USED UP THEN DISCARDED
By Casey H.
USED UP THEN DISCARDED:
A CULTURE OF MANIPULATION, CONTROL, AND ISOLATION WHILE PLANTING BROOKFIELD CHURCH
- Author: Casey H. | Worship Team Member, Church Plant Team
- Network Churches attended:
- Vine Church, Carbondale, IL | 2007-2011
- Brookfield Church, Athens, OH | 2011-2014
- This story was published November, 2021
HOW I FOUND THE NETWORK
I started school at Southern Illinois University in the fall of 2007. My sister had previously attended Vine Church during her time at SIU (and coincidentally, was on the Seattle church plant team) so I was already familiar with them by the time I got to Carbondale. (It’s worth noting my sister has shared her story with me about joining and subsequently leaving The Network. I was familiar with her experience during & after all of this, but I didn’t fully grasp what she was telling me until I got plugged in.)
I started attending Vine Church almost immediately, and equally as quickly, started getting involved. Sándor Paull was the lead pastor at this time. My very first Sunday, the worship leader, Michael, introduced himself to me. He and my sister were friends previously, and I was interested in joining the worship team, so we hit it off pretty quickly. The other person I remember getting to know right off the bat was Rick. I still remember vividly the first time Rick took me to lunch at Quatro’s Pizza, sitting in the booth by the window overlooking University Avenue. Interestingly, Rick has since left the Network and is responsible for me stumbling across this website.
During my first semester, I wasn’t what you would call “committed” to Vine Church. I was fine living the college lifestyle, and began dating a girl I knew from church back home. That church was part of the Vineyard network of churches, and my father was a pastor there. At this point in time Vine Church had already split from the Vineyard, so being a former Vineyard member as well as having a “troublemaker” sister in the network and another former Vineyard girlfriend, had put a target on my back. From this time on, I was explicitly told by my leaders that the values of the Vineyard were incorrect and that my family and I believed in doctrine that was unbiblical, even sinful. The heart of the disagreement was the issue of whether or not women could have leadership roles in the church. My father’s church allowed women leaders, while Vine Church did not.
I bounced around a few small groups for a while before settling into Michael’s group. Right away, the constant check-ins started. These check-ins would be us going to grab lunch, or me going to his office at the church to talk about life (aka, me confessing my junk to him to spread around to the other pastors). I didn’t know it at the time, but my “junk” wasn’t just mine anymore. There are NO secrets within the leaders of the Network. All of my sins, struggles, and doubts were shared freely with whomever needed to have leverage over me. There was never any reciprocation though. It wasn’t two friends sharing their thoughts and feelings, it was coercion to get me to lay out the most vulnerable parts of my life so the Network could exploit them and manipulate my beliefs and actions, making me more suggestible in obeying their plans for my life.
It was coercion to get me to lay out the most vulnerable parts of my life.
The end of these check-in sessions always concluded with hands-on prayer. These prayer sessions ranged from praying to overcome sinful behaviors, to healing of past traumas. None of these pastors were trained in trauma therapy, but they believed that prayer and confession were more powerful and absolutely more necessary than anything a trained professional could provide.
Prayer holds a very sacred place in the Network. In order to be released to pray for others, members must attend a “How To Pray Like Jesus” class, as well as attend the 4 membership classes. The receiver of prayer is taught to stand in a physically vulnerable position, typically with eyes closed, head bowed, hands outstretched with palms pointed upwards. The one praying usually takes their time, attempting to hear words from God to share. Almost without fail, every prayer session includes the phrase “Yeah, God would you just…” or “I just feel like God is saying…” The various phrases which are spoken over the receiver are presented as absolute truth from the one praying. This is another way the Network exercises authority over its members. People praying can say anything they feel, and it carries the weight of the voice of Jesus himself. Particularly “effective” prayers usually lead to members exhibiting a visible and/or emotional response: shaking, crying, even falling to the ground. These reactions were the most present during the annual summer conferences, over which Steve Morgan presided. I often took part in these prayer times, sometimes trying to force myself to elicit a response. I believed that if I wasn’t experiencing the prayer in this way, it was my fault, or that I wasn’t receiving it correctly.
Growing up in the Vineyard, we were taught an egalitarian way of theology, meaning women and men were equal in the eyes of the church and family. The Network churches are staunch complementarians, meaning women were viewed as less than men, couldn’t lead men AT ALL, and were told to be submissive to their husbands. Married couples were allowed to lead small groups together, but it was explicitly forbidden for a wife to lead or teach over the other men in the group. That would be sinful. The wives are relegated to mentoring the other wives in the group, while the husbands demand control over the whole group. Women ARE allowed to occupy very select jobs in The Network, and are almost always in charge of the kids’ programs. The irony here is that these programs contain both boys and girls, so somewhere in the background Steve has set an arbitrary age in which it suddenly becomes sinful for a woman to lead a male, but no one knows what that is or how it was conceived.
Women who were gifted leaders and teachers were forced to keep quiet except when leading other women. I questioned this a lot in my initial meetings with Michael, and Aaron Kuhnert, a pastor with whom I also bonded and eventually followed to Athens, OH (more on that later). Michael and Aaron always had the “right answers” to my theological questions, and I had no chance of rebuttal since I was a naive college kid with little Bible knowledge. They encouraged me to study a book entitled Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem. This was the Network’s second Bible. It had every objection answered and backed up by Bible verses so that there was no room for wavering. The leaders had all the right passages and quotes to refute my questions. One vivid memory I have about asking them again about the women issue, and receiving the answer “we’re separate, but equal.” They LITERALLY said this! The same thing people said during segregation!
One vivid memory I have about asking them again about the women issue, and receiving the answer “we’re separate, but equal.” They LITERALLY said this!
But this wasn’t enough to drive me away. “Just stick around!” they would always say. So I did. My whole life was starting to become entrenched in the Network. All of my social life started revolving around my church friends and church activities. All of my decisions started being made in the context of Network approval. I really began taking in the teachings and the spiritual leadership from Michael and Aaron. I started bonding with the guys in my small group. I broke up with my girlfriend, which was the start of my initiation to the “inside.” This made it easier for them to manipulate me and my thinking. But of course, “God had a plan for my life.” Once I broke up with my girlfriend I could sense a shift in the way I was treated. I finally got asked to join the worship team. I started getting invited to hang out with the guys outside of small group. I started helping more with church events, setups, outreaches, etc.
Before I knew it, church events and people within the church were my entire life: attending small group during the week, hanging out with church friends most nights, setting up the auditorium for members-only meetings during the weekends; playing in the band on Sunday. Rinse and repeat.
Before I knew it, church events and people within the church were my entire life...
By my last year of college, I was fully in. I was living with friends from church. In the apartment next door were more guys from church. We were fully committed to Steve Morgan’s mission. I had literally no other outlet in my life at this point outside of the Network. As graduation approached, more pressure started.
It was heavily implied within the Network that to leave a Network church and Network town was sinful. The Network way was the ONLY way to find God. So my leaders began asking me questions: what my plans were after graduation, where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do with my life, the usual. Any answer that wasn’t “stay in Carbondale” or “find a job in another Network town” was met with rebuke. Those ideas wouldn’t be Biblical or laying my life down for Jesus. So I stayed. I got my degree, and subsequently got a job screenprinting T-shirts for minimum wage just so I could stay in town and stay in the church. But that was good enough for Steve Morgan, the lead pastor Sandor Paull, my Discipleship Community pastor Aaron Kuhnert, and the rest of the Vine leaders, so it was good enough for me.
Then one Saturday during our monthly membership meeting, Sandor announced that Aaron would be leading a team to plant a church in Athens, OH. Immediately I knew I was going. Aaron was my mentor, and I knew exactly which of my friends would be going with him as well. It just made sense. “This is why God kept me in Carbondale,” I thought. But because at this time I was still questioning certain theological issues, I had to fall in line before being allowed to go. There was no way I COULDN’T go! My entire support network was going. So I lied.
I told Aaron I finally saw the light. I believed all their theology. I would follow all the rules so I could stay in good standing. I believed in giving up literally my entire life to the very specific way Aaron Kuhnert would require me to live out my faith on this church plant. I knew this would include fully embracing complementarian theology, but it also meant accepting The Network’s way of living out my life for me. In a way, I started to actually believe this stuff too. How couldn’t I? I was surrounded by it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That’s the genius of the way The Network grooms you for their mission. It’s intentionally slow burning, so that by the time you’re committed, you either stay for life, or you leave and lose everything. So now, because I was “fully bought in” I was allowed to join the team.
Before moving, we had months of pre-planting meetings, hangouts, and retreats. In these meetings, Aaron Kuhnert laid out the rules for our team to follow. These rules were required for us to remain “pure” and “good examples” for the unchurched people in Ohio we were about to meet. The rules include but are not limited to: no dating for a minimum of one year, after that no dating anyone outside the plant team, absolutely no drinking out in public, no riding in cars with members of the opposite sex, attend every Sunday service and outreach throughout the week, absolutely no missing a Sunday set up (because we were a new plant, we met in a movie theater for the first year, so we had to set up and tear down our equipment each week), get a job that guarantees you are able to follow the aforementioned guidelines and is approved by leadership, the list goes on.
We arrived in Athens in July of 2011 to start Brookfield Church and got to work. And by that, I mean we literally got put to work. We were all scrambling to find jobs when we arrived. Athens is located in one of the most impoverished regions in the entire country, despite being a university town, so most of us took the first low-paying jobs we could find: coffee shops, fast food, bank tellers, printing t-shirts... We rented an office space that needed complete renovations, so we did it ourselves. We met continuously throughout the week prepping for our first Sunday service, public small groups, reaching out to college students who were in town for the summer, all while making sure we were following the rules. I did all of the graphic design for all of our needs on my own time and dime. Since we only knew each other, we were all immediately accountable for each and every thing we did and said. Any infraction would earn you a talking to from Aaron or your small group leader.
The 2 biggest themes I keep coming back to with The Network, which I realize now is really Steve Morgan’s way of “doing church,” is isolation and control.
The 2 biggest themes I keep coming back to with The Network, which I realize now is really Steve Morgan’s way of “doing church,” is isolation and control. Like I said, when you plant a church, you are completely isolated in a new town with only the people you came with. You are encouraged to not seek ANY outside help, advice or council from people other than your church network. You’re taught to put your church above every single other aspect of your life. I remember getting a job about a year after moving, which was located in the next town over, and asking Aaron if he thought that would be ok. It seems like such an innocuous question to ask, but looking at it now, it just demonstrates the amount of control the leaders in these churches had over every aspect of my life, that it just becomes second nature. It’s “normal”.
WHY I LEFT THE NETWORK
The first year in Athens as part of the Brookfield Church plant I lived with my 2 best friends on the team, and who were in Aaron’s “inner circle.” Living with people who had that much control over my life was severely unhealthy. Any choice or decision I made that didn’t fall strictly in line with the Network doctrine was questioned. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” “Help me understand why…” “That’s hard for me, let’s talk about it.” But I still thought I loved these guys. I would have considered them my best friends, and even family. But it still never felt totally comfortable in that house. Our free time needed to be spent planning for the next outreach, praying together, and inviting the unchurched over in the hopes they had a good experience at our place and would be willing to attend a Sunday service or visit a small group. I could never fully catch my breath. Decisions were still being scrutinized, and by this point it had become normal to run all my personal decisions past my leaders for approval. I approached one of my roommates when I started thinking I had feelings for a girl who was part of our team, and that was shot down instantly. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Conversation over.
Decisions were still being scrutinized, and by this point it had become normal to run all my personal decisions past my leaders for approval.
Once the year-long ban on dating was lifted, both my roommates got married to, surprise, two other girls on our plant team. I moved to a crappy apartment by myself, because that’s all there was in Athens. For the first time in my adult life, I was alone. I wasn’t constantly bombarded with stimulation after work. I had time to myself. But I started getting lonely. The thing about the Network is they focus solely on two demographics: college students, and married couples. There’s precisely zero resources for single young adults. So the community you thought was so near and dear slowly starts unraveling. Weekend hangouts were replaced by weekends inside my crappy apartment playing video games. The no-drinking-in-public rule became drinking in my apartment alone. That joy and excitement I used to have turned into depression and more isolation. But that’s ok, because according to my leaders, all I had to do was pray and read my Bible more, because the answers are in there, not in therapy or medical professionals.
At this point, all the lies I told the leaders and myself about my unquestioning loyalty started to make themselves known in my mind. I knew I wasn’t 100% in on this mission. I hated the town. I hated the overly-churchy responses I got when I tried to talk to my leaders about how I felt. There were more meetings where my junk was once again used as leverage. All the leaders at Brookfield knew what I was struggling with, and that was used to manipulate me into believing my struggles were just temporary, or because I wasn’t fully “on the mission.” One friend even told me that maybe I should consider moving back in with other people so I would have more support (which I know now would have translated to more of The Network’s influence).
By this time I was running on fumes. I was still getting up before sunrise every Sunday to set up and play in the worship band. 3 years straight and not a single Sunday off. I was making $12 an hour in a town with zero opportunity for growth outside of working at the university. I was coming home after work, sitting on my couch in my apartment with no lights on, and going to bed. That’s it. Mentally, I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I went to lunch with Aaron one day and just laid it out: that I needed a break from the band and that I don’t know if this church plant is right for me anymore. At this point I think he knew it was coming, and accepted what I was saying, and allowed me to step down from serving. And just like that, the illusion was shattered. I was immediately treated like an outsider. I faced more scrutiny than usual over the following months. Things I did or said were judged more harshly than ever. I knew my time in Athens was over when, at another member meeting, Aaron announced from the pulpit that they were hiring Greg as an office administrator and he would be taking over all my graphic design duties. It was shocking to me, not because designing graphics for Brookfield Church was something I would have trouble living without (I was honestly fine with stepping down from this role since the work was all after hours), but because Aaron didn’t have the fortitude to tell me in person beforehand. It was such a slap in the face, but I was conditioned to do whatever the leaders told me without question so the hurt didn’t register right away.
I was immediately treated like an outsider.
I was done. I flew out to Colorado to visit my sister who, as previously stated, had gone through this with Steve Morgan’s Blue Sky church plant in Seattle. She convinced me that it would be ok to leave the network, and that there would be more ways to follow Jesus. So I applied and was offered a job at a church in Colorado as a graphic designer. It’s important to note that I still wanted to be, and still am, active in a church body despite my experiences in The Network. After I broke the news of the move and the new job to the church, it was like I was thrown overboard. My “friends” turned cold. I wasn’t invited to hang out anymore. I was side-eyed at church. More than once I received prayers not of good luck and well wishes, but for me to change my mind, not follow my sinful heart, and stay in Athens.
AFTER LEAVING THE NETWORK
I have been in Colorado for 7 years, and was lucky enough to meet my wife here through the job that I got! And I didn’t need any pastor’s approval either, what a relief.
Life is great now, but admittedly, it wasn’t this way when I first moved. When I first got to CO, I was isolated again. I was living alone again. My church family, community, sense of purpose, everything was gone overnight.
I need to stress again how much of my identity was tied up in this network.
I knew all the pastors (I even met with with Steve Morgan himself multiple times). I played in the worship band for our annual summer conferences. I knew people from almost every network church. I woke up every morning with some type of church agenda on my mind.
But once I left, to everyone still in the Network, I ceased to exist.
I haven’t had contact with 99% of those people since the day I drove away (I AM grateful for the handful of people that still talk to me). Given what I experienced when others left The Network, I assume that I am probably talked poorly about; my life made out to be a tragic story of someone who just wasn’t good enough to hack it. I was texting with Michael a few years ago, and unprompted, he said something along the lines of “hey man, just so you know, I wasn’t one of the ones talking about you.” So without realizing it he had clearly revealed I have a new reputation in the Network. I wasn’t sure if his words were encouraging or demoralizing.
But they don’t have power over me anymore. It has taken a long time to unwind the thorns the Network put around my mind. I still struggle occasionally with feelings of guilt, interpreting God wrong, and mourning the loss of friends I thought would be in my life forever.
I can live my life how I feel God is leading it, not by some legalistic checklist.
But you know what? Turns out there IS more than one way of following Jesus. I’d argue that the ways that don’t involve Steve Morgan’s purity tests are much more fulfilling. I can have a beer at a brewery and post a picture of it without fear of retaliation or scrutiny. I could ask my future wife out to coffee without needing to jump through 10 levels of approval. I can live my life how I feel God is leading it, not by some legalistic checklist. I am 100% positive that once this site gains traction, some of them will read this and be shocked. Some might judge me even more, maybe even send me a strongly-worded facebook message. But I don’t care. I escaped. My sisters escaped. People who are still in the Network can still escape. I hope those of you who HAVE escaped also share your story here. And I welcome anyone reading this (in-Network or not) to reach out to me if you have anything to say. I’m pretty easy to find online.
This has been overwhelmingly cathartic to type this all out.