OBEDIENCE AND LOYALTY
By Eric H.
OBEDIENCE AND LOYALTY:
I GAVE UP MY DEGREE TO PASTOR ONE OF THE FIRST CHURCH PLANTS. EVEN WHEN THE CHURCH WAS TOO BROKE TO PAY ME, THE NETWORK WOULDN'T LET ME LEAVE
- Author: Eric H. | Church Plant Team, Staff Pastor
- Network Churches attended:
- Vine Church, Carbondale, IL | 2001-2003
- City Lights Church, St. Louis, MO | 2003-2013
- This story was published November, 2021
HOW I FOUND THE NETWORK
My wife and I started going to Vine Church (at the time it was called Vineyard Community Church) in the summer of 2001. We had moved to Carbondale to attend SIUC. We got involved very quickly. We joined a small group, and then—without really knowing others or being known—became small group leaders.
Within the first year, I attended a conference at Vine that Steve Nicholson, a pastor from Chicago who had a strong influence on the Network, spoke at. After Steve spoke, there was prophetic prayer time. This consisted of a crew of people that had come with Nicholson, they came on stage and picked out people in the audience and spoke “prophetic words” over them. Things like “God has this thing for you, you are called to do this thing.” There was a palpable desire to be singled out and spoken to. It felt special. I was asked to stand; the people praying said things like, "You will be an intricate and important part of the church." "You are a key person." "I see you reaching outsiders for Jesus." All things that as a young insecure person I desperately wanted to hear. Steve Morgan and Ben Powers helped pray with me through those things. "I think Jesus is calling you to be a part of a church plant," Steve Morgan said.
You have two options when you are "called" to a church plant: obey God (and by proxy Steve Morgan) by saying yes, or disobey God (also by proxy Steve Morgan) by saying no.
Being called to plant a church in the Network meant being a part of the inner circle—at least that’s the way it was treated. And the only way you knew if you were called to church planting was to have a Network leader (preferably Steve Morgan) tell you that you were called. Being a part of a church plant was God’s plan for my life—they were sure of it, so I was too. That was the other thing about being called to church planting, you only really had two options: obeying God (and by proxy Steve Morgan) by saying yes, or disobeying God (also by proxy Steve Morgan) by saying no. I left SIUC in the middle of my degree; the "call" to go on a church plant superseded any personal plans, desires, or realistic hesitations. We moved to St. Louis in the summer of 2003 with Ben and Tonya Powers and a group of about 12 other people from Vine to help start what would become City Lights Church.
WHY I LEFT THE NETWORK
Planting in St. Louis was very challenging. The area that we ended up in was very different from Carbondale. Several big church plants were already having “success” in the St. Louis area. After the first few years it really felt like we were not meeting the expectations of the Network. We were not reaching a lot of college students like it seemed other Network churches were. Identifying the type of leaders that would be “Network approved” was more difficult than expected. But we also had no freedom to deviate from the core of how the Network did church. So the tension of not having the means to meet Network expectations started building.
I came on staff as an associate pastor (with no background/training/schooling in ministry) in 2004/2005. We were pushed very hard to find a building space, rather than continue to meet in a rented movie theatre—which was relatively affordable and centrally located. We went from our monthly rent being a small line item in our budget to it being huge overhead that sucked up most of our resources. But the Network (and specifically Steve Morgan) wanted church plants to have a more permanent feel. We did not grow into the building like we thought we would. Finances got tight. Tensions grew. I remember feeling like something was wrong with us as pastors and that’s why things were not taking off the way they thought they should. During this time, I had very limited contact with the leaders in the Network. I attended conferences and pastors’ retreats. I don’t have one memory of Steve or Sandor (the main Network leaders at the time) really asking about how things were going on a personal level. I received encouragement to keep focusing on the mission and they prayed lots of times for things like strength to keep following God. And most importantly, to keep being loyal to City Lights and The Network.
My leaders prayed for me to keep being loyal to City Lights and The Network.
In 2008, when the church’s financial situation got bad enough, both Ben Powers and I made the decision to no longer take a salary and find full time jobs. I was also still responsible for my role as an associate pastor, I just wouldn’t be getting paid for it. This plan was fully supported by Steve Morgan and the Network. My wife and I had two small kids and had bought a house (right before the real estate bubble burst). I had no marketable degree, since we uprooted from SIUC before I finished a degree. I got hooked up with an entry level job at a call center in St. Louis City. During this tough time, Steve Morgan and Sandor Paul would pop in for encouragement, prayer, and to triage any crises that were happening in the church. Again, not once during this time do I remember being asked how I felt. We repeatedly heard from them to keep going, not give up and that we were doing what we were called to do.
Obedience and loyalty.
I remember Steve Morgan praying at a conference I attended during this time and saying he saw a vision of tired people who were working in the church. Some of the tired people—out of a desire to be seen or recognized—would lift their head up. When they did, a large spinning blade lopped their heads off. The message being—at least the one I received—keep doing the work, don’t question, don’t draw attention to yourself. So, I was asked to keep working as a volunteer staff pastor who preached once or twice a month, handled all the graphics, led a small group, and coordinated the Sunday morning service—and I worked a full-time job. And the result was a huge strain on me and my family that just could not last.
The message I received from my leaders was to keep doing the work, don’t question, don’t draw attention to yourself.
I think burn out started almost immediately for me. I would talk with Ben and say things like “Dude, what if I’m just not cut out to do this?” That conversation happened so many times. And Ben kept saying “Steve and Sandor keep telling me, ‘You’re doing what you’re supposed to do, keep at it.’ If we weren’t the right people for this, they’d tell us.”
In late spring of 2011, I had decided that I needed out. During this time there was also some strange BS about how Steve believed tattoos can be gateways to demonic activity. I have some tattoos and didn’t see the point of the Network even talking about things like that. Several leaders in other churches were being asked or told to have visible tattoos removed. This seemed like an overreach to me and added to my desire to just be done. Ben had been able to come back on staff full time. I had some good success at the company I was working at and wanted to just focus on that and see where it might go. I met with Ben, and in a disorganized and frustrated way, tried to communicate where I was coming from. I said I dreaded leading small group every week, I was so sick and tired of working to plan the Sunday morning service. I told him I had little to no faith that what we were being asked to do was ever going to work. Ben seemed really defeated by all of this.
I left that meeting ready to walk away from my role in the church and figure out what was next, and in many ways that felt like freedom. Two or three days later, Ben asked to meet for lunch. I came expecting to be asked to step down from leadership. Instead, he said he’d met with Steve and Sandor and they came up with a plan to pull me back on staff full time at City Lights. The plan was that the Network would fund my salary and my family’s health coverage for 3 years (or until City Lights was financially stable enough to take it over).
Over the next several weeks, I had many meetings with Ben and Steve and Sandor. Ben and I (without our wives) were flown out to Seattle to stay at a beach house on the Puget Sound owned by a member of Blue Sky Church. During that trip, we had many long prayer times and discussions where Steve kept saying, “You’re called to this." "This is what God wants from you.” There was never any discussion about what I wanted or how things had felt for me over the last eight years or why I thought I couldn’t keep going. Just that Steve was positive that I belonged in St. Louis, helping to plant City Lights in the prescribed Network way.
Obedience and loyalty.
Looking back, I wish I hadn’t lost so much of myself that it felt so impossible to question what Steve was saying. I wish that I could have said, “No, I want to explore what life could be like if I start making informed decisions on my own.” But that didn’t happen; I said yes and fell back into the plan that Steve had for me.
I wish I hadn’t lost so much of myself that it felt so impossible to question what Steve Morgan was saying.
In the summer of 2011, I left the company I had been working for and came back on staff as a pastor at City Lights. When I came back, I really thought I could make things be different. That the missing piece from before was that I didn’t really give into God’s plan. That it was my fault that I felt so stuck and frustrated. But within the first year, things started to feel exactly like they had before. There were a lot of good times mingled in, moments when relationships felt strong and healthy. People in the church that cared about me and that I deeply cared about. But the drive to reach college students, identify new young leaders, and keep numerically growing the church kept making it feel like we were right back where we’d been before: missing the mark. The feelings of being stuck came back with a vengeance.
In mid-2012, I started going to counseling. After several months of plodding through a lot of baggage, I started to explore the forbidden thought of leaving City Lights and even the Network. I remember saying to my counselor, “I just don’t know how I could ever leave.” He kept coming back to how damaging he thought it was to be in a church system that had no healthy way for those inside to leave.
My counselor kept coming back to how damaging he thought it was to be in a church system that had no healthy way for those inside to leave.
By early 2013, I started seriously thinking about a plan for what leaving the church and Network could look like. I had a real sense that I was trapped, like the only way I could leave was to throw up two middle fingers and scream, “I’m out!” At one point during this time, Ben and I were praying in the morning before we started work. There was a group of college kids from UMSL (a local college) that had started a bible study on campus. Ben really wanted them to turn their bible study into a small group that would be a City Lights sponsored group. The students didn’t want to do that, they liked the group they started. I know a lot of Ben’s frustrations were pressure to conform to the Network (and the Network thinks bible studies are stupid, and small groups are way cooler). While we were praying, Ben asked God to shut down the bible study so that the students would be freed up to start a City Light small group for college students. I reacted to that and asked why we wanted their bible study to be shut down, that it seemed counter-productive. We argued. I got angry. He got angry.
The experience highlighted for me how rigid the Network was. It pointed me toward working on getting out of the Network for good.
In March of 2013, I came to work and went to Ben’s office to tell him I was stepping down as a pastor and going back to work at the company I started working for back in 2008. I expected a lot of push back from him, but he seemed to understand. There is a lot that happened in this time, but to keep this short and focused—Steve and Sandor came in to clean up the mess and minimize the damage. It was decided that Ben would take a break and be on staff at Vine Church in Carbondale. Jeff Miller from Clearview Church in Bloomington, IL, would come and take over as lead pastor. There was a lot of back and forth on how to protect City Lights.
Steve Morgan told me that walking away from City Lights was walking away from God.
Steve Morgan came to St Louis the week before my last Sunday. The whole week, Steve again and again said he was convinced that I was called to stay at City Lights. He said he understood that I need to take a break, but that God had called me to City Lights and to the Network. He said specifically that walking away from City Lights was walking away from God.
Obedience and loyalty.
Throughout that week, as he prayed for me, he said “I think of you as a close friend.” A few days later he said, “I said I think of you not only as a close friend, but also as a brother.” On one of the last days, he corrected himself again, “I was embarrassed to really say this, but I don’t just think of you as a friend or brother, I think of you as a son.” I’ve thought about this a lot since leaving the Network. It’s a weird progression, right? I can’t even really say that I’d had more than a few one-on-one personal conversations with Steve over the years. He’d never even stepped foot in my house. Steve did know—through times of praying for me—that I had insecurities relating to my own father. So, it does make sense that he was trying to assume a fatherly role while persuading me to stay.
On the Sunday evening, after the last team meeting where it was announced what the transition plan would be, Steve asked me to come to his hotel room to meet before he left St. Louis. As I walked into the hotel lobby, several other Network leaders (all young men that were a part of Blue Sky in Seattle) were sitting and reading their bibles, which I still find so freaking weird. No one got up to say hi, just kept seated in the lobby.
Steve Morgan started slamming his hand on the bed and said, “Why won’t you just say that you will stay!!”
I met with Steve in his room, and Chris Miller (worship leader for Blue Sky) was there too. Steve talked at length about how important it was that I stay at City Lights and support the church. I wouldn’t commit to that and he kept getting more and more agitated with me. He started slamming his hand on the bed and said, “Why won’t you just say that you will stay!!” I said that I needed time and space to think about what was next for me.
I walked away from the hotel shaken, and I thought, “If walking away from this confusion and pain really was walking away from God, then that’s what I’m going to do.” As far as I remember, I have not gone back to a Network church.
LIFE SINCE LEAVING THE NETWORK
In some ways life has gotten much better outside of the Network. But it’s also been a lot of clean up and a lot of facing down long-held beliefs about myself, the world and God. When I first left, I thought it would be easy to just plug into another church and just move on. I was very wrong about that. We made several pitstops at various churches in the area. I almost had this vague feeling like going to another church was cheating. We ended up finding a small neighborhood Presbyterian church that was started over 40 years ago. I could go on for pages talking about the slower pace of the church and the genuine pastoral care of the founding pastor. I will say this; there is life on the other side of the Network. There are full systems of churches that are not subjecting people to their narrow brand of Christianity, or telling them, “Live within our system or walk away from the Faith.”.
There is life on the other side of the Network.
For the last 8 years, I’ve attempted to piece together a career that works for me and my family. I’ve lucked out big time with a good job. And I don’t take it lightly that finding a good job has not been a struggle since leaving the Network. But there are moments when I remember my aspirations as an early twenty something. I wanted to pursue art. I wanted to create and express myself through painting and drawing.
Inside the Network, I never felt the freedom or invitation to let others know that art was a passion of mine. I felt like any personal passions that didn’t directly relate to obedience and loyalty to the Network were forbidden. Inside the Network, I was invited to abandon myself to be a part of what Steve wanted to build. There was no room for independent wants or needs. That has left me confused as to what it means to be an independent human pursuing my passions. There have been large swaths of time since leaving the Network that I have not believed myself to be anywhere near a recognizable Christian. I sincerely hope that someday, creating art will again become something I can engage with—that sounds like sweet justice to me.
I know that many inside the Network will have an easy time swatting down stories like mine. I also know that when I found this website and podcasts like the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, they gave voice to something that I’ve lived relatively alone with for a very long time. To know that there are others out there who’ve been hurt and abandoned in similar ways; that is validating on a very deep level. I don’t know what all of this means, but I am truly thankful to have the opportunity to revisit long buried memories and to tell my story.