Chris Lindsay was apprehensive entering Teen Mania's Honor Academy boot-camp program in Garden Valley in 2010.
“I had heard the stories even before I went to the Honor Academy,” he said of the program staged on property near Lindale.
Lindsay, a student at Cornell University in Pittsburgh, Pa., called it “the greatest memory” of his time at the organization.
Not every participant's experience was positive. Some say they were physically pushed too far, that leaders were too confrontational and that injuries were too common.
One alumnus started a website critical of Honor Academy. Although she did not go through ESOAL, she claims her Honor Academy experience caused her to question her Christianity and become depressed. One couple likened Honor Academy to a cult.
“We listen to our alumni,” said David Hasz, executive director of the Honor Academy. “We've learned from others. That's the reason we changed from ESOAL. We're thankful for their feedback. We were able to make the event better.”
The revamped event is called “Physical, Emotional and Relational Learning,” or PEARL.
“Comparing ESOAL to PEARL would be like comparing baseball to cricket,” Hasz said. “They both use bats and balls, but they're different games.”
With both PEARL and its predecessor, young interns are expected to work as group and under the eye of “coaches” to complete a series of grueling physical and mental exercises while receiving very little sleep. Activities include carrying logs, pushups and running. Mental exercises require keeping track of detailed instructions and math to complete an activity.
When an exhausted or over-stressed intern snaps or wants to quit, a coach intervenes.
“PEARL is an opportunity for interns to practice real emotions,” Hasz said. “It's a role-playing game. It's not like a video game where your character is getting tired.”
Critics say interns were pushed too far in ESOAL.
Hasz said that some leaders adapted too much of a drill sergeant style in ESOAL.
“In the past, we had some people who maybe watched ‘Major Payne' too much,'” Hasz said, referring to a movie.
Hazs said leaders no longer use military titles but are referred to as coach, and the interaction is more life coaching than yelling.
Many Teen Mania interns and staff who participated in ESOAL and now PEARL like the changes.
“ESOAL was more structured in a pushing state, the same as PEARL, but PEARL is more structured to sharpen the mind and engage the heart,” said Jonathan Parrilla, Honor Academy dorm director who participated in ESOAL and served as a PEARL facilitator.
“PEARL has the same structure, but there's more relationship, more counseling,” he said. “It's about controlling your emotions, being strong in adversity and knowing that you're not alone, that there's the Lord and others to build you up when times are hard.”
Interns now also get more sleep. In PEARL, interns get at least four hours of uninterrupted sleep, which wasn't the case with ESOAL, Hasz said.
Another change involves an intern's ability to opt out of the experience.
In the past, interns started and then, if they felt it was too much to bear, rang a bell signaling that they were quitting, a practice called ringing out. Critics say leaders made those who rang out feel guilty or as if they had failed.
Now to participate, interns voluntarily sign up for PEARL. Interns are not required to participate to complete Honor Academy.
However, the practice of ringing out continues.
“In the past, we didn't handle (someone ringing out) well,” Hasz said. “Now we cheer.”
There are two reasons for people to ring out, Hasz said — either for a medical injury or they give up.
“If you're limping, you need to make a wise choice,” he said.
Of 272 participants —interns, and staff and parents of interns — who voluntarily took part in the most recent PEARL, 103 rang out, Hasz said. All were evaluated, as required, at an on-site clinic; 42 visited the clinic with potentially more serious issues, such as feeling faint, sprained ankles or knees, or potential breathing issues.
Other alumni who did participate were critical of the event.
“My main concerns with Teen Mania are because of the fact that for the past 15 years various interns from every single year of the Honor Academy have come forward with the exact same concerns about neglect of health and safety issues, condemnation, violation of personal boundaries and a lot of other different things,” she said in a telephone interview. “Every single year, those issues have remained the same, no matter the minor changes that Teen Mania claims to have made.”
Ms. Marley claims, based on an email list, about 200 alumni who have attended Honor Academy “consider themselves recovering.”
“People were like, ‘Oh my gosh, nobody else is talking about this, this makes so much sense' or ‘This is what I went through, please keep posting,'” she said. “It kind of just grew from there.”
Brian Aldridge, 29, intern in 2001 and 2002 and later a facilitator for ESOAL, claims on the site that the experience did “irreparable harm to my young adulthood.” He believes the organization maintains a damaging psychological climate.
Ms. Marley says on the website that Teen Mania taught her that if she couldn't feel God's presence, it must be because of sin in her life. After spending months agonizing over what she could be doing wrong, she left the organization.
“In what can only be called a miraculous divine appointment, shortly after leaving the internship, God provided a way for me to live with a pastor and his family whom I barely knew in another state,” she wrote on the portion of her site titled, “My Recovery.” “I spent countless hours talking with them about my depression stemming from my seeming lack of relationship with God. Why had God left me?
“Why couldn't I sense his presence? I remember over and over, they reassured me that it didn't mean that God had left me. It did not mean He would never speak to me again. In fact, this desert experience was a normal part of Christian life. … They did not teach this at Teen Mania.”
Hasz said that theology — that a lack of God's presence is dependent on sin alone — is “absolutely not” a mindset that he or the organization endorses.
“There's a lot of reasons people might not feel the presence of God in their life, and many, many, many of them are not related to sin whatsoever,” Hasz said. “We all go through dry periods. … I wouldn't blame them on sin whatsoever. I go through dry places that have nothing to do with sin. It's why we don't walk by sight, by what we feel. We walk by faith.”
Updated Monday, November 7, 2011 at 11:26 a.m. CST
After the Duncans posted an entry about Teen Mania on their website, www.dallascult.com, they were contacted by Heath Stoner, Honor Academy operations director.
At the invitation of Stoner, the Duncans visited the campus last year. Duncan said Teen Mania referred them to interns who had a positive experience.
“The problem with that is that if you have something like this — not just ESOAL, now PEARL, but really the whole experience of the Honor Academy — if there's a certain number of people who are being seriously impacted in a negative way by the experience, that's an issue, and that doesn't get erased by the fact that some people had a good time,” Duncan said.
Duncan, a licensed professional counselor, called the changes made from ESOAL to PEARL “a bit of a whitewash.”
Ultimately, the Duncans and Hasz disagree.
“People always get in the weeds about ‘How do you define a cult?'” Duncan said. “The central thing is this idea of thought reform. You're going to take somebody and put them through a process that changes their personality. That is the core of a cult.”
Duncan alleged that the psychological effect of Honor Academy and ESOAL remain.
“What happens is, when you put people in a group setting like this and put them through a series of things that give them a little trauma bonding, they go through this whole event together, there's exhaustion, there's sleep deprivation, you put them in a state of heightened suggestibility,” Duncan said.
According to Teen Mania's website, Honor Academy interns spend a week on the campus learning about the organization before they are ever required to commit.
Duncan alleged that teens and their parents don't understand what they're getting into when they commit to a year of service at Teen Mania.
“They get them right up front and hit them with all this stuff about commitment,'” Duncan said. “Then people feel obligated to go through the full year at the Honor Academy or whatever it is, even though in a lot of cases, they're miserable. Of course, when people are miserable or depressed, the nature of the group dynamic is people think it's their own fault, ‘It's because you're not praying enough;' ‘It's because you don't have enough faith;' ‘It's because you're not a good Christian;' ‘If you were like the other Christians around here, you would be happy here in this little paradise that we've set up.' It's the same environment, the same kind of control that cults do.”
Honor Academy leadership maintains PEARL and other exercises are an opportunity for practice.
“Yes, we should turn to the Lord in real life, and if we have opportunities to practice real-life responses, what a great place to do it in a safe environment, like the PEARL,” Hasz said. “That's what so great about playing sports. You get to see what's in your heart. That's why I love playing basketball; it shows me who I am. Does that change my personality? I hope so. I hope I choose to change my personality when the stuff that comes out is not Christ-like.
“The key thing to realize here is, PEARL is not designed to be ‘the event' that will spiritually change them forever,” he said. “It's a small part of the Honor Academy.”