Self-Awareness Groups Have LDS Church Feeling Edgy

The Salt Lake Tribune/June 23, 2001
By Peggy Fletcher Stack

Jayson Orvis grew up in the LDS Church, served a two-year mission and married in one of its temples, but his most important epiphany came from a self-awareness group.

It was 1994, and his year-old marriage was already in trouble. He was controlling and insensitive, he said, and his wife, Sunny, was alienated and vulnerable. In desperation, the Salt Lake City couple turned to Impact Training, conducted by the Salt Lake City-based Harmony Institute.

The training transformed him, Orvis said. He began listening to his wife and sorting out his own feelings. His work shifted from "being about money" to caring about people and relationships.

"Fifteen years of life-learning took place in four days," Orvis said this week. "It totally changed our lives."

The basic notion of a self-awareness program is to challenge long-held conceptions that form an individual's self-image, relationships, work habits and so forth, and develop a new way of making life decisions. But that sometimes can be alarming to established institutions which have their own distinctive approach to those same issues.

For the fifth time since 1989, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is warning its members to stay clear of such personal empowerment programs. The governing First Presidency recently issued a statement saying the church does not endorse "commercial enterprises promising heightened self-esteem, improved family relationships, increased spirituality and the like."

The newest cautionary statement was read over the pulpit at all LDS congregations and reprinted in the weekly LDS Church News. It urged members to avoid any groups that:

The statement did not name any particular organization, and church spokesman Dale Bills did not elaborate, saying the statement spoke for itself. But some observers pointed to groups such as Harmony.

"It's remarkable that a small, Salt Lake City training, that barely trains 1,000 people a year, can cause such a massive response from a church of over 10 million members," Orvis said in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Harmony, Lifespring, Forum and similar programs evolved from a self-awareness movement that began in 1971 with Werner Erhard's "Erhard Seminars Training," or est, which promised personal fulfillment and transformation. Though est, with its hard-sell tactics, in-your-face trainers and ban on bathroom breaks, was routinely spoofed in movies, more than 700,000 people in the United States participated.

In 1991, Erhard (born John Paul Rosenberg) sold the "technology" to Landmark Education Corp., presided over by his brother, Harry Rosenberg. The San Francisco-based Landmark now has 42 offices in 11 countries and revenues of more than $60 million.

Some say Landmark training takes a "kinder, gentler" approach but still operates pyramid-style, using volunteers at the lowest level to help enroll others in the program; if successful, they can move into paid leadership positions.

The initial cost is $350, with advanced courses ranging from $95 to $1900. Full immersion in the training can be as much as $5,000 or more depending on how many times a course is taken.

Critics charge that some self-awareness programs are too secretive, discouraging participants from divulging aspects of the training to the media. They also contend that manipulative trainers can push emotionally unstable people over the edge, rather than into seeking professional help. Some participants have been motivated to leave their marriages or their churches.

These groups do not "tell people who God is or what is required for salvation," said said Richard Ferre, a clinical psychiatrist in Salt Lake City and a Mormon. "But some people become so attached to the group experience that it substitutes for the church or for their ordinary lives."

LDS leaders may see groups that encourage participants to confess past indiscretions as undermining the church's formal disciplinary procedures, Ferre said.

"The church may fear that someone would walk into Harmony, unload things from their past and feel all better without talking to their bishop," he said.

The LDS Church might also be concerned with "entrepreneurial groups" which extract more and more money from people by telling them they will never be "cured" without the help of the group, Ferre said.

Impact International, now Harmony Institute, was launched in 1985 by Hans Berger, an LDS graduate of Lifespring training. Since then, the Salt Lake City-based group has attracted thousands across the country, Berger said, though it now operates exclusively in Utah.

The group is not affiliated with any religious group and does not imply LDS endorsement, he said, but about 50 percent of those enrolled are Mormons.

Harmony training does do several of the things the LDS Church statement warns against, Orvis said.

Meetings can go past midnight. Participants are paired with "buddies," often of the opposite sex, rather than their spouses, and hugging is encouraged. Some Harmony practices, such as foot washing, are similar to rituals occasionally performed in LDS temples and often in other Christian churches.

Neverthless, groups such as Harmony can be helpful to Mormons and others as they sort through emotional issues, trying to "understand themselves, their families and their communities," Ferre said.

Churches and self-awareness training have different purposes, Orvis said. "The church deals with the spiritual aspects of my life, but not a lot with questions about day-to-day living."

Two weeks ago, Orvis baptized one of his partners, formerly a Catholic, into the LDS Church.

"He came to the missionary discussions ready and open to God's direction because, a year earlier, he had experienced the full Harmony training," Orvis said. "I've seen hundreds either convert to Mormonism or become better Mormons as a result of the Harmony Training." "It's crazy that there's war between the two," he said. "I would never choose one over the other; I choose both."

"The church may fear that someone would walk into Harmony, unload things from their past and feel all better without talking to their bishop."

Richard Ferre
Clinical psychiatrist


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