CHURCH PLANTING AT ANY COST
CHURCH PLANTING AT ANY COST
HOW MANIPULATION AND ABUSE WERE SYSTEMATICALLY USED TO GROW AND MULTIPLY OUR CHURCH
- Author: Anonymous | Member, Worship Team Leader, Small Group Core Member
- Attended: Network Church, Midwestern United States | 2011-2020
- This story was published January, 2022
REALIZING WHAT THE CHURCH SHOULD NOT LOOK LIKE
My wife and I were in the Network for about 10 years and we were very involved. We were in the core of our small group, members of the church, she was a service team leader, and I was on the worship team. We were fully “on board” with the mission. We left the church after the latest church plant that was sent. Looking back on the events that led up to us making the decision to leave still feels like a train wreck, but it was eye-opening and revealing of what the Church should not look like.
I was pretty shocked when the latest church plant was announced. The church had already sent out a few other church plants in the previous five years and in many ways the church was still recovering from the loss of all of the core members that had gone. This also included the departure of two lead pastors with two of the plants. I think one of the biggest revelations was how much attention and care goes into sending a church plant and how much the home church gets neglected in the process. With 40-50 core members of the church leaving, there become gaps in the sending church. There becomes a need for new small group leaders, service area volunteers, etc. Pastors of the church had to pick up leading small groups, our group ended up getting dissolved, small groups had to get shuffled around from one night to the next to even out imbalance, service team members increased the number of times they served each month. I would often be scheduled for worship three weekends in a month while also working a full-time job. It often felt like there was little stability for those who were not “called” to go on the church plant.
There was a phrase that was often said in our church, “We don’t want to be a church that sits around licking each other like puppies.” Translation - we don’t want you to get too comfortable, familiar, or dependent on each other because we will need to shuffle you around to fill in any gaps. I partly understand but at the same time there is something special about people knowing you and developing deep friendships that can only come with time.
The church leaders viewed the desire and pursuit of long term friendships and relationships as an idol.
My wife and I were open to going on a church plant but God would’ve needed to make it extremely clear. We didn’t want to potentially go based on emotions, or because certain people were going on the plant. We believed we were going to stay in the same city and be committed to the church long-term. We began to realize that as more church plants were sent out, the main focus and energy was on the church plants and not as much on the local church and community. This emphasis on church plants left little room for long-term friendships or relationships. The church leaders viewed the desire and pursuit of long-term friendships and relationships as an idol.
“DISQUALIFIED” FROM LEADERSHIP DUE TO “LACK OF EXCITEMENT” FOR CHURCH PLANTING
Our small group dissolved as a result of the group leader and his wife going on the latest church plant. The group leader talked with me about potentially taking over the group and he believed that I was going to do so. He had jumped the gun by asking me to lead before receiving confirmation from our DC pastor which led to us being approached by our DC pastor to confirm that I was not going to be taking over as the small group leader.
We met with the DC pastor so that he could explain to us how he came to his decision. His first reason was he didn’t feel like God was highlighting me to take over the group. The second was that he felt like I wasn’t very excited about church planting. Apparently after the announcement of the church plant he had been paying attention to my reaction.
I admit to a lack of excitement about the plant. In fact, I felt like the announcement of the plant was rushed and almost forced. We had previously sent out three other church plants. There was a lack in the number of small group leaders, only one new pastor had been brought on staff, and small groups were getting shuffled around to bring balance to the number of small groups each night. There had been a lot of change in structure and the church had not yet stabilized.
Some insiders already know a lot of the details about church plants before they are announced. But for those who do not know, the announcement is like a bomb being dropped.
But here is the main issue I have with the way church plant announcements are made. There are a few people, insiders, who already know a lot of the details. But for those who do not know, the announcement is like a bomb being dropped. In this instance, we met for a team meeting and small group leaders were coming into the room from a prior training session. Two of my friends who were group leaders at the time were there and you could sense that something was going on. At the team meeting, they announced the plant and friends of mine were included in the confirm group that was going. I was caught off guard and my mind started racing asking questions like Who else will be going on the plant? Who is going to take over leading our small group? Will our group dissolve? Can the church really keep up with this pace of church planting? Is this the way that church planting should really look? Is God really behind this church plant?
I think there are some people who do get excited at big surprises, but I would suspect that there are others, like me, that are processors and don’t let their emotions, especially ones like excitement, out too eagerly.
We had previously sent out church plants in rapid succession - is it truly possible or healthy to continue at that rate?
I was floored when the church plant announcement was made for a few reasons. The first was that the announcement completely catches you off guard if you are not in the know prior to the announcement. Secondly, we had previously sent out church plants in rapid succession - is it truly possible or healthy to continue at that rate? And lastly, the lead pastor was leaving yet again which doesn’t seem stable or sustainable. Through our whole experience, the following became clear: 1. I realized that being a leader at the church is more about how you appear and look as opposed to your heart 2. That leadership will ignore or make decisions without any conversations with those it may involve, and 3. That leadership does not always have the best interest in mind for those that they are leading.
PROMOTING YOUNG MEN WITHOUT ADHERING TO BIBLICAL QUALIFICATIONS
It is no secret that the Network seeks out young men to become leaders in the church. Not always as there were a few older leaders, but that was not typically the norm. Those being recognized, groomed, and “called” are often new believers. Not to say that you cannot be in leadership and be young or a new believer, but there is a high authority that is put on these new leaders. Leaders are expected to help counsel the people they are leading. They are to guide people to Jesus and help witness and evangelize. They do pre-marriage counseling. They care for the needs of their group members. There are responsibilities that are given to these young men that without humility, wisdom, a deep understanding of the Word, and an ear to hear the Holy Spirit, they will not be well suited to do.
There was a younger man in our small group who said the right things and looked the part that our pastor wanted to “fast track” into leadership. We would often jokingly refer to this as the boys club. You’d typically fit into the club if you were good-looking, charismatic, served, and said all the right things. Pastors would tend to gravitate to these individuals in order to vet them for potential leadership opportunities and either you were in or you were out. After a few months of being around, his wife confessed to some women in our small group that he was verbally abusing her which was heartbreaking to hear. They stopped pursuing leadership with this individual when that came to light, but what would’ve happened had his wife not stepped forward? This man would’ve been leading a group where he was supposed to lead them towards Jesus, give people marriage advice, and discipling others, all while behind closed doors he was abusing his spouse. It was eye-opening to me that it doesn’t matter how long you have served, how faithful you have been, how trustworthy you have been, how much you love Jesus, how humble you have been, or how much you care for others around you. What often mattered was how you looked, your age, and if you had charisma. And once you are looked over, examined, and then bypassed, leadership would move on to their next prospect.
it doesn’t matter how long you have served, how faithful you have been, how trustworthy you have been, how much you love Jesus, how humble you have been, or how much you care for others around you. What often mattered was how you looked, your age, and if you had charisma. And once you are looked over, examined, and then bypassed, leadership would move on to their next prospect.
WHEN WE HAD CONCERNS WE WERE TOLD IT'S BECAUSE WE DIDN'T TRUST OUR PASTOR
In a conversation with our DC pastor, we were told that they felt like we didn’t trust them because of a decision we had made regarding our daughter and child care at the church.
We had an experience that led us to not utilize child care because we didn’t feel it was best for our daughter and we didn’t feel comfortable putting her there. Over the course of a few months, we had known that there was a lack of volunteers for child care. On DC nights people would often skip going to DC to help serve in child care. This was the case for other meetings at the church as well. We were at a team meeting and were called back to get our child as she had been crying for the allotted time frame. When I went to pick her up she was on the floor crying alone and there were more kids per child care worker than what the standard was. This made us extremely uncomfortable at the thought of leaving our child in childcare again. We didn’t know how long they had been crying, how much care she received while she was crying, and so we felt convicted to no longer leave her in childcare until the church was able to get more volunteers and there was an adequate amount of childcare workers. Plus, we thought we could just bring her in with us or arrange for our own child care so that it would be one less child for the church to have to tend to.
We sought counsel from a church staff member about who to talk to and they suggested emailing the pastor that oversaw that service area. We emailed about our experience, listed our concerns, and didn’t want our experience to happen to anyone else. Our goal was to give input and feedback because we wanted the church to be a safe and comfortable place. We didn’t want to give visitors a potential reason to leave. Later on, this email was used by the pastors claiming that we didn’t trust them because we didn’t ask their advice about what to do with child care before making our decision. As the parents, we felt we should have the right and authority to decide what’s best for our child. However, the pastors felt like we should have discussed which course of action we should have taken with them first. The lead pastor also stated that they put their kids in child care and had no issues so we should be doing the same.
WHY WE LEFT THE NETWORK
In the end, after a lot of prayer and conversations between my wife and I, we decided to leave the Network. I believe that the people in the church we attended had good intentions, but the examples and training that they have been given was leading to situations of extreme hurt and abuse of power. When we left there was a fairly large number of people leaving or thinking of leaving as well. I know that leadership has not second guessed or re-examined themselves, no matter who leaves the Network or what concerns are raised.
ABUSE OF POWER
I feel like we were used for their cause. In hindsight, I think to myself about how blinded I must have truly been. It is almost like I had Stockholm syndrome, an emotional response that happens to some abuse and hostage victims when they have positive feelings toward an abuser. You find ways to excuse behavior or defend and justify things that are said or done. But if you are able to distance yourself a bit, you can begin to clearly see how twisted some of the practices, beliefs, and mentalities are. For example, members are expected to turn to their pastors not just for advice, but to ask permission for life decisions - which college to go to, which small group to attend, where to serve, which job to take, etc. Members are expected to listen to their pastor and do as they say because that is submitting to your leaders. In instances where pastors should be offering wisdom and guidance, they are demanding obedience.
In instances where pastors should be offering wisdom and guidance, they are demanding obedience.
Members are expected to be at every event, meeting, small group, Sunday service, and conference. It is not uncommon for someone to get asked why they were not at a specific event and then shamed for not being there. One year for a conference I was simply unable to attend as I had no vacation days or time off to submit. I was approached by my small group leader, my DC pastor, and another friend who was also a small group leader all asking me why I wasn’t able to go. One of them tried to shame me for not going by saying that they were doing everything in their power to be at the conference because they knew it would be life giving to them. This insinuated that I didn’t want to be there or that I was choosing not to be there - neither of which were the case. There was little grace or understanding and in the end, my loyalty and my love for God was questioned.
CREATING AN EASILY REPLICABLE MODEL OF CHURCH WAS MORE IMPORTANT THAN SOUND PRACTICE OR TEACHING
The church oddly over-emphasizes having young leaders and then uses 1st Timothy to back it up by saying don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young. Yet these young pastors have zero biblical training, counseling training, seminary studies, etc.
These young pastors have zero biblical training, counseling training, seminary studies, etc.
As a member of the church, you will hear the same topics taught over and over on the same 2-year cycle that all point back to the mission of church planting and Network beliefs. Topics range from tithing to serving and are meant to get new believers in the doors and on board with their mission, so that they can regularly send out church plants. The goal is to replicate this yearly. Teaching is often taken out of context and shaped in a way that focuses on church planting. It is also surface level and lacks depth. It is as if you are kept on the milk referenced in 1 Corinthians 3:2.
Part of it is understandable, these leaders are not formally trained pastors. I don’t know the training that Steve Morgan gives to a new pastor but there is no seminary, no theology, and no counseling training as far as I am aware. There is a relative of mine who is on staff. When it was recommended that they should take a biblical class, their response was to scoff at the recommendation. I believe that God empowers, and I believe that God equips, but I could not begin to understand this response. I don’t know if it is arrogance or whole-hearted faith that Jesus will provide everything they need to be able to pastor. But if you take your job and position as seriously as they say they do, I would think they would want to do whatever they could to help supplement God-given abilities and talents. Unless God reveals to them historical contexts, references, and theology, there will be very little substance in a sermon.
I once met with a DC pastor about teachings and as the conversation unfolded I was taken back by a couple of things. I was using 1 Cor. 3:2 as a reference saying that I felt like I was being given milk but craving solid food. I had wanted to meet with the DC pastor so that I could get some direction and help on how to continue to grow because I had felt like Sunday morning teachings were ankle deep. His response to me was that teachings are written so that anyone who has never heard about Jesus can come and hear about the gospel. He also said that I shouldn’t rely on Sunday teachings for growth. That growth should mostly come from personal time in the word. Lastly, he said that instead of focusing on what I can get out of the teaching, I should focus on what God wants for me on any given Sunday. I remember leaving this conversation discouraged.
I agree that personal growth will happen in personal time devoted to the scripture, prayer, and worship, and I agree that everyone needs to know about Jesus, and I do believe we should be asking God what he wants from us. However, it was discouraging that his response was more defensive than helpful. I was shooed away to figure it out on my own without any real guidance which led to me to press into understanding the role of a pastor.
The Network teaches people to listen to your leader, to follow your leader, and to seek your leader for instruction. I felt like I was doing that but the leadership was not there.
Part of the role of a pastor is to edify the body through faithful teaching and to care for the church as a shepherd. The Network teaches people to listen to their leader, to follow their leader, and to seek their leader for instruction or council. I felt like I was doing that but the leadership was not there. It was there in structure but not in relationship. My experience was that a pastor would meet with me only when there was something they wanted to ask me to do, or because I was leading worship so they wanted to check in with me to see how I was doing spiritually. But after I was no longer leading worship for our DC, our DC pastor rarely initiated meeting with me.
I WAS USED FOR MY ETHNICITY
They even used my ethnicity because they wanted a more diverse looking worship team. They intentionally scheduled specific people on Sundays so that there wasn’t an all white worship team. I grew up in the midwest, born and raised. I have a multiethnic background so I do have darker colored skin. They claimed that they wanted to look more like what is described in Revelation with the multitude of ethnicities/diversity worshiping God in heaven, which I was like ok yeah that makes sense. Now I just feel like what might have been good intentions was completely manipulative, inauthentic, and disingenuous. I don't know if this was the case but you start to think that it is possible that people with real hearts of worship may have been ignored or looked over because the church wanted to attain a certain appearance on stage.
I feel like what might have been good intentions was completely manipulative, inauthentic, and disingenuous.
OUR DC PASTOR, WHO CLAIMED TO BE OUR RELATIONAL LEADER, HAD NO REAL RELATIONSHIP WITH US
In our conversation with our DC pastor before we left The Network, we had told him that we didn’t feel like we knew him and he didn’t know us. It was discouraging because we had been in his DC for about four years and we hardly knew each other. When we told him this he said that he felt like we had high expectations. We asked what he thought our expectations were and he said that he thought we wanted to be close friends with him. We told him that was not what we were saying at all. What we were saying is that we wanted him to care. He was our DC pastor for 4 years and we were not known by him at all. Our conversations were almost always after services on Sundays or on the night before DC and they were often very surface level. The only times that he really met with me were when I was leading worship on his DC night so that he could check in with me. We tried to explain that the only time he talked to us was either in passing in between services on Sunday’s, at DC nights, or if he needed to ask a favor. Outside of that we rarely talked or did anything together.
I understand that not everyone is going to be best or even good friends, and that is not what we were expecting of him. But in order to lead someone and care for someone, there has to be some sort of relationship. This is a big reason why I felt hurt by him during the process of determining what would happen with our small group. I had my leader making a decision about me when he knew very little about me. He made no attempts to discuss this with me or to get to know where my heart was at. Instead, he drew conclusions based on observations and made a decision. There was nothing relational about it.
He was our DC pastor for 4 years and we were not known by him at all.
PASTORS WERE MANIPULATIVE IN WHO THEY DECIDED WERE "CALLED" TO VARIOUS ROLES
Leaders will often talk about “calling” which is the idea that Jesus is speaking to you and directing you on a specific course. I use the word in quotes because often in The Network this is done as personal revelation where the pastor will indicate that they believe Jesus is saying this or that to a person. Their leader will tell them that they think Jesus is asking them to become a pastor and after thought/prayer they say yes or no. This is practiced down to deciding who will go on church plants, who will lead a group, etc. This is often how young men become pastors. They explicitly look for young men - I don’t think that there were any pastors brought onto staff in my time in the Network that became a pastor prior to the age of 30. With each pastor they raised up, they used “calling” or personal revelation given to pastors for a young man. One question that I always had was how could they continue to use the word calling if they were only selecting or paying attention to young men. They would have to completely be ignoring the calling of anyone outside of their specific demographic that may be a potential pastor. If they were truly being objective to someone’s “calling” then you would see pastors of all age groups in the Network. Instead, they practice partiality and this is practiced in selecting both pastors and small group leaders.
I was on the worship team and was leading worship on for our DC. I met with my DC pastor before starting to lead because he felt like I was being called to lead worship. I led worship for a while until one day I met with my DC pastor again. He said he was thankful that I had stepped in to help but that he didn’t think I was suited to be a worship leader long term. He said that another person who had been helping with worship was going to be leading from now on.
I was confused because 1. I really enjoy worshiping with the church and leading, and 2. Because there was really no indication as to why they didn’t want me to lead any longer. To go from him thinking Jesus was asking me to lead to being removed from leading for no clear reason put a question mark on what they mean by “calling”. It almost felt like I was being used and then tossed aside when they found someone new and better. It didn’t help that the week after I was told that I wasn’t going to be leading any longer, the person that replaced me got sick and couldn’t sing. The DC pastor came back to me and asked me if I would lead again that week because they didn’t have anyone to do it. He did apologize and recognized that it was a difficult situation for me to be in which I appreciated. I wanted to help out and had the choice to say no, but it didn’t take away the sting of the scenario.
It felt like I was being used and then tossed aside when they found someone new/better.
We also witnessed the use of “calling” in a manipulative way. When the previous church plant was assembling its team, they were getting close to the time they were supposed to be leaving. They didn’t have the numbers that they were expecting so they began to approach people to see if they were thinking about going. My wife and I were open to going on a church plant but felt like God would have to make it abundantly clear that we were supposed to go. After service one Sunday, the planting pastor came up to my wife and I to ask if we were thinking about going. We told him that we had talked and prayed and that God was saying no. In return, he questioned us by pointing out that he was wondering if God was showing us that we were supposed to go because some of our closest friends were going. After the conversation we witnessed him going around to other people asking the same thing - if they were thinking about going. It almost felt as if they were in desperation to gather more people.
We left church that day feeling like we were trying to be manipulated/talked/pressured into going on the plant. When a church preaches over and over again that you need to submit to your leader, listen to your leader, and seek your leader's counsel, when they approach you and start to say “I feel like God is saying this or that God is doing that”, you are prone to believe them. Unless you are truly seeking God and know how to hear His voice for yourself, you are going to do what they say, or at very least, strongly consider what the pastor is asking. When you add personal revelation, that God spoke or is saying something to the pastor who is passing it onto you, then there is little you can do to truly test if it is true or not. Factor that with the notion that some of these people are 18-25 years old that want to please their leader, it can be a position that can be abused. Many people give up school, careers, sell houses, leave families, and move across the country to go on church plants so the stakes are high. These are life-changing decisions.
When a church preaches over and over again that you need to submit to your leader, listen to your leader, and seek your leader's counsel, when they approach you and start to say “I feel like God is saying this or that God is doing that”, you are prone to believe them.
A great example of this is when the latest church plant was being processed. We were in a team meeting and we were praying. A pastor started to “prophesy” (this is not word for word but it is as close as my memory can recall), “ I feel like God is saying that if we do not do this church plant, then we will not do one for a long time. That it is almost like a muscle that needs to be conditioned”. Even as I write this again the feeling of manipulation is coming back. How is anyone supposed to question or test that? Especially so in a Network where the main goal is to send out yearly church plants? To say anything that went against or question a pastor on this would lead to it being turned around on you for not having enough faith.
AFTER LEAVING THE NETWORK
We have had many conversations processing our experiences and aftermath of being in the Network. I wanted to share my story because I know now that the things being said/done/taught/practiced in the Network are hurting people.
Now I feel like I have freedom in Christ and that his love for me goes far beyond the walls of what I am doing in a church in The Network.
While in the Network, I often felt like I wasn’t good enough, like I had to perform at a certain level to be loved by God, and doubted my christianity because I didn’t feel led to go on a church plant or attend every church event. Now I feel like I have freedom in Christ and that his love for me goes far beyond the walls of what I am doing in a church in The Network.
I hope and pray that all of those who have been hurt by the Network will find the healing that they deserve and the confidence and assurance that God is working, moving, and sovereign even to those outside of the Network.