Whitefish-based Potter’s Field Ministries is closing its MudMan Burgers restaurants and food trucks, and its ministry internship program amid allegations of abuse against the ministry’s interns.
Since 2016, the popular burger outlets have been staffed by participants in Potter’s Field Ministries’ IGNITE internship program. But numerous interns have recently left the ministry and shared stories of alleged verbal abuse, sexual harassment and intolerable conditions during their time in the program.
The Daily Inter Lake spoke with nearly two dozen sources, some of whom have been involved with the ministry since 2000, who claimed they were verbally and emotionally abused by Potter’s Field founders Michael “Mike” and Pamela “Pam” Rozell. Dozens of personal stories have been shared in the past few weeks on the religious blog site, phoenixpreacher.com.
Among the allegations were reports that Potter’s Field staff members worked 60 to 80 hours in a week, suffered sleep deprivation and were paid well below minimum wage. Dawn Marie Grice, who worked with the ministry for 11 years, said “I only slept four hours a night for years.”
Former employees reported they signed a form agreeing to consider anything beyond 40 hours a week as “volunteer work” and were encouraged to commit extra time to benefit the ministry’s charity work.
Multiple sources detailed how the Rozells would schedule commitments late into the night and early in the morning, during the interns’ limited time outside of their scheduled MudMan hours. Rozell would also allegedly wake up interns and hold impromptu hours-long meetings in the middle of the night on many occasions.
Potter’s Field Ministries was founded as a touring ministry in 1992 by the Rozells. It has since grown to include Potter’s Field Ranch west of Whitefish, the Selah Fellowship in Whitefish, international outreach programs in Central America, Asia and Africa, the IGNITE internship program and MudMan Burgers.
All of the sources the Daily Inter Lake spoke with emphatically alleged Potter’s Field operated as a cult. A dozen sources involved with the ministry since 2000 detailed experiences of verbal abuse, sexually inappropriate conversations, a rigidly controlling environment and pay below minimum wage for excessive work hours. Nick Borghi, a former upper-level employee, described Potter’s Field as, “The most unhealthy place I can even imagine.”
Potter’s Field Chief Executive Officer Rob McCoy said Monday, “I came in to wind the ministry down. We’re closing our doors, we’re shuttering MudMan, everyone’s going home. It’s over.”
The Daily Inter Lake reached out to the Rozells numerous times for comment regarding the allegations, but were told, “Mike and Pam will not be able to speak with you this week due to their schedules.” McCoy did not comment on the allegations.
McCoy also reported Potter’s Field will be giving all of the interns their final two weeks of pay as they close the doors of MudMan.
“The moniker of a cult that is being thrown around is inappropriate,” McCoy stated. “A cult doesn’t pay to let people leave.”
However, everyone the Inter Lake spoke with described being yelled at for hours by Mike Rozell. What he termed “strong fellowship,” former intern Kenzie Kinney described as “a culture of yelling at people.”
“You were yelled at for hours,” said former staff member Dawn Marie Grice. “No matter what you did or didn’t do, you were always yelled at ... Every aspect of what you do is called into question.” Grice joined Potter’s Field Ministries in 2000 and worked for more than 11 years as the Rozells’ personal assistant.
Paige McClure, who left the ministry in the middle of the night in December 2018, recalled, “One time I asked Mike, do the [MudMan] interns or staff get to keep their tips? And he freaked out. He called me into his office and I was there for six hours while he berated me.”
Autumn Speir, an IGNITE intern from 2016 to 2018, remembered one instance in which “we sat in a circle and were berated for hours. I felt like I wanted to crawl out of my own skin.” While this occurrence stood out to her, she also added, “We were broken down physically, mentally and spiritually on a regular basis.”
Despite these experiences, all of the Daily Inter Lake’s sources reported how Rozell would mentally manipulate staff members and prevent them from sharing their concerns or leaving the organization. Numerous sources described Rozell as a “master manipulator.” Ex-intern Brooke Garza alleged that in her opinion Rozell was a “bonafide cult leader,” and Speir said, “the way he spoke, you had to agree with him.”
Kinney also pointed out, “you can be forced to do something without being physically forced to do something.”
The Daily Inter Lake spoke with the Rozells’ personal assistant and an official who oversees the IGNITE internship school about their experiences with Potter’s Field Ministries.
Official Austin Hiatt, who has been involved with the ministry since 2012 and participated in the second class of the IGNITE program, acknowledged “people have had experiences where they’re hurt…[but] I wouldn’t say that’s my experience.”
Hiatt elaborated: “I enjoy doing what we do. The most unreasonable thing is we get up at 6:30, eat breakfast at 8 and have class at 9. That, for some people, is a challenge.”
He said he felt the allegations could be attributed to, “a lot of misunderstanding due to a lack of time or lack of understanding.”
The Rozells’ personal assistant, who has been a part of Potter’s Field since 2005, also said the allegations could be explained by a misunderstanding of the ministry leaders’ intentions. She pointed out, “when you work with people, there’s always that ability to hurt people regardless of what you’re doing, not intentionally ... If you judged everybody by their actions and not their intentions, could anybody stand that scrutiny?”
The assistant, who has worked personally with him for nearly 14 years, addressed the common complaint that he would yell at staff members for many hours by saying, “Does Pastor Michael have a loud voice? Sure. I don’t think his heart or intention is ever malicious.”
She recognized people are “legitimately hurt.” But for her part, she said, “I love what we’re doing...I’m content here.”
“It’s [Potter’s Field] not perfect, but it’s beautiful, because I know we’re making a difference,” she said, referring to the ministry’s international outreach programs they claim are supported by the profits from MudMan Burgers.
The Rozells recruited interns into the IGNITE program and other staff members for Potter’s Field Ministries through a presentation they would perform at churches around the country. Kinney alleged “he preys on the vulnerable” and offers people with histories of problems with drugs, poverty and abuse an “opportunity to turn your life around.” Grice said Rozell would joke with the staff: “Do you come from a messed-up background? Did you have an eating disorder? We’re the perfect place for you.”
Multiple sources said they initially overlooked concerns because they wanted to fit in and belong to the larger organization. Speir, who started the IGNITE program in 2016 at age 17, said “you feel special when they ask you to come back” to IGNITE 2.0, the second part of the internship program that includes staffing MudMan restaurants. Kinney said they also pre-empted concerns by telling interns, “We’re going to look weird,” to outsiders, and “people are going to say we’re a brainwashed cult.”
Kinney said the Rozells would “keep you hostage” through favors such as paying student loans or credit card debt. Grice added, “They control everything — your finances, where you live, everything. You can’t think for yourself.”
Speir said those involved with Potter’s Field felt like they “had no contact with the outside world.”
Former staff members and interns also said they felt spiritually pressured to stay in the ministry. Speir was among many sources who reported Rozell would insist, “if you leave, you’re in sin and God doesn’t love you.”
Potter’s Field participants were so convinced of this rhetoric that Grice said she knew of parents who would try to remove their children from the program, only for the interns to refuse to leave because they saw nothing wrong with the situation.
Grice and Ashley Shackleton reported they felt their only way out was suicide.
Nick Borghi reported that when he tried to talk to Rozell about his intention to leave the ministry, “it was one of the most difficult conversations in my entire life,” adding “he completely degrades you to where you don’t have the confidence to leave.”
Borghi left the ministry in April 2019 with his wife and son.
The ministry would also allegedly prevent any contact with individuals who left the organization and tell current members that those people were “in sin and no longer safe,” according to Grice. When she left in 2012, she heard Rozell had spread a rumor that she had been fired for “developing inappropriate feelings towards Mike.”
These rumors allegedly influenced many interns and staff members as they were considering leaving the ministry. Speir remembered thinking, “I don’t want everyone to hate me. These are my friends.” Kinney also related feeling, “a lot of those people are my family. I didn’t want to lose them.”
Numerous interns have left Potter’s Field properties in the middle of the night to return home to Florida, California and elsewhere. McClure and her husband, “packed up our whole house and left at one or two in the morning. We felt like we didn’t have a choice and had to leave that way.”
Many female survivors also described sexually inappropriate discussions and interactions with Mike Rozell. Speir said, “it was an obsession of his to ask women about sexual sins...it was like he was infatuated with it, almost.”
Julie Borghi, who served as an upper-level staff member with her husband for two years starting in January 2017, reported being forced into “unnecessary sexual conversations” with Rozell in which he would inquire about her sexual history. Once, she said she was kept “alone with Mike in his office for 20 minutes” and asked if she “ever let a dog lick her down there.”
She said she left the conversation feeling “stumbled,” and unable to express concern about the conversation, even to her husband. “I wanted to feel accepted,” she remembered.
Speir, who joined the program at age 17, said Rozell would ask her: “Have you ever struggled with sexual sin? Have you ever masturbated? Have you seen it [pornography] on your brother’s computer?”
McClure remembered being asked about sexual fantasies, thoughts on bestiality and masturbation. She also reported Rozell would “hold you close and stroke your back” and “he’d kiss your forehead.”
“After being verbally harassed and very sexually uncomfortable, I would be scared to be alone with him,” she said.
Even though McCoy confirmed the IGNITE program and MudMan Burgers are both shutting down, many former members of Potter’s Field said the impacts of their time with the ministry did not end with their departure.
Many of the individuals the Inter Lake interviewed said they have sought professional counseling to deal with their Potter’s Field experience. Grice, who left in 2012, reported she has since been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s all very damaging,” McClure said. “The effects of this will be long-lasting.”
Kinney, who left in 2016 and sees a therapist to discuss her experience, said she still considers suicide every week.
Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at email@example.com or 758-4459. Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.