For the entire story of why we left Harvest Bible Baby Church, please see the following posts: A Letter to My Friends at Our Former Church [this post] The Molehill that Became a Mountain The Feedback My Pastor Labelled "Possibly Aggressive" (or How NOT to Respond to Solicited Feedback) Our Resignation Letter to a Former Church... ... And Their Manipulative Response
Note: This was originally written in the summer of 2019, a few months after we left a former, toxic church, called “Harvest Bible Baby Church” in this post.
Dear Emily and Bethany,
I’ve been doing a lot of processing and reading in the last few months, both Scripture and other Christian literature. I have a burden to tell this story, but I also take seriously charges in Scripture to not gossip. So I pulled out Webster’s Dictionary. You know what it said? “Gossip – idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others.”
What?! Not, “anything remotely scandalous or less-than-positive”? Well, the sharing of a first-hand account is clearly not rumor. And the actions of a leader acting in a leadership capacity are hardly a personal or private affair. Paul himself listened to reports of negative happenings (1 Corinthians 1:11 and 5:1) and publicly called out Peter (Galatians 2:14). Are we engaging in gossip by reading the negative reports Paul wrote? Or John (3 John 9-10 and Revelation 3:1-3)?
I also take seriously the numerous encouragements to forgive. While this is definitely a process, I believe I am moving forward in forgiving. I have been praying for those involved in this story. It took a few weeks to come to a prayer that I felt was sincere without being a backhanded compliment sort of prayer: “I pray you help them love others well.” A few days later, it struck me that this is the same prayer I pray with the girls at night. “Jesus, thank you for loving us. We pray you help us love each other better and love you better, too.”
What I feel right now is not bitterness, but is instead a profound sadness.
Please allow me to backtrack. Before coming to Harvest Bible Baby Church, we had a less-than-positive experience at another local church, Mars Hill Baby Church. On the surface, MHBC and HBBC share many similarities. Both are members of church-planting networks, both are Reformed theologically (as is David), both are relatively new plants, both are elder-led, both have very strong and gifted speakers as lead pastors, both are “regional” churches, both emphasize small group ministries.
The breaking point for me to leave MHBC was a severe case of burnout coupled with the way leadership handled a financial crisis. After looking for a different local church, we ended up at HBBC. Fast forward a little over a year, and two other families from MHBC also turned up at HBBC. Both echoed our experiences of burnout. One had been lead deacon, the other had been an elder/pastor (MHBC uses the terms synonymously). We invited the former pastor to our home as a gesture of reconciliation, because we wanted to express that we held no hard feelings.
This former pastor’s story was both heartbreaking and affirming. Of the five pastors and pastors-in-training when we had left the church only two years ago, only two are left*, and none of those who left did so under “good” circumstances. Empathy for the anguish of these broken and hurting families and relationships was heartbreaking, but it was affirming for David and I to hear that the problems we’d thought we’d perceived were real all along.
Burnout was a problem the lead pastor of MHBC acknowledged multiple times was common in that church. In retrospect, I think one of the causes was a form of legalism. The “good” members (such as myself) attended Sundays and small groups regularly, attended discipleship or Bible studies, and served in at least one capacity in the church. But I realized that in all of this “doing” for God, I had zero prayer life, I did not read the Bible outside of what was required for Bible study, I was stressed and crabby with my family, and my spiritual well was dry. I had no time to simply enjoy God’s presence because I was so busy “doing” for the church.
Don’t get me wrong, all these things are good and noble. But turning them into a formula of “do this and you will feel more spiritual” or “do this and your relationships will improve” is just another way of having our salvation rely on acts of man and not on the gift of grace offered by Jesus (Galatians 2:21). It reduces our infinite God to a finite mathematical equation where we (not God) are in control (where as long as we put in the required work, God will put out the “promised” outcome).
So when you hear a senior pastor say from the pulpit “This is not optional!” about Prayer and Worship Nights, ask yourself where Jesus said that. If you read in the small group notes that you must sow seeds in order to reap a harvest, remind yourself that the parable of the sower does not show every sown seed bearing fruit. Nor does it actually show the sower being the one to harvest the fruit (Matthew 13, with a fascinating corollary in 1 Corinthians 3:4-9). If you hear anyone anywhere saying that the only good reasons for missing Sunday morning/small group/whatever is illness or being out-of-town, ask where their compassion is (Matthew 23:4). And if you read in small group leader notes that members should be encouraged to be in the Word at least 5x per week (again, being in the Word is good; making a specific mandate is bad), simply refer to Paul’s words: “Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3)
While my burnout occurred at MHBC, all of these examples are things that occurred within the last few months of our tenure at HBBC. Hence, my growing concern.
My concern was further fueled by two other things. First, Mark Driscoll had founded the Acts 29 network of which MHBC is a part of. His fall from grace occurred while we were at that church, just as James MacDonald’s fall from grace was occurring while we were at a Harvest Bible Fellowship plant (HBBC). The similarities in stories were just too eerie.
Secondly, HBBC had started monthly Prayer and Worship Nights and was calling the church to participate in a fast. From my perspective (which may be flawed), these two things seemed to be in the context of the search for a new building. While it was never stated in so many words, it felt as though the congregation was called to pray/worship/fast to seek a sign from God. And to me, that just felt too much like trying to force God’s hand into giving an answer. While I don’t think this was the intention of leadership, I was left with this feeling particularly after the season of fasting finished and there was no follow-up as to what the whole point of it was, and whether that purpose was ever accomplished.
All this to say, in spite of the concerns that were percolating, David and I had committed to stay at HBBC and make it work. We recognized that no church is a perfect church, just as no person (ourselves included) is a perfect person. I personally committed to working through my concerns and giving the benefit of the doubt to HBBC leadership.
I reached out to Pastor Associate and asked if he had any resources for people who had experienced church hurt. He sent a gracious response, with an offer to chat sometime and a couple of articles to read. One article was by a pastor who’d been hurt by a congregation, and he said it was roughly seven years before he felt he’d completely moved past the hurt. That gave me hope for the future and a willingness to wait out any cynicism.
(As a side note, the other article recommended being in the Word to help heal. Great advice, but I had to chuckle to myself when I read it. I’d just finished reading the book of Matthew, and what stood out to me was the number of times Jesus called out the church leaders of the day for un-Godly behavior. If the intent of the article was to help people trust church leadership, it should perhaps have been a little more specific in its recommended Scripture readings.)
Leading Up to Why We Left
In January, David and I met with Mr. and Mrs. Elder [ed. note – our small group leaders; he is also an elder in the church] to talk about small group options. The young-families format just wasn’t working for us as a couple [ed. note – husbands met one week, wives met the opposite weeks, family events were only rarely held]. We were hoping they’d either be open to trying family-friendly activities more frequently or have a recommendation as to a different group.
We were incredibly humbled by their receptiveness and response. “We think God is leading you to be small group leaders.” Mr. Elder even pulled up a calendar and mentioned April as a starting date at some point (we said this felt much too soon, and Mrs. Elder laughingly told Mr. Elder to give us some time to think about it). As we were saying goodbye, Mr. Elder was texting Pastor Associate to get us connected to him.
David and I were not sure we were ready to make this kind of commitment, but were willing to explore options. We talked with Pastor Associate and received similar levels of encouragement that “maybe God is telling you to lead a small group.” Like Mr. Elder, Pastor Associate also encouraged a start date of April (more than once). We went through leadership training and talked with a couple of families Pastor Associate connected us with about possibly leading a group, while also being open about our hesitations. In the meantime, Mr. Elder signed us up for an additional training, and Mrs. Elder asked if I would like to take on additional responsibilities in our current group as I “transitioned to leading [my] own small group.” (I declined, since we hadn’t even decided if we were going to lead.)
I think it is fair to say that we were being pressured.
Over the course of March and April, things with the new building purchase started to fall into place. David and I realized that HBBC was on its way to becoming a mega church. While we have nothing against mega churches (I became a believer through a mega church), we also know from personal experience that we experience more growth and community in small to mid-size churches (maybe part of the whole introvert thing). It also came out that Pastor Senior’s vision of church planting includes satellite campuses (“church planting in bubble wrap” were his words). While we wouldn’t call satellite campuses un-Biblical, per se, we do have certain philosophical differences with this method. We also weren’t sure if we wanted to commit to a church in XXX, a community 25 minutes away from our home to which we have no other ties and felt zero sense of personal calling.
David and I were having trouble coming to a decision. As I told more than one person, I honestly was not feeling up to the burden of hosting a weekly small group; but if leading one was the only way toward one that worked for our family, then I was willing to do it. I finally had the idea of committing for a year to both HBBC and leading a small group, and seeing how it went from there. David liked the idea and emailed Pastor Associate to let him know that we were on board and that we’d plan on a soft launch the first week of May (barely missing their wish of an April start date).
Pastor Associate emailed back that he and the Elders (Mr. and Mrs.) would have to meet with us before we started. He suggested we meet at our house. David and I assumed it would be to talk about logistics of a new group.
Why We Left
After having invited themselves to our house and eaten a meal I cooked for them, Mr. Elder opened the business part of the conversation with, “We’re wondering where your hearts are at.” He then turned his chair around to face me (I’d excused myself to the kitchen to fix Miss Bee a snack), addressed me directly, and asked if I was “willing to submit to leadership and training.”
I had no idea where his question was coming from. In fairness, I feel my answer was inadequate, since I was blindsided and distracted by Miss Bee and a bowl of oatmeal. I meant to say, “Yes, as long as it is not heavy-handed,” but am not sure I communicated that well.
Mr. Elder followed up saying that there was a “pattern of communications” that were “yellow flags” to him. As I tried to address the three specific incidents Mr. Elder mentioned (all of which David and I feel were inappropriate to characterize as “yellow flags”), my shocked husband broke in and said, “Actually, I’ve got the same concerns as Sarah.”
Tone of the conversation immediately changed. While there was no swearing or yelling (it was all very civil in that sense), there was a distinct lack of the fruits of the Spirit present. At one point, I used Queen Bee as an excuse to walk outside, broke down in tears, composed myself, and returned resolved to end the evening holding on to whatever shreds of dignity I could retain.
More information about the conversation are in the attached communications [ed. note – some posted here: https://www.whyhavewefasted.org/the-molehill-that-became-a-mountain/]. I realize this is only one side of the story and have no problem with you asking others who were present for their perspective.
Needless to say, by the end of the evening, we had all agreed that God was no longer telling David and I to lead a small group. The meeting wrapped up with Mr. Elder saying that he wanted to meet again with David /us in person to hear more about his/our concerns. After everyone left and we’d finally put the kids to bed, David and I agreed that we were simply done.
And given that Mr. Elder had just misrepresented (intentionally or not, I’m not sure) two things that he had said to me a few months prior, David and I no longer trusted to an in-person meeting. (See the attached communications [ed. note – some posted here: https://www.whyhavewefasted.org/the-molehill-that-became-a-mountain/] for details. We point out the inconsistencies to Mr. Elder in our May 3 email; he does not take opportunity to clear up any potential miscommunication in either response.)
A few days later, we emailed Mr. Elder and Pastor Associate (cc’ing Pastor Senior). We outlined our concerns and said that we would be leaving the church. To be fair, this was written while we were still in a place of hurt. We acknowledged this in the email and were intentional to offer multiple apologies, affirmations of gifting in leadership, and affirmations of things we appreciated and loved about the church. Mr. Elder emailed back that they’d received the email, were saddened, and would be taking time to process before responding more. We thought this an appropriate response.
When Mr. Elder sent a longer response about a week later, I literally laughed out loud with disbelief. Among other things, it was implied that David and I had sought out the position of small group leaders and were the ones behind the accelerated start date and that we had decided to leave the church to avoid following Matthew 18 (because we thought we had something to fear from church discipline?!).
The manipulation of details and the inaccurate reading into our motives was a clear affirmation that we made the right decision to leave the church. It took another month and a dozen drafts, but we finally wrote and sent a response that I felt was honest but gracious and that I would not be embarrassed if my mother happened to read someday. (We cc’d Pastor Senior on that email, too.)
It’s been nearly two months, and we haven’t received a response. From anyone.
So why am I writing now?
Because this kind of situation does not typically happen in a vacuum. Like the burnout I and other families experienced at MHBC. Like the situations with Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald. And what has come out via the HBBC Weekly email over the last couple of months has affirmed our decision to leave.
But, more importantly, I am writing because I love Jesus, I love His church, and I love my sisters and brothers in Christ.
In the days and weeks that followed the “can you submit to leadership” conversation, a few verses impressed themselves on my heart. These verses have been an amazing reminder to me to hope first in Christ, to seek joy first in Christ, to find healing first in Christ, and to trust first in Christ:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV)
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18, NIV)
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39, NIV)
It’s funny, but a bad experience at yet another church threw me right back into the arms of Jesus.
The simple truth is, I do not want to see other people hurt, whether you or your families, others in our small group, the Elders, the Associates, or the Seniors. And I think that any institution (sacred or secular) that cannot allow for civil yet honest disagreement between members is only going to cause a lot of people a world of hurt.
I finished reading the Jen Wilkin book [ed. note – we had been reading “None Like Him” in the women’s half of our small group], and the chapter on Omnipotence really struck me, particularly the section “Charisma as Power:” “We also grant power to those with charismatic personalities. Gifted with persuasive speech, humor, or the ability to cast a vision, they draw us in with their communication skills… They form networks of relationships they use to forward their causes. They may be those who seek political glory or those who seek pulpits… If you have the gift of a magnetic personality, you know how easily you can shift from motivation to manipulation… crosses the line from communicating truth to crowd pleasing or crowd-control… The rest of us must guard against following the cult of personality. Wanting to be in the entourage of someone we perceive as influential indicates a desire for collateral power.” (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/4-portraits-of-power-from-magazine-rack-near-you/)
One of the “yellow flags” Mr. Elder cited was an instance I would describe as Mr. Elder, in the face of evidence presented to the contrary, refusing to admit that Pastor Senior could possibly make a factual error from the pulpit, however minor. I find this worrisome in someone who is supposed to also hold leadership accountable. (This incident is described in more detail in the attached communications [ed. note – some described here].)
At the church we’ve ended up returning to (the church we attended prior to both HBBC and MHBC), there’s a gentleman, Mr. B, who loves Jesus and the church and has strong opinions that he does not always keep to himself. I told David during our first tenure there, “While I don’t want to be Mr. B, I’m glad to be at a church that still values Mr. B.” Well, I attempted to be a more diplomatic version of Mr. B at HBBC, and we ended up back at Sunny Church. (Mr. B is still there, too.)
If I am right about an increasing demand for performance metrics of people’s faith (i.e., a leaning toward legalism), where else does this lead except to either burnout and bitterness or a Pharisaical self-righteousness in both leaders and congregants?
Believe me, I’m a very goal-oriented person, I get the temptation of check lists and measurable outcomes and how good it feels to take pride in them. As individuals, we boast in how often we do quiet time, how much we serve at church, how often we talk about Jesus, etc. Again, these are all good things. But if we do these for the wrong motives (that is, to boast in the flesh), we will feel guilt when we don’t do them or self-righteous pride when we do accomplish them. These two feelings are certainly barometers for myself regarding my own motivations.
And what might this look like on an institutional level? Maybe something like tracking individual attendance records of both Sunday gatherings and small groups and encouraging (goading?) people to attend even more gatherings (like Prayer & Worship Nights)? Bragging comparisons about how much more doctrine is preached in this church’s sermons than that church’s sermons (I refer again to 1 Corinthians 3)? Maybe admonitions when offerings are not as high as leadership thinks they should be? [ed. note – these were all either topics of “Pastor Chats” in weekly emails or came up in sermons around the time we left]
This reminds me of something I read recently in a parenting book authored by Elisabeth Elliot’s great-grandfather: “The first lesson in the training of a child’s faith is the lesson that he is to have faith in God. Many a child is told to have faith in the power of prayer, or faith in the value of good conduct, without being shown that his faith should rest wholly and absolutely on God. He is told that he can hope to have whatever he prays for; and that if he is a good boy he can expect a blessing, while if he is a bad boy he cannot expect to be blessed. With this training the child’s faith is drawn away from God, and is led to rest on his personal conduct; whereas his faith ought to be trained to rest on the God to whom he prays, and in loving obedience to whom he strives to be good” (emphasis added). (H. Clay Trumbull, Hints on Child Training)
My heart aches for a church culture that vocally preaches grace and gospel but through its actions cannot rest on Christ’s words, “It is finished,” (John 19:30). Especially when mixed with a no-critiques allowed attitude. In this culture, even the leaders lose out. Entire elder boards resign, pastors are disgraced, and countless followers of Christ are harmed. (If you think I’m exaggerating, I have a few names for you to Google.)
What Do I Expect From You?
Nothing. I mean, if you’ve managed to make it all the way through this small novel, you’ve already exceeded whatever claims I may have on your friendship. If you have questions or even disagreement, I am very willing to chat.
Whatever you choose to do, if anything, after reading this is entirely up to you. I would hope we can continue in friendship but also respect if that’s just too awkward. You are reasonable adults and love Jesus; I trust that you’ll do what’s best for yourselves and your families.
Just so you’re aware, nothing I’ve said here should come as a surprise to Mr. Elder, Pastor Associate, or Pastor Senior, assuming they all read the communications we sent in their entirety. Everything I’ve said here that pertains to them or HBBC is something we’ve either already communicated or is in line with overarching concerns we’ve already communicated.
I feel as though this story is full of ironies, so I’ll wrap it up with one final irony. In David and my meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Elder back in January, while they were encouraging us to lead a small group, Mrs. Elder told me that I had the ability “to speak truth into situations.” I just don’t know what to make of that, anymore.
*About a year after this letter was originally written, the senior/founding pastor left the church to become a campus pastor at a multi-church out-of-state. Of the five pastors/pastors-in-training who had been at Mars Hill Baby Church when we left in December 2016, only one remained three years later. In September or October of 2020 (about 1.5 years after the founding pastor left, and in the midst of the covid pandemic), the remaining pastor announced that the church was closing its doors for good.
Updated February 3, 2023 – We returned to what we call in this post “Sunny Church” in the middle of a leadership transition. Unfortunately, the new senior pastor of the church quickly established a pattern of spiritually abusive tactics. It was frustrating and heartbreaking to witness. We came public with our story in January 2023. “Sunny Church” is Sun River Church of Rancho Cordova.