TOLERATED, NOT LOVED
By Lisa W.
Tolerated, Not Loved:
HOW I CAME TO REALIZE I DESERVED TO BE TREASURED FOR WHO I AM, NOT SIMPLY TOLERATED AS SOMEONE WHOSE AGE AND PHYSICAL LIMITATIONS DIDN'T “FIT” THE NETWORK MOLD
- Author: Lisa W. | Church Member, Sunday Tech Team & Other Service Areas
- Attended: Clear River Church, Lafayette, Indiana | 2009-2021
- This story was published November, 2022
Recently published stories have been of great encouragement to me to finish writing my own story, which I began nearly a year ago. I hesitated to submit it because it seemed my own experiences weren’t nearly as damaging as the accounts others have shared, but further reflection has convinced me that my story is also a valuable account of the larger picture of wrongdoing within the Network churches.
I never fit the typical Network “profile” and rather than welcome me to exercise my giftings as a unique contribution, the Network model of “the way we do church” took priority. If I could fit into that model, great, and if not, I was sidelined. Because I wasn’t allowed to fully function as a part of the body of Christ, not only did I not grow in my relationship with God, but the health of my local church and by extension the greater body of Christ, suffered. This is my story.
How I Found The Network
I first attended Clear River Church in 2009. The planting pastor, Tony Ranvestal, had come to Lafayette just a few years earlier and I started attending right after they moved to their second location, across the river, where they wouldn’t have to set up and tear down every week.
I’d heard good things about Clear River. It seemed like it was the new, “up and coming” church in town. When I first started attending, I definitely felt like the oldest person in the room. The congregation was predominantly college students as well as a few young families. It was easy to see right away that I was not the typical attendee. I was a self-employed artist in my mid-40’s with grown children and a husband who did not attend church with me. But Clear River claimed to want to be multi-generational, and the sermons and worship seemed earnest and heartfelt, so I kept coming back.
When I first started attending, I definitely felt like the oldest person in the room. But Clear River claimed to want to be multi-generational, and the sermons and worship seemed earnest and heartfelt, so I kept coming back.
WHY I LEFT THE NETWORK
In 2021 a friend who had left the Network years before alerted me to this website and suddenly EVERYTHING fell into place. I had been at Clear River for twelve years, and had twelve years worth of “Huh” experiences. These occasional experiences caught my momentary attention, seemed a little strange and a little off, but were either “explained” to me or rationalized away on my own. Here are some examples.
DENIED DIRECT PASTORAL CARE
In the spring of 2010, I was scheduled to undergo a major back surgery, a fusion in my lower back at two vertebrae levels, requiring a hospital stay of several days (which turned into nearly a week). I’d been attending for a few months but had not yet begun looking for a small group so I emailed the lead pastor, Tony Ranvestal, to tell him about the upcoming surgery and anticipated hospital stay. I told him I hadn’t yet connected with a small group, though I’d visited a few. I went on to say that I would appreciate a visit and prayers for recovery.
Tony responded sympathetically but said he was not sure he could visit in person. He said he’d let some of the leaders and prayer ministry team members know. At the time, I was a little surprised as I was used to a church model where the minister would visit hospitalized church members in person. However, I’d already heard Tony teaching from the pulpit about how one pastor couldn’t meet the needs of an entire congregation and stressing the importance of life groups (as small groups were then called), so the response made sense to me. While I was hospitalized, two women I did not yet know came once and visited me in the hospital. One was a woman that, along with her husband, was part of the original church plant team. The other woman and her husband were small group leaders, though I can’t remember if they were on the original plant team.
It took a large measure of courage on my part to keep coming back while feeling so very out of place.
I came back to church while still using a walker after my surgery and felt like a real anomaly. I don’t think people really knew how to respond. I don’t remember anyone talking to me much during that time, asking me anything about myself, or offering any help. In my mind, I made sense of this by reasoning that this was an extremely young congregation and none of them had much experience with any type of infirmity, but it took a large measure of courage on my part to keep coming back while feeling so very out of place.
SMALL GROUP MEMBERSHIP WAS CLOSELY WATCHED AND TIGHTLY CONTROLLED
After my recovery, I started searching for a small group to attend and one memory really stands out to me. I visited a group consisting of college students and young married people and felt welcomed. It felt like people were really interested in who I was and what I did. When I informed the small group leader that I wanted to commit to his group, however, I was told he didn’t think I was “a good fit for them.” Instead, he “just wanted me to be in a group that could care for me well and help me grow,” and that wasn’t their group. I was hurt and confused. The group members had seemed to like me but I was being told I wasn’t wanted there...?
It felt like I didn’t really have a say in what group I chose to attend.
I made an appointment to meet with Tony to talk this through. His explanation was that this group was really just for college students. I pointed out that the info card for them said, “all ages welcome,” or something similar. He replied that they, ‘probably needed to update that,’ and suggested a couple other groups. I started attending a different group that Tony suggested. In retrospect, the other group probably was a better fit for me but the way it went down just felt weird, like I didn’t really have a say in what group I chose to attend.
AS A LONGTIME CHRISTIAN MY OWN FAITH WAS TREATED WITH SKEPTICISM
By early 2011, I settled into regular attendance at one of the small groups that had been recommended to me. While I liked it okay, I had the distinct impression that I was continually being watched and evaluated by the group leaders. At that point, I’d already been a faithful follower of Jesus for more years than some of the church leaders had been alive, but rather than being treated as a fellow believer with an established faith, it felt like the small group was working to convert me. I excused this in my mind as well. Of course they’d want to make sure the faith I professed was genuine.
I WAS NOT TREATED LIKE OTHERS IN OUR SMALL GROUP
I became aware over time that the group leaders were frequently meeting other group members outside of our group meeting for things like coffee or dinner. Over all the years I attended that group, I was asked out for coffee exactly once, and my husband and I were invited for dinner at the group leader’s home once. Both invitations felt awkward, like an obligation was being fulfilled rather than a friendship initiated.
Several years later when the small group I’d been attending was multiplying, my leaders were “helping me discern” where to go. I was told to my face that it was best for me if I attended a group where I was the only group member whose spouse was an unbeliever. That way, I could get the proper care and shepherding I needed. While this sounded good at face value, like they had my best interest at heart, I also felt confused. Was I seen as defective, or a group liability? Did they think I took more from the group than I could contribute? I pushed these doubts and feelings down.
THE LEAD PASTOR OFTEN REMINDED THE CONGREGATION THAT THE CHURCH WAS FOR NEW CONVERTS, NOT PEOPLE WHO HAD ATTENDED OTHER CHURCHES
From the pulpit, Tony frequently reiterated that church should not be approached with a consumer mindset, where if you didn’t like something, you just moved on and shopped for a different church. He intended to raise his children and grow old in this church, and hoped one day his grandchildren would be part of it as well. He went on to say that the purpose of Clear River Church wasn’t to steal people from other local churches but to reach college students who perhaps had never stepped foot inside a church before.
These statements made me feel slightly guilty every time I heard them as I had attended a different local church before coming to Clear River Church. However, after my spouse had walked away from the faith and my children left home, attending that other church by myself had just been too agonizingly lonely. I needed a change, but agreed with the point I thought Tony was making: church shouldn’t be just another consumer experience, but a place of involvement and contribution.
I remember him saying, “everyone got to play,” meaning everyone had a role and contribution to the success of the church. It sounded great, but I came to realize that even though the giftings of God are broad and deep, Clear River had narrowly defined what roles and which contributions were acceptable.
ASSOCIATING WITH OTHER LOCAL PASTORS WAS A "DISTRACTION"
I once asked if the pastors at Clear River knew about the local Pastors’ Alliance, an organization whose online description reads, “An alliance of local pastors working together to strengthen the Greater Lafayette community.” The reply was an explanation along the lines of how they did not participate in organizations like that because “they often involve drama and we don’t want the distraction.”
That seemed sad but I didn’t think to ask if that was actually their experience with this organization. I do remember admiring how focused these young pastors were on the mission of Clear River being a “church-planting church.”
PRESSURED TO SERVE
As time went on, I served in several different capacities. I washed kitchen linens every week for a long time. I helped in the office prepping the Sunday fliers and small group cards. After several years, I began helping with the tech team on Sundays, showing up early to run the slides for worship and announcements.
The church was growing quickly during this time, and there were regular pleas for more help. I began serving on the prayer team on Sundays when I wasn’t scheduled to run tech. Then I was asked to serve in Kid’s church on Sundays. In addition to already serving on the Sunday teams of tech and prayer, I did not feel that working with children was an area I was especially gifted in, and I declined. Soon after that, there was a strong message from the pulpit about humbly and cheerfully serving where there was need, and how it was, “prideful to only be willing to serve in the areas [we] desired.” The need for children’s workers was stressed again. I felt guilty, but I stuck to my convictions, only helping occasionally in the kid’s program.
MY DESIRE FOR MORE IN-DEPTH BIBLE TEACHING WAS CHARACTERIZED AS A FLAW IN MY SPIRITUAL LIFE
While there was excitement about being part of a young and rapidly growing church, I deeply desired to grow deeper in my faith, and wasn’t feeling challenged by Sunday morning teachings. The one time I had dared to mention this, I was told that, ‘how much I took away from Sunday sermons was directly related to how expectant I was, and how actively I listened.’ I definitely believe this is part of the equation, but still found little that held my attention, let alone challenged me to go deeper with God.
At its worst, the church’s approach to Scripture was simply repeating it over and over with emphasis on different words rather than fleshing it out with solid commentary. At its best, a majority of the sermon illustrations given by Tony, and later by Zach Miller and Jimmy Yo, centered around things that happened to them in high school or college and were difficult for a middle-aged woman to relate to. These personal stories nearly always led into how they had been on track for a career in science, engineering, or something similar until God called them and they gave up everything to serve as a pastor.
MY SPIRITUAL LIFE WAS INTENTIONALLY TREATED AS A TRAINING GROUND FOR INEXPERIENCED YOUNG MEN
It was repeatedly emphasized by Tony that new leaders would always be young men promoted from within. Tony laid out that new leaders would start inexperienced but would be selected for their character and that ‘we’ would grow and mature them in order to finally send them out to plant new churches. I interpreted the ‘we’ to mean the existing local church leaders and the congregation. In that light, it became relatively easy to put my personal spiritual growth on the back burner in service of the larger vision of planting more churches.
CHURCH ATTENDERS TOLD TO SERVE OR LEAVE
During this season of extremely rapid growth there was a period of time when, due to space limitations, Clear River offered three Sunday Services: two in the morning and another at 5 pm. Not only did the pastor preaching have to return to give the message again in the evening, but most people serving that Sunday had to return and do it again, as well (though I don’t think childcare was offered at the 5 pm service). This was exhausting for everyone involved.
I remember lead pastor Tony Ranvestal saying, “Frankly, we need your seat for others who are attending and willing to serve.”
One Sunday, Tony addressed this in a way that was shocking to me. He described three services as being, ‘unsustainable for the leaders.’ Tony went on to say that if people were attending regularly but not serving, they should find a different church and Clear River probably wasn’t for them since that wasn’t, ‘the way we did church.’ I remember him saying, “Frankly, we need your seat for others who are attending and willing to serve.” It came across as confrontive and harsh, and did not seem Biblical to me, but it did the trick. Enough people left after that point that the third service was eliminated.
I WAS DISCOURAGED FROM USING MY SPIRITUAL GIFTS AT WORSHIP SERVICES (AND INTERNAL TEAM MEETNGS)
The church I had previously attended believed deeply in the power of exercising Rev. 12:11, “And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony.” During the Sunday service at that church, individuals were free to share Scripture, personal experiences and words from God that would be uplifting for the congregation to hear. I shared frequently, and often heard from others how encouraging and timely my words had been for them. But at Clear River Church, there was repeated coaching at Team Meetings that if we felt impressed to share something, including Scripture verses, we should bring it to one of the pastors and if they felt it was something God was speaking, they would share it. The leaders went on to say that this practice was more appropriate during Team Meetings rather than on Sunday. I understood and respected those guidelines, but I can remember multiple times of sharing Bible verses or words with a pastor during worship and it never being repeated to the larger gathering. It was discouraging, time and again, to bump up against what felt like a dead end, and eventually I simply stopped sharing.
I WAS NOT TREATED WITH VALUE ON THE WORSHIP TEAM
Around 2015 or so, I got brave enough to show up to an “open-call” for worship team. I have always loved worshiping and singing. I participated in choirs from elementary age through college and beyond. When the worship team leader saw me, he said in a shocked voice, “What are you doing here?!” I was far and away the oldest one present and immediately felt very uncomfortable. Later, he apologized, saying he thought maybe I’d misunderstood and thought I needed to be there that Saturday to run slides or something.
Eventually, after singing with the DC worship team for quite a few months, I was approached about serving in the Sunday morning rotation. I was happy to do so, but the lack of feedback often made me doubt myself. I asked a couple of times if there were any resources that could be recommended for my growth and improvement in this area but the most I got back was something along the lines of, “if something was wrong, I would tell you.”
I served in this way for about four years, until I had another major spine surgery in 2020. After several months of recovery, I emailed the worship leader and asked if I could get back in the rotation. He said he was thinking things through about adding other vocalists and would get back to me in a couple weeks, but I never heard from him again.
MY DESIGNATED GIFT WAS RECEIVED WITH APATHY
I’d heard the worship leader say once he hoped to someday get into songwriting. As an artist, I knew one common drawback for seeking training to advance skills or learn new techniques is often a lack of money. I felt God put it on my heart to give sacrificially out of my own artistic income so that this musician, who gave so much to the church, could be blessed and encouraged to follow up on this dream. I gathered the money (which truly represented a sacrificial amount for me) and wrote a note explaining what the funds were for, including a brochure I had received in the mail about an upcoming songwriting workshop by a well known Christian worship group. I explained in my note that I was including the brochure as a point of information, but the money could be used for any songwriting opportunity. My memory is a little fuzzy after this many years but I think I wrote the worship leader’s name on the envelope and laid it on his desk with the money when he wasn’t in the office.
Weeks went by and then months, and nothing was said to me by anyone on staff, including the worship leader about my gift. Though I wondered about it, my heart was truly free knowing I had been obedient to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Eventually, however, the end of the year was weeks away and I was growing concerned that the funds should be properly used, or rightly designated before the budget year end. So, I finally emailed Tony and asked about it. His less-than-enthusiastic reply left me feeling that instead of an encouraging gift, the fact that I designated the funds created a hassle or a problem.
After this email exchange, the next time I saw the worship leader, I got an equally ambivalent verbal acknowledgement, as if he’d been coached that I expected a thank-you. Apart from the joy between my spirit and God resulting from hearing and obeying, the whole thing just left me feeling extremely misunderstood and unappreciated.
I WAS REPEATEDLY DISCOURAGED FROM STARTING A BIBLE STUDY
In 2019, I felt God renewing my love for young women. Years earlier I had inquired about starting a women’s Bible study at Clear River. I was told that since leadership didn’t want members to be ‘overwhelmed with activities,’ a Bible study would not be promoted by the church, but if something developed “organically”... ((shrug)). There was no affirmation, no guidance, and I sensed no spiritual covering, so I let it go at that time.
But something was different this time. I started to feel impressed about possibly partnering with a young woman from my first small group to lead a group for single gals. This friend and I had bonded and stayed close even though we were now in different small groups and I knew she shared a concern for young women, also. I pondered what to do... should I approach my friend? A pastor? Say nothing? Since the idea would not leave me alone after several months, I decided to talk to my DC pastor first without saying anything to my friend. I wanted to honor the leaders and their authority.
As soon as I had articulated my thoughts, the DC pastor said, “[A bible study] is never going to happen.
I’ll never forget the result of this meeting in the DC pastor’s office. As soon as I had articulated my thoughts, the DC pastor said, “That is never going to happen.” I was shocked and the only thing I remember hearing after those words was that my friend, ‘was better at reaching out to people and initiating things on her own than I was.’ But I was the one sitting in the office...? I tried to be gracious as I was leaving, telling the pastor that I appreciated his time and that I thought verbalizing it to him could possibly confirm something God might be speaking. But I felt sad leaving the meeting, and a bit shamed for being so bold.
CLEAR RIVER CHURCH WAS BECOMING MORE AND MORE INSULAR AND INWARD FOCUSED DESPITE LIP SERVICE TO THE CONTRARY
Over time, it seemed that Clear River was becoming more and more insular and inward focused, though the opposite was promoted with hollow words. The few outreach initiatives that had been offered occasionally in the past were discontinued. The Bag Hunger program disappeared, along with the Giving Tree event we did for two Christmases.
The pandemic brought even more red flags. It seemed Clear River eagerly exercised the church exemption on mask wearing as soon it was a legal option rather than serving others in the spirit of Matthew 5:41 which reads, ‘Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.’ There were very few protective measures taken for attending in person and while leadership stated that individual choices about mask-wearing would be respected, multiple sermons that followed included admonitions against “living in fear” and that “some things are more important than being safe.”
While I believe this is true in some cases, it came off as harsh, arrogant, and inappropriate. Their actions were in direct contradiction to their verbal assurances that comfort levels and safety requirements would be accommodated. Additionally, recordings of Sunday sermons were only available online by password, and then soon not available at all. I simply couldn’t wrap my mind around the discrepancies between the words and the actions of the leaders.
WHAT I THOUGHT WERE "ME" PROBLEMS WERE PARTS OF MUCH LARGER PATTERNS AT CLEAR RIVER CHURCH
In August of 2021, a friend who had previously attended Clear River, but left over uncomfortable experiences of her own years before, drew my attention to the Leaving the Network website. I’m not sure how she found out about the website but she knew how I struggled to feel like a valued member of Clear River. After a bit of reading, I finally realized this wasn’t just a ‘me’ problem. My experiences were actually part of a much larger pattern. Instead of individual “huh” experiences that involved only me, I suddenly realized something much deeper was going on.
Once I realized that this was a systemic problem, and not isolated to me, the sense of betrayal and grief was overwhelming.
Saying nothing to anyone about this, I pondered alone. I didn’t want to leave. I loved my small group intensely, and loved many other friends who I’d come to know over the course of 12 years. Until this point I had managed to explain and excuse every adverse personal experience I’d had. But, over the course of several months I sifted these things in my heart before the Lord. I didn’t talk to anyone at church because I didn’t want to ‘cause trouble.’ I felt I didn’t want to sow doubt or create questions in others’ minds if they were happy and growing in faith.
I’d been a believer long enough that I had an established history of hearing from God for myself and had learned to trust His leading, apart from any guidance from church leaders. And, ever faithful, God eventually spoke loud and clear.
LEAVING CLEAR RIVER CHURCH
One day in November, 2021, my mind had again turned to my dissatisfaction with my personal ‘status quo’ at Clear River. I hadn’t felt like I was growing spiritually for years, nor was I invited to contribute to the church body with the gifts God had given me. The longing to lead young women, to exercise my gift of prophecy, and to serve on the worship team all felt stunted and cut off. Suddenly, God broke into my thought process and, in a rush, helped me to realize that for many long months, whenever I would feel sorrow over not being able to contribute within my areas of strength, I had been sinfully comforting myself. I would tell myself that while there was no place for me to serve fully, at least I didn’t have the burdensome responsibility that accompanied leadership. If I was leading or co-leading a group of young women, for example, I knew my responsibilities would be greater both logistically and spiritually. Wasn’t it a benefit in some ways to not carry those responsibilities?
I felt God gently say, “Really? Is that really how you want to live the rest of your life? I have so much more for you!” At that point, my decision became crystal clear. With every fiber of my being, I wanted to follow after my Lord and Savior. I did not want to live in an empty shell, grasping at comforts that were actually twisted and sinful lies. I also sensed, deep within me, that talking with pastors or leaders at church would not lead to the wholehearted invitation to contribute that I longed for. The system was broken, and I had no illusions that a conversation would change patterns that were literally written into the functioning documents of the Network.
I told my DC pastor I was deeply concerned about the patterns I’d seen and experienced within the Network and at Clear River, and that I felt that “the way we do church” had wrongly come to take priority above all else.
I emailed my DC pastor, saying it was time for me to move on without going into specifics. Eventually, he replied saying he sensed there was more to my decision to leave than I was saying. This led to a little back and forth via email. I told him I was deeply concerned about the patterns I’d seen and experienced within the Network and at Clear River, and that I felt that “the way we do church” had wrongly come to take priority above all else. His reply said he’d like to meet with me to listen and learn and to see if there was anything the church could do differently.
While I appreciated the offer, it felt like the problem wasn’t being acknowledged. I had twelve years worth of experiences trying to fruitlessly communicate to my leaders how I felt the strict parameters of how Clear River functioned were detrimental; who could do what and what the church was willing or not willing to support. Furthermore, and most troubling to me, was that what was spoken by leadership did not line up with their actions. It felt deceptive, and I had no desire to give feedback that could be used to strengthen that deception. The Leaving the Network site had been up for months—the information was out there for consideration if learning was truly what they desired. Not only that, but at the time it felt like I had to struggle to put any words at all to what I was feeling. Once I realized that this was a systemic problem, and not isolated to me, the sense of betrayal and grief was overwhelming.
I had twelve years worth of experiences trying to fruitlessly communicate to my leaders how I felt the strict parameters of how Clear River functioned were detrimental; who could do what and what the church was willing or not willing to support. Furthermore, and most troubling to me, was that what was spoken by leadership did not line up with their actions.
While I did not meet with my DC pastor, I summoned the courage to meet with my small group leaders at the time, who I absolutely adored and had grown to love deeply. I poured out my heart to them amidst tears and choking sobs. I did not want to leave, did not want to lose their friendship, and did not want to leave them behind. I urged them to consider things carefully and was able to explain that, for me, the choice was very clear. I explained that my continued attendance at Clear River would communicate to others that I supported what was going on in the Network, and nothing could be farther from the truth.
One of my main goals in life is to live with integrity—to actually do what I profess to believe to the best of my ability. Because Clear River was part of the Network, continuing to attend now that my eyes were opened to the truth would put me out of alignment in the most fundamental way. It was out of the question. I did not want to contribute to the hurt of others, actively or passively. Not to mention my personal revelation of the Spirit: I had more to contribute to the body of Christ than the Network had space for. I wanted to be in a spiritual place where I felt treasured for who I was, not simply tolerated as an “extra grace required” individual.
I wanted to be in a spiritual place where I felt treasured for who I was, not simply tolerated as an “extra grace required” individual.
It was a gut wrenching meeting, but my small group leaders were gracious, patient, and loving. Eventually, they also decided to leave the Network.
LIFE SINCE LEAVING THE NETWORK
As for what life is like now, I feel just as strongly convicted of my decision to leave as I did last November, but realizing that I spent over a decade buying into the Network deception was crushing. Some days it is a very active battle to pick up the spiritual weapons provided by my Savior and cast out self-condemnation, shame, and regret. I have visited other churches but find myself with a veil of suspicion that I didn’t have before, and I hate it. I feel betrayed by the leaders who claimed to love me with a godly love and said they were following in the footsteps of Jesus when they were really just trying to force a human approach to the Biblical directive of sharing the gospel. While there is consolation that many in my last small group also left this system of lies, there is also grief. Our lives have naturally diverged now that we are not sharing the same time commitments of Sunday service, small group, and team meeting. In addition, we are each handling our separation with the Network in different ways. I’ve tried to be supportive of others, but it hurts to see friends struggling.
Some days it is a very active battle to pick up the spiritual weapons provided by my Savior and cast out self-condemnation, shame, and regret.
Some individuals still attending Clear River have told me that the leaders have asked about me and, ‘just want to know that I’m ok.’ It seems a strange and shallow inquiry to me and I wonder if it is yet another way leaders side-step the seriousness of misrepresenting the heart of Jesus. I can’t know exactly why they ask about me, but I’m at peace with God and with how I handled leaving. I have no personal vendetta against any individual at Clear River, but rather hope that my story helps others recognize that this is an unbiblical system. Those who continue to attend and operate within the established patterns of thinking and behaviors modeled and taught within the Network perpetuate the harm and deep wounds this unrighteous organization has caused to so many.
I have gotten involved in some Bible study groups where I feel valued, appreciated, and affirmed for who I am in Christ and the gifts I bring to the table, and that has been incredibly healing. I really do have contributions to make, in spite of some physical limitations.
The two things I can control in all this are telling my own story, and focusing on my own spiritual health. I have gotten involved in some Bible study groups where I feel valued, appreciated, and affirmed for who I am in Christ and the gifts I bring to the table, and that has been incredibly healing. I really do have contributions to make, in spite of some physical limitations. I know my eternal salvation is assured and I have faith that there are better things ahead for me personally and for the big “C” Church. God is cleaning house and continues purifying His Bride.