ST. LOUIS (MO)
Christianity Today [Carol Stream IL]
November 16, 2021
By Daniel Silliman
Judy Dabler built a career helping reconcile conflict within ministries including RZIM and Mars Hill. But a new investigation says she abused her authority to protect those with power.
A leading Christian conciliator who was involved in handling abuse allegations and training at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), Mars Hill Church, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), and dozens of other churches and ministries over the past 15 years, has been found unfit for counseling, coaching, or conciliation.
Judy Dabler founded two popular organizations for Christians needing a third party to help navigate conflict and broken relationships: Live at Peace Ministries (LAPM) and Creative Conciliation. She also taught more than 10,000 people how to do conciliation, which she described in presentations as the only biblical option for dealing with conflict.
In her conciliation work, though, Dabler consistently favored the person paying the bills, siding with the leader or big-name institution. Again and again, interviews and documents obtained by CT show, it was the less powerful party—the victim of sexual harassment, the beleaguered employee, the hurt congregant—who was pressured to make confessions they weren’t comfortable with and settle for agreements they thought were unfair.
Former clients and colleagues say Dabler protected and perpetuated power imbalances through mediation, all while appealing to Scripture and her authority as an experienced conciliator who had seen behind the curtain of the worst dysfunction in contemporary Christian ministry.
The renowned peacemaker also perpetuated abuses herself, according to interviews and documents. She bullied, belittled, and shamed her staff, and she sexually abused two seminarians she taught, supervised, and employed from 2007 to 2011.
“What you have to understand is that Judy is very gifted,” said Paul Vazquez, who worked with Dabler as a conciliator in the early 2000s. “She is very gifted, but like everybody else, she is very broken. There is always a fine line between a biblical use of your gift and a destructive use, depending on how you walk it out, whether it’s for good or for evil, and what the ultimate manifestation is.”
An independent investigation by an ad hoc panel of three Christian conciliators—originally requested by Dabler in response to allegations of misconduct—concluded in July that she is disqualified for all further conciliation work. The panel found she was unethical, and her approach traumatized the very people she was supposed to help.
She should not mediate or train others “until she has completed an independently supervised process of therapy and conciliation that leads to a clear demonstration of authentic repentance,” the panel s
LAPM—the conciliation ministry that Dabler founded in 2007 and ran until she left in 2014 to start Creative Conciliations—issued a public apology on Tuesday, acknowledging its role in Dabler’s abuse.
“We failed to hold Judy Dabler accountable, minimizing the victims’ concerns, and neglecting to pursue justice vigorously,” the statement says. “The current LAPM leadership is grieved by the harm that has been caused by our sins of commission and omission, enabling an abusive pattern and silencing victims’ voices.”
Dabler declined CT’s request for comment but said she will make an official statement at CreativeConciliation.org, a site that is currently private. She has told several fellow conciliators that the investigation is illegitimate, former friends are turning on her, and she is the victim of a plot to discredit her.
The investigation was led by Ken Sande, the founder of Peacemaker Ministries and head of Relational Wisdom 360. Sande has no formal authority over Dabler but is widely respected in the field of Christian conciliation. He has been asked to conduct more than a dozen independent investigations over the past 40 years.
Dabler requested Sande do the investigation after evangelical political commentator David French reported in February 2021 on her involvement with RZIM. Dabler had been hired by RZIM president Michael Ramsden and CEO Sarah Davis to maintain order in the apologetics ministry as it responded to allegations of sexual abuse against founder Ravi Zacharias. Former RZIM staff told CT that Dabler was known inside the ministry as “the Enforcer.”
Dabler stopped cooperating with Sande’s investigation when the panel decided to accept the testimony of multiple staff members at RZIM, other people who had gone through conciliation with Dabler, and other people who had worked for her, dating back to the late 1990s.
Emails obtained by CT show that Dabler considered participating in the investigative panel’s restoration plan, but only if she could adjust the terms and if the process was supervised by someone who works for her. The offer was rejected.
The panel’s recommendations are not binding and have not been made public. Sande declined to provide any documentation on its conclusions on Dabler. CT has, however, obtained multiple copies of the 18-page investigative report from others involved in the process, plus 36 pages of additional material produced by the panel, and more than 100 internal documents the panel considered as evidence.
CT has also interviewed seven people who have been harmed by Dabler’s conciliation work and six who worked closely with her starting in the late 1990s.
The documents and the interviews reveal a decades-long trail of emotional wreckage and trauma and raise questions about the way that Christian conciliation has been used to protect power and abuse in evangelical churches.
‘A nice bow to wrap up the problem’
Dabler is based in St. Louis, Missouri, and has been working in conciliation since the late 1990s. According to her official biography, she “grew up in a battle-filled blended family that permanently shattered” with divorce. After a conversion experience in her 20s, she went to Covenant Theological Seminary and earned a master’s in theological studies and a master’s in counseling. She is licensed by the state of Missouri and the Institute for Christian Conciliation, where she has for a number of years also worked as a conciliation trainer.
Dabler got her start directing a counseling ministry at Kirk of the Hills, a Presbyterian Church in America congregation where her husband was an elder, until conflict with coworkers and leadership led her to leave and start her own ministry. Dabler founded and ran Live at Peace Ministries from 2007 to 2014 and then left that to start Creative Conciliation, where she still offers conciliation and training today.
Dabler is consistently described by former colleagues as incredibly gifted. She made those around her feel special and like they knew the truth about the way things worked. Those who were close to her also say she was very manipulative, driven by fear and deep issues of distrust, and bullied people to get her way.
According to former colleagues, Dabler surrounded herself with people she had counseled about their histories of abuse and struggles with sexual sin, former colleagues say, as well as young men she flattered about their exceptional talent.
While there is no complete record available of all the conciliation work Dabler did, she held herself out as the go-to person for major conflict inside evangelical churches.
“There’s a market for what she provides, and she’s supplying what the market wants,” said Kyle Hackmann, a pastor in Canada who was training to be a conciliator and worked with Dabler doing conciliation.
“Conflict is really messy. We want it fixed,” Hackmann said. “I wanted a nice bow to wrap up the problem and make it go away. And that’s what Judy did.”
Many churches and faith-based nonprofits require all employees to agree to conciliation or mediation, according to Wade Mullen, director of the master of divinity program at Lancaster Bible College and an expert in the ways religious organizations respond to abuse allegations or other image-threatening events.
“This kind of thing is embedded in the policies—it’s in the bylaws and it’s in the membership contracts—and often people are fully informed of this, but they don’t know what it is,” he said.
Conciliation is sometimes described as the “Matthew 18 model” for dealing with conflict. Dabler, in a presentation she gave to the Missouri Baptist Convention in 2017, described the process of peacemaking as the “heart of the gospel.”
According to Mullen, however, the conciliation model is too simplistic to apply to all conflicts. It assumes, for example, that both parties bear some responsibility for the problem and are roughly equal. It does not account for the fact that one person may have the power to decide if the conciliator gets future business while the other will lose their job if they don’t participate.
Conciliations also almost always involve confidentiality agreements or non-disclosure clauses that prohibit anyone from seeking appeal. Defenders say this is necessary to allow people to be vulnerable and honest. In some cases, however, individuals are not even allowed to tell other pastors or their pastor’s spiritual authority if the process did not go well.
Dabler herself does not have a standard practice for accepting feedback from people in conciliations, according to the investigative report.
People may technically be allowed to file a formal complaint with the Institute for Christian Conciliation (ICC), but the licensing body does not maintain a public record of who is or isn’t licensed to practice Christian conciliation, and there are no grievance forms available on its website. If a conciliation does not go well, it appears the only recourse is to request further conciliation.
Many times, of course, conciliation does go well. There is abundant testimony of marriages saved, relationships restored, and pastoral teams put right by conciliation. It is often seen as the only alternative to a bruising legal process that leaves everyone diminished. As it was conceived by the Christian Legal Society in 1981, conciliation offers the possibility of repentance and healing, where civil courts at best offer victory over an adversary.
“People can misuse and abuse the conciliation process,” Sande said to CT. “If people are not trained to understand power imbalance and the dynamics of abuse, well-meaning Christian conciliators can make serious mistakes and, in that process, can abuse a victim all over again.”
Dabler held herself out as an expert on abuse, former clients and colleagues say. She said she understood the dynamics of abuse and was accepted as an expert by the field—she even taught on the subject at the Peacemaker Ministries annual conference in 2011. Nevertheless, the panel investigating her found “patterns of personal and professional behavior that violated established ministry and professional standards and caused such significant trauma that many of [those she hurt] were compelled to seek or are still pursuing professional therapy.”
Starting with specks and logs
According to those who spoke to CT, Dabler’s perpetuation of unfair power dynamics often began with the intake process. Dabler assigned people homework that asked them to identify “specks and logs,” in reference to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:1–5, which says to “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
She did not make it a priority to establish an objective account of the facts. This was true, people who worked closely with Dabler told CT, even when the conciliation was prompted by allegations of abuse. Advocates for conciliation say the mutual confession of sin is not an appropriate starting point in response to an injustice.
At Mars Hill Church in 2012, Dabler was brought in to conciliate because a woman in the church said her small group leader was sexually harassing her. According to a colleague who was there, the process began with an individual accounting of “specks and logs,” and the woman was asked to account for the things in her life that might be leading to her “crazy weird behavior.”
At an Evangelical Free church in 2013, a woman in an abusive marriage was told that she needed to acknowledge and repent her “sinful fear” as a precondition to working on her marriage, even before her husband, who was talking about buying a gun, dealt with his anger. The fear and anger were treated as roughly equal weight, “speck and log” or “log and speck.”
At a conciliation with a Chicago-area pastor and his wife in the Converge church-planting network, the wife was asked what sins in her life were keeping her from restoring her relationship with her husband after his affair with someone in the church. The affair was not treated as sexual abuse, despite the pastor’s spiritual authority over the person he had sex with, and no one attempted to establish the facts of what had happened.
At a Toronto church in 2020, documents show that a couple who were in conflict with the pastor protested that the homework was “one-size-fits-all” and told her their conflict was not the result of a difference of perspective, as the homework seemed to imply. They felt an actual injustice had been done. They were told to “do the process.” Afterward, when they objected the process had not gotten to the core issues, they were told that complaints are different than conflict, and they shouldn’t have entered into a conciliation process if they wanted a formal disciplinary finding.
“I did not know,” Dabler wrote in an email obtained by CT, “that you were seeking or expecting a resolution other than reconciliation.”
Once a conciliation process began, Dabler also frequently identified one person in the conflict as the problem. Colleagues reported that Dabler joked about how quickly she could judge the dynamics and personalities of a situation, based on her years of experience. Sometimes, taking a call from a church she had never worked with before, she would answer the phone, “What did the worship pastor do this time?”
Noted for peremptory judgments
But the quick judgment wasn’t always a joke. Those who worked with her say she would regularly decide who was responsible for a conflict without seeming to need any information.
“Judy was noted for her peremptory judgments,” a colleague told the ad hoc investigative panel. “You couldn’t win disagreeing with her; if people didn’t accept her analysis, she would berate them and pressure them.”
In conciliation, Dabler would develop language labeling a person as the problem, which the larger organization would then repeat to dismiss any lingering concerns. In one church she labeled a person “dramatic,” according to someone involved, and after the conciliation failed to resolve the conflict, leaders in that church repeated that the one staff member was “dramatic.” In another ministry, one person was called “unstable.” That surprised his colleagues who were not involved in the conciliation, but it also made them second-guess every concern he raised in the future.
At RZIM, public relations manager Ruth Malhotra was identified as a problem person. She was part of the emergency task force responding to allegations that the ministry’s founder and namesake had manipulated a woman into sending him nude photos then threatened to kill himself if exposed. When the public controversy died down in 2018, the team got together for a three-day conciliation. Malhotra thought they were going to focus on team dynamics, some unanswered questions about the scandal, and develop a plan to move forward.
Instead, the issue on the agenda turned out to be her.
“It was staged to be like it’s going to be this group moment where we all come together,” Malhotra told CT. “We all come together. We’re not in the war room. We’re not hammering out a statement. We’re taking the time to hear each other’s stories and unpack some stuff. But that wasn’t the goal. That wasn’t possible.”
Why Malhotra and senior leaders disagreed, Dabler didn’t mediate. She took the senior leaders’ side and used her authority to discipline Malhotra, in one case ordering her to write out a Scripture verse by hand.
“I love the Bible,” Malhotra said. “I’ve always been trained the Scripture is our gold standard. The Bible says it, I believe it … and that was used against me to force me to say that I’m not just a difficult employee but a bad Christian.”
On the second day of the conciliation, a senior vice president said he was tired of “beating around the bush,” according to Malhotra’s written account of the meeting, which was confirmed by another staff member. The VP wanted to address the real issue: “Let’s admit that we don’t trust Ruth.”
When Malhotra began to cry, Dabler said that she was on the brink of a breakdown, “one step away from complete and total insanity.” The phrase was subsequently repeated by senior leadership in other settings at least three times, explaining why Malhotra’s concerns or issues need not be taken seriously.
In 2019, when the team met again for another conciliation, Dabler told Malhotra explicitly that she was the purpose of the gathering.
“Everyone had a problem with you,” she said, according to Malhotra’s notes. “That’s why they spent $10,000 on you [for the conciliation session]. You should be grateful.”
Six other RZIM staff members told the ad hoc investigative panel of similarly traumatic experiences, where Dabler made them feel unsafe, pushed them to emotional breakdown, and used her authority to pressure them to question their core commitments as Christians.
“She pushed me so much in the conciliation meeting I had a panic attack,” one staffer wrote, noting they weren’t allowed to leave the room. “It wasn’t until recently that I realized it wasn’t all in my head.”
Two others RZIM staffers say they sought psychological treatment for symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder after their meetings with Dabler.
“She uses ‘Christian conciliation’ as a tool to bring ‘errant troublemakers’ in line with the people paying the bill,” one of them told the investigative panel, and “she protects and flatters the people paying her very large bills.”
Her involvement with organizations, even if confined to certain cases, often went on to shape how those ministries approached abuse and conflict going forward. At RZIM, the senior leadership started revising human resource policies based on Dabler’s teachings.
‘I couldn’t refuse this’
The panel found that money was one source of conflict of interest, as Dabler consistently sided with the senior authorities at RZIM and others navigating responses to abuse allegations. But it wasn’t the only one. Dabler herself had been accused in 2011 of “inappropriate physical contact” with two seminary students who worked for her.
According to documents produced by the two former students, she touched them frequently, held their hands, rubbed their arms, took off their shirts to rub their backs, lowered their waistbands to rub their upper buttocks, hugged them for long periods of time, lay on top of them in her home and in hotel rooms while traveling, and sat on their laps for late-night discussions.
“I vividly remember late that night, she moved from her couch to my tiny chair and crawled up into my lap,” one of the men wrote. “All I could think of was being powerless to change this. … I couldn’t refuse this without damaging my mentor, counselor, boss, and friend that just opened up about how she has never had any one care for her.”
The two men were part of a small cohort of Dabler’s students at TEDS when Dabler taught counseling and conciliation as an adjunct professor starting in 2008. The group met outside of class for hours-long counseling sessions—especially focused on past sexual and emotional abuse.
Dabler then added individual counseling sessions, until the two men were each spending 13 to 16 hours with her per week, frequently late at night in her apartment. Sessions alone in the dark until 3 a.m. were not uncommon, the two men said.
As the counseling led to breakthroughs and personal realizations of their brokenness, the men increasingly trusted Dabler and depended on her to tell them who they really were and what they needed.
She told them they should become counselors and conciliators and hired them to work with her at her organization, Live at Peace Ministries. The two men recalled that she said she was investing in them and “grooming” them for future conciliation ministry.
She also told them they couldn’t trust their own bodies and their own emotional responses to physical touch. They should, instead, trust her. They did. And it became normal for her to touch them frequently.
At the same time, Dabler started having the two men counsel her, sharing her own past trauma and abuse, her sexual sins, and her sexual desires—including details about how she masturbated while thinking about students.
“She used her power over me to make me feel that I owed her this,” one of the men wrote in a formal complaint to TEDS. “During these sessions a great deal of physical touch was also included . She would ask me for back, head, hand, or foot massages, telling me that my physical touch was better than anyone’s for her and it reset her for days to be productive.”
The relationships escalated and intensified until each man tried to put up a boundary and assert some emotional space. Dabler accused each, respectively, of betrayal and cut them off. In 2011, the two men together contacted LAPM and TEDS to report they had been sexually abused by their boss and teacher.
The allegations were dealt with quickly and quietly. TEDS ended Dabler’s teaching responsibilities in 2011, and her classes were reassigned. A TEDS spokesperson told CT the school “is committed to investigate and respond to every student complaint and potential Title IX violation.” The official complaint against Dabler was “investigated in detail, and Ms. Dabler has not taught at Trinity since spring 2011.” According to documents obtained by CT, several of her students say they were not contacted during any subsequent investigation.
The board of LAPM started an internal investigation in 2011 but stopped when Dabler admitted to the substance of the allegations. She was put on paid sabbatical, went to Australia, and worked on a book about church discipline.
“LAPM leadership failed to love Judy well, but more importantly, we did not love the victims well,” wrote Daniel Teater, the current president at LAPM. “We have sought their forgiveness privately and now publicly, and have committed to do justice by bringing this to light.”
Dabler returned to conciliation after three months, documents show. The next year, she was asked to help at Mars Hill Church in Seattle and went on to speak at ReTrain, the church’s leadership development program.
In the next 10 years, when she was asked to mediate in dozens of conflicts involving sexual abuse, and more involving the abuse of power, Dabler never disclosed that she herself had been credibly accused. She never mentioned that she had not been held accountable.
Instead, according to interviews and documents obtained by CT, she held herself up as an expert for churches dealing with abuse allegations. She required people to sign agreements saying she was, in effect, their final court of appeal. She joked about how quickly she could determine who the problem person was. And she went to work to make evangelical churches and ministries safe for powerful people.