I grew up in MI, but I have lived in 4 countries and now work for a large Christian international organization providing relief and development in areas of the world with extreme poverty or conflict. The story of my experience with Grace/Young Church during my college years 13 years ago reveals how I experienced harmful controlling leadership practices, but it also shows that reconciliation and redemption is possible.
I first got involved at G/YC as a freshman in 2002. I remember feeling as though I was part of something that was really special, exciting, and important during the first year I attended. I made many great friends and we spent more and more time together. It was fun and meaningful. Even my parents were impressed by the church where everyone was so committed to doing things in an excellent way. I helped lead a Freshmen ministry to recruit new people to the church at the start of my sophomore year. Most of those people who ended up joining the church had negative experiences and left as well, though there is at least one person who is still attending the church today. As I spent time on different ministry teams, I reported to different leaders who themselves reported to different leaders in a hierarchical structure. I had good relationships with my leaders who met with me and tried to help me grow spiritually. It became normal to have a leader that you would go to in order to process decisions and get feedback on life. I had one leader or another for the 3 years I attended the church.
It was during my sophomore year that I first recall feeling as though something was “off.” The sermons and “large groups,” which were equivalent to Bible studies, seemed to come back to two main themes: submission and “speaking the truth in love”. Submission meant never questioning or disobeying the “leadership” or the “God given authorities in one’s life.” In tandem, “speaking the truth in love” meant that the leadership had a biblical license to tell people about all the ways they were failing as a way to help them. My most vivid example of this was when I went on a thing called “pilgrimage,” which was an extreme camping trip involving trekking through the wilderness. It was a valued part of the church culture. The leaders who led my trip, JS and ML, would break people down by pointing out all the ways they failed when they struggled with the physical burden of the trip. I personally managed to escape intense negative focus and attention, but I felt helpless in supporting others because I felt like I could not challenge the way they were leading the trip. Witnessing this kind of leadership was difficult for me, but it had also become normal at the same time because everyone around me accepted it as normal. The often public examples of speaking the truth in love like during pilgrimage and the fact that these teachings were being repeated over and over in different forums began to make me uncomfortable.
I also began to notice that some active volunteers disappeared all of a sudden without explanation. When I asked about why the person “left,” I was told that it had something to do with not submitting to leadership or because of sin in their life that they did not want to address. It was implied that they should be avoided. This made me uncomfortable as well and started to create in me a sense of fear.
In 2004, my leader at that time in charge of bringing in new people to the church, JS, said to me that God told him that I should be on the construction team. I didn’t want to join the construction team, but I felt pressure to submit to his direction. I was then transferred to a new set of leaders. On the construction team, I had a new direct leader, SP, who submitted to the leader of the whole team, JT.
I tried to fit into the construction team with a good attitude. However, the expectation repeated to me over and over was that I must be at the church every Saturday to help the team make repairs or improvements to the church buildings.
I asked my leader, SP, if I could miss a Saturday for something like a wedding, vacation, funeral, or family commitment if I communicated it ahead of time. His response was that if I was truly committed to God and his church, then there was nothing more important that I could do at that time. I felt trapped.
A few months later, even though I knew it might disappoint my leaders, I decided to visit home one weekend and sent an email to my leader SP to let him know. I had not visited my family for around six months and I was looking forward to seeing them again around Thanksgiving. SP replied and asked if he could come over at 6am the next day to meet with me. When he arrived at 6am, he pressured me to change my decision to go home. He quoted Luke 14:26, which says that I need to hate my father and mother for the sake of God, which I now believe to be a misuse of the text. He accused me of not being committed, fearing my parents (instead of God), and failing to prioritize God and the church. This meeting made me feel very uncomfortable and burdened. I later called my parents and they convinced me to come home to process with them what was happening. When I arrived at home, my parents mentioned they thought the church was exercising unhealthy and controlling leadership and I should leave, but I decided to stay even though I knew I might face consequences for not submitting to my leader by going home for the weekend.
As was my fear, when I returned to Mt. Pleasant my leaders SP, JS, and JT requested to meet with me all together. The three of them told me how difficult I had been to lead and how it shouldn’t be so hard for me to follow God. As we went back and forth, I began to find my backbone and began to defend myself against the negative things they were saying about me. Eventually the meeting ended unfruitfully and I was officially told that I could leave the construction team since I never really committed anyways. They mentioned they were busy and they only wanted to invest time in people who were truly committed. I felt used, confused, and burdened. However, I still continued to attend the church. My friends were there. I felt like things could get better.
However, a few months later, I wrote a letter with my list of concerns and wrote it to JS. I outlined the control and manipulation I had experienced and was continuing to witness. I expressed how I didn’t see this reflect the love of Jesus. I hoped that the letter could help change some things. JS requested to meet with me in a coffee shop and asked me to leave the church. He told me I was not a good fit for the church.
In that moment, I had become one of those active volunteers that just disappeared. I was shunned by some close friends. I felt lost, hurt, and confused. But then I remember hearing a still, small voice, that sounded like Jesus to me, saying – “I am your good shepherd (John 10:11).” This reassured me.
I told two of my best friends what had happened, and they said, “if they asked you to leave, they asked us to leave too.” Their solidarity and support, along with that of another friend who had been asked to leave, was so helpful in those difficult months. I don’t know where I would be without them, and all three stood in my wedding a few years later.
6 years after I left the church, while I was visiting Mt. Pleasant, JS requested to meet with me. With tears in his eyes, he asked for my forgiveness. He told me that it was wrong to treat me the way he did. He humbled himself and took responsibility for how I and so many others had left the church confused and burdened. I had spent years processing what had happened to me at Y/GC, and I had already forgiven him; I was ready for reconciliation. My choice of forgiveness and JS’s humility made redemption and reconciliation a possibility, and eventually a reality. JS later left the church as well. We are friends to this day.
I’m grateful for the people I encountered and the good experiences I had at G/YC, and I celebrate the light that is there. I love them all. There are good people at G/YC who truly love others, and I imagine good things happen at the church all the time. The leaders have good qualities – they are parents and friends, and they laugh and suffer like the rest of us. I affirm their value, gifts, and potential. I also have my own blind spots and areas of my life that need work. At the same time, I have no hesitation in speaking publically regarding the spiritual malpractice and manipulation I experienced at this church. I take responsibility for going along with practices that made me uncomfortable for years, and I also hold the leadership, especially the senior pastor, accountable for fostering an environment for the manipulating leadership and tactics I experienced. While challenging the controlling and manipulative practices by the leadership, I also love them and believe in their possibility for redemption. Jesus calls us to love everyone and stand up for truth and justice. It is difficult for me to say this so directly, but I believe that the light that could be possible at this church is overshadowed by domineering, manipulative, and controlling practices, including a lack of transparency, lack of accountability, and lack of any meaningful change in response to those who have left.
The fact that I left 13 years ago and more and more stories are being shared about how the church is continuing to harm people with controlling leadership practices is disturbing and unacceptable. At the same time, I believe that redemption is possible as my story with JS demonstrates. While I’m sure it is difficult to hear difficult stories of what people experienced at G/YC and it might be tempting to feel attacked, I challenge the church leadership and members to listen to the concerns of many people like me, choose humility, take responsibility, and make the needed changes. Forgiveness is already fully extended; and reconciliation of good and just relationships is my hope.
The truth sets us free. The light is liberating. My prayer is that the light and the truth will shine through the all things and all people involved will be healed, freed, protected, and redeemed.