On Leaving "Well"

Disclaimer: I am not the authority on the experience of leaving Morning Star Church. HARDLY. There are many people who have gone before me and many who will come behind, and each and every one of us has a different "leaving story." This experience is different for every one of us and I will never pretend I know it all or have all the answers.The things I share below are of course heavily drawn from my experience. You are not me. If anything below doesn't match what you are going through, throw it out. We're all individuals with unique histories, stories and relationships at MSC. These are just some things that have been helpful for me to recognize, walk through and talk about. My hope is that maybe they'll help you a little bit too. 

Let’s just get this out of the way: There is no way to leave Morning Star Church well.

This does not mean that you cannot leave graciously, honoring God, Pastors Stephen & Mary and Leadership where/if appropriate, your friends and potentially family members for who they have been to you and how God has used them. To the best that you can given your situation, and every situation is painfully unique, leave well. Honor God. You will not do it perfectly, no one has and no one will, but choosing to walk out with integrity and character will mark you. This is who I am and this is how I choose to handle hard situations. I will not let their ungodly behavior dictate how I behave. 

What this does mean is that your honorable heart and actions most likely will not be received by Pastors Stephen & Mary Foster and Leadership with the same honor and grace, and most certainly will not be reciprocated. Most likely there will be a strong, potentially vicious reaction.

It is important to recognize that this is an incredibly unhealthy reaction on their part. This reaction is a key red flag and should help affirm your departure. You made the right decision. This reaction is not a reflection on you, of your choices, of your heart, of your walk with the Lord, of your handling of the situation. They may not receive your decision graciously, but this does not mean you have dishonored God.

Yes, this is painful. On one hand, it’s actually not personal because they do it to every person who makes a decision to no longer allow themselves to be controlled by Stephen Foster & Company… yet, it is excruciatingly personal. You are going to have emotions and reactions to their response. This is okay. Do not stuff your emotions. Having a reaction to their hurtful behavior is not wrong, but do your best to react safely with healthy and trusted people in your life who love you.

Side note, it is not wrong to respond to Stephen Foster and church leaders. If the Lord puts that on your heart, trust what He is saying to you, but proceed with wisdom. Respond, but don't react. There's a difference. Take a lot of time if possible before you respond. Talk with those trusted family and friends, and make sure your motivations are in the right place. And standing up for yourself is NOT a wrong motivation. Don't let MSC's years of indoctrination make you feel like you can't speak on behalf of yourself or friends that have been wronged. It's important to speak the truth, but stay in love, stay in grace and don't allow their anger to ratchet up anger in you. Righteous anger is completely appropriate, but be marked with grace and truth. He is using all of us and He is using us in different ways. You can trust what He is saying to you in this.

When I left, I had a really hard time dealing with the the need I felt to explain myself to people, and also to defend myself. I desperately wanted to explain. But I couldn't. That was not an option I had, and it was extremely difficult to walk through, but not speaking for a period ended up being one of the best things. I listened to this on repeat for weeks. And this. And this. 

There may be a time for explanations for a select few, but you do not owe anyone an explanation. Speak out in whatever way He is telling you to speak, if He does, but you do not need to defend yourself. To anyone. Period.

Give yourself a lot of grace in the first few days, weeks, months. This is really hard. It’s exhausting in every possible way. It. Is. The. Worst. If you say or do something in the heat or emotion of a moment, whether from anger or sadness or feeling rejected or betrayed… it’s okay. Forgive yourself and be done with it. You are not a perfect human being and God is not expecting a flawless performance from you. This is not a performance. You are not being graded on your ability to exit a terrible church environment perfectly. No one does this perfectly.

Stay close to Him. Keep your heart connected with His heart. Let Him steady you when you need to be steadied, which will be A LOT. If He shows you how to do something differently, do it differently the next time, but don’t overreact at yourself. Do not attack yourself. They’ve been doing it to you for years, don’t let them do it to you now.

MSC is such a performance-driven, image-conscious environment, you may not even realize the pressure you have been conditioned to put on yourself to handle everything perfectly without making a single mistake, as if anyone is capable of that kind of living. Be kind to yourself. This situation is so far beyond anything anyone should ever have to go through. No one gets lessons for this stuff. It’s straight up madness. Breathe. 

Which brings me to two important points. 

#1: Recognize what's going to happen. Recognize that Stephen Foster/MSC are going to  r e a c t to your decision, and that it's going to hurt.

It often begins with private --> public disparaging, with varying levels of harshness depending on your former role, relationship and history with Stephen Foster/MSC. Honestly, it's such an overreaction on their part, but it's horribly effective. 

It can sound or look like...

  • “____ is not in the will of God”
  • “____ is given over to their flesh/their own agenda”
  • “____ had ____ sin in their life and could not get a breakthrough as much as we worked with them and worked with them and contended and laid down our very lives for their freedom”
  • “____ was so offended and rebellious that the Lord drove them out
  • dragging out of personal stories and situations about ____, details that were shared with trusted leaders in confidence and then twisted for the church's use to scare and control remaining church members
  • manipulation of friends and family members against you
  • ETC

Hopefully none of these things happen to you or are said about you. I sincerely pray no one has to experience any of these things going forward, but we all know that at least a few of them happen to the vast majority of people who leave MSC, unless it's a unique situation where Stephen cares more about maintaining his image with the person/family or his control of the person/family that he blesses their exit. Unfortunately, most people are shoved through Door #1, not escorted with kid gloves through Door #2.

In the midst of all of this, typically the shunning begins. Again, depending on your role, relationship and history with Stephen Foster/MSC, this can look different. This is a pattern in spiritually abusive churches. It can be anything from blessing your exit but secretly watching you/your relationships with people, to heavily monitoring you/your relationships through people you are close to still at the church, to full blown "You are cut off." At its worst, no one in the church will speak to or acknowledge you in person. Your phone calls will not be picked up. Your texts messages will go unreturned. You will be unfriended/unfollowed and even blocked on every social media platform imaginable by most people, especially those most under Stephen Foster's control.

I'm not writing all of this to cause pain. I have been through enough pain. If you're reading this, you have definitely been through enough pain. But it's so important to talk about because this script is one of the main scripts that Stephen Foster follows. It's his trademark reaction, and saying these words out loud, while it does not make it better when it happens to you, it does help give language to the experience. Language helps. It does not make it better but it helps.

Which brings me to point #2, one I have come to consider crucial to my own journey. 

#2: Even if you know all of these things are going to happen to you, this knowledge does not ease the pain when it actually happens. You may know what is going to happen, but you do not know what it's going to feel like (!), and that may catch you off guard. Knowing something is going to happen does not neutralize the pain.

When I left I knew what was going to happen. And when it happened, I was shocked by how much it hurt. Actually, I was shocked that it actually happened. I was nauseas for days leading up to my exit because I knew deep down that it was going to be bad, trainwreck-punched-in-the-gut-fetal-position-bad, but I just couldn't bring myself to believe it.

After it happened, I was stunned by the things I felt.

I went through a period of beating myself up for being in so much pain when I knew the whole time it was coming. I felt a lot of shame about it. It sounds ridiculous, but I really did struggle with being okay with the pain that came from something I thought I had braced myself for. Turns out there's really just no way to actually brace yourself for this. 

This will likely not be everyone's experience, but whatever you do experience, don't shame yourself for it. This is traumatic. Knowing something is going to happen is not the same thing as experiencing it. Be kind to yourself.

Trauma can be a very scary/taboo word in some church cultures. To some it sounds like victim language, like we are making a big deal of an experience that maybe wasn't that bad or is judged to be "not a big deal." Yet, trauma is something we all go through at different points in our lives. Many times. It's part of living in this world. Trauma at a base level is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. I am certain this qualifies. 

For me, it helped to recognize that what I was going through was abnormal. I was not created to go through this experience, and because I wasn't created for this, of course I was glitching inside. Of course I was having a hard time.

Realizing that has been a very helpful part of my continued healing. It has helped me give myself grace when I hurt. It has helped me ask for help. It has not made me a victim, but it has helped me connect with God and share my heart with Him. He knows the things that break our hearts. If we pretend we're okay when we're not okay, that's not healing anything.

It doesn't mean we are going to walk around in constant trauma-mode. Sometimes people who have been in a church culture like Morning Star don't want to "claim" a difficult label. Recognizing that you're going through something traumatic doesn't mean all of the sudden you are going to lose it for years. This experience does NOT define you, but it will impact you. In time He will use it for your good, as impossible as that may seem now.

I did not walk around in a trauma-daze when I left MSC, at least most of the time. The first few weeks, sure, but after that... it was moments. It was waves.

It wasn't all the time and then it suddenly was.

It's okay. Whatever road you're on, walk it with Him. And however the Lord leads you, get help. This is going to look different for different people. Do what you need to do and don't feel like you have to feel bad or apologize for it. You don't have to apologize for needing help. We all need help. You do you.

And at the end of the day, however you need to leave, leave. This looks very different for different people. Everyone's situation is INCREDIBLY UNIQUE and none of us know the circumstances and details of what is happening in each other's experiences. I did not love every part of how I left, but I did the best I could. I didn't have a lot of options and I needed to get out. I needed to get out, for my own wellbeing in many, many different areas. My internal "glitching" post-MSC was nothing compared to my internal glitching pre-departure and as I was leaving. I was very afraid during those last few weeks, and getting out the door was traumatic enough. There were things I really wanted to say and do when I left that I couldn't, because in the face of doing them I physically shut down. It was too much. I had to make a decision about how much trauma I was going to allow myself to go through, even though the trade off meant walking away from a whole group of people overnight. It was not what I wanted, but to do it any differently would have meant giving myself over to the mercy of Stephen Foster/MSC without anyone standing by me, and I couldn't do that to myself. For awhile I felt bad about that, but I now I refuse to shame myself over it. I genuinely did the best I could with what was in front of me.

You are doing the best you can with what is in front of you. No one gets to judge when and how you leave. We're all doing the best we can. You do what you have to do to be safe and healthy, spiritually, emotionally and for some people, physically. 

Finally, ask for help. Please, ask for help. Ask your family. Ask friends at work. Ask the people you know love you and would do anything for you, the ones that you may have kept these parts of your life hidden from. They will not shame you. They will be so relieved and willing to hold your hand.

You are not alone.