I started attending what was then called Young Church when I was 16 years old. I eventually became very involved in the church and started regularly performing in 5 minutes drama sketches during church services. I was in the first drama at the first church service Young Church had at the Ward Theater (Spring 1998). I went away to college and for a few years was apart from Young Church until the summer of 2000 when I became involved at the church again. I was baptized then and began doing weekend dramas again. By the end of that summer I had a person from the church ask me to consider quitting school and staying at the church. I didn’t do it, but my junior year of college I regularly commuted home on the weekends and continued in drama performances. By my senior year of college, I opted out of my lease at college and lived in Mount Pleasant to volunteer full time at the church and commute to college my whole senior year.
Eventually this led to me becoming a full-time staff member at the church when I was 22 years old. I had a degree in Social Relations and zero theological training. My job was to lead the weekend drama ministry, plan weekend services and outreach programs, and also to lead classes for the new people that would attend the church. As a result I met most people that attended the church more than a few times. I had conversations with people about their faith, baptized dozens (maybe over 100) people, and helped people start an active faith in Christ. As a young person, I thought this was the very best job in whole world. I believed (still do) strongly in Christ and to help others start their faith journey was an immense privilege.
There were other aspects of my job as well that were much less comfortable. I was described by BF, the senior pastor, as in charge of the front door and back door of the church. This meant that I would greet people when they attended, but also would talk to people as they were leaving. Or in many cases, I would have private meetings with individuals and encourage, ask, or command them to leave the church. These meetings were never initiated by me. In fact, I did not attend the inner circle staff meetings most of the time, but would be called into the meeting, told about a situation, and then asked to schedule a meeting to ask that person (or family) not to attend the church anymore. The reasons for someone not to attend the church would vary. The person could have been from a different faith background (Pentecostal comes to mind) and maybe their faith expressions (speaking in tongues, waving hands in worship) would be “distracting.” The person could have expressed dissent numerous times and no longer “fit” with the culture at the church. The person could have been connected to other churches previously and be asked to go back to those churches and reconcile their differences. Sometimes it seemed, that the reasons were absent. I can recall having a meeting with someone and encouraging them to find a different church and having zero understanding of the reasoning.
At times I wrote e-mails to people and these e-mails were heavily edited and rewritten by BF. Once an e-mail I had written was circulated to a group of people along with a list of common characteristics of a cult. I was embarrassed, scared, and ashamed. And this led to a lot of conversations with BF and his wife about how to handle the situation.
Eventually this type of responsibility began to weigh on me more and more deeply. People around me thought I was becoming less authentic and playing a role. The truth is I was. I was trying to play the role laid out before me and that I was paid (very minimally) to perform.
In the midst of this season I began dating someone from the church. Relationships in the church tended to move very quickly from dating, to engagement to marriage. I tried following that same script, but during that season of the church college debt was seen as a considerable sin. When it became clear that my fiancé had significant college debt this became an issue and at a staff meeting someone asked “why are they getting married?” Later that day PC talked to me and told me that I should call off my wedding which was in 3 weeks. SK was sent to talk to my fiancé about this and also to remove her from volunteer leadership. SK later met with us both and insisted that the church would not marry us and the reasoning was that God said so. It seemed that my fiancé was cast as the problem for this because she was the one removed from leadership and I was to remain on staff at the church. BF didn’t meet with us, despite numerous requests (he was both my pastor and my boss) until after I submitted and ended our engagement. The day she handed me back her engagement ring remains one of the most painful memories in my life. I moved on by being given more ministry responsibilities including preaching for the first time, shortly after this. I was told by BF that a curse was broken because there was divorce in my family history. I was also told by BF that the wife of one of the staff members and current elders didn’t “fit” the culture. It seems that the potential having another wife “not fitting” was a significant concern to him. Eventually my fiancé left the church and moved away. We had very little interaction after this and no contact now. I often worry about how she’s doing. She was treated much worse than I was.
And so I remained at this church, wounded, hurt, and continued to follow the confusing direction of church leadership. I even was brought into other conversations when people were asked to delay or cancel their engagements. One of the themes at this church is that a particular thing arises and then becomes a focus for awhile. Student debt is a problem so lots of college students began to quit school. Unhappy marriages are a problem so engaged couples are forced to delay or end their engagement. There are many examples like this.
However, the pain from the marriage ending began to build some anger in me and I would privately begin to defend others from being mistreated. I would never say publicly that I disagreed with BF and other leaders, but privately I would disagree. I recall sending an e-mail to BF in which I compared our church leadership with the Pharisees and cited point by point how the woes to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 could relate to our church. BF responded and “calmed me down” that things weren’t as bad as I thought.
In another situation, I began to defend someone in a staff meeting that I felt was being mistreated and talked about unnecessarily. Once this happened the focus of the meeting shifted and I became the sole problem. Staff members took their turns “discerning” what sins of pride, etc. I may have had that would make me see this differently. I was told by another staff member to “get a life” because I had defended in writing two other people from our church earlier that week. I can recall writing an e-mail called “getting a life” that announced I was leaving the church. I never sent it and so I remained there. Not surprisingly I was told shortly after this situation that I would no longer be a staff member. I was fired, but the words were instead “God told me…”
After being dismissed as a staff member, I remained a volunteer leader at the church for another six years before finally leaving with friends. I had another, similar experience, five years later when as a volunteer I was at a staff retreat and defended a friend in the meeting. Again the meeting became about me, and this time I defended myself. The group was shocked at the anger and refusal in my tone and even said so. One other volunteer leader in the room also sided with me, but most felt that I had a deep sin of anger, bitterness, etc. In fact, on the agenda that morning was to go to church in the city we were meeting, but instead of attending church, we spoke for several hours about me and what God was revealing through my stubbornness.
The next year of attending I rarely went to Sunday services. Or should I say, I went, but wouldn’t listen to the sermons. I would get up and leave because the controlling language, focus on identifying personal sin/wickedness, and insistence on unity and submission was grating on my soul. During one service I endured there was an alter call where people who were not forgiving were asked to come forward and most women in attendance did. I recall weeping during the service at the messages that women in our church were hearing. I talked to BF about this and he suggested that women were perhaps more open to hearing from the Spirit of God. That was the final straw. What I saw as a practice of preaching and teaching that was having a negative emotional effect on women and their self-image, BF saw as the Holy Spirit moving. It was after this interaction that I told my wife that we would need to leave or I was going to lose my faith.
There are stories on [here and the] Reddit page that refer to me as one of the people that hurt others. Those stories are true. I am more sorry than I can say for that behavior. I would also say that I don’t think the definition of cult is the best for Grace Church. I feel like the cult term brings up images of crazy-eyed weirdos and that better language would be regarding spiritual abuse or spiritual malpractice. The senior pastor is an ordained pastor and the church is a legitimate church. The problem is that BF has regularly committed malpractice and has surrounded himself with untrained staff members and volunteers leaders that are half his age. As a previous post stated there are over 100 people with these same stories for 20 years. Oh, Lord have mercy!
There has been a lot of truth written on this [site and Reddit]. It has come from a lot of different perspectives (anger, pain, etc.), but it is my hope that these truths will set people free. And the people I am thinking of are dear friends still at the church, current leaders that remain in denial of their behavior, the dozens of people I’ve had contact with over the past week that are still seeking to heal themselves or to bring change in the church, my family who endured changes in my behavior, and my own heart.