THE CHURCH THAT LEFT TOGETHER
By Holly F.
THE CHURCH THAT LEFT TOGETHER:
MY STORY OF PUSHING BACK AGAINST THE DEMOTION OF WOMEN AND LEAVING THE NETWORK WITHOUT LEAVING CITY LIGHTS
- Author: Holly F. | Small Group Leader
- Attended: City Lights Church, St. Louis, MO | 2010-present
- This story was published February, 2022
How We Entered The Network
In the summer of 2010 my husband and I moved to St. Louis for his new job. We found City Lights Church almost immediately. We’d been together for nearly a decade at that point—we’d dated through high school into college and were into our 4th year of marriage. Our first three married years were spent in Family and Graduate housing at the University of Georgia while my husband pursued his master’s degree. Prior to our move to St. Louis, we hadn’t been part of a church family since our last two undergraduate years. We’d spent all three of his master’s years searching around the South for a church that felt personal, non-prosperity, and non-multi-site. We never did land anywhere that felt like “home.”
When we moved across the country for his job, we were both excited, though nervous, to continue looking for a church home in a new city. We found City Lights through a Google search and visited our first Sunday. We were resolved immediately that we’d found “the one.” Naturally, trying more than twenty churches in three years in Georgia had exhausted us, but when we found City Lights it didn’t feel like we were settling. No, we felt like we’d finally found it. On our first visit an energetic young couple our age invited us out to dinner after I’d met the wife in the lobby. We spent an evening chatting and laughing and getting to know each other at a restaurant close to our new apartment. We sank in quickly.
Little things in the Network made us feel a bit uneasy, but we typically shoved them aside believing that “no church is totally perfect”—something that pastors and leaders would say from time to time in the earlier years. In retrospect this phrase was a tool meant to thwart intense scrutiny over the things that pricked your conscience.
We started attending a small group immediately, then serving in the kids program and worship team after that. We were hosting a small group a couple years later, and leading a group after that for many years to come. It felt like our family had grown in more ways than one as we entered into our first years of parenthood and raising our young children.
Despite being all in, little things in the Network made us feel a bit uneasy, but we typically shoved them aside believing that “no church is totally perfect”—something that pastors and leaders would say from time to time in the earlier years. In retrospect, apart from the half-truth in the phrase, this was a tool meant to thwart intense scrutiny over the things that pricked your conscience.
I remember once we were praying corporately at Team Meeting, and the pastor asked the Lord to “bring us the best of the best, the cream of the crop.” I remember being immediately turned off by this. It didn’t feel like something Jesus would say, or in any way how Jesus would think of His people. I pushed it down. There was a similar instance at another Team Meeting where the pastor, in an attempt to grow serving members and “all-in” attenders, stated that “at some point, if you’re not doing the work” (i.e. attending all things, serving, tithing) “there wouldn’t always be a chair for you here.” That felt so harsh to me, so unlike how Jesus would love and care for people. But still we stayed.
One of the most troubling instances that I remember took place at one of our first off-site City Lights retreats. Scott Joseph from High Rock Church had come to preach that weekend and taught out of Corinthians on how to imitate our leaders, something Paul touches on in his letters many times. Scott described a time when he’d learned that Steve Morgan had been eating two goose eggs each morning for breakfast. Scott went on to say that because he knew Steve was a “good leader” who he wanted to imitate, Scott decided he also wanted to eat two goose eggs for breakfast each morning. While I can’t fully recall whether Scott actually admitted to consuming goose eggs for breakfast each day, he was insistent in his point that he deeply desired to also eat goose eggs simply because his spiritual leader ate goose eggs each day.
It was absolutely absurd to me to think that this pastor was trying to make a case for following your leaders like tiny little clones in every arbitrary and personal choice they made for themselves.
He went on illustrating his point but by then he’d absolutely lost me. I looked around the room, with what I can only assume must have been the most disgusted and horrified look on my face, trying to find even one other person who was as unsettled as I was about the story. It was absolutely absurd to me to think that this pastor was trying to make a case for following your leaders like tiny little clones in every arbitrary and personal choice they made for themselves. I remember talking about it with my husband afterward, something I didn’t always do because in the Network you’re conditioned to accept things like that and not to question them. And though he didn’t receive the anecdote the same way initially, he did concede that it was misguided. We reached the understanding that Scott’s example was weird and non-biblical, yet we’d give him the benefit of the doubt in his error.
Each of these instances (and countless others not mentioned but speckled throughout our years in the Network) seemed small, almost circumstantial, but in retrospect were a mounting pile of red flags I wish I would have paid closer attention to at the time. And of course, these smaller red-flags led into a much larger one several years later.
In October of 2017 our Lead Pastor sent an email to all of the small group leaders to announce that women would no longer be welcome to attend small group leader meetings.
In October of 2017 our Lead Pastor sent an email to all of the small group leaders to announce that women would no longer be welcome to attend small group leader meetings. In order for men to focus on men-things, the women would not be present. This was so hurtful and confusing to me. Prior to this email, small group leaders and wives were always defined in their separate complementarian roles, something that, while controversial, is discussed in clear terms in the Bible. But, this change felt like an overreach and even an over-correction. This felt harsh, abrupt, and without warning. I found out years later that this unloving and short email was a standardized announcement created by the Network and sent out from the Lead Pastors to their individual church.
As small group leading families at that time, both husbands and wives were viewed as “deacons” in the church who care for members, serve, and lead. This adjustment, sent in an impersonal and cold email with very little love or explanation, seemed to fly in the face of all that the church had told me. I wasn’t a deacon anymore. I wasn’t “needed” for adding to the conversation or for helping spur members of my group toward Christ. I didn’t need equipping in my role anymore like the men continued to need equipping for theirs. I felt so hurt. I felt so angry. But mostly I felt betrayed. It felt like I’d served as much as they wanted me to and now I was done and could be discarded. When the Network decides it doesn’t need you, your fall from grace is immediate and far.
I wasn’t a deacon anymore. I wasn’t “needed” for adding to the conversation or for helping spur members of my group toward Christ. I didn’t need equipping in my role anymore like the men continued to need equipping for theirs.
No matter how hard I tried to fall in line, I couldn’t. I asked God to clear any pride I might have, to search my heart for hardness and soften it. To change my mind and my convictions if I was wrong. I explained to my husband how this made me feel. Unimportant. Uncared for. Under-utilized. Under-appreciated. Not equal, as God defines us in our roles, in the eyes of the church. I wrestled with competing feelings, bouncing between the ones that were righteous and the ones that felt prideful and sinful. I couldn’t help but think that this was the most unloving thing I’d ever experienced at a church.
If the women and men are truly equal in value in their separate roles, where were the women’s group leader meetings? If husband and wife group leaders have different things to focus on, why were there not steps taken to ensure the church was also supporting the spouses in their individual and complementary parts of group leadership? That might feel like equity, love, support, and value. That would feel like Jesus. But instead I was left with this feeling of a purposeful absence of care, or even an absence of the desire to care for the women in leadership, and by extension, women in the church as a whole. Where was the care in this?
I was left with this feeling of a purposeful absence of care, or even an absence of the desire to care for the women in leadership, and by extension, women in the church as a whole.
My husband and I struggled deeply through the months that followed. This time was characterized by emotionally-charged and incredibly difficult discussions wherein I would try to explain the things with which I was wrestling. My husband, who admittedly has always appreciated strong leadership and would describe himself as a recovering people-pleaser, would try to help me see the way the pastors said they saw it. He understood me and agreed with me but was trying to make both parties happy. He met with our ‘assigned’ DC Pastor pastor, Stephen Putbrese, to discuss our concerns. He sat down in Stephen’s office and was talked to so much that he would come home wavering on this or that point. He would say to me, “Well this is how they’re thinking about it,” and try to impart the “wisdom” he received during those one-sided meetings. None of it made sense to me. We would have more long conversations, and he would again realize that the things Stephen told him didn’t answer any core concern about the change. He’d go back and meet again. He’d explain our trouble, and be “corrected” again and again. It was an excruciating cycle.
During that time of searching for understanding, my husband was still attending the required monthly leadership meeting. He knew this was hard for me. I’d stopped going before the wives were officially “dismissed” or “uninvited” knowing I couldn’t go with a right heart. One evening he was running late for an all-men meeting, caught up trying to support me while I was upset by helping put our kids down to bed before he left—an attempt to help ease my physical load in the wake of my emotional one. When he didn’t arrive on time, he received a text message demanding, “Get here now.” It was deeply unloving, incredibly hurtful, and extremely damaging. This was decidedly not how Jesus would respond to someone who was struggling. Not how Jesus would care for hurting people. Not how good leaders imitate Jesus.
Eventually both of us met with Stephen, along with Jeff Miller. Jeff clarified and reiterated points about complementarianism (none of which I objected to biblically), quoted the Bible, and tried to lovingly lead us into understanding. Stephen’s approach felt much different. It felt closer to leading us into obedience than understanding, all the while trying to attribute the feelings I was wrestling with to issues with complementarianism that just simply were not there.
Stephen Putbrese's approach to our conversation felt closer to leading us into obedience than understanding. He tried to attribute the feelings I was wrestling with to issues with complementarianism that just simply were not there.
After the meeting, just like after all the other meetings, I could not come to a place where I understood or agreed. Nor could my husband. At one point my husband asked Stephen if we could still attend church at City Lights if we disagreed with the church’s understanding, application, and justification for this hierarchical change. Essentially, if we don’t want to eat the goose eggs, can we still sit at the breakfast table? I remember clearly that Stephen’s reply was that, of course we could disagree.“Otherwise that would make us a cult.” And, yet, every interaction we had from then on was layered with expectation that we were suddenly “on board” now, or would be soon, that we finally got it, agreed with it, and were repentant for any thought we had ever had against it.
At one point I remember being approached by Stephen’s wife to tell me she was so “proud” of how faithful I was and that I was doing such a “good job,” implying all along that I would eventually reach their understanding. This was such a deep manipulation tactic that it still sticks with me today; a two-minute conversation in the lobby where I knew immediately I was being flattered in order to bring me to where they wanted me to be. And unfortunately, my first reaction was a misguided pride. I was flattered that my leaders thought I was doing a good job. It was exactly how I was slowly conditioned over ten years in the Network to feel about praise from my leaders. But God would not allow it to settle in me and align me with untruth. I was undone and I could not, no matter how hard I tried or how much they talked at me, bend my conscience into submission. And because of that, we were marked. We were discussed during staff meetings. We became the red flags in the eyes of the Leadership.
I was approached by Stephen’s wife to tell me she was so “proud” of how faithful I was and that I was doing such a “good job,” implying all along that I would eventually reach their understanding. This was such a deep manipulation tactic that it still sticks with me today; a two-minute conversation in the lobby where I knew immediately I was being flattered in order to bring me to where they wanted me to be.
How We left the network but not city lights
This transpired over six to seven months. It was, still today, the hardest thing our marriage has walked through. My husband and I are incredibly like-souls, and so when we are on separate pages, even intermittently as in this situation, it is deeply out of character, and therefore incredibly troubling to find ourselves on opposite ends of understanding. We talked about leaving the church, but there was something holding us there. I know now it was God. I know now that He was not done with us at City Lights, and that He was using this time to make a way to redeem our pain, and save our whole church family.
Many of you know that one of the major catalysts for Jeff Miller leading City Lights out of the Network was the leadership mandate that he put his homeschooled children into the public school system. While the intricacies of that can be read elsewhere on this site, what you may not know is that Jeff, in an effort to faithfully “obey” his leaders and lay down his own desires, did put his kids in public school for many months. It was during this time that we got an unexpected call from Jeff, who lives less than a mile away from us, asking if he could pop by to chat before we all walked over to get our children from school.
Jeff Miller was coming to our home to talk with us and I was convinced it was to scold me and give me an ultimatum about the leadership structures we’d struggled with. This, admittedly, was not founded in Jeff’s character, but was deeply supported by Network protocol.
My husband and I had reached a personal consensus and alignment about the changes in small group leadership and were preparing at that point to lay down our group but had not yet informed our pastors. I was nervous about the meeting right away. He was coming to our home within the next ten minutes to talk with us and I was convinced it was to scold me and give me an ultimatum about the leadership structures we’d struggled with. This, admittedly, was not founded in Jeff’s character, but was deeply supported by Network protocol. I was sure that these things I’d bristled against and pushed back down were catching up with me. That if I wasn’t falling in line, they no longer had a seat for me.
Instead, what Jeff brought us that day were the first steps in healing and reconciling us back to the church. He told us that City Lights had left The Network, and he explained the intricacies of why City Lights, as a body, could no longer remain a part of this larger group that had veered so far off course in its ideologies around obedience and Godly leadership. The Network had forgotten that Jesus is the head of all men. Men are not heads over other men as a guarded pathway to Jesus.
Jeff told us that City Lights had left The Network, and he explained the intricacies of why City Lights, as a body, could no longer remain a part of this larger group that had veered so far off course in its ideologies around obedience and Godly leadership.
AFTER LEAVING THE NETWORK
During the months we struggled, I remember feeling senseless pain. Senseless separation from my husband, from my church, and from my friends based on a policy change (which, for the record, is no longer in place at City Lights Church) that made absolutely no biblical sense to me. It felt like an incredibly frustrating and meaningless time of trial. In hindsight, I have realized that the Lord was doing a big work in us in that season. I’m so humbled to know that the God of Heaven and earth was condescending to breathe into our lives His truth, His will over the will of man. Our Father was taking calculated steps to uncouple my husband and me from a Network of churches that we’d been so entangled with for so long in order to lead us into the decision we were about to make. The Creator of the Universe loved us so well that He made a plan to help us leave The Network with ease and confidence.
The Creator of the Universe loved us so well that He made a plan to help us leave The Network with ease and confidence.
There is one other aspect of this story that is still prevalent on my mind and heart daily. It’s what has compelled me to write out our experiences. When City Lights left The Network we left together. It was an incredible privilege that most of the people visiting this website don’t get to experience. We didn’t leave alone. We left together. Praise Jesus, we left together. We were blessed to be able to process together, grieve together, and reach understanding together as a church family, and it was good.
But, there were some who did leave City Lights. In addition to Stephen Putbrese, (our DC Pastor, who went on to become the current Lead Pastor of Isaiah Church in Madison, WI) and another staff pastor, there were two staff members, and a few others who ultimately decided to align with the Network. Some of those individuals led small groups and took a few of their group members away with them as well. Overall only a small fraction actually left to attend other churches in the city or moved to other Network towns. If you were a newer attender, you probably didn’t even notice apart from the associate pastors who disappeared overnight. But if you were a decade in, like my husband and me, you’d formed such deep and meaningful Christian brother and sisterhoods with some who left that we experienced the intense pain of “leaving,” but in reverse of the typical Network exit.
When City Lights left The Network we left together. It was an incredible privilege that most of the people visiting this website don’t get to experience. We didn’t leave alone. We left together.
This is still difficult for me. The Network builds such a belief in their members that those who leave are bad, wrong, and lost. They become your enemies. The lip service of ‘bless them as they go’ is a fictitious thing they say because they want to look the part. But, truly they curse you as you go. They say, ‘they’ll be back. They won’t last anywhere else. They’ve fallen away.’ Those are curses. Those are assumptions of guaranteed failure, not loving and heartfelt prayers and hopes for success.They are not true blessings. And, the thing I’ve realized about how I felt about some of my very best friends who left, people I’d had in my home multiple times a week, friends who planned my baby showers, watched my children, cared for me, and spent holidays in my home, the way I felt about them was again, just an opposite-side point-of-view of what the Network had ingrained into my head about those who leave.
The Network builds such a belief in their members that those who leave are bad, wrong, and lost. They become your enemies.
I felt like they were the enemy. They were deserters. They’d abandoned truth. They’d chosen a lie and were lost. I felt all of these things and could not find the ability to bless them as they went because, while we were no longer a part of the Network body, Steve Morgan’s teachings, manipulations, and brainwashings were deeply embedded into me. They didn’t just go away the first Sunday that City Lights met as an independent body of believers. They live on, rent free, in my brain. And worse, in my heart. I still struggle to forgive the “deserters” and hope for their healing. I struggle to love my friends who have gone on church plants before our Network exit and are still tied to those bodies. I struggle because I’m human, and I’m sinful, and I believe that the sin built into me by Network teachers and leaders (albeit broken and mistaken) sticks stronger than other lies. Because The Network’s message is a perversion of the gospel. They received higher trust and weight when first imparted because it came under the guise of absolute Truth. It comes with a presupposed stamp of biblical knowledge and biblical truth and is, in my experience, far more difficult to uncouple from your heart than the lies that don’t masquerade as Jesus. It’s a lie that’s fiercer than other lies because it was given under the appearance of Christ-likeness.
Executive Network Leadership and Church Pastors were met with the exit of City Lights and were offered sound biblical doctrine to disprove their teachings, and yet they still turned back toward a lie that they continue to perpetuate.
It is for this that I find myself in prayer for repentance and restoration for the part we played, but also for the Network members and leaders at all levels. Hebrews 10 says that, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” to go on sinning deliberately, to knowingly deceive His beloved in His name is not something to take lightly. And, while you could question the degree of “known deception,” you cannot argue that Network Leadership hasn’t been presented with the Truth. Executive Network Leadership and Church Pastors were met with the exit of City Lights and were offered sound biblical doctrine to disprove their teachings, and yet they still turned back toward a lie that they continue to perpetuate.
So, I’m left here, sharing my story, and praying diligently for the deceived as well as the deceivers. And, I’m praying for redemption for the relationships I’ve lost which I know in my heart to have once been true and loving sister and brotherhoods.