From her post at the Royal Teton Ranch, guru Elizabeth Clare Prophet had dictated the message of Armageddon. And her followers had geared up for it, filled with fear.
Prophet's followers believed they had the tools to survive. High ranking members of the Church Universal and Triumphant had spent years assembling a cache of arms, ammunition and armored personnel carriers in anticipation. The followers had their faith, a place to go and hunker down in fallout shelters. Stores in Livingston sold out of flashlights and canned food, and storekeepers watched in amazement.
Once equipped, the followers went underground.
''(Prophet) did not go on network television and say, 'Get thee to a bomb shelter, the world is going to end.' But she brought people from all over the world with the rhetoric of her dictations and prophecy that the end is coming and that this is the only space to survive,'' said Kathy Grizzard Schmook, an author who has researched the church.
''Thousands of people came. It was unbelievable. They filtered in over a period of time and what you saw happening was the tone of the town began changing. It was just like a powder keg,'' she said.
Church members felt the tensions too.
''It could have been horrible,'' said Sean Prophet, Elizabeth's oldest son. ''We could have ended up like Waco. If somebody had made a mistake, or if the government had acted rashly. Anything like that, on either side.''
But the world didn't end. And that changed everything.
Members, disoriented, awoke to a whole new reality. They now look back and call that time of their lives the ''shelter cycle.'' After months of dire predictions, their faith and their trust in Prophet were shaken.
''What is clear is that as a result of the shelter cycle in 1990, we lost lots of members,'' said church President Gilbert Cleirbaut, who estimated that about 30 percent of the members left. ''If you think about the period before the shelter cycle, a lot of stuff was focused on, 'We have to be ready.'''
Cleirbaut gave up his job in Europe and ''was preparing myself for ... possible nuclear war and all the stuff like that. After the shelter cycle, (when it) didn't happen, I had to go sit down and say, 'Hey ... the world goes on.' I have to start to think about the future.'''
He realized he could not make a living in Montana, ''because the economy is almost nothing'' and moved his family to Canada.
''A lot of people were mad or disgruntled because nothing happened,'' acknowledged Cleirbaut, who came back in 1995 to help Prophet pick up the pieces and became president in 1996. ''I was extremely happy that nothing happened. But all of our decree focus was on that. We were more in the survival mentality than in the future mentality.
''All of the sudden, there you are, nothing happened. Your pockets are a little bit more empty because you have invested lots of money in all that stuff. And people wake up. They say, 'Hey, what are we going to do now?'''
>From the outside looking in, people in Park County had watched the whole scenario in amazement. When nothing happened, locals figured the doomsday prophecy was just another one of those crazy things that the ''culties'' have done. The international reporters that had flocked to town went home. And even the church leaders now agree that when the prophecy failed to come true, it changed the world for those who believed that ''Mother'' had all the answers.
The shelter cycle evolved into the church's ''second life cycle,'' Cleirbaut said. And members of the New Age sect attracted to teachings about karma and reincarnation, communal living and a mix of Eastern and Western religions now find their world being reinvented around them.
''As a result of the shelter cycle, the growth came to a halt,'' Cleirbaut said.''We entered a phase of decline. I came in here when the funds were no longer available the way they were before. The membership was no longer available the way they were before.''
Observers and church critics say the second cycle had to happen; the group is strapped for cash, the guru is sick, members are disillusioned and the church has no choice but to realign.
Cleirbaut, who brings to his job an expertise in ''change management,'' has been charged with orchestrating a shift from a general state of survivalism to what he hopes will be a placid, ''loving'' congregation of believers focused on the teachings.
''It's so difficult for us when people hear about this organization or people read in a book about us,'' he said. ''Not that what we offer is going to be fitting for everyone. It fits for me, but it might not be right for you. But I think we have something unique.''
Unique, yes, but it has to change, he added.
''The old ways of doing things won't survive,'' William Malek, head of strategic planning, told members in a newsletter. ''The world is changing and we have to change, too.''
Cleirbaut says the first step is asking members what they like and dislike about the group and what headquarters can do to create ''customer delight.''
''And guess what, their needs were really quite different'' than expected, he said. ''There were a lot of things that we thought people needed that they didn't really need. What came out was they wanted practical spirituality 'Give us practical things that can make us better, that can create a community, that can create a family. We have the decrees, the prayers, all the things like that. But how is this going to make me better?'''
So, being the business consultant that he is, Cleirbaut got Prophet and her business manager and former husband, Ed Francis, on board and they went to work.
The changes in the cult over the past two years have been tremendous, but they can be loosely organized into four categories:
Reorganization of leadership: Prophet turned over the post of president to Cleirbaut; Prophet remains spiritual leader; Prophet and Francis divorced but Francis stayed on as financial and legal advisor.
Sale of land: A deal is being worked out to sell two thirds of the Royal Teton Ranch, at the edge of Yellowstone National Park, to the U.S. Forest Service; lots in the once exclusive, members only Glastonbury subdivisions were opened up to outsiders; construction and farm equipment were auctioned off; and plans for a massive new headquarters were shelved.
Reorganization: Hundreds of staff members were laid off; recruiting and investment efforts were shifted to teaching centers; annual conferences were moved off the ranch; the ranch's elementary Montessori school was closed; and subsidiary businesses sold off.
High tech communication: Years of teachings were put on CD Rom; the church set up an Internet site; and Prophet hosts a radio talk show with co host Murray Steinman, the group's former astrologist and vice president of communication.
In the midst of this, Prophet, who has turned down repeated requests for interviews, has apologized for ''past mistakes'' and bowed to Cleirbaut's theories of change.
''Unfortunately, what happened was Mother's health situation created this kind of unhealthy balance,'' Cleirbaut said. ''We are still selling the same kind of teachings, but we want to make it more attractive. What I am doing is laying a foundation not only for a new organization but also for the threat of, what if Mother isn't there tomorrow?''
Cleirbaut is very business like about the changes, but the effect on members has been tremendous. Staff members are being let go and many others are seeing something they don't like and taking flight. Francis has said staff members were leaving because they ''didn't like change.''
But not everyone agrees. North Glastonbury resident Malcolm Kenley said his desire to leave is as simple as the fact that he doesn't want to be anywhere near the sect's leadership anymore. ''I want them to buy me out,'' Kenley said. ''We came here for the spiritual life. I know one thing. I don't want to be here.''
''The times are changing,'' Ascended Master Jesus, December 1996. ''You are on track. Keep on, beloved, for you are molding and remolding this organization and its members into a high quality performance team that can work together, that can overcome individual idiosyncrasies and bring ... that intensity of fire that has burned within your temple since the beginning of time as God has led you to this moment when there is ultimately no limit to what you can accomplish.''
ÜFrom a church newsletter
The sect was founded in 1958 by Mark Prophet, a student of Theosophy and the Mighty I AM. He was a door to door salesman who created his own religion, according to Schmook. Started as the Summit Lighthouse, the group's teachings are based on communication from the Ascended Masters, also known as the Great White Brotherhood, beings who once lived on earth, realized their own divinity and reunited with God.
Elizabeth Prophet, who defines herself as the appointed ''messenger,'' hooked up with Mark Prophet in 1961. The couple claimed they shared power and were the former embodiments of Lancelot and Guinevere from Camelot, among others.
In the Church Universal and Triumphant, there used to be lists of rules for members a ''code of conduct'' that included celibacy for single members; no oral sex for married members and a prohibition on drugs, alcohol and homosexuality. Those who broke the rules were required to appear before the guru.
Prayer services, with ritual chanting called ''decreeing,'' take place daily in an attempt to mold a person's karma, control world events and prevent disasters.
The teachings attracted dozens, then hundreds and eventually thousands of people around the world.
As the group grew, the Prophets began preparing for a siege, or doomsday, in the 1970s. Members began to buy gold and silver, accumulate weapons and build shelters. The intention was to protect the messenger, Schmook said. During those years, Francis was charged with looking for a survival community. After Mark Prophet died, Francis struck out from the church's headquarters in Colorado, and later California, on real estate tours in Idaho and Montana.
The church landed on the Royal Teton Ranch in Corwin Springs in 1981. Elizabeth declared the ranch to be holy ground. She and Francis said they intended to create a self sufficient community of members, living in isolation.
''This is the New Age, beloved. Get beyond it before it gets beyond you, for you are moving onward.'' Ascended Master the Goddess of Liberty, July 1997.
ÜFrom a church newsletter
The group moved along in a veil of secrecy and intense desire for privacy. But the shelter cycle heightened tensions between the church and its neighbors. The community, environmentalists, journalists and authors started taking a closer look at the group.
It was like peeling an onion, but research slowly unveiled alleged tax and immigration violations, charges of environmental abuses, questionable political activities, dissension among members and problems right in the Prophet home.
Now the group, under Cleirbaut's leadership, is attempting to shift its image to that of a New Age religious corporation. It is putting money and energy into teaching centers and study groups with the goal of abandoning authoritarian leadership and shifting to ''servant leadership.''
''We strongly feel that the real work is going to be done outside, and not in headquarters,'' Cleirbaut said.
This ''mainstreaming'' of the church revolves around a 36 step approach developed and copyrighted by Cleirbaut. It started in 1995 and involves church headquarters doing the ''steering,'' providing ideas and direction, while members do the ''rowing.''
Cleirbaut says the church tossed out the old ''code of conduct'' and replaced it with a ''new culture.''
The church is no longer a ''rule based'' organization. In fact, the leaders don't even like to use the word ''rule'' anymore, they said. ''When you have the holy spirit, you don't need rules,'' Prophet wrote in November. ''When you embody your Christ self, you always know the answers.''
The new code has fewer bans on behavior, he said. ''''There was too much emphasis on 'don't dos.' (Rules like) you could have sex twice a week and all that stuff that's all over.''
But church literature includes a 30 page book outlining how members should behave, treat each other, interact with the messenger. And homosexuals and convicted sex abusers are still not welcome, Cleirbaut said.
He said he doesn't think of these as rules, per se, but as vision and mission and goals. To make sure everyone in the group is accountable, employees must study the booklet and will be measured on the attention to these points.
''We explain to them why we have to change and why we are giving you time to absorb,'' he said.
Members will be evaluated by their colleagues several times a year. The first time ''everyone gets feedback ... without any consequences. No reward and no penalties.'' The second time, six months later, the church reviews how the person measured up to their peers' feedback. The third review is conducted by Cleirbaut. ''I will for the first time see the ones who are good, the ones who are not good. And I will say, 'Well what are we going to do with this employee?'''
He sees it as a ''more compassionate'' approach than putting people on probation and that 90 percent of the members will subsequently ''make incredible kinds of improvements.''
"In the old code of conduct, you (step) over the line, 24 hours you are out of here. We're talking about a year's time. That's a difference.''
The new approach to modifying members' behavior is not only meant to make it a leaner, more efficient business, but also to attract new members.
''Meanwhile, the changes have created some very positive things for some people and also some negative things for some people,'' Cleirbaut said.
''But we have to do it,'' he said.