Master’s Commission: Cult, Compound, Coercive

In March 2011, I was a guest on a North Carolina public radio program to be interviewed for my involvement in a cult. I was able to share my story about living inside a cult called Master’s Commission and the effects the coersion had on me. My fellow guests were religion experts, James Tabor, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Sean McCloud, an associate professor of religious studies and American studies affiliate at UNC-Charlotte; Benjamin Zeller, an assistant professor of religious studies at Brevard College.

James Tabor has special significance in the discussion of cults. He wrote a book called Why Waco? which examines the FBI raid of Waco, Texas/David Koresh.

What happened in Waco?

In a 1993 raid by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the subsequent siege by the FBI ended with the burning of the Branch Davidian ranch outside of Waco, Texas, in McLennan County. Koresh, 54 other adults and 28 children were found dead after the fire.

[The FBI]…barricaded [the Davidians] in their building, seventy-six Branch Davidians, including Koresh, did not survive the fire. Seventeen of these victims were children under the age of 17. The Danforth Report claims that those who died were unable, or unwilling, to flee and that Steve Schneider, Koresh’s right-hand man, probably shot Koresh and committed suicide with the same gun. Autopsy records indicate that at least 20 Branch Davidians were shot, including 5 children. Waco: The Rules of Engagement claims that FBI sharpshooters fired on, and killed, many Branch Davidians who attempted to flee the flames. While the few Branch Davidians who did successfully flee the fire supported this claim, the Danforth Report concluded that the adults who died of gunshot wounds shot themselves after shooting the children. Independent third party investigations refute the Danforth Report. On the final day of the Branch Davidian siege in 1993, aerial FLIR film was shot by the FBI that seemed to show automatic weapons fire directed into the burning buildings. Former Senator John Danforth, under the direction of Acting Attorney General Eric Holder, conducted a 14-month, $17-million investigation that exonerated the government of any wrongdoing.

In 1995 [James Tabor] testified before Congress as an expert witness on Waco and has urged both government officials and media spokespersons to drop the use of the prejudicial label “cult,” and approach such new religious groups with a combination of critical evaluation and a sympathetic attempt to enter the world view of those involved.

(Source Wikipedia)

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The cult I was in was called Master’s Commission. It was formed out of a mega church pastored by the TBN regular, Tommy Barnett. Phoenix First Assembly of God was a hub for televangelists like Joyce Meyer, Mario Murillo, and Jim Bakker to visit. On special occassions, we bussed in drug addicts and homeless people. It was here Master’s Commission (MC) ran for over twenty years, often posing as a secular group “City Conquest” to hold youth rallies inside public high schools and boost recruitment.

According to the MCIN website (the international oversight network for Master’s Commission), the history of Master’s Commission is as follows:

The idea for Master’s Commission was birthed while two men, Carmen Balsamo and Larry Kerychuck, were at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting Phoenix, Arizona. Larry was speaking a message entitled, “Who’s Your Hero?” and after that meeting they had a conversation with the brother of a Mormon missionary. This young man told Carmen and Larry that his brother was his hero because of his commitment to his beliefs. This young man had converted to the Mormon faith and forfeited a college scholarship to fulfill his 2 year Mormon mission in a rural part of America. The young man expressed how impressed he was with the commitment of the Mormon people to their religion and asked why Christians were not as committed.

As they walked away from that conversation, these two men desired to find a way for young, Christian men and women to give one-year of their life in service to God. They decided that they would first personally take that time frame and dedicate themselves to scripture memory, Biblical studies, outreach, witnessing and accountability to each other. They found, after that one-year period, their personal and Spiritual development was astounding and Carmen decided to offer an opportunity for others to be involved. Francis Graves, wife of church missions overseer Charlie Graves, was a great woman of prayer and came up with the name “Master’s Commission”. The initial group was 12 members and met daily at the campus of the Phoenix First Assembly of God Church in 1984. Tragically, in the early stages of Master’s Commission, Carmen Balsamo died from a sudden heart attack. Phoenix First Senior Pastor Tommy Barnett then introduced Pastor Lloyd Zeigler as the man to develop the program; Master’s Commission has exploded throughout his tenure.

Pastor Lloyd Zeigler transformed this concept from a single 12 member meeting into the nation’s leading discipleship program with over 100 affiliated programs worldwide. He also developed the Master’s Commission International Network (MCIN) in 1995 whose purpose was to assist the development of other Master’s Commission programs nationally and internationally. Pastor Zeigler currently still oversees and directs his own Master’s Commission program, the MCIN, and is the Lead Pastor of Relevant Church in the North Dallas, Texas area.

Master’s Commission comes from a line of ideology that can be classified as fundamentalist, dominionist and charasmatic. In 2008, Bruce Wilson wrote about Sarah Palins’ link to Master’s Commission and The Third Wave. Palin attended an Assembly of God church (like I did), and prayed over the Master’s Commission at their graduation ceremony.

There’s also a link between Jim Bakker, a good friend of Tommy Barnett’s, and Master’s Commission. Bakker runs a Master’s Commission at his compound in Missouri which is responsible for “interning” at his TV show. Pastor Lloyd, the founder of Master’s Commission, still visits Jim Bakker for speaking engagements.

I first attended Lloyd Zeilger’s program in 1998, when I graduated from high school. They had recruited me from a rally at my public high school from the group City Conquest. Later, I moved to Texas to do my second year of ministry training in Master’s Commission of Austin, a group ran by Nathan Davies that has now moved to Lafayette, Louisiana. The group has changed it’s name from Master’s Commission as a result of the controversies brought up in this blog, and they now have a new director. The group resides in Our Savior’s Church, one of the many church “plants” by Daniel Jones. The photo below shows the church plants by Jones, a former Assemblies of God reverend who has links to Every Nation Ministries and the Louisiana Governor, Bobby Jindal and his wife who’ve spoken numerous times at their church. I left Our Savior’s Church in 2005.

 

New Racism: The LADream Center’s “Outreach” to Minorities

I noticed a new follower on Twitter the other day. The LA Dream Center which is pastored by Matthew Barnett.

Yay?
Yay?

Interesting…not.

In my line of work, I’m apparently building a reputation where churches and ministries stalk my every move online. Or…they’re asking me to write about them? Maybe that’s it.

But that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that honestly, the Barnetts aren’t at the top of my list of heroes. In fact, I’ve learned a great deal from them of what not to do in life.

One. Don’t treat the idea of Heaven and Hell as a marketing scheme. It’s easy to do, being a mega-church pastor. Hell is a big, fiery dungeon that you get all excited about when you preach and spit all over the microphone. But hell is just a made up marketing scheme for the Barnetts. Hell is how you build up your numbers.  So are crack heads. If you can scare the shit out of people by threatening them that they’ll go to hell, several hundred random people will raise their hands in church to “get saved.” Then, you can boast on TV that you saved the entire ghetto of your city. Single-handedly.

Two. Drug addicts are people, too. To Tommy Barnett and Matthew Barnett, drug addicts aren’t people. They’re numbers. They’re a tally, a mark on the belt, so to speak. “I saved a drug addict, Mamma!” I can just hear Matthew telling his mother now. And God gave him a private jet and a pretty wife because he’s proud of Matthew for saving them all. That’s how God works, you know?

Three. Minorities aren’t put on the planet by God for you to exploit. I’m just going to go ahead and put this on the table–the Barnett’s have always struck me as a bit exploitative of minorities. There’s something heirarchical about visiting a church service–Whites on top, then Hispanics, then Blacks. If you’re a minority in leadership, you probably run a “street” ministry, because you know, minorities are “street people” and “ghetto.” In other words, racist much?

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What a humanitarian Matthew is. He lets people live at his church.  Or so the photo above says to most people.
I attended Tommy Barnett’s church for a few years. His sermons were focused on soul-winning, outreach, and prosperity. Matthew has duplicated that same process, but he’s modernized it a bit. What’s disturbing, though, is that many of Tommy’s sermons that related to outreach and soul-winning were centered around ideas that minorities were a token that God put on the earth for him to save. Anytime minorities were “saved” from poverty, they were paraded across the large church stage. Families were brought up with their street pastor to “give their testimony” about how the church had saved them. It’s clear that Matthew does the same thing from the photo above of their girl Candice.
Is it just me, or is that a big exploitive? I think some of the soul-winning practices at the Barnett’s churches are just plain bad religion and perhaps even a bit racist.

 

Never Tell Lloyd Zeigler “No”: A Former Master’s Commission Member Story

My experience at Masters Commission, Phoenix, AZ, as told by a Former Master’s Commission Member.

Where to start?

Well I, like many, became interested and joined Master’s Commission after seeing them perform at one of the local churches where I lived. They seemed so energetic and were bursting with talent from their seams. I was a musician and singer, so the fact that they used the stage for everything from acting to singing really peaked my interest. I was in my last year of high school and after seeing them, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it. After I graduated high school I hit the road; destination Phoenix, AZ. There was a diverse group of us (first year students). It was exciting. I remember having a “commitment ceremony” where we, (1st year students) were given a ring to wear as our commitment to God not to date. This was not a problem for me because unbeknownst to everyone there…I was gay. Fast forward in time now… A girl who I will refer to as H, was kicked out of our Master’s Commission. She was also first year. She left and we were told she was demon possessed (because she was gay).
Side-note: I have to say how interesting that Master’s Commission’s BEST services were when they used songs by Ray Boltz. Talk about “annointed” music. When Master’s Commission did their “human videos” to his music; you’d think Jesus would physically show up. Interestingly enough, Ray Boltz just came out that he is gay not that long ago. I guess Master’s Commission didn’t feel the demon possession coming through his music. So hindsight; my privacy was important.

After all, I wasn’t there for any one of them.

I was there for me.

I was there to grow, to learn, to evolve and most important to know God and make him known. I’m so glad that I never confided in Lloyd Zeigler. He thrived to have intimate knowledge of those around him. He would use it to his advantage.

How so?

Well the saying, knowledge is power is exactly how he used his knowledge.  If you don’t believe what I’m saying, then I ask you this; what benefit is there to me or anyone else knowing that one of his subordinates had a struggle with bestiality? No, he didn’t say it to pray for them. It was a flippant bit of information he let roll off his tongue. It was a form of manipulation.

It made you feel that he was all-seeing and all-knowing.

Like a God.

I felt horrible for the person who went to him in confidence, telling their darkest secrets, only to have them repeated. This is just one of many examples of confidentiality being broken. I remember going to a special luncheon with Lloyds wife Chris. It was the first and second year girls who attended.

The one thing that resonated in my mind was when Chris stressed to us to, “NEVER TELL LLOYD NO”.

If he wanted you to perform a part of a human video and you didn’t know the part; it didn’t matter…. You DON’T tell him no. If you are sick but he needs something, you don’t say no. Etc., etc.  I can remember all the second year girls who had already had this talk during their first year nodding their heads in agreement. That wouldn’t be the last time I heard that statement. “Never tell Lloyd no”, would be drilled into us from staff members as well. At that age, and at the place we were at to learn and grow, were were naive and shook our heads in agreement.

Let’s move on to Loyalty.

What emphasis they would put on loyalty.

Loyalty to Lloyd.

During one of our Prayer Sessions, Lloyd came in to a building that at that time was called Carmen Hall. When it was time for him to speak to all of us he began to speak about loyalty. This story I would never forget because it was so twisted. But God forbid I voice that opinion.

He gave an example about loyalty.

He said to us that Pastor Tommy Barnett was his pastor and that he was loyal to him. He said that he was so loyal to him, that if one day he saw Pastor Barnett running after a guy and shooting at them with a gun, that he wouldn’t try to stop Pastor Barnett from shooting that man, but that he would instead help him. Because, he said, for all he knew, maybe that person had tried to assault his wife, Maria Barnett. He stressed that he had trust and loyalty to his Pastor and would not question what he was doing, but trust him and help him.

This blew my mind. We as human beings are fallible.

We are not beings that should be trusted with blind faith and loyalty. But, regardless; his “tale” was a good roundabout way to instill in us, loyalty to our leaders.

Loyalty to [Lloyd.]

There were ex members of Master’s Commission that we were told never to associate with. We were told that they “hurt” Lloyd. And that was enough reason for us not to question any further and to shun whoever they were.

How dare they hurt him….What a load of crap!

We were so impressionable at that age. I feel for the people who came in to the program as children, like we did; but stayed into their adulthood and are still there. They dont know it, but they have blinders on. And at this point in their life… What are they going to do? Some of them have families now. Are they helping their family or hurting them? Are they giving their families the very best that they can? Or are they stuck in a program that dictates their finances, relationships and and the true order of priorities? Are they now the next generation of leadership that is brainwashing a group of young bright eyed kids as they used to be themselves?
I’m glad I’m not a part of it anymore. I’m glad I left when I did. I’m now known as one of those people who “hurt Lloyd”. (Who knows what the story is they’ve made up about that).

And you know what?

I just don’t care.

Here is to living life in the light of day.

Master’s Commission: Staff Vacation Benefits

Today is Thanksgiving.

I’m sitting near the fireplace in my grandma’s snow-covered New Mexico house. Sounds of the family playing a card game named “Hand and Foot” fill the warm air. My belly is full of home-cooked turkey and sweet potatoes.

A few years ago, I was a staff member for a  discipleship group named Master’s Commission, which was formed out of Phoenix First Assembly of God under Tommy Barnett. One of the most difficult parts of being in that group (of which I was a member in Phoenix, now MC USA; MC Austin and MC Industries–now Elevate 3D out of Our Savior’s Church in Lafayette, LA) was the control they had over our lives as students and staff to prevent us from being close to our family.

Over the years of being in Master’s Commission, I missed all my younger brothers football games because as a staff member, we were not allowed to take a vacation or leave the church campus without permission. Permission for vacations was never granted–unless it was Christmas or Thanksgiving and we were obligated to be back on campus immediately after so we could raise funds for Master’s Commission.

Those football games are games I’ll never get back. I’ll never have the memories of sitting in a cold football stadium, hearing my mom and dad screaming with pride as my brother, Daniel, the star of the team, made another awesome catch and sprinted down the field to make a touch down. He was an amazing athlete–always in the newspapers, interviewed on the news stations and more than once won Athlete of the Year awards. I saw all the newspaper clippings and awards, but wasn’t at a game. I wasn’t at a game because this discipleship program, Master’s Commission, deemed the “service to the Lord”–which was really slave labor (cleaning toilets in the church and the like)– as more important. We “devoted our lives to God” for nine months, and by nine months, they meant EVERY SINGLE SECOND OF EVERY SINGLE DAY.

I was committed to God, but that commitment was abused under the Master’s Commission director I had. Instead of being able to serve God however I felt was right, I was told what was right and what was wrong. There was no “room for the Holy Spirit.”

It was difficult, if not impossible to get a sick day, let alone a day off to see family. Even when family visited us, we often couldn’t spend time with them.

One year–my second to last year–in Lafayette, Louisiana, I worked my last year on staff for Master’s Commission. It was January and it was a slow weekend at church. I worked as Nathan Davies’ executive assistant and right hand girl, but there was nothing special going on this particular weekend.

My parents offered to fly me home from Louisiana to California to go skiing in Mammoth, CA. For those of you who don’t know, Mammoth Lakes is a wonderful skiing resort town with some of the best skiing in the state. My family went snow boarding and snow skiing in Mammoth often, and I always missed the trips because I had “duties” in Master’s Commission.

Let me put this in perspective.

I was on staff in MC, but I was only getting paid $150 at the most per month (usually $50 or $100). We worked 50 hour work weeks in the office, then about 10 hours for church services (setting up the chairs and tearing them down, as well as doing human videos, etc), and on top of that, I nannied the Davies children (cleaned their house, did their laundry and went grocery shopping, too), and finally, I lived in one of the girl students dorms as the Resident Assistant (RA) type. I was in charge of making sure all the girls got to bed on time, shut out the lights on time, read their bibles each night, cleaned and did their chores, and was there to counsel them when I could. I can’t even count how many hours I worked for $150 a month, but it was well over 80.

So, back to Mammoth, and back to my awesome parents.

They felt that if I was working a real job, I’d get vacation time. They also felt that I was getting the short end of the stick, working a job that paid pennies, and never getting a day off. (Technically, we got a “day off” but as a staff member, we were always on call and there was never a full day of rest.)

So, that weekend, they offered to fly me to California, pay for snowboard rental and ski clothes and everything else the trip entailed. Not only was it expensive, but it was family time. It’s what my family did–spend time together. It’s what I did, before I joined Master’s Commission (which I affectionately call the cult).

I had to ask permission to leave the church campus (we all did), for anything (yes, for groceries, fast food, etc.), and this was no exception. I asked Nathan Davies and Tim Wilson (assistant director at the time).

Their answers to my request were no. They said, “What if something major comes up at church this weekend? We might need you.”

At that point in my MC career, the only thing major I was needed for was babysitting and that wasn’t an emergency in my eyes.

I gave them plenty of notice, and I’d never asked for days off like that. It was a once in a seven year MC career thing that I EVER asked for any time off.

The story continues…of course I stayed behind. My family had a BLAST. And NOTHING major happened at church.

This isn’t the only story, and there is actually a much worse story surrounding Daniel Jones and the death of my grandmother. It’s awful and I’m even ashamed that I didn’t quit at that point, but I didn’t.

To be continued…