By Caitlyn G.
HOW I GAVE MYSELF COMPLETELY TO THE CULTURE OF HIGH ROCK CHURCH
- Author: Caitlyn G. | Small Group Leader
- Attended: High Rock Church, Bloomington, IN | 2012-2016
- This story was published April, 2023
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I write my story purely from my perspective, with everything I’ve been through and learned since. I realize that some people who have attended High Rock may not have had this dramatic of an experience, but I encourage you to also look at other hundreds of survivors’ stories and see the common themes. I hope sharing my personal story will be healing for me. Something about having it written down and out of my head has been cathartic. I also hope it comforts someone else and helps bring validation and healing to them, too.
HOW I FOUND THE NETWORK
THE VULNERABLE WAY IN WHICH I JOINED
I came to the Network, to High Rock Church in Bloomington, Indiana in 2012, as a college freshman, about a month after I started school at IU. I was scared, homesick, and desperate for a community. I was alone in my dorm room on one of the first few nights away from home, and I’m not sure how else to describe my experience other than I felt God’s presence. I had never experienced this before, but it was so powerful that I felt like new when I woke up the next morning. I knew that God was with me, and I wanted to devote my life to walking with Him. Since this happened before I knew High Rock Church existed, I still cling to this memory as one of the few hopes I have left that God exists.
I came into my new independence as a college student believing I was either going to go down a path of partying and destructive behavior or following God and joining a faith community. I was so anxious, shy, and vulnerable, and I needed a place to belong. I stumbled across High Rock by googling churches in my area. I reached out to the pastors through the website, and one of them emailed me and asked me to meet him at Chipotle downtown. I probably should have thought this was weird, but I didn’t hesitate to accept the invitation.
I came into my new independence as a college student believing I was either going to go down a path of partying and destructive behavior or following God and joining a faith community. I was so anxious, shy, and vulnerable, and I needed a place to belong.
I met Tim Reeves at Chipotle, and he also brought the lead pastor, Scott Joseph. After they bought me lunch and asked all about me, they laid their hands on my shoulders and prayed for me behind that Chipotle in a private back alley. I went to the next Sunday service, and at least 3 people told me with great urgency I needed to come to the fall conference, including Scott and Tim. Everyone was so welcoming and eager to meet me. I was a young, people-pleasing child, trying to settle into a safe place of acceptance. I was a perfect kind of member to add to their flock. I was on a “spiritual high” from the experience I had had in my dorm room, and they seemed so happy to have me. I am certain I would’ve done mostly anything they told me.
I met some really good friends at that conference, and I still value them greatly today. I had never had a close-knit group of friends in my life, so I thought I had found everything I was ever missing. The people were friendly, seemed authentic, and prayed for me.
At that conference, there were a lot of spiritual gifts displayed during services, such as prophecy, tongues, etc. out loud in the service. I had never seen that before, but I was enamored. In between sessions, Scott Joseph approached me and told me he felt like God told him I had the gift of tongues. He encouraged me to practice it, and that I could easily turn it on and off, and then when the Holy Spirit filled me, I would know how to use my gift. I felt like the most special person in the world. (About a year later, Tim Reeves would tell me in a private counseling session that the reason I was struggling emotionally was because I held the misguided belief I was special, and indeed I was not.) During one of the services, Scott even called out my name during prayer over the microphone, to lift me up in prayer and ask God to… I don’t even remember. Why would the lead pastor single me out, someone he didn’t even know, who no one there knew? I felt so seen, so recognized, so wanted. From that point on, I was sold. I was sold out to High Rock Church.
One of my good friends who was an integral part of High Rock, and also one of the first to leave, was recently telling me his perspective on when I arrived at the church. He said, “I had a lot of strong feelings as I watched your story unfold… I remember when the church roped you in and praised you for going to our church retreat in Bedford a few weeks after first attending church. They knew just how to play us when were young.”
My parents have since told me how terrified they were that I had joined a cult.
My parents were scared. (I didn’t know this at the time.) I went to the middle of nowhere with people I had just met. I stayed in cabins with people I didn’t know. When they picked me up from the retreat because I had broken out in some sort of weird rash and needed to see a doctor, I couldn’t wait to tell them about my tongues experience. I went on and on about the people and how amazing the services were, filled with displays of spiritual gifts. My parents have since told me how terrified they were that I had joined a cult.
I immediately joined a small group. The leader of the group was a young man, joined by several girls my age. I noticed that the girls were similar to me — sort of shy, awkward at times, and hungry for friendship and acceptance. They were all so obviously drawn to the group leader, and soon I developed an intense crush on him too. I would meet with him alone periodically to check in on “what God was doing in me.” All I wanted was to say what would gain approval from him, and I wondered how spiritual I would need to be to get reciprocated feelings from my group leader. Sometimes he would give me a ride back to my dorm room, and he would come up to me at church and start a private conversation, usually pretty intimate in nature about my life and my faith. I was convinced he liked me too because why else would a guy about my age do those things? To reiterate, I was barely 19 years-old, very sheltered and inexperienced with life.
After hearing some perspective from my good friend recently, who was close to my group leader during those years, I understand now that my group leader was under a great deal of pressure from Scott (who was a direct report to Steve Morgan). As my friend put it, my group leader had so much “blind zealousness” for serving God "the High Rock way" that it turned into some harmful relationships with those he “led.” It’s wild to think about—what my friend describes as—the control, manipulation and brainwashing forced down on my group leader, that had a trickle down effect on me and the other women in the small group (and I’m sure other young people in the church). This is a perfect example of the High Rock leadership hierarchy, that came at great costs to small group leaders and even pastors that were under the rule of Steve Morgan (top guy in the Network).
HOW I PREPARED TO COMMIT MYSELF TO MY NETWORK LEADERS FOREVER
I ate up every morsel of church life at High Rock I could.
I volunteered in the kids’ program, helped with the youth group, and rarely missed church, small group or “Team High Rock.” I babysat regularly for several families at the church, and I soon had gotten to know almost everyone who attended High Rock. I felt like an integral piece, important to that congregation. I rarely wanted to go home to see my family for the weekend because I didn’t want to miss church, and I was usually committed to serve in some capacity on Sunday.
It was very heavily implied by leaders, and therefore everyone else, that you didn’t miss church. And you were expected to serve, always “serve.” For instance, during Team High Rocks, leadership meetings, and eventually “Discipleship Community” meetings, Scott Joseph and other leaders would remind us how important it was to offer our time, along with our money, to the church. It was all part of being “in” with the culture and community of High Rock. It was just what was expected, and I felt unending pressure to commit more and more of my time to working at church services and functions. And as a small group leader, I felt this pressure to make sure my small group members were finding their place to “plug in,” and of course the goal was always to get newcomers to commit.
You didn’t miss church. And you were expected to serve, always “serve.” During Team High Rocks, leadership meetings, and “Discipleship Community” meetings, Scott Joseph and other leaders would remind us how important it was to offer our time, along with our money, to the church. It was all part of being “in” with the culture and community of High Rock.
My parents remained concerned about the level of commitment to this church. I would tell them about things I was learning about scripture and the Holy Spirit, and that anyone who believed differently was clearly wrong. While I’m not sure I ever explicitly said this to my family, I know I implied it and they felt it. I can’t believe how arrogant I was, but I felt like I was thinking and acting how I was taught.
I hung out with my new friends and thoroughly enjoyed these new relationships, the first true friends I believe I’ve ever had. I’m not sure how or why, but I started talking to the associate pastor, Michael Eckhardt, fairly often. He felt like an older brother, or even a father-like figure who made me feel so loved. He taught me so many things about life that I still remember and count on today. I wanted to please him, too, similar to how I wanted to please other leaders like Scott, Tim and my group leader, but this was different. I felt he truly cared about me, apart from how much I served or how spiritually mature I became. I trusted him, and he will always have a special place in my heart.
Any time I was around people who were “non-believers,” especially other students in my classes or my extended family, I was extremely anxious. I thought I was supposed to be cornering them, talking to them about God and how to experience the power of the Holy Spirit. I held this belief that if I wasn’t doing this regularly, I was directly disobeying God. These people may go to hell because of me! I believe this impacted my relationships with my family and with people I could have known in college. I stayed so far inside the High Rock bubble, and when I poked my head out, it was only to complete an obligatory checklist to feel I was in good standing as a High Rock member and as a believer in God.
I felt great pressure to find people I could bring into the High Rock community. This was called “discipling” someone. My ritual when meeting someone new, especially at church, followed a similar outline every time: show interest in their life; make them feel wanted and welcome; keep inviting them to small group, church activities, and service; offer to pray for them regularly; reward their efforts and talents being used for the church; and continue to encourage them to give and give until they were deep inside and ultimately “sold out” like me. I was praised by Scott Joseph when I did this successfully because I was being a “good leader.” I learned this ritual by watching others do it, and of course hearing lectures by Scott Joseph about how crucial this was to being a “leader” and fervent follower of Jesus.
I don’t know how often I was ever genuinely interested in building a relationship with another person, but I was so focused on how to become a great leader so my leaders could be proud of me. The guilt and shame I experienced when I wasn’t constantly working on this ritual with someone, so worried about what God and my leaders thought of me, was immense.
My ritual when meeting someone new, especially at church, followed a similar outline every time: show interest in their life; make them feel wanted and welcome; keep inviting them to small group, church activities, and service; offer to pray for them regularly; reward their efforts and talents being used for the church; and continue to encourage them to give and give until they were deep inside and ultimately “sold out” like me.
My leader’s small group began to grow, and a few of us had confided in each other about our feelings for the group leader. I think the church leaders were feeling this tension, too. The solution seemed to be to create a separate women’s group that Michael encouraged me to lead. Everything I had wanted since coming to High Rock was starting to happen. I finally got to officially “lead,” to be in the inner circle, to be seen as a “top tier” person at High Rock Church. But that’s when a lot of the darkness begins in my story.
This was around the time I started dating Konnor, who is now my husband. He was leading a different small group, and he was very involved in the church, such as completing a pastoral internship under Michael and going to leadership conferences with Scott. I had met someone in the church who wanted me, who was going to marry me, and we were going to commit ourselves to being leaders in the Network forever. As you can see this common theme in my story, my biggest motivator has been acceptance and being valued and wanted, especially by men with perceived authority. Konnor and I got very serious very fast. It was blatantly clear in the culture of High Rock that if you were single, it was the goal to find someone within the church to marry quickly.
It was blatantly clear in the culture of High Rock that if you were single, the goal was to find someone within the church to marry quickly. And now I had met someone in the church who wanted me, who was going to marry me, and we were going to commit ourselves to being leaders in the Network forever.
Sex was taught about from time to time, which basically consisted of this: sex outside of marriage is very wrong, you should put rules on your dating relationship to keep this from happening, and you should stay accountable with your leader and tell them when you “mess up” so you can repent and not mess up again. I won’t go into the harmful effects of Christian purity culture here, especially as a young woman, but it was pretty extreme at High Rock Church. These shame-based, rigid teachings about sex still have negative impacts on my marriage to this day.
I started leading my women’s small group (women are not allowed to lead men at High Rock Church). Most of the women came from my previous small group, so I already knew the intense issues a lot of them dealt with: mental illness, suicidal ideation, childhood trauma, etc. I felt immense pressure to have “powerful” and life changing prayer time every single week at small group. I had learned through services, leadership meetings, conferences, etc. that it was my job as the small group leader to facilitate a discussion which would lead into the main event (prayer time), where ceilings would fall and people would cry and fall to their knees.
I remember one particular night in my college apartment, one girl (who had significant childhood trauma that impacted her life) said she experienced the Holy Spirit for the first time while I prayed for her, while another had been extremely depressed and was struggling with suicidal ideation. I made her a sandwich after prayer time because she hadn’t eaten in several days. As someone who was battling her own anxiety and depression issues, this was… too much. I loved those girls deeply, but what they needed was not my hands-on prayer; they needed therapy and medical attention.
I barely graduated from college because of my mental health struggle, which I largely owe to my heavy involvement with High Rock Church and the pressure to perform.
Therapy was sort of acceptable at High Rock, but it was clear that the primary treatment methods were to be prayed for by your small group leader and to get spiritual counseling from pastors, who were not trained mental health professionals. With the sorts of things I was dealing with in those days, I should have felt comfortable talking about it to the people around me, and they would have ideally referred me to treatment. That was, unfortunately, not what happened. Church members, especially the younger congregants like my small group and me, put so much emphasis on High Rock leaders. We were more dependent on their advice than on the expertise of professionals. By the end of my small group leading days, I was having panic attacks every week, and Konnor was stepping in to plan my discussion and coordinate with one of my small group members to lead and host for me.
I still remember that time as the darkest times of my life. I barely graduated from college because of my mental health struggle, which I largely owe to my heavy involvement with High Rock Church and the pressure to perform.
The culture of High Rock was that the “way we did church” was the pinnacle of Christianity. We had everything right, and every other Christian outside of the Network didn’t quite know how to do it. Were they even real believers?
The “zeal” and passion we all acted with in our church life was like nothing I had ever seen. I was convinced that this was it — this was my higher calling, and we were on the greatest mission on earth. There’s nothing in the world that could be as honorable, as important.
I had no idea that the perfectionism, insecurities, and anxiety that I brought with me were compounded by the culture, fear, and expectations of High Rock Church.
I had no idea that the church I was a part of could have been contributing to my struggle. I had no idea that my perfectionism, insecurities, and anxiety that I brought with me were compounded by the culture, fear, and expectations of High Rock Church. This church was my only hope, and I was convinced it was what would save me. I was terrified to challenge anything, step away from serving, or be seen as too weak to lead. I was convinced that if I wasn’t who I needed to be for High Rock, I had no purpose left in life.
So I masked my mental health issues and kept pushing on.
LIFE INSIDE THE NETWORK
PROBLEMATIC LEADERSHIP AND PRESSURE TO PERFORM
The best way I can describe being under lead pastor Scott Joseph’s leadership at High Rock Church is “The Contract.”
There was an unspoken contract that was solidified by your membership. It said this: We (The leaders of High Rock) will tell you what to think, what to believe, how to worship God, and how to live your life; We will give you codependent relationships that cross healthy boundaries and a copy of Systematic Theology. In exchange, you will give us your blind devotion, every second of your spare time, and allegiance to the Network, and you will submit your autonomy to the leaders of the Network. When I look back, I can place every memory into the format of this contract and it checks out.
We were expected to give our blind devotion, every second of our spare time, and allegiance to the Network, and we were to submit our autonomy to the leaders of the Network.
There were very clear-cut beliefs and customs within the High Rock community. Scriptural beliefs were taught and enforced mostly by Scott during services, leadership meetings, and “Team High Rock” (which was a monthly meeting for committed members of the church). Scriptural interpretation, doctrine, ways a believer in Jesus should live their life, etc. were not up for question. And for a long time, I never thought about questioning it. I was sold out, so everything Scott taught was like more drops of gold I could add to my vault of holiness, closer and closer to becoming the perfect Christian.
The longer I was at High Rock, I would see people get called in to Scott or Tim’s office (mostly Scott’s) and get a lecture from the principal if they weren’t conforming. One of my fellow small group leaders wasn’t tithing regularly, and one of my friends was thinking of moving away when she graduated college to pursue her career. These things were not okay with Scott Joseph, and he made that clear to them.
As I look back, I can see how much perfectionism (as measured by Scott’s standard) fueled my relationship with God. I never felt good enough, and desperately wanted God to form me into the perfect person I was told I needed to be. I desperately wanted to “fit the mold” at High Rock. Every chance I could, I would seek out opportunities at services and conferences to “receive prayer” from someone, hoping God would change me and make me better. I would feel an intense need to become very emotional during the prayer and have some big realization about how broken I was. I would feel like a complete failure if I attended a special service or conference and didn’t become overcome with emotion. Leaders would describe these dramatic prayer moments as life-changing, so I believed they were the mark of a highly spiritual person.
I never felt good enough, and desperately wanted God to form me into the perfect person I was told I needed to be. I desperately wanted to “fit the mold” at High Rock.
When I was feeling particularly “dry,” I would call on the teachings of Scott about how to hold my hands, face, and body during worship and prayer. Maybe if I fluttered my eyelids a little bit, that may convince the Holy Spirit to “show up.” This was a huge belief — the Holy Spirit was always asked to show up, come in power, and fall down on us. I’ve since learned that scripture portrays the Holy Spirit more as the One that dwells in us always. I’ve had to deprogram so many ridiculous and harmful beliefs about God since I’ve left the Network. And the more knowledgeable I am about the nervous system and how our brains work, I wonder if all those emotional episodes I had during prayer at a service was less the Holy Spirit, and more my dysregulated nervous system being triggered and having a physical reaction. These are the questions that haunt me, and I question if I’ve ever really experienced God or known who He really is.
I remember a specific time at a network conference, at Vine Church in Carbondale, Illinois, when I received prayer at the end of a session. There were about 10 people laying their hands on me and praying for me at one point, and this probably went on for 30 minutes. This was earlier in my time at High Rock, before I started dating Konnor. My group leader eventually started praying for me, and in his prayer he said, “I feel like there’s something Caitlyn isn’t telling me, that she’s withholding from me.” He phrased it like it was a block on my spiritual growth. I started sobbing uncontrollably and was on my knees in the front of the church.
After this emotional experience, I asked my group leader to talk privately with me. I thought this message was from God because of the emotional nature of the prayer, so I felt there was no other option but to tell him I had feelings for him. It was like a confession, a shameful secret I was holding onto, with a little bit of hope for what he would say in return. It was the most embarrassing rejection of my whole life. He told me he thought I “was a pretty girl,” but he did not see me that way. I was mortified, and, now that I am older and wiser, I can see how my feelings for him were from how many relational and emotional boundaries were crossed during my time at High Rock. I was so vulnerable and emotionally manipulated in that environment that I revealed these sorts of confessions quite frequently.
These sorts of “repentance” sessions with leaders and others members of the church were so emotionally and spiritually damaging, as I look back. I believe the main reason they were so damaging was because of how grace was taught about at High Rock. Grace (meaning total forgiveness and blamelessness in Christ’s eyes after becoming a believer) was a common sermon topic, and we would have whole conferences centered around it. It was a concept that seemed so amazing, yet so elusive. There was an undercurrent of High Rock’s twist on grace that I couldn’t pinpoint at the time, but I always wondered why it was something I couldn’t quite grasp or step fully into. Scott would describe it so beautifully, and that was the kind of faith I wanted to live within. However, at High Rock, Grace was this thing that was only given to you with some stipulations (extreme repentance and zeal “for God”). And who decided what the metrics were for determining how repentant and zealous you were, therefore deserving of Grace? That’s right, Scott.
Grace was used as a bargaining chip to get followers devoted to the church so that the institution of the Network could grow and flourish. As believers we were desperate for this intimacy and freedom with Christ, and so we worked even harder to prove ourselves worthy. And this was reinforced by creating faithful “leaders” in the Network, who could successfully infiltrate this message into every member. Ever since being at High Rock, I just cannot believe or understand the idea of grace. It just doesn’t make sense to me, and I wonder if it ever will.
This was actually the main reason why a good friend of mine ended up leaving the church (his exit was the first time it ever entered my mind that leaving was even an option). He started to understand a freer and different version of grace, and he was met with direct opposition from Scott. This was one of the first instances I remember when Scott's refusal to hear the viewpoints or experiences his “sheep” had with God and scripture which didn't perfectly align with his own doctrine had caused someone to leave High Rock (and it wouldn't be the last). It was also a huge red flag showing why High Rock was such a dangerous place.
Leaders at High Rock were carefully groomed. Followers who “didn’t really want to lead” or “didn’t feel equipped” were eagerly sought out to be future leaders. Hesitance and ignorance were baby leader GOLD at High Rock, because the leaders could carefully craft the new leader’s every belief and leadership method, like a new painting started on a fresh canvas. And the ways of Steve Morgan, via Scott Joseph, could live on and continue through countless people.
It was clear in hindsight that Scott loved to build up quiet, yes-men into leaders who would go along with everything he said and every decision he made.
One time Konnor and I met with Scott and his wife, Stacy, at their home after we first started dating. Konnor told them he felt called to be a pastor. Scott mockingly laughed at this, and asked me what I thought of that. I said I could see myself being a pastor’s wife. (Because, after all, the ultimate pinnacle for a man in The Network was to be chosen to be a pastor, while becoming a pastor’s wife was a woman’s crowning achievement.) Scott condescendingly went off on one of his infamous lectures about the qualities one must possess to become a pastor, and “wanting” to become a pastor is not one of them. As if he held all knowledge on this topic. He said we better hope that doesn’t happen to us because it’s the hardest job we would ever do. I think that lecture only made us want it more.
Looking back, I believe Scott was intimidated by Konnor’s strong personality and leadership potential. It was clear Scott loved to build up quiet, yes-men into leaders who would go along with everything he said and every decision he made. If you’ve ever met my husband, it’s okay, you can laugh and say that is not him at all.
I have talked a lot about the beliefs and culture that were considered “truth” and not questioned. Money was a huge one. We had a lot of sermons on money, specifically tithing and special offerings. It was unacceptable to not be tithing, no matter your circumstance. I remember hearing from Scott once that students should be tithing their student loans.
In 2013 I felt so pressured and compelled to give to a special building offering, to purchase High Rock’s new building, that I emptied my savings account of several hundred dollars to give to this offering. I was a college student, working a part time job while going to classes full time, and depending on my parents to make sure my rent and car payment got paid.
I felt so pressured and compelled to give to a special building offering, to purchase High Rock’s new building, that I emptied my savings account of several hundred dollars to give to this offering.
The new building, whose location and design were presented as something God himself had provided, would cost one million dollars. High Rock attendance was 250 at that time. So many sermons were given about this building offering, and it was framed as “What else could be more important to use your money for?” And “Are you really devoted to God?” All of it was in the name of God and Scott’s (or Steve’s) interpretation of scripture.
If you didn’t want to give your money, or you questioned if that’s what the Bible actually said about that thing, or you wanted to move away to a town that did not have a Network church, you were essentially made to feel that you weren’t listening to the Holy Spirit, focusing on worldly things, and going against God. This was a message that was carefully and consistently communicated across hundreds of sermons, small group discussions, Team High Rock meetings, and personal conversations with pastors and leaders.
THINK LIKE SCOTT, PRAY LIKE SCOTT, OBEY LIKE SCOTT
These shame-based teachings were not limited to the sermons on money; we were pressured to agree with our leader on all things. Your very morality and standing with God was called into question if any of Scott Joseph’s rules, spoken or unspoken, weren’t followed to the letter. I think this expectation to “obey the pastor in all things” was one of the most powerfully manipulative things I experienced at High Rock. Sometimes things were said outright by Scott, because he was known for being quite blunt, but usually it was subtly communicated over time through sermons, the relational hierarchy, and culture of High Rock Church. And because I deeply feared losing my community and purpose at High Rock, I quite literally would have done anything to stay.
These shame-based teachings were not limited to the sermons on money; we were pressured to agree with our leader on all things.
I remember when everything started with Michael Eckhardt. He was so very important to Konnor and I. He counseled us through many tough times in our dating relationship, and he and his wife Bekah were special to both of us. I heard from Konnor, who was interning with Michael, some rumblings about Michael pushing back on some things with Scott. Slowly but surely, Scott systematically took over every responsibility Michael had. Instead of Michael leading the group leaders, this was now Scott’s job.
There was a specific group leader meeting I remember, at which I was one of two women, and Scott was teaching us how to pray for our small group. I couldn’t stop looking at Michael, who hung his head and stared at the ground the entire meeting. I felt so much sadness for him, along with anger, confusion, and defeat. Scott asked me, Konnor, and another group leader to come into the hallway with him. (Sometimes I wonder if choosing Konnor and I – followers of Michael – to be the actors in this skit was very deliberate, like a small way to assert his authority over us.) He told us we were going to role-play a hands-on prayer situation in a small group setting. One of us was going to play the group leader, another a group member, and the third person was receiving prayer. Scott directed us with extreme detail.
We went back into the room to perform our skit for the other small group leaders. Scott talked as we performed, telling everyone how to raise their voices a little bit when they feel like they were saying something powerful, to press their hands a little harder on the people they were praying for to make them physically feel what they were saying a little more.
Scott coached us exactly on what to do during prayer:
Start the prayer in a certain way, then slowly build up to a crescendo moment where the person receiving prayer would become emotional (if we were doing it right, that is).
Hold one hand this way.
And the other hand this way.
Say things like this.
Talk in this tone of voice.
The emotional manipulation… It. Was. Wild.
Scott talked as we role-played prayer during a small group leader training, telling everyone how to raise their voices a little bit when they feel like they were saying something powerful, to press their hands a little harder on the people they were praying for to make them physically feel what they were saying a little more.
Konnor and I talk a lot about this meeting, and we wonder if the people in the church who weren’t “leaders” knew this sort of thing went on, that we were taught to essentially craft their prayer experience.
It felt like the curtain was drawn back on what everything really was.
The experience. The buy in. The manipulation to blindly follow.
So many sermons… so many sermons about following your leaders and not questioning them. About spiritual authority and who had that over you. So many teachings about listening to your leaders, rather than what you felt like the Spirit was telling you about your own life. I even remember a sermon where he taught us about the proper, submissive way to receive his sermons.
IMPACTS ON MY MENTAL HEALTH, IDENTITY, FAITH, AND RELATIONSHIPS
That meeting felt like the beginning of the end, but at the time I didn’t know that. Some behind the scenes things continued to happen, and we watched Michael Eckhardt, our good friend and fervent High Rock servant, leave. We were shook.
One night Konnor told me that Michael told him he was essentially being fired. I remember being overcome by shock and grief. What I thought was the perfect church, the perfect community, an absolute haven on earth… wasn’t.
One night my fiancé Konnor told me that staff pastor Michael Eckhardt told him he was essentially being fired by lead pastor Scott Joseph. I remember being overcome by shock and grief.
Konnor began to go to meetings with Scott, I think partly because Konnor was trying to make sense of what was going on and to challenge some decisions being made by Scott. And partly so Scott could keep tabs on Konnor, a mentee and student of Michael, to maintain control over Konnor and his small group members. Konnor attended several long meetings with Scott, at which he was yelled at, told he was wrong, told to submit to Scott’s spiritual authority, and to “get on the bus or get run over.”
There were so many things that happened in that time. So many problematic things, like a spool of thread quickly unraveling. I think I blocked a lot of it out, and I can’t remember most of it, even though at the time it was all I could think or talk about.
Meanwhile, Konnor and I were planning our wedding. We decided we had to remain true to our purpose, our calling with High Rock, which was to one day go on a church plant with the Network. This was our future. We planned to be married at High Rock and stick this out.
My fiancé attended several long meetings with Scott Joseph, at which he was yelled at, told he was wrong, told to submit to Scott’s spiritual authority, and to “get on the bus or get run over.”
We asked the pastors if Michael could come back and marry us because he was our mentor, and he helped us so much to even get to the point of being married. We were called into a meeting and told this was not possible, and Scott was going to officiate the wedding instead. Some questionable excuses were given, such as things about the church by-laws. The manner in which this was told to us filled me with anger. I couldn’t believe that the people I had devoted my life to did not care about what was important to me or what Konnor and I wanted for our wedding. We had a date set already, and we decided to change the location and date of our wedding to the church I grew up in, and Michael officiated our wedding ceremony.
The constant pressure to live up to an impossible standard and the realization that even one of the pastors of the church, the one who had been the most loving and kind and authentic, could be tossed aside after pushing back on Scott, made attending church functions feel dangerous. I was constantly on edge, torn between what I wanted the church to be and what I now realized it was. Eventually my panic attacks and mental health got so bad that I decided going to church was too triggering and I could no longer do it.
Konnor continued attending High Rock for a while, refusing to let his commitment die out. Eventually, we officially left.
We didn’t have an exit meeting with Scott. Konnor planned to tell his small group that we were leaving, and that night Scott called Konnor on his way to Konnor’s small group meeting. Scott informed him, without any notice, that he would be telling Konnor’s small group what was going on, not Konnor. Konnor firmly told him, “Do not come here. I am going to tell them.” Surprisingly, Scott listened, and Konnor tearfully washed the feet of every one of his small group members that night. I was there as well, and this heartbreaking memory will forever be ingrained in me.
Konnor planned to tell his small group that we were leaving, and that night Scott called Konnor on his way to Konnor’s small group meeting. Scott informed him, without any notice, that he would be telling Konnor’s small group what was going on, not Konnor.
I met with one of my best friends who had just been in my wedding, and she told me that if I couldn’t follow Scott then it’s probably for the best that I leave. Another friend who had been my matron of honor sat me down and told me we could no longer be friends because I was leaving High Rock Church.
Leaving officially ended contact with most of the people I had prayed with, spent every weekend with, babysat for, and shared life experiences and milestones with for the last 4 years. All of the people who danced and celebrated with me at my wedding less than a couple months ago, my spiritual family, had disowned me.
We were not the only ones who left High Rock Church during that time period. I think as much as a third of the church left in 2016. There were a couple good friends we stayed in contact with for a while who continued on at High Rock, but most of our friendships which survived were with people who also ended up leaving.
Leaving officially ended contact with most of the people I had prayed with, spent every weekend with, babysat for, and shared life experiences and milestones with for the last 4 years.
Konnor’s brother and his wife were still at the church at the time even though we would get together regularly and talk all things High Rock garbage. They told us that Tim Reeves had them over, and, while Tim was praying for my sister-in-law, he went on and on about how God could use her in my life to help me see the light. He prophesied that they could be tools in helping Konnor and I come back to High Rock. Even though we were no longer part of the community, the leadership of High Rock Church was still trying to use our family to manipulate and control us. It was one more confirmation that leaving had been the right decision.
When meeting with our other good friends who were still at High Rock, we asked them about a rumor we heard that Scott had made a joke about hanging a banner in the church saying “you made it!” We felt this was in very bad taste after so many people were harmed and left. My good friend confirmed that Scott had said it, but then brushed it off and said, “Well he didn’t actually do it!” That was a huge wake up call to me that those still at High Rock were still under the veil and unable to see the problematic culture. And it was a huge wake up call that that used to be me.
LIFE AFTER LEAVING
My beliefs have faded slowly since I left The Network in 2016, almost seven years ago. I owe a lot of this to my time at High Rock. So much of the foundation of my former belief system was fiercely entangled with spiritual abuse, manipulation, betrayal, and grief. The message of being worthy and loved by Christ was completely contradicted in everyday actions and life at High Rock. It’s hard to separate the experiences that cultivated my once very strong faith from all that has happened.
I’ve also gone through a years-long process of opening my eyes to a lot of these similar themes that are embedded in the modern American church. High Rock is an extreme case, I think, but it’s not alone. I have lost my trust in churches in general, and I see similar characteristics in other churches that leave me feeling triggered and guarded. Maybe one day I will be less jaded and find my way back to God in a more stripped back and authentic way.
So much of the foundation of my former belief system was fiercely entangled with spiritual abuse, manipulation, betrayal, and grief.
My time at High Rock left me with trauma that I did not expect. I spent some very formative years of my life being told my voice was not to be trusted, my body was evil and broken, and I should only count on my “leaders” to validate me and guide my decisions.
Since leaving, I have gone to therapy, learned to take care of myself physically, and I’m still learning to listen to my own voice. I’m learning how to value myself. Almost like a child, I’ve had to learn that I’m worthy, I have a voice that I should use, and I can be trusted to make my own decisions. I am not inherently broken. I’ve learned that trauma from my childhood and growing up in a misogynist society left me with damaging beliefs about who I am and what my purpose is, and High Rock capitalized on this underlying damage. I still struggle with mental health issues, and I connect so many of my consistent issues with my religious experience at High Rock.
It’s been a lot to grieve, to deprogram, to work through in therapy, and it still impacts me every day.
I follow Leaving the Network pretty closely, and when I see things come out about Steve Morgan and transcripts of responses from Scott Joseph, it’s like looking at my former life from outside of my body. It’s difficult to accept the fact that I was a part of something like this, that it happened to me. The things that the Network has hidden and the way they have manipulated people, and continue to do to this day, fills me with a white-hot rage. And deep sadness. I feel embarrassed and full of shame that I fell so deeply into the problematic beliefs and behaviors of High Rock Church.
I spent some very formative years of my life being told my voice was not to be trusted, my body was evil and broken, and I should only count on my “leaders” to validate me and guide my decisions.
To Scott Joseph I would say: people who are blameless don’t get that defensive when accused. I am not a bitter leech (reference to one of his recent sermons about the stories published online) trying to get revenge here. I am a wounded survivor of spiritual abuse who just wants to heal and help someone else.
It’s so clear now that most things that went on behind the scenes with Scott Joseph came from a place of power dynamics, manipulation, and fear of people having their own minds.
As much as I wish High Rock wasn’t part of my story, it evidently is, and it’s taught me how pride, insecurity, and the ego of men continue to destroy lives. Even in the name of Jesus. Especially in the name of Jesus.
I hope that people still in the Network will continue to see the reality of what’s happening and how their friends have been harmed.
If you have also experienced harm at the hands of the Network, I’m deeply sorry, especially if I was part of that harm. I wish you all the best in moving forward with healing and freedom.