Sunday, May 25, 2014

Our Courtship Story: Taking the Plunge

Continued from Fear, Desire, and More Goodbyes

Spring 2000   Kansas and Michigan

I took a part-time job at a window company in town where I could wear long skirts and the devout Catholic manager agreed to keep the office radio turned off on days I was there. I loved the filing and organizing and answering the phone and getting to know my coworkers. My brother Michael and I also began meeting other young people at a large church nearby. We missed the camaraderie we'd experienced at training centers, and this was a way to get out and begin adjusting to mainstream Christian culture.

Chris, meanwhile, was doing job interviews and taking temporary assignments back in Wichita. He also missed his friends and attempted to connect with the singles' group at his parents' Baptist church. When he was offered a permanent position at the telephone company, he checked his calendar. Before starting the job on June 1, he would squeeze in a trip to Michigan to visit our family. He contacted Michael and they worked out the details.

In the car one day mid-April, Chris confided to his mom that he thought God was telling him it was time to get married; he just didn't know who.

"Oh? What happened to Jeri?" his mom wanted to know.

"I thought you and Dad nixed that idea!"

"No, we loved her! We just didn't think it would be helpful to encourage you then, since the time wasn't right. So we didn't say anything."

Well! With his parents on board, Chris lost no time. That very night he drafted a letter expressing his my dad.

To explain this, I have to back up nine years.

* * * * *

One Wednesday in the depths of Michigan winter when I was fifteen, I got a phone call. From IBLP Headquarters. Twenty-year-old Kristine told me she had been assigned by Mr. Gothard himself (who must have just returned from his annual vacation in the Northwoods) to work with me to prepare me for work at Headquarters! Kristine would keep me accountable and help me develop disciplines for ministry and report to Mr. Gothard and Rick Lambert on my progress! It was a dream come true; I flew up to my room, took off my glasses, pulled out my retainer, and dramatically cried tears of joy into my pillow.

For the rest of that week, I worked extra hard on my assignments from ATI, got up early, began shopping for clothes I could wear in the IBLP offices, and Dad and I went through Gothard's Principles of Courtship booklet. It bothered me not a whit that Gothard had never been married. Hadn't he told us the tales of his college girlfriends just the summer before in Knoxville? I knew more about his youthful love life than I knew about my own parents'. I knew they had regrets, and Gothard didn't let on that he had any of those.

None of my friends were dating yet, but I was in the throes of puberty. Though I rarely interacted with males my own age, I felt guilty for letting boys "occupy my thoughts too much". My social life being largely limited to Sunday church services, I wrote the following after attending an ATI conference the summer I was fourteen:
I wonder if Jim [another homeschooler at church] and I will be able to be friendly with each other now that I’ve committed myself to courtship. Will the boys at church be able to see a difference in me?
Later on:
This was a very interesting morning at church. I remained cool and and collected when D---- nodded at me as I walked downstairs. Give me a break; why must he be so friendly?

Another week:
As I was walking into the sanctuary, D---- tapped me on the shoulder. I turned and told him firmly to keep his hands off me. He had no business doing that. In his easy-going manner, he said, “Well, don’t hit me.” I decided to ignore that and join my family in the row. “Commit thy works unto the Lord, and all thy thoughts shall be established.” I was able to fully concentrate on the service and focus on the Lord.

Studying the rules of courtship with Dad made me feel grown up. Dad had still been a teen when he married Mom, after all. Not only did we go over each page of the booklet, we even took the fancy commitment page along to church the next day and put our names on it in the presence of our pastor (after I'd spent my morning "quiet time" reading the erotic poetry of the Song of Solomon!). I could not possibly imagine how many tears that paper would cost me a decade later.

The next day I reflected on what our "covenant" meant and wrote in my journal:
I have enough trust in my father to leave this part of my life in his hands. I see him as such a godly man, so alert to God's promptings, that I am confident that he'll recognize when the 'right one' for me comes along.
"Pure" was a key word in IBLP culture. "Moral purity" didn't just mean no sexual intercourse. It could also mean no sensual imagery, no kissing, no sexy or revealing clothing, no romantic feelings. "Dating" became a dirty word. Followers of Gothard who were "committed to courtship" had sworn off "a dating spirit". Dating was casual and worldly. Courtship was intentional and very, very serious. (Some couples did not touch at all during courtship, not even holding hands, just to be safe. After all, as another IBLP publication pointed out, no one thought the Beatles just wanted to hold your hand!)

Either in the Courtship booklet or at a seminar, I promised to save my first kiss for marriage (i.e., the wedding). I didn't really know what the fuss was about kissing, anyway. I still craved attention and touch, though. With six younger siblings, I was now more caregiver than child. A few weeks after signing the paper above, I wrote in my journal with a melodramatic flourish of martyrdom:
This evening I gave God my right to have Dad show outward affection to me. Since I may remain single all my life, it's a big decision to give up that right but I know that intimate fellowship with God can make up for it.
Don't ask me what the hell that meant, but I include it because it was clearly important to me at the time. I was a lonely and very confused adolescent. Perhaps I was beginning to feel conflicted about my commitment to purity and my desire to be hugged and kissed at bedtime along with my baby siblings. My father was now "the man in my life", and would hold that role indefinitely, as far as I could see. My future happiness lay in his hands, so it was essential that I keep him happy with me. 

That summer I spent two weeks away from home, listening to Gothard instruct us in his "principles". I took careful notes on the sessions on courtship:

Singling out one person of the opposite gender 
and cultivating interest through 
thoughts, looks, notes, talks, or events
  • Wrong Motive--getting vs. giving
  • Wrong Goal--pleasure vs. commitment
  • Wrong Idea--license vs. self-control
  • Wrong results--hurts vs. edification

A father's agreeing to work with a qualified young man 
to win his daughter for marriage.

Courtship was supposed to promote self-control and objectivity and eliminate "defrauding" (temptation that is someone else's fault) and the much-feared "bitterness". It was believed to foster loyalty to parents and "restraint of affection". After years and years absorbing ATI culture, Chris knew these rules like the back of his hand. So once he knew he had his parents' blessing to pursue me, there was no question that the next step was to contact my dad.

Jeri at 15, headed to an IBLP conference

Continued at Best Laid Plans


  1. Oh man honey. This hurts and makes me laugh all at the same time. We lived under such intense levels of emotional manipulation and repression. Good for you for telling the story.

  2. Hurry up and write the rest!! ;) this is so fascinating to me.

  3. My 73 year old mother just told me LAST WEEK - BIG confession! - that she is rethinking the whole "boys and girls can't be friends" thing. I was listening to her, gnashing my teeth and thinking, "Where were YOU when I was 20????"