A CULTURE OF CONTROL
A CULTURE OF CONTROL:
Reflections on the pressure to conform as a college woman at Vine Church and the stigma surrounding ending a relationship with a registered child sex offender
- Author: A.C. | Church Member, Kids Program, Prayer Team
- Attended: Vine Church, Carbondale, IL | 2006-2008
- This story was published February, 2024
HOW I FOUND THE NETWORK
I attended Vineyard (later Vine) church from 2006-2008. I started going as an SIUC student because I was not fulfilled at my current church at the time, and I met a guy who was a member of Vine. He invited me to some small group gatherings to start with, and my first service at the church was Easter 2006 (the evening service called “Upper Room”).
Although I spent most of my childhood and teenage years regularly attending church, this was different from any type of church service I had ever experienced. It felt alive. The people were extremely friendly, the atmosphere was laidback, and there were college students everywhere. I could feel myself already wanting to make it my church home.
I continued attending Vine after my sort-of boyfriend moved home to western Illinois for the summer. I was also motivated to stay involved by fellow SIUC students who were in the teacher education program with me. I joined a co-ed small group, where I stayed for several months. This was longer than I should have stayed, considering that the group never really felt like home or a safe place for me.
A CULTURE OF CONTROL OVER SINGLE WOMEN’S RELATIONSHIPS
The arrival of my friend J. in the small group in fall 2006 started to change some things for me. (She and I are still friends to this day, and count ourselves extremely lucky to have broken free of the toxicity that Vine peddles throughout southern Illinois and elsewhere). I am still not entirely sure how she ended up coming to the group; she was a hairstylist and I’m pretty sure that’s how she met the female “elder” of the group.
J. was/is outgoing, funny, opinionated, and marches to her own beat — definitely not the sort of woman who fit the mold Vine was trying to create. Shortly after getting involved, she tactfully rebuffed the not-so-subtle advances of a guy from another small group. This caused her to quickly be called out by A., the female “elder” of the group (I call her this because she was in charge of “caring for” the other young women in the group, even though the official leader was a guy). During small group prayer, this group member openly insinuated that J. needed to be careful, and that if she continued down the path of supposedly leading this guy on, she would end up divorced for a second time.
During small group prayer, the female "elder" of the group openly insinuated that my friend needed to be careful, and that if she continued down the path of supposedly leading a guy in the church on, she would end up divorced for a second time.
This completely floored me. J. had done nothing to lead this guy on and had, in fact, made it clear that she was not interested in pursuing a relationship with anyone as she was still dealing with the emotional trauma of her divorce.
After witnessing this “prayer” session, I quietly began pulling away from that particular small group. I had made some other friends in the church, and I ended up joining an all-female small group a short time later.
My new small group encouraged me to embrace this "season of singleness."
By this time, the relationship I had with the guy from western Illinois had ended. My new small group encouraged me to embrace this "season of singleness" and receive lots of prayer and healing to address the pain left over from the relationship.
VINE PROMOTED HEIGHTENED SPIRITUAL AND EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCES
Something I quickly noticed in this small group was that hands-on prayer was considered more effective if it produced a reaction (i.e., crying, shaking, etc). This was a pattern that continued throughout my time at Vine. Not wanting to seem like I wasn’t being moved by the Holy Spirit’s presence, I fell right in line with demonstrating the “correct” emotional responses and outward postures of worship, such as hands raised or openly weeping.
Something I quickly noticed in this small group was that hands-on prayer was considered more effective if it produced a reaction (i.e., crying, shaking, etc).
I am not trying to imply that these responses are forced; I know some people who genuinely have emotional responses to worship. I was and still am more of a quiet worshiper, but I felt like I was not being authentic unless I showed it outwardly. How strange to feel the need to prove the authenticity of worship through not being authentic to one’s own beliefs and reactions.
In the fall of 2006, I attended a “hands-on prayer clinic” (yes, that really was the name of it). At Vine, you were expected to learn a whole new way to pray for others — always hands-on, with your eyes open and watching the receiver of the prayer for any kind of emotional cues.
The emphasis was always on outward reactions and appearances.
During this particular clinic, I was selected as the “hands-on” person who received prayer. I have never been the kind of person who is comfortable standing up in front of a room full of strangers, and I believe that is exactly why Scott Joseph (staff pastor at the time) called me up there.
During the “prayer” (I use that term loosely and add quotation marks because it was usually the farthest thing from genuine, heartfelt prayer), other attendees pointed out what physical signs they were observing in me — facial expressions, twitching, etc. Again, the emphasis was always on outward reactions and appearances.
“ALL IN” AT VINE CHURCH
During late 2006 and early 2007, I was “all in” at Vine. I attended a service every Sunday, every special meeting, served Saturday lunches at Lake Heights apartments. You name it, I was there for it. I was determined to get over the guy who originally invited me, but at the same time, I was also hoping he would notice my commitment to all things Vine-related and want me back. That is a desperately unhealthy reason to get involved in anything, but Vine frequently pushed the importance of relationships, of marrying young (and quickly), and starting a family right away. I was getting close to graduating from SIUC, and I did not want to be looked over for the role of submissive, complementarian wife.
I was getting close to graduating from SIUC, and I did not want to be looked over for the role of submissive, complementarian wife.
My small group also “multiplied” during this time due to its large size. My new group leader, C., was several years younger than me, but seemed to have a spiritual maturity beyond her years. She and I had established a good rapport during our time in the other small group, and I trusted her. This made it a very easy decision when she invited me over for a time of “confession” and healing prayer. Looking back, I can see just how unhealthy and incredibly dysfunctional this was. Basically, it was a time for me to air all my "dirty laundry" while C. sat and listened and then prayed for me.
I remember leaving her apartment feeling a little lighter for having shared so much, but also very exposed and uncomfortable because C. had shared absolutely nothing. It was this type of power dynamic that surfaced over and over again all throughout Vine: one person’s supposed past “sins” were used as ammunition against them in their spiritual journey. This was made very clear to me in my first small group with J. and the divorce shaming, but I was so enamored with the way Vine did church. (It’s worth noting that, to my knowledge, C. did not share my “dirty secrets” with other group members or church staff, but I have learned many times since leaving that nothing there was ever truly confidential).
There was this type of power dynamic that surfaced over and over again all throughout Vine: one person’s supposed past “sins” were used as ammunition against them in their spiritual journey.
I eventually became one of the “core” members of this small group. Being one of the older women in the group (I was 22 at the time), the emphasis was on caring for other younger women, as well as praying for them and their “healing” from whatever the Vine doctrine determined that they needed to be healed from. I would slowly learn that there was no sound doctrine and that the need for healing (or even what constituted a sin) varied from one group leader to another.
I should add that I did form some meaningful friendships during that time. Or so I thought; most of them quickly disappeared when I left in 2008, but I am getting ahead of myself.
DISCOVERED I WAS IN A RELATIONSHIP WITH A CHURCH MEMBER WHO WAS A REGISTERED SEX OFFENDER
Around Christmas 2006, I started receiving some interest from a guy, S.C. He was a little odd and awkward, but we had several mutual friends. It did not take long for him to start pursuing me aggressively, which culminated in what I can only consider a “love bombing” on Valentine’s Day 2007. He had flowers delivered to my student teaching location and prepared a steak dinner at his trailer that night (complete with a bottle of wine and candles everywhere). He also proclaimed his feelings for me, and so began a very quick, and very unhealthy, relationship.
I knew my new boyfriend S.C. had a secretive past, but I did not know the extent of it... S.C. was a registered sex offender.
I knew S.C. had a secretive past, but I did not know the extent of it. I had heard this from several people, who also did not seem to fully know the details. After we had been dating for a few weeks, he finally admitted that he had sexually abused his younger brother and sister for several years. This was only found out because his brother threatened suicide and told everything. S.C. was a registered sex offender.
My brain could not fully process this information.
I had heard staff pastor Scott Joseph mention almost boastfully that Vine had a registered sex offender among the congregation several months prior to S.C. disclosing his past to me. The implication was that there was no limit to the sins Jesus could take away. I am inclined to agree, but as someone who was studying Early Childhood Education and planning to be a teacher, this was something that could have a huge impact on my future. None of it was made known to me by anyone until S.C. told me, conveniently after several months of knowing each other closely when feelings had a chance to grow. This ultimately brought about the beginning of the end of this relationship.
Those who knew of his past as a sexual abuser conveniently ignored it, since it had happened before he was a follower of Christ.... I had heard staff pastor Scott Joseph mention almost boastfully that Vine had a registered sex offender among the congregation several months prior to S.C. disclosing his past to me.
I later found out that he was planning to propose after just a few months of dating, which was news to me since it had not actually been discussed.
After ending the relationship, I was vilified in our common social circles for breaking his heart (it was mentioned to me by several people how devastated he was, and that it was my fault). After all, S.C. was a respected volunteer around the church, running the sound booth during services, doing odd jobs, etc. He was viewed as an all-around great guy; those who knew of his past as a sexual abuser conveniently ignored it, since it had happened before he was a follower of Christ.
The implication was that, because Jesus died to forgive all our sins, including the ones that carried criminal charges, we should simply overlook or minimize any real-world consequences. Questioning the forgiveness of such behavior was likened to doubting God’s power. I found out years after leaving that Network founder Steve Morgan’s past alleged indiscretions were also handled in a similar way. The parallels between his and S.C.’s situation were undeniable.
The implication was that, because Jesus died to forgive all our sins, including the ones that carried criminal charges, we should simply overlook or minimize any real-world consequences. Questioning the forgiveness of such behavior was likened to doubting God’s power.
Ending the relationship with S.C. was the right thing for me, even though it did not feel that way at the time. It felt more like I had thrown away my chance to become a submissive, complementarian wife and have lots of babies right away. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I was blacklisted, but I could feel a shift in my connections at the Vine after this whole situation. There was a sense of disconnection and distance between me and many of the people who (I thought) would show some support.
AFTER BREAKING OFF THE RELATIONSHIP, I GAINED A REPUTATION FOR “CHASING MEN”
I graduated from SIUC in May 2007. Finding where you belong at the Vine when you are no longer a college student is tricky. I continued as a core member of my small group, but I felt like more and more of an outsider as I got a teaching job and started having less in common with the younger women in the group.
I went on a date here or there with a couple of guys I knew in the church, but none of them evolved beyond coffee. I later found out that another young woman (who I had considered a friend) told one of the guys I became close with to be careful because I chased men. It is very difficult to fall in line with the “dream” role of young wife and mother when there is an unfounded rumor following you, implying that you are, for lack of a better word, a slut. I have always had friends of the opposite sex — not to have as potential suitors, but because they were good people. The Vine challenged this way of thinking. In my experience, it was often considered inappropriate for women to have male friends, and always wrong to be alone with any member of the opposite sex who was not your spouse. My lack of willingness to accept this started putting a greater distance between me and my circle of people.
WHY I LEFT THE NETWORK
I was coming to realize that, for whatever reason, I did not fit the mold of the kind of woman that Vine promoted. Despite my extreme involvement and my attempts to do and say all the right things, I was stuck. I was no longer in college, I wasn’t enough of a leader to have my own small group, and apparently, I also wasn’t Vine wife material. I had nowhere to belong.
I was coming to realize that, for whatever reason, I did not fit the mold of the kind of woman that Vine promoted, despite my extreme involvement and my attempts to do and say all the right things.
In spring 2008, I made one last effort to keep the Vine as my church home. I had been a faithful member for almost two years, and I was apprehensive to leave because so much of my life was there. I attended the spring retreat at San Damiano retreat center in Golconda, Illinois.
This was my first and only retreat. I had heard about how amazing and life changing they were for everyone involved, so naturally I was looking forward to going. These retreats were hyped up months in advance, spots usually filled quickly, and there was almost always a waiting list. I felt pretty lucky to have secured my place.
I remember sitting at Vine's Spring retreat and looking around and wondering just what in the world was going on. This no longer felt like the presence of God; it was more like spiritual showmanship.
The retreat was a mix of down time and worship/prayer sessions. In keeping with Vine’s pattern of extreme emotional response, these sessions included people weeping loudly and falling to their knees or on the floor to demonstrate the Holy Spirit moving in our midst. The whole event had a very charismatic feeling to it. It was difficult to avoid getting caught up in the over-the-top displays of worship, but I remember sitting there and looking around and wondering just what in the world was going on. This no longer felt like the presence of God; it was more like spiritual showmanship.
Although I left there on a spiritual high (it’s hard not to be when you’re on a retreat in the middle of nowhere), real life quickly resumed when I got back to my apartment.
I don’t know if I had outgrown the Vine, or finally just realized the deception that they sold to so many, but either way, I was done.
I don’t know if I had outgrown the Vine, or finally just realized the deception that they sold to so many, but either way, I was done. I was no longer of much value as a non-college student, and that was made very clear as I felt more and more disconnected.
I cautiously sampled another local church that I enjoyed. Once I mentioned that to others at Vine, I was already out. The friends that I thought I had made during my time there quickly faded away without a word. I spent several months feeling isolated and not sure exactly what I was supposed to do.
Leaving the Network had literally cost me my whole network of friends and acquaintances almost overnight.
LIFE AFTER LEAVING THE NETWORK
I eventually was able to shake off the sense of loneliness that came from starting over again. I don’t think it was any coincidence that I met the man who would become my husband just a couple of months after officially cutting ties with Vine Church. It turned out that we had mutual friends who were members there, so, 15 years later, I can honestly say that one good thing came from my time at Vine.
Life has changed so much since I left the Vine in spring 2008. I’m happily married with two kids and I live in southeast Georgia. My family and I attend a nondenominational church that does not require anywhere near the cult-like level of commitment that Vine demanded. I still find myself struggling sometimes with the unhealthy views that I learned during my time there.
I truly believe that Vine promotes a high-control culture of spiritual abuse and exploitation with the goal of having their members subscribe to identical beliefs and goals.
I truly believe that Vine promotes a high-control culture of spiritual abuse and exploitation with the goal of having their members subscribe to identical beliefs and goals. There is no room for anything else, unless it is to go to a new city and plant a church that is an exact replica of the lead pastor’s vision.
I would advise any church seekers to go as far in the opposite direction of Vine Church as possible. I managed to extricate myself from its invasive practices, and I am a better and happier human because of it.