MANIPULATION BY DESIGN
By Skyler T.
Manipulation by Design:
A staff member's inside story of how Network leaders introduced controlling practices to gain loyal followers
- Author: Skyler T. | Staff Member, Small Group Leader, Worship Team Member
- Attended: Vine Church, Carbondale, IL | 2002-2014
- This story was published February, 2022
Note: The section “Silencing the Demons” was co-written with my partner.
How to sum up my 13 years in The Network? How do I articulate the power this organization held over my life and the scope of its influence on who I became within it?
I’m reminded of a passage from Gulliver’s Travels where Gulliver was shipwrecked and alone in an unknown land. Exhausted, he stopped to rest. The tiny inhabitants of Lilliput crept upon him while he slept, and he woke to find himself bound in thousands of tiny threads.
Because of The Network and the methods of control Steve Morgan instituted within it, I know this story all too well. Like Gulliver, I entered as a refugee, shipwrecked from the circumstances of my own life, and found what seemed a peaceful place. The appearance of safety soothed me, and my mind rested from its worries. I let down my guard, and I slept.
I entered as a spiritual refugee and stayed on as a prisoner.
It took me many years to wake up, and when I did, I found I had allowed myself, like Gulliver, to be tied with cords such that I could not move. My social life, my career aspirations, my family decisions, my very income were at the mercy of my spiritual leaders.
I entered as a spiritual refugee and stayed on as a prisoner.
How I Found The Network
Not Your Grandma’s Church
I moved to Carbondale to attend Southern Illinois University in the summer of 2002. Vineyard Community Church (now Vine Church) was near campus, and I quickly found it more casual and friendly than the formal and stern churches I had grown up in.
At the time, Vineyard Community Church was experiencing tremendous year-over-year growth. Hundreds of new visitors seemingly showed up overnight. It was exciting, and the enthusiasm was contagious.
The more “charismatic” elements of the church were odd to me, but things were explained in such a matter-of-fact way that I accepted them as natural. At the “Hands-on Prayer Clinic,” for instance, I was taught to watch for “manifestations of the Holy Spirit” in the people I was praying for, such as their hands quivering or their eyes vibrating under their lids. I was taught that the random thoughts which popped into my head when I put my open palm on someone’s shoulder to pray for them could be messages directly from God.
Desperate for purpose and excited to be part of “what God was doing,” I buckled up and went along for the ride.
When I first met Scott Joseph (now lead pastor at High Rock Church in Bloomington, Indiana), he told me casually that I was “highlighted to him by the Holy Spirit” as someone he should meet. This seemed perfectly plausible in the context of a church where people would fall over weeping during worship and prayer time. I also accepted church planting, a new concept to me, as part of the dramatic shift of spiritual values I was undergoing. I watched in wonder as Ben Powers led a small team of young people who uprooted their lives to move to St. Louis to start City Lights Church.
Desperate for purpose and excited to be part of “what God was doing,” I buckled up and went along for the ride.
Further Up and Further In
Over the next few years, I was drawn more and more into the orbit of the Carbondale Vineyard. I knew Scott Joseph best. I attended his small group, helped him do yard work, met him often for lunch, and, in general, laughed a lot with him. In those days, Scott was a young man who brought a lot of fun and energy to his work. A clique grew around him, which inherited his sense of play and irreverent humor.
Each pastor had their clique with themselves as the center. People inside the cliques took on various mannerisms and quirks of their leader. This felt odd enough that I remember asking a few folks about this. The explanation I was given was that people become like their spiritual leaders and that this was a good thing, an expected thing. At the time, like so many things at the church, I accepted this as perfectly natural. I didn’t see then what I see now, that this was a warning sign of the cults of personality, which would eventually become codified around leaders, and that quirks of personality and opinion would become enforced behavioral control as The Network expanded.
I was jealous that I wasn’t part of Steve Morgan’s clique. He kept a handful of the type of insecure, confused young men, desperately in need of a parental figure, whom he favored. I wanted the attention he gave them, and it was evident from the way they jockeyed for position with each other for his attention that they wanted it, too. I’m thankful now, knowing in hindsight how he convinced most of them to empty themselves of their autonomy and become utterly obedient to him that I was never in this inner circle. I watched from the front row as this existence under his watchful eye eroded them, reduced them to gutted, hollowed-out shells.
I wanted the attention Steve Morgan gave the young men he kept in his inner circle, and it was evident from the way they jockeyed for position with each other for his attention that they wanted it, too.
The years passed quickly. I graduated from SIU. I became a member of the worship team. I got my first job in my chosen profession. Scott Joseph released me as a small group leader. I married my partner. Sándor Paull and his board hired me as support staff at Vine Church to do desktop publishing and handle church marketing. My partner and I began our family.
I was present for the major milestones of The Network between 2002 and 2014. Steve Morgan left with 50 people to Seattle to plant Blue Sky Church. Our churches exited The Vineyard Association, and we became a “No Account Network of Churches.” Women were banned from leading small groups and serving on the board and instead were exhorted to be submissive to their husbands.
The churches in The Network grew and expanded. As lead designer for Vine Church in Carbondale, I helped the pastors plan the themes for yearly, Network-wide summer conferences and our Carbondale church’s fall retreats (registration for these events would fill up within hours). I worked with young church planters to create the logos and branding packages for their churches: High Rock Church, Brookfield Church, Hills Church, Cedar Heights Church, and Rock Hills Church.
Though we claimed it was Jesus who was leading us through all the stages of the development of The Network, it was Steve who made the final call on what God was (or wasn’t) doing.
The Network seemed unstoppable. We were convinced we were on the Lord’s mission, bringing heaven to Earth. The general sentiment of the leadership (shared by me) was that God was doing a new thing, and he had chosen us to be his emissaries. It felt like a privilege and a responsibility, and importantly, it felt like the rules of other denominations didn’t apply to us. Governance procedures, expertise in church policy, and even the global Church's rich history seemed irrelevant. Why did pastors need seminary; why did His Church need the counsel of outside experts; why would we partner with other churches or Christian organizations? Why should we learn from them when God Himself led us, and Steve Morgan was our apostle? We weren’t allowed to use the term “apostle,” of course. Steve didn’t even like being called “pastor.” But “apostle” was what he was to all of us and still is to most people within The Network. Though we claimed it was Jesus who was leading us through all the stages of the development of The Network, it was Steve who made the final call on what God was (or wasn’t) doing.
And I believed it all, unquestioningly.
The further I was absorbed into the culture of The Network, the more difficult it became to tell the difference between who I was as an individual and who I was as a spiritual cog of the mystical machine we were building.
Why I left the Network
My story can’t be told without first explaining the concept of “relational leadership”. This was a phrase Steve Morgan coined, which meant “leadership based not on hierarchy but a relationship.” He taught that leaders should deeply know the people they were leading and that, rather than “lord it over” their followers, they should come alongside them as a friend.
To be a “relational leader” you should be involved in a person’s life. You should know their past, what they were currently “struggling” with, and what they were “really like.” The person being led would, in turn, know you loved them despite their faults and trust you to help them get closer to God.
I came to realize that “relational leadership” was just another word for “manipulation.”
I came to realize, as I will explain below, that “relational leadership” was just another word for “manipulation.” It was a system designed to manufacture loyalty and produce enmeshed relationships where it was difficult to tell where the leader's desires ended and what was best for the follower began.
Manufacturing Loyalty Through Supernatural Experiences
“God’s Calling” for Promotions
Steve Morgan spent his entire career as a pastor grooming young men to be utterly loyal to him. The ways which are the most appalling to me are the ones in which he orchestrated so-called “supernatural” phenomena to produce this loyalty.
Once groomed, these men rose through the organization's ranks, with the most loyal being promoted to ever higher positions. Steve would claim God himself was the one who “called” the leaders of the churches, but he was never clear on exactly how this calling took place, other than he “heard” or “felt a nudge” from God.
There was no transparency or criteria, for instance, on the process for choosing a pastor. At conferences and retreats, young men from Vine Church would be rounded up and presented by Sándor to Steve. Notably, the young men never knew they were being vetted for pastoral roles.
If Steve “discerned” that “what God had for them” was to be a pastor, the candidate would get a phone call for a meeting where Sándor would reveal that he and Steve “feel like God is calling you to be a pastor.”
On the other hand, if a prospective young man told one of the leaders they felt called to be a pastor, they were immediately disqualified and labeled “self-promoting.” They would have failed the test they didn’t even know they were taking. They were asked to “just stick around and see what God does.”
This practice of promotion-through-supernatural-discernment created a culture where every interaction with a small group leader or pastor had the subtext of an unspoken, mystical test.
This blatantly manipulative tactic kept young men in the church for years, always wondering if they would be “highlighted” by God for Steve to promote. The process was similar for small group leaders and board members, though Sándor was able to “discern” at this more local level. This promotion-through-supernatural-discernment created a culture where every interaction with a small group leader or pastor had the subtext of an unspoken, mystical test. Many young men were constantly sizing each other up, wondering if this could be when God highlighted them above their peers to their leader for promotion.
In this way, the story of the reluctant leader became commonplace. Each pastor had their version of how God had “wrecked their plans” and asked them to “give up everything” for the church. Behind the scenes, however, it was evident that these young men were dizzy with the knowledge that they had been “chosen” to lead, though they were not allowed to give voice to this feeling.
What was Steve looking for in these young men? What qualities and skills were in the job description? It seemed that the common thread, the “litmus test” for leadership, was unwavering loyalty to himself. It should be obvious that this culture produced leaders who were spiritually indebted to their leader, who was the gatekeeper to full-time ministry.
At Conferences and Retreats
Another way pastors in The Network produced loyalty in future leaders was to leverage supernatural phenomena at large events.
One of my earliest memories at Vineyard Church (now Vine Church) was a fall retreat at San Damiano where a large number of the crowd spontaneously began weeping, falling over, and writhing “in the power of the Holy Spirit.” I had never seen anything like it. Steve was in the front with the microphone, coaching us on what was about to happen. He said God was among us, changing us with the power of his presence. To this day, I don’t know how much of it was produced by the expectation set by the leaders during the run-up to the event, saying that God was going to “show up” at the retreat.
I still remember later in the service Steve Morgan on the floor proclaiming to a collapsed young man all the things God was going to do with him while the young man wailed in religious fervor. That young man is still in The Network, nearly twenty years later, as a worship leader in one of the churches.
Once I was on staff, I saw just how orchestrated these “spontaneous” events were.
However once I was on staff, I saw just how orchestrated these “spontaneous” events were. I realized the “most trusted” leaders would stand in the back of the room at these events like vultures, waiting for signs that the young people they were targeting were susceptible to their manipulation. Often Steve would begin praying as the person started convulsing, and with his eyes, he would motion for another pastor, one whom Steve wanted the target to be loyal to, to come finish the prayer. In this way, Steve would instill in the target that supernatural power was associated with their leader.
THROUGH EXORCISMS AND INNER HEALING
Similarly, Exorcisms, labeled “inner healing” or “deliverance sessions,” were likewise leveraged to create loyalty between leader and follower.
“Inner healing” was a focused set of prayer sessions for “future leaders” whom pastors within The Network wanted “delivered from demonic oppression” so they would be more effective at leading. These sessions were typically reserved for future pastors, “very effective” small group leaders, and “key” people preparing to go on church plant teams. I personally participated in these exorcism sessions, which took place once a week for anywhere from a month to multiple months. I wasn’t a recipient for extended sessions, but I sat in on a few sessions to help pray.
In the sessions, the recipient would share harrowing stories from their past, such as their shameful secrets or abuse they had experienced. The facilitators of the session would probe, continually asking for more. The dialogue would run thus:
Anything else? Anything that would be difficult to tell us... something the enemy might be holding over your head... it would likely be the thing that is in your head that you really don’t want to say to us out loud because of the lies the enemy is telling you… remember, you aren’t telling it to us; you are telling it to Jesus... go ahead....
And the victim would continue to unearth their trauma. If they shared something they had done, they would “confess” it aloud, and the pastors would “speak Jesus’ forgiveness” over that thing. If it was done to them, then the pastor would say something like, “Jesus was there, he saw that, and he is part of that portion of your life as well. He loved you through that ordeal.” The pastors would persist, doing rounds of this until the person spilled everything. After these confessions, the team praying would begin to pray away any “demonic hold the enemy had” over those incidents and memories. Sometimes this portion of the session would take a long time, and sometimes the person would convulse, double over, cry, scream. This behavior in the victim was called “manifesting” because, the pastors believed, it proved the demons were fighting back, though I believe the victim was responding physically to reliving their traumatic memories.
The people I knew who went through "inner healing" were wrecked psychologically during and after the process.
The people I knew who went through this were wrecked psychologically during and after the process. None of us had the language to describe what they were experiencing, but I would now interpret their symptoms as nervous breakdowns and panic attacks. The pastors and group leaders would call this “enemy attack” and tell them to read and pray and trust the process because Jesus would free them. One person I know said they could barely leave the house during these months of “inner healing” sessions.
None of us were mandated reporters, nor was this information necessarily privileged. We were free to talk about it with pastors and other group leaders who “needed to know.” We, the pray-ers, shared absolutely no personal information about ourselves while the victim poured out their most awful, horrible memories. And I can confirm that when the person changed small groups or Discipleship Communities in the years that followed these “inner healing” sessions, pieces of this information were shared with the future leaders.
A professional therapist would take years to help a person process trauma like this and equip them with tools to heal without experiencing a breakdown. What we did was akin to having a high school biology teacher perform open-heart surgery.
I was involved in some of these sessions because I was the person’s group leader and the pastors thought I should be there, so the inner healing recipient “saw me as their leader.” It was about establishing hierarchy. They were reinforcing that “healing” flowed from a person’s leader. These leaders had witnessed from years of doing this how close the bond became between the victim and the leaders who were praying for them during these intense sessions.
All of these supernatural phenomena were leveraged like all other interactions: they were optimized to create loyalty in the victim.
Through Silencing All Criticism
And, once loyalty was produced, people who had been promoted were coached to refuse to listen to criticisms of their leader. Followers were to protect and guard their leader and taught to label even legitimate complaints as “sinful gossip.” I personally heard Steve Morgan tell leaders that the Bible forbids them to listen to criticisms about the church's leaders. I know of multiple instances where leaders like Greg Darling and Mike Stephens plugged their ears in a meeting with a church member because they believed the Bible forbade them from hearing an ill word about another pastor.
These tactics created an atmosphere where the chosen few who were targeted for leadership inhabited a bubble where Steve Morgan was the very voice of God, and all other voices were silenced.
In full disclosure, I was a true believer. I was wholly convinced this system was right and good. It took years before I questioned it, even though I knew how orchestrated it was behind the scenes.
Manufacturing Loyalty Through Spiritual Abuse and Manipulation
By Starving What They Didn’t Want
I could write unending pages about all the red flags I foolishly ignored. Of the concerns which small group members brought to me which I deflected. Of the increasingly controlling behavior of the pastors I defended.
I held the party line: get on board with “what God was doing”, or get out of the way.
None of us on staff worded the mantra in quite that way. Still, with every “I’m sorry that hurt you” or “last time we were together, I noticed that you…” or “that doesn’t feel like us,” we were codifying what was acceptable and what was unacceptable behavior. Aaron Kuhnert parroted Steve Morgan’s epithet at Group Leader Training, “feed what you want, starve what you don’t.” This phrase meant we were to withhold time and attention to those who were not contributing to our small groups’ (and the church’s) growth. Steve doubled down on this mindset in some of his writings at the time (see the Planting Healthy Churches documents).
Failure to conform would result in soft ostracization (just enough so the person would feel they were out of favor and would make corrections to restore themselves). If the soft ostracization didn’t work, we would label people “not a fit” or “unleadable.” These people were then ignored until they wandered away. Or a pastor would tell them, “this isn’t the church for you.”
Day by day this culture of conformity whittled us into crude approximations of our leaders–our unique senses of humors, vibrant interests, and distinct personalities removed one slice at a time.
Missing a team meeting, dating someone whom the pastors didn’t think was your chosen spouse, being “too busy” with your children’s extracurricular activities (and not busy enough in the church), or even being involved with Christian organizations outside of The Network could leave you on the outside. I witnessed many members of Vine Church experience this soft ostracization from their pastor or group leader. Most often, it was about behavioral control, not actual sin.
The office block was fairly open at Vine Church, and I could overhear from the pastors’ conversations which people in the church didn’t “have our values” and were being passed over.
Those of us who could survive in a culture where we were constantly being scrutinized hung on. Over time we became more homogenized into this increasingly insular world. Day by day this culture of conformity whittled us into crude approximations of our leaders–our unique senses of humors, vibrant interests, and distinct personalities removed one slice at a time.
Why did so many of us stay when it was clear we were becoming shadows of our former selves? I believe we just so needed to be accepted somewhere that the promise of belonging, and the threat of losing that belonging, was enough to keep us striving to conform to these fickle and inconstant expectations.
We needed to be needed, and were willing to become whatever our leaders wanted us to become to get a dose of that feeling.
By Filing Off the Edges
Steve Morgan had strong opinions on how believers should look and act. He was very keen for the members, leaders, and staff to not look or act “edgy.” He used the word “winsome” a lot to describe the “feel” we should have and encouraged us to strive for “quality.” He prophesied that God wanted the “cream of the crop” at our churches, and our job was to go out into the community and “win” them. I cringe now to think about how we would describe weekend service graphics, music production, or even human interactions as being “so quality,” and how we would coach members to exude “winsomeness.”
“Winsome” and “quality” extended to all manner of how we presented ourselves and lived our lives. At conferences and retreats, Steve would get specific in his teachings with pet topics he currently saw as “issues” within the churches. Inevitably there would be some behavior he felt was his duty to correct.
Tattoos, for instance, would detract from the “American Apple Pie” look he wanted his leaders to have, and Steve discouraged them in the most robust language he could muster (even sharing stories of someone he had hired at Blue Sky who had allegedly become demonized by the tattoos he had received). He also warned against growing beards or having piercings for similar reasons. He said he cringed when he watched church members with tattooed arms praying for people during prayer times after weekend services.
Steve Morgan prophesied that God wanted the “cream of the crop” at our churches, and our job was to go out into the community and “win” them.
In Seattle, marijuana became legal, and Steve fixated on people not smoking it. It became such a hot-button topic within The Network because of Steve that Sándor Paull, then lead pastor at Vine Church in Carbondale, started speaking out against medical uses of the drug. The theological arguments for this ban were slim at best. The issue was never about sin; it was about what these behaviors looked like. It was about appearances, just like the issue with tattoos.
In addition to these pet topics, there were countless other more mundane appeals for a “winsome” life. We were instructed on how to act with outsiders to maximize our interactions so we could “earn” an opportunity to invite them to church services, how to best prepare our homes to host mandatory Small Group meetings, how to spot the most influential, winsome, “quality people” in a crowd and wedge ourselves into their inner circles.
“Quality people” who were “won over” to the church were held up as examples to attract other “quality people.” It’s hard in retrospect to describe what was meant by a “quality” person, but in general, it meant someone who was “well put together.” They were non-controversial, dressed in suburban, middle-class clothing, were reasonably fit, and had nice smiles. They were also overwhelmingly white and had no obvious physical ailments.
To attract them we were encouraged to listen to radio hits and watch popular broadcast sitcoms so we would have “relevant” things in common to talk about. When we found a group of such people we were instructed to identify the leader of the group, the person they all seemed to be looking to for direction. These people were the future leaders we were to invite to our “outward focused” gatherings. If we could win that one, we were told, the rest would follow.
We were instructed on how to act with outsiders to maximize our interactions so we could “earn” an opportunity to invite them to church services, how to best prepare our homes to host mandatory Small Group meetings, how to spot the most influential, winsome, “quality people” in a crowd and wedge ourselves into their inner circles.
People who “weren’t quality”, on the other hand, didn’t blend in to the “mainstream” culture in some way. Perhaps they dressed shabbily or had niche interests. They may have held unpopular opinions, or be outspoken about social justice.
We were told “people replicate themselves, so make sure you invite what you want more of.” The subject was frequently brought up in Group Leader Trainings, conference breakout sessions, and team meetings. I remember once during a Vine staff meeting when the pastors were discussing whether or not executive pastor Greg Darling’s interests in broadway musicals and fly fishing made him an “oddball” or just “mildly eclectic.” Some of this conversation was in jest, but I saw real fear in some of the younger pastors’ faces as they went through a mental rolodex of any behavior they participated in which might put their “quality” label in jeopardy.
How the Spell was Broken
Silencing the demons
My partner came to the above realizations much earlier than I did. For years she had been bewildered, confused, and angered by network teachings and practices. On top of this my growing loyalty to the church came at the expense of our relationship. The more she and I disagreed over my involvement the tighter I clung to The Network.
I believed, as Steve Morgan and so many others had taught me, that men had spiritual authority over their spouses. My partner and I were to be of “one mind”, and if we disagreed I had the responsibility to force the issue and “lead my wife” into having the same thoughts I had. Her spiritual health was a reflection on my own masculinity, and her lack of zeal for “the mission” was a source of shame to me in my conversations with my fellow staff members. This shame, induced by the toxic brand of complementarianism espoused by The Network, led me to suffocate and crush my partner, stripping her of her autonomy and agency in accordance with my leaders’ doctrine. Meanwhile, believing her resistance was “enemy attack” meant to distract me from “the mission”, I doubled down with my involvement in the church, believing God would bless me through my diligent obedience and deliver her from her “oppression.” To this end I worked long hours at the church, read the Bible cover to cover five times, volunteered with the worship band at a never ending parade of events, held small group meetings in our house for years without taking breaks, and focused on “being of one mind” with my leaders. Encouraged by frequent asides in Sándor’s sermons in which he talked about how our children can be “distractions” from “this mission”, I didn’t slow down my participation even after our daughters were born. I left her mostly alone to care for them while I became increasingly absorbed into the organization.
I believed the Network doctrine that my partner and I were to be of “one mind”, and if we disagreed I had the responsibility to force the issue and “lead my wife” into having the same thoughts I had.
I was told by several pastors over the years that they believed my partner’s anger at their teaching was influenced by demonic forces, and I believed them. One pastor even set up “inner healing” sessions for her with his wife and Sándor’s mother. My partner was expected to find whatever life circumstances had caused her “demonic oppression.” After a couple months of weekly sessions no demons were found and the inner healing regimen fizzled out. My partner’s opinion on the abuses she was witnessing within Vine Church did not change, but she internalized her frustration and anger, outwardly conforming to our leaders’ expectations.
I caused much harm by trapping my partner in this environment for a decade where she wasn’t valued and her voice was silenced. I participated in spiritual abuse and gaslighting by trying to convince her that her feelings came from evil spiritual forces rather than from her accurate assessment of the toxic organization I had committed myself to.
It wasn’t until the very end of our time there that I at last began to hear what she had been telling me from the beginning. The “evidence” of her “demonic oppression” lifted when I finally started treating her as a person and accepted what she had to say about the culture of The Network. Healing came when we moved away from Carbondale and began acting on the counsel of licensed therapists.
And I realized her inner voice was the one she should have trusted all along. It was the chorus of other voices, including mine, which belonged to devils.
Watching the pastors devour one of their own
The final straw for me came when my Discipleship Community pastor Dan and his wife were publicly humiliated by Sándor Paull in front of every small group leader and overseer in the church (which at that time would have numbered around 100 people).
Dan’s wife was a doula and worked with pregnant women to help them during childbirth. She was part of a loosely affiliated group of doulas from Southern Illinois, many of which also attended Vine Church. At one point, some of the women who hired these doulas requested “placental encapsulation” as part of their birth plans. Placental encapsulation is the homeopathic practice of converting the placenta into dietary supplements, which the mother would take in the weeks following childbirth to restore nutrients to the body. The process required working with a doctor and an outside agency to process the woman’s placenta to create supplements that could be taken orally. Though she wasn’t actively recommending the practice to new mothers, Dan’s wife would support them if they decided they wanted it as part of their care.
Lead pastor Sándor Paull told all of us at our staff meeting that he had talked to Steve Morgan and that Steve had said the practice was an abomination. Sándor told us he was ready to crack down on the doulas for allowing such behavior, and Greg Darling cited Deuteronomy 28:53-55, which he said proved this practice was vile and evil.
I spoke up at the staff meeting, saying the verses were unconvincing. I told the group my thinking at the time, which was that religious leaders often drew attention to ethical concerns with emerging practices (as in the case of cloning or using stem cells to grow organs). If a pastor raised ethical concerns, those concerns should be weighed seriously, but I voiced my opinion that the evidence they had provided wasn’t definitive.
It became obvious to me that the heart of the issue wasn’t theological, but rather about managing others’ perceptions. Steve and Sándor did not want outsiders to know that people within the church were taking part in this homeopathic remedy which they didn't consider "quality".
As we continued to discuss it as a group, it became obvious to me that the heart of the issue wasn’t theological, but rather about managing others’ perceptions. Steve and Sándor did not want outsiders to know that people within the church were taking part in this homeopathic remedy. They were concerned we would get a bad reputation among the local medical professionals who represented a large portion of the upper class community in Carbondale. They didn’t say this in so many words, but many of their justifications included their worry over what the “quality” medical community would think.
I realized by the tone and tenor of the staff meeting that this wasn’t to be a discussion. Steve had told Sándor to publicly condemn the doulas, and his mind was made up. At no point did Sándor seek to understand the practice or learn more about it from the members of his congregation before taking his next steps.
Sándor then proceeded to humiliate the doulas publicly at a retreat and at a leaders meeting (where several doulas were present), “teaching” the group about how this was a cannibalistic practice which was unacceptable for any member of the church. Husbands were exhorted to “protect their wives” from such perversion. Though the focus remained on the practice of placental encapsulation, the implication was that the doulas represented a menace, a gateway into all manner of despicable activities.
This was a top-down mandate, and no recourse was given to any doulas or the handful of women currently taking these supplements. One of the women who had encapsulated her placenta was in our small group at the time, and she came to my partner and me with her husband, concerned that she had unknowingly committed a grievous sin. We did not enforce the ban, and told her the Bible verses used to justify the condemnation were unconvincing.
We encouraged her to do what she felt was right with her own body.
I Knew I Was Next
My eyes were opened to how quickly the full weight of my leaders’ displeasure could unexpectedly be turned on a trusted member of the church. I suspected I would soon run afoul of one of Steve’s mandates and knew I would be treated with the same callousness as my pastor Dan and his wife.
At that time, my partner and I were homeschooling our children, and I had heard several comments from Steve Morgan over the previous few years about how he believed all children should be in public school (so the parents could be “in the community” inviting other parents to Network churches). Sándor also began making public comments disparaging homeschooling frequently enough to prompt a prominent homeschooling family to reach out to me to get my thoughts on what was being said. Additionally, staff pastor Greg Darling told me he had instructed his wife to stop homeschooling their children (something they had been doing for a decade), citing many of the exact phrases Steve had used. All signs were pointing to this becoming an issue for my family.
I grieved because Greg had bought into Steve’s toxic teaching that to be led by someone was to conform absolutely to their way of thinking.
By the fall of 2014 I had stepped down as a staff member at Vine Church, but our family was still attending weekend services. Anyone who was paying attention would be able to tell we wouldn’t be around much longer. Greg Darling noticed and called me one afternoon saying he wanted to come to our home and tell us his thoughts. When he arrived, he proceeded to relate to us a prophetic dream he had had which he claimed meant we were, to use his phrase, “one of us.”
We were all sad, but for different reasons.
I believe Greg grieved because he knew that if we left The Network he would be forced to cut us out of his life. We had known him since his very earliest days at Vine. His first reprimand from Steve and Sándor was because Greg had “allowed us” to go on a mission trip the summer he started and “deprived the church” of “key leaders.” He had officiated our wedding. We had watched his children grow up for ten years.
I grieved because I had witnessed what The Network had done to Greg, what he had transformed himself into. Every day he was becoming more and more an enabler for the awful practices which robbed people of their agency. He had bought into Steve’s toxic teaching that to be led by someone was to conform absolutely to their way of thinking.
I knew as I stood there that looking at Greg was looking into my own future. That I would become him if I stayed.
Life Since Leaving The Network
Pulling the thread
I first joined The Network because I was pulling a thread.
Something inside me resonated with “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” I wanted to make the world, and myself, better. I wanted a purpose. Belonging. Acceptance.
But I lost that thread along the way.
I eventually realized the thing I helped build could not be described as true, or noble, or pure, or lovely, or admirable. It was the opposite of those things. It was false, petty, abusive, ugly, and contemptible. And so was I, for staying in it.
I realized the thing I helped build could not be described as true, or noble, or pure, or lovely, or admirable. It was the opposite of those things. It was false, petty, abusive, ugly, and contemptible. And so was I, for staying in it.
As I wrote at the beginning of this story, my social life, my career aspirations, my family decisions, my very income were at the mercy of my spiritual leaders within this organization. My relationships were so enmeshed, and my mind was so clouded from over a decade in this oppressive, spiritually abusive environment that it took considerable work to get out.
I’m so fortunate I found that thread again before the end. I grasped it with both hands, praying I had the strength to haul myself out with it before it snapped forever.
Though I still have good days and bad days in my recovery, every aspect of my life has been better since leaving. Relationships are more genuine. I’m a better listener. My thinking is less rigid and stifling. I see other people as individuals with hopes and dreams and ambitions of their own, not as resources I need to win to build a machine for Steve Morgan.
I am incredibly thankful for not raising my children in that environment. As I watch them grow and see their talents emerge, I am occasionally reminded of how narrowly they avoided a lifetime of indoctrination, how they would have been identified as “future leaders” and groomed to serve The Network. Now, they are free to become whoever they wish to become without the shame and conformity The Network would have instilled in them.
I believe now that every person’s autonomy is sacred and that to dominate others is to hate them.
I believe now that every person’s autonomy is sacred and that to dominate others is to hate them. May all who have clawed their way out of The Network find a fulfilled and meaningful life, wherever their journey takes them.
One last thing I’d like to say: Therapy was invaluable in unraveling all the systemic, spiritually abusive behavior I have endured. If you have left The Network and, like me, have lingering PTSD-like symptoms or depression, I highly recommend a licensed therapist, preferably one who has worked with patients who have suffered spiritual abuse.