Tuesday, September 28, 2010

    THIS is Youth Ministry? Teen Mania's ESOAL

    Maybe you've been following the recent investigations into Teen Mania's ESOAL events. I have to say that I cannot see how this event has anything to do with ministry with youth and I find it disturbing that churches and parents are encouraging this sort of activity in place of all the positive and affirming ministry teens could be doing. 

    A number of former participants have come out and raised real questions about ESOAL. This comment in particular caught my attention: 

    I think its kind of presumptous for Teen Mania to assume that ESOAL - "Emotionally Stretching Opportunity of a Lifetime" is beneficial to everyone. What about people who have already been through an emotionally "stretching" experience of a lifetime?

    - Broken Homes
    - Sexual Abuse
    - Gang Rape
    - Abortions
    - Jail time
    - Accidentally killing someone else
    - Cutting
    - Suicide attempts
    - Deaths of close family members
    - Addiction
    - Dysfunctional Families including neglect, abandonment, parents in jail, drug and alcohol addiction, physical, sexual and verbal abuse.

    Every year there are interns with these wounds in their past. Every single example on this list comes from an intern or alumnus that I personally know. I'm sure there are many more things we could add to that list. (And if they tell you they don't accept interns that have CURRENT struggles with the things on this list, they are wrong.)

    What if they did EHOAL instead? "Emotionally Healing Opportunity of a Lifetime." I think many interns have already had enough trauma. What if, instead of beating the crap out of the interns, they embraced them in the totality of their wounds and brokenness? What if they allowed people to freely express their pain and feelings without fear of condemnation or dismissal? What if they embraced courageous vulnerability instead of forcing many interns to hide who they really are and numb out to their feelings in order to look "spiritual"? What if they quit focusing on outward behaviors and instead sought to heal the underlying issues with love, patience and grace?

    Here you will find a detailed description of the event from a young participant who  saw it as worthwhile.  Note how he describes those who "ring out" (quit) the event as lacking in faith and admits that some teens are injured to the point of not being able to continue.

    It would seem this is just another example of (perhaps well-meaning) adults who are manipulating the emotion centers of the adolescent brain.  Due to the recent criticism, Teen Mania has announced an investigation of their own program.  You can read more here.


    Charles Meyer said...

    So I have actually taken part in ESOAL and been a part of Teen Mania. Some of the footage that was shown is from the year I attended (2006).

    I have read a few of these blogs and wish they were being used for the right purposes. To me, recoveringalumni.com is only to bash Teen Mania and what it does instead of helping people through the emotional and spiritual pain that they went through.

    I know Teen Mania is not perfect and I am not a huge Teen Mania fanboy but I know they are not perfect and do not intend to be perfect. Teen Mania is run by flawed people just like you and me.

    A little side note. People who attend in the Honor Academy, the program that runs Teen Mania, have the option to participate in the activities or not. There is peer pressure to do things just like an in other circumstances and people need to take the responsibility for their actions and not to blame it on other people or organizations. Teen Mania is not perfect but they also need to own up to the wrong they have done.

    Benjer said...


    This is my first exposure to Teen Mania and ESOAL, so I will stick to the facts recorded on video and acknowledged by Teen Mania's leaders while responding to your comments.

    1) You note that some blogs reporting on Teen Mania may have a vindictive spirit. Whether that is the case, I do not know. However, true statements said in a vindictive spirit are still true. If you disagree with what's said on those blogs or have solid facts to dispute individuals' accounts of ESOAL, please mention that as well. To use an example, if an abused child is angry at an abusing parent, that anger does not necessarily void the truth of the child's testimony in court.

    2) Your third paragraph in which you say, "Teen Mania is run by flawed people just like you and me" has seriously flawed logic. It is almost as though you dismiss any wrong doing by saying that everyone does something wrong at some point. To provide an illustration, a rapist also does not intend to be perfect and is flawed, just as I am flawed. It doesn't make rape right.

    3) Regarding your fourth paragraph, if any spritual or emotional abuse took place during ESOAL, then the ability of the participants to choose their own inclusion was diminished or removed. Again, I have not waded through all the facts, but the video evidence provided on this site shows teens being made to eat cat food, throw up by rolling down a hill, and then roll in their own and/or other participants' vomit. That alone constitutes abuse, not to mention a serious offense of the sort Jesus warned against in Matthew 18:6.

    4) Even if participation in this event was 100% voluntary, to teach a person to react to a tragic event without emotion (as affirmed on video by the Teen Mania representative) is against biblical teaching. Not only are strong emotions encouraged in certain situations by the prophets, in the Psalms, and in Ecclesiastes, but Jesus also expressed extreme grief, anguish and sorrow.

    If you choose to reply, I look forward to a discussion surrounding the points I have made, and if you disagree, please give concrete reasons why you think I am wrong.

    Yours in Christ,

    Brian said...

    Charles, thanks for taking time to respond and sharing your first-person experience. I was hoping to offer some balance in the post by not just sharing the critcism but also the viewpoint of those who have felt the experience was positive and of the leaders of the event. That said, what I still can't figure out is what this has to do with the Christian faith or helping young people live a life of grace, compassion, peace, and love as shown in Jesus life and ministry. Would it be possible to just eliminate the Christian language and imagery and just let this stand as a boot camp to teach teens endurance and to toughen them up (sort of like Outward Bound)? I have a hard time imagining Jesus spending his time leading his disciples through these sorts of activities. I can say that if I tried to incorporate this approach into any of the teen camps or conferences I've been involved with over the years, I would have been fired.

    Benjer, thank you for your observations. I too wondered about the abuse inherent in this event. Just because some youth defend the event does not necessarily mean they were not harmed by it.

    Heath said...

    Hey guys! I would encourage you to go to trailerclub.blogspot.com

    You can see video's from the last 3 ESOAL's on that site. The slanted one sided story that Mica Ringo put on KLTV was an embarrassment to journalism. They already had their story written up before they did the investigated story.

    Listen to the stories from parents that went through ESOAL and observed it. The news story did not show the 100 staff and student leaders coming alongside the interns and encouraging them and mentoring them throughout the ESOAL event.

    Brian said...

    Hey Heath, thanks for sharing and for the link. I have read that the event has changed some in the last few years but I guess I'm still wondering how different is it from what we see in the media reports and, more to the point, how is this event considered Christian ministry?

    Heath said...


    We have been doing ESOAL here at the Honor Academy for almost a decade. I work here at the Honor Academy and I'm also a youth pastor at my local church.

    I tell you this to let you know that the youth in my own youth ministry have went through ESOAL. It has impacted their lives tremendously. It has caused them to put their complete trust in Christ and rely upon His power.

    You asked how this is christian ministry. It is Christian Ministry in that that young people (interns) are put in groups that are encouraging each other to push through the self-pity and a number of other emotions that they experience during ESOAL. The majority of interns have experienced those same emotions in high school that caused them to give up on many things in their life. Whether that was schooling, not being bold in their faith, giving up on their friends, giving up on themselves, etc. Then we have a number of staff members that are leading the groups and coming alongside of them and talking to them about what they are experiencing during the event. We process with the interns during the event what they are feeling and how they processing those feeling. Their teams are encouraging them all along the way. The interns are focused on leaning into Jesus and relying on His strength.

    We also take the interns up to Colorado and climb a mountain there. During the climb, they are encouraging others and pushing themselves to make it up the mountain. Some make it to the top and others do their best, but can't quite make it. Either way, the are celebrated for doing their best. It is the same way if they finish ESOAL or ring the Bell.

    We had pastors come out to this ESOAL and were in tears when they saw the young people leaning on the body of Christ for strength. We have had youth pastors come through ESOAL with their leadership team.

    Throughout ESOAL, the teams encourage one another through prayer and Scripture. We continue to talk to them about using what they have learned at ESOAL in their lives.

    Brian--You are welcome to come and participate in ESOAL in the future. We have made changes in ESOAL every year because of the feedback of our current interns and alumni and will continue to do so in the future.

    Blessings to you. Let me know if you any other questions.

    Brian said...

    Thanks for your further comments. It does shed a clearer light on what this event is trying to accomplish. Coming as I am from the mainline/progressive end of the Church, this approach to ministry is difficult to understand as I do not think we do or WOULD sponsor an equivalent to the ESOAL activities as it just doesn't fit our understanding of ministry with young people.

    I am curious about why in the application for the Honor Academy the young person is expected to agree not to speak ill of the organization or its leaders. Isn't this what got the Catholic Church into so much trouble in the past decades? Do you feel that any of the criticism currently aimed at the organization by past participants is legitimate?

    Recovering Alumni said...


    You stated that:

    The slanted one sided story that Mica put on KLTV was an embarrassment to journalism. They already had their story written up before they did the investigated story.

    I didn't "put" a story on KLTV. They interviewed me, as they did many others. I don't work there so am confused why you think I have the power to put stories on a local news station. And further, what proof do you have that they wrote their story before investigating it?

    Why was the story 1-sided? Jon Hasz and a former intern both spoke on behalf of Teen Mania. Is showing kids rolling through vomit (as they have every year for the past 10 years) 1 sided? To the normal thinking person, some activities have no defense and this is one of them. To continue an analogy stated above, when a rapist is accused nobody gives his "side" of the story because rape is ALWAYS wrong. Same with having people roll through vomit for Jesus.

    As for the encouragment, yes the teams encourage each other while the facilitators yell at them that they are losers, (staff members and other authority figures) they are selfish, they are weak and should quit, etc.

    How many people have to be injured before you will stop ESOAL? Does someone have to die? Here is a list of injuries from just the past few years of ESOAL:

    - Swine Flue
    - Snake Bites
    - Broken Leg
    - Dislocated Knee
    - Dislocated Shoulder
    - Trench Foot
    - Panic Attacks, PTSD
    - Exposure Issues
    - Hypothermia

    These are just off the top of my head, I'm sure I could check my files for more.

    Recovering Alumni said...

    Oh, and nerve damage has also been reported by several people. Can't believe I forgot that one!

    Heath said...


    You wrote, "I am curious about why in the application for the Honor Academy the young person is expected to agree not to speak ill of the organization or its leaders. Isn't this what got the Catholic Church into so much trouble in the past decades? Do you feel that any of the criticism currently aimed at the organization by past participants is legitimate?"

    Brian--I think you would agree that speaking ill or death against anyone is unbiblical. This is what we have at our ministry. When you have a problem with someone you go to them as outlined in Matthew 18. I as a youth pastor have the same teaching at my youth ministry. Instead of becoming offended at someone and growing in your bitterness, we encourage the interns and staff to go and talk to the people that has hurt them or where there is offense. We also have a number of other outlets interns can utilize if they don't feel comfortable directly addressing staff members here at the HA.

    We receive emails and phone calls every week from alumni and others that are continually helping us in shaping the HA. Those alumni, parents, and pastors are part of the team that have a voice making the Honor Academy the best it can be.

    I listen to our current interns through a number of meetings and surveys to bring positive change to the HA.

    I hope this answers your questions.

    Recovering Alumni said...

    So speaking ill of someone is the same as speaking "death"? What about telling the truth? If an abused child tells her parents she was raped - is she "speaking ill" of her rapist?

    The actual quote from the current handbook is:

    I will never speak ill of an Honor Academy participant or staff member—past, present, or future.I will never maliciously portray or allow Teen Mania to be portrayed in a negative light...

    Of course, TM decides what is considered "malicious." Basically, interns are restricted by a code of silence to the point that many won't even tell their parents what is going on because they are afraid of sinning. This code of silence is the reason why the Honor Academy has been able to spiritually, physically and emotionally abuse interns for the past 15 years. Now, for the first time, the code of silence has been broken and the truth is coming out. Teen Mania would like to portray us as malcontents who haven't properly addressed our grievances - although I have adhered to Matthew 18 in every way and Teen Mania has done nothing bue lie and stonewall.

    What we are really trying to do is bring these damaging issues into the light so they can be healed and hopefully prevent others from experiencing the pain we experienced.

    Layne said...


    If you can honestly say, "I think you would agree that speaking ill or death against anyone is unbiblical.", then why is this done so during the ESOAL event? When I took part in ESOAL (2001), I was told over and over that I was a loser, I was weak, I should I would never be good enough, I was pulling my team down, etc... How is this any different than "speaking ill or death" into someone's life? Is it because the facilitators are acting?

    I'm truly not trying to be confrontational, I am just trying to understand your logic.

    Brian said...

    Heath, I understand your argument from scripture about not speaking ill of others. However, I think this clearly refers to interpersonal relationships and is meant to encourage reconciliation. Surely you don't believe that this is an absolute law. What if those with whom one seeks reconciliation are unwilling to listen or to change? I have to reiterate that this sounds very much like the approach the Catholic Church took with the child abuse scandal. They were so concerned with maintaining a proper public face for the Church that they dissuaded everyone involved (parents and children) to keep their criticisms private and to not go public. The end result has been devestating -- both for the church and for the now-grown children.

    Heath said...


    I would enjoy talking to you on the phone and answering your question about my logic. If you would like to talk, please call me at 903.324.8052 or email me and I will call you.


    Recovering Alumni said...

    Heath, I think everyone here would be interested in hearing your logic.

    Josh Knierim said...

    These kind of programs represent why so many people have a terrible picture of youth ministry and Christianity. Our church and those in our circle will definitely be avoiding any Acquire the Fire/Teen Mania programs from here on out. Who knows how many people are out there suffering from psychological damage from this experience.

    If our student ministry program caused emotional damage to even 5% to 10% of our participants, I would be fired and have a hard time calling myself a Christian, even if I was well-intentioned.

    Brian said...

    I have to agree, Josh. No matter the intentions, this sort of thing would never fly where I do ministry -- nor would I choose to participate in it even were it allowed. BTW - Your "The Journey of Ministry" site is great. Very thoughtful posts. We'll be adding you to our blog roll and regular tweets. Peace, Brian

    Heartsfire said...

    As someone that has also participated and realizes that the people that are doing this are flawed I still have to say this event is not one I would ever wish on any person. Christian or not. The joy you see at ESOAL in trailerclub.blogspot.com is largely manufactured because the leadership tells you that you will be physically punished with harder and more demanding physicality if you are not at all times showing "Joy" this is not a true Joy of the Lord in most cases but a fear based response to the physical and mental hardship that person is experiencing. When the event is over of course those there would be happy. You would be happy to if you are likely suffering from bruises over your entire body, sprained and sometimes broken bones that are getting ignored by everyone around you (aka I actually heard the phrase "if you can walk it isn't broke and if you ring the bell you have denied god in your life") These are spiritual and physically abusive statements that should make most healthy loving pastors think twice about if they want the kids they love to every have this put in their heads. Later in the year there are events where the teens go through simulated torture that often includes holding bricks above their heads for 12+ hour time frames getting yelled at and told how little they are worth. Of course I am sure Heath, Dave, and Ron have a much different approach to what this shows but as a caring progressive I would never in a million years want to have christian teens go through this kind of Physical abuse thinking that it was of and from the lord.

    sassafras said...

    This is not youth ministry. This is not in line with the words of Jesus. This is sick and twisted. This is heartbreaking and sad. This is a waste of time and energy. This shows lack of thought and intellect.
    Sorry Heath. Based on the evidence presented so far to the outside world, ESOAL is looking like abuse.

    rjOYCEg said...

    I wanted to take a moment and reply to this blog. I was apart of the 03 class at Teen Mania. I am so proud to be an alumnis. I am also a very progressive Christian. I must say that on a month to month basis I have dreams about going back to Teen Mania. I really can't articulate what a profound impact the Honor Academy has had on my life. I also went through ESOAL and I can tell you that even though it wasn't easy I am SOO glad that I went through it. As an adult,I know my strengths as well as my weaknesses because of Teen Mania. You talk of youth ministry..I was literally just thinking today of things that I had learned at HA. My character was formed within those walls because 24 hours a day I had wonderful people challenging me and pouring into my life. I sat and had dinner with people of such high callibre that I have never found again. I sat under the teachings of some of the greates Christian thinkers of our time! I was pushed beyond my insecurities to see possibility. I still carry around the vision card in my wallet..faith,integrity, relationships, excellence, and vision. These are things that are lacking in our generation and those who are younger. The military pushes people to be ready for anything. In the Honor Academy ESOAL gives christians that same opporunity with their faith. Oh, and I went through Gideon's road twice and remember carrying the bricks over my head and I also hiked Pykes peak, and went through the Unreached People Groups Retreat and I can tell you that they were all my choice and I am thankful everytday that I did them. I know that all of us could use a little 1Corinthians 9:27 in our lives now and again. And that, I believe, is the heart of all these things...to see the world through Paul's eyes for a moment. To get a small perpestive of what many Christians face thoughout the world everyday. I can also tell you that I came from a home of abuse and I had a room mate there that was a cutter and we were loved and challenged through all of it. Teen Mania is not for everyone. They never say they are. You can leave anytime. And I can tell you that were several people available every waking moment to listen to us, to pray with us, to guide and challenge us along with a counselor on staff. I hope that those who are hurt from their experiences at HA will heal and walk away whole. I am so sorry for your pain. I just hope that all who read this blog can get everyone's view. Teen Mania is equipping people to be leaders. That is soething that is so desperately needed in our society. I would do it over a thousand times again. I know that was the best spent year of my life and I would reccommend it to any teen wanting to expand their worldview, to be challenged, to face the good and bad of their humanity, to learn the word, and really wanting to learn the practicals of being a leader. Man alive, I only hope that I can give back to others what was overwhelmingly poured into me from HA. I will close with this: I have personally sat and had breakfast with Dave Hasz and other interns and discussed how thigs could improve. And sat in classes where students have point blank gave contradictory views to Dave and he was incredbly gracious, open, and even encouraging to opoosing views. It was phenominal to watch. So, I hope this helps round out all that has been said previous.