Disclaimer: To protect my family and myself, I am not using names, and I’m purposefully obscuring certain details. I cannot confirm them privately, either. These are well-known people in Christian circles who I still believe are doing helpful things, despite the terror behind closed doors. I must be careful here, because 1) they would absolutely crucify me if they saw this post, and 2) they could also deny having ever met me, despite email correspondences and recorded conversations. But I have to speak up.
I want to tell you about my most horrifying church experience ever, because it began so ordinary and subtle, and I want to protect you from the nightmare I eventually woke up to.
I know there must be so many more terrible experiences at church and mine is not nearly the worst, yet I hope you’ll know that not every horror story about church happens in a cult of backwood druids sacrificing goats to chanting. It can happen in the most mundane sort of atmosphere with a slowly tightening chokehold, until it’s too late.
Years ago, I befriended the lead pastor of a church ministry that was doing amazing things in the community and we first became friends over the phone. The pastor explained that every church in America was doing it wrong. This really appealed to my discontent about the church culture, and our phone calls were filled with tons of encouragement and positive affirmation over my “gifts, talent, treasures, insights and abilities given by God.” Whenever I spoke bad about my own church, the lead pastor agreed as loudly as possible.
In the first few months, he offered me a position at his ministry, but I was obligated to my current church. However, I was still able to visit. I was completely seduced by the way he and his team did ministry. Their preaching was fun, their services were boisterous, their praise team was incredible and they knew every single family by name. They were well-respected by the community and they were funded completely by other churches and individuals from all over the world. All the while, they were saying, “We do it better than the other guys,” and their website sold tons of church curriculum. I even bought some.
One thing I noticed right away is that these guys constantly agreed with one another about everything, both in public and private. They never, ever disagreed on theology, ministry or even their preferences.
I found this a little strange since even the best of friends disagree sometimes, so I anonymously messaged their blog, “What happens when your staff disagrees or when you guys get it wrong?” A few weeks later, one of their team members answered, “We never disagree and we never get it wrong.” I was a bit puzzled, but I put this behind me quickly.
I was also a little troubled by their constant disregard for other ministries, especially megachurches and Christian authors. The lead pastor spoke a lot about grace in his sermons, but behind closed doors, he was constantly saying, “Those megachurches don’t care about the poor and won’t give me money,” and “Those bestsellers you like are all s__t.” Once they invited a megachurch praise team into their own church, and when the megachurch wouldn’t buy some of the curriculum, one of the church staff said, “What is wrong with them? They like their Starbucks more than Jesus.”
I attended a few Bible Studies and the lead pastor would read something he wrote, and then ask, “What do you think about that?” His staff would answer quickly and the lead pastor would light them up with compliments. No one ever disagreed. Soon when it came to my turn, I found myself answering in a way that would please the lead pastor. I was afraid to say something stupid or misaligned with their theology. I remember sweating and shaking while I answered their questions.
The crazy thing is, the lead pastor would affirm my answers and I felt great, like I had suddenly unlocked Christianity, and the thousands of years of church history were all wrong. It felt so amazing to have the Secret-Sauce that no one else had. I was intoxicated with being on the inside, of having the keys to the club, bumping chests with the boys. Finally, I had made it to the inner-ring.
I stayed oblivious. I really loved these guys, and I still do.
About a year later, I was highly involved with the ministry. But those little things I was able to ignore couldn’t remain silent. I felt increasingly anxious around them, like I always had to say the right things according to their view of church, or else I was an idiot. So I wrote the lead pastor about a minor disagreement I had with him. I made sure to show the letter to both my mom and to two friends, to see if I was being fair and gracious. I reworded it several times to ensure I was making a suggestion, not a rebuke.
That night at 3 a.m., I woke up to a phone call. For the next 42 minutes, the lead pastor yelled and cursed and demanded my apology. I hardly spoke. He dropped the f-bomb at me about 10 times. He also started cussing out other pastors and his own staff and then saying, “I’m telling you this because I love you, man,” and then back to cussing. I don’t have a problem with curse words: but they were directed at others, namely me. I offered to write a letter that recanted all I said, and he said, “Yeah you damn well better,” and after the phone call, I contacted the entire staff to apologize.
Some of the staff tried to contact me, but the lead pastor refused any more dialogue. In a six-page letter, the lead pastor told me why I was no longer fit for his ministry, that I would immediately withdraw from any of his activities, why my fiance was incompetent, and why I was just a “nobody pastor from a nobody town who didn’t know nothing.” Also, this was on my birthday. I was absolutely devastated. I apologized again and I made zero excuses. He said, “We’ll work together one day when this all clears.”
I never heard from him or his staff again.