Note: We have resigned in the wake of these allegations. Read our story here.
Table of Contents
- The Allegations
- Sexual Abuse
- The 24 Non-Sexual Accusations
- Vision Baptist Missions’ Response
- 8/3 – Initial Email Thread
- 8/4 – Talking points handed out
- 8/5 – VBM Public Statement #1
- 8/3-6 – Pressure from Pastors
- 8/5 – Internal Email Conversation
- 8/7 – VBM Public Statement #2
- 8/17 – Investigator #1 – National Center for Life and Liberty
- 8/24 – Investigator #2 – Law Firm hired by Vision and Public Statement #3
- 8/24 – The So-Called “External, Independent Investigation”
- Independent Investigation?
- 9/2 – Reinstatement begins
- VBM Missionary Defenses on Social Media
- Austin Gardner Response
- Previous Responses to Confrontation
- List of typical narcissist behaviors
- Some Advice on Discerning Deceptive Behavior
- Where this all leaves us
On August 3, This video was posted with accusations of child abuse, child molestation, etc.:
I have witnessed, not sexual improprieties, but numerous leadership behaviors that go hand-in-hand with characteristics described.
Even in my own private investigation I learned of several more accusers with claims, that have not yet shared their stories publicly.
That is extremely concerning.
I hate to think that these could be true, but a legitimate investigation MUST be done to clear his name if he is innocent, but call him to justice if not.
The 24 Non-Sexual Accusations
While the sexual allegations got the most attention, they are far from the only accusation brought up. VBM would have the public believe that there is only one “40 year old allegation” from a bitter woman with psychological issues.
In fact, there are serious allegations raised that, if true, disqualify Austin Gardner from ministry.
I believe they do.
In the Earnhart’s video, they mentioned many other serious allegations:
- Forced Abortions
- Misappropriation of funds
- Shuffling of men to other ministries as well as out of the country to cover misdeeds such as adultery and fornication.
- Boys and Girls being raped in the Children’s Home and their adult abusers were never turned over to authorities
- Intimidation and insults if you dared to disagree
- Control by fear
- Isolation if you chose to challenge him
- Verbal Abuse
- This philosophy is one of control, manipulation, cover ups and defying accountability when crimes are committed.
- Loss or withholding of money – medicine, food
- A Team culture that was used to control;
- independent thoughts or ideas were not allowed.
- This Dangerous philosophy of ministry taught and practiced by Austin Gardner, his sons, and many who are under his influence.
Days later, in another video the Earnharts reported additional submissions with specific details of abuse reported on their website.
In addition to the Earnharts, 17 more missionaries published a joint statement with accusations of:
- Spiritual abuse
- Mental abuse
- Fits of anger
- Pastoral neglect
- Abuse of power
- Breach of confidentiality
- Mishandling of sexual trauma
These kind of allegations must be investigated seriously by a qualified, unaffiliated, unbiased investigator. But VBM leadership has refused to look into these things despite giving the impression to the public that they are indeed conducting a third party investigation.
Instead, VBM leadership is choosing to protect Austin Gardner and themselves instead.
But I am a personal witness to much of this behavior and culture, and I’ve stayed silent too long.
By doing a little bit of personal investigation, I am now aware of several more extremely serious allegations from people that have not yet shared their story publicly, but likely will in the near future.
To be clear, these allegations do not implicate Austin Gardner alone, but also the ministry philosophy and culture that he has created and led at Vision Baptist Missions, especially, but also Vision Baptist Church.
Vision Baptist Missions’ Response
Every response from VBM so far addresses only one accuser and her sexual allegations, ignoring the other serious allegations and other accusers.
That is unacceptable.
Up to this point, you may have had no reason to not believe what you have heard from VBM, but I ask you to be skeptical and challenge their answers to you on this matter.
No doubt many of you have called in with questions and no doubt have been assured that everything is being handled above board properly.
I want to highlight some inconsistencies between the public portrayal and what I see from the inside group communications and how they are in fact responding. Their actions contradict their public claim of “openness, transparency, and dedication to the truth”
Here are the public statements from VBM so far.
In contrast, these are the facts that I know from being part of the internal discussions:
- The initial internal response to the allegations by those inside the organization were almost exclusively affirmations of loyalty, declaring all allegations to be lies, slander, an attack, etc. and concluding innocence.
- A decision to investigate was delayed and resisted
- A commitment to investigate at all only came after extreme pressure from pastors externally, and me internally.
- Their actions contradict their public claim of “openness, transparency, and dedication to the truth”
- The scope of the investigation has been severely limited rather than truly ‘seeking the truth’.
- To the public they have tried to demonstrate that they are conducting an “independent, external” (unbiased) investigation, but in reality, they are investigating as little as possible. See section: Independent Investigation?
- Their response mirrors that of a Cover Up — more interested in protecting their public image rather than truth-finding
- VBM has released THREE statements, minimizing, downplaying, and misrepresenting the accusations.
- VBM has refused to independently investigate 23 of the 24 accusations, instead delegating that to an internal, unqualified, and biased group that has a history of overlooking Austin’s behavior when previous issues have been raised.
- VBM has hired an investigator accountable to them, rather than a truly unbiased and qualified investigator
- VBM is controlling the release of the results of this investigation concluding statement after investigation complete
- They have worked to scrub incriminating information:
- Deleting email rings, groups, pages on the website
- Message history in video messaging groups (Marco polo)
- Posting 30 posts in 12 days to bury the story on the VBM Facebook page (vs. 3 posts in the previous 2 months)
- Internal speech from some current vbm missionaries has been to mock and belittle the very idea of spiritual abuse (See image below)
In response to what “Spiritual Abuse” means:
Consider this quote from a book about the unethical handling of scandals:
8/3 – Initial Email Thread
When the news was first mentioned on internal email, there was almost exclusive declarations of this being lies, slander, evil, etc. No serious calls for an investigation.
8/4 – Talking points handed out
Directors organized a Zoom call to give us our talking points. Mark denies it, but my voice on that video call was awfully lonely. I have a recording of it though.
8/5 – VBM Public Statement #1
“Our Founder and President, W. Austin Gardner, was recently confronted with some accusations from around forty years ago. His primary desire is to promote the Gospel and he decided that continuing as President of the Mission Board would create a protracted distraction. Rather than allowing that to occur, he tendered his resignation today as President and Board member, and he wants the entire world-wide team to focus on their ministries and the cause of Christ. The world desperately needs the good news of Jesus Christ, and global mission efforts are challenging enough without additional complications.
To be clear, Vision Baptist Mission Board does not cover up abuse, and we have zero tolerance for child abuse in our ministry. As a matter of policy, this Board reports all reasonable suspicions of child abuse to the authorities. We carefully interview and screen our missionaries and volunteers, and our leadership team works to maintain child protection policies based on best practices nationally. We believe that transparency, child safety, and accountability are essential for successful ministry, and we are fully committed to ministering in a safe and responsible manner.
Please do not hesitate to reach out to our General Director Jeff Bush if you have any questions. Please pray for everyone involved in this deeply personal and highly painful situation.”– VBM Statement #1
- No mention of an investigation that they supposedly “launched immediately” (mentioned later)
- Minimized the accusations by not naming them.
- Distanced the accusations saying they were “from 40 years ago”
- Lifted him up as the hero martyr that is willing to resign rather than “distract”
- Directs you to focus on something else.
- Points to a policy instead of committing to the bottom of this real accusation.
8/3-6 – Pressure from Pastors
Then they began to receive letters like this one from supporting Pastors:
“Dear Mr. Bush:
I read the statement that was published on your Facebook page regarding Austin Gardner’s resignation. cannot express how profoundly disappointed am with this statement. It is both grammatically and factual incorrect.
If this statement stands without amendment, then (redacted)—- Baptist Church will discontinue any association with Vision Baptist Missions. As you know. (redacted)—– Baptist Church currently sends S1.250 per month or $15,000 per year to support VBM missionaries. I will also publicly write a letter stating the reasons that we no longer have any association with Vision Baptist Missions.
The glaring error in the Vision Baptist Missions statement are the words, “some accusations.” Sir, there are very real, detailed and specific allegations. The Vision Baptist Missions statement implies that Austin Gardner is resigning as a favor to others. In fact, if the second paragraph of the statement is true, Vision Baptist Missions should have clearly stated that Austin Gardner was terminated from his position.
Although I can appreciate allegiance and loyalty to a man, the greater issue is the Gospel. There seems to be a genuine disconnect within the Vision Baptist Missions family on this issue. I am praying for a proper correction from the leadership of Vision Baptist Missions. You might even consider the careful and thorough statement that Josh Teis recently wrote about his best friend Josh Irmler as a reference. It was masterfully written and left no room for any ambiguity.
With kindest regards, —–“– A Supporting Pastor
8/5 – Internal Email Conversation
And internally, frustrated that no one was calling for an investigation into the allegations, I sent an email with the subject “Investigate” on Thu, Aug 5, 2021 at 5:22 PM
To the outside observer it may seem that my emails judge too prematurely, but remember, I know these people very well and have seen, for many years, the subtle and deceptive ways this culture operates.
They operate in plausible deniability and double-speak.
You may read the conversation and think I am reading too much into it, and that their actions seem perfectly noble, but I caution you to be more suspicious than that.
Furthermore, my suspicions were proven right by what has taken place since — they have not done a full independent and unbiased investigation, but rather hired a lawyer to investigate only a single part of the accusation, and refused to investigate anything else.
So, under enormous pressure, they put out a 2nd statement:
8/7 – VBM Public Statement #2
“Vision Baptist Missions takes all sin seriously and is committed to integrity and transparency.
On August 4th, serious allegations were made against Austin Gardner. Within 24 hours, he was officially removed from our organization. We immediately began investigating these allegations and our commitment to truth has led us to launch an independent, external investigation. Any future allegations against any missionary or staff at Vision Baptist Missions will be thoroughly investigated.
In an effort to foster transparency, Vision Baptist Missions has an appointed ombudsman to receive any complaints or accusations. We encourage all abuse victims to report to [email protected]
We are committed to truth and accountability. We take all accusations seriously and we have a zero-tolerance policy against sexual misconduct.
Please do not hesitate to reach out to our General Director, Jeff Bush, at 770-362-3795 if you have any questions. Please pray for everyone affected.”– VBM Statement #2
- He was not “removed”, he resigned with everyone begging him not to.
- “Immediately began investigating” – The emails state what they were busy doing, and nowhere is investigation in there. Only statements that he has already been declared innocent by a biased investigation previously.
- Keep reading to learn more about this “independent, external investigation”
- Is This “ombudsman” (a neutral party to receive complaints) not the sister of Teri Snode? No one will answer. Stephanie Grant –> The sister of Teri Snode –> The wife of Travis Snode –> Director at VBM. I don’t think that counts as an unbiased party. I can’t confirm that the Stephanie Grant that answered the abuse email is 100% Teri’s sister, but I can confirm that Teri has a sister named Stephanie Grant who either used to go to Vision or still does. Perhaps it’s a coincidence but I doubt it.
- Several people have emailed this and asked about who would receive the report if they were to report their experience at this email address and have received no response.
8/17 – Investigator #1 – National Center for Life and Liberty
Earnhart suggested to VBM that the investigation be done by the “National Center for Life and Liberty” with David Gibbs III. They specialize in these types of investigations.
But almost immediately, NCLL walked away from working with them because Vision Baptist Missions refused to investigate any spiritual or emotional abuse.
8/24 – Investigator #2 – Law Firm hired by Vision and Public Statement #3
“On August 4th 2021, allegations were published on several social media platforms by Becky Earnhart claiming Austin Gardner, our former president and founder, abused her as a child several decades ago. The Board of Directors of Vision Baptist Missions has authorized A. Lee Parks, senior partner at the law firm of Parks, Chesin, & Walbert of Atlanta, Georgia, to conduct an independent external investigation of these accusations. Vision Baptist Missions has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse and is committed to integrity and transparency. Even though Mr. Gardner is no longer with our organization, the board believes an independent investigation is necessary to establish the facts and bring the truth to light.
Upon completion of the independent investigation, we will release an official statement regarding its findings to ensure this process is trustworthy and transparent. Please be in prayer for everyone involved in this process.”– VBM Statement #3
- Allegations are limited down to 1 of the 20+ allegations to only the child abuse. Probably the most difficult to prove.
- The scope of the investigation is severely limited to exclude almost everything, insuring the culture, finances, or anything else at VBM is never looked at.
- A law firm has fiduciary responsibility to their client (VBM), so VBM is in effect in control of the investigation.
- VBM is in control of what will be released: “we will release an official statement regarding its findings”. A statement about the findings, not the findings themselves. And they get to release it, so they can filter whatever they want.
- At this point a legal disclaimer was auto-added to all emails on our email ring to scare us away from sharing anything.
- Their website states “we are committed to our clients.” It sounds like their job is to protect their client, not necessarily get to the truth.
8/24 – The So-Called “External, Independent Investigation”
INTERNAL Investigation for ALL Accusations save ONE. “Independent, external” for 1.
The directors also wanted me to pass on the following information regarding a statement released by a group of missionaries or interns formerly associated with Austin Gardner in a private Facebook group in which they claimed to have observed and called out a repeated pattern of “spiritual abuse”.
Pastor Trent Cornwell has informed us that he has put together a special committee of current and former deacons of Vision Baptist Church to receive these accusations related to Austin Gardner, a member of their church, and deal with them as a local church.
We would like to ask you to pray for Pastor Trent Cornwell, Vision Baptist Church, and everyone involved.
Travis Snode (on behalf of the Directors of VBM)”– Internal Email
- “Spiritual Abuse” is mocked at VBM, and seems to be mocked here.
- The investigation is entirely internal, and thus open to bias. Preserving the church’s reputation was mentioned to me several times in conversation with them because ‘he is no longer the pastor.’
- They are not qualified to do this type of investigation.
- Requiring victims to report abuse to the very people who overlooked it the first time, does not encourage an open sharing of information.
What determines a truly ‘independent’ investigation?
The important factors, according to Boz Tchividijan, are that those being investigated:
- Don’t control the Investigator
- “We authorized…” – VBM Statement
- Don’t Control the Process
- limiting the scope to abuse of her as a child “several decades ago” – VBM Statement
- “investigation of these accusations” – VBM Statement
- Don’t Control the Findings
- “We will release an official statement regarding its findings…” – VBM Statement
- Email accounts are internally controlled. [email protected] & [email protected] <– Unless something has changed, Mark Tolson (director) runs these email domains, allowing them to see all evidence as it comes in and prepare defenses for it.
- Don’t Control the Final Report
- “We will release an official statement regarding its findings…” – VBM Statement
- The email said, we will let you know what we find.
VBM Missionary Defenses on Social Media
The comments of the vast majority of VBM missionaries prove that this is a systemic battle. I pray for eyes and hearts to be open on all levels of VBM/VBC.
These are all quotes from VBM families on Facebook. Mostly connected to Austin Gardner’s rebuttal video.
This is all BEFORE any investigation has taken place!
Austin Gardner’s Response
9/2 – Reinstatement begins
- August 29 – Austin Gardner hires a Public Relations (PR) Firm to help him craft a response and polish his reputation
- August 27 – Sept 5 – 30 posts are posted on the VBM page in 12 days to bury the negative statements (vs. 3 posts in the previous 2 months before the accusations)
- September 2 – Austin releases video response wherein he avoids all specific allegations, highlights his “good works,” tries to discredit the accuser by emphasizing her devotion to them (common for victims of abuse), acknowledges nothing, plays the victim, and states his intent to return to ministry and power.
Trent Cornwell, the deacons, and Vision Baptist Church still have the opportunity to meaningfully renounce these practices and separate themselves from any association with an unrepentant Austin Gardner and Vision Baptist Missions. I believe they see, at least to some degree, these things as wrong. I publicly call on them to respond in a godly way for the cause of Christ and his Church. Most are also aware of the pseudo-apologies of the past, false confessions, and deceptive demonstrations of piety that have been used to excuse and ultimately continue in this behavior. With this knowledge, it cannot be allowed to happen again.
As long as the leadership of VBM is Jeff Bush, Jason Holt, Mark Tolson, Mark Coffey, Robert Canfield, Travis Snode, and Brendon Wung, I do not have much hope for Vision Baptist Missions. These men have been the most complicit perpetrators of this culture. They defend and downplay these actions when confronted and teach and practice them in their leadership.
Footnote: Some Advice on Discerning Deceptive Behavior
This is new to all of us. so we need some education on the subject.
There are likely certain things that I have interpreted as deceptive that were just imperfect communication, but the consistency of questionable communication confirmed by the resistance to opening up to a truly impartial investigation is extremely concerning.
“Demonstrations” from “Something’s Not Right“
QUOTES FROM CHAPTER 8 — DEMONSTRATIONS
“Once an abuse is brought to light, an abusive person or organization will offer concessions and then demonstrations to reassure others that the abuse is in the past. These demonstrations can be dangerous if they are insincere and are employed merely as a way to protect an abuser’s image or to keep an abuser in power. Demonstrations come in various forms: statements, distancing, and rehabilitation. Demonstrations seek to repair an image rather than engage in genuine change.”
“When organizations devote greater urgency to demonstrating change than to pursuing an understanding of the problems, they sacrifice truth.”
“If you’ve been the victim of church hurt or spiritual abuse, it’s likely that the above scene feels uncannily familiar. The abuse you endured was finally brought to light, but instead of an authentic apology, it felt like you got the opposite: an insincere concession followed by a barrage of displays and reassurances that the church was still good and thriving.”
“By drawing attention to successes, the good done since the exposure, or the positive influence on the community, the abusive person or organization demonstrates to a watching world that they deserve to possess what they want. What they want, of course, is continued control and reputation. By drowning a negative event in a sea of positivity, the organization manipulates its stakeholders into overlooking or justifying wrongs. It’s terribly effective because the people ultimately conclude, “Let’s not be concerned about one drop of bad in a sea of good.”
“It’s true: we should be discerning and supportive of good-faith efforts. But it’s equally important not to blindly accept the mirage they offer. Whenever an organization apologizes for its unethical behavior but then goes on to promote its values, successes, and contributions to society, you can be sure it is more interested in repairing its image for its own benefit than it is in making amends for the good of the wronged.”
The Danger of Demonstrations
“Because these demonstrations are based on deception and designed to protect the abuser’s image, they present a dangerous false hope that can do great damage to a person’s religious faith, trust in others, and hope for justice. ”
“This is the tragedy of demonstrations of change without regard for truth. They lead to a superficial treatment of people’s brokenness.”
“At best, this allows blind spots in the organization to remain. At worst, the “change” is a form of stagecraft used to maintain favor with an audience. To borrow a biblical phrase, the community claims, “Peace!” when there is no peace. They desire to be seen as good without having to meet the demands of goodness. They want to be granted trust without having to earn it. They want to be seen as agents of healing without repairing any wounds. They want to collect a following without stopping to serve those they’ve trampled over.”
“Victims, pushed to the margins, are left to watch the victory of hypocrisy. At this point, there is nothing left for them to do. They’ve done what they could, and it wasn’t enough.”
“It is very difficult to discern these final acts of deception.”
“Demonstrations are used to win your favor, and because they appear good, you naturally want to believe they are free of hidden agendas. ”
“You can choose not to celebrate a demonstration of change if an actual change hasn’t followed truth telling. You can choose to voice your concern and call the powerful to do the right thing. You can dissent, even if it might seem as if everyone else is ready to applaud the demonstrations.”
“Demonstrations are deceptions that divert attention from the negativity of the harm and toward the positivity of well-sounding statements and philanthropic actions.”
“it is common for an organization or individual to respond with a demonstration that includes a plethora of prosocial statements that align with societal values. These statements condemn abusive behavior and highlight best practices, renewed commitments, and future potential.”
“The exposed person who emphasizes how long ago the abuse was is attempting to create distance between who they were then and who they are now. We tend to care more about recent harm. By highlighting a gap in time, the offender implies that the actions are in the distant past.”
“narrow-mindedness, arrogance, and an insistence on leading are telltale signs the demonstration of change is only for the sake of repairing an image, not a genuine change. They will do only what is needed to survive the scandal instead of doing all they must to make amends. They will be unwilling to consider all the factors that might have contributed to their abusive behavior when pushed. They alone will determine what is up for discussion and what is not.”
Exactly what I have seen in the past
“The overconfident will shun outside help from experts because they believe they already know what they need to know—how could someone from the outside be more of an expert? Concerned only about appearances, they refuse to engage with outsiders who might inform their initiatives and expose any blind spots. They stay far away from those who might reveal their limitations. Trusting in their own ability to investigate claims and to render judgment, they go on their own fact-finding missions and refuse to hire outside, nonbiased investigators. At the same time, they avoid giving any credibility to the power of public opinion—to those who have exposed them. Such acknowledgment would give the perception that they do not know what they are doing, an admission they perceive to be fatal and one that would simultaneously give credit to the effectiveness of the public outcry, which they fear would empower their critics even more. They have now entered into a cycle of impression management as they feel they must defend their legitimacy at every turn so as to quell the growing concerns.”
“What happens when the organization’s quest to positively influence public perception does not end with the success they had hoped for? They turn their attention to managing the impressions others are forming of the critics, labeling them as malicious, hateful, and arrogant. The deceived who support the organization’s efforts then condemn those they are led to believe are worse than they really are. Sadly, the very people who were repeatedly ignored are now publicly scorned. The quest to qualify themselves has now become a quest to disqualify others. ”
This is me now, and everyone else who has spoken up in the past.
What Can I Do?
“Because demonstrations seek to distract, a practical way to counter that effort is to keep pointing back to the unresolved issues. For example, you could say, ““While I can understand your desire to show me how you are changing, I still don’t believe you have looked at everything that went wrong. I’m concerned you have not done the work needed to understand your responsibility for the hurt you caused.””
“This is why you must use the above information to be extremely discerning whenever you’re faced with a demonstrative response that promises that everything will be different. Because here’s the unfortunate truth: no amount of patience will produce change in an abusive community that isn’t willing to surrender its legitimacy and pursue the entire truth. No amount of faith will be rewarded when the object of that faith is a falsehood. ”
Notes From: Mullen, Wade. “Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse–and Freeing Yourself from Its Power.”
“The vast majority are set up in a way that is biased toward the offender” “they have become farces. Do we want one? Yes. But there are so few 3rd party investigations that are truly independent “