My story with Grace Church (then The Young Church) started over 17 years ago. While most of the damage done to my heart occurred in the earlier years I was involved, I’ve continued to have red-flag experiences when talking to friends still heavily involved at GC. Though I’m on the outside now, my most recent negative experience with GC was yesterday. A close friend of 17 years learned yesterday that when I left GC, it was because I had serious concerns about the leadership. Fearing I would lose her friendship, I had stayed silent for years. Yesterday, when she learned I had added my initials to the statement on gracechurchexposed.org that I either left the church due to mistreatment or serious concerns about the leadership, she seemingly cut off my friendship. This was one of the closest friendships of my life. While I’m saddened it reached this point so abruptly, I mostly find myself wishing I hadn’t been so naive. I’ve seen this pattern at GC so many times over the years. It’s not surprising it happened to me.

I share my story today not out of anger but out of true concern for those still involved at GC and those who could potentially become involved in the future. If you’re still there and you’re reading this today, please know I honestly love you and want to see you rescued. You probably can’t see the ways the damaging teachings of GC are affecting you because you’re still on the inside. My prayer is that you’ll find true healing and freedom.

My husband and I started attending GC in December 2000 when we were newlyweds. He had graduated from college that spring and started his career. I was a week away from graduation. We were immediately impressed by everything we experienced at the Sunday morning service. From the music to the lighting to the video, everything was done with excellence. The atmosphere was inviting; the teaching was passionate. My husband and I strongly desired to make a difference for Christ, and this seemed like a place we could easily do that.

Soon after we began attending, we met BF and told him about our past experience in ministry and our desire to get involved. He told us because we had been attending another church, he needed to speak with our former pastor first to make sure we didn’t have any unresolved issues. I remember feeling relieved when I learned we passed the test.

Since I had just graduated from college, I was ready to begin my career and start paying my college loans. BF told me the church had a need for an office assistant, and while they didn’t have the funds to pay me at first, he hoped they would be able to at some point. Wanting to make a difference and also make my new pastor happy (it was really hard to say no to BF), I agreed. I thought 10-20 hours of volunteer service would be sufficient, but the other pastor, SK, challenged me to work 30 hours. This job would turn out to be the worst job of my life, but more about that later.

Weeks after we began attending, we saw our first red flags. My husband and I attended a winter retreat, and since we were one of the only married couples attending, we asked in advance if we would have our own space to sleep or if we would be in separate cabins. We learned we would be in separate cabins, and while that wasn’t our preference, we were okay with that. Then when we arrived for the retreat we learned we weren’t allowed to ride together because specific van assignments had already been made. To us that seemed ridiculous. We were newly married and barely knew anyone at the church, yet we were basically being asked to spend the entire weekend apart. My husband spoke privately to one of the leaders, and we were given permission to at least ride in the same van.

After returning from the retreat and getting settled in my new “job,” I quickly began to see more red flags. I was given little direction and wasn’t invited to staff meetings. One day when I tried to leave at my scheduled time, I was challenged by a staff member to run an errand for the church. I explained I had a personal commitment and could not do that. My boundary wasn’t respected, and I was pressured into running the errand. This experience greatly affected me, so I wrote a letter to the staff member I felt violated me. Instead of apologizing, he arranged a meeting with me to discuss my priorities. During that meeting he told me that God and the church should be central in my life. Anything the church asked you to do was basically what God asked you to do. If you weren’t willing to make the sacrifice, it showed a problem with your priorities and your relationship with God.

Another time I needed to attend an out-of-town doctor’s appointment. I also wanted to visit my mom who was going through a crisis and lived near the doctor’s office. I was challenged by BF not to visit my mom because I had responsibilities at the church that were more important. I expressed to BF that in a normal job I would be given sick time or personal time, and I didn’t think asking for one day off after working there for nearly four months was too much to ask.

Around this time I also began serving in children’s ministry. BF’s wife was about to have a baby, and BF said they really had a need for a leader to step up. Even though this wasn’t a ministry that interested me, I felt important knowing I was needed. Besides the 30 hours I was working in the office, I was also spending approximately 20 hours a week serving in children’s ministry.

Some time after agreeing to serve in children’s ministry, I learned about something called the ministry cycle. Even though I believed I was stepping in to meet a short-term need, I learned I was expected to stay in the ministry until I had trained a leader to replace me. This I would never be able to do and therefore served as a children’s ministry leader with little joy until November 2003.

As a children’s ministry leader, I was trained to do several things that violated my conscience. First, I was trained to speak the truth in love to my team members, which really meant to criticize any weakness or mistake and to dig into the team member’s life for personal sin. Starting in 2003, I was also required by my children’s ministry leader to turn in schedules detailing how I planned to spend my waking hours, a revised schedule of the previous week showing how I had actually spent my time, an explanation for any discrepancies, a love action plan detailing those I was reaching out to, and a report. The report especially violated my conscience because I was expected to detail any meetings I had with team members that week and disclose personal information they had shared with me. Completing my weekly schedules and report usually took about four hours.

The most damaging thing of all that happened to me at GC happened at a children’s ministry conference. One night I was in a conversation with the children’s ministry leader, when she suddenly asked me, “Have you always been so self-focused?” I didn’t realize I was self-focused, so I asked her to explain. She detailed all the things I had done or said while at the conference that showed this negative character trait. I was deeply hurt, and while I forgave her, this wound greatly affects me to this day. One of the most joyful things in my life is connecting with others, yet I cannot do so without questioning everything I’ve said and done. While I admit there may have been some truth to what my leader told me, the manner in which is was done felt completely unloving.

Another thing I was challenged to do as a children’s ministry leader was to travel to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada for a week-long canoeing trip with other children’s ministry leaders and volunteers. My children’s ministry leader told me this was important so I could challenge those I was leading to also attend one day. I didn’t want to go but decided to in order to remain in good standing with my leader. Some parts of the trip were enjoyable, but overall the trip was a negative experience. While the women on the trip treated me with kindness, the men repeatedly challenged those in the group not to make idle chit-chat and to work harder. The physical pain of carrying a canoe on my neck and shoulders often filled me with nausea, and most nights at the campfire we were called out for not speaking the truth in love (criticizing others) enough. I recently read my journal from the trip where I expressed my frustration about the continual challenge to speak the truth in love. I wondered why we couldn’t simply show each other kindness and tenderness. I also wrote in my journal that I wanted to speak up about my thoughts but knew my leader would try convincing me he was right until I gave in.

At this point I was no longer working for the church. I had left my office assistant position the summer of 2001. Since the church couldn’t pay me, I had no way to pay off my college loans. I found a job that required travel during the months of September through November, meaning I would only be home on the weekends. My weekends were filled with various ministry meetings and serving at the Sunday service. My job required about 50 hours of time each week, and I was also volunteering 25 hours a week in ministry. I was only allowed time off on rare occasions, and getting permission to take a vacation was a constant struggle. At one point we were even challenged not to see family on the holidays but to stay in Mt. Pleasant to celebrate with our GC family. Clearly things were not healthy, and I was not healthy. I met my goal of paying off my college loans by the summer of 2003. At that point I left my job because of stress.

In the spring of 2003, while I was working and volunteering 75 hours a week, I found out I was pregnant with our first child. Five weeks later I suffered a miscarriage, one of the most difficult experiences I’ve gone through. In general, I received very little compassion from those in the church but received an overwhelming amount of compassion from those outside the church. During that time of heartache, I read a book that opened my eyes to the truth and helped me see the unhealthy patterns of our church. I decided it was time I stopped letting the church rule my life and to focus on my personal relationship with God instead. It took time to figure out how to do that, but I can honestly say that after my miscarriage things were never quite the same. While I stayed in children’s ministry for several more months (attempting to fulfill the ministry cycle before I left), the church had less and less of a hold on me. I was never able to find and train someone to replace me in children’s ministry. While I wanted to get out of my role, I honestly had no desire to bring someone else into an unhealthy situation. In November 2003 my leader released me from my ministry duties because he knew I didn’t want to be there.

I never went back to submitting to leaders in quite the same way after that. I was extremely cautious when I entered back into ministry in the fall of 2004. I wasn’t allowed to do some of the ministries I most wanted to do and was challenged to join the hospitality team, but I didn’t see it as a good fit and refused. I proposed joining the Baby Church team. A year after having a miscarriage God blessed us with a baby girl, so I thought that might be a good fit. I decided I wasn’t going to be talked into serving more than I wanted. I also decided that if I ever wanted to leave the ministry, I would simply leave without feeling guilty for not completing the ministry cycle.

Overall Baby Church was a good fit for me, and over the years, there were less and less red-flag moments. There were still things I didn’t agree with, but I guess the difference was I didn’t feel like I had to submit to the church to have a right relationship with God. The pain I saw the church cause others, however, was impossible to ignore.

In the fall of 2004, a new couple joined our church. I enjoyed getting to know these new friends and tried to help them feel comfortable and loved. But early in 2005, leadership asked them to leave for not being a good fit and possibly having beliefs that would conflict with Grace Church beliefs. A year or so later, another friend felt God calling him to seminary. He was challenged by the church to set this dream aside and continue serving faithfully at GC. This took the form of a large group meeting, where church leadership questioned his motives for wanting to pursue something outside of GC.

My husband and I talked many times over the years about leaving. It seems like leaving should have been so simple. We knew, however, that leaving the church while still living in the community would be incredibly difficult. We would lose all our friends overnight. We convinced ourselves the good at the church outweighed the bad, because there truly was a lot of good. My husband was ready to leave before I was. Finally in July of 2009, I decided it was time to go. I had been at a women’s teaching time, and the women’s ministry leader was asking us to search our hearts for any secret sin in our lives related to laziness. I was sitting with two women I admired. Both were hard workers and delightful women of God. As they were trying to come up with something, I stopped them and spoke truth to them. I told them they were amazing and beautiful and God loved them so much just as they were. If they had some obvious sin that would be one thing. But they didn’t. They were searching because that is what we were taught—to always be introspective. I went home that night and told my husband I was ready to leave the church.

We chose to leave on good terms. My husband found a job in another city, and we moved away in February 2010. While we know we could have told the leadership everything we thought before leaving, we had seen others who left before us bring up concerns. Their concerns were dismissed, and changes were not made. Starting over in a new city wasn’t easy, but God led us to a wonderful, healthy church. He knew exactly what we needed. I can’t count the number of times I’ve cried tears of gratitude for where we are now.

Over the years I’ve maintained several friendships at GC. Some have dwindled away, but some have remained. One ended yesterday, and I have no promise of ever having this friend in my life again. If she becomes free, I believe we’ll be friends again. I have one dear friend still there. I won’t mention you by name, but please know I love you and want to see you rescued. I know your character, and I’m quite sure you won’t cut off our friendship over this. I hope to keep my friendship with you; it has meant so much to me over the years.

Some may argue that all these things happened in 2009 or before and that the church has changed. Yes, I’m sure it has in some ways. But the systems and unhealthy patterns that existed while we were there to some degree continue to exist today. They are part of the church’s DNA, something we were taught about on numerous occasions. I met with a friend from GC nine months ago and had a red-flag moment in my conversation with her. She told me a leader had warned her to keep her daughter away from a former member of GC in the community—a member who was perceived to have a lot of bitterness. The patterns continue. Leadership will deny methods of control, manipulation, and shame, but the stories speak strongly. It’s time the leaders are accountable to someone other than BF and themselves.