I had joked with a male and female intern about talking one-on-one on the bridge as I walked by, and they said that there was no problem with doing that in a public place on campus. Secondly, he had to not speak to me for the rest of the semester? That is a pathetic avoidance of the issue (whatever the issue was). There is no good justification for the staff’s behavior in this situation.
My main point in so much of this, is that the environment at Ellerslie is fake, unable to transition well into the world outside of it. Many people stay at Ellerslie, or desperately want to, because it is “safe.” Yes, if you happen to be someone that wants to have strict moral standards without being harassed, then Ellerslie does seem to be very safe. No one will question you for passing up on watching an inappropriate movie, because no one watches movies at all. You will never have to deal with feeling sad or jealous that someone you like is pursuing a relationship with someone else, because no one pursues relationships (at least among the basic students). You don’t have to deal with the stress of working, managing home responsibilities, and fellowshipping with friends and family, because there are almost no responsibilities to “distract” you at Ellerslie (during the time I was at Ellerslie, I did the least amount of work that I have done in my whole life, in spite of the fact that I often did other people’s chores that they neglected, as well as my own). It is no wonder that when people go home, they feel uncomfortable out of the “safe” environment of Ellerslie. All of a sudden, they’re around people that don’t clean their dishes up after meals, they have to explain why they didn’t laugh at the Anchorman, they have to defend their faith at their workplaces, they have to take a stand on not having sex before marriage, they have to deal with people at their church drinking alcohol at events. Yes, this is life in the messy world. It is very uncomfortable, and very unsafe. But in Jesus, we are safe, and we don’t need Ellerslie’s rules to help with that. Ellerslie’s rules do not help its students transition well back into the “real world,” but rather set up false expectations on how life should be.
The worst problem of all, and perhaps the cause of the problems was the fact that the Bible was not treated properly. We were never taught to evaluate the Bible on our own, or how to study the Bible on our own. Our lectures all had snippets, perhaps up to a full chapter of the Bible, preselected and printed in our books, to go along with the lectures given. We had no way of knowing if the Bible was taken out of context or not. We were not encouraged to study the Bible in context, or to test the way that you or the other speakers had interpreted the Bible. The Bible was spoon-fed to us, without any encouragement to feed ourselves. Even our extra-long devotional times on Sundays were supposed to be guided by guidelines in weekly handouts. How can you be equipping those who attend Ellerslie to go out into the world and stand on the Word of God if you haven’t even taught them how to decipher it on their own?
I am sending this letter to you, and everyone associated with Ellerslie whose contact info I have. I am fully willing to admit that I am wrong in some of the conclusions I have made according to my observations, which I will be willing to send out to the same group of people so that no falsehoods about you are spread. My intention is not to bring down the body of Christ, but to build it up, by exposing wrong things that were kept in darkness. I purposely have left out the names of all Ellerslie interns referenced in this letter, because I believe the problems come from the highest level. I have only mentioned you, Leslie, Sandi, Ben, Annie, and Jade, on purpose, because you were the staff members while I was there. I realize that in many ways, I am sacrificing my reputation among Ellerslie fans, since my views will no doubt be unpopular among many, but I am willing to make this sacrifice so that the the truth will be known. I welcome the responses of anyone who reads this. You all are welcome to forward this to anyone associated with Ellerslie that you think will be interested in reading this. I will also be posting this on my Facebook, and public (http://jesusfreakatrina.blogspot.com/) I look forward to hearing your response. I do hope that you will write back to me before publicly discussing this letter on the Ellerslie campus, so that everything is in the open, and not hidden from me. I will pray for you, that you are able to accept what I have said and respond to it in a Christlike manner, even if you disagree with some things I have said.