LABELED A SINFUL WOMAN
By Morgan M.
LABELED A SINFUL WOMAN:
THE CONSTANT PRESSURE TO CONFORM TO THE NETWORK'S VIEWS ON FEMININITY LEFT ME WITH MORE SHAME THAN I STARTED WITH
- Author: Morgan M. | Stoneway Church Plant Team
- Network Churches:
- Joshua Church, Austin, TX | 2018-2021
- Stoneway Church | 2021
- This story was published November, 2021
HOW I FOUND THE NETWORK
2018 was the worst year of my life.
In less than one year I lost my grandma on my step father’s side, my good friend, my older sister, and my grandpa. This isn’t even including a family divorce, moving across the country to a city where I only knew my brother, and other tragic family happenings that fell within those 11 months . I started out in The Network during this time because I had just moved to Austin right after graduating from college and I lacked a Christian community. I had been lucky to have a stepdad who was a Pastor for half my life so I was already a Christ follower. In the hour I spent searching for multiethnic and multigenerational churches in my new home I kept getting hit by a sponsored ad telling me to try out Joshua Church. So I did.
The manipulation started relatively early and before you know it I was sucked into their system.
The manipulation started relatively early and before you know it I was sucked into The Network's system — showing up at small group, church, and other events multiple times a week, serving, tithing 10% every week even when I couldn’t afford it, and being coerced into becoming the kind of woman they wanted in their congregation.
WHY I LEFT THE NETWORK
In thinking how best to tell my story, part of me wanted to just send in the email I sent to all the pastors at Joshua Church when I left that had received no reply or acknowledgement. Another part of me wanted to send the therapy bill of what I’ve had to pay since I left a few months ago. And there’s a part of me that just wanted to get a light-up sign that said “run” and put it outside of that church.
I didn’t fit into the cookie cutter mold they try to fit all of their members into. I am a strong, opinionated, vocal, messy, fun, and hardworking woman. This is the type of woman that I later on figured out is everything they DON’T want in their congregation. I began to realize what they were looking for (specifically in my young adult age group) about a month or two in to being at Joshua Church. Don’t get me wrong, the FIRST month was great. I was loved on, asked to get coffee by many, and I even had other women make me dinner when my grandfather passed away. This seemed like the perfect place to heal from all the events of 2018! I started to see hope. I started to see healing. For once in the past 3 years I was able to be poured into instead of constantly pouring into others as I did as a Bible Study leader in college. However, that quickly changed starting in the second month when I was there.
I didn’t fit into the cookie cutter mold they try to fit all of their members into.
My small group leader, his fiancé, as well as other women in the group knew I wasn’t able to keep my head above water. I was BROKE, working 60+ hours a week, and healing from things that I would never wish against my own enemy. Although they knew this, the small group leader tried to talk to me about how I needed to be better at taking care of the new and younger women coming into small group. They told me that I needed to help be a leader and be consistent and to be praying over people. As I said, I could barely hold myself above water. I was not in a place to guide and mentor others. I just didn’t have it in me to give what the leader was asking of me.
This is when the small group leader and his fiancé stopped talking to me before and after small group and church. They turned the other way when I walked in the door. It even got to the point where on multiple occasions (until the point when I left) when I was standing with a group of people they would say hi and hug every other person except me. I’m not an easy pill to swallow, I know this, but I am a lover at heart. I only wanted to learn from them. Iron sharpens iron, so I thought… but things didn't get better.
I started throwing up before or after small group due to panic attacks.
I started throwing up before and/or after small group due to panic attacks. I felt more unloved from that small group leader and his fiancé than I ever felt in the “real world,” and, let’s be honest, the world is not too good at loving either. I had to change small groups because I could feel the tension. Unfortunately, that small group leader became a pastor for Joshua Church almost a year after that.
The isolation I felt after that second month at Joshua Church only got worse.
LABELED A SINFUL WOMAN
I remember the first time Steve prayed for me during prayer ministry. I was broken, grieving, and hurting. At first I was so honored that the head of the church and head of The Network would choose to pray over me. But as he prayed he began to use judgmental language. It seemed as if he had very specific, prior knowledge of my story, as if someone had told him the private things I had shared in confidence with a small handful of people in the church. Steve compared me to the woman at the well, not in a “God forgives everyone” way but in a “some sinners need reminded how sinful they are so they will repent” way.
Nevertheless, I hoped God might use Steve's prayer, despite his hurtful words, as a wonderful Holy Spirit moment to heal my past like the woman at the well. Unfortunately, this set the tone for other people praying for me and talking to me in a condescending way. Many people, especially pastors, would pray over me about the same past sin that Steve brought up. Sin which I had repented of and worked hard to put behind me even before I came to Joshua Church. It was as if they had discussed the things I had shared with those few people about my private life and had already decided what I was like before ever getting to know me. They knew other details, too: that I had multiple mental illnesses, that I had been abused, and that I had been raped. My most private experiences and struggles had seemingly been spilled for everyone to see.
I later found out my first small group leaders had shared things I thought I was telling them in confidence.
After this I was made to feel like I didn't belong. I was treated like THE “party girl” even though I had given up alcohol and speaking to men in that time of my life and mostly throughout my time at Joshua Church. To this day I am still hearing things that members of the church have said about me within their inner circles (including staff members) even though I have been gone for eight months now. Members of the church swear against gossip and that they respect confidentiality, but their actions do not match their words.
Every little thing I did felt like there was a microscope on me at all times.
My new "reputation" spread quickly in Joshua Church. There were males in the church that would casually say around me that they wanted a woman who was more pure for marriage. I was told I wasn’t modest enough, not just from pastors, but other males within the church. They all seemed to have their thoughts on where I was slipping up, whether it was about my "opinionated" stances, wearing leggings with a t-shirt to Discipleship Community nights, being a bartender for a restaurant, or even about the shorts I wore (I have long legs and it is physically impossible for me to find long enough shorts that aren’t the early 2000’s style of bermuda shorts–sorry but no, I’m not wearing that). I was told I wasn’t acting like Christ because many of my closest friends were part of the LGBTQ+ community. Every little thing I did felt like there was a microscope on me at all times. This feeling has persisted, even though I'm out of that environment. I still feel like I am under a radar 24/7.
WOMEN TREATED AS SECOND CLASS CITIZENS
As women (and especially single women) we were not cared about unless we were caring for one another. We were seen as just a number. The only position we could have in the church was being a children’s director. We were only seen as worthy when we were dating/engaged/married to a man in the church (on multiple occasions I saw friends of mine go from being a nobody in the church when they were single to suddenly every married couple and small group leader wanting to be friends with them because they were dating a man within the church). We were never contacted by staff members unless it was regarding membership.
JOINING THE STONEWAY CHURCH PLANTING TEAM
During this church plant experience we were told that we should not be into fashion, we should not have (or at least not get any more) tattoos, we should not leave for Christmas to spend time with our families, and that we need to be ready to put our own needs away to bring people from another country into our stronghold.
From the night that the church plant was announced I felt a stirring in my soul. Between being Scottish and having a mother and brothers born and raised in the UK, to having a passion of sharing God’s word to help younger women, after 4 months of prayer I decided to work up the courage to talk to my DC pastor about it. That pastor I met with (now Steve’s son in law) spoke about how he was worried about me going on the church plant because of my “anxiety” and “lack of faith and finances” and the only reason why he was allowing me to go was at the time I was a British citizen due to my family’s lineage.
The expectations and pressure to fit in their cookie cutter mold only increased once I was on the church plant. Rather than being met where I was at, I was forced to keep trudging through the hardships alone which then turned my DC pastor’s “concerns about my anxiety” into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Before deciding to drop out of the church plant I was having multiple anxiety and panic attacks every week, especially when we had team trainings. Some of these anxiety attacks were so bad that I became physically ill. Moving across the world as a single young woman would have been difficult enough, but realizing that I would have little to no support from others on the plant, especially the ones who were married, made it even more nerve-racking. This is also the time when I really began losing faith in the church. I stopped having confidence in God and myself, and my spiritual life was hitting all time lows. I began closing myself off from people I used to call friends.
The Stoneway Church plant to Reading, England was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Knowing what I know now, I'm thankful I did not make it over to England.
With the church priding itself in being a loving community, I believed that the staff and members were going to be understanding when I decided that the church plant was no longer God's calling for me. Instead I was met with the opposite of grace. I was asked grueling and judgmental questions by members of the church about why the plant was too hard for me to bear. I was asked what had gotten in the way of me and following God’s word. Many people seemed to have questions and concerns regarding where my faith was at and what I was wanting to do for God's kingdom. I was looked down upon for sharing the idea of writing a book about the struggles I had overcome in my life which I thought could bring people hope. I was told to rethink going to seminary for Biblical Counseling because men should be the ones at seminary. I was told that my independence hindered me in “finding a husband”.
This lack of support goes into being a woman, especially a single woman, at Joshua Church.
STEVE MORGAN'S HYPOCRITICAL BEHAVIOR
Early on in my time at Joshua Church Steve had me convinced that when he raised his voice, teared up, and condemned the actions of "sinners" who were outside of the church that it was all for bringing people into the love of Christ. He lead with charisma and what seemed like conviction, but I realize now conviction is not the same as truth.
He preached on loving others and bringing people closer to Christ but I didn't experience him living this out. On two occasions on a Sunday morning when I was catching up with a male member of the church he came up and hugged the man and didn’t even acknowledge me. The first time it happened I shook it off because even though we made eye contact I thought “hmm maybe Steve thinks interacting with this man is important to do right now”. After hugging Steve the man ended the conversation with me by saying “we’ll talk later Morgan!” I gave Steve the benefit of the doubt, maybe he didn’t see me or maybe he had something really important to talk to the man about. But then it happened a second time. This time Steve looked at me while he was going in to the embrace with the other greeter showing me he knew I was there. For a second I sat there and let them keep talking but when he stood in front of me cutting me off from the conversation I walked away. These interactions were clearly deliberate to stop me from speaking to this male member of the church.
Joshua Church was next door to a housing unit that housed individuals with special needs. We had a few individuals who would stop by service and they were almost ALWAYS met with isolation and/or police. I know this first hand because for the last year and a half I was at Joshua Church I served as a greeter. I was there when they called the cops on a woman in a wheelchair wanting warmth. I sat and talked to a man in a wheelchair with tears in his eyes after the sermon because nobody talked to him or welcomed him. I was there for a couple of team meetings when Steve Morgan stood in the pulpit asking for prayer that the halfway house next door would get torn down so “those people” wouldn’t “bother us anymore.” There isn’t enough room in this story for me to write out or say every example of hatred, prejudice, and pride that I saw at Joshua Church, not only with the “staff” members, but the elders, and members they lead who live out their lives with bias and hatred.
INCREASING TENSION DURING NATIONAL 'BLACK LIVES MATTER' PROTESTS
I cannot and will not speak to experiences that our Black sisters and brothers dealt with first hand at Joshua Church, but I can say that when I stood up against white supremacy and systemic racism it created an even larger target on my back.
Every Team Joshua between the time the church started in-person gatherings during the pandemic in August or September of 2020 to the last one I went to in February 2021, the teaching was centered around how we need to go against people who are protesting against white supremacy and “drawing a divide in our church.” We were told we needed to turn our news channels off and live peacefully, that what’s going on in our country wasn’t that bad.
We were told we needed to turn our news channels off and live peacefully.
On one occasion Steve Morgan said that there were people who are were being divisive within the church and that these divisive people needed to be cut off. He would stare me in the eyes the whole time he talked about it. I wasn’t looking for support, I knew I was going against what the church had believed in. I just wanted him to speak against systemic racism. Instead I was met with conversations that I tell later in this story.
ANGRILY CONFRONTED BY A PASTOR OVER MY SOCIAL MEDIA POSTS
Two weeks after I became a member (which took almost 3 years due to their cultish membership training program) I was told by my Discipleship Community pastor that he wanted to meet with me again. I thought that it was going to be a little meeting asking how I was doing because some of my friends who had left the church thus far. I had planned on telling him I was leaving the church due to their lack of grace and compassion, and that I was thinking of moving out of state to be closer to my boyfriend.
The moment the pastor shut the door he began berating me because my social media postings were giving a bad name to the church. He said I was not acting like a member should act. I was told that multiple people had come to him with concern about it.
The moment the pastor shut the door he began berating me because my social media postings were giving a bad name to the church.
At that time my social media posts were mostly related to calling out white supremacists (in response to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other national tensions over race), rapists (in solidarity with the #metoo movement and survivors within the church) and the occasional picture of a flower or Bible verse. To add context to one of the specific posts the leader mentioned, I had posted that as Christians, and specifically as white Christians, we needed to be talking and fighting against the white supremacy that is rooted within our country and religion. What was ironic about this conversation with my Discipleship Community pastor was that two weeks prior to the meeting, during my final membership interview, he had told me that he was not on social media at all. He had said he believed people should be careful about what they post, but that my posts were none of his business.
Why would a 30+ year old pastor yell at a women in her early twenties for speaking her Biblical and moral beliefs on social media?
Between the berating and the angry tone in his voice I sat there in fight or flight mode, terrified, and triggered because why would a 30+ year old man stand there yelling at a women in her early twenties for speaking her Biblical and moral beliefs on social media? I stopped him mid lecture and said, “before you say any more, this is my last Sunday. I had already planned on telling you that”.
His tone immediately turned quiet, and he said he wished the best for me. He asked “Do you mind if I tell people who ask why you left that you left due to planning to move out of state and you’re not sure what your plan is church wise?” I said yes in the moment, but began to write the email I would later send to all of the pastors including Steve Morgan which laid out the honest reasons I was leaving.
MY UNANSWERED EMAIL TO STEVE MORGAN & THE LEADERSHIP OF JOSHUA CHURCH
AFTER LEAVING THE NETWORK
My time in Joshua Church left me with more shame than I had ever experienced during my 10+ years as a Christ follower. My spiritual life had started to dwindle while I was in The Network, but, thankfully I was strong enough to pull myself out. I even had thoughts about turning away from Jesus completely because I began to see God as Steve Morgan, the yelling, shaming, racist, misogynist, unloving, and judgmental man who stands in the pulpit of Joshua Church and in the front of this Network.
My time in Joshua Church left me with more shame than I had ever experienced during my 10+ years as a Christ follower.
In the past 4 months I have been able to start healing and retraining my brain to remember that our God is a loving, just, unconditionally graceful, and understanding God who just wants my heart. I’ve continued therapy even though at Joshua Church I was told to not go to therapy because it is not helpful. I stopped forcing myself to legalistically read multiple chapters of the Bible a day. I even started reading Psalms and Proverbs for fun because for the 2 years and 9 months I was at Joshua Church I was told that I couldn’t read those book without also reading a gospel book at the same time. There are still hard days. There are still days where I feel like I’m not a “good enough Christian” because of the ways Joshua Church made me feel shame. I am still shunned by most of my friends who decided to stay there. However there are many positives that outshine the pain and grief that is still lingering. My relationship with God has become more fun, I am more lighthearted, and I see positivity in the world instead of feeling constant shame.
My relationship with God has become more fun, I am more lighthearted, and I see positivity in the world instead of feeling constant shame.
I am on the journey of learning to love myself and believing I am worthy because God said so.
For those of you who can relate and for those of you who turned away from God completely, I am so sorry. You are seen. You are heard. It’s not your fault. You are WORTHY. You are loved.