FROM ON FIRE FOR GOD TO BURNED OUT AND DEPRESSED
By Danielle B.
FROM ON FIRE FOR GOD TO BURNED OUT AND DEPRESSED:
HOW I LOST MYSELF TO LIVING, BREATHING, AND SERVING IN A NETWORK CHURCH
- Author: Danielle B. | Church Member, Worship Team, Childcare, and served in many other roles
- Attended: Cedar Heights Church, State College, PA | 2016-2021
- This story was published April, 2022
How I Found The Network
My five-year relationship with The Network began with an invitation to a small group Christmas party. At that time, I attended a church in my hometown that I loved, but I was missing a young adult community. As a 23-year-old Christian woman who recently graduated from college and was renewing her relationship with God, being around other young Christian men and women felt important. I was moving into the next chapter of what was already a decades-long relationship with the Lord and learning how He wanted me to pursue Him as an adult. It was an exciting time. I was hungry for more of Him in a way I had not been since my church-heavy childhood. Seeking a community of people like me felt like the next step in going after what He wanted. A hometown friend who had recently been saved at Cedar Heights knew of my endeavor and invited me to meet some of her friends at her small group’s Christmas party.
Fast forward a few months, and I was a regular group attendee. When I started going, I intended to continue attending my church while fulfilling my desire for community through small group, and I did do that for some time. However, after months of attending small group at Cedar Heights Church without stepping foot in a service, three different women from the small group separately approached me about how much they would love for me to come to Cedar Heights on a Sunday. I started wondering if the Holy Spirit was trying to tell me something.
I remember praying, God, how is it that these three different people are telling me the same thing? This must be You moving them to talk to me about going to the church. I was in awe. It felt like the Lord’s divine intervention.
I was moving into the next chapter of what was already a decades-long relationship with the Lord and learning how He wanted me to pursue Him as an adult.
Not too long after those conversations, I experienced a powerful Holy Spirit moment that made me feel like God was telling me I needed to go to Cedar Heights (too long of a story to include here). It took a few more Sundays, but I eventually told the pastor at my old church that I was going to start going to a church in the next town over. He wished me the best and was happy to hear about how God was leading me. There were no objections.
“Serve Like Crazy"
I was a little nervous to start attending Cedar Heights. Not only did it mean introducing myself to a new church, but it also meant adding Sundays to my daily commuting schedule. I worked in State College throughout the week, but lived forty-five minutes away. I was already driving the sixty-mile roundtrip at a minimum of five days a week and six days every other week when I worked on Saturdays. That’s not to mention that I often worked back-to-back weekends. I decided to trust God’s call to attend this church, so I surrendered my worry over to Him that if He wanted me to commute like this, then He would give me the energy.
Looking back on those years, I have few memories of anything other than Cedar Heights, besides maybe a couple vacations and solo day hikes, along with work. I can barely tell you what was going on in my family from 2016 to 2019, even though I lived with them. I had distanced myself from all my relationships outside of the church, believing my priorities were aligned with God’s mission. I essentially started a new life, leaving behind the people who had known me and loved me the longest and the most.
I had distanced myself from all my relationships outside of the church and essentially started a new life, leaving behind the people who had known me and loved me the longest and the most.
How could I do that to my family and my friends? I was young, eager to follow God’s direction, excited to serve Him with all I had. I was a follower and people-pleaser by nature and naïve to how those things could easily be taken advantage of in a church.
“Single people should be serving like crazy,” the lead pastor, Dan Digman, said at one Team Meeting a little while after I had started serving regularly. "You have the time, you have the energy, you aren’t focused on a relationship or a family. You should be serving however you can," was the (paraphrased) message that I came away with after that teaching.
I remember being frozen with confusion and fear that I was not meeting expectations. I’m already serving so much, I inwardly panicked as I sat in the middle school auditorium. How could I possibly give more? Am I not doing enough already? If my pastor is telling me I have to do this, is it not then God’s will too?
How could I possibly give more? Am I not doing enough already? If my pastor is telling me I have to do this, is it not then God’s will too?
I will refrain from going into all the details of my serving experiences, but I will share all the areas I participated in (to the best of my memory) in a three-year period from when I started in 2016 to when I began to really cut back on things in 2019. Some of these things I did consistently, but others were either a handful of times or one-time things:
- Hospitality team member/rotation lead
- Worship backup vocalist
- Small group childcare
- Small group leader meeting childcare
- Fill-in for small group childcare
- Parent’s Night Out childcare
- Series class childcare
- Membership Bible Training childcare
- Membership Bible Training hospitality
- Membership Bible Training worship
- Church event photography and photographer coordinator
- Church party planning/hospitality
- Check in/out team at 2017 retreat
- Check in/out team at 2019 retreat
- Lead pre-group prayer
- Temporarily lead small group over a two- or three-week period
- DC Christmas party catering
- Fill-in to count tithes and offerings after service
Furthermore, in addition to my full-time job and serving “like crazy,” I was meeting church people constantly for hangouts, game nights, and “grabbing coffee” with new people. I tried to walk someone through the Christian Beliefs book to get them to conform to the church’s beliefs. I participated in inner-healing prayer for someone who ultimately found the healing they needed through therapy. I could go on, but I digress.
Often my mornings would start when I walked out the door at 7:45 am, and I would usually get home around 10:00 pm. I typically would have to pack an extra set of clothes if I needed to wear something other than my work clothes to whatever church-related thing I was jetting off to right after. I also remember being discouraged that it cost me money to do small group childcare, because I only had enough time to go to the closest Panera for dinner.
Serving the church felt like a second job.
Serving the church felt like a second job. My life was made up of two-week stretches of daily commutes, where only an occasional Saturday to myself would grant some semblance of temporary relief. It got to the point where I was literally scheduling “NO PLANS” on random days in my Google calendar so that when someone asked me to hang out or serve, I would be reminded to say “no” on those days.
To the credit of about three people early on, I was asked a few times if it was too much. Two people directly asked me about it, but I was only serving in a couple of areas at that point and was not yet crumbling under the weight of a multitude of obligations. Another person noted my dedication and said it was clear that I was committed. That is about where the “checking in” stopped.
I remember some of us being frustrated that more people were not serving. “They keep asking the same people to serve all the time,” was a common grumble among the small group members. “When are other people going to step up?” we’d ask one another.
The thing is that no one was calling out the real problem. They would play lip service to setting boundaries. “You should say ‘no’ more often,” they would tell me. "The problem is that you say ‘yes’ to everything, and people know you’re willing to do things.” But to stop there and say that I was my own problem is entirely undermining the actual truth.
The reality was that serving at all costs was harped on constantly. Membership in the Network is never under threat for failing to set healthy boundaries. It’s under threat if you fail to serve.
Membership in the Network is never under threat for failing to set healthy boundaries. It’s under threat if you fail to serve.
I could not escape it; I could not avoid it. If I wanted to be a part of Cedar Heights, I felt like I had to serve in multiple areas. I was always reminded of it at small group, especially when monthly topics regularly focused on it. It was a requirement of my membership. It was consistently preached with conviction from the pulpit on Sunday mornings and especially at Team Meetings. It was the topic of DC meetings. It was the common conversation among service leaders as they scouted new people to employ or discuss who was “underperforming.” It was the monthly text or quick conversation at church asking if I could fill in for this person, if I could join this team, if I could lead this task item.
It was all-consuming. It was everywhere.
“You should say ‘no’ more often,” was the first example of blame-shifting that I fell victim to as a part of Cedar Heights Church, though I did not realize it until much later. At that time, Cedar Heights consumed my life: my friends, my conversations, my plans, my time, my energy, my focus, and my future. Cedar Heights was the sun, and I willingly revolved around it.
I remember experiencing burnout for the first time about eight months or so into it all. A year after that, I remember feeling depression for the first time in my life. I despised when people asked me what was new; I had nothing to share. “Work and church,” was literally all I had to say. I felt nothing. No joy. No sadness.
Cedar Heights consumed my life: my friends, my conversations, my plans, my time, my energy, my focus, and my future. Cedar Heights was the sun, and I willingly revolved around it.
I look back in sorrow now knowing I was in denial that my depression was caused by the church. I remember sitting in my church friends’ living room, recognizing the depressed state I was in, and thinking, What am I doing? This isn’t the life I want. I knew I was losing myself and that a part of my identity was slipping away. Yet I blamed it on the enemy and my job. People prayed over me that it was Satan taking my joy away. I wish so much that I had had the eyes to see that my relationship with the church was tearing me apart.
But I kept going. Kept commuting. Kept serving. Kept following Cedar Heights.
Dating someone who did not conform to the Network
Joy finally came when my husband, another church member, came into my life. I cry as I write this because God knew what He was doing to rescue me from what I was going through. My husband was not enmeshed in the church like I was, and it honestly scared me. He disrupted my Cedar Heights-influenced ideals on Christian Network dating.
The friend who had invited me to church told me, “Be careful of him, because he’s hurt a lot of people in the church.” That comment set me up to be on guard and skeptical of him, not understanding what he had gone through with the church. Then on our first date I remember thinking, This isn’t going to work, as he said that he was planning to leave State College in a couple of years. I judged him for not following Cedar Heights, not letting God humble him to stay at the church, stay in State College, and give up his desires. I had so much conviction that he had to conform to the church for our relationship to work. The church HAD to accept him, and more importantly, HE had to accept the church for this to go anywhere. Dating him was unnerving. He was not the cookie-cutter, submissive to leadership, Network-over-all-things man I had been praying for. But the Lord knew that this man was exactly what I needed.
Eventually, I was able to move past my hesitations about him after a lot of prayer and hard conversations together, and as I settled into our engagement and began planning our wedding some several months later, anxiety and burnout began to rear their ugly heads once again.
Why I Left the Network
The beginning of my two-year unraveling
My journey out of Cedar Heights began with no longer being able to stomach serving in two Sunday service areas. I knew hospitality had to go. It was the most draining and least life-giving as we still had the strenuous task of setting up and tearing down each week. My husband recalls that I was extremely hesitant to step down because I was afraid of what people would think. Eventually, I did work up the courage to go to the service lead and let him know I was done. He was understanding. None of the judgment I feared came to pass, and I sighed with relief that I was done. It felt like things were looking up as 2019 ended.
I had no idea that that was only the beginning of my unraveling. Small group became increasingly difficult. I dreaded how long mingling after group went on because it meant a longer day and a sleepy forty-five minute drive home. I remember my small group leader challenging us to actively invest in other people in the group. I told him honestly that I could not do it because I was already stretched thin. I was investing in my then-fiancé, preparing to become a wife, and could not fathom investing in more people when I was already at my emotional and physical wit's end.
His response was that he knew God would be able to help me invest in people anyways. While I knew his intent was to point me to God’s sustaining power, it was not the empathic response that I needed. I remember thinking, Did you not just hear that I am barely getting by right now and do not have it in me to put more energy into more people?
Did you not just hear that I am barely getting by right now and do not have it in me to put more energy into more people?
I listened to my instincts telling me I needed to figure out how to rest and that it was perfectly okay that my fiancé was the only one in whom I was investing at the time.
Society stopped. In-person church stopped. In-person small group stopped. Little did I know, this was a critical moment for me. I would soon be able to experience true freedom.
Newly married, freshly moved to State College, no longer commuting, and able to stay in the house when I was not at my job (I continued to work in person as a banker). I was thriving. I had the time I wanted back to myself.
Watching church services from my couch instead of hauling bins down a long hallway, tearing down worship equipment, and being exhausted by 1 pm was glorious. Eating dinner with my husband on our coffee table from the safety of our little Zoom box during small group breathed new life into me. I had the space I had been dreaming of, and it was wonderful.
But it was not enough. Small group dread returned. Relating to the topics became more and more difficult. I added to the discussion less and less. I slipped away from the laptop during prayer because I did not want to open up to anyone about my feelings for fear of being misunderstood. I zoned out during church and could not remember a single thing that was preached. I auto-piloted through set up and tear down as we started outdoor services.
Then, I debated if I felt strongly enough about Covid to return to indoor services as a local church gave us their space in the evenings. Singing along with the congregation from the seats became harder to do as I felt more distant. Having conversations with people became more anxiety-inducing. The new building and offering were announced, and I dreaded returning to church-wide serving. I dreaded the work and expectation that Dan said was to come.
The new building and offering were announced, and I dreaded returning to church-wide serving. I dreaded the work and expectation that I knew was to come.
The only thing that I enjoyed at that point—the only time I felt God at church anymore—was when I was doing backup vocals. I felt free in Him when I was there. I felt like I could actually spend time with Him there.
What was happening to me? I loved this church. They were my closest friends. My family! I had so many wonderful things happen to me in this place. God had called me here, and I could barely stand it. Why was I feeling this way?
At the beginning of 2021, a psychiatrist finally helped me see I was burned out. Truly burned out. I do not believe she even realized the full scope of it, but she helped me at least see a glimpse. Let me add that I was seeing her to help with clinical anxiety, which I thought was related to work, and we ended up talking about small group 95% of the time. This resulted in me taking a long break from group.
I thought my clinical anxiety was related to work, but I ended up talking with my psychiatrist about small group 95% of the time.
I told my friends, and they asked me if I would still be spending time with Jesus during small group time. One of the friends said she felt okay with me taking a break because, although people who took breaks in the past usually did not come back, she knew that I would. Even trying to rid my sense of obligation, I could not escape it. I felt like I had to give good answers for how my break from group was going as I updated my friends and my small group leader. I eventually identified some reasons why group was hard, shared them with people, and received no objections. I returned to group, encouraged that I could go back to loving our weekly meetings.
For a short time, I enjoyed going to group again. For a little while, I liked being in the new church building, not having to set up and tear down anymore, and enjoying myself more during services.
We begin providing feedback on the things we are seeing
Around the same time, my husband and another friend began providing feedback to leadership about things we saw within the congregation, chief among them being burnout, especially among the non-college-aged singles. We noticed that this group was drained to the max and was not given anything in return. They were not excited about the new building nor looking forward to returning to serving. My husband and I felt it ourselves. We knew we were not getting filled up from the church, and we saw that others around us were going through the same thing. Further, we saw that we were not the only ones running on a deficit.
My husband was excited about the possibility of having a constructive conversation with church leadership—one he had been preparing for a long time. We had hope that change was coming
My husband discussed some of our concerns with the staff pastor and worship leader, both of whom were good friends, and expressed his desire to share this with Dan. We both believed that Dan was the one who really needed to hear this feedback as he was the one who could lead and implement change. These conversations went well overall and helped my husband feel like his voice was being heard. However, in both cases, they recommended my husband hold off on a conversation with Dan because Dan was busy with the new building and had a lot on his plate.
So we waited. But regardless, my husband was excited about the possibility of having a constructive conversation—one he had been preparing for a long time. We had hope that change was coming.
Anxiety returns, making it nearly impossible to feel comfortable at church
Amid the waiting, my anxiety returned with a vengeance. I actively avoided conversation at church and small group. I did not introduce myself to a single new person. I was done trying to hook people in. The most comfortable I felt in that place was when my husband and I could actually sit together during a service (he worked weekends and served on video at the time, so it was rare that we ever got to do church together). Or when I could hide from people by playing with my friend’s daughter. That little girl helped me deal with some really anxious Sunday mornings, and I am so grateful to her for that.
A time that sticks out the most was when I came to church alone because my husband was serving on video. I remember already not wanting to be there, and then as soon as I crossed through the front doors, an intense wave of panic set in. I recognized no one as I was surrounded by these bubbly, bright young college students I had never met before. Everything around me was amplified. People talking to each other, people trying to talk to me. I felt vulnerable and exposed, wishing desperately that my husband was sitting in the chair beside me and not in the sound booth so he could offer me some stability.
Worship was so hard. The quality of the music was wonderful as always, but I could not focus. I could not feel God. I felt claustrophobic, trapped, frozen.
I could not feel God. I felt claustrophobic, trapped, frozen.
I need to get out of here, kept repeating in my head. Desperate for relief, I walked back to the sound booth and told my husband that I was having a panic attack and needed to go. As I attempted to leave quietly, I was stopped by two different friends. Understandably they wanted to know what was wrong. Not having the heart to tell them exactly why I was having a panic attack, I told them I just felt like there were too many people there, and I needed to go home.
As soon as I stepped outside, relief came. Once I got home, I listened to a fantastic sermon called “Hurt Happens” from a church we attend when we visit my husband’s family. I felt the Holy Spirit flooding me with peace, inspiration, and direction upon listening to this teaching. That afternoon, another friend reached out to ask me why I had left the service early. I gave a similar response as before, saying that I had a major panic attack and needed to remove myself from the situation. I also told her how grateful I was because God showed up in some incredible ways through the sermon I had listened to.
After sharing that I had experienced a panic attack, my friend said that I really should ask people to pray for me when that stuff happens and should not leave the service.
But instead of the focus being on how God gave me His strength when I was feeling weak, she said that I really should ask people to pray for me when that stuff happens and should not leave the service. I was dumbfounded. I had just shared that God brought me out of this crazy panic attack, and this person is essentially telling me that I should have stayed in my high-stress situation and let people, the church, take care of it for me instead? It did not make any sense.
Clearly seeing an environment of obligation and judgment
It was around that time that things started to click into place, and I began to see a clearer picture of my environment. This church focused so much on a need for Christians to give, give, give. There was little focus or attention on building and growing a personal relationship with God. Making that connection was a massive realization. I felt like I was finally starting to put the pieces together to understand what this church was about and why I was feeling the way I did. Around that time, the monthly topic of small group was “Spiritual Gifts.” I groaned at the thought of yet another month of us talking about how I should be using my gifts for the church and other people, not how I could grow closer to the Lord. DC was the same topic—serving the church. Frustration flooded me as I listened to yet another spiel about pushing myself to help or serve more. I wanted more of God! Not of how I could give more of my time to the church.
I was finally starting to put the pieces together to understand what this church was about and why I was feeling the way I did.
As I looked around the room, I saw that the group was mostly college students. I felt frustration knowing I was expected to be a mentor of sorts to these young people. I had recently also realized I was longing for wisdom from older Christians and, in my depleted state could not imagine taking on a mentor role when I needed it for myself. I could see clearly that these excited, energetic college students were being groomed to invest in Cedar Heights. I still get so sad thinking about how some of those college students, with all their vigor and readiness to serve God, might end up in a similar, worn-out and tired position as I did.
I continued to see more examples of the heavy expectation of obligation. During one Sunday, as my small group leaders—who rarely came to the service with their baby due to concerns about Covid—walked through the door, someone nearby turned to me and spoke with spite in their voice. “Look who’s finally showed up to church,” they scoffed.
My heart sank as this person then proceeded to go over to them, all smiles and cheery-eyed as they scooped my leader’s baby out of his wife’s arms, acting like they had not just bad-mouthed them. This just made me furious. I wanted so badly to say something, but I held my tongue knowing the comment was rooted in a deeper issue. Of course, this couple was trying to do what they felt was best for their family, but still, the obligation to be present seemed to be more important to those in the church.
I could see that Cedar Heights had been obligating me to serve, obligating me to faithfully attend Sunday services, and obligating me to be at small group, as if those things were a direct representation of my relationship with God and my dedication to His will for my life as an individual.
Another friend told my husband, “I guess that’s a good enough reason,” after he explained to her that I was not at church one Sunday so I could prepare for the upcoming week after we had just returned from a vacation. I connected the dots after this as I recalled when a different friend had regularly remarked that not enough people were coming to church during Covid and that they really needed to show up. She had also praised me for still coming to church even when my husband could not because of work. Instead of motivating me, it made me feel like I was being watched. It was clear to me now. I could see that Cedar Heights had been obligating me to serve, obligating me to faithfully attend Sunday services, and obligating me to be at small group, as if those things were a direct representation of my relationship with God and my dedication to His will for my life as an individual.
I was tired of the judgment. I was done hearing the comments. I was finished with being controlled.
I was tired of the judgment. I was done hearing the comments. I was finished with being controlled. I wanted more of God, and I knew it would not happen within that kind of structure. Yet I still was not ready to leave as I feared doing so would mean losing my friends in the process.
Processing what leaving would look like
Then someone told me about the Leaving the Network website. I could not decide whether to cry or pray as I read through each section. I was shocked. I could not believe there was a website about our Network. My shock quickly turned to eerie validation as I combed through sections like “Eight Signs of a Dysfunctional Church” and “What is Spiritual Abuse?” How was it that reading this material was helping me understand what I was experiencing even more? How was it that everything on this website accurately depicted all the feelings I had pushed down about Cedar Heights and the Network? I had similar thoughts as I found the Reddit thread and read through the stories that former Network members had posted.
My shock at finding information online about our Network quickly turned to eerie validation as I combed through website articles like “Eight Signs of a Dysfunctional Church” and “What is Spiritual Abuse?”
My husband and I were at a crossroads. What do we do now? Do we leave the church? My instincts said, Leave! but the Holy Spirit had literally just told us only a few months before that we were to help people in the church. How do we handle this? We decided to stay, wanting to wait and see how the Church leadership would respond to what we believed were legitimate concerns that demanded a response. I remember us having vain hope that maybe someday Cedar Heights would leave this Network of churches. Leadership at our church could not possibly be totally in the wrong, right? When it came down to it, we loved that church. We loved our leaders. We loved our friends. We loved the areas where we were serving. Sure, we had both experienced tough things there, but we had invested so much.
As we waited for an opportunity to discover the leadership’s response and debated whether or not we should talk openly about the website and Reddit with those closest to us, staying got harder. Sundays and small group were less and less relatable—the stories people were sharing online resonated with us more and more. We were getting closer to leaving and were in the spot of processing what that might look like if we did go.
My husband’s story is seen as an attack on the church
Around that time, my husband felt called to share his own story on Reddit. He wanted people to have hope that despite it all, God was still good, the people at Cedar Heights were still good, and the Lord could heal what was broken, just as He had done for him. I will not go into all the details of my husband’s story, but it is posted on the Reddit thread as “Only one justifiable reason to leave” for reference.
A few days after posting, my husband hung out with our small group leader (a very close friend) and desired to learn more about how leadership was responding to the website and Reddit. He also shared that he had posted his story publicly on Reddit and that we were processing the website. Our small group leader shared what we had feared—that Dan Digman had undermined the credibility of the website and Reddit and indicated that it probably wouldn’t be helpful for people to read it.
The day after this meeting, my husband received a text message from Dan asking if he could meet with Dan and the staff pastor the next day at the church. Notably, Dan did not say why he wanted to meet, only that the meeting would take the place of a previously scheduled round of disc golf planned between my husband and the staff pastor.
Naturally, my husband felt like Dan had called him into the principal’s office. Since I was not at the meeting, I will not go into all the details, but as my husband downloaded to me how it went, I essentially got from it that Dan thought we were angry, broken, untrusting, and betrayers.
Cedar Heights' leaders thought we were angry, broken, untrusting, and betrayers.
Dan removed us from the worship team since, according to the church's standards, we were not “all in” anymore. I found this particularly frustrating because only a couple of weeks prior, Dan encouraged me that the Holy Spirit was moving in a song I led during prayer. My husband was thriving too, having recently helped build out the formatting for the new presentation program the church was using. God was clearly using us as we served in those areas. Imagine our discouragement at how quickly Dan and others forgot those things and assumed the worst about us.
My friendships were impacted. My closest friends had either read the Reddit post or knew about it before I could talk to them. From what I had gathered from my husband’s conversation with Dan, they seemed to feel the same way Dan did, so I reached out to them to apologize for the hurt it caused and met up with them all together to talk about it. I wanted so much to make them feel loved and reassure them that my husband’s Reddit post was not written as an attack on the church.
For us, my husband’s message was ultimately written about hope and healing in the midst of hardship.
All their reactions were hard to hear. They were much more affected by the post than what I ever would have thought. It was difficult hearing things along the lines of, “I thought you were my family,” and “Your husband was just seeking validation.” For us, my husband’s message was ultimately written about hope and healing in the midst of hardship. He felt the Holy Spirit lead him to share it. After explaining that to them, it did not feel like they believed that was true. It was the most difficult conversation I have ever been in as I tried to acknowledge their hurt while I desperately relayed that we were not attacking them or the church. I felt totally helpless. All I could do was internally beg God to help me know what to do.
That conversation continued to shake me. Specifically, one of my friends said things to me that absolutely shattered me. Angry words like, “You were caught red handed,” “What you did is causing division in the church,” “Your apology was an admission of guilt,” and “It makes me sick that you were still going to be on worship… coming to church… coming to small group.” And one comment I forgot about but recently found in my journal said, “It makes me sick that you were still calling us friends.”
How heartbreaking. How crushing. My friend of seventeen years saying these things to me. Her words completely broke me.
I am a slow processor, not easily able to communicate in the moment when something is wrong, so I left the conversation that day without addressing how eviscerated I felt. Even still, I walked away from the coffee shop we had met in feeling shaken, confused, and broken. I had no idea how to explain what I was feeling. All I knew is that I wanted to leave the conversation peacefully with my friends knowing I loved them.
When I got home, I fell into my husband’s arms and wept for hours. It all had been too much. I later expressed to the person who specifically hurt me how much her words and actions tore me to pieces. It saddens me that I really do not think she fully grasps how deeply she hurt me based off her response. I poured my heart out to her after months of replaying her words repeatedly in my head, begging God to help me work through the anguish I was feeling, and considering finding a therapist to help me work through it. I hoped she would be able to at least see the pain I was feeling. Part of her response was to say it was a misunderstanding. Her words continued to make me feel unseen and unheard. I have not responded to her since.
After that conversation with my friends, we left the church officially and have not stepped foot in the building again. It was freeing.
Life Since Leaving the Network
The gift of fully processing my time at Cedar Heights
After leaving the Network, I finally had space and could really begin to process the previous five years of my life. It all made sense. I replayed so many conversations, so many comments, so many red flags that I had buried from the beginning of my relationship with Cedar Heights. People disparaging those who left the church, the irony of Dan praising the church for not gossiping and yet realizing I was told so much information about so many people from the mouths of the inner circle. The constant obligation of service and attendance, the lack of financial transparency, the structure of the Network and its churches.
I think back to the things they said constantly.
“Obey your leaders.”
“We’re not a cult.”
“Serve like crazy.”
“Watch out for this person or that person.”
It was all the ways I had been directly influenced and molded to live, think, pray, submit, speak, judge, and invest like them.
The Network crushed me under its weight and buried me in its wake, all the while rasping empty exhortations that this was what God wanted for me and my good.
I now see that I had submitted entirely to this church's rigorous demands, to the loudest voices around me. I was a Chief Follower among followers, absorbing every Network ideal, passing every test, meeting every expectation. I did everything they wanted me to do, and became everything they wanted me to be, stacking the load higher and higher until I could carry it no longer. The Network crushed me under its weight and buried me in its wake, all the while rasping empty exhortations that this was what God wanted for me and my good.
Finally, I understood where my depression and anxiety had come from. Finally, those things completely disappeared. Finally, I had the capacity to not hold my free time captive and wanted to actually add things to my calendar. Finally, I felt like I could be free in God and follow Him instead of an organization’s obligations.
Finding refuge in friends and a new church
We have found an amazing support system in others who have left Cedar Heights. We have also been told we are seen as divisive by some in the church for it. The others who have also left have been so key in helping us walk through the aftermath of leaving. We absolutely adore our dear friends as they have come beside us and are able to relate to us in ways that other people cannot.
We have also started attending a new church that is great for what we need right now. It is funny because there have been numerous times where I have been triggered by something in a sermon at this church. I smile every time I think about it, because it never fails that my guard comes down as I hear the pastor’s sermon has not a single thing to do with what I think it will be. For example, not once in a series called “Church on a Mission” did the pastor tell people to join a service team. In another service where he set up a sermon about how we are not supposed to do this life alone, he stressed how we have the Holy Spirit to guide us instead of putting primary emphasis on letting people into your life or getting in close community with your fellow churchgoers. It has been incredible seeing how the Holy Spirit continues to disarm me with these sermons. God is really helping me learn to trust a church again. I am not all the way there, but it is clear He is showing me that I can at least let my walls down.
My prayer for this Network
My prayer is that God would have His way with Cedar Heights and the Network. That people who are still there and feel that something is off would find the answers they are looking for. That the people who are being buried under the weight of their Network church would find freedom. That the people who have been hurt by Cedar Heights and other Network churches can find healing. That the stories of people like me would be believed. That someday no one else would be able to relate to my story. That change would happen, that leaders would repent, and that Jesus would be the only focus.
I pray that someday no one else would be able to relate to my story. That change would happen, that leaders would repent, and that Jesus would be the only focus.
As I meditate on that prayer and now end my story, I am overwhelmed by the goodness of God bringing this verse to my heart:
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." - Matthew 11:28-30