Created to be His Doormat: Wende Benner’s Story

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Ryan Hyde.

By Wende Benner, HA Editorial Team

My lightbulb moment began at the age of sixteen. My family was a part of Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute (ATI) homeschool program. This was the year my father received the call inviting me to live and work at a training center and to also be a part of a brand new training program especially for girls, EXCEL (Excellence in Character, Education, and Leadership). Every ATI teenager knew that receiving a personal invitation to work and participate in an Institute event meant that someone important had seen the light in your eyes and recognized your devotion to God. I was thrilled to be thought worthy to help prepare the newly acquired Ambassador Hotel in Dallas, TX for the first class of EXCEL girls and to also be able to participate in this groundbreaking program.

Once I arrived at the beautiful, historic Ambassador Hotel I worked long, hard hours with little sleep preparing for hundreds of girls to arrive. We were to spend eight weeks learning how to be godly women. Since this was a brand new program, I was unsure of what subjects we would be covering until I received my giant, white binder. Some of the things we were going to learn were the womanly arts of sewing, dressing, hospitality, courtship, and submission. But the most exciting thing to me was the discovery that Elisabeth Elliot would be coming to speak with us. Mrs. Elliot was a bit of a hero of mine. She was a woman who God used through writing and speaking to reach others. And she would be talking to us about how to write, something I dreamed of doing one day. Her sessions with us were scheduled for the second week of EXCEL, and I couldn’t wait.

Our sessions began with learning about God’s design for us as women. God created us to be wives and mothers that raised the next generation for God. Then we moved to all the ways that we could mess up God’s plan for us.

There were so many sins women were prone to falling into it seemed, and just one of them could not only destroy our lives but the lives of our husband and children.

Things such as having expectations from life or loved ones only led us to be contentious and ungrateful. This of course could destroy a family or lead to something even worse- bitterness. Bitterness would give Satan a piece of our soul and was even known to be the cause of certain illnesses (like arthritis) and depression. We finished the week of sessions by concentrating on how wrong priorities could destroy our lives. But first we needed to understand God’s priorities for women were a relationship with him first, then to put the needs of our husband’s second, and the needs of our children came next.

These sessions made it clear to us God’s only purpose for women was marriage and children (as many children as possible).

If we had any other desires or dreams we were sinning.

Of course these weren’t exactly new ideas for someone who had been in ATI for a while, but hearing these things everyday with verses to back them up started to take a toll. From the time we got up at 5:30 in the morning till we went to bed at 9:30 we only studied verses instructing women on how to be godly wives and mothers. That with the added knowledge that my parents had never once disagreed with anything said through Gothard or ATI began to make me feel as if my future was already decided for me, and it was a future that had never really been a part of my dreams or even what I felt had been God’s calling for my life. It was a future where my desires and thoughts were never to be considered, a future where subservience not partnership was required.

I felt trapped.

And then I felt shame and guilt. I felt I was so selfish to have other dreams and to not want what God’s design and purpose for me.

The point of this first week of sessions was to help us understand the purpose of EXCEL and what we were there to learn. Now, we were going to begin “practical” training to help us meet these goals. And we were all excited that Elisabeth Elliot would be the one to start this part of our training. Learning about writing and ministry from one of the most respected Christian women of our time was something I knew would be useful. It was something that could even help me reach the goals and dreams I felt God had given me.

Mrs. Elliot first informed us that she only taught under the authority of the Institute leaders and of her husband, Lars. In fact, Lars stood to the side or in the back of the room every session to show her submission to authority. Then she spoke about loneliness and suffering. She told us that just as Jesus had suffered and died, we were called to suffering and to die “little deaths” by sacrificing ourselves for others. This was especially true in marriage she told us; we are “married but alone”. “It is the mercy of God that gives us the chance to die”, and for women this chance comes through marriage.

The picture of marriage Mrs. Elliot painted was one of loneliness and loss-a place where women were created “gloriously unequal” to men.

In fact, she informed us that equality was a political construct, but women were created to be “lesser than” men in order to symbolize the mystery of Christ and the church. The only way to be “truly womanly” was to “surrender” to Christ and our husbands. With that final pronouncement Mrs. Elliot handed out a page of helpful hints on writing and asked if we had any questions about her talks.

A few girls asked questions about specific situations in their homes. How does submission look when parents are quite possibly being abusive or even asking one to do something wrong? With each question Mrs. Elliot seemed to become more and more impatient. She reiterated the fact that God called us to submit and surrender. There were no exceptions. I became increasingly uneasy. Then, a very brave girl raised her hand and asked a question that is burned into my memory. In an almost challenging tone she said, “Mrs. Elliot, are you saying that God made women to be doormats?”
There was silence for a few moments. You could tell everyone was waiting to hear how she would respond to the confrontation.

Mrs. Elliot then replied, “Well, I have always said since God made me to be a doormat, I will be the best doormat I can be.”

I didn’t hear anything else that happened that night. I was too stunned. Never had I heard my role in life put that plainly. This world I was growing up in believed women were created to be doormats. Something within me rose up in protest.

I was not created to be a doormat, to be walked over, ignored, abused, and used.

My life was meant for much more than this. I knew in that moment their whole paradigm of how the world interacted and related was fundamentally flawed. Everything from now on must be questioned for truth.

It has been a long journey of unraveling the lies and truth since that moment. In many ways I have needed to tear everything down and rebuild my beliefs and views of life over again. But, every moment of hard work has been worth the freedom of knowing it is acceptable for me to be my own person, to have my own thoughts and desires, and to know I do not have to sacrifice my whole self in order to love my family.

*****

“A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out. And a day was good to awaken to. And there were no limits to anything. And the people of the world were good and handsome. And I was not afraid any more.” ~John Steinbeck, East of Eden

We’ve called these stories, “light-bulb moments”. They are stories of awakening….spiritual, emotional, and deeply personal. We were, every one of us, to some extent or another, asleep, in the dark, and complacent. Then, something happened to wake us up, turn on the light, stir our souls. Some incongruency that didn’t fit our boxes. We discovered a world far bigger and better than we’d imagined. People that were multi-dimensional and complex. Thoughts and feelings within us we didn’t know were there before or maybe we did and they scared us. We got angry, we grieved, we ranted to each other about how we were lied to, how we were sometimes complicit in our own darkness, choosing what was safe over what was true. Some of us walked a harder road than others, but we all walked them. We all, in one way or another, realized the world was open to us, in full color, and that, contrary to what we had been told, it was very good. And there are now no limits to anything. These are our stories. Glimpses into our awakenings. I’m sure we’ll have many more before we walk our last path.- Darcy Anne, HA Editorial Team

Memories of EXCEL: Holly’s Story, Part One

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HA notes: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Holly” is a pseudonym.

I did not want to go.

That is the first thing I remember about EXCEL, The Advanced Training Institute (ATI)’s eight-week program for teenage girls and young women, which stood for Excellence in Character, Education, and Leadership. My parents had sent me to ATI’s Indianapolis Training Center for a ten-day counseling seminar a little over a year before I went to EXCEL.

I didn’t want to go there, either, but I told myself that if I were very good maybe they would leave me alone and not make me go anywhere else.

The next fall, my dad asked me if I wanted to go to EXCEL. I remember that it was a gray fall day, around this time of year, and he took me for a walk. I made the mistake, as I often did up to that point, of thinking that I had a choice in my own life, and so I told him I did not want to go. He pressed the issue, telling me all the good things he knew about the program and how it would teach me to be a young lady. I remember that we ended the conversation with him promising never to force me to go, and with me agreeing to “think about it.”

I knew I would never change my mind.

During that winter, friends of ours also in ATI hosted a mother-daughter luncheon at which two attendees of a recent EXCEL (I believe it was EXCEL II) were to be the guests of honor. To my dismay, the luncheon turned out to be a hard sell for the program, and my mother seemed intent on sending me. What was happening?

From that point on, my dad didn’t listen either. Mom wanted me to go, so he broke his promise.

They took money out of my college fund for the program and the plane ticket.

I began the process of filling out the application, with its numerous essays and commitments. I don’t remember the exact number of commitments I was expected to make, or what all of them were, but I had definitely not made any of them. One of them was to not listen to rock music, one was to remain morally pure, one was to dress modestly, and the others were similarly legalistic and restrictive. I remember trying to decide whether to honestly fill out the application saying that I had not made the commitments, or to lie. I decided it was wrong to force myself to make a serious lifelong commitment, but it was also wrong to set myself up to be made into a project either at EXCEL or at home. I filled out the forms as if I had made the commitments, deciding that it wasn’t so much a lie as it was a creative work of self-protective fiction.

The following winter, in the mid-1990s, I arrived at the Dallas Training Center, an historic hotel converted for the EXCEL program. Even though two of my friends from home were there as well, we were not allowed to room together. I had everything I expected to need for eight weeks, including toiletries, in two bags. During the evening’s orientation to the facility, the facility leaders explained our daily routine: early wake up (around six am, I think), get ready for the day, Bible study with our team, breakfast, class, a short break, another class, lunch, break, class, exercise in the park across the street, change for dinner, class, free time, and bed. Even though we were 15 years-old and up, we were not allowed to leave the property except to go as a group, escorted by staff, to walk in the park across the street once daily.

If any of us needed anything from the store, we were to ask training center staff to get it for us. We were not allowed to have food in our rooms. If we were hungry, we would be fed at the next meal, except on Sundays, when we fasted.

During our breaks and free times, we were expected to coordinate room cleaning with our roommate, as our rooms would be inspected daily. We were also expected to study for weekly tests on class material, memorize daily Bible passages, coordinate laundry with our roommates on our assigned day of the week, and find time to call our parents. We were never to be even one second late for any class or team meeting, or we would be disciplined.

I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t just the hotel that felt claustrophobic. It was my life.

The classes focused on etiquette and women’s submission instead of real academics. We even had a sewing class for several weeks, at which I was a miserable failure. Apparently good ATI girls were expected to have basic sewing skills, because the class did not start at “this is a sewing machine.” All of us had to make brocade vests to wear at our graduation ceremony. Since I could not sew and could not be taught, the instructor and my friend, an advanced seamstress, surreptitiously sewed mine. At home I was used to being allowed to read literature, science and history books, in addition to the ATI Wisdom Booklets.

Being at EXCEL made me doubt my future.

Were my parents trying to mold me into a cooking, cleaning, sewing, babymaking young wife? I wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t even sure I wanted that.

Fasting on Sundays was a spiritual discipline, but I can’t help thinking that it may have also been a financial consideration. Walking to church was, however, a practical consideration. The training center didn’t have enough vehicles to drive 80-some girls and additional staff to church, so we walked a little over a mile each way to First Baptist Church.

On one of the first Sundays I fainted during church, which shouldn’t have been surprising, since I was obviously underweight and just as obviously suffering from an eating disorder.

From then on, I was allotted four Nutri-Grain bars every Sunday, along with the other girls who had health problems or who had also fainted on a Sunday. As much as I generally enjoyed a chance to lose more weight, I was thankful for those meager Nutri-Grain bars. The hunger I felt at EXCEL overpowered my desire for control over food.

My survival technique of being perfect worked well for me while I was at EXCEL. I never got in trouble for being late, forgetting to wear pantyhose, or failing to memorize the Bible passages. I did the laundry and cleaning for myself and for my roommate, who took advantage of my fear of failure. By graduation I was exhausted and had learned nothing except how to stay in line. On the one hand, I saw through the foolishness of the system. I never bought in to the ATI school of thought. On the other hand, the stress of pretending to agree with the program and of managing my behavior was taking a heavy toll on me. I was tired and needed a break.

When I got home, the expectation among family and friends was that I would be spiritually mature and more ladylike. Instead, I was withdrawn, exhausted, thinner, broken. I don’t remember exactly how it happened or what the details were, but I spent a lot of time in bed crying for the next few weeks. My parents referred to this as my “breakdown.”

After that, I never did another Wisdom Booklet. I don’t remember what was said, but I couldn’t do it. Within the next eighteen months I had finished homeschooling through high school and my family had left ATI. I was free.

I have never gotten free, however, from the memory of what ATI expected me to be.

Part Two >