KICKED OUT FOR SUGGESTING A WOMEN'S MINISTRY
By Aaron M.
KICKED OUT FOR SUGGESTING A WOMEN'S MINISTRY:
OFFERING TO FIX A PROBLEM GOT US LABELED AS A PROBLEM TO BE FIXED
- Author: Aaron M. | Service Team Lead, Worship Team Member, Church Plant Team
- Network Churches attended:
- Blue Sky Church, Seattle (Bellevue), WA | 2012-2016
- Vista Church, San Luis Obispo, CA | 2016-2021
- This story was published January, 2022
In 2016, I gave up everything to help plant Vista church. I sacrificed and served as much as anyone. So, why am I now on the outside? Whether or not you’ve heard a version of my story, please listen and consider how Jesus’s sheep are being treated by their “shepherds.”
Note: My wife’s name has been intentionally left out, but she agrees with this account. She is the true heroine and martyr in this story, which is just as much hers as it is mine, if not more so. My involvement comes as a result of Vista’s androcentric culture of dealing with a woman’s husband rather than dialoging directly with her.
WANTING TO HELP
You’ve probably heard that “we don’t do programs” in network churches. However, Vista does have small groups, service teams, Vista series, Team Vista, Membership Bible Training, retreats, and, of course, a kid’s program. So why not a women’s program?
My wife “married into” the church in 2019; and by the end of that year, she sensed the need for greater connection among the women in the church. Specifically, on her heart was a desire to see women built up and for there to be a place for their gifts to be valued. She offered to get a Bible Study going for women and was told plainly that the church would provide no help or support for that. As we discussed the options that were available within the context of a network church, she became increasingly frustrated that the male-only leadership was failing to care for women. She (along with many like-minded women who have since left) knew that there was a tangible need for women’s programming but felt stifled by the unspoken need to receive permission.
There was a tangible need for women’s programming that felt stifled by the male-only leadership.
FALLING OUT OF FAVOR
With the hope of getting their “blessing” to do something, my wife broached the topic with the female children’s director in January 2020 and later with our friend Jeff who was a small group leader (not our actual group leader). Both functioned as intermediaries for Luke Williams (lead pastor of Vista church), whom my wife felt was unapproachable and didn’t take her seriously. As the conversations progressed by proxy, the filtered message that began to come through was an unapologetic rejection of programs and a clear displeasure with her for the audacity of offering to help launch a women’s ministry. The biggest frustration was the hypocrisy of wanting women’s growth to happen “organically” while, at the same time, touting small groups (where men’s growth is given primary focus) as the answer to all that ails the church.
The lead pastor dismissed her request and chided her “prideful” motivations for offering to help launch a women’s ministry.
The unreasonableness of what we were hearing was incredible, so, wanting to give Luke the benefit of the doubt, I followed up with him directly a few weeks later. He began with the standard party line about programs, but he also chided her “prideful” motivations in desiring to be a leader. I didn’t see it then, but I believe this is an example of gaslighting and flipping the script. Lamentably, having never been the target of such an attack from the elders, I repeated the conversation to my wife without emphatically rejecting it as malicious, which by extension added my voice to theirs. The result on my wife was profound: severe depression, self-doubt, shame, and an existential crisis on what it even meant to “submit” and follow Jesus. Further talks with friends who tried to “graciously” interpret Luke’s criticism only made the matter worse.
My friend Mark is an elder of Vista Church. He’d been a friend for 10+ years, my small group leader for almost 5 years, housemate for 2 years, and was even a groomsman in my wedding. So, I naturally wanted to get his take on the discipleship of women in the church. Because of COVID, that conversation was delayed until May 2020 when we could talk in person. Sadly, he seemed more disturbed by my questions than by the disenfranchisement of women in the church he was “leading.” He frequently said that he wanted to see me “do well” (code for fall into line) and reminded me that I’d made a commitment to the church plant when I came down with the plant team.
A church elder seemed more disturbed by my questions than by the disenfranchisement of women in the church he was “leading.”
My wife and I were unhappy but continued attending with the hope of future conversations and a chance at changing things for the better. The church wasn’t meeting in person during this time, so it was unclear what the leaders’ mood toward us was. When we started meeting again that fall, there seemed to be an unspoken mistrust on both sides, but Jeff again interceded with Luke on our behalf to smooth things over. For a while, there was a semblance of normalcy.
LEARNING THE TRUTH
In April 2021, Jeff decided to leave Vista because of spiritual abuse (see notovercome.org). After his family left, I received a call from Mark checking in on how I was handling their departure. Our friendship with them hadn’t ended just because they’d left, so I was more interested in discussing the concerns Jeff had relayed to us regarding church governance rather than bemoan a loss I wasn’t feeling. However, none of the leaders we spoke with wanted to engage on this, and those conversations got put off.
Amongst the leaders, my wife’s involvement was usually suspected whenever anyone voiced general dissatisfaction with the discipleship of women in the church.
In May, and only after we agreed to hear it, Jeff revealed more of the rot. I learned that Mark had similarly called Jeff within five hours of our meeting the previous year because he expected us to leave and didn’t want Jeff to become discouraged. More personally though, the details involving us filled in some gaps in our understanding; and we realized that, amongst the leaders, my wife’s involvement was usually suspected whenever anyone voiced general dissatisfaction with the discipleship of women in the church.
At this point, we knew that if nothing changed, we would have to leave. However, after pouring so much into building the church, we didn’t want to see it fail. I also cared about Mark (I still do) and couldn’t leave without trying to turn him from the harm he was doing to the church. I thought that, just maybe, I could convince him to help mend things. That was the plan, but we were days away from our first son being born so we chose to wait.
KICKED OUT OF THE CHURCH
We returned to church with our new baby on the last Sunday in May 2021. Mark’s parents (whom I’ve known since I was a kid) were in town the first two Sundays we were there. On our third Sunday back at church, the week before Father’s Day, Mark “casually” brought up our prior conversation about women from a year ago (he mentioned that he’d been meaning to follow up on a calendar reminder). Assuming that I still wasn’t satisfied with Vista’s stance on the matter (and presumably now questioned the church governance as well), he had already arranged for a brief discussion with himself and Luke who waited for us by the door. Not expecting to discuss this just then, and also unable to understand how a “brief” conversation could do the matter justice, we awkwardly excused ourselves and suggested scheduling something for next week. Over the next few days, however, Mark called or texted me every day insisting we talk now.
“Indeed, it is not an enemy who insults me, or else I could bear it; it is not one who hates me who arrogantly taunts me, or else I could hide from him. But it is you, a man like me, my close friend in whom I confided” (Ps. 55:12-13 NET).
On Thursday I relented and took his call. His prepared message was short and to the point:
- He was sorry he had previously pressed me to stay at the church;
- The church was considered “planted” and my commitment to help was now fulfilled;
- If I disagreed with the church, we should “transition out” of the church; and
- We shouldn’t tell others about why we’re leaving.
Just like that, we were out of the church. My best recollection of what Mark actually said is, “since you’re not happy here, I think it’d be best for you to transition out,” which gives the semblance of a choice, but was brandished as a sentence. Coincidentally, that night was the start of their “Summer Refresh,” a program that was advertised as an intentional post-COVID reset for the church during which small groups were cancelled and the whole church was invited to worship and pray together on Thursday nights. My wife had planned to attend; so, as a concession, he gave her permission to come say her goodbyes — she declined.
I tried to reiterate my concerns during that final phone call and I even offered to write up my thoughts, but the church’s elder stated plainly that he made no promises to even read what I sent.
I tried to reiterate my concerns during that final phone call and I even offered to write up my thoughts, but he stated plainly that he made no promises to even read what I sent. He also claimed to want to continue being friends, but I haven’t heard from him since. Ironically, I joined the church network because of my “friend”; and, a decade later, he also showed me the door on my way out.
WHY WAS THIS WRONG?
Aside from the obvious personal betrayal (Ps. 55:12-14), there are numerous ways that this was pastorally wrong.
UNIFORMITY OVER UNITY
The cookie cutter sameness of the network churches practically means that change isn’t possible even if the regular programs don’t work or address a need. As Christians, we are to strive for unity, not uniformity; our differences are an asset that strengthens the body of Christ. Early on, however, the leadership came to believe that their way of doing church was the right way (ex. when preaching at Vista, Sándor Paull stressed how lucky we were to be part of such an “awesome network of churches”), which is why there’s very little tolerance for disagreement. Thus, any time a critique arises, the ready response is “this church isn’t right for everyone,” which ends the dialogue and implies that the questioner is now expected to leave. Over time, even innocent questions go unasked for fear of being thought less than totally devoted.
Not having programs, while perhaps unwise, is not sinful; willful neglect by a shepherd of the sheep, however, is. According to Ephesians 4:11-12, discipling the people entrusted to their care should be Luke, Mark, and Sundar’s (Vista’s other non-staff elder) primary purpose; but instead, all discipleship energy goes into sorting out future leaders. Those who aren’t “called to be leaders” or furthering Vista and The Network’s vision are ignored and allowed to wither from neglect. Because church planting is paramount and women can’t become leaders, there is no plan for investing in women’s growth. Thus, over half the sheep are left to fend for themselves spiritually.
People are frequently told to “trust your leaders,” which has become shorthand for don’t criticize what they say or do. Trust of leaders is taught often, and leadership is even listed as a core value of the church on Vista’s website. Thus, there’s a conflated self-importance and implied infallibility around leadership that likely stems from being told that they are specially called to speak for God, which elevates them above the sheep they lead. This isn’t Biblical: trust has to be earned. Even God invites his people to test his trustworthiness (Mal. 3:10).
Offering to help with a ministry need and asking “why” when that help is rejected isn’t sowing disunity and certainly isn’t sinful. Even if it was somehow construed as such, the Bible lays out how church discipline should be handled so that it’s ultimately known by the church for its edification (ex. Mat. 18:15-17 or Titus 3:10). However, we were told to leave quietly without any justifiable cause. This heavy handedness is an example of domineering, which disqualifies them as elders (1 Pet. 5:3). And, yes, there are at least two or three witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19) of domineering by the leaders.
 Vista's Church Values page on leadership reads:
“Leadership: Jesus gives leaders to equip, instruct, encourage, and protect His church. Without leadership the church is ineffective. We are careful that our pastors and leaders are trustworthy and meet the Bible’s qualifications. Because of this, we are able to follow them with trust and confidence as we serve Jesus together.”
Strongly worded guidance on "trusting leaders" is preserved in the 2017 Group Leader Training documents on our primary sources page. The language in these documents expounds on what "following leaders" means within the context of The Network in greater specificity:
- "Week 1 - Understanding Small Group" (pg 6) - there is a list of criteria for a healthy leader which includes "demonstrated commitment to the local church," "trusts the leaders Jesus has established," and "refuses to engage in criticism."
- Later, in "Week 4 - Relational Leadership" (pg 6) it is explicitly mentioned that all leaders are subjected to loyalty tests to insure they are "teachable."
At the top of the "Relationship Progression" pyramid in "Week 4 - Relational Leadership" (pg 1) loyalty is listed as the highest level of relationship progression
- Leaders are instructed to ostracize members who are not loyal in "Week 4 - Relational Leadership" (pg 4): “...you may encounter people who are unwilling to follow…. these people should be led in a way that causes them to either change or leave.”