The tragic story of Ken Nally

NallyFrom time to time I hear individual stories of people who have been treated badly by religious groups. When faced with a situation of mental distress the churches seem to have responded in these accounts with an unholy combination of zeal, ignorance and an unbelievably incompetent exercise of common sense. There is one story of a young man who died recently in my part of the North of England after being rejected by his church even though he was overwhelmed with mental distress. He then took his own life. It would be wrong to give further details of this story because I have received what I know second hand and so I do not have all the facts of the case. So I will tell the story of another young man who was also, in the course of inept pastoral care, treated appallingly by a church in the States. I hope those who knew Richard and may be reading this blog will recognise that Ken’s story is being told in memory of Richard.

Ken Nally was a member of a Los Angeles megachurch called the Grace Community. The story goes back to 1973 when Ken, then in his late teens, first went to the head of the counselling arm of the church, one Lynn Cory. The minister overseeing the entire church was John McArthur, a prolific author and a well-known opponent of the Pentecostal influences which were becoming more significant in the evangelical churches of the 1980s. Ken was directed to another member of the biblical counselling centre called Duane Rea. Like Cory and the other members of the counselling team at Grace church, Rea had no qualifications in mental health problems or professional counselling training. In spite of this the team as a whole claimed competence to treat disorders ranging from depression to schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. When Ken went to Rea to consult him about his problems with women, the answer given was simple and unambiguous. In common with many biblical counsellors of that period, Rea told him that sin was at the root of his problems, particularly in his desire for intimacy outside of matrimony.

The depression and sense of failure felt by Ken drove him to speak to yet another counsellor as feelings of suicide came to oppress him. He asked this third counsellor whether a person who committed suicide would forfeit eternal salvation. The answer that he then received was theologically correct, but the way it was told him hardly enhanced Ken and his sense of well-being. He was told of course no one could lose their salvation through suicide. In March 1979 Ken attempted suicide. His parents became involved and he was sent to a psychiatric hospital. While there he told Pastor Rea that he would try to commit suicide again. This information was not shared with his parents or the doctors. These latter who were involved with caring for Ken saw only improvement. A Dr Hall, a psychiatrist, tried but failed to establish what kind of counselling he had received at Grace Church. He was in particular concerned at Ken’s statement that ‘my counsellors have advised me not to go to a psychiatrist’. In Ken’s mind there seems to have been a direct conflict between the sin based diagnosis of mental illness preached by his church, and the no blame understanding of illness which undergirded the approach of the hospital. After he finally left the hospital Ken spent most of the time reading the Bible and listening to recordings of John McArthur’s sermons.

Ken saw his father for the last time and in that conversation Ken said ‘they told me it was God’s punishment’. Ken’s father, Walter Nally, could not believe his ears. ‘Tell me which one of the bastards said that?’ he exclaimed, but it was too late for Ken. He committed suicide a few days later. The story does not end there. The church was allowed to organise the funeral and Pastor Rea announced to the congregation that Ken had disobeyed God in the final act of his life. ‘He took what did not belong to him.’ Adding to this appalling insensitivity Walter was shown a testimonial from Ken which stated that he had tried to kill himself prior to 1979. Rea maintained throughout that Ken’s death was not the result of poor counselling but of unresolved sin.

John McArthur, the leading minister of Grace Community Church also piled on the pastoral insensitivity by declaring to Walter that the suicide was in no way the fault of Walter but that Ken alone was responsible. He repeated the idea that the whole situation was brought about by ‘unresolved sin’ and had nothing to do with poor counselling. Walter’s reaction was then to take out a legal challenge and he proceeded to sue Grace for clerical malpractice. After the case went through several stages, it was in the end refused by the California Supreme Court who found in favour of the church. This unfavourable judgement has had the bitter result that US courts since that time been unwilling ever to find clergy guilty of professional malpractice or incompetence. The same protection has been extended to ministers of other groups, such as the Scientologists. No minister is ever held responsible for their actions in counselling, even if their lack of competence and ignorance can result in such tragic outcomes.

We have not in this post unpacked the cluster of ideas connected with ‘Christian counselling’ that helped to cause the tragedy at Grace church. Suffice to say they belong to the principles thought up by Jay Adams and his ideas about ‘nouthetic counselling’. Without being able here to unpack Adams’ noxious ideas, it can be said that this strand of teaching rejects modern psychiatry in favour of ‘Biblical’ teaching. Once again we see the dangerous idea that the world we live in is a threatening place. The Bible and what it teaches is juxtaposed with the demonic which is believed to lurk around in much of secular ideas and knowledge. This paranoid universe which is inhabited by large numbers of so-called Christians is an uncomfortable and fear-ridden place.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

17 thoughts on “The tragic story of Ken Nally

  1. You’re right about some members of churches and other groups living in a different kind of world, where there is something to fear in talking to even your own doctor. They often try to separate you from any source of help. I’m afraid I could give you similar but not such tragic, examples. Does it not stem from this narcissism that we have mentioned before? Clergy who think they know everything? Some of the treatment meted out to me could have caused suicide had I been inclined to depression. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, but no thanks to some of the people involved. Pardon me while I go and find a dog to kick. It makes me so angry.

  2. This so breaks my heart.

    I can well understand a person choosing to see a psychologist at opposed to a psychiatrist if the person is interested only in a good diagnosis and counseling without the aid of medication. But that’s not what took place here. There’s nothing wrong with going for a good screening or even seeing a psychiatrist who either does their own counseling or refers to an associate. I grew up with this fear-driven anti-intellectualism, and it is not at all helpful.

  3. Thank you Cindy. This story was lifted straight from your friend John Weaver’s book. It is apparent that John also suffered in this way as have many others. Telling Ken’s story is a very small attempt to honour that suffering by remembering it. We can’t take it away but by naming it we can make people aware of the dangers of following Biblical fads. While there are some good things in looking at what the Bible might say about a problem, only tragedy can come when common sense and accountability is left behind.

  4. Dear Steven,
    I just wanted to thank you for raising awareness about the damage biblical counseling has done in so many lives. I’m just glad there are people like you and Cindy who are still trying to make the church into what it should be, rather than what it currently is. God bless.

    John Weaver

  5. Thank you John. I am in the process of reading both your recent books. My only problem is that there is so much information in them that it is quite easy to lose the thread. You will be seeing more posts which take stuff from your remarkable researches on this blog. The book on New Apostolic Reformation is quite frightening for us on this side of the Atlantic as well.

  6. Mr Parsons
    I am amazed as to what you have asserted and written. Virtually none of it true. Basic facts of the case you got right. But outside of that, virtually nothing you assert is correct or factual.

    I knew Ken Nally. Before Ken dated the woman he wanted to marry, and proposed to, I dated her for almost 2 years. “Kate” and I remained great friends for years.

    Ken and I spent a lot of time together. He was loved as a brother. There were many who tried to help Ken. He was bound and determined to commit suicide … Looking back at the situation. Nothing anyone could do was going to stop him. For years Kate carried the burden and guilt that it was her fault he committed suicide since she turned him down.

    I saw him a few days after he got out of the hospital from when he tried to overdose and his arm was “limp”. When I asked him what happened to his arm, he lied to me and 5 others and said he had nerve damage from a fall, not from laying on it after he passed out wrongly.

    I have known MacArthur for over 45 years. He continually encouraged Ken to get help. John bent over backwards for Ken as seen by the fact that he would spend hours at a time just talking with him. MacArthur got nothing from this situation. No money, no praise, nothing. He spent time with Ken because he loved Ken and was concerned for him. I knew Duane Rea, Lynn Cory and Rich Thompson….all men who tried their best to help Ken

    At some time, a person has to take responsibility for their own actions. And but for spending 24 hours a day in a locked room, Ken was going to kill himself. His parents were told by myself, Katie and others to get Ken committed. They refused. His mother in particular was adamant that Ken was not “nuts” and did not need to be in the “nut ward”. His father was cold and distant. So if they refused to have their son admitted, and Ken was just going to keep trying until he succeeded, whose fault is that? Ken’s ultimately. He used the shotgun since the pills did not work earlier.

    To blame anyone but Ken for his act of suicide is simply done for an agenda. I care not what yours is. I have not seen MacArthur for 15 years . But I can tell you that no one man that I know has impacted my life as much, and been so instrumental in being an example of what it means tolive a godly life more than John MacArthur. I am now 61 years of age and thank God for his impact in my life over 45 years ago.

    Biblical Counseling is different to different people. I have seen people depressed for many reasons. Concussions, brain tumors, chemical imbalances, PTSD and horrific personal experiences (such as 9/11 survivors) are just a few reasons I have seen others experience depression. I have also seen guilt be the cause of depression.

    We might never know why Ken was depressed. But his act of suicide was his responsibilty …. Not some “bad counseling” he might have gotten from a pastor or a church. When someone tries, at least 4 times I was aware of, to commit suicide as Ken did, there was nothing anyone could say or do to change his mind.

    There is so much I could say but it is not my intent to heap scorn on Ken. He was an ill individual. And Katie was right to turn down his proposal and tell him to get his life together. It was evident that he was sick. Blaming the Church was an easy out. And one you do without ever talking to those of us who knew Ken and interacted with him as friends and classmates.

    Your lack of fact gathering is what amazed me. You compare another suicide that you admit you dont know all the facts about and claim it is the same type of situation you dont know all the facts about either. Poor research … Poor writing…..hidden agenda evident.

  7. I suggest the better target of your attack is the author of the book that I read and the publisher as well. Publishers always consult lawyers when they publish books these and fact check very carefully. It is that care taken by publishers that I trust far more than individuals who have ideological reasons for trying to undermine a narrative. Can you point me to any court case taken against the book Clergy Malpractice? If there is not then I have no rational reason not to trust the claims that it made. When ideology is involved then truth seems to disappear out of the window. That is what I see all the time in Trumpian America! You protest too much!

  8. No court case will ever be taken because that is not the way John MacArthur or anyone else within Grace Church think. I have no ideology other than to glorify God. I simply read what you wrote and responded because I knew Ken, his girlfriend, his situation and his family intimately and nothing you or the author wrote was factual.

    Your statement that unless there has been a lawsuit against the author and publisher then what was written must be true. It simply is not worth the time, money or effort to refute claims made in a book that no one will read anyway. They would rather spend their energy and efforts doing things that involve preaching the Gospel, making disciples and teaching the Scriptures.

    But when you do think about it, there was a lawsuit already about the facts of the case….and the California Supreme Court held that what was written in the book and what you wrote are wrong conclusions. There was no wrongdoing. No fault was found by the Court by anyone sued. That right there should tell you more than anything some author with an axe to grind has.

    And if I know those involved as well as I think I do, they will leave it up to the Lord to deal with the falsehoods spread.

    And from what I read, neither you or the author ever sat down and spoke to anyone that was sued or anyone who actually was involved with Ken personally. Certainly not me and I was about as close to Ken as anyone was and I was not anyone who was sued.

    No ideologue involved. I simply read something that could not be further from the facts …. And I as an eyewitness could attest to. And the Court concurred.

  9. The problem with the type of (Church?) that Ken belonged to; put simply, is the grossly abnormal being normalized.
    Lets just be honest about these religious theatres that are married to patriotism and preconceived norms.
    I speak as someone who has had a large part of my life destroyed by evangelical cults and the brain police that accompany them. It is Mind Control.

    A quote, (I think from Kierkegaard)
    “Before any society can exist, it must first destroy the individual!”

    This is precisely what happened to me and many of my friends after the 1960’s crashed, and hopes and dreams disappeared. We looked for Spiritual reality, only to be greeted by self-professed ‘Experts’.
    Some like Ned are not here anymore. Instead of welcoming us into the love of God, we were pawns for the love of men! Individual thoughts annihilated by their, “Love”.

    Hans Christian Anderson, wrote the story about the; ‘Emperor’s new cloths’

    It still amazes me how selective use of scripture can dress up a naked king.

    These abominations are very much alive and well and the programmed personalities still look for hope in what they believe is ‘God’s perfect body’.

    I personally have seen the repetition of this sickening paralysis; I have no place for tears left.

  10. You do realize that Ken shot himself almost 30 years ago. Long before the political atmosphere of today happened.

    And the “pick” a verse that supports your position” is not how the Bible is studied or taught at Grace Church where MacArthur is at. It is not a perfect church. But the Bible is taught verse by verse from a historical, contextual, literal, grammatical interpretation. MacArthur has spent over 30 years going verse by verse through the New Testament.

    MacArthur is just one of many pastors who teach. It is not a cult of personality. And I have never known anyone take a political position with regards to a candidate at Grace Church. I no longer go there, but I still appreciate and respect the ministry there and will always be grateful for the instruction in the Scriptures I received at Grace. The end result was I ended up going to Talbot Seminary and getting a Masters of Divinity and Masters of Theology.

    I recognize there are many who use others in the name of God. That has been going on sinc the early days of Israel. And why special judgment is reserved for those who use and destroy the flock. Isaiah 33 – 38 describes Gods judgment on the religious leadership.

    But in this case of Ken Nally…..Ken is responsible for what Ken did and no one else. There was no mistreatment or poor counseling going on. I was there and knew him very well. He was going to commit suicide with or without Grace Church. And is why his girlfriend broke up with him, refused his marriage proposal and why she (and everyone else) told him he needed to be in a hospital getting help. He refused. And his parents, particularly his mother, refused to have him committed.

    His parents sued to blame someone else other than Ken. And to hopefully have someone else to blame than themselves in some ways since they refused to have him committed. Not to mention his parents were very strongly against evangelical Christianity. All facts not ever mentioned in any of the blog info or in the book for the most part.

    Hope you dont turn from the Lord Chris because of evil men

  11. Thanks Robert,

    No offence to you intended. However, I do know what happened to me and the mechanics of how to worked, I have had over 40 years to reflect on it.
    For me Christ has been freed from the rails of the brain police that captivated all thoughts about Him to a one track dictatorship. Thank you Robert for recognising that ‘evil men’ sometimes treat the word of God (As St Paul said) ‘With Craftiness’, the struggle goes on.
    PS Stephen Parsons is the only churchman I know of in this country caring for the victims of the kind of abuse I was subject to.

  12. How I know of the misuse of Scripture to evil ends.

    My comments were about the Ken Nally situation. Nothing in the book written comes close to what really happened. I was commenting about that situation.

    I was there. And I knew the situation intimately. There was no use of Scripture to abuse anyone, and especially Ken

    Ken grew up in a strict Catholic family. They hated the fact that Ken made a personal decision for Christ and left the Catholic Church. His parents hated all evangelical confessions and Grace Church.

    Truth gets twisted when agendas come into action. The courts found no wrong doing. All of us who know of what happened and knew Ken do not believe anyone but Ken must be held responsible for his actions.

    One thing that was not well known was that Katie came to me and shared that Ken was pressuring her to have sex outside of marriage. When she refused, he would throw a hissy fit. That was what John MacArthur discussed with him how sex sin would cause the Lord, according to Scripture, to discipline him. I Corinthians speaks of those who dishonor the Lords table ….how the Lord takes them. Hebrews speaks of the fact that the Lord disciplines His own. If one is no disciplined for sin, then that person has good reason to believe he is not saved. This is Scriptural. These discussions have been twisted to something that never happened

    No one, save one police officer, has ever spoken to me when Ken committed suicide. No criminal or civil action has ever been judicially held against anyone, specifically Grace or any of the pastors.

    I have seen God use Grace Church / John Mac for over 45 years. He is the least of anyone I have ever seen try and use Scripture for the purpose of controlling people or to use Scripture for enriching himself. He doesnt have a personal plane like so many “evangelists.” He has lived in the same house for over 30 years. He doesnt promote himself. He is one of the kindest men I have ever met. Not to mention a man who is captivated and controlled by the Scriptures. He is gentle and as humble as anyone I have known in my 61 years. I see his weaknesses as well. He is very competitive in sports. He would call fouls on anyone who was within 5 feet of him if he missed a shot. I used to tell him he was cheating when he did that. I still laugh about that at times

    All that to say……we all have horrible stories of abusers and users within the “faith.” I have them. I caught my pastor, at 17 years of age, having sex with a woman in his office who was not his wife. Within 4 weeks, I was exiled by the pastor from the pulpit in an attempt to silence me. I saw abuses with those who went to Oral Roberts University. Through it all, I learned to study the Scriptures, understand the Scriptures and to stand on my own. I ended up going to seminary and got a Masters of Divinity and Masters of Theology. The horrible times pushed me to learn the Scriptures and to know how God wanted me to live and be.

    Ken’s situation just simply confirmed to me that those who violate Scripture will be judged. And those who abuse His children will be dealt with severely as well.

  13. Thank you Robert,

    Are you responding to something I said or something Stephen Parsons said?

    I agree that, ‘The truth gets twisted’ and ‘Agendas come into action.’
    My overview of the modern evangelical movement is one of utter mistrust.
    I think we need to look at the whole of evangelical history, to see its flirtation with right wing ideologies, big business (Christian celebrity, Music industry, Christian TV)
    It is not individual fellowships that worry me it is the certainty that their view of scripture is the right one? Terrible things HAVE happened in its recent history and I am one of the scared (Along with many others)

    One of the most worrying for me is the way that Billy Graham got death threats for questioning the nature of ‘Hell’.
    I am afraid that all organized religion fails and indeed is structured to fail.
    In the final end these conversations are doomed, why? Because it all lacks the simple Christian Love that human beings find so hard to express.

    Just for the record Robert, I embrace my own depravity and my squalor does not please me!


  14. Chris
    Those who question “hell” are those who do not understand God’s holiness, His judgment or man’s depravity.

    Organized “religion” is all part of the anto-God system of evil, made up of politics, religion, economics and military. And those are the areas God will judge worldwide in Revelation 16 – 19….example being the religious harlot. The worldwide, organized “church” will always oppose the Gospel due to the fact that man’s view of salvation is to diminish man’s sinfulness as well as Gods holiness. The reality of hell is mocked due to a twisted and unBiblical view of just how sinful sin is and how a holy God will judge all sin

    For any “pastor” to get wrapped up in health and wealth and using the flock for their own evil designs will most certainly bring judgment from God. Isaiah 28 – 33.

    One of these days we hopefully will be able to fellowship in person and share our past experiences. They can be of help to others as to what to watch out for.

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