By Nicole B.
AFTER YEARS OF JUDGEMENT AND REJECTION I WAS PERMANENTLY REMOVED BY A PASTOR FROM A SUNDAY SERVICE WHILE ON THE CHRISTLAND CHURCH PLANT
- Author: Nicole B. | Christland Church Plant Team; Vine Church Member, Setup Team, Childcare, Front Desk Volunteer & Other Service Teams
- Network Churches attended:
- Vine Church, Carbondale, IL | 2009-2017
- Christland Church, College Station, TX | 2017-2018
- This story was published December, 2022
HOW I FOUND THE NETWORK
In the summer of 2008, I was Air Force ROTC and worked out daily for hours and, at the time, was anorexic in an attempt to meet the weight requirement to be in uniform. My friend, Addie, from high school, encouraged me to try out a church. I responded stating, “when I’m less busy in the fall I’ll try one out” even though I had no intention of following through. December 2008 came, I did not pass the required testing to continue in AFROTC, but that left me at a loss of purpose. In January I was an RA, on shift Thursday nights with someone who became a quick friend and after many deep discussions about things (not related to church or religion), Je invited me to church in February 2009. I remembered the promise I had made to Addie and accepted the invite.
When attending the first Sunday, a previous RA from my first semester, Sa, saw me, talked to me, and invited me to a small group. Originally I was hesitant and tried making excuses to not go, but when she messaged me that Tuesday and asked what I was up to, I responded “nothing.” Then she invited me again, offering to pick me up in the next hour. It was nerve wracking attending a small group, let alone an all-girls group (after being in a male dominated group with ROTC… quite different). The next week, I went to the Discipleship Community and gave my life to Jesus. For that, I thank God because he was pursuing me my entire life, unknown by me.
I took a break from serving around 2013-2014 while dealing with health issues. Not being able to serve in a church which put so much emphasis on serving left me feeling as if I wasn’t enough; not serving, even for medical reasons, was a difficult choice.
By the fall semester of 2009, with my class schedule, I changed small groups and it was there that I began making closer friendships. I also joined several serving teams. Serving was heavily encouraged and, while Sándor would often say that we would need to be careful to not burn ourselves out from serving too much, every month at Team Vine they would choose someone who was serving in multiple areas to publicly praise and recognize as an example. I took the hint and became heavily involved in serving (multiple cleaning teams, set up team for youth, kids program, volunteer at front desk, childcare for DC and special events where it paid $5 an hour). I took a break from serving around 2013-2014 while dealing with frequent debilitating headaches and other symptoms from Chiari. Not being able to serve in a church which put so much emphasis on serving left me feeling as if I wasn’t enough; not serving, even for medical reasons, was a difficult choice. After surgery in 2014, I served primarily with the sign up team (keeping record of events such as the Vine Series and other similar events).
I WAS “NOT A FIT” FOR SMALL GROUPS
Over my time at Vine, there were many close friendships that felt more like a family and for some of those friendships, I still am very thankful. But during a period after my group had dissolved, I was searching for a new group, trying out several, and I recall on more than one occasion being told, “Glad you were able to visit our small group. It doesn’t seem like this group is the right fit for you” and then being encouraged to continue try out another group. When asked how a group “wasn’t the right fit” it was met with a non-answer. The only option after trying out a few groups was to attend the only group that was willing to allow me to continue attending. This left me feeling strange, like something was “off,” but I ignored it. Since I was never told why I was “not a fit” for the other groups, I assumed that “it was my fault” or that maybe I shared something that wasn’t “appropriate” for a small group. I was open about sharing my struggles and thoughts and must have shared something “too personal.” Interesting to attend small groups, a place that is about sharing life. I had to be careful not to share certain things that may make others too uncomfortable. I stopped sharing certain “hard” things in order to avoid being judged and not accepted into the community.
JOINING THE CHRISTLAND CHURCH PLANT
Once I started graduate school, I was prayerful about what to do after graduation, knowing I was not meant to stay in Illinois. After months of praying, it became clear to me that God was calling me back to Texas, somewhere, I wasn't sure where exactly. Naturally, when the Christland Church Plant was announced and I talked with Sandor by the next Sunday, he even stated, “it seems clear this is what God is doing.”
Looking back in my old journal it states, “Sandor prayed for me at Team Vine (in 2017, prior to the plant being sent out). Prayed against the vertigo/dizziness/head pain. Prayed and affirmed that I am needed and wanted on the team. That I am an essential part of the Christland family. Prayed for protection against the enemy.”
WHY I LEFT THE NETWORK
I moved down to Texas in May 2017 and started my job as a Juvenile Detention Supervisor in June (training for that was during the day for the first 6 weeks). After my training, I was assigned as night shift supervisor from 10pm-6am Tuesday night through Sunday morning, however, I frequently was called in to cover half-shift if needed, once working at least a 16 hour shift. I was sleeping during the day and up at night, and would go to small group before going to work on Tuesdays. It was not unusual for this to be my main source of interaction from anyone at Christland. I would serve on Mondays, inputting Welcome cards into the system, as this was the only time I was free to serve.
GROWING ISOLATION IN COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS
During the first few months of the plant there was a feeling of community and unity among us. This was a welcome change for me since I so often felt excluded from community. Within months I noticed to my disappointment that cliques had started to form, and I became aware of certain people, myself included, intentionally not being invited to larger hangouts. Christland was only a few months old and I was already feeling isolated and depressed.
Christland was only a few months old and I was already feeling isolated and depressed.
I became friends with a coworker (not a Christian) and would spend time with her at night on my nights off. I would spend time hanging out with her even when I changed to working at a community mental health agency (working days). Hanging out with this friend led to me being around her brother-in-law (also not a Christian) and I entered into a non-Christian relationship for around a year. I broke it off several times because I was so deeply ashamed from the sexual sin within the relationship and from church teachings which drilled into me that I wasn’t supposed to date a non-Christian.
While at Vine I heard about those on church plants who “didn’t make it” or who “shipwrecked” their faith. It felt as though, in this relationship, that I’d end up being the example of “shipwrecking my faith” at Christland.
I was repentant, and went to a couple of closer friends who I was still interacting with. I remember the advice from one of those friends was simply to break it off. I don't think she understood that the reason I would return to that relationship, although unhealthy for many reasons, was because it was better to be with someone rather than to be completely alone surrounded by others at Christland on Sundays.
The reason I would return to that relationship, although unhealthy for many reasons, was because it was better to be with someone rather than to be completely alone surrounded by others at Christland on Sundays.
During the times that the relationship was not going on, I’d try to be more involved, asking people from the group if they’d want to hang out. I was usually met with a “yeah. Let me get back to you” with no plans ever attempted to be made beyond that. The song “Does Anybody Hear Her” by Casting Crowns was way too relatable; “If judgment looms under every steeple, With lofty glances from lofty people, Who can’t see past her scarlet letter, And we’ve never even met her.”
I wasn’t the only one who felt like they didn’t “fit.” Closer to the end of my time at Christland, there was a small group of us girls, about 5 of us, that would meet up to hang out. The reason we specifically would get together was because we all felt a bit like “outcasts” who did not really fit in anywhere at Christland. From my memory, there is only one who remains at Christland. The others left shortly after myself.
I BEGAN SUFFERING FROM PASSIVE SUICIDAL IDEATIONS
By the spring of 2018 I was suffering with passive suicidal ideations, something I had not struggled with since I was in Middle school (2002) through 2009. Daily, when not working, I would have thoughts such as, “what’s the point,” “I’m worthless,” “Jesus, just take me now, I’m no good to you here” and so on. I had no method, no plan, and no intent, but these intrusive thoughts took a toll on me.
Fortunately, I was now a Social Worker in mental health, which meant I had increased coping skills and the knowledge of how to challenge many of these negative thoughts. In fact, my job, unlike the church, became a place where I was valued and cared for. While I felt like I “was doing no good in expanding the mission of Christland,” my professional work with children and families in the community was making a difference. My work supervisor and a colleague made up my biggest support system with the exception of a couple of ladies at Christland.
OTHERS AT CHRISTLAND WERE TOLD TO AVOID ME
I began to notice inconsistencies between what was said and what things were actually like at Christland. I found it strange that the Network frequently would call themselves a family, but what they described was not true of my experience. They described family as “being included” and “being a part of,” but I regularly felt the opposite. I remember it being said that “you don’t need to be friends with everybody and that’s okay.” This idea seemed odd since Jesus would intentionally go to be with the sinners and outcasts. The Network had said that it had a heart for the homeless and those in poverty, but then why was there so little outreach to those in that area? The location of the Christland building was even in a wealthier area of College Station and further away from those who in poverty couldn’t afford to drive out that way, especially on a regular basis. During the search for a building there was another possible location but there were too many “red flags,” including there being bars on the windows in the neighborhood.
I began speaking out when I felt that something was not right or did not seem to reflect what the Bible portrayed. I spoke with my small group leader about my concerns with not feeling welcome and feeling isolated even when trying to connect with others at Christland. Due to how isolated I already was at this point, it’s hard to tell if people were more avoidant, but there was certainly a lack of being checked in on.
While I didn’t remain long after my conversation with lead pastor Sándor Paull, no one from Christland reached out to be a support or check in, even though I had informed a pastor about suicidal ideations.
In June or early July of 2018, I met with Sándor to share with him how I felt judged at Christland and struggled with being plugged in to community, I was having passive suicidal ideations, and I had been in a relationship with a non-Christian. While I didn’t remain long after this conversation, no one from Christland reached out to be a support or check in, even though I had informed a pastor about suicidal ideations. In the mental health field it would have been important to assess whether or not there was a need to increase support, have a safety/prevention plan, or assess for possible inpatient hospitalization. Instead, all I received was silence.
Within weeks, one of the very few people I was still interacting with, An, let it slip that she was having others from Christland tell her not to interact with me anymore because I “was a bad influence” on her.
I was shocked, hurt, disappointed, horrified, and furious. I just recently had spoken to Sandor who encouraged me to continue pushing through the hard time and to stay involved. The timing of An having others tell her to avoid me felt too coincidental for it not to have been a result of Sándor sharing what I had told him in confidence.
The timing of An having others tell her to avoid me felt too coincidental for it not to have been a result of Sándor sharing what I had told him in confidence.
It was the next Sunday that I stopped going to Christland. In fact, I didn’t go to church again until I visited another College Station church in September. After so many years in The Network, it felt like I was doing something wrong to go anywhere else.
CONFRONTING A FORMER FRIEND
Sometime in September I decided to confront Si, a person I had previously thought was a friend, but who had told An to stop interacting with me. I know looking back that this was not the right time, not the right place, and not the right heart to approach my former friend.
I was often in schools to meet with clients, and I stopped by Si’s office when I saw there were no kids in there. My intent was to say “hi” and share a bit of a “see I’m doing great now” to show her that I was fine despite how she and others treated me. I planned to have a civil exchange and leave quietly, but emotions took over when something she said triggered me. I tearfully confronted her, telling her that I knew she had told An to stop being around me. I was emotional and crying, but did not yell or cause a loud scene.
I tearfully confronted her, telling her that I knew she had told An to stop being around me.
I soon realized the conversation was pointless, and walked out and went on about my day. A couple months passed, and I couldn’t get it out of my head that, to the best of my ability, I needed to forgive and reconcile with Christland and those I was hurt by. There was a verse that frequently popped up in my head, Romans 12:18 “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” and Hebrews 12:14 “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Admittingly, there was also a part of me that hoped to be accepted. After all, Vine/Christland was “family” for almost 10 years, and I still loved and missed many former friends.
I RETURNED TO CHRISTLAND AND WAS ESCORTED OUT
In November 2018, still in touch with An who encouraged me to come on Sunday, I walked in the front doors. I walked to the kids area where she was serving to give her a coffee from a Starbucks and scanned the seating area looking for the person I would be sitting with. I spotted them and started walking that way. I was intercepted by Cody Dicks, who asked me to follow him outside with a female member, Ge, trailing along.
When outside, Cody told me that the board had met and decided that I was no longer welcome at Christland because they needed to protect the other members of the church. Cody told me that the board did an investigation into my confrontation with Si, that there were accounts from her coworkers that I was creating a huge scene in front of kids from the school, and that my presence made others uncomfortable. The entire time Cody spoke to me the female member, Ge, was standing feet away, smiling and snickering (maybe she was on her phone, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt).
I stood there while church attenders were still streaming in from the parking lot, trying to hold back the tears. I was devastated. I came back to forgive and reconcile, but, without any contact with me, the board had made a decision and not even informed me that I was not welcome.
After walking me outside outside, staff pastor Cody Dicks told me that the board had met and decided that I was no longer welcome at Christland because they needed to protect the other members of the church.
Yes, I sent Sandor an email prior to November stating that I left Christland and was attending elsewhere, but His response did not inform me of the decision to ban me from the church. Being blindsided by this only increased the humiliation and hurt. They never bothered to contact me about the confrontation with my former friend; they only relied on their investigation.
I walked back to my car, sat down in the driver’s seat, waited as best I could for everyone to make their way into the building, and I cried.
I cried until my eyes hurt. I couldn’t breathe, choking on air, while the suicidal ideations hit harder than I had ever experienced as an adult. “God’s own people don’t want you,” “see, you’re just a thorn in everybody’s side,” “no one wants you,” “Jesus shouldn’t have saved you,” and “you should just go kill yourself” filled my head. M knocked on my car window and asked if she could sit with me, I nodded my head yes.
I informed her what Cody told me. She asked if I was “safe” multiple times to which I explained that I was not going to hurt myself. M’s response in one area stood out, “don't you think you should have contacted the church to see about attending before coming back?” Why would it have occurred to me to ask a church if I was “allowed” to return? How could I have known that confronting someone who had been telling people to avoid me would result in the Christland board permanently forbidding me from attending a weekend service?
While I hope M didn’t mean this statement in the way I perceived it, it seemed like a victim blaming remark.
AFTER LEAVING THE NETWORK
SEXUAL ASSAULT AND COUNSELING
The remainder of 2018 was heartbreaking.
I missed being a part of Christland Church. Before returning to my new local church I reached out to the pastor and explained the situation of being kicked out of Christland. I asked if I was still welcome to attend the church. The pastor apologized for how that went down. He explained that church discipline is laid out clearly in the Bible, and the way my situation was handled was not Biblical or right. He said yes, I was more than welcome to continue attending, and that I was welcome to try out any small group I wanted when I felt ready.
January 2019 came around, I was occasionally in contact with the non-Christian I previously had a relationship with (we remained off and on until mid-January) when he raped me in the morning before work. A co-worker who I confided in that day told me about SARC (Sexual Assault Resource Center), where they offer free counseling. I did an intake and was paired in the next month with a counselor. During counseling, we spent very little time working through the sexual assault, instead spending the majority of our trauma work on what I had endured at Christland.
After I was raped I began sessions with a counselor at the Sexual Assault Resource Center. I spent very little time working through the sexual assault I experienced, instead spending the majority of our trauma work on what I had endured at Christland.
I remember from those sessions the humiliating image of being escorted out of the church by Cody while Ge laughed. I remember the realization that it wasn’t me, it was them. It hit me that they weren’t representing Jesus' church, they were just making carbon copies of what they want. I understood that The Network didn't appreciate the uniqueness in people, that they did not love people as Jesus called us to love one another.
It was as if I was seeing a movie scene which began by focusing on me, but then zoomed out until I was able to see a building from a birds eye view. I realized it wasn't just me. There were so many people still in the building who didn’t know what was going on, who weren’t being loved in the way they most needed it. I realized that it had started at Vine all those years ago when I was first looking for groups and told I wasn't a right fit.
It made sense, now. Of course I wasn't the right fit for those groups… or even for The Network. They weren’t being Jesus' church, which calls all members of the body to use their own unique selves to be an amazing image of what God designed His church to be.
BEGINNING A NEW CHAPTER AT A NEW CHURCH
It was that next week after the rape that I joined a small group at my new church. I remained in this church until I moved from College Station to San Antonio. Before I became a member I was taught what makes a healthy church. The church taught me that Biblical discipline meant that no one should be kicked out of the church unless he wouldn’t repent of a specific sin that had been addressed for months prior to being kicked out (until such a time that there was repentance). During the many talks with Addie, she told me this quote that was especially impactful, given what I had been through: “The hurts caused by orphanages can only be healed by family because children are meant to be in families.” It felt like God was setting me in a family, not in some kind of traumatic orphanage where I would forever go unloved.
This local church has no idea of the amazing and healing impact it had on me.
It felt like God was setting me in a family, not in some kind of traumatic orphanage where I would forever go unloved.
It was through processing the trauma that I realized the abusive system and manipulation that took place at Christland. It was through being in a healthy church with people who loved people and cared for people, that God began healing my heart toward his church. My walk with God became closer than ever, and not because I was proving my worth through reading the Bible every day and serving and going to every event that I could. My walk with God became closer in a deeper way where I knew his love for me. I knew that, even in my sin, I didn’t “shipwreck” my faith as I had regularly feared. In a journal entry from 2019, I stated, “I lack faith, at least when it comes to myself, lacking faith that depression and anxiety will be healed in this life. Oh, but God, depression or not, I know you are here and real and You are Love. I may not always feel your love toward me, I may ignore the depths of your love because I know how deeply sin is in this heart. It’s disgusting, ugly and it nailed you to the cross. My sin was another pound of the hammer on the nail tearing through your hand. It was my mocking voice among the scoffers. And even then, your grace is deeper. It’s all too amazing.”
I’m immensely proud that I never conformed to the Network mold. I tried for so long to “fit in'' that I never embraced who I was in Jesus… until I left. My struggles with depression and anxiety have given me immense compassion and empathy for others who struggle with mental health. My argumentative side, the part of me my mom used to say would make me a great lawyer, was able to analyze and question things using my own mind instead of just blindly following. After all, 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 states, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” I’ve embraced the very unique person God made me to be, and have continued to grow closer to Jesus in ways I never fully understood until being kicked out of the Network.
There’s a quote I heard recently, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars” Khalil Gibran. There are countless scars from the Network, but it’s out of that suffering I’ve become who I am today, and I thank God for his constant pursuit of me.
In May 2019, I had a talk with Sandor on the phone to speak my forgiveness and peace. Truthfully, part of me was hoping at least for an apology. I had the phone call on speaker and was sitting with my work supervisor (an LPC) because I wanted to have a third party confirm that I perceived the conversation correctly (Sandor was not aware anyone was listening with me). After the short phone call, my supervisor confirmed that there was no apology, just an "I'm sorry you feel that way" comment.
A short time after this phone call I journaled the following:
May 22nd, 2019
Closure. Without it, my mind continues to race and hold onto fear or inability to control, something.
So I held onto the Christland hurt and pain like a heavy balloon. But speaking my peace and forgiveness was needed.
The string loosens between my fingers.
And up it goes.
The weight lifts.
What's left is peace.
Peace and freedom to move forward.