I grew up in Mt Pleasant and first attended the Young Church on occasion in high school when it was still an extension of First Baptist Church. My father was a minister at a church in town but after I graduated, my parents moved. I started seeking a church of my own and this one felt very different than the traditional church I had grown up in, and the fact that there were so many people my age was a huge draw. I quickly was approached to join baby church, I was shy and not very confident so I was cautious but joined. While I was happy to connect with people and to build relationships there was quickly some things that didn’t settle well. I was told that I was to serve 50 weeks a year, I told RG right up front that I had a wedding of a close friend the following Saturday (I served on the Saturday night team) and I was told I’d need to skip it, which I did.

I continued to serve on that team and about two years in, decided to apply for a summer internship. At first I was told no because “I didn’t have what it took,” but was later allowed to participate. We had to raise I believe $2500 to cover the cost of the internship. This wasn’t to cover our living expenses since we would be doing full time ministry, this was to be paid to the church. We had to pay them in order to work 40+ hour weeks for them. Like so many things from my days there, the internship is hard for me to detangle. In some ways that was the best summer of my life and in others the very worst. SB was another Children’s ministry intern, and she quickly became, and remains to this day, my best friend. I met great people that summer and had some fun, but serving under RG was brutal. He was harsh, and didn’t mince words. We were required to account for every hour of our day on our weekly schedule and at the end of the week we would sit with those schedules and be questioned on how we could have better used our time. There was a pretty strict “no hanging out” policy for us and all of our time was to be used wisely. SB and I spent a lot of time being berated when we didn’t measure up. RG showed up at my apartment one day to check the cleanliness of my room and my car. We were required to run as a group every weekday. I remember going to run one weekday morning and I was sick with the stomach flu, but I showed because my fellow interns would be required to run extra miles if I didn’t. During this run I stopped and walked and another intern reported me and I was lectured. We also went on pilgrimage, which is a brutal stress camping trip. That was probably one of the hardest weeks of my life, not because of the physical aspects but the emotion abuse. To say I was fearful of the trip would be an understatement, that was a time in my life where I didn’t carry a lot of self confidence, and rather than seeing those things in me and building me up I was yelled at, called out and mocked. There was one guy on the trip that was just as confrontational as RG. I was partnered with him one day and was yelled at all day long. He went as far as to mock my weight and while RG may not have been the one to say these things, he heard them and it was allowed and sadly this was common for females. When we got back from pilgrimage I went to my weekly meeting with my leader only to be surprised by the entire baby church leadership team I sat and ugly cried through the entire meeting as RG related what a disappointment I had been and again was told he wasn’t sure I had what it took.

I continued to serve on the team for quite a few years. The constant climbing of the spiritual ladder was common and like a lot of people I felt like I had arrived when I was placed into a leadership role. But it truly wasn’t leadership, I was just a pawn. I would meet with my leader and they would ask about the people under me and instruct me what to say and do with them. It was very much a pyramid type style system.

One of the harder things for me was SB leaving the church. There was a lot of leader involvement in a relationship she was in and I would often be questioned about it. It was an awkward position to be in and while I never believed she did anything wrong I still couldn’t go against leadership. After she left I was cornered one evening by a Children’s Ministry team leader, and with Bible in hand, she explained to me that it would be sinful to have any continued contact with SB. She had verses to back up her statements, and the sad thing is I complied, without any real question. For over two years I just disappeared from her life, and that will always be one of my biggest regrets.

Looking back, the level of “group think” was enormous. Most topics were not preached on they were just implied. It seems that every other month a new bandwagon would circle round and everyone would jump on. TV was a waste of time and a big no, after having kids women didn’t work, pain meds in child birth was a no, birth control was a no, friends outside the church was frowned on unless you were intentionally trying get them to church. Looking back most of these things I never really bought into, I was just quietly defiant, and over time that lead to a rumbling inside of me that things just weren’t right. One of the most troubling thing for me is the way women were treated. To this day, the term speaking truth in love has a very visceral effect on me. To me this was the gateway to a majority of the emotional and spiritual abuse. It gave free license to say whatever you wanted as long as you prefaced that it was being said with love. In my experience leadership meant power and power produced harsh words and domination. I saw this in marriages and women seemed to always feel that they had to do better, to do more, submit more, and to do all things with excellence. I watched people close to me stress about every morsel of food, constantly wondering and questioning if it was glorifying to their body. If there was a dating relationship that the church didn’t approve of for some reason, it usually was because of some unconfessed sin in the female party.

My departure wasn’t forced or even dramatic, it was more of a gradual awakening. I was living with three roommates and there were some roommate issues that had been bubbling for awhile. Things came to a head and I became the target (some of it was certainly justified but there was enough blame to be shared). My roommate was dating a staff member and he suggested a surprise meeting. I came home that night and was ambushed. I could handle the roommate ambush but then later had a similar meeting with my leader. She sat me down and I was told that I was being removed from our large groups leadership team and was also told that we could no longer hold our large group at my house because of the sin there. She also said that “I better not embarrass her in front of leadership again.” Something in me broke at those words. It felt as if I wasn’t a human with real, legitimate hurts, but just a pawn in in the whole Young Church spiritual ladder game. Within a few weeks I was also removed from leading my team and I started to see things through a very different lens. I continued to serve but that quiet defiance started to roar a little louder. I withdrew little by little from ministry until I finally asked to take a break. I started spending a lot of time with the guy I’d end up marrying. Again, hanging out was a no no, so it was always on the sly. We talked about our doubts about things frequently. I remember arriving at the Ward for a Tuesday night service together but sitting separately once inside the building. BF spoke that night on how we were a church that was full of grace, I could barely sit through the entire service because I felt reality was so far from what I was hearing. I walked out of the Ward that night knowing it would be my last time there. I also knew that I was walking away from my entire life. I had watched SB go through it and had seen how no one even gave her a second thought after leaving. The choice was still an easy one. BF contacted me after he heard I was leaving and asked if I’d be willing to sit down with him. He said the focus of the church was shifting and he thought these changes would alleviate my concerns. I agreed and went with an open, hopeful mind. Within minutes I knew nothing had changed except the name on the marquee. He justified harsh leaders by saying they had a harsh or controlling spirit before coming to the church, and said that with prayer and time they would grow. He told me that no one in the history of the church had been asked to leave. I named two people that I knew had been and he justified and deflected again. He said that no one had ever told people they couldn’t talk to SB. I told him that a leader had done just that to me. He stammered a bit and said they must have been acting on their own because that directive didn’t come from staff leadership. I walked away fully confident in my decision.

So much of what happened didn’t seem weird or odd, but rather a way of life. It was the culture of the space we were in and it wasn’t until I separated myself that I was able to see just how toxic and damaging it was. While walking away wasn’t hard, learning to live again was and still is an adjustment. It took a long time to learn to be kind to myself, and even 10 years later I still hear the voice of the Young Church in my head. Your early 20s are formative years, and I find that things I learned and saw molded there creep into my marriage, my parenting, how I view myself and how I view God. Reading through these stories and reconnecting with a mass of people that have left or been kicked out over the years has brought a lot of these emotions back to the surface, but it’s also aided in healing old wounds. I just hope and pray others find that same healing.