THE FAMILY INTERNATIONAL (TFI) (2009-PRESENT)
THE FAMILY INTERNATIONAL TIMELINE, 2009-PRESENT
2009 Maria (Karen Zerby) and Peter (Steven Kelly) appeared at CESNUR Conference in Salt Lake City and read a paper that publicly announced the impending “Reboot” of TFI.
2010 The great majority of TFI communal homes around the world were dissolved, and individual members dispersed to establish independent nuclear households and the occupational/financial means to sustain these.
2010 New TFI webpage advertised the new Belief and Mission Statements. Maria and Peter self-identified as TFI Directors and began writing regular but largely generic Christian blogs.
2012 Public Affairs Board members began meeting with Maria and Peter to discuss TFI present and future concerns.
2013 Video tapes were made by Peter, and presented to reporting members on the TFI website, summarizing several different options for new TFI directions regarding beliefs and policies.
In a surprising and dramatic 2009 announcement, co-leaders Maria (Karen Zerby) and Peter (Steven Kelly), successors to David Berg, publicly revealed that an ongoing change process (termed the “Reboot”) from within the organization would dissolve formerly strict membership requirements, monitoring systems, and virtually all of the other complex organizational structures that previously had defined TFI (Zerby and Kelly 2009; Shepherd and Shepherd 2010:212-13). The new approach, couched in both social science and self-realization terminology, encouraged individual TFI members to make their own life choices and set their own levels of Christian commitment to missionary activities. Communitarian living and all its attendant social and moral offshoots would no longer be expected. Individuals could now lead normal lives in secular communities, seek secular education, and hold secular jobs. Members were not mandated to make these changes, but the practical result was that, with the disappearance of WS guidance and other institutional controls, most have subsequently done so.
The immediate, visible consequence of these radical, implosive changes was to vaporize a coherent and cohesive fellowship of Family members who previously were closely connected to one another through a shared organizational identity. The sudden institutional dismembering of TFI--a relatively large, centrally organized religious group, well into its third generation, that outwardly seemed stable and vibrant—arguably constitutes a consciously designed reversal that may, in its rapidity and scope, be unique in the history of developing new religious movements (Shepherd and Shepherd 2012).
The “Reboot” has at least moderated virtually all prior TFI core beliefs, while some have been, like modern Mormonism’s handling of its once central dogma of plural marriage, relegated to the category of abstract ideals and mostly eliminated in practice. Thus, with regard to such long-held principles as the immediacy of the end time, the prophetic status of David Berg, organizational guidance and control through direct revelations, communalism and sharing of all things in common, sexual sharing as an expression of the Law of Love, fulltime missionary commitment, and forsaking the world and its materialistic standards, the following changes may be cited.
(1) The immediacy of Jesus’ apocalyptic second coming is no longer stressed and has, in fact, officially been pushed back to a later, unknown time that allows Christian believers to focus their attention and energies on concrete, long-term planning to expand whatever evangelic and other life-activities in which they may be engaged. This alteration of millennial expectation is perhaps the most consequential of all the Reboot changes. TFI was founded and largely motivated on grounds that the “End Time” was imminent. All other surviving millennial groups to date have had to make this same adjustment, but unlike other groups, TFI was, until now, exclusively dedicated to fulltime missionary commitment for all its members as God’s elite “End Time Army.” It has subsequently proved very difficult to sustain an all-encompassing evangelical dedication for all members of each generation when the allotted time for accomplishing their mission has been stretched from urgent and immediate to unknown and far into the future.
(2) Thus, in fact, complete dedication to missionary activity is no longer required; level of evangelical commitment is individually determined without recrimination or institutional monitoring and sanction.
(3) Communal living by TFI members throughout the world has virtually disappeared, and individual TFI adherents and/or their nuclear families tend now to be widely dispersed from, and out of regular contact with, other members.
(4) Direct involvement of members in the social, economic, and educational aspects of the secular world has become virtually paramount, as members can no longer count on necessary material resources being generated from the cooperative practices of communal living.
(5) David Berg’s foibles and failures have been publicly acknowledged; many of his writings have been reclassified as inspirationalbut not officially binding and some as merely opinion and even wrong. A review of all Berg’s writings (primarily the MO Letters) has been undertaken by Maria and Peter and a small group of former Board chairs to identify those teachings deemed to be “enduring or timeless” and therefore appropriate for continued TFI purposes. The take on Berg’s overall body of writing now is that much of it was “time contextual,” i.e., applicable and appropriate only for the time and circumstances prevailing when it was written. The task, then, is to highlight those teachings that harmonize with TFI current official belief and mission statements (see below). The end result of this winnowing review will likely be stringent, with only a few hundred passages excerpted from Berg’s voluminous writings that will be retained.
Some leaders now characterize Berg as an End Time prophet, not the End Time prophet: a prophet for TFI but not for the world. In contrast, some continuing First Generation Adult (FGA) members disagree with this reassessment and retain a strong attachment to Berg as the End Time Prophet and to the bulk of his early teachings that attracted them to The Family in the first place. But a majority of Second Generation Adults (SGAs) support a redefinition of Berg’s prophetic status.
(6) The Law of Love continues as a guiding principle, and the spiritual or theological aspects of sexuality (as a component of this law) remain as viable belief elements; they will not likely be repudiated as long as Maria and Peter are alive. However, the most radical applications of sexuality advocated by David Berg have long been rejected. Sexual sharing between consenting adults for appropriate reasons is still sanctioned, but instances of actual sharing among TFI members have drastically diminished. And invoking sexual imagery as part of establishing an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus is no longer officially advocated but rather is now a matter of individual choice.
(7) Prophecy/revelation is primarily limited to individuals for the purpose of personal guidance rather than being issued from TFI leaders as official directives that are binding on all disciples. Primacy of the Bible over most previously received and published prophetic messages from World Services is now emphasized. Maria and Peter’s current theological writings on their blogs may be accepted by individuals as additional teachings, or even as inspired, but are no longer issued with mandatory prophetic weight applicable to all of TFI.
In short, the current TFI Statements of Belief and Faith are essentially in alignment with most contemporary Christian evangelical groups, especially those with a Pentecostal orientation. The corresponding Mission Statement is also quite generic and emphasizes humanitarian outreach as well as application of God’s love and salvation in bringing spiritual comfort to the world. None of these statements identify TFI as a uniquely designated spiritual elite under the guidance of prophets, directly in contact with Jesus, to facilitate his imminent second coming. Theological supports for these statements are all Bible passages; no teachings of David Berg or subsequent doctrines developed at World Services under Maria and Peter are mentioned or referenced. These statements are presented on TFI’s webpage, and people currently considered TFI members must affirm acceptance of them (along with filling out a much reduced “report” form and making a regular monetary contribution). All other previous TFI beliefs (from David Berg’s writings and subsequent years of Good News (GN) prophecies produced by World Services) are now classified either as inspired teachings, additional teachings, or simply discarded altogether. In all cases, they are not binding but rather are a matter of individual choice.
Continuing TFI members, whether as individuals or members of either nuclear or (rarely now) communal households, are encouraged to continue engaging in standard TFI worship practices. These include regular prayer; Bible study and reading of TFI produced literature; viewing and/or listening to TFI produced religious music and other forms of religiously infused entertainment and educational material; and seeking spiritual guidance in personal decision making through personal revelation or inspiration. Regular fellowshipping with other TFI members is optional and dependent on mutual proximity and personal interest rather than organizational mandate. Participating in communion and other collective worship activities are also optional and dependent on proximity and mutual interest of TFI members. When these activities do occur, they are, as has always been the case, carried out in private home settings rather than in formally designated places of worship. Type and amount of evangelical effort outside of other daily obligations is left to individual discretion and conscience. TFI members, both current and technically lapsed (i.e., those who no longer “report” and make regular financial contributions via the member-only website) may attend local Christian church services in the communities where they live (and are even encouraged to do this). As mentioned above, sexual sharing among non-married TFI members has diminished drastically as a result of the shift to independent, dispersed, nuclear households.
As of late Fall, 2012, there were approximately 3,600 TFI members (as measured by self-reports and financial contributions registered through the TFI member-only website portal), dispersed in 90 different countries around the world (although more than half of these reporting members are now located in Western countries). These numbers show a 40% drop in membership since the Reboot in 2009, when approximately 6,000 core members were counted. Of the current reporting members, First Generation Adults (FGAs) constitute a larger proportion (exact amount unknown) than Second Generation Adults (SGAs) and Third Generation.
Current membership requirements are minimal. One must “report” through the member-only portal of the TFI website and make an unspecified financial contribution or “tithe.” One must also indicate acceptance of the TFI Statement of Faith and the TFI statement of Mission. Not yet finalized is a Statement of Core Values that will also then require affirmation by members. Sometime prior to the end of 2012, TFI will make 70 percent of its web portal open to outsiders; the remaining 30 percent of its content will still require membership status for access privilege.
TFI resources, financial and otherwise, have also greatly diminished. The financial report for July 2012 showed that income had dropped by about one third during the past year, and income for 2010-11 had decreased by even more. Some former members who have eschewed reporting and tithing to TFI are instead contributing financially to support the specific missionary or humanitarian work of more actively engaged members.
Very little of the old World Services structure remains in place. The Family International “Services” (TFIS) constitutes what now might loosely be called the current organizational leadership. At the present time, Maria and Peter are now identifying themselves as “Directors” while continuing to live in a secret location, assisted by a minimal support staff. They regularly produce thoughtful but often generic, non-controversial religious commentary on their TFI website blogs, “The Directors’ Corner.” Peter emphasizes theological themes in his commentaries, reviews and expounds on things he has read, and explores TFI doctrines. Maria writes about her witnessing experiences, gives some personal prophecy insights, answers her mail, and makes Skype and fellowshipping calls to members with whom she is able to connect.
A members-only portal on the TFI web site offers TFI relevant news, and a number of resources are available to those who continue to identify with TFI and affirm their membership through a kind of tithe or regular monetary contribution. Reporting members presumably remain faithful to the foundational missionary cause of TFI through the individual evangelical efforts they make while being ordinary neighbors, students, employees, and citizens of the countries in which they live. However, their efforts (and any results of these efforts) are now no longer systematically monitored or recorded.
World Services, the Boards (International, Regional, and National), and the Family Policy Council are all disbanded. A few, former WS personnel, now scattered throughout the world, provide technical aid to sustain TFI’s current, much reduced operations and other needed services via on-line communications as contractual consultants. One specific group—The “WAC Team, ” a web advisory committee of Second Generation Adults (SGAs), manages TFI’s ongoing Internet presence and official website. The goal of many of these WAC Team personnel is to further increase the transparency and accessibility of current and future TFI activities.
The only concrete organizational group still functioning from the old regime is the Public Affairs Board, constituted by a handful of the old TFI Board chairs. They oversee and coordinate what little administrative and official business is still connected to TFI, including Activated! Magazine and Aurora Productions. Aurora Productions continues to produce and distribute a range of spiritual, evangelical, and educational materials (books, DVDs, CDs, teaching aids, magazines, calendars, etc.) around the world.)
Translation work for both Activated! and Aurora products is administered by Public Affairs, as are member reports and financial contributions from the website and responses to requests/questions from website readers, both members and non-members. PA chairs in turn make monthly reports for Maria and Peter and, occasionally, travel from their various locations around the world to meet as a group with Maria and Peter for discussions about TFI’s future.
Currently a Good News blog, a portal accessible only to members in good standing on the TFI website, operates as a chat room or kind of community public square in which people can share views, opinions, complaints, and suggestions. Approximately 500 members avail themselves of this opportunity; these contributors are asked to submit “profiles” of themselves and their families to provide TFI with at least a rudimentary member data base. Since the Reboot, lack of statistical information has been a great impediment to planning and policy decision-making that the Public Affairs Board (including Maria and Peter) continue to make for TFIS.
The Family Care Foundation, headquartered in Southern California near the Mexican border, continues to function as a world-widehumanitarian grant funding enterprise, and Activated Ministries, also headquartered in Southern California, continues as a sister international operation to carry out a range of combined religious-education and charitable projects. A number of dedicated TFI members have migrated from their previous TFI communal and organizational capacities to serve in these humanitarian vehicles as an outlet for their talents, idealistic impulses, and evangelical motivation. Ostensibly, these are autonomous organizations that have developed and are guided by the policies and procedures stipulated in their own respective business plans and operational charters and do not request or receive approval and direction from TFIS.
Peter has undertaken production of a number of videos that address current TFI concerns. These include future membership requirements; tithing or financial giving and the uses of resources; whether or not [and how] to establish a “Veteran Care Fund” for aging FGA members; legitimate sexual practices and sexual sharing vs. the sanctity of marriage; and other changes in belief and mission. The videos are scheduled for release to TFI members in good standing in early to mid-January, 2013, and they will come with provisions for commentary, response, and voting on preference for various models for TFI to follow.
TFI has been a central case in the study of new religious movements emanating from modern Western societies (cf., Davis and Richardson 1976; Wallis 1976, 1981; Van Zandt 1991; Lewis and Melton 1994; Chancellor 2000; Bainbridge 1997, 2002; Melton 2004; Shepherd and Shepherd 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010). It is useful for both analytical and historical reasons to identify some of the key biographical, theological, organizational and cultural issues that emerge from considering the arc of TFI’s career to-date. Several such issues are summarized below.
1. What were contributing factors in the transformational change of the contemporary TFI (the “Reboot”)? Moderating changes in TFI, as noted frequently in The Family International (1919-2009), were already occurring before David Berg’s death (e.g., cessation of FFing; restriction of sexually acceptable behaviors in Family homes, particularly in relation to minor children; emphasis on and refinement of children’s nurturance and educational needs). These accelerated significantly in the almost 20 years since (e.g., institution of The Charter, the Board system, and corporate or teamwork prophecy, which led to the democratic expansion of decision-making procedures that are inclusive of women and young people at all levels of TFI). At the same time, however, TFI leadership recognized and was alarmed by the perceived diminution of discipline and purpose in Family homes by the late 1990s. Some of these developments were seen as the result of allowing too much freedom) and TFI responded forcefully with its restructuring and renewal campaigns of the early 2000s. These retrenchment reforms, however, ultimately proved futile and did not stay the liberalizing trends for long.
Unlike most other religious groups (excepting monastic and cloistered orders or priestly castes), TFI was a full-time missionary way of life for Family Disciple members that required constant and total compliance to a set of restrictive rules, even within the more open and responsive culture that had evolved by 2005. Many First Generation Adults (FGAs) were becoming increasingly jaded from years of dedicated service. They were unable to continue responding to a perpetual round of new organizational campaigns, strategies, and requirements that stretched out year after year with requisite energy and enthusiasm. They rightfully worried about their prospects for healthcare and other personal upkeep issues as they aged, because prospects for the long awaited end-time events, which had constituted a central motive for their commitment in the first place, seemed to keep receding further into the future.
And many Second Generation Adults (SGAs) simply had little interest in committing the rest of their lives to a high degree, within the same restricted lifestyle, and for the same cause to which their parents had been converted. SGAs in their teens and early twenties were leaving TFI at a rate of well over 50% prior to the Reboot, while those SGAs who stayed nevertheless chafed at the limitations they perceived as continuing FD members. Many were disturbed by TFI’s acknowledged early history of sexual improprieties and other negative aspects of the David Berg era that were increasingly available to them from the Internet. They felt stigmatized by these past episodes and discovered that this same information caused significant impediments to their evangelizing efforts when outsiders they were trying to cultivate learned more about TFI’s past. Most people who might otherwise have been successfully evangelized as part of TFI’s congregation building efforts during the “Offensive” campaign of the mid 2000s were also not attracted by the practice of communal living.
Quite likely a combination of the rising tide of democratic participation in decision making at all levels of TFI and the increasing weight of young, second (and even third) generation adults in TFI governing councils exacerbated the process of disintegration. This was certainly a possibility in WS itself. An increasing majority percentage of staff members were young, second generation adults with quite independent minds and strong opinions who were intimately involved in the production of the prophetic messages that became TFI policy.
Thus, the Reboot was actually the publicly visible culmination of a long process of accommodative change occurring in TFI over a number of years in response to several internal and external challenges. The earlier liberal adjustments regarding types of membership that allowed for variable degrees of commitment (i.e., MM or Member Missionary homes and FM or Fellow Member Homes) foreshadowed the current living arrangements, lifestyle, and commitment levels that now predominate among most TFI members.
2. What is the historical legacy of TFI and its top leadership? There is no question that TFI, particularly since the death of David Berg in 1994, has accomplished much good in the world through its increasingly large and sophisticated outreach efforts that have brought material necessities, spiritual comfort, disaster relief, and educational opportunities to tens of thousands of people throughout the world. Concomitantly, Aurora Productions has created and distributed a multitude of musical, literary, video, and educational products (largely non-denominational in content) within a far-flung global enterprise that has influenced the lives of tens of thousands more. Within the cultural and social life of TFI per se, thousands of members were given opportunities that significantly enhanced their musical, interpersonal, leadership, and technical skills.
At the same time, the negative aspects of TFI life, especially for SGAs during the Berg years, must also be noted. Maria and Peter long ago publically acknowledged and apologized for abuses (sexual and otherwise) that occurred within a number of Family homes during the late-1970s through most of the 1980s and pushed for reforms that halted these abuses. The early practice of Flirty Fishing (FFing) was not compatible with raising large numbers of children in communal households, and although carried out on a large scale for only a relatively brief period of time, created an indelible image of sexual lasciviousness that has stigmatized TFI ever since.
David Berg was responsible for introducing and encouraging virtually all of the sexual innovations and excesses into TFI, and this legacy will likely cling to him in spite of his other, positive accomplishments, even for successive generations of TFI members. Currently many SGAs have highly ambivalent feelings about “Father David.” They may admire his courage in breaking away from religious and social conventions to become a radical Christian revolutionary, but they are turned off by the sex controversies and old child abuse issues. They don’t like being stigmatized as members of a “sex cult,” and they don’t want Berg to be highlighted in present or future TFI portrayals of its beliefs and mission. Survey responses from current members in good standing (especially SGAs) indicate that prior sexual doctrines, when presented or advocated, don’t “bear good fruit.” These teachings, and the old imagery they conjure (now referred to in TFI as “legacy issues”) are perceived as a serious obstacle to evangelizing efforts and other aspects of TFI’s mission.
Hostile ex-TFI members and other longtime detractors have accused Maria and Peter (as well as other former WS leaders) of being at least complicit if not guilty parties to early abuses in TFI. But these attacks have diminished substantially in recent years. The clear fact is that since Maria and Peter became joint leaders of TFI in 1994, they have consistently advocated and guided TFI policies towards increasing moderation, openness, and participatory democracy for individual members. If anything, they are now criticized by some former members as being too liberal, too accommodating, and responsible for the demise of the old, communal TFI as a radical, elite End Time Army.
3. What are the future portents for TFI as a viable religious organization? The relatively rapid abandonment of TFI organizational structure and communal home living, with the attendant disappearance of close regulation and monitoring of member lives and the extreme acceleration of secular accommodation, remains puzzling if not demoralizing to a number of TFI members. Many older, faithful, first generation members were initially shocked and bewildered at the breadth and depth of these changes. Now a number express disillusionment and bitterness over the loss of the Family they’ve known and supported (and have reciprocally been supported by) for most of their lives. Some struggle now to find adequate jobs and make independent living arrangements at a time when their age and lack of secular job experience are strikes against them. Some TFI members who still systematically continue some form of outreach and evangelical activities no longer explicitly represent what they are doing as pertaining to TFI per se, because they have experienced that the people they work with are prone to go on-line and discover all the negative information available about the old Family and The Children of God.
TFI leadership acknowledges that only a few members are currently still fully engaged in congregational building activities. Most people are preoccupied with adjusting to and meeting the demands of the secular world and are consecrating far less of their lives to evangelical effort than they used to do. Online survey responses indicated that many SGAs feel that TFI is no longer relevant to them, now that the communal structure is gone and home education for their children is no longer provided (unless one spouse becomes a stay-at-home parent). Many Third Generation children and young people are not being raised or trained to be missionaries at all. Thus TFI leaders recognize they need to attract a large influx of new members from outside their current base to sustain the missionary ethos of their movement. They are hoping that crystalizing the core Christian elements of their message and mission and either rejecting or distancing themselves from the more idiosyncratic and objectionable aspects of their past will attract a wider audience to their cause. Some current member have even proposed changing the name of TFI to move even further from negative historical associations. By reducing organizational requirements to a bare minimum, people attracted to their work who already have established homes, families, and careers (or who aspire to obtain these) may be more likely to dedicate some portion of their time and effort to adopting and carrying out various aspects of TFI’s mission. However, leaders also say that TFI growth per se was never a prime objective, but that evangelizing the world is; being a member of TFI is no longer essential, but being a saved Christian is essential.
In many ways, TFI has become a loosely connected network of independent groups and individuals, and The Family International Services (TFIS) promotes and facilitates their missions. The result is more an amorphous virtual community than a palpable, physical one. Communications are primarily via online connections rather than face-to-face encounters, and decisions are left to individuals rather than institutional controls. Some leaders characterize this outcome as “democracy trumping theocracy.” Whether this democratically derived cyber form of guidance and support, which lacks a clear-cut organizational identity that issues rules and imposes sanctions, will be sufficient to assure TFI’s long-term survival as an organizational entity—however nebulous— remains, of course, to be seen.
TFI has been and presumably remains, in spite of diminishing numbers and visibility, a faith community founded on belief in prophetic guidance. Although current leaders view it as highly unlikely, it is not inconceivable that eventually new prophetic pronouncements might again emerge to reassemble and re-animate still-believing followers to commit themselves anew to a structured and coordinated missionary cause within a cohesive and communally oriented organization. Or perhaps the contemporary, more individualized model of entrepreneurial evangelizing, loosely linked and coordinated through TFI’s current on-line communications emphasis, will succeed in sustaining a much smaller number of The Family’s most dedicated missionaries. Finally, TFI may simply fade away and disappear altogether as an organizational entity. The Family’s future is uncertain but its ultimate unfolding should continue to be of considerable interest to students of new religious movements.
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