MISOGYNY AND CONTROL
By Jenna H.
MISOGYNY AND CONTROL:
STEVE MORGAN'S DISREGARD FOR WOMEN AND DOMINANCE OVER MEN BECAME UNMISTAKABLE WHEN I JOINED THE SEATTLE CHURCH PLANT
- Author: Jenna H. | Small Group Leader (Vine Church), Worship Team Member, Blue Sky Church Plant Team
- Network Churches attended:
- Vine Church, Carbondale, IL | 2001-2004
- Blue Sky Church, Bellevue (Seattle), WA | 2004-2008
- This story was published February, 2022
HOW I FOUND THE NETWORK
Ironically, I listened to the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast this last week when my brother (Casey H.) sent me the link to your website. I almost audibly laughed because the podcast had brought up so many thoughts about my time in The Network, and now here is this website confirming so many things I’ve processed over the last 10+ years.
I’ll introduce myself, and maybe I can start sharing pieces of my story here. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m dying to read other peoples’ stories -- how many people have left? Who else got out? Every few months, I’ll go to the websites and check out what new churches have been planted and see what names and faces I still know after all these years. If I check it more often than that, I get a pit in my stomach, and I tend to get angry all over again, so it’s best if I limit my stalking. This website feels like a whole new kind of validation.
I’ll start with how I ended up in The Network.
My name is Jenna, and I am from Champaign, IL. I grew up in the Vineyard Church (my parents, along with my aunt & uncle, pastor the Vineyard in Urbana, IL, and my parents have since moved to Peoria, IL, and pastor their Vineyard church there.) So, I quite literally grew up in church. I chose to attend SIUC for college as it was close to home and far enough away from Champaign. I immediately got involved with the Carbondale Vineyard, as it was known at the time.
I attended SIUC from 2001-to 2004. In this time, I saw a LOT. It was great, at first. It was where I found immediate connection and community and friends. I volunteered. I quickly joined the worship team. I found a small group. I volunteered with the food delivery program once a week and helped Terry Kessinger in the office. Terry, I should say, is one of the good ones. I don’t know how she’s still there, and it makes me sad to think she might still be there, but she was a gem and always treated me with kindness and truth.
I attended back in the good ol’ days. Scott Joseph was on staff. Sandor was the 2nd guy in command. Ben Powers was the gregarious pastor who was always in a good mood. I was friends with Courtney (Benda) Cordero and Michael Petrik, Jimmy Chidester. Kim and AJ Leman. AJ is my cousin, and he is also a good one.
I was IN. I felt like I was in the inner circle. Everything I did was church-related.
I was IN. I felt like I was in the inner circle. Everything I did was church-related. Anniversary parties were huge. Small groups were all-consuming. Discipleship Communitys were a monthly hit. I forget the other big meetings we would have. It kind of slowly happened, where if you weren’t paying attention, you probably wouldn’t feel like anything was off. But, at some point, I looked and thought that it was kind of weird that if you were in the church, you were IN THE CHURCH. Everything you did was revolving around the church. Everything you were was about the church and who you were bringing to the church.
It was so innocent back then. We were in the old building that was just a tin roof on a box. But then, I started getting “in trouble.” Steve would call me into his office, and I would get reprimanded for gossiping or doing something he disapproved of. I remember constantly feeling misunderstood. Sure, I’m a feminist and egalitarian, but I figured surely, I’m not alone? It turns out I was. I was constantly labeled as the bad seed, or what felt like the black sheep. I was (maybe still am, haha) vocal and opinionated, and Steve didn’t like that. Over the years, while I was in Carbondale, distinct moments burned into my memory that left me feeling miserable and defeated. I felt like Steve controlled everything, and it felt disheartening to feel like no one else was noticing this. Everyone went along with what Steve said and decided.
I felt like Steve Morgan controlled everything, and it felt disheartening to feel like no one else was noticing this. Everyone went along with what Steve said and decided.
HERE ARE SOME BRIEF EXAMPLES:
- I remember Steve called me in one time and proclaimed that he heard I was talking about someone or something (I don’t remember the exact situation, but I remember he had the story wrong). He shamed me for being an untrustworthy woman and told me that I needed to work through my immaturity so I could stay. There’s more to it than that, but I left feeling completely gaslighted because I did not do anything immoral, and yet he made it seem like I was a terrible member of the church.
- When the church left the Vineyard Association to form the “No Name No Account Network” and the Carbondale church changed names from Vineyard Community Church to Vine Church, I clearly remember the shift in the churches. I’m sure a lot of people missed the change. It would be easy to miss if you weren’t in on Vineyard stuff or involved in leadership. Church members were not allowed to discuss or understand changes. They would always just slip it in, and we all accepted it as so. Anyways, once the church was starting to shift, I noticed that Steve’s doctrine began to sound a little different. Of course, as with most things, it was subtle. It was veiled in religious talk and proclaimed to be Holy Spirit-led. I mean, who would want to go against the Holy Spirit, right?
- Steve was in charge of who you could date. Hands down. He would have his little posse of young, eager guys in college, and everything had to go through him. He would do purity checks, as well. When I was dating a guy in the church, we could barely kiss without Steve asking for a report on where our hands were. It always felt like Steve would be a more significant influence on people than God. It was like people were encouraged to pray about it, but in the end, Steve’s word was the ultimate deciding opinion. When the primary worship leader at Vine at the time fell into “sexual sin” with his girlfriend, church leadership reacted as if the world had ended. They were both punished and shamed, having to submit to Steve’s authority on the sentence. Steve removed him from leading, as though receiving oral sex was the worst thing any unmarried person could do. It was bizarre!
Steve Morgan shamed me for being an untrustworthy woman and told me that I needed to work through my immaturity so I could stay.
- There were unwritten rules you had to know and follow. It was frowned upon to ride in the car alone with someone of the opposite sex if you were single. They expected you to abstain from all sexual activity and drinking alcohol. I remember a vibrant quote from Steve saying you should avoid drinking “unless you’re married and stable,” as though being single somehow made me unstable?
- Don’t get me started on his “Christian Dating” meetings he would host for us poor single people after a Sunday service. Too many cringy moments. The main takeaway was always that we would commit to him that we would never date an unbeliever. You can NOT be unequally yoked (which was always struck me as odd since Terry Kessinger’s husband was not a believer, but I digress).
- There’s a saying Steve had that I’ll never forget. He would frequently say from the pulpit, “When you bump up against something in the Bible that you don’t agree with or it rubs you the wrong way, are you going to change, or are you going to change the Bible?” This had profound implications for the church and me, I believe. It implied that the Bible was the ultimate authority. I do believe this. However, there was another unspoken law in this system that we followed. The law was, “Steve’s interpretation of scripture is the ultimate authority.” This is jumping ahead a little, but this became clearer in my interactions with Steve later once I moved to Seattle on his church plant. The implications were that Steve had interpreted the scripture correctly, without fault. If you had any opinions that were different than the ones he spoke about or acted on, it was YOU who was misinterpreting the scriptures. Let that sink in. He was so confident in his ability to interpret these ancient texts, even without having gone to seminary, that everyone else should change their entire life to align with that interpretation. Last time I checked, there are brilliant scholars and theologians who devote their lives to studying these texts; scholars and theologians who are way more intelligent than you or I will ever be. These people still have differing opinions on context and interpretation and the practical implications on our lives today. And yet, Steve was confident it was his way / God’s way or the highway.
Steve Morgan was so confident in his ability to interpret these ancient texts, even without having gone to seminary, that everyone else should change their entire life to align with that interpretation.
It was my junior year in college when Steve announced at one team meeting that he “couldn’t stand in front of you here tonight, telling you to obey Jesus if I didn’t do the same,” and with that, he announced that he and his family were moving to Seattle to plant Blue Sky church. Now, this was quite an announcement. I had seen other plants sent out in my time at the Vine (I think Bloomington and St. Louis had launched). I was familiar with the church planting culture. It didn’t seem weird to me. It was the common belief that we would, of course, want to re-create this fantastic church everywhere we could. Every college campus! So, when Steve announced Seattle, I was on board almost immediately. I was dating someone at the time, and we both took a week to “pray” and decide if we were feeling “called” to move. He was “chosen” by Steve to go, and Steve even told him that he had a dream about him moving. He was in. I probably tried to feel like I was having visions or receiving prophecy (which was the ultimate confirmation that Steve would then agree or disagree to), and I decided to move to Seattle. Steve’s thoughts on joining the plant would become more evident to me over time.
Because my parents are wise people, they encouraged/forced me to finish college first before moving. Finishing college meant that I would be moving to Seattle 6 months after the bulk of the 50 people moved. As you can imagine, this felt like a huge disappointment. Another girl was in the same boat (Erica Miller, now married to James Chidester), so she and I linked up. We planned to move together and found an apartment in Bellevue to seamlessly join the plant a few months late. Somehow, in the midst of this all, Steve made the executive decision that Erica and I would NOT be joining the planting team for the majority of their pre-launch meetings, retreats, or get-togethers leading up to the team moving. To this day, I cannot figure out why. Something about him telling us we needed to still connect there in Carbondale and not disconnect too soon. However, this was extremely hurtful. After all, while the team was bonding and building and having all of this intentional time together before the move, we were sidelined because Steve said no. For whatever reason, I still decided to move.
Because my ex-boyfriend was the star drummer Steve communicated that having me on the worship team would be too hard for him. It would be a distraction. I was, instead, told that I could volunteer in the nursery.
Once I got to Seattle, things only got more confusing. The guy and I had broken up in that waiting time when I stayed in Carbondale to finish college while he moved across the country. Because he was the star drummer on the worship team, by the time I got to Seattle, Steve communicated that he worried that having me back on the worship team would be too hard for my ex-boyfriend. It would be a distraction. I was, instead, told that I could volunteer in the nursery. (I hate kids. Anyone who knows me would be able to tell you that being in the nursery was NOT a good fit for my interests, but also my talents or giftings.) Oh, wait. I was allowed to play the guitar with Chris Miller in the kid’s department. But, the drummer was the priority. It seemed he had become another young guy under Steve’s wings. It took a year before I could rejoin the worship band.
I often wondered why these smart men would give up promising futures in business or finance or whatever just to be another church planter under Steve’s leadership.
Speaking of this flock of young, impressionable men. I still can’t wrap my mind around how Steve had a chosen pack. And a chosen path for them. These guys had bright futures, and somehow, they were all sucked in, and all of them magically felt called to be pastors. David Cherry, Ern Menocal, James Chidester, Chris Miller, Michael Petrik, Flyn Sam, maybe Scott Bobsin, Luke Williams, Brian Schneider. These were the men I was surrounded by. And they all became part of the pack. I often wondered why these smart men would give up promising futures in business or finance or whatever just to be another church planter under Steve’s leadership. It was almost as though outside education in the “real world” was frowned upon. We always had a few big tithers (doctors, a few businessmen, etc.), but for the most part, the Network valued work for the church over vocational choices outside of the church.
I saw this selection and grooming process happen over and over. Women had no choice but to play along and fall in line to support their husbands. The men who were part of Steve’s pack would suddenly choose a girl and get married. FAST. These vibrant women – my friends! – suddenly became these little church wives and started having babies. It was so sad to see them give in to this pressure and settle in to this prescribed role. Because I was single throughout this whole process, it always left a bit of a gap for me. I was no longer in college, but the people my age already had kids. There was a gap in how the church approached conversation around relationships. Discussions were geared towards married families, your roommate, or nothing. They didn’t talk about single life apart from mandates on staying pure and following the rules.
Women had no place in the church. I take that back. Women are still predominately the Kid’s Directors or Book Keepers.
It always made my heart hurt to see this. Women had no place in the church. I take that back. Women are still predominately the Kid’s Directors or Book Keepers. It was so hard to see the church take such a hard stand against women in leadership. I NEVER understood how this went over in such a liberal city. How were women expected to be leaders in the outside world, but then you have to leave that at the door when you come to church – the ONE place where women should be celebrated and given permission to use their giftings and talents? It blew my mind and shook me.
WHY I LEFT THE NETWORK
Once The Network churches officially left the Vineyard movement, I knew things were heading in the wrong direction. A few people who knew my history with the Vineyard would check in with me to see how the transition felt, but overall, it was a pretty hush-hush decision. I started noticing that once this separation happened, Steve became more and more vocal from the pulpit on his stance regarding some specific things.
Women couldn’t freely step into any authentic leadership at the church. Even the issue of a woman leading worship with men present became a topic of discussion among the leadership.
The most notable change to me was his public stance on women in leadership. I KNEW he was against women in leadership, but it just felt like this point was accentuated on a whole new level. Women could only lead all-women small groups. Women like Sarah McNeece could make church announcements on Sunday morning, but heaven forbid a woman TEACH a man!? Unless it was a woman who could teach in the kid’s department. Women couldn’t freely step into any authentic leadership at the church. Even the issue of a woman leading worship with men present became a topic of discussion among the leadership. Steve started to share his complementarian convictions from the pulpit, and people ate that shit up! I, as you can imagine, was livid. There seemed to be a lack of checks and balances. If Steve decided and believed it, so would the church. I would email him to ask if we could discuss some of his finer points from any given sermon, and I vividly remember one discussion.
I was sitting in his office, with the blinds open to avoid all appearance of evil happening behind closed doors, discussing how I was feeling a little unsettled with the church changes. He used the visual that the Vineyard and The Network (he didn’t call it that, but he said the Network of his churches) had been moving parallel to each other for a long time and that in recent years, we were just moving in different directions. Both were good, but this was the direction this church needed to move. He told me, “Jenna, I’d love if you met a complementarian, and you guys fell in love so you could fight out your differences.” Excuse me? Why would I marry a man who didn’t support me to the core of who I am? No, thank you. “I’ll be honest, Jenna. You probably won’t find someone here at this church who will agree with you or who will love you. And you might have to decide if this is where you want to be. You might decide that it will be easier for you to follow Jesus somewhere else.”
Within a few months, I had decided to leave Seattle (after almost 3.5 years of living there). I knew “in my knower,” as Steve would say, that Blue Sky was no longer a safe place for me. It was no longer my home. It was devastating. My whole life was there. All of my college friends were there. I had been playing on the worship team with these guys since college. All of a sudden, I was out. I mean, OUT. Once you consider leaving or talk about going, you’re already blacklisted.
All of a sudden, I was out. I mean, OUT. Once you consider leaving or talk about going, you’re already blacklisted.
I feel like I left on “good terms,” meaning I wrote Steve an email expressing why I needed to go. I had been processing the decision for quite a while, but those conversations cemented my future. If I stayed, I was destined to be single and a black sheep, never understood, and never fully included. Despite his best efforts, Steve couldn’t control me, and it, therefore, couldn’t work. I realized Steve needed total control of the people in his churches and it always felt so eerie to watch people take everything he said at face value. The second he smelled “retaliation” or any difference of opinion, you were out.
I called my dad, packed my life up, moved back to Urbana, IL, and rejoined my parents’ Vineyard young adult service.
I realized Steve was playing the part of the ultimate “spiritual father.” He was in control, and people wanted to be chosen by him. I imagine being in the inner circle was quite validating. I was never there, even though I devoted eight years of my life to his mission. And I am choosing those words carefully. It felt like Steve’s mission, not God’s mission. I’m not sure how all of these men came to the church in need of a father figure, but it was clear that people were wholly submitted to his authority without hesitation.
And, that’s why I left.
I realized Steve was playing the part of the ultimate “spiritual father.” He was in control, and people wanted to be chosen by him. I imagine being in the inner circle was quite validating.
It was sad and painful. I couldn’t talk to most people about why I was leaving. A few people got it.
But for most people, I was the crazy one leaving the most utopian community they’d ever been a part of. I saw more than I think most people saw. Or maybe I was willing to see past the shiny façade on the outside. It always seemed clear to me that there was a secret society just underneath the surface of this beautiful operation. I knew that questioning how things ran made me vulnerable to being the outlaw.
I still don’t think I can make sense of it all.
I don’t think I’ll ever really be able to wrap my head around the characteristic of God described as “sovereign.” How can some people in The Network still thrive and love it and still be immersed in it? How can I see this Jesus so completely different? Are we serving the same God? Surely MY God isn’t the God over those churches. And yet, I know that some people operate well within constructs and limits and the box in which The Network works.
For me, I was desperate to get out and to be able to be myself.
To drink alcohol.
To get tattoos.
And maybe even let a guy grab my boob every once in a while.
AFTER LEAVING THE NETWORK
Maybe the most confusing part about it all is that I still miss it every once in a while. It was an incredibly unique community. I’ve never been able to find it again (and I’m now 38). I miss my life there. And yet, I know I could never be in it again. I miss so much about that old life, yet I’m forever separate from that. I’m also more fully myself than I ever could have been if I was still in the Network.
I can still vividly remember my college days and the first few years in Seattle. John Wimber used to say that “Faith is spelled R-I-S-K.” I thought for many years that my faith was defined by my incredibly selfless risk of moving to Seattle on a church plant when I was barely 20 years old. I’m much older and hopefully wiser now. I think my most significant risk was leaving the security of a harmful cult that leaves you trying to do anything to stay in the good graces of the important leaders.
I thought for many years that my faith was defined by my incredibly selfless risk of moving to Seattle on a church plant when I was barely 20 years old... now I think my most significant risk was leaving the security of a harmful cult that leaves you trying to do anything to stay in the good graces of the important leaders.
You want to be known and to be necessary. So, you stay. And you drink the kool-aid. And you walk away questioning every single thought you have because surely, they’re not crazy, right?
I left Seattle in 2008, and I’ve been back one time since my departure (I went back for an old roommate’s wedding). It felt different. I loved the city, but I knew that I couldn't be in the city if I wasn’t involved in Blue Sky. It was a bittersweet drive out of Seattle. I looked at the skyline in the rear-view mirror and spent most of the trek back to Illinois wondering how this had all happened. I questioned my ability to hear God for many years after this. Did I just MISS it? Did I make it all up? Was I not supposed to move in the first place?
I don’t know if I’ll ever really have answers.
I’ve worked hard to make sure that I’m never in another position where I doubt my ability to be in a relationship with the Holy Spirit.
One thing I know for sure is this: I’ve worked hard to make sure that I’m never in another position where I doubt my ability to be in a relationship with the Holy Spirit. The veil was torn so that I could communicate on my own. I do not need a man to stand in as my go-between. Steve’s voice rang loud in my head for many years after leaving Seattle. Though time has provided distance and clarity, I still have questions, doubts, and regrets. I also have a new life in Colorado, where I find God in new ways. Instead of counting recruitments into the Kingdom, I count myself lucky to find God in the mountains. Instead of having 3-4 nights a week filled with Network plans, I can be intentional with friends, sharing real connections, and doing life together.
Thank you for letting me share a small part of what still haunts me about this time in my life. When you are ex-communicated, it’s tempting to brush over the time as though it never happened. The truth, however, is that it DID happen, and it IS happening.
What’s next? I want to read more. I want to know who else got out.