NOT ACCEPTED FOR WHO I AM
By Laura G.
NOT ACCEPTED FOR WHO I AM:
THE IMMENSE ANXIETY AND PRESSURE TO CONFORM LEADERS PLACED ON ME AS A SINGLE MOTHER LEFT ME FEELING LIKE MY SALVATION WAS DEPENDENT ON THE CHURCH, NOT GOD
- Author: Laura G. | Member
- Attended: Cedar Heights, State College, PA | 2015-2021
- This story was published April, 2022
HOW I FOUND THE NETWORK
Before I moved back home to State College, PA, in 2015, I lived in New Orleans, LA, for ten years. I attended an Assembly of God church, and while I had a relationship with Jesus, I was living in a lot of chaos and insanity. This made it hard to follow Jesus well. Then, in August of 2015, my then-husband died of a drug overdose. I knew I could not stay in Louisiana alone and raise my two children, so I moved back in with my parents to State College. My dad worked with someone who came from Vine to plant Cedar Heights and suggested I try it out. I wanted to find a church right away and have a church family to support me and help me in the tough time in my life. I felt at home as soon as I walked into Cedar Heights.
Everyone was friendly. They invited me to hang out right away. I felt special. I felt liked, and after years of physical and emotional abuse, it felt like I belonged, and that was so important to me. It felt like Cedar Heights was different. Everyone seemed to be on fire for Jesus. Jesus was it, and Cedar Heights was like a family. I quickly made some good friends, some that I still consider friends today. But it also felt like high school. There were so many cliques. You knew who the popular crowd was. These people always seemed a little bit better than everyone, like they had it all together.
BEING A SINGLE MOTHER AT CEDAR HEIGHTS
I was the only single mother consistently attending Cedar Heights. While there would be single parents that came in from time to time, it was not common. I remember constantly feeling different. I was single, but I was a parent, which was not common to the church. I always felt like I never fit into a group because of that. Being a single parent at the church I attended in Louisiana was so common. Being a drug addict or having family who suffered from drug addiction was so common. I always tell the story of how my then-husband and I brought most of Narcotics Anonymous to church at some point. And these people felt comfortable. But not at Cedar Heights. They would have never felt comfortable. They would have felt judged and like they were “lower than.” I am not sure I ever heard Dan preach on drug addiction. That was not a sin he would refer to or a struggle he acknowledged people had. I would hear a few stories here and there in the six years at Cedar Heights about someone having family who suffered from drug addiction or maybe someone who personally suffered, but that was very hush-hush. I always felt like I could never be me. That I was never good enough because of these past struggles.
I always felt like I could never be me. That I was never good enough because of my past struggles.
Being single in The Network is hard. It was awkward for us single women. I felt like I was always trying to get “healthy” enough for the few single men, who were not college students, to notice me. At this point, I was in my early 30s, as were many of my single friends, and the single men our age were and still are slim pickings. I feel like everyone liked the same man in hopes that he would choose her and ask her for coffee. But that very rarely happened, so we kept waiting. It was exhausting. I had no experience in dating, especially dating as a Christian.
We would attend these Singleness and Dating Classes. They hoped this would light a fire under the few 30-year-old men’s butts and get them to ask us out. Dan always made it clear in this class that we could date whoever we wanted, but it would be easier if they were at Cedar Heights. He would say we did not need to ask for our small group leader’s permission, but it was probably good to go to them because they led us spiritually.
Dan Digman, Cedar Heights lead pastor, didn’t know how to relate to anyone but the average college student who is dating and finding their spouse in college and living happily ever after in The Network forever.
He also always mentioned that Cedar Heights was not a cult, which is very comical to me nowadays. When I would leave this class, I would keep reminding myself that being single was a privilege, and I could serve God better and follow Him better without the distraction of marriage. This was mentioned many times and expressed very strongly. I always left these classes trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel but feeling discouraged. To make things worse, when Dan announced these dating classes at church, he would always make a joke about there not being childcare because you shouldn’t have children if you are single. Once again, I always was the odd person out. So, I would talk my parents into watching my kids once again so I could attend another class. I never learned much and felt like I was impure when listening to Dan talk about being pure before marriage. He didn’t know how to relate to anyone but the average college student who is dating and finding their spouse in college and living happily ever after in The Network forever. What about us in our 30s, with past hurt, sin, and baggage? What about us who were so scared we would do it wrong and not do it exactly how Dan wanted us to do it? Not God. It was never God I was afraid of, it was always Cedar Heights.
PRESSURED TO PROVIDE SERVICES TO THE CHURCH
Through the years, I served. I served often, which is just what you did, especially when you were single. If you are married with kids, only one parent is expected to serve because bringing the kids to church at 8am when the actual service time is a couple of hours is crazy. But for me, that was not an option. I drug my kids along. My son was only 7 months when I first started going to Cedar Heights and my daughter was 7. We were meeting in a school at this time, and we had to set up and tear down every Sunday. So, every third Sunday, I would put pens and offering envelopes on clips and then on the back of every other chair with two kids. Doing this with kids who would be tired and whiny some days was exhausting. I remember days of holding my son, him crying, and me sweating, trying to get everything done. By the time church started some Sundays, I was already so exhausted and crying myself from trying to keep my kids under control. I wouldn’t want others to see my kids acting out of control. That would mean I was not raising them correctly.
I remember days of holding my son, him crying, and me sweating, trying to get everything done. By the time church started some Sundays, I was already so exhausted and crying myself.
We all had to serve. If we didn’t serve, we wouldn’t be following Jesus well. This is the stigma they gave us. My heart breaks for the other people exhausted from serving. Serving Jesus through His church is so good, but it is hard to have the right heart in it when it feels expected and unappreciated. So, for five years, until COVID happened, that is what I did. And in those five years, I can tell you on one hand how many times I felt appreciated. I remember just wanting Dan to say thank you. For him to see what I was doing. I always wanted to seem good enough. Like I was supposed to be there and fit in. It was such an exhausting cycle.
NAVIGATING SMALL GROUPS AS A SINGLE MOTHER
It is not like there are single-parent small groups at Cedar Heights. I was in a family group for a while. It was fine. I am grateful for the friends I met in this group. There were other single women in the group and one single man. Of course, it was nice to see a single man who loved Jesus and was around my age. But it was always so awkward. He would never pray for me as a single woman at the end of group, and it always made prayer time so intimidating. After a couple of years, I decided to try a young professional group. There was no childcare at this group, so I had to have my mom watch my kids every Thursday night. Then I started hosting.
I didn’t have my own thoughts anymore. I only knew what The Network wanted me to think.
I hosted this group for a couple of years. I stressed constantly about having my house clean, making sure everything was together. It was hard. I worked full time and had two kids who were in activities. I was grateful to have parents who would help every single week carting the kids to activities, feeding them dinner, and bringing them home late after group was over. While I enjoyed this group, it was nice to be with other single women and everyone cared for me well, I constantly felt anxious.
MANAGING MY MENTAL HEALTH
I was on meds for a while until my small group leader encouraged me to get off of them. I say this and truly believe he wanted the best for me, but he felt that through prayer and talking through things, meds were no longer needed and that God had brought me freedom from my anxiety. I also know that once you are in The Network for any amount of time, your thoughts and feelings are conformed to The Network’s thoughts and feelings. I know for myself, I was totally in. I didn’t have my own thoughts anymore. I only knew what The Network wanted me to think.
During "inner healing prayer" I would break down, crying hysterically, not being able to control myself. I thought this was healing me.
In this group, I went through inner healing prayer. At the time, it was powerful. It was also exhausting, and I was a hot mess. I was so anxious all the time. I was having physical ailments due to it. A good friend, her husband, my small group leader, and I would meet weekly in my friend’s living room. I would talk about what I was feeling from the previous week’s session and share more of the pain and trauma I experienced. My friend knew a lot of this already as she was my person I went to about everything. But the others did not, or I assumed they did not know all my past baggage. The lights were dim and I would sit in between them on the couch and they would all lay their hands on me. There was a lot of waiting and sitting as thoughts would run through my head, and I wondered what everyone was thinking. These prayers could last almost an hour. I would break down, crying hysterically, not being able to control myself. I thought this was healing me. I thought the deeper and more emotional I got, that God was working more. We did this for many weeks, and I continued to just feel wrecked, totally vulnerable and emotional. I truly think the people that were praying for me wanted the best for me. I also know they were in The Network for a long time and did not realize how they were not trained in dealing with all the trauma I had dealt with. The trauma from drug abuse, abusive husbands, being a widow, are just a few things. There was so much.
Confidentiality did not exist, as what was shared during these "inner healing" sessions was told to everyone in the inner cliques.
I am grateful they eventually recommended counseling and some good things came from that. But I have realized since leaving Cedar Heights despite all the talk about working through things together, they really just put a band-aid over all the junk. They tell you to be honest and share all your secrets, but no one present is trained to deal with the hurt and pain some people have. And worse still, confidentiality does not exist, as what is shared during these sessions gets told to everyone in the inner cliques. These are your deepest hurts and pains and trauma, and they’re freely shared with laypeople who have no business to know. Nothing was truly a secret.
CULTURE OF CONTROL AROUND DATING
Right before COVID, I decided I was going to start online dating. Online dating is actively discouraged at Cedar Heights. Dan made this clear often. At this point, I was 34 years old with two kids and was ready to find someone to spend the rest of my life with. My only friends were at the church, so I could not tell them. The fact that online dating would never be accepted seems so insane to me now. I was so scared someone would find out. I was an adult; I could make good decisions for my family and me. I ended up meeting my now-husband through a dating app. I did not even want to tell my kids I was dating because he did not go to Cedar Heights, which was not encouraged. My husband knew Jesus, but his “walk” did not look like The Network “walk.”
I started online dating even though Dan Digman actively discouraged it...
When my friends found out they called the assistant pastor and told him what I had done.
Once they found out, many of my friends were skeptical. They called the assistant pastor and told him what I had done. I know they did this because they cared. But in hindsight, I hope now that they are out of The Network too, they can see how crazy it was. It always seemed that you had to have every decision signed off by the church.
INTRODUCING MY HUSBAND TO THE CHURCH DURING COVID
COVID made things weird. Church was online, and when we finally started in-person services again, it was socially-distanced outside. So it looked different for my husband to get involved at Cedar Heights. I constantly judged my husband on his walk because of what I thought being a Christian had to look like due to The Network. He would listen to certain Christian songs, and I would comment how it was not a worship song. There are only certain songs you can sing to Jesus and worship Him. These are the things I believed. So, of course, I judged his way of praying. He did not wait long enough; he closed his eyes when praying for me. He did not say the right churchy Network phrases. Looking back, I was so brainwashed.
I constantly judged my husband on his walk with God because of what I thought being a Christian had to look like due to The Network.
When we first started small group via Zoom, I would feel embarrassed by the things he shared. He did not share like you are “supposed to.” He thought I was crazy. I made him so intimidated. He was always second-guessed himself.
Pretty early in our relationship, I got pregnant. I was more scared to tell the people at Cedar Heights than my parents and kids. But I will say, Dan and Nick were both supportive, and for that I am grateful.
My husband was always concerned about the church. I honestly did not see it. I would choose Cedar Heights over him.
My husband tried his hardest to get in with the Cedar Heights culture. He got baptized and served in kids program and tried to make friends and participate in group. I think there was growth in him, but he was always concerned about the church. I honestly did not see it. I would choose Cedar Heights over him.
WHY I LEFT THE NETWORK
At this point, the only Black couple who had been in the church for many years had left. While my husband did not know them personally and only spoke to them in passing on occasion, with him being Black, he was very concerned with them leaving Cedar Heights. He constantly questioned the multiethnic component of the church, as there were only a handful of different ethnicities present.
At this time, my anxiety got horrible again. I also started a new job working for a Presbyterian Church as a secretary. When I first interviewed for this job and received an offer, I declined it. I was so afraid to work for another church. What would Cedar Heights people think? I remember being scared to put where I worked on Facebook because I felt like people would wonder if I was dedicated to Cedar Heights or if I loved Jesus “how I should.” I took the job in the end, and it was the best decision I have made. I still work there to this day.
I remember being scared to put that I started working as a secretary at a Presbyterian Church on Facebook because I felt like people would wonder if I was dedicated to Cedar Heights or if I loved Jesus “how I should.”
My eyes were opened; I was able to have a relationship with a pastor that cares so well for his congregation. He does not show judgement and truly has a heart for Jesus in a way I had never saw before. I always felt like everything had to be one way at Cedar Heights. Their way. Not even Jesus’s way, but it was not like that at this church. I have been able to help so many people in ways that I never had the opportunity to at Cedar Heights, like the church’s heart to serve others by giving Christmas presents for the elderly, meals for the homeless, and by showing the members that they were important were overpowering to me. Through this, I was able to start seeing the truth of Jesus and what I wanted for my family and me. I was able to see how a real church has a budget and an annual report and shows the congregation where their money is going. Where you don’t need to be in a clique to run committees and help with the church’s finances. I realized that I never once knew where all the money I had given was used in the six years I spent at Cedar Heights. There was no transparency on how much people are getting paid, or what is being used for.
I was able to see how a real church has a budget and an annual report and shows the congregation where their money is going.
How could I be so stupid? I gave and gave thinking it was all for Jesus, but was it really? I had to give 10% because, if not, I would be told I was not loving Jesus well and not a good disciple. All the things that my husband constantly brought up to me started to make sense. I know God brought me this job for a reason, and I know it was to show me Himself in a new light.
LEAVING THE NETWORK
In October of 2021, we were ready to leave. I hated going to church. My husband and teenage daughter dreaded serving. So, we decided to try another church for a Sunday. As I was sitting in church that Sunday, I got a text from a friend checking in and wondering where I was. I instantly got anxious like I did something wrong. But I knew I didn’t do anything wrong and can still follow Jesus and be a Christian in another church. When I started realizing that I felt for years like my salvation was dependent on Cedar Heights, I knew there was a huge problem.
When I started realizing that I felt for years like my salvation was dependent on Cedar Heights, I knew there was a huge problem.
After one Sunday at a different church, my son was excited about the kid’s program. That Sunday they were making cards for boxes that are given to kids when they visit Emergency Rooms. It was something so simple but something that they would never do at Cedar Heights. Nothing was ever outward-focused at Cedar Heights. It was always about getting more people into the church, getting them to serve, all to be a “good disciple,” which meant inviting more people to church.
It’s an endless cycle. There is no focus on actually helping others.
After going to the other church for two Sundays, we did not want to make the final decision yet. Still, we were told by our small group leader via text that we would no longer need to host small group anymore. They said that because we might want to go to another church on that evening, they did not want us to carry that burden. We had made it clear that we were not going to this other church regularly. Still, we were feeling spiritually dead and just really needed to be filled up at the time. They assured us we would not be taken out of the group text, but since that day we did not go back. We already felt like we were being kicked out.
After two weeks at another church, before we had made a final decision, we were told by our small group leader via text that we would no longer need to host small group anymore.
A couple of months prior, my husband had met with Dan before a team meeting, bringing up some concerns about racial issues within the church and bringing up a time when Dan in the 2nd service stated that online dating was evil and a sin. My oldest daughter who is 13 heard this and came home crying since her stepdad and I met via online dating. Dan never admitted he said this even if I heard from many people he did. While he gave a half-apology to my husband during this meeting, he never once approached me. I am not surprised, but it justified all my feelings for all the previous years before.
While I am grateful for the friends and the growth that I had at Cedar Heights, I am so glad that part of my life is done.
At this point though, none of this mattered to us anymore. We had to get out, and we did. It was the best decision I have ever made. We have found a new church that we love. We are taking it slow. I am not ready to throw myself all in right away. But, I do feel that counseling would be something that could help me deal with the past and the spiritual abuse I experienced. My kids are happy, and we are growing so much as a family. While I am grateful for the friends and the growth that I had at Cedar Heights, I am so glad that part of my life is done. As long as it’s up to me, I hope to continue some of my old Network friendships, living my life knowing I can love Jesus at a church that is not in The Network.