CHEWED UP AND SPIT OUT
By Jessica H.
CHEWED UP AND SPIT OUT:
AFTER I SHARED THE DETAILS OF MY ABUSIVE MARRIAGE I WAS REMOVED FROM SMALL GROUP AND TREATED LIKE I WAS DISEASED
- Author: Jessica H. | Church Member
- Attended: Vine Church, Carbondale, IL | 2010-2014
- This story was published August, 2022
How I Found The Network
I was a native of Anna, IL, before moving to Carbondale for school in 2009 and decided in 2010 that I needed a more local church than the one back in Anna. My boyfriend at the time and I wanted to find somewhere we could commit to. I found The Vine very quickly.
Sandor Paull was the pastor at the time, and he seemed great. Everything about it was inviting. The website, the structure, and the fantastic free coffee and tea served before, during, and after all services. It seems silly, but it always felt like a big draw. They had at least five different kinds of coffee and tea, so you could pick your favorite.
My boyfriend commented on the energy in the church, especially during worship. It’s hard to deny it was powerful. They had a simple structure to the church where you had worship and then the sermon. Worship consisted of a live band, lyrics on a big screen, and contemporary music instead of old hymns. It was all lovely and inviting—especially for college students and younger people. They knew how to put on a show.
I knew I wanted to be more involved in this church. But I had a lot of personal issues. My relationship grew toxic and abusive. We broke up eventually. It was an excruciating and traumatic time. I ultimately got with someone else, though, who would also start going to the church with me. We both wanted to commit–now more than ever.
I recall the constant expectations for someone who wanted to become more involved or a member, and it all felt very unattainable.
I moved away in 2013 and came back in 2014, returning to the church. Overall, I recall the constant expectations for someone who wanted to become more involved or a member, and it all felt very unattainable. I never fully got involved before I moved, as it was very complicated. The criteria to become a member is lengthy. But, I was more committed when I moved back.
UNDERNEATH THE SURFACE
The church had four membership classes you had to attend to become a member. I felt it was a bit steep, especially since the schedules for the classes were a bit hard to work around. It took me a while, but I finally attended all four.
They wanted you to commit to a weekly small group, a weekly church service, and for you to serve in some area of the church. It was their recipe to keep you plugged and active.
I had joined 2 or 3 small groups over the time I was there. They were inviting as well. There was always food (food and drink are a massive tool in this church), and there was a lesson or whatever you want to call it.
Then there was prayer. And during prayer, you were expected to open up. To share your secrets and issues—and there was always something that needed fixing. The prayer leaders would always take mints—I guess because they were in such close proximity to you—and emotional reactions were most expected for real progress. I always came to these groups and church services with guilt on my shoulders or searching inside myself to look for problems to express. Even if I had a fairly good week, I always felt pressured to admit something was wrong.
I always came to these groups and church services with guilt on my shoulders or searching inside myself to look for problems to express. Even if I had a fairly good week, I always felt pressured to admit something was wrong.
You were also expected to serve. As someone who loved music and singing, I immediately wanted to join the worship team. I set up a time with the leader. I was nervous and choked at the audition and he said it wasn’t a good fit. A year or two later, I emailed him about trying again. He said the same thing, without an audition or anything. I had already been through some trauma with being rejected regarding music. So, this just increased my insecurities about music. I always wanted to get involved in music when it came to church. I had sung in churches for years with little resistance. People are usually excited when you want to get involved. But he just completely rejected me.
I also tried more than once to get involved with the highly-rated kids program. Both recent boyfriends had kids; we loved bringing them because the kids’ program was great. It had a reputation for being a lot of fun for the kids. There were tons of activities, playground equipment, bubble machines, and many different things that kids love.
I had two lengthy interviews. And they never called me back. I have no idea why. And I felt guilty, even though I put in the effort. I figured something was wrong with me. I tried to analyze the interviews and what I must have done wrong. When I mentioned the lack of response during my second interview, I thought for sure that they wouldn’t do the same thing twice. But they did. It always seemed like there was more going on–like there was gossip going on, and people were picking and choosing who they thought were worthy of serving. This was, of course, a huge church. So there was competition for spots, or so I assumed.
The church centered heavily on sacrifice. I remember hearing many stories about people who moved to Carbondale to get degrees at SIU and gave up high-paying jobs for “what God called them to do.” They would get promoted to small group leaders, pastors (without formal training), and even those sent to church plants. This was common. You were encouraged to put God and the church first. And if you failed to do that, you were sinning and not following God’s plan for your life.
I figured I wasn’t good enough because I was “living in sin.” Like many other people in the world, I was living with my boyfriend.
Marriage was something that was valued heavily. Almost all the small groups were advertised with married couples—with the man as the head and the wife as a supporter. I remember my boyfriend and I, whose relationship was really toxic, wanted to “get right with God” since we were unmarried and living together.
Almost all the small groups were advertised with married couples—with the man as the head and the wife as a supporter. I remember my boyfriend and I, whose relationship was really toxic, wanted to “get right with God” since we were unmarried and living together.
We were directed to our DC pastor Steve Dame, who felt he didn’t know us well enough to marry us. He also commented on how my boyfriend had been married before. He even suggested the idea of going back to his first wife, but he said, “I doubt she would take you back.” I was like, “Seriously?” Their marriage was heavily toxic and ended badly. They loathed each other. I wasn’t sure of the church’s stance on divorce, but they seemed to frown upon it. So, we were beside ourselves. The DC pastor even suggested, ever so subtly, that we get married in a courthouse as opposed to the church…all because he wasn’t comfortable marrying people he “didn’t know.”
He didn’t offer to get to know us, either.
We ended up getting married in a courthouse, although we wanted to get married in the church. It didn’t feel right. But I ignored my intuition and just accepted it. We were getting married for religious reasons. I guess the church had gotten in our heads about needing to be married. We wanted to be more accepted. But I pretended to be happy. I tried really hard to BE happy.
WHY I LEFT THE NETWORK
My then-husband and I were attending a small group led by Brandon and Jennifer Lukes. And our marriage was in bad shape, as it was very abusive and (still) very toxic. It was stormy, filled with insults and arguments, and sometimes it got physical. I was trapped in this cycle. So we opened up to Brandon and Jennifer. And they said they wanted us to stop attending small group for now, but they said they would meet with us two on two. They never did. And I’m the one who felt guilty. Again. It was like our sin was contagious–like we were diseased or something. I didn’t know what to do. I leaned on my parents and friends–even though I had lost many of them because of my husband.
When we opened up to our small group leader and his wife about our abusive marriage, they said they wanted us to stop attending small group. It was like our sin was contagious–like we were diseased or something.
I finally left my husband because I was either going to leave or kill myself. I had mental health issues before I was with him, and now the depression was soul-crushing. I was fantasizing about driving into a tree on my way to work. Not exactly healthy. I was recently diagnosed with Bipolar disorder. And my ex-husband knew how to push every button and bring out the worst in me.
I contacted Jennifer and told her I had left and wanted to attend a small group. I needed support. I told her my husband was abusive and I wanted to talk with her. She said they would meet with me separately as promised but didn’t want me at small group right now. Again, it was as if I was contagious or something. I tried desperately to contact them several times, and they were always busy or had an excuse. I was rejected when I needed them the most. I felt so alone, abandoned, damaged, and heartbroken.
After my marriage ended, I contacted my former group leader's wife and asked her if I could attend small group. I told her my husband was abusive and I wanted to talk. She said they didn't want me in small group and would meet with me separately, but they never did. I felt so alone, abandoned, damaged, and heartbroken.
After this, I couldn’t go back. I wanted to, but I couldn’t handle the rejection anymore. So, I gave up. This big, beautiful, fancy church with its wonderful leaders, beliefs, and structures had essentially hinted that I wasn’t good enough for them. Sure, they smiled and said “Hi” on Sundays and let me drink their free coffee and eat their free cookies. But they didn’t seem to want me there.
I later talked with a pastor that told me the church was Calvinist, which often centered on the idea of predestination. So it made more sense. They seem to believe that God has already chosen who will go to Heaven, and they reject you at any signs that it’s not you. That’s what’s so crazy. They’re in this sort of club, and you have to qualify to get in. And even if you do, you still may not get in just because someone thinks God is telling them you’re not a good fit. You had to take what a “leader” of any kind in the church says as fact. If they said God was saying something about you, it was ironclad and all about God’s will. Going against it was wrong.
LIFE AFTER LEAVING THE NETWORK
I have had issues attending church since. When I did attend church, I realized I expected the same things from other churches. One time I went to the front at the end of a church service expecting prayer in the same way The Vine ended church. It turned into an awkward situation.
The trauma and trust issues ran deep. This abuse from the church was happening during some of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I survived domestic violence twice while there, and no one paid attention. Marriage was seen as something highly valued, and it was as if you should stick with your partner no matter what. They advertised helping people–but there was no place for me in this church.
This abuse from the church was happening during some of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I survived domestic violence twice while there, and no one paid attention.
I found many churches to be abusive in their own ways. I started to recognize similarities, and it scared me. My experiences had put all the trauma at the forefront of everything I felt and thought about church. I tried and tried to attend new churches. But I just couldn’t swallow the guilt and control of religion anymore.
I’m no longer a Christian, and truthfully, paganism has proven to be the right path for me. I’m not saying that Christianity is all bad. I know plenty of great Christians who center their practice around love and grace instead of control and guilt. I am accused of being cruel to Christians when often I just want to spark conversation. It’s just challenging not to be bitter.
This church made expectations very high and felt their path was the right one. And then they acted like I was expendable. I was a person with a lot of issues. It was a tough time in my life. I was in and out of college. I had mental health issues. There was little to no support for someone like me. It seemed the idea of being at that church was that if you had a bad past, it was all behind you. And the church and Jesus have made your life better. And if you hadn’t overcome your issues, it was on you, and you didn’t belong. You weren’t saved or committed or a good Christian at all.
It seemed the idea of being at Vine Church was that if you had a bad past, it was all behind you. And the church and Jesus have made your life better. And if you hadn’t overcome your issues, it was on you, and you didn’t belong.
I finally found my own path later on and am happily married now to a wonderful man. My spiritual practice, and my spiritual community, is extremely healthy. I enjoy my practice, and I even take some time to learn about Jesus in different ways from time to time. I’m healing. It’s a slow process, but I am healing.
When I went through this, I was alone. I tucked in my tail and left without an outcry or anyone to turn to. Now that I see that many people went through the same thing, it’s nice to know it wasn’t just me. Finding this website and reading others’ stories from those who have also been abused has been so validating and makes me even more aware of some of the effects of the abuse I endured.
We all deserve support, happiness, validation, and to have somewhere that feels safe–whether it’s a church, a partner, a friend, or anything else.
I wish the best for anyone attending these churches and any churches that practice such abusive practices. These scars take time to heal. It’s been several years, and I still find these issues coming up. But there are better ways. There is life and peace outside of The Network and churches like it. We all deserve support, happiness, validation, and to have somewhere that feels safe–whether it’s a church, a partner, a friend, or anything else.