Competence, Not Character: Marla’s Story
Competence, Not Character: Marla’s Story
Marla was a member of the 2008 CFC touring team with the Institute for Cultural Communicators.
My teammates and I were about to go onstage and deliver our introductions. We had two main types of memorized introductions for each other: short and long. Our long ones were set in stone, but the short ones changed. Sometimes we said our city and state, sometimes just city, sometimes first and last name, sometimes just first. Without fail, there were always a couple of us who did it one way, and a few who did it another. I wasn’t quite sure the right way to do it, so before we went on I raised my hand and said, “Since this is something we tend to get confused on, I just wanted to double check exactly what we’re supposed to say.” Next thing I knew Mrs. Moon was towering over me, harshly lecturing me about how I was the cause of all of my team’s problems, I’d destroyed all of the hard work they’d done, etc… I could feel my stomach drop, my spine went cold, and my eyes started burning with months of suppressed tears. This time, though, I wasn’t going to cry because I felt guilty or worthless, this time I was mad. As Mrs. Moon gradually ran out of ammunition it was the first time I think I saw clearly that she was actually… wrong… and when she asked me to explain myself the only thing I could choke out was an angry “What did I do wrong, I said ‘we,’ didn’t I?”
You see, on tour we weren’t allowed to say you or I. If you missed a class you were supposed to teach, we missed the class. If you did something particularly well, we all got the recognition. This was supposed to be team building, frankly it was confusing. But, let me back track, because this particular incident occurred in the last week in a half of a nationwide conference tour, and it had taken me several years to get there…
Telling people about my Institute for Cultural Communicators Experience (ICC) is something that I have a lot of practice doing. I was a member of the 2008 ICC touring team, and prior to that I had spent several years working my way through the alumni program, and serving in every possible student leadership role that they offered. I was completely supportive of ICC’s mission, the Moon family, and the organization’s structure and leadership. I fiercely defended ICC and the Moons against anyone who criticized them, and my mother and I supported them to our best ability, by organizing the facility and managing the advertising for their annual conference in Colorado. I firmly believe that without my mother’s efforts there wouldn’t have been an annual Colorado conference, nor would it have been as well attended as it was (my mother frequently paid student’s tuition out of her own pocket, calling it “scholarships” because she believed so strongly in Teresa Moon’s work).
There were few things I wanted more in high school than to be an intern, and I used this goal as my motivation to create the best possible resume I could to serve as student instructor. I volunteered hundreds of hours, won a national debate championship (so that I would have more credibility as a teacher), and started my own debate club so that I could practice teaching. I wanted to be the best intern I could be, because when Mrs. Moon said that Christians need to be good communicators, I believed her. To Mrs. Moon being a good communicator also meant being authentic and transparent, without hypocrisy. So, when Mrs. Moon banned me from spending any substantial time around my boyfriend who was also involved with her organization (even though both sets of parents were aware of and consenting to the relationship), I tried to obey as best as I could. When she told me that I needed longer skirts, I had my mom take my hems down. When she told me that in order to be modest I couldn’t gain weight as an intern, I obsessed over only eating salad. When she told me I was prideful, I spent countless hours self-destructing by contemplating my worthlessness.
I used to think that any negative feelings I had about my ICC experience were my own fault, for my bad, prideful attitude, and for not being mature enough to understand that what went on was for the greater good of ICC. Now, as a 22 year old, not a 17 year old, I’m ready to talk about the negative experience I had as an ICC intern. Having now worked in government and with other non-profit organizations, all with powerful missions, I’ve learned that a good mission doesn’t mean you can treat people however you want. Having now had a string of kind, gracious, consistent bosses, I can also say that people with large amounts of authority and stress are capable of controlling their emotions towards their employees and treating all employees fairly. The treatment I received as an “employee” for Mrs. Moon was not normal or acceptable. If you have been involved with ICC, and you were treated wonderfully, good for you. That doesn’t negate poor treatment that I received. If you are an ardent supporter of ICC, like I once was, being a true supporter doesn’t mean that criticism isn’t allowed, and that anyone complains has turned into a rebellious or ungodly person.
When I speak of the leadership problems I encountered, mainly from Teresa Moon, the best way that I can summarize them is a lack of consistency. Students who participated in ICC were held to an array of different standards, and it was hard to tell what standard you were being held to, or what it meant to be held to a particular standard. Some of my fellow interns could get away with almost anything, and some of us were constant scapegoats. It was nearly impossible to navigate what could be done, when, and by whom. I could go on writing in generalities about inconsistent treatment, however, there are few things that I find more frustrating than people who criticize, but can’t provide a single example to support their complaints.
Fortunately, my memory of my ICC experience is still quite vivid, so let me summarize what bad leadership looks like with a few examples:
Putting individuals on the team who had severe mental and emotional health problems, with no safety net or plan to give them the treatment that they needed to thrive: One of my fellow teammates, Krysi, wrote about her experience as an intern. You can read her story here, where she discusses a string of mental and emotional struggles she had experience prior or tour, which came to a head in the middle of her time as an intern. While I believe that Krysi should not be blamed for what happened, I have a question to ask of Mrs. Moon: who in there right mind puts young people with documented instances of depression, suicide attempts, and eating disorders in a high pressure environment with no access to therapists, no understanding of their medication, and no training in how to deal with and monitor destructive behaviors? Mrs. Moon knew many of the struggles Krysi was facing, and never thought to prepare a safety net. Instead, she put a vulnerable girl in a high pressure environment, and when Krysi began to struggle, she initially rushed to provide support and promised to help Krysi. However, she was not capable of providing the support she promised, and ended up letting down a girl who had been let down too many times before. You don’t promise to take care of someone, and then decide, with 2 weeks of a tour left, that all of the months of promises you made were just too much work after all. If someone was in too fragile and precarious a state to intern, and you weren’t prepared to help them, they shouldn’t have interned. If you thought that they could intern, you should have come prepared, and not quit at the last moment.
Jeopardizing team cohesion by giving interns secret assignments and unclear authority: I’m a natural workaholic, so on tour whenever I finished an assignment, I would go to Mrs. Moon and ask if there was anything else that I could do to help. She gradually increased my responsibilities on tour, without telling my teammates what was going on. She would give me secret jobs, such as corresponding with a Christian camp, Doe River Gorge, where we were going to be doing a brief in-service training. I was instructed not to tell anyone, as I gathered information and made a conference plan. Two days before the conference, Mrs. Moon’s son, Wendell, who was acting as tour manager told me to begin a staff meeting by telling my teammates about our conference at the camp. I began telling them what Wendell had instructed, when Mrs. Moon walked into the room and gave me her iciest glare. She pulled me into her office and harshly lectured me about how I was acting inappropriately and my pride was becoming a huge issue. I tried to explain that I hadn’t meant to act improperly, I was just following Wendell’s instructions. She ignored me, and Wendell refused to back my story up. Variations on this happened too frequently to count, and caused me to constantly be under an undue amount of stress.
Disrespecting labor laws, disregarding health: Before I interned I assisted at various conferences where my job was basically to act as a janitor and kitchen assistant. It was normal at these events to stay up until 1:00 and then get back up at 6:30. A person can keep such a schedule for a week or two, though it is not pleasant. The straining schedule I experienced as an assistant to ICC staff became almost unbearable when I served as a touring intern. I was frequently up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, finishing extra assignments that Mrs. Moon gave me, then back up at 6:30-6:45 to do full hair and makeup for the conference. I would teach classes almost all day long, with little to no break, and any break I did have was spent working on another list of assignments. Once the conference ended it was seemingly endless meetings and more work. In addition to this, since there were no real provisions to assist my struggling teammates, such as Krysi, I began trying to serve as a monitor, making sure that she was eating, that she wasn’t hurting herself. When we shared a room I would wake up multiple times throughout the night to make sure she was alright. When adults don’t take care of kids, kids have to take care of each other, even if they don’t have the emotional stamina or knowledge to fill the role. By the end of tour I was consumed with work and with trying to help Krysi, in addition, I was part of an inner circle that was informed of all that had happened in her family, and sworn to secrecy. Keeping that secret from my teammates and parents, was completely draining. By the end of tour I was physically and emotionally spent. When I got home I was constantly sick, and began having digestive problems, and minor panic attacks that lasted for months. When I had to leave home to go back and complete the last conference, called Masters (A two week long end of tour convention occurs after a month long break for the interns), I struggled with uncontrollable vomiting and what felt like fever sweats. I was terrified of getting on the plane to go back to the Moons home, of seeing my teammates, of having to teach again… I could barely keep food down the entire Masters conference, and all I wanted to do was leave. I can’t help but think that some of this was due to being completely and totally over worked. The schedule I kept, and the responsibility placed on me were too much for my age. I know that homeschooled kids are supposed to be more mature, but there are limits, and I don’t think ICC respects them.
Tying physical looks to appropriate conduct… but, only for the girls: I’ll never forget the girls only meeting that Mrs. Moon called together a month into tour. She gave us her most winning smile, and explained that some of us had put on some weight, and if we wanted our clothing to be appropriately modest, then weight gain was just not something that could happen. We were encouraged to keep each other accountable about our weight, either by telling our fellow teammates that they were looking heavier, so that they would be more cautious, or if they were too far gone, we were supposed to tell them to wear spanx. Mrs. Moon meant it, too, if she saw any bulge, any panty lines, she would take action. One of my teammates had gained a slight amount of weight (she was still incredibly tiny) that caused a very minor panty line to be visible in her evening gown. Mrs. Moon pulled her to the side when she stepped backstage in the middle of a performance, and made her take off her underwear. In addition to humiliating events like that, Mrs. Moon’s talk caused a general panic amongst many of the girls, which shouldn’t be a big surprise since Teresa gave this talk to a group of girls, knowing full well that at least 3 of them had struggled with eating disorders and body dysmorphia. Tying weight gain to modesty and morality only made many of these girl’s weight struggles worse.
Putting children in emotionally damaging situations: The Moons decided that my team had unity problems, and that any and all difficulties we faced were because we had not bonded enough. In retrospect, I think claiming that every thing that goes wrong is a result of a poor team dynamic, may just be an easy excuse to avoid having to examine leadership. However, the worst part of this judgment on my team was that Wendell, Mrs. Moon’s eldest son decided that he was going to institute some team building exercises. I don’t know where he came up with them, but the one I remember best was called the “hot seat.” Each of us had to sit in a chair in front of everyone, and each teammate took a turn telling the person in the chair a Criticism, a Confession, or a Compliment. Neither Wendell nor Mrs. Moon seemed to have anticipated that what they were really doing was giving interns a chance to be flat out mean to one another. I remember sitting in the chair while teammate after teammate described my personality and character in broad, crushing, negative terms. I was trying so hard not to cry, because I knew that the terrible things they were saying must be true, and that I needed to be mature about it, but another part of me was screaming that this wasn’t how people should treat each other. A few of my teammates were genuinely kind in their remarks, but it’s a lot easier to remember the negatives. After the Moons watched interns tear each other down, there was no rebuilding, no demands for apologies, no assistance in sorting out how to treat people who had basically just said that they hated you. After the hot seat activity I withdrew from my teammates for the rest of tour, finding any excuse I could to be alone. I figured this was what was best for the team, since I was so terrible to be around, and so deeply hated. Now, I know this isn’t true, but the fact that I was made to feel that way under the leadership of the Moons is not right.
Valuing anything to save face, rather than caring about other’s well being: This was perhaps the thing that was most difficult for me to deal with as an intern. Appearance really was treated as everything, which meant a lot of lying and a lot of coverups. However, there were some things too big to gloss over, like Krysi disappearing from tour, and then not showing up to the Masters conference, while all of her family did. Mrs. Moon was visibly stressed about how to explain Krysi’s absence at Masters, when right before the conference she got the perfect explanation. Krysi was hospitalized for viral meningitis. When we found out about it I overheard Mrs. Moon audibly sigh with relief, and turn to whoever was near her and say something along the lines of “thank God.” Wendell led a little prayer for Krysi at the conference and talked about how much they wished she could have come. I was so angry when I sat there watching him put on his most concerned face for the audience. Krysi wasn’t there because she had been kicked off, Krysi had been kicked off because she had been set up to fail, and her being in the hospital was not “convenient” it was frightening and sad. Appearances don’t matter more than people, and putting on public displays of concern as a cover for bad leadership is not authentic communication.
My last real interaction with ICC was June of 2009, when Mrs. Moon asked me to run a Flood the Five conference (a shortened version of the normal conference structure) in Colorado Springs. Both of my parents had undergone surgery that summer, so in addition to a full time job, I was also taking care of the house, and tending to their post-surgery needs. Despite how busy I was, I managed to create an entire conference plan, writing brand new classes and planning activities for the two day event. I showed up with barely a greeting from Teresa, and found out that I had basically no one to assist me, and that I would be teaching every class on my own. I stayed up until 3:00 in the morning preparing for the first day, and got up at 6:30 to arrive on time. I taught the entire day, and when I finally returned back to the place I was staying Teresa asked me to come and have a chat with her. She asked me what my tour experience was like, and I tried to explain to her how hard it had been to believe so firmly in an organization, and then have that slowly destroyed by watching hypocrisy every day. I told her my frustration that her son, and the other teammate involved in the drinking episode that Krysi mentioned did not receive any where near the same amount of punishment as Krysi. I tried to tell her how hurt I was by the months of “criticism” about my character, and how I’d never tried to be prideful, in fact, I had felt completely worthless all of tour, and had struggled with horrible depression in the months since tour ended.
She responded by telling me that my pride was the biggest problem that they encountered on tour, and that ICC wanted student leaders with “Competence and character, not just competence.” There was no understanding, no thank you for the years of dedication, the thousands of dollars my family had spent, the months of secrets I kept for her, and the sincere love and affection I had for her. I left her room and looked out the window at my car in the driveway. I though about just driving back home, and letting her handle the second day of the conference on her own, because I honestly didn’t know if I could get up on a stage and be a perfect intern again. Part of me wishes I had just driven away, but I didn’t. The next day I showed up with a big smile and taught each class as well as I could. I gave the closing speech about the wonders of ICC, and never lost face until I was in my car. Some would call that showing character, but to ICC, that’s just competence.