My wife and I were faithful members of Mars Hill Church including active in Community Group, Service Ministries, special events, etc. We were attending an ever increasing CG that would discuss often its need to split. My CG leader then approached me about considering becoming a leader. He informed me that I was already considered a ‘leader’ of sorts within the group. My wife and I prayed and sought wisdom in launching a group of our own. After lots of prayer and consideration we decided to answer the call for more leaders. I attended a few training sessions, completed some course material and lead a few CG sessions.
Then it came time for my pastoral interview. I met my CG leader and a campus pastor early one morning before work at a local coffee shop. Pastor X’s first question was, “How is the training going so far?” I proceeded to tell him things were going okay. I went onto say that I was very humbled by the opportunity to lead a community group but that in some ways I felt inexperienced and under-prepared. The pastor stopped me and started grilling me on why I felt that way. He then informed me that I was “not living up to my true potential and everything God has called me to be.” He went on “do you truly believe God calls people?” “I do” I said. “Well then you’re not living up to all that God has called you to be.” “Hmmm,” I thought, okay I imagine that’s true. The more I answered his questions, the more ammunition it seemed to provide him and the more he would grill me. I noticed he didn’t really have an agenda or any questions he was reading from and that his only agenda was to confront and attack any ‘sinfulness’ he sensed from my responses. At one point he stopped and said “I hope you don’t feel like I’m attacking you… because we do this to all of our leaders.” After an hour or more, the ‘interview’ was over and I had to leave for work. I left feeling confused and unsure of what had happened. My wife called to ask how it went, but I could only reply “I don’t know.” To this day, it is the strangest interview I have ever been to inside or outside the church.
That Sunday I asked my CG leader how things went. He would tell me that the pastor has some “concerns” about me and “why” I want to be a CG leader. He suspected I was doing it simply to ‘please’ man. I was thoroughly confused but then was reminded back to a conversation I had had with my CG leader months prior about trying not to please others. I decided to go home and send an email to the pastor asking for further clarification since I was not doing this to please MH. I also expressed a few concerns about how the interview was conducted. Because of this experience and other observations, I suspected MH believed in order to build men up, they must bully them and break them down. His reply came that he had perhaps misrepresented himself and that he wasn’t simply trying to “sin-hunt.” He asked if we could meet again to get on the same page – which I agreed to. A day later he says he needs to involve some more pastors for greater accountability. At this point I decided that perhaps getting further involved wasn’t the right move. When I tried to rescind my name from the training process and decline to meet further – I was accused of ‘running’ from community and my leaders who were trying to love me.
So to prove that we weren’t running, we agreed to meet. When we arrived a little early to our meeting, Pastor X got frantic and explained that it wasn’t possible until all parties were available. This was getting more bizarre and we began feeling more intimidated by all of this. What had I done? Hadn’t I just pointed out some concerns about their ‘training’ process? Wasn’t this an ‘open-handed’ issue? I knew they would probably disagree with my concerns but at least we could shake hands and agree to disagree. We were brought to their downstairs offices where we sat nervously making chit chat with our CG leader. Finally the door opens and both pastors usher us into this tiny office with 2 couches facing each other. The door locks behind us where we find ourselves in a room with black walls and a sword hanging above the couch opposite us. Pastor X sat back and let the new Pastor Y do all the talking. He quickly looked over my email and then sized us up by questioning us about attendance, serving, CG participation, etc. He then asked me what the issue was at which point I did my best to explain what problems I sensed with the training process. I expressed my concern about building leaders up by breaking them down and that it wasn’t good or healthy for us as a church. He looked at me and said “Then how would you do it?” After my concerns were quickly dismissed, the real purpose for the meeting could get underway. Pastor Y stopped for a second, looked at me intently and said “God is telling me that your real issue is pride. You have a pride problem that you need to deal with. You came in here with your fists up ready to fight didn’t you? Well you now have a chance to respond either in pride or humility – what’s it going to be?” He must have sensed that I was feeling intimidated, but with 2 pastors and my CG leader staring me down and grilling – I guess you could say I felt a little defensive. My CG leader chimed in with a laundry list of items where I had “failed” him both in the training process and outside of. Pastor Y repeated the question “will you respond in pride or humility?” Pastor X on the other side yelling “What’s Jesus saying! What’s Jesus saying!” I started to feel like I was suffocating or like a giant weight was crushing me. I finally broke. The tears start running and at once my wife and I and everyone else in the room was relieved that I had admitted my sin. We were convinced that my concerns were irrelevant because I was prideful… Everyone patted themselves on the back and we prayed together. But from the moment we left, I felt sick to my stomach like something wrong had just happened. What happened there was anything but kind or loving. To be sure, it was the scariest most divisive most manipulative experience I have ever been through. It was more of an interrogation than anything. But to answer their question: “yes” I am prideful and at times need repentance from it and will my whole life. But does that negate my concerns about their training process? Or perhaps these things really weren’t open-handed...
Later that week my CG leader calls trying to follow-up with an offer to provide assistance in repenting from my pride. When I declined his help, it only prompted more calls, emails and text messages. Things started to get even more awkward and uncomfortable at church. We decided to stay on the outskirts, find a new community group etc. They went as far as saying that I needed help in my repentance. Never mind the ministry and work of the Holy Spirit or verses like Philippians 1:6. What did they want from me? I imagined the only thing that would satisfy them was to lie before them and recant. We couldn’t believe what was happening. We started to suspect that the Lord may be leading us away from MH. But we didn’t want to accept it since all of our friends and some of our family attended here. This was our home. I demanded they stop harassing me, but it only persisted. Eventually I received an email from Pastor X entitled “Your Unrepentant Heart” in which he would inform me that I was being placed under church discipline. Pastor X even went so far as to tell me that even if I left and went to a new church it would follow me as “church discipline is binding in heaven.” By this point friends were avoiding and deserting us. We knew it was time to leave.
I could write much more about the painful trial that ensued but I prefer to make much more about how God faithfully protected and provided for us. Some days it’s still raw and I have to pray for the Lord's help in not growing bitter. Two years later we still receive disdainful glances from MH members who either know we left or find out we used to attend. I’m sure the pastors felt they were doing us a service, but they did so at the cost of abuse. I would later find out that what we went through is considered by some to be spiritual abuse.