I spent eleven years at this place. While I’m still grateful for many experiences I had and relationships that formed there, these are overshadowed by negative experiences. Just reading what others have posted here is a healing experience. It’s helpful to see the hurtful patterns that have persisted over time. These were not isolated incidents. Since others have done such a wonderful job systematically enumerating problems with the leadership culture, I might just share some stories.
Part of my process of healing is finding compassion and forgiveness for myself, to help dissolve some of the overwhelming shame that comes from having gotten so enmeshed in this place for so long. One thing I know is that the church met an important need for me. My personality is such that I’m always searching for a more meaningful existence. The elitism of this church fed my desire to be a part of something significant, bigger than myself, maybe even something world-changing. In those early days I remember more talk about “para-church ministries” than about Jesus; we were doing the most, we were the best, and definitely better than all those “campus ministries” who were not real churches at all.
Fast forward a few years. I did two of the ask-your-family-and-friends-for-thousands-of-dollars summer internships that have already been described here by others. I so idolized the leaders of the church that my wildest dream was to be asked to quit college and work for the church full-time. I honestly think that much of my volunteer effort there was pointed at that goal. And I loved college. I loved the degree I was getting, the experience of living on campus, the professors, the community. Imagine the kind of institutional culture that causes someone like me to be ready to give all that up at the drop of a hat just for the opportunity to serve these men (and as you’ve probably gathered, all of the leaders with any real authority were and probably still are men) that I idolized, full-time. I envied their spiritual authority, their obviously hard-earned special relationships with God, their strategic mindsets, their careful planning and faithful adherence to down-to-the-fifteen-minute schedules for every waking hour of their days, their latest edition Mac laptops. And to make it even better, this was apparently all unequivocally, thoroughly endorsed by the creator of the universe. They made this holy mission look cool. I wanted everything they had. They gave me a clear direction for my life.
And once I was in, I sure as hell wasn’t going to go looking anywhere else for that sense of direction. I quickly absorbed the elitist message and believed that our church and churches _exactly_ like ours (were there any?) were the only _true_ Christians who were _really_ following Jesus.
Here’s a funny one: I was doing an internship on the video team. It was midweek and I was working on a video that would be shown at the service that Sunday. I had a vision for the feel of the video that my leader didn’t quite agree with. A couple days earlier he had made a suggestion. Upon learning I still hadn’t incorporated his suggestion a day or two later, he began a long, late-night intervention in which he accused me of a “spirit of stubbornness” and ended up questioning my salvation. This probably went until the early hours of the morning, an experience which left me reeling and was, unfortunately, not uncommon.
In fact, we had an extremely aggressive (and seemingly arbitrary) schedule that summer. When it quickly became clear that the schedule was entirely unrealistic, did we adjust the schedule? LOL NOPE. Our “leader” pushed us harder. I remember a string of three or four all-nighters in a row, during which we were desperately trying to meet a (missed?) deadline while being punished with extra-hard runs in the mornings. It was the first time I experienced hallucinations due to lack of sleep. HA HA WHAT A CHARACTER BUILDING EXPERIENCE THOUGH AMIRITE?
Here’s another funny one: I lived with a guy who was a part of one of those “para-church ministries.” He wanted to, you know, be friends. He wanted to do things together occasionally, like watch a movie or go out to eat. So what did I do? I told him if he wanted to “hang out” (which I’m sure I said in a condescending tone), he needed to let me know a week or two ahead of time so I could put it on my schedule. Know why that was? Certainly some of it was my own predisposition towards planning and control, but it was magnified 10x by the fact that every week I spent five or six hours on Sunday writing up my weekly report, Love Action Plan, detailed schedule for the next week, and _a corrected schedule for the previous week_. You see, I was asked to make corrections to my schedule to highlight the differences between what I planned and what actually happened. I would turn all this in to my leader each week. Needless to say, my roommate and I never became friends.
How about a painful one? Three of my best friends in the world at the time left the church, I think during one of those summers. Actually, two of them were asked to leave, and the third left on principal because of what happened to the other two. Do you think I maintained close relationships with my best friends in the world, the people with whom I had probably been spending 80 hours/week? LOL NOPE. I dropped them almost entirely and I don’t even remember why. Maybe I was told to or maybe I just picked up on the message that no longer communicating with them in any meaningful way was the most Christlike message I can send to those who don’t cut it at the best church in the world. I am immensely grateful that one of them has been taking it upon himself to get us back together every once in awhile so we can process our experiences and salvage our relationships.
You know what else makes me real sad? The ways that I distanced myself from my immediate family. I skipped my sister’s high school graduation because I was behind on making the video for the service that weekend. My dad could sense that things were off about this church not long after I joined, but it was already too late. I already suspected he and the rest of my family of not being true Christians, so I didn’t even consider his opinion for a moment; the only thing I thought about was how to tell him I was going to join the video team, despite his warning. I spent at least five years having very distant relationships with my family. It breaks my heart when I realize I put them through what michigan2288 is experiencing now.
How about Barry? I was always so intimidated by him. Like, any time I would talk with him, I was instantly putting on a complete show. So little of my actual self showed up in those interactions. Whether it’s what he intended or not, his way of being made me want to impress him and sound smart. I was hyper-analyzing every minute detail of our interaction in real-time because I knew that’s what he was doing too. As I read others writing about him, I found myself thinking, oh shoot, you better be careful. Then I realized: I’m _still_ afraid of this man. Despite six years of distance, he still looms large in my psyche.
And MY GOODNESS, no one has written on here about “pilgrimage trips” yet. I don’t have the energy to do these monstrosities justice, but here’s the cliff notes: all the interns, and eventually others, were taken on these “extreme camping” trips in Canada. There are countless stories of intense, pointless suffering. You’ll find a handful of people with permanent physical scars on the backs of their necks from portaging canoes for long distances without pads or assistance. Helping your struggling fellow travelers was forbidden. I think the idea in the leaders’ minds was to expose people to more and more stress, push them so stupidly far beyond their comfort zone that 1) they realize their own potential to do more than they thought, and 2) everyone breaks down and you find everyone’s weaknesses. Most of those weaknesses were probably _created_ by the unique and ridiculous circumstances, but never mind that! If anyone decided this was absurd and refused to collude, that was of course seen as a weakness too. Then, at night around the campfire, it was time to debrief the day and highlight everything that anyone did wrong. Towards the end of the trip we wrote “tombstones” for each other, which meant writing down strengths and weaknesses you saw in every other person on the trip. I don’t remember much focus on strengths. Ironically, I actually enjoyed these trips. Know why? I enjoyed challenges, especially physical ones, and I was in great shape, so the trips were less demanding for me than they were for others. Doesn’t that just help show how silly they were? I’m realizing now that the whole thing felt ableist and elitist.
Gosh, I feel like I’m just scratching the surface. I could probably keep writing for a week straight. But I’m tired. I’m tagging someone else in.