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CUT Looks to the Future

Bozeman Chronicle/March 19, 1998
By Karin Ronnow

LIVINGSTON Will they stay, or will they go?

They'll stay, says Gilbert Cleirbaut, president of the Church Universal and Triumphant. But you may not recognize the church by the time its leaders are done changing things for the future.

Whatever configuration the church takes after its massive reorganization, its president vows that it is not folding up its tents and moving away from its ''holy land'' in Park County. That, despite the fact that it would be cheaper to operate almost anywhere else.

Cleirbaut said staying on the Royal Teton Ranch is, at least for now, the right thing to do.

''I know that if I would go to Bozeman, I could run (the church) for 37 percent less money,'' he said. ''(However,) we have said, first of all, to our people, that this is the place. Because (spiritual leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet) received dictations about it. Second, we have attracted people from all over the world to come to this place. We have attracted people to Glastonbury. We owe these people something.

''I count on (Prophet) for that situation,'' Cleirbaut said. ''She and the Ascended Masters said this is our place of destiny.''

The reorganization orchestrated by Cleirbaut is aimed at bringing the church into the 21st century as a leaner, more loving operation. Cleirbaut said he wants to shed the group's mistaken image as a doomsday, survivalist, gun running ''cult.'' He and others at the top of the organization vigorously argue against such labels and dark stereotypes.

Instead, he wants the world to focus on the good things the church does.

Although some members resist the changes, others are eager.

"I think Gilbert is an excellent leader, and I have incredible trust in him,'' said Mary Jo Bennett of the Bozeman Teaching Center.''He is what the church needed to go forward. (Prophet) has given us the dictations, the masters have given us the direction, the path to go forward. We can't go back to the old ways.''

Bennett said when she joined the church in the early 1990s, she was skeptical about the way it was organized around Prophet, in part because of all the negative media attention the church had attracted. But when she heard Prophet speak,''it was authentic. ... She was sincere. She wasn't a fake.''

The church is counting on that kind of loyalty to take things to the next level.

The reorganization was dubbed''New Beginnings,'' and the first order of business was to get the group back on its feet financially. That has been done. Cleirbaut, a management consultant, brought it out of the red, eliminated the $120,000 per month deficit of recent years and streamlined the group's staff, businesses and vast property holdings.

The dream of a self sufficient, agricultural commune on the church's Royal Teton Ranch has also been abandoned. ''That was a very expensive experiment,'' said church vice president Murray Steinman.

Cleirbaut added, ''We have enough farmers, eh? We can buy the food. It's not like we're going to die when we don't do it anymore.''

Such things point to the possibility that the church could run its operations from a headquarters virtually anywhere in the world.

A $13 million deal with the U.S. Forest Service to sell the majority of the church's headquarters, the Royal Teton Ranch near Yellowstone National Park, is pending and the church's operations are being decentralized.

Conferences are no longer held on the ranch. There is a new push to emphasize teaching centers and study groups, including plans for a $400,000 teaching center in Livingston. Plans for the new Spring Creek headquarters project have been shelved and efforts have been put into designing a smaller, single building project that could be built anywhere.

''I don't know if Spring Creek is going to be the place,'' Cleirbaut said. ''The first thing we want to do is create decent offices where people can work. East Gate, that's going to be the most probable place where we're going to build a three level building.''

Members do not even have to be in Corwin Springs to find out what's news on the Royal Teton Ranch. You can touch base with the group on the Internet from anywhere in the world.

If and when the Forest Service deal goes through, is the Church Universal and Triumphant likely to hang around?

Cleirbaut said even though the costs to ''live and thrive here are very difficult, after we have attracted people here, I don't think (leaving) would be very honorable.''

The decentralization is a radical change for an organization once ruled by one person Elizabeth Clare Prophet. And only she can say for certain why she abdicated her authority to Cleirbaut, giving up the post of president while remaining spiritual leader. But she has declined requests for interviews for years.

Cleirbaut said the changes are driven in part by a need to create an organization that can live without ''Mother.''

''We want to be ready. If we can tomorrow have the organization ready that we no more need her three years from now ... hallelujah, we have done a miracle.''

Church members say the reorganization is about focusing on the future. Like the group's leaders, members want to shine the light on the good things about the group, to emphasize why they joined and why they stayed.

"It is an enormous change, but it is a necessary and beneficial change,'' Bennett said.''Change is the key here, how people are going to respond to it depends on their own ability to grow, how flexible they are, how anchored they are in their own faith.

"I can see how that would be difficult and painful for many people. I can see how some people would have a challenging time reorienting their direction. But I support the changes because I feel that they are critical for us, individually and as a community.''

But church critics believe the changes are about money and ''mainstreaming'' the group into something more palatable to more people, something they doubt can be done.

''The more Prophet bows out, the more people will dissipate,'' said Kathy Grizzard Schmook, a writer who has researched the church. ''You can't keep a corporate religion going, it doesn't work. You can't go from what they were to a religious machine. It will have a few zealous, peripheral members, but the core will be gone.''

Cleirbaut is much more optimistic. Part of his plan is to increase the group's membership, something at which, he conceded, the church has not been particularly successful in recent years.

''We're not very good at expanding,'' Cleirbaut said.

Overseas, Prophet draws a crowd, but ''then there is nobody over there,'' no facilities to welcome new converts ''so we can explain the teachings,'' he said. ''A lot of the crowd goes away.

''We attract 5,000 people and then we don't do anything. The main thing is that we don't focus attention. If you don't feed a plant and water it, it's not going to grow. We have to become visible.''

The church's leaders said they are looking into building more teaching centers overseas and hope to become more accepted in places like Russia and Europe.

''(We) look at Europe as a test case for the world as a whole,'' Cleirbaut said.

The church still has some nagging legal and financial problems. It still faces a lawsuit filed by Marlene Motzko, mother of Mitch Mandell, who died at the age of 34 in 1993 in a hail of gunfire outside his Glastonbury home. County and state lawmen gunned him down after he brandished a handgun and a sword.

Motzko is suing the church, which she claims lured her son in, took his money and then abandoned him in his time of need.

In addition, some Glastonbury residents, trying to sell their property, have also said they are determined to take their complicated land troubles with the church to court if they can't be resolved internally.

And many members are waiting to see what Cleirbaut and Prophet will do with the money if the sale of the Royal Teton Ranch goes through. After all, under the ''Law of The One,'' members in the 1980s had to contribute thousands to help pay for the holy land. They have a spiritual and financial stake in the deal and if the money isn't somehow reinvested or returned, there will be dissension in the ranks, some predict.

It is, in the end, the spiritual ties that bind this group together, Bennett said.

"Mother has always taught that your primary relationship is with God,'' she said.''That has got to be the focus.''

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