Editor’s Note: This story includes mention of suicide, spiritual abuse, and sexual assault.
Pastor Scott Joseph was afraid his congregation was under attack.
In response, he spoke to his congregation during a sermon in August 2022, informing them of a website called “Leaving the Network,” along with a Reddit thread of the same name. He claimed these sources were saying “nasty stuff” about the church and its vast network.
Joseph advised members to stay away.
“The reason is, I'm caring for sheep,” Joseph said in the sermon. “If I see them going over to drink from a toxic cesspool filled with leeches, I’m going to say, ‘Hey, there's a better pool over here. This is a good place to drink from.’”
What Joseph described as a “toxic cesspool of leeches” is an online community of former members, staff and pastors of network churches, including from High Rock. Among them are Tim Reeves, a former pastor at High Rock Church in Bloomington who had been with the church since its inception in 2008; Clint Deck, a former small group leader who belonged to the church for six years; and a young couple, Kim and James, who no longer felt the church could be a safe place for the child they planned to adopt. Kim and James asked not to have their last names listed out of concern that it would affect their relationship with their clients, as they both work in the mental healthcare field.
The emotional pain they describe is long-lasting. For some, the damage is left permanently unresolved, which Clint believes is the case for former member Andy DeYoung, who committed suicide a year after leaving the church.
“I was hurting people. People were truly looking to me for answers, and I was only supposed to give them the church’s answer. And the church’s answer was hurting them.”
— Clint Deck
Tim, Clint, Kim and James all claim what they experienced at High Rock was spiritual abuse. Communicating with former members through Reddit or reading testimonies from members of other churches on the website became a part of the healing process as they learned they were far from alone.
As of April 2023, 20 months after the website went live, 27 stories have been posted to the website. The Reddit thread currently has 813 members.
As both sites gained popularity, a consensus grew: the emotional harm former members allege appeared to be rampant throughout the network of churches, a system created and maintained by religious leader Steve Morgan.
Steve Morgan’s network of churches began in 2006, when Morgan, writing that he was inspired by a message from the Holy Spirit, left the Association of Vineyard Churches to start his own church network. He renamed his Illinois church Vine Church, and off the vine went, sprouting saplings across the country, and eventually, the world. Today, there are 26 churches across three countries in Morgan’s church network.
Each new church was formed under Morgan’s unnamed, nondenominational network, tethered by a tried-and-true strategy of growth. Churches focused on a small group structure intended to extend reach while maintaining close ties, particularly for university students, and 5% of monthly tithes flowed to the general fund of the network, according to the network bylaws. That same document states that local church bylaws can be edited by network leadership at any time, giving Morgan the ability to directly affect individual churches.
In 2008, Morgan sent out his sixth church plant to Bloomington, Indiana. Among the church plant team was Scott Joseph, the current lead pastor, and Tim Reeves, a pastor who left the church in 2021.
The church would be called High Rock, fueled by Indiana University students as they sought a place of refuge for their faith. But the image High Rock projects was fractured in the summer of 2022, when the decades old crime of the network’s founder and leader was shared with the world.
In 1987, Steve Morgan was arrested for aggravated criminal sodomy of a minor in Johnson County, Kansas.
Despite the severity of his crime — abusing his power as a youth pastor and raping a 15-year-old boy — and the fact records state the Johnson County District Attorney’s office believed he was guilty, the court decided on a diversion agreement. This agreement did not require jail time, but it mandated he pay for the therapy of his victim and receive counseling for his crime.
At the time, sex offender lists did not exist in Kansas and much of the U.S., so Morgan was free to move across the country and bury his past, going on to become a revered leader with a tremendous amount of power.
Disclosing his crime to only a few leaders he trusted in the church, Morgan maintained his position under the pretext of repentance. But Morgan was not fully transparent: Andrew Lumpe, former board member of a church in Seattle, recalls Morgan saying the victim was older than he actually was when Lumpe was first told in 2007.
After attempting to remove Morgan quietly, Lumpe decided to send a letter to all church leaders detailing the crime in 2019.
He received no response.
In 2020, almost four decades after the incident, Morgan finally confessed his crime to all of the lead pastors. In the summer of 2022, a former member of the church found and published Morgan’s arrest records, exposing details of Morgan’s crime he had tried to hide.
At no point was Morgan held accountable and removed from his position. To this day, Morgan is still president of the network and the lead pastor of Joshua Church in Texas.
At 38, former pastor Tim Reeves navigates the classroom with the ease of someone born to deal with middle school kids. He is lighthearted yet focused, determined to make a lasting and positive impact. When he is teaching, it is difficult to imagine him as the solemn and serious Pastor Reeves that former members describe.
School was over, with chairs stacked on desks and hallways quiet. Children occasionally pop their heads in the doorway to say goodbye, and Tim pauses to wave back at them.
Teaching is the natural next step for Tim; it is the thing he liked best about being a pastor. Here in the breezy world of middle school, he feels free. He can encourage students to be at their best without carrying the burden of making spiritual decisions for them.
“For a lot of these kids, it’s just great to have someone who cares,” he said.
As a pastor, Tim saw the inner workings of Morgan’s church network. He alleges church leaders manipulated their subordinates, asking young men to give up everything to become pastors or expecting total devotion from congregation members, such as asking people to stay at the church instead of pursuing career opportunities.
“It’s hard for me to feel trusting of leaders in churches because I feel like once you’ve seen the sausage and how it’s made, it’s hard to go back,” he said.
When Tim first met Morgan in 2005, he said it felt good to be wanted. But after leading a church plant of his own, he felt like a failure whenever he could not meet High Rock’s goals for growth.
“You just push and push and push, even if you're unhappy, even if your thing’s not working, because there’s just this sense that you can’t go against God’s calling,” Tim said.
In the pursuit of growth, Tim said pastors were encouraged to act intentionally, with every interaction building the strength and numbers of the church. Looking back, Tim thinks he played a part in hurting people.
Although Tim regrets some of his actions while a pastor at High Rock, his departure from the church was not his own doing.
In his final months as a pastor, Tim was having an affair with another member of the church. When other church leadership found out, they swiftly fired him. Tim and his now-girlfriend, Tabby Whitcomb, both feel they never got an opportunity to repent.
Facing the immediate loss of his job and support system, Tim suffered extreme anxiety and lost 30 pounds. He scrambled to find a job, eventually earning his teaching license and finding a job in Brown County.
Tim acknowledges that what he did was wrong, but he still felt betrayed when he found out about Morgan months later, whose sin was criminal and not consensual.
“I think that the number one reason it’s different is because I’m not Steve Morgan,” Tim said.
Without Morgan, he said, the network would not survive.
With close-cropped hair and an inky vine of tattoos on her arms, Kim, 34, admits she did not fit High Rock’s mold. Between alleged disagreements over how issues of mental illness were handled and conflicts over Kim’s personal choices, she began to feel unfairly targeted by Scott Joseph, the lead pastor at the church.
In one instance, Joseph chastised some members of the church during, a sermon who were asking for donations to fund adoptions. At the time, Kim and James were attempting to fundraise to adopt a child from another country and did not know anyone else at the church doing that at the moment. However, Joseph denied that the sermon was about them when Kim asked.
But the turning point for Kim was far quieter.
Wandering amongst the shelves at Once Upon a Child to pick up some toys for a client, Kim checked her phone to see a text from a volunteer for High Rock’s children’s program.
Kim said the volunteer wanted her to be a one-on-one aid for a 3-year-old child diagnosed with autism who was deemed a distraction for the other kids.
The distraction, according to Kim, was that he couldn’t sit still on a square.
Thoughts flashed through her mind. She remembered the embarrassment of going through school with a personal nurse to administer medicine for her diabetes. She imagined the isolation and stigma the three-year-old would face if he was taken away from the group and treated as different.
Finally, she thought of her own child’s future. Kim and James had spent over a year trying to adopt a child with down syndrome. Now they were close to success- if the final paperwork worked out, they would soon be the proud parents of a child from a foreign country.
But while the 3-year-old at High Rock had only some additional needs, Kim’s child would have profoundly more, arriving to the states with no English language proficiency and attachment issues. The request was only a small example of how she felt the church viewed the vulnerable, whether they had a disability, had mental health issues or were unhoused.
“We don’t want them to grow up in a culture that puts them off to the side for the comfort of everyone else,” she said.
On July 10, shortly after Steve Morgan’s arrest records were published, the vice president of the network, Sándor Paull, released a letter to churches within the network.
In it, Paull denied allegations of spiritual abuse and called the characterization of Morgan’s crime “distorted.” He said the board believes Morgan’s sin has been forgiven by God, detailing Morgan’s conversion to Christianity, confession to overseers and subsequent walking in “character, purity and ingenuity” as proof of his repentance. Paull closed the subject with a condemnation.
“We believe it is cruel, evil and the antithesis of the gospel message to dig up and disclose a person's sin that has already been dealt with in a biblical manner. This is a great offense against the cross of Jesus Christ.”
Morgan himself has not spoken publicly about the issue. But in a letter to former overseer Andrew Lumpe, Morgan apologized for the hurt he caused Lumpe by forcing him to carry the burden of Morgan’s crime in secret.
“If Jesus hadn’t saved me and forgiven me over 30 years ago, I would have had no hope at all,” Morgan writes. “I have lived in purity before God and people since that time and I am so grateful for the mercy that has been shown to me.”
But former members of Morgan’s churches disagree. Clint Deck, a former small group leader at High Rock, said Morgan’s private repentance overlooks the people that would have made different decisions regarding the church if they knew about Morgan’s past.
“It doesn’t take into account all the countless people who gave their lives to this church network,” he said.
The IDS reached out to both Scott Joseph and Steve Morgan for comment but did not receive a response in the months between reaching out and publication.
Morgan’s current church, Joshua Church in Texas, has no listed contact information for Morgan or a publicly listed phone number. The latest contact information for Morgan, provided by Andrew Lumpe, included a deactivated email attached to his current church and a phone number that the IDS left a voicemail for. The IDS also contacted two other phone numbers believed to be associated with Morgan, but both were disconnected, and the IDS emailed another Joshua Church pastor in addition to the general email listed for the church.
In total, the IDS has tried to contact Morgan in seven different ways but has not received a response since the first attempt on Dec. 12.
The IDS sent two emails to Scott Joseph and visited the church to ask a staff pastor to let Joseph know the IDS was requesting comment.
Long before Morgan’s past bubbled to the surface, from 2009 to 2015, group leader Clint Deck was fighting the battle of his life in the high-control environment of High Rock Church, where he alleges his leadership forced him to pressure people into life-altering decisions and make harsh judgements. What had begun as an experience of community and faith had morphed into something inescapable, and Clint found himself on the verge of suicide.
Now 36 and involved with 4-H youth, Clint tries to show weakness and awkwardness because he says trying to be impressive feels inauthentic. He describes himself as a hillbilly, coming from four generations of Monroe County families with connections to farmers, industrial workers and limestone cutters. As he recounts his story, Clint’s feelings write themselves in the contortions of his brows and the pale fluttering of his eyes.
He fiddled with a pair of tortoise shell glasses and looks to the left corner of the room, a meeting space in a county building that provides space for Purdue University’s Monroe County 4-H program, which Clint works for.
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m even still ok,” Clint says. “I never feel right about anything.”
Clint said one of his greatest failures was standing by as the church isolated church member Andy DeYoung even as he was struggling with his mental health. Feeling sad and angry, Andy left the church and took his own life a year later.
Andy enjoyed fishing and writing poetry, according to his fiancé Audreyanna Lagenour. He was fun to be around and found joy in helping others. Although he struggled with joblessness, he once worked as a mental health tech at Bloomington Meadows Hospital.
But in addition to struggling with mental health himself, Andy had a history of childhood trauma and substance use. Former pastor Tim Reeves recalls Andy speaking about deep topics regarding his struggles to his small group, which was making other members uncomfortable. Tim said Pastor Scott Joseph decided to prevent Andy from attending small group, instead asking him to meet Tim for private Bible study. Clint recalls that Andy was prevented from attending regular church service as well.
Tim said High Rock was not trained to help people with mental health issues and wasn’t connected with any local agencies that could help at the time.
“I wish I would have known more of what I should do to help him,” Tim said.
Audreyanna says interaction with people was what made Andy thrive. He loved helping people, she said, and his faith was important to him.
“He did love God, and he wanted to be God’s son,” she said.
Audreyanna still wonders why he did what he did. She thinks about him often. Above all, she misses him every day.
Clint thinks the church should not have isolated Andy. Six years later, Clint still reads the old messages Andy sent him, and stumbles across one criticizing what Andy saw as a lack of commitment to those truly struggling.
“This world is dying, Clint. We need to bring Christ to screwed up people like me. We need to show them the commitment and dedication that Christ showed the world, otherwise we become those that world thinks us to be,” Andy wrote.
In his final months at High Rock, Clint himself suffered from suicidal ideations. He felt like he was losing himself, forced to sacrifice his morals in the name of obedience. He connected with several suicide hotlines, and the people on the other end always told him that the church was not good for him. He knew he had to leave, but it would be painful.
Before leaving, Clint had a leadership meeting where they received detailed instruction on how to help members bring out the Holy Spirit, including shaking one’s hand to suggest the presence of the spirit.
Clint came away shocked. In the hours of instruction, there was not one mention of who they were even praying to.
On October 28, 2015, Clint met with Pastor Scott Joseph to deliver news of his resignation.
It was almost 10 p.m. when Clint made his way through the church. It was dark and eerie, strange without its noise and fullness. The past few months in the church had been tense, with major disagreements between Pastor Scott Joseph and Pastor Michael Eckhardt leaving the place at a crossroads.
For weeks, Clint had met with Eckhardt, who attempted to persuade Joseph to have a heart-to-heart with Clint so he wouldn’t leave. When Joseph never reached out, Clint decided it was time to leave.
Clint slipped into the office and sat on the couch. Joseph swiveled his chair to face him.
Clint was nervous, but he needed to get his feelings off his chest. He told Joseph everything he thought about the church, including how he felt it had forced him into a role where he had to mask weakness and exercise control over others.
When he was finished, he said Joseph began screaming.
“I am not weak. I am not broken,” Clint recalls him yelling. “That is just not how we lead in this church, and you can’t just tell me I am something I am not.”
Clint was shocked. He’d never seen Joseph like this.
Despite the budding tears in his eyes, Clint made sure he had the last word. There was a shift taking place, he said, and if Joseph wasn’t open to change, the church would be split.
But Joseph didn’t change. Instead, he spun Clint’s departure, telling the church that he was a “goat among sheep."
“That broke me,” Clint said. “Painting me as someone who never belonged.”
After years of healing and finding support in a new church community, Clint is much happier. When he talks about his job working with kids in 4-H, Clint’s face relaxes and his mouth breaks into a smile. He marvels about the way experiences, challenges and opportunities for leadership can ripple through a child’s entire life.
Clint’s experience at High Rock has taught him a lot about the importance of self-reliance in faith, but it has also informed the way he does his job.
“I never want a kid to rely on something other than themselves for their self-worth,” he said, blue eyes unwavering.
In its simplest form, repentance means expressing remorse for a sin and committing to doing better. It is the bedrock of Christianity, allowing imperfect people to still receive salvation. It is the network’s justification to let Morgan remain at the helm of the system.
But on the other side of Morgan’s repentance is a victim struggling to heal. The sister of Morgan’s then-15-year-old victim, who is now in his fifties, said he is still dealing with the psychological aftermath of what was done to him.
Ben Powers, a former pastor at a network church, said Morgan was often compared to the Apostle Paul, whose conversion from a persecutor of Christians to a good man underscores the power of forgiveness.
Both Paul and Morgan wielded tremendous power over the people they led. But Powers and others who left the network do not think Morgan should have this power; Powers said the comparison fails because while Morgan hid his sin, Paul made his sin public.
For the 15-year-old boy in 1986, or the countless members and leaders of Morgan’s churches, healing is hemorrhaged by Morgan’s actions and his refusal to take accountability, a denial that ripples throughout the network.
It is almost time for Sunday service at Genesis Church, the Bloomington church where Kim and James now find refuge.
A child sings gleefully as he zooms across the lobby.
“Hot chocolate, hot chocolate, hot chocolate hot!”
He hops on a bale of hay decorated with pumpkins and squash while his mother snaps a photo. Another kid whizzes to the door and sticks her hand outside, where a patchwork of bluish clouds sweep the Earth with rain.
The service is starting, so people filter into the main sanctuary. Worship music flows out of the double doors as stragglers try to grab a last-minute coffee, finding only a dry well: the coffee is gone.
Kim arrives ten minutes late, filling a cup with hot water for her tea. She sits in the back while the worship team plays a rousing Christian song. Her husband, James, is playing guitar in the corner.
In place of pews are rows of cushioned chairs mostly filled by young people, who sway and lift their arms to the music. As the song reaches its climax, hands raise higher and swaying increases. Wedge heels lift off the ground, sneakers tap, and palms turn over, loosely cupped, as if looking for something to fall in.
One young man closes his eyes and mumbles something into his sleeve. He begins to cry, wiping away his tears with his sleeve.
Kim presses her hands flat against the chair in front of her, her fingers outstretched, and bows her head. Slowly, she lifts her hands off the chair, allowing them to hover by her hips. It was a slow, rocking step toward trusting again
Like what you're reading?
Support independent, award-winning student journalism. Donate.