Ligonier Ministries Recap and a Farewell From Frank VancePosted: February 4, 2007
Periodically it’s wise to take stock of one’s pursuits and accomplishments. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of that. Prior to taking up blogging I lived a quiet life and I enjoyed my life very much. Since taking up blogging my life has changed dramatically and not in ways that I’ve enjoyed. The best that I could say about it is that it’s been stressful and less than rewarding.
This may sound selfish to some but I’d just like to have a “normal” life again. With this article I announce my departure from Ministry Watchman and from blogging. This will be my final blog entry and I doubt that I’ll be posting even any further comments here or anywhere else.
Exposing Ligonier Ministries, and then being on the receiving end of their unbiblical response (i.e. being sued by them) only proved to me how corrupt an organization they really are. But witnessing what’s now going on between Ministry Watchman and Doug Phillips strikes me as what it must have been like for the FBI to take on Al Capone. Things have gotten ugly and they could easily get a whole lot uglier. My greatest concern is that it may soon just be totally out of control.
Up until recently I’ve generally been okay with the way Ministry Watchman has functioned. The system hasn’t been perfect, and there’s a lot of room for improvement, but at least I wasn’t losing any sleep by being affiliated with Ministry Watchman. But when Joe Friday commented on 1-26 about Reagan’s policy of “mutual assured destruction” that’s when I start to get nervous.
I want to go on the record as saying that I’m not in favor of any tit for tat. Doug Phillips is playing dirty pool with his pal Matt Chancey accusing me and anyone affiliated with Ministry Watchman (no matter how loosely) of being racists. But regardless of what Phillips and Chancey have done I don’t think it’s appropriate to respond in kind. I’m very concerned that will happen and if it does I don’t want to be around for it. I don’t expect that just because I retire from blogging that it will stop the Phillips/Chancey/VF “Former Interns” cabal from hurling their “racist” grenades, and I’ve been informed that the very next grenade that they hurl will be immediately responded to by Ministry Watchman with the equivalent of a nuke. Make that several nukes in quick succession.
Joe Friday has shown us three articles that he’s written so far (and he’s working on more) in his “Is Doug Phillips A Racist?” series. I didn’t know anything about the things that Joe’s uncovered and now that I’ve seen it I’m deeply concerned. I fear that things could get extremely ugly and that’s not what I signed up for. I’ve been thinking for weeks about leaving the blogosphere anyway. I haven’t particularly got much more to write about anyway. The Ligonier debacle is pretty much over and blogging about Ligonier was never even my intention in the first place.
Ligonier is obviously not going to repent. What more can I do? As far as I can see my work is done anyway, and when people start talking about “mutual assured destruction” I know it’s time for me to get out of the way. It’s time for me to start living a quiet life again and I look forward to it.
As my final article I’ve been asked to give a brief recap of the Ligonier Ministries debacle. Given that this will be my final blog entry that does seem appropriate. So I’ll give a recap and then close with some personal thoughts about Christians and blogging.
The Ligonier Ministries Saga
My short-lived blogging “career” began in May 2006. I never intended to become a blogger. The only reason I started a blog at all was to have a place to repost a rather lengthy forum thread from the Tim Challies forum that Challies suddenly and without any warning took down. Someone who’d been monitoring that forum thread had the foresight to save the thread, and she emailed it to me and asked me to “please do something with this.” So I did.
In part I’d been motivated by RC Sproul’s public comments in defense of his defrocked son. RC Sproul defended the sins of his defrocked son and effectively mocked the church discipline of the Presbyterian denomination that exercised church discipline over RC Sproul Jr. Dr. Sproul claimed that his son’s name would be cleared by the CREC, but that never happened. In fact when the CREC Report finally did come out they said, “It is our finding that there were significant pastoral mistakes, errors and sins by the former Session.”
RC Sproul never did apologize for his public statements. Rather than ridiculing the Presbyterian Elders who disciplined “Precious,” RC Sproul should have called his wayward son to repentance. Like many others I was disappointed by these events, as well as Sproul’s eagerness to put RC Jr behind the pulpit at a Ligonier conference barely a month after he’d been defrocked. Initially I chose to believe that what Sproul did in defending his son was misguided but just the natural response of a caring father toward his son.
Some have since accused me of being “bitter” or having a “chip on your shoulder.” But the reality is that I’d been a big fan of RC Sproul’s. His teaching has helped me immensely in my appreciation for the Word of God and instilling in me a passion for studying the Word. I also credit Dr. Sproul for giving me a deeper appreciation for Reformed theology. I never set out to “ruin Ligonier” or “ruin RC Sproul” as some have accused me. In fact I was so eager to avoid blaming RC Sproul that I chose to believe that Ligonier was being ruined only because of Timothy A. Dick, Ligonier’s President/CEO/CFO and son-in-law to RC Sproul. In my admiration for RC Sproul I chose to believe that the solution was for Tim Dick to go. However later I began to realize that the problems at Ligonier had been there long before Tim Dick arrived on the scene.
After posting my first blog article I started receiving comments. I was surprised by this because I didn’t expect that anyone would even find my little blog. Reposting that Challies forum thread seemed to strike a nerve with a lot of people, or at least what to me seemed like a lot of people. Soon my StatCounter showed that I was getting over 100 unique visitors a day. The word apparently got out about my blog and it started spreading. But the most amazing thing of all was when I started getting emails from Tim Dick.
At first I just couldn’t believe that this was actually the President of Ligonier Ministries. I thought it must be a hoax. Much of Tim Dick’s correspondence was incoherent and his writing skills were on a sixth grade level. How could this have come from the President of a ministry that I’d had so much respect for? A friend later showed me how to check for the IP address in the email headers and, sure enough, it was Ligonier Ministries’ IP. I knew that something had to be seriously wrong at Ligonier, and so I made the decision to repost Tim’s emails.
I started receiving emails encouraging me to further expose Ligonier. This resulted in a third article that I posted on June 27. That article resulted in multiple emails from former Ligonier employees telling me in considerable detail some of the dirty deeds of Tim Dick.
After that my blog started to take on a life of its own. Comments started pouring in and other blogs started talking about it too. Among other disturbing stories there’s the hedonistic lifestyle of Ligonier employee and Sproul grandson Ryan Dick, who grew up in Sproul’s home and still lives there. “Partyboy” and his blog was first exposed by Pastor Steve Cavallaro (“Cavman”), another former Ligonier employee (Cavman subsequently deleted the article). Others later picked up on the shocking Partyboy story, including Jen Epstein.
I also reported on the nepotistic practices of Ligonier in which godly and competent Ligonier employees, some of whom had worked for Ligonier for decades, were fired by Tim Dick to make room for his unqualified and overpaid family members. I reported that between the Sproul and Dick families they are taking in excess of $1 million dollars in Ligonier “compensation” per year.
These and other related articles received wide attention and I started receiving numerous emails from current and former Ligonier employees, all of them extremely critical of Tim Dick. Many of them included very specific and detailed accounts of Tim’s misdeeds. It was also disclosed that Tim had a lot of very colorful nicknames. I even received emails from members and former members of Saint Andrews Chapel. Some of these emails described an entire culture of corruption, cronyism and nepotism within Ligonier and even Saint Andrews Chapel. Those emails continued coming in for months. For some time I struggled with knowing what to do about them but ultimately I realized that with such compelling testimony from so many different insiders, Tim Dick needed further exposure and perhaps others needed exposing too.
For the record, Don Kistler never was, and never did become, one of my sources (more on that later).
Tim Dick continued making his presence known by sending incoherent emails to other bloggers, as well as posting strange comments on multiple blogs (including even on Little Geneva) claiming that people were attacking him when often no one had even mentioned him on those blogs at all. Ligonier’s Executive Producer John Duncan also posted numerous blog comments under “Passerby” and other aliases, many of which he posted right from his Ligonier office.
The emails kept coming and the stories that were laid out painted a picture of not just one corrupt man, Tim Dick, but of an entire corrupt organization. At first I just couldn’t believe that RC Sproul could even be aware of these things. At the time I still very much admired Dr. Sproul, so I chose to believe that the real problem was limited to Tim Dick and that Dick was so effective with his corruptions that he’d successfully concealed them from the presumed “hands-off” management style of RC Sproul.
In early August I learned from several insiders that Ligonier Ministries had defrauded Dr. Don Kistler in their “acquisition” from him of his Soli Deo Gloria Ministries in 2004. On August 18 I informed Tim Dick about what I’d discovered and I repeatedly asked him the question, “Did you or did you not defraud Don Kistler?” My emails also contained other questions, each and every one of which he promptly responded to. But he never did answer the question about his part in defrauding Don Kistler. Others too subsequently emailed Tim Dick about the same thing and got the same exact evasive results. At no time did Tim Dick ever deny that he’d defrauded Don Kistler.
I gave Tim Dick a ten day deadline to restore to Don Kistler what he defrauded him of or I’d take the story public. On August 28 I made good on my promise. However unknown to me Ligonier Ministries and Tim Dick had filed a lawsuit against me on August 25 for an injunction, as well as $15,000 in “defamation” damages. Among other things Tim Dick sued me for calling him a “nincompoop.”
Ligonier never did inform me of the lawsuit. But the Press got wind of it, so word got out fast. In fact it was from a newspaper reporter that I was first informed on September 1 that Ligonier had sued me. Rene Stutzman interviewed me for an Orlando Sentinel article, so obviously it wasn’t at all hard to contact me. But Ligonier lied to Judge Nelson and asked her to move the case forward without me even knowing about it because they said it was “impossible to contact Frank Vance.” This proved to be the first in an entire series of lies that Ligonier would tell not just the judge, but even their own financial supporters.
Ligonier Ministries had other options than suing me. They could have tried Christian mediation, but they didn’t even attempt that. It became obvious that they weren’t interested in a resolution, only in silencing me.
Thanks to all the publicity I was bombarded with emails from First Amendment attorneys from all over the country, each offering to represent me pro bono. These attorneys all characterized it as a SLAPP lawsuit intended to intimidate me into silence. However the fact that so many attorneys were willing to stand with me had just the opposite effect on me. They all characterized it as a “dream case” that they’d be able to play up in the media as “David vs. Goliath,” a small-time blogger vs. a multi-million dollar corporation of religious hypocrites.
New blog articles started popping up every day about the lawsuit and the traffic to my blog went through the roof. That lawsuit even later put Ligonier on the front page of USA Today, giving Ligonier all the wrong kind of Press, and me all the right kind. It quickly proved to be a public relations disaster for Ligonier.
Calls poured into the Ligonier Ministries office, many from their own donors angry that a Christian ministry that they’d financially supported would be using their donations to sue a brother in Christ. Many wanted to know how a Bible preaching ministry could blatantly violate 1 Corinthians 6. Many wanted to know how a donor-funded ministry could justify spending donor funds to hire not just attorneys but even private investigators to go after a brother in Christ. Ligonier took quite a beating over it.
Ligonier’s customer service representatives were instructed by “senior management” (Tim Dick, John Duncan) to tell callers, “There is no lawsuit. We don’t know how that story got started.” In other words they were instructed to lie. But maintaining the lie after I posted a copy of the lawsuit became untenable, so Ligonier changed their story again, and again, and again.
Then on September 22 at 5:27 PM (EDT) I received an email from Tim Dick with links to two public statements informing me that Ligonier “had withdrawn” the “legal complaint.” The public statements had actually been posted on Ligonier’s web site two days prior, so I found it very suspicious that I was being informed late on a Friday, and too late to call the court and find out if the “legal complaint” had in fact “been withdrawn.”
Loyal Ligonier courtiers like Tim Challies thanked the Lord that it was all over, but I had my doubts, and my doubts were confirmed Monday morning. Ligonier had not withdrawn the lawsuit at all. In fact on September 21, only one day after Ligonier had originally posted their two public notices, they were back in court attempting to get another secret “ex parte” hearing with the judge to move the case forward!
On September 28 I responded to Tim Dick’s Public Statement.
More than a week went by, after Ligonier had publicly announced that they “had withdrawn” (past tense) their lawsuit, before they finally got around to actually filing the paperwork with the court. What they filed was a dismissal “without prejudice.” In other words they sent a message loud and clear that they might very well sue me again! If their intention had been to not sue me again they would have withdrawn their case “with prejudice.”
On September 29 the Orlando Sentinel ran another article in which they interviewed Ligonier Ministries’ attorney Dan Brodersen. Brodersen acknowledged that Ligonier might sue me again. In other words Ligonier learned absolutely nothing from the scandal they’d created. Because of the national publicity that Ligonier brought on itself they brought shame and ridicule on the church of Christ by unbelievers. Even atheists had a good time mocking the body of Christ over it. Ligonier Ministries has yet to repent for anything and they probably never will.
I’m dismayed that not only are so many Christians willing to turn a blind eye to the sinfulness of Ligonier’s lawsuit, but even apparently a number of well known Reformed ministers are willing to condone Ligonier’s lawsuit as well. They know better but they’re willing to put their personal friendships ahead of faithfully applying the Word of God.
On November 28 Ligonier Ministries fired the Founder of Soli Deo Gloria Ministries, Don Kistler. Ligonier hired Kistler two years prior, and with Kistler they “acquired” his Soli Deo Gloria Ministries. However the acquisition contract was to have contained a reversionary clause permitting Kistler to leave Ligonier any time he wanted to for any reason and to take SDG with him. The reversionary clause never made it into the contract, and as I exposed in my August 28 article this was done deliberately and fraudulently. Kistler and others brought the matter up repeatedly to Ligonier’s “management” but his pleas were ignored.
With Kistler’s firing Ligonier now has what they were after all along, total control of the ministry that had become a goldmine for Ligonier. SDG may be the only venture Ligonier has that currently turns an impressive profit. Greed can make men do very wicked things. Ligonier got SDG by deception and they paid nothing more than two years of a modest salary to Don Kistler. Now Kistler is out on the street and he’s lost twenty years of his life’s work for his troubles at Ligonier.
The excuse provided by the Ligonier Board Of Directors, chaired by RC Sproul, for Don Kistler’s firing was a complete sham. My sources tell me that the real reason that Don Kistler was fired is because Sproul and Dick had become convinced that Don Kistler was one of my primary insider sources. As I said earlier, Don Kistler was never one of my insider sources. At no time did Don ever contact me, and I knew better than to contact Don at a Ligonier Ministries email address, which would have been the only way I would have known how to contact him.
It wasn’t until Don put up his own web site that I obtained a “safe” email address to use for him, and the very first time I emailed him was on October 3, 2006. I’d like to be able to say that Don was helpful and informative, but the fact is that although he was very cordial, he wasn’t at all disclosing. Even after Don’s firing Don hasn’t been particularly informative to me. I’m sure he’s got quite a story to tell, but for whatever reason he doesn’t want to tell it. My belief is that Don is reluctant to talk because he knows he’d probably get sued, and unlike Ligonier he doesn’t have unlimited financial resources to see him through a costly legal battle. This is the game that Ligonier has been playing for years with its former employees and it’s proven very effective at silencing them.
Like every other godly person that Ligonier has done dirty over the years they unjustly fired Don Kistler on a bogus charge. The only difference is that none of the other unjust firings got any publicity. I hate to have to admit this but I don’t think that all the bad publicity has changed much of anything at Ligonier, and it certainly hasn’t changed any hearts.
This concludes my summary of the Ligonier Ministries scandal. I don’t anticipate doing any more blogging about Ligonier, or any other topic for that matter. Now I’d like to briefly discuss my views on Christians and blogging.
It was in late September that I was approached by a newly forming ad hoc Christian accountability group called Ministry Watchman. As they explained they had been motivated in part by my own Ligonier exposés. They saw the need for a more formalized system of holding corrupt Reformed ministers and ministries accountable. I was impressed by their goals and agreed to join them. They believed that we could accomplish far more by collaborating together, and by having several different authors it would likely draw a bigger audience. On October 7 I publicly announced the transition of my writing to Ministry Watchman.
I continued providing articles, mainly focusing on Ligonier Ministries. Other Ministry Watchman authors contributed some additional articles of interest to Reformed Christians. Some of the articles I thought were very good. Ministry Watchman has consistently brought in a lot more traffic than my own blog did. The problem though has been that I’ve been the primary article contributor. Now that I’m out of things to contribute, and now that I’m leaving Ministry Watchman, I hope that other contributors will be able to pick up the slack. I also hope that the kinds of articles that are featured on Ministry Watchman in the future don’t include the sorts of things that Joe Friday has been digging up. No insult to Joe but I just can’t see any good coming of that.
When Watchman approached me and several others about his idea of launching this experiment, we all had what we thought was a good plan, and we certainly had the best of intentions. But the best of intentions don’t always produce ideal outcomes. What’s been the outcome here? Not the one I’d hoped for.
The single most important thing that I personally wanted to see Ministry Watchman accomplish was to bring corrupt Reformed ministers and their ministries to repentance. That has yet to happen.
We all agreed that in every case the criteria would be that we would only expose men who had already been confronted per Matthew 18, but who refused to listen and submit. The same kind of men often establish an appearance of accountability, but in reality they’ve just surrounded themselves with yes-men. Their “accountability” is too often just a sham.
That’s just one of many things that I exposed about Ligonier Ministries and even RC Sproul’s Saint Andrews Chapel. Not only is Ligonier Ministries a parachurch ministry that’s in no way accountable to any denomination or any Elder oversight, it’s not even accountable to it’s own Board Of Directors, as we all plainly saw in the Ligonier Ministries vs. Frank Vance lawsuit. None of the Board members, other than RC and Vesta Sproul, knew anything about the lawsuit!
I made certain assumptions that if anything would bring such men to repentance it would be a strong dose of public exposure. Ethically I didn’t have a problem with doing that. After all, they’re public figures and they’ve worked very hard to put themselves into the limelight. I also believed that the Bible supports this too. I anticipated the likelihood that public exposure would humble them and bring about contrition, repentance, and even reconciliation with those that they’d harmed. However, that hasn’t yet happened, even in spite of enormous public pressures, including even the loss of substantial portions of their support base.
One thing I’ve learned from all this is that corrupt men are inevitably proud men, very proud men, and it will obviously take a lot more than a Ministry Watchman to humble a man with a massive ego.
There are other corrupt Reformed ministers that I also thought about exposing, but the likelihood is that the outcomes of further public exposures will just be more of the same hard-hearted unrepentance. If a man is going to repent at all he’ll probably do it relatively quickly, such as we saw Ted Haggard do.
I’m not too proud to admit that my personal contribution hasn’t proven very effective at accomplishing what I had in mind. Perhaps it’s time for a different strategy, but I’m not at all sure what that strategy should be. All I know is that I can’t continue doing things the way I have just so I can continue getting the same less than effective results.
This isn’t to say though that I believe that I’ve accomplished nothing, and that Ministry Watchman has accomplished nothing, or that this experiment has been entirely ineffective. They may not have repented, but we’ve certainly gotten their attention.
One very significant thing we accomplished was to inform donors of the significant responsibility they have for becoming informed about how to make sound stewardship decisions. The fact is that there are many Christian ministries that squander donor funds like they were drunken sailors, and with Ministry Watchman’s support I was able to expose one especially significant one here. Some of those “ministries” are even members of ECFA. Ligonier Ministries is an ECFA charter member “in good standing,” which just goes to show how worthless the ECFA seal of approval is. Ligonier Ministries proved to be a good object lesson for the many thousands of Christians who have read my articles here. Many of my readers commented favorably and wrote emails to thank me for that.
But still I find it very unsatisfactory knowing that there’s been no repentance, and that from all appearances there may never be any repentance. I find it even more dismaying that in spite of the stacks of evidence that I’ve presented here not one single prominent Reformed minister has made a public statement regarding the sins that I’ve exposed. They’ve all turned a blind eye. It would be fair to say that I’m experiencing some disillusionment over this.
I recognize that I’m not the Holy Spirit, and only the Holy Spirit can convict a man of his sins and bring him to repentance. But does God also use men to rebuke sinners? Yes, of course, and God uses many different means of doing that, sometimes perhaps even including an ad hoc watchdog like Ministry Watchman.
I’d like to see Ministry Watchman head in a new direction, but whatever direction it does take I know that I can’t be a part of it any more. That’s no slam against Watchman and the other authors. I think they’ve done a fine job. But their resources are limited and it’s inherently dangerous taking on corrupt multimillion dollar corporations.
I’ve also come to have a few misgivings about the use of blogs to hold Christian ministries and ministers accountable, at least in the way that I went about it. I never put up a blog with the idea of holding Ligonier accountable. That just developed over time, and it wasn’t very well planned out. That put me at a distinct disadvantage. It’s not smart to fly by the seat of the pants. I believe that the Ministry Watchman idea was better planned, but it could have stood a whole lot more planning.
I especially am frustrated over the fact that so many of my sources were unwilling to go on the record and tell their stories themselves. This created a lot of additional work for me. Even more disconcerting to me is the fear that they each expressed of using their own names. In hindsight though we should all appreciate their fears. Ligonier has threatened many people many times with “legal action,” and in my case they made good on it. They used me as an example and no one will soon forget it.
I’ve heard many stupid statements from Ligonier defenders about Ligonier’s lawsuit against me, but seldom a condemnation of the lawsuit itself. “Frank, why don’t you just come forward and tell us where you live. Why won’t you just go to court with Ligonier? Obviously you must not trust the Lord very much. The Lord will protect you Frank.” Such talk reminds me of those Christians who put God to a foolish test by handling poisonous snakes. Even though I had a number of attorneys agree to represent me pro bono, which would have saved me potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars, that doesn’t in any way change the fact that lawsuits are stressful and very time consuming.
After what I’ve been through I know perfectly well why so many have been eager to tell me their stories but they’ve all insisted on confidentiality. At the same time though I don’t like the fact that it’s put me on the front lines to draw all the fire for people who should have had the courage to tell their stories themselves.
Since I started blogging the thing that’s bothered me the most is how it tends to bring out the worst in people. I too haven’t been immune from this. There have been times where I’ve been cross and grumpy in my responses to various posted comments. It’s too easy to do that from behind a keyboard and much less likely to happen when dealing with someone face to face. Blogging is impersonal and that’s something that I especially don’t like about it. For any offense I’ve caused (and I’m sure there’s been some of that) I’m truly sorry.
Another thing I won’t miss about blogging are all the unethical practices perpetrated by so many bloggers. Tim Challies is one of the best examples I can think of. Challies wrote an article ridiculing me and exaggerating my previous statements. Several people showed up to defend me and he not only deleted their comments he even banned them. Mind you these were people who were making very civil and well reasoned statements. They weren’t banned for bad manners. They were banned for merely disagreeing with the great Challies. I saw this kind of dishonest behavior on a number of blogs and it’s one of the things that bothers me the most about blogging.
One thing I really appreciated about Watchman’s comment rules is that he’s maintained such a liberal comment approval policy. He’s a firm believer in free speech. Too many other bloggers operate just the opposite and I’ve been on the receiving end of some of it myself. I look forward to taking a long break from looking at any blogs at all.
I should have realized much sooner that if you’re going to do exposés about a popular ministry that you’ll make enemies, and those enemies often refuse to honestly and consistently apply the biblical standards that they profess to live by. In fact just about everything that I’ve been ridiculed for by my detractors they themselves turned right around and did the same thing themselves to me. Obviously they must not really believe what they claim to believe. Either that or they think that two wrongs make a right.
Sadly I don’t see these problems with blogging improving anytime soon. In fact I think it’s likely to only worsen. I’m not sure what the solution is but I don’t think it’s more blogging. It’d be great if we could look to our ministry leaders, seminary professors and various church denominations for some guidance, but I’m inclined to think that many of them are incapable of providing wise and practical counsel in these matters. If they don’t have the courage and integrity to confront a corrupt organization like Ligonier Ministries I doubt they have the ability to provide godly leadership to the blogosphere.
Please pray that the Lord would bless Ministry Watchman and other similar blogs that are exposing wickedness and corruption within the church with an abundance of His wisdom. Please pray especially for Ligonier Ministries that the Lord would be pleased to convict their hearts and bring them to repentance.
Farewell dear friends.