Nancy Alcorn is a woman on a mission.
In 1983 she founded a long-term residential program to help girls struggling with eating disorders, self-harm, substance abuse, pregnancy and related issues. As of 2008, nearly 70% of Mercy’s U.S. residents were there for eating disorder treatment (Mercy also operates homes in Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom). The program is both free and voluntary, with only a true commitment to change being required from each applicant.
In June of 2008, the Australian government shut down the Sunshine Coast facility after numerous allegations of abuse from former residents. Then-director Peter Irvine initially defended Mercy, claiming that the charges were fabricated, then stepped down from his post when the charges were proven true. Among the issues raised were false claims on the part of Mercy regarding its services, lack of qualified professionals (the “counselors” were untrained Bible students with no theological or counseling credentials), women being forced to sign over their unemployment benefits, exorcisms, and spiritual abuse. Bankrolled by the Australian mega-church Hillsong, Mercy Ministries Australia came under increased scrutiny and has been called a “cult” by at least one member of Parliament. Nancy Alcorn and the Mercy Ministries International staff distanced themselves from the allegations, which appear to have been confined to the Australian centers and have not been associated with any of the other homes.
Mercy operates stateside homes in Nashville, TN; Monroe, LA; St. Louis, MO; and as of 2009 Sacramento, CA. Future centers are planned for Florida, North Carolina, and Texas. All minors are treated at their Nashville home.
The program at Mercy Ministries is based on biblical principals as laid out in their online Statement of Faith, and residents attend both daily worship, Bible classes, group, and individual counseling. In addition to spiritual counsel, the young women receive nutritional counseling from a licensed nutritionist and have access to off-site medical care. They attend church in the center’s community and are free to leave the program at any time. Mercy Ministries is not affiliated with NANC or CCEF, but requires its counselors to have at least a Bachelor’s degree in social work, psychology, or a related field. All of Mercy’s counselors are members of the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC). As such, Mercy’s program is not strictly nouthetic, but rather integrationist. Nevertheless, their counseling is firmly rooted in the Word of God and 93% of former residents polled said Mercy Ministries “transformed their lives and restored their hope.”
One of the controversies Mercy Ministries has faced was the allegation that they perform “exorcisms” and adhere to a belief that eating disorders are caused by demons inhabiting a person’s body. This charge was based on the testimony of former residents and their use of an aberrant“Restoring the Foundations” spiritual warfare manual. (Mercy initially denied the charges, but a copy was smuggled out of one of the facilities by a resident). Upon investigation, Mercy abandoned the use of this manual and since June of 2008 has been using a curriculum called “Choices that Bring Change” in all of its centers. According to the ministry’s website, this course “helps young women work through a counseling process that explores issues of faith, forgiveness, family, overcoming abuse and past hurts, and general life principles.”
A representative of Mercy Ministries described the counseling program as follows: “Choices that Bring Change" deals with commitment to Christ, choosing to forgive, renewing the mind, generational patterns, healing life’s hurts, freedom from oppression, and principles of life long success. Examples of some of the outside materials we use are Joyce Meyer, Beth Moore, Christine Caine, Priscilla Shirer, Joel Osteen, and Louis Giglio. We use resources from many different denominational backgrounds. Residents have individual counseling once a week and group counseling once a week. Our counseling model is based entirely on scripture and was written by our masters’ level counselors along with our founder and president, Nancy Alcorn. At one point in time our counseling model was loosely based on Restoring the Foundations; however, Choices that Bring Change has nothing to do with Restoring the Foundations.” When asked if the bathrooms at Mercy’s homes are locked, the representative responded, “Whether or not bathrooms are locked, is not relevant to program delivery.” (I confirmed with a former resident that the bathrooms are not, in fact, locked). While such a practice is somewhat unusual in an eating disorder/substance abuse facility, the spokeswoman did have a point: locking a bathroom will not change a person’s heart or cause her to repent of the behavior and idolatry behind it. While behavior modification may be helpful to a girl’s physical well-being in the short-term, sooner or later she will have to re-enter a society where bathrooms are not locked. Mercy focuses on helping its residents to make lasting, inward change as they yield their lives to God’s will.
Mercy Ministries is technically interdenominational, and treats young women from various Christian backgrounds and traditions. While their Statement of Faith is conservative and biblically solid , there is a strong charismatic element to their teaching as can be seen from the eclectic mix of teaching materials mentioned above. Combined with their integration of psychology with the Bible, I am somewhat hesitant to endorse all aspects of their program. The ministry’s website declares, “We are committed to providing the young women we serve with the most excellent program services that allow them to recognize their self-worth and prepare them to reach their full potential,” (emphasis mine). My only concern with this statement is that the focus is put on the individual’s worth and potential, rather than the ultimate importance of glorifying God by living to serve Him.
Despite any doctrinal shortcomings, however, Mercy Ministries is unquestionably helping countless young women come to know the Lord more deeply as they repent of besetting sin. The program nurtures seeds of faith and equips residents with increased knowledge and strengthened faith; tools they need to “live lives worthy of the calling they have received” (Ephesians 4:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:11). For this reason, I would encourage any young woman battling anorexia or bulimia to consider the intense discipleship program offered by Mercy Ministries.
Read testimonies from former Mercy residents here: http://www.mercyministries.org/SuccessStories/Graduates.aspx