The Making of a Disciple in the International Churches of Christ
Kathy Kelly, MA, ATC/L
During a major life transition, the International Churches of Christ (ICC) drew me into their web. They reeled me in with God, friendship, and unconditional love. They held me tight with guilt and fear. They cast me out when I questioned their doctrine. This article details my perception of my ICC experience first as it occurred and then following my exit.
My background in religion was relatively limited. I was christened in the Methodist church as a baby. I was raised by a non-practicing-Catholic father and a Methodist mother. I attended Methodist church as a child but stopped going in junior high or high school when sports took over. Organized religion was non-existent in my life through college, but I always had my own faith in God as a Christian.
The point in my life where the ICC began to play a role was after graduate school when I was working as an athletic trainer at Wake Forest University. I had decided that I needed to make a career change, since I had no time for a life outside of work. This was amplified by dating a man who was training for the Olympics in Florida.
I was planning a trip to see him when basketball season ended. I had heard that one of my childhood friends, Julie, was living in Atlanta, and thought that the trip would be a great chance to stop by and catch up with her. I got in touch with her and planned to stay with her on a Friday, so I could drive the rest of the way on Saturday. The week before my trip, my boyfriend and I broke up. I was devastated. I already had plans to work as an athletic trainer during the Olympic Games and would be there when he was competing. I called Julie to tell her that I would not be coming through Atlanta. Somehow, she talked me into driving six hours to visit her for the weekend.
I arrived on a Saturday and Julie and I spent the day shopping in Atlanta and seeing the sights. She told me that she and her husband would be going to church in the morning and would love to have me go with them. The next morning we set off for the Omni Center (where the Hawks used to play basketball). It was a congregational Sunday, so all of the regions of the church would be in one place for Sunday service. We walked into the Omni Center where about 3000 people were milling about. Lots of people were coming up to Julie and hugging her and asking her how her new practice was going. I was very impressed that all of these people knew each other and knew about each others’ lives. The service started with a band and great singers (all of them were good looking too!). The music was contemporary and fun. Steve Sapp then began his sermon. I was uncomfortable by all of the people saying “Amen” during his talk, but people were really into it, they were even taking notes! Steve spoke about how we often get to a point in our lives where things are going bad, where we don’t know what direction we are headed in, or what we were put on this earth to do. I thought he was talking directly to me! He said that when we get there, we need to turn to God and let him guide us. When the service ended, I was introduced to Randy, another athletic trainer, and Marissa, a girl who looked a lot like me, and lots of other people, including Steve’s wife, Kim Sapp. Julie and I went to lunch after the service and she asked me what I thought of church. I was overwhelmed. I started crying and told her that Steve had somehow talked about my life, and I guess that what I really needed was God. She agreed with me and told me that there were 2 ICC churches in North Carolina. She gave me the phone numbers for both of them, the Charlotte Church of Christ and the Triangle Church of Christ.
Both churches were about the same distance from Winston-Salem, about an hour and a half. Since I went to school in Chapel Hill, I decided that I would try there. I called the church number, found out where it was and when they met and made plans to go. I called my friend, Jess, who still lived in that area to ask her to go with me. We rolled into the parking lot of the Triangle Church, which was just down the road from my old apartment. I got out of the car and heard someone call my name! I turned around and saw Debbie, one of my college instructors and my mentor in athletic training! If that wasn’t enough, her visitor got out of her car and it was Paul, one of my classmates and friends from graduate school! Everything was adding up, God was giving me signs that this was where I needed to be!
I met a girl from Greensboro who asked me if I was interested in studying the Bible. I said sure and we set up a time to meet between Greensboro and Winston. Anjeanette took me through a “lesson” that she had pre-planned. We talked a bit and set up a time to meet before church the next week to study again. Each time we met, there was a pre-planned “lesson” with more and more people. Jeri Lang, the minister’s wife was there, another leader’s wife, Jan Mitchell was there, Debbie, and Colleen, another woman from Winston. It always seemed as if the talks were focused on me. No one else was “studying.” Someone even took notes for me! They would ask me to look back through the notes, see if I had questions, and give me a reading assignment. It seemed as if my study "group" kept expanding! I did one session at Geri Lang's house called a "life talk"; they had me go back through my whole life, from as far back as I could remember and talk about the bad things I had done, the bad feelings I had, my misbehavior. Debbie started crying, saying that the whole time she had known me through undergrad and graduate school, I had never let her really know me. That made me feel badly. After my group analysis, I was asked, "If you were the only person to live on this Earth, would Jesus have had to die to save you from your sins?" Well, yes, I guess so. "How does that make you feel?" Guilty. After the baring of my life, I had had enough for that session. The medical account of Jesus' crucifixion really hit me hard. Having a medical background, it was so descriptive that it made me feel sick. I was very emotionally affected by that account. I guess that was my "breaking" session. I finished my studies and was put on the calendar to be baptized the next Sunday, when my parents could come up from Pinehurst to see it.
I chose Debbie to baptize me, since she was an important person to me. We walked down into the baptismal. One of the ministry leaders asked me the questions, then Debbie supported me while I was dunked. My parents stood on the outside of the baptismal. As I came up, the man told me I needed to go again, my elbow had been out of the water. So I went under again. That made my Dad mad, the pickiness of a symbolic gesture. Mom was asked to study the Bible. She said she'd be interested, but it would be difficult to schedule, due to the distance. (She ended up studying once, and that was it). As soon as I got back to my seat, I was handed a pledge card; how much money was I going to give each week?
I did midweek in Greensboro, and Sunday in Chapel Hill. Some weekends, I would drive down on Saturday to go on "dates" with brothers and do things with the other single women. It was hard living so far away, but I had made some good friends and felt like I now had a relationship with God.
In June, I left Winston-Salem for Atlanta. Julie had gotten me a place to stay with some of the Georgia State students. They would be gone to church camp most of the summer, so there would be plenty of space in their apartment. I got there and went to work as an athletic training volunteer for team handball at the 1996 Olympics. I went to Sunday service with Julie in the campus sector. I was uncomfortable, because I was alone most of the time and did not feel as though I fit in there. At an outdoor service, Julie introduced me to Angela, an eye doctor in Atlanta. She was part of the Dunwoody sector in North Atlanta. She asked me to join her for the services up there. Dunwoody was an instant hit! I met up with Marissa again, the woman I met the first day with Julie, who looks like me! She was very outgoing and funny and we became instant friends. She shared an apartment with Sharon and Sunni in Dunwoody, and invited me to stay with them while I worked the Olympics. I was delighted to accept and loved the friendship, activities, and energy in the Dunwoody sector. Dunwoody was the professional sector with lots of doctors, lawyers, and other white collar workers, as well as sports people. Athletes, agents, and trainers were in that sector. It seemed to be the sector of the “beautiful people.” Gorgeous women and handsome men were there. They were very successful at bringing visitors to church on Sundays and mid-week. Dunwoody women were usually the ones working the registration tables for any church sponsored event, such as the singles retreat, or the Southeast Conference. I heard us referred to, more than once, as the “Dunwoody Babes”. Very spiritual.
I was so excited to be part of something where I felt special and loved, and treated others that way, that I decided to stay. I moved my furniture out of my Winston-Salem apartment and into storage. I would be staying with Marissa, Sunni, and Sharon while I looked for a job. I did not have to worry about paying rent, utilities, or tithing while I job hunted!
Athletic training is not a big field. I could not find a job, even at an orthopedic clinic. I was running out of money and had to do something. I took a job waiting tables. My first day of training, Angela called me, desperate. Her optician had fallen off the cocaine-recovery wagon the previous week and then this day, her receptionist called in and said she would not be in for a while. Her father had shot her step mother and she had to go help him. Angela was left as the only person in her optometry practice in an unsavory part of downtown Atlanta. She could not see patients and keep the store open for people to pick up and order contacts and glasses. She needed me to come help her, if I could. I agreed and drove downtown. She trained me to file Medicare and Medicaid forms, make appointments, measure for glasses and bifocals, place orders for contacts and glasses, repair frames, and even tint lenses! It was an entirely new field and I enjoyed it. I would drive from my place in Dunwoody to Angela’s place in Buckhead, and we would ride into work together. We knew all of the same people from church and would talk about our studies and struggles and support each other. She was a great friend and a terrific boss.
Downtown was an interesting place. We were only a few blocks from 4 Points, the Coca-Cola museum, and the Underground, but we were on the “other side of the tracks”. We would pay to park in a small lot next to the Korean grocery. We would walk by the homeless people on the way to the store. Sometimes one or two would be missing a day or two, usually in jail. Matthew was one of the homeless men whom we would pay to do odd jobs, like pick up supplies and minor repairs. We would pay him cash, and in return, we not only got his services, but also his “protection” in the neighborhood. He would make sure that we were safe on the way to and from the car. One day he even prevented a robbery when several young men walked in and spread out in the store. Matthew happened to be in the back, saw them on the camera, and he walked out front yelling at them, asking what did they want and they backed right down and left. I figured, if anyone needed God, it was Matthew. I repeatedly asked him to church. I told him I would give him the train fare and he could meet us there. One Sunday he finally agreed. He showed up at a service asking for me. He was drunk and dirty. He stayed for most of the service, then wandered off. I thought that I had done a great job getting someone who was “lost” to come to church. Little did I know that I would be rebuked for bringing him to Dunwoody. I was told to seek out other “sharp” people like myself to invite to church, not to go after the homeless. (Now, this makes me think, ”What would Jesus do?”)
Being in Atlanta, there were a lot more singles. Dating was interesting. It came with its own set of unwritten “rules”—no single dates, always doubles or group dates, home by midnight, don’t sit in a parked car to talk, no hand-holding, and definitely no kissing. The purpose was to encourage the brothers and get to know the other singles in Atlanta. If a brother asked me out, it usually meant that he had already asked his discipler, who had asked your discipler, if he could ask you out. So, it was expected that if a guy asks you out, for a Friday or Saturday night, you would say yes. This didn’t always happen, however. Bill, for instance, was one of my good friends, but he was told that he couldn’t ask me out on a date, since he was not at my level; he wasn’t leadership material. Shawn led the singles group in the West sector of Atlanta and friends had introduced us. He was an up-and-coming leader who had played baseball in college. We got along well and soon began dating every other week (the maximum if you like someone). I was going to a lot of functions in the West and was meeting those people.
Marissa had been my discipler since I was officially switched to Dunwoody. One night she told me that our women’s sector leader, Ally, had informed her that Kim Sapp, the Women’s Ministry Leader for Atlanta, Steve Sapp’s wife, wanted to meet with me. None of us knew what it was about. I figured that I was in trouble for something. Ally and I went to Kim’s later that week and after a bit of chit-chat, Kim asked me if I would like to go on staff? I was speechless. It is an honor to go on staff, and everyone talks about their “Kingdom Dream” of being a leader. I had never really considered it. I had only been in the church for six months and was being asked to lead. Of course I said yes. I would be starting in the New Year, leading the teens of Atlanta with Shawn. Sonny and Carolyn Sessions had been leading them, along with several other sectors, and they felt that a younger approach might work well. I would start being discipled by Carolyn, a middle aged mother of teens, to learn the ropes. I would move in with Sandra who currently led the singles in the West with Shawn, and Sherry, who worked in the church office. I was to plan on working with Shawn daily to plan our ministry, and to meet all of the teen workers and learn from Sonny and Carolyn.
My salary was adjusted to enable me to pay for the area I was living in, my costs of living, and my tithe. Men always made more, since they paid for all dates. The church did not want their employees in debt, said it was sinful, so they asked me to bring in my credit card statements so they could help me work out a payment plan. Pretty cool perk! So, for every $100 I paid toward the balance, the church would pay $300, so within 12 months, it would be paid off. (I even have that one in writing). Funny that I never knew everyone’s tithe went towards paying off ministry staff’s debts. Even costs I ran up on Spring Breaks and at bars.
My parents were very surprised at my announcement that I would be on ministry staff. I had no ministry training, no teen counseling training, just experience being a teen camp counselor. I had gone to graduate school for sports medicine and now I was going into the ministry. They had never heard of an employer paying off credit card debt, either. Interesting. I thought that they just didn’t “get it,” they didn’t have God in their lives, and they couldn’t relate anymore. Our conversations had become brief and strained, as had my conversations with my best friends from college. I think this was when my parents started to seriously question what I had gotten involved with.
I had gotten very busy with quiet times, discipling times (d-times) with my teen workers and teens, d-time with Caroline, planning with Shawn, and leading studies with my teens. I was even singing on stage on Sundays, at services in the West. When I told the leaders that I could not sing very well, they said, “Just step back from the microphone”. My days often involved getting up between 5 and 6 AM to go to a group prayer, do my quiet time, meet with my people, studies, social events or mid-week, or teen worker meetings until midnight or studies with the singles that would go even later. I was getting very little sleep. I was exhausted and I got sick. I got bronchitis that I could not shake. (I am usually very healthy and rarely get sick). I had to go through a series of steroids to improve. But, I was working for God, so it would all be fine. Taking time for myself, even to rest was seen as selfish and therefore sinful.
I recall doing studies with children of disciples. My girls were between the ages of 13 and 18. We would go through the standard progression; The Word, Discipleship, and on. When we got to the Sin Study we would go through their homework of writing down all of the sins they had ever committed, from as far back as they could remember and discussing them. Towards the end, I would ask them if they realized that what they had done had put Jesus on the Cross. If they were not emotionally shaken, crying, "broken", they didn't "get it." So their homework would be to go back through their sin study and their list and see if they had Godly sorrow or "earthly" sorrow. In other words, did they just feel sorry for themselves, or for their sins. This was after we had created an urgency to be baptized from the Discipleship study. Who was I, or any other leader, to determine a child's faith, and to withhold salvation? I was leading as I had been taught, by imitating my leaders.
Seeing Shawn everyday was essential for work, but I found that I was less attracted to him. I told Caroline that I still wanted to work with Shawn, but I was not interested in dating him anymore. I thought he was sort of bossy. Well, that next week just prior to our staff meeting, Kim Sapp called me and Caroline and Sandra into her office. She said, “You are a fool! Shawn is an awesome, righteous man. A leader in God’s Kingdom. If I could arrange this marriage, I would. You are a strong ministry team. You will continue to date him.” And on and on, what was wrong with me, I was not putting God first. I was independent and not submissive to God’s plan. I left her office with red, puffy eyes, and had to face the entire staff of about 40 people. Obviously, I had done something wrong. I felt that I had, too. I did not question Kim’s “advice.”
Along came February and I heard that my three best friends from college were getting together in Winston-Salem. They couldn’t get together without me, so I asked for a few days off to go see them. I soon met up with my friends; a Catholic, a Jew, and a Southern Baptist. Our company was not as comfortable as usual, something was weighing over the group. Finally I asked them, “What do you think about what I am doing?” I had opened a can of worms. They asked me about my sports med career, about dating, about all kinds of stuff. They asked me, “What if you wanted to date someone outside of the church?” I told them that it was not done, and that if I wanted to, I would have to leave the church (I had seen a friend do that). “What does that mean?” It means that I am leaving God. “What does that mean?” It means that I am going to hell. “So you are saying that if we are not part of your church, we are going to hell?” Well, yes. “So we are all going to hell?” Yes. Now that was uncomfortable. We talked about all of the people that lived and died between the first century church and 1979 when the ICC was formed. What happened to them? I wasn’t sure. I took that question back to Carolyn.
As soon as I returned to Atlanta, I called Carolyn very upset. I wanted to meet and talk. I distinctly remember walking along the Chattahoochee River posing that question about the people between the first century church and 1979 to Carolyn. She told me that there was a “Remnant Theory” that there was always a remnant of true believers on earth, God’s Kingdom like the current ICC movement, who were saved, and in 1979 in Boston was when they were called together. I asked her where that was written. She told me that it wasn’t. I told her to take me off of staff, because I could not teach the teens something that I did not believe and that I could not read in the Bible. The fact was, there could have been true believers who were not part of the ICC in the past, so couldn’t there be now? No. The Kingdom study proves that, go back through your studies. And that I did. I became the “problem child.” I was put back in Dunwoody and had to go back through my studies with Sandra, Marissa, Julie, Angela, and Ally. Every time I got to the Kingdom study I hit a wall. The Bible did not say that the ICC was the Kingdom of God. Again, from the beginning… Finally, Ally gave me “advice” that the best thing for me to do might be to get away for a while, get a fresh perspective, then look at it again. I had seen people start studies and disagree and leave. We always said they just needed to get “beat up” by the “world” a little more and they would come back. I felt that was what she wanted me to do. In retrospect, I can see that they were getting me out of Atlanta so the teens would stop asking and calling me asking me what was wrong. How could their favorite up-and-coming leader doubt the doctrine? Was there something to that? So I packed up my things and went to my parents’ house in Pinehurst, North Carolina. I only planned on staying 6-8 weeks, enough to get my head together and work through some things.
After a couple weeks at home, Lydia, my best friend from college called to say that she was coming to Pinehurst that weekend so her husband could golf. She would love to come and see me. Great! That Friday night my parents went out to dinner. They did not come home. It got to be 10, 11, 12 o’clock. My parents don’t stay out late. I then turned into my mother and began to call the emergency rooms. They weren’t there. I was very upset! Finally, they pulled into the driveway around 2 AM. They came in and very casually said that they had run into some friends and had been talking. They didn’t even acknowledge my anxiety. They were acting very strange, and just went to bed. I got up the next morning and was putting on makeup in the bathroom when Lydia arrived. She came into the doorway and I asked her where Britt, her husband, was. She said he wasn’t coming. I looked at her and asked her why she had come down then. Then my mother was in the doorway. She said, “Kathy, we are all here for you this weekend. We found somebody who has some information about your church that we don’t think you have heard. We would like for you to listen to that information and participate in some discussion about it.” I immediately turned to Lydia and said, “You lied to me!” The previous night’s behavior of my parents was suddenly explained. I was furious! Why did you all lie? Why didn’t you just ask me, rather than setting it all up behind my back? I would have listened, don’t you trust me? After I ranted and raved for a bit, I said yes I’d listen, and no, I wasn’t going to contact anyone from the church. Why would I, I hadn’t since I’d been home! And off they went to get Jeff, while my brother arrived.
Jeff Davis came to my parent’s house from Massachusetts. He had had some friends involved in the ICC back when they started in Boston. He had kept up with the church and learned as much as he could. He talked about the studies, and looked at the translations in Greek, and compared that to the message the ICC was pushing. We looked at the hierarchy of the ICC, the pyramid structure, the discipling. We looked at the Kingdom study and included other scriptures about God’s Kingdom. How it is within someone and cannot be seen or heard; it just exists. That piece of information stuck. As the day wore on, I began to talk and participate. He had some interesting information. When we finished I realized that I could never go back. I was not going to give in to the crowd that easily though, so I told everyone that I would need to take some time to examine all of the literature, the church’s and Jeff’s. That is what I did for the next two weeks. I spoke very little to my parents. I was furious that they had lied to me. Why should I trust them now? I trusted the church and now it was not holding up. Whom should I trust? Obviously, not myself. I couldn’t make a sound decision. I couldn’t even tell you what I wanted to eat without getting “advice” from my discipler.
The two months that followed my intervention were the worst in my life. I now had no job, my friends from the church who loved me unconditionally had left me hanging, God had betrayed me, people had taken my faith and trust and used it to control me, I was living with my parents at 26 years old and couldn’t tell you what I wanted to do with my life, where I wanted to go, and what I would do next. I began making decisions, and not necessarily good ones. I went from being controlled to being out of control. I did things just because I could. I went out with men I shouldn’t have, I drank too much, I stayed out all night. I went from one extreme to another, until I found my comfort zone. Finally my life began to take shape again. I got in touch with old friends, to find out who I used to be, to find that people still liked me. I took a job in a fitness center and wrote my own job description for what would grow into my new career as an exercise physiologist and personal trainer. I made new, healthy friendships; I began to trust people again. I began to trust myself. I began to trust God.
I learned more and more about the ICC, I went to ex-member workshops and I began to work as part of an intervention team. It still makes me angry to see the way the ICC divides families, abuses love for God, and makes a person doubt everything around them. The more I can help others see the truth, the better I feel about why God let me go through that time. I have a much more critical eye for organized religion these days. I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. Maybe some of those reasons are that I learned to have a relationship with God, I learned to think more critically, and I learned that anybody can fall prey to the cults of the world.
I have recently moved back to Chapel Hill. I drive past the Triangle Church every day on my way to and from work. I have not yet contacted Debbie, my old mentor from college. I plan to soon. However, I ran into Shawn and his wife in a restaurant. He moved up here about three years ago to lead the singles in the triangle. I told him that I was a director at a new hospital based wellness center. Funny, no one has come by to say hello yet.