Garner, Shane & Nikelle

The Beginnings of CCF & Our Journey to Freedom in Christ

Some have asked how Connected and Concerned Friends (CCF) started and how we have faired since leaving meetings. So, we thought we would write our story. Our journey has morphed from starting CCF and believing there could be change, to realizing we had to leave for our spiritual health. Some may fear the “what if” of leaving, and maybe we can offer some comfort. We have eaten our words, we have seen what God has been asking of us shift as the months have gone by, and we are at peace.

None of CCF would have happened without God working in people to ask questions and take action. 

Dean Bruer, a western overseer, died June 21, 2022. We remember learning about it in an email from our overseer, and we both remember thinking “why was he (a homeless, penniless minister) in a hotel room?” But we brushed it off as I’m sure many others did as well. It wasn’t until the leaked information of the nefarious “double life” he was living did things start to unravel for us and a few others we were in touch with. You can read “Why We Got In The Fight” on CCF for a background on what we were dealing with in our area. 

The widespread uproar about Dean Bruer’s behavior allowed us to gain courage to have a meeting with our overseer. We met with him and a younger brother worker to discuss getting the four men in our area who served prison time for pedophilia to be removed from all meetings where children were present. We poured our hearts out to them about how wrong it was to have sexual predators around their greatest temptations in a place of worship while innocent children are trying to learn about God. Our overseer barely said a word, but he did say “In Samuel when Hannah was speaking to Eli, she could have come in with a sword, but that would not have accomplished much. Instead, she was faithful in prayer.” (Insert confused face…) Even with those confusing words, he seemed compassionate to our plea, and he then made sure that the predators knew they could not be in any meetings with children. We had hope for change across the whole fellowship. A month passed.

Wings for Truth should also be credited for the push to start CCF. There was no real way to have dialogue on any of the posts aside from comments that were mostly anonymous in May 2023. specific post by A Young Father struck a chord with Shane, and he no longer wanted to be anonymous. You can read that post and the comment section here:

Many people reached out to Shane through his email address and the emails were flying. By the start of the following day there were 12 people, but by the end of that week there were over 150 people from around the world connected on a Google Group that wanted to discuss topics related to all things in the fellowship. These were questions that we could not honestly discuss with most friends and workers because we were raised to not ask questions and just trust the decisions of the workers. Many of those questions included:

            -Why does the ministry go 2×2?

            -How are elders selected?

            -How are overseers selected? Who is over the overseers?

            -Why meeting in a home? Why not a building?

            -How is money handled?

            -What is the position of women in the church beyond female preachers?

            -How men and women should dress? And why?

            -Does the church have a doctrine on divorce and remarriage and how that person(s) takes part in fellowship?

            -If a person who has never been married, marries a divorced person, can either person  take part in fellowship?

            -If a person is divorced and remarried but professes for the first time, can they take part because they weren’t professing when they remarried?

            -How does the church’s view on this doctrine differ from the West Coast and East Coast?

            -Does the church’s decision on this change based on the circumstances of the divorce and remarriage? If a woman leaves an abusive husband and finds a good marriage, is that different than two people divorcing because they no longer love each other?

            -Who makes the decision on who can and can’t take part (pray and speak) and if/when they are able to take part in fellowship meetings and/or be baptized?

At the core of it, we were all wondering how the child sexual abuse and sexual abuse crisis was being handled in each region. It was hard to keep up with the answers, the emails, and get organized thoughts from everyone.

Devon Wijesinghe called Shane and they discussed that a Google Group would not continue to work because of high volume, so why not make a social media app. The morning of June 4, 2023, all of the content from that Google Group was moved to the Mighty Networks platform with the help of Garrett and Sarah Lepak. Connected & Concerned Friends was born.

Some said we were starting our own church (ha!) or were trying to “burn it down.” Some even said Shane was cheating on me and this was a way to distract from that (yes, this rumor is still spread from the workers to the friends to this day). Looking at it today eight months later, it is amazing to see what CCF has become with the help of hosts and moderators. We are grateful to have been a part of the start of helping people have a place to discuss and be encouraged. Workers in our area have said that this site has an “evil spirit,” but we see at the heart of it true believers trying to understand who Jesus truly is and help each other deconstruct the doctrine we were taught.

In the beginning days of CCF, Shane, Devon, and Garrett were mainly in charge of the Zoom account and regional Zoom calls were scheduled for almost every day of the week. People were thirsty and desperate for what was going on across the country and world. They had to arrange these calls around their work schedules, children, and meetings, and often missed bedtime or other events with their families. During the first month of CCF there was no place to “chat”, it was just about people introducing themselves and answering questions on posts. The main chat became a popular feature and quickly the need for regional chats was recognized. Roundtable videos were created to discuss the heavier topics that were being questioned about the basis of any Christian’s beliefs. Areas to suggest books and podcasts were created. A Bible Study feature was created, then a Zoom for Sunday fellowship for those that were transitioning away from meetings. God has used so many people in this experience, it is a miracle!

When we started CCF, we had hope that we could help fix the fellowship that we were raised in and comfortable in, and that had brought so much to our lives. Surely, we thought workers and friends would want to take action along with us when they realized how many perpetrators and victims/survivors there were. As the days ticked by, we saw the discouragement on each regional Zoom call, we heard silence from overseers on those calls, and pain in the voices of those that dared to speak out. We slowly realized that change would not come, or if it did it would take years. We looked around at our sparse gospel meetings and wondered why faces looked so melancholy, yet none were willing to try to fight for change. We had invited people from our meeting and field to the CCF app and also to the Wisconsin regional Zoom calls, but no one responded.

Looking back, we realize the Lord was telling us that we would have more peace in our spiritual lives if we left the fellowship, than we had ever actually had while attending meetings. All we had to do was take that leap of faith.

The original reason for our outcry was the rampant child sexual and adult sexual abuse in the fellowship. We had seen the priority that abusers were given in our area for almost a decade, those who had committed the most disgusting crimes were treated like royalty, given special treatment, and their own meetings with no children present. Then the doctrinal issues started to jump out at us. Why were divorced and remarried couples treated like the lowest of the low, but abusers were treated with kid gloves? One of our friends had said “the abuse is a symptom of a much larger systemic problem,” and we didn’t yet understand what he meant. But slowly, our focus started to shift from questions about abuse, to questions about everything in the fellowship and we realized exclusivity was at the heart of the systemic problems.

In June we attended part of Elizabeth I convention in Colorado. That Saturday afternoon the revelations about how deplorable Leslie White’s abuse had been, came out. The same man who walked those grounds as overseer for the majority of my childhood. We had already made dinner reservations for Saturday night because I had an overwhelming feeling to not be there for the night meeting. I did not want any of our children “professing” to serve God in this fellowship at a time when it was in such a state of upheaval. We had hoped we would hear more cries from those who were worried about the abuse in the fellowship, but testimonies and sermons from the platform held nothing but praise for the workers and striving to do more to earn salvation. The final meeting Sunday was concluded with a brother worker declaring, “I love you young people and I covet you for the work.” We left feeling empty.

One visit in spring of 2023, one of our workers said they were trying to help a newly “professing” woman with our Bible study in Esther. This same worker actually spoke to us individually about this, unbeknownst to us. We both suggested the same thing: “Well why don’t you suggest an NIV Study Bible because that really helps with the historical context of what was going on and the practices that the Jews partook in.” Both times we were met with “I would and they may help a little bit, but they are false preachers.” In other words, someone who has devoted their life to studying history and reading the Bible and translating it from another language that none of us can speak or read, is a false preacher and out to get you. Go read Matthew 23 when Jesus condemns the scribes and the Pharisees, and you will notice many of the workers acting in a similar manner.

This same visit we asked them some questions that had been brought up on CCF. We started out with the age old question of why the eastern USA and western USA were so divided on the divorce issue. They weren’t sure when or why it started, but one said, “We were told by our overseer that there needs to be a 90-day pause before they can take part so others don’t believe we condone divorce and remarriage.” To which we asked. “Why is it okay to have those people take a pause but a pedophile can be let out of prison and be in meeting and take part the next day?” They did not have an answer. We also asked “what happens when the 90 days are up? Are they allowed to take part again?” The answer they gave us was “it would then be revisited by the workers, but we don’t want people to think it’s okay.” I then said “you two have never been married. When you enter into the commitment of marriage you are not expecting it to fail. Things happen, sometimes awful things happen, so why would you punish someone who has gone through a brutal divorce and then gone on to find happiness? Does the blood of Jesus not cover them as well?” No answer. 

On another visit we got deeper into what the ministry would be doing to stop future abuse. Our workers said the training videos they had been doing were now protocol, and that they obviously know the abuse is wrong now. We asked the workers why they dressed the way they did and were met with “Everyone has their own convictions.” We asked why when we go to convention are there a fraction of the number of attendees compared to what we saw in our childhood and were met with “The way is narrow.” We asked why we didn’t have specific groups that could teach and reach out to children, teens, and adults. When we told our workers that we were excited for our kids to learn about God and were reading all kinds of biblical texts to them, we were met with “Ewww, be careful what you read to them because specific doctrine from false preachers could creep in.” We asked what they meant? “The drawings could depict windows on the Ark, and that could confuse a child.”

Starting in July, Shane said he could no longer attend any meetings. He felt God was telling him he needed to take his family and leave. I was not there yet. We had told people we did not want to leave, that we would not have peace leaving, and now we would be eating those words. But most of all, I was comfortable. I had been attending meetings for 37 years and giving my testimony and praying out loud for 25 of those years. Our kids were used to meetings. I asked Shane to give me time, let me pray more, and asked that he be patient. For any who know him, that was a hard ask!

One evening Shane’s cousin and wife invited us for dinner with another cousin. We had a lovely meal and they discussed with us the doctrine issues. They shared their stories of leaving meetings and what it felt like to not have anyone reach out to them. But then they talked about the peace they felt and how God has carried them since they left. One told us about their church and how there could be fellowship outside of meetings. There are honest, Bible-based churches that encourage everyone to be disciples and to help people they come in contact with talk to others about their walk with Jesus. They asked us one important question, “What needs to change for you to stay?” The list was so long we couldn’t answer one thing.

The night culminated in a first for us when Shane’s cousin asked if he could pray for us. Thinking he meant in private after we left, I said “Sure, please do!” At which point he bowed his head and started praying out loud for us. We were both taken aback. But when you hear your name petitioned to God by someone else, it is life changing. And that is something we have NEVER experienced while going to meetings. If anyone feels that is not true, please correct me. Tell me there has been a time when a worker or a friend or someone in your meeting has said “Lord, we pray for _____” explicitly out loud in your presence. We were not taught to pray like that. Tears were streaming down my face and I was speechless.

During these months, we met and spoke with several of our friends and family in addition to all of the Zoom calls on CCF. The number one question we got asked when we said we didn’t feel like we could be in meetings anymore was “Well, why don’t you move?” We weren’t sure how moving would help as we would just land in another meeting, unaware of predators or if others were as concerned as we were. Others asked, “Could you start an unsanctioned meeting?” “What will you do for fellowship?” I still had doubts myself though. I was worried if we left, CCF would lose its credibility because it was run by “someone on the outside”. I was worried we would lose our friends and some family. We knew what happened to those who have left in the past, people lose touch with them because they have “lost out.” We were guilty of losing touch with people who had left in the past, not because we were purposefully cruel, but distance naturally happened.

Shane was out of town the first weekend in August, and I went to meeting by myself with our two youngest. I prayed all morning for peace and for there to be something I could take away from meeting to help me keep going. Our elders were gone, so it wasn’t a normal Sunday. I cannot describe one specific thing about it and can’t even remember what was said, but it just felt off. Afterwards no one talked to me or shook hands (very unusual) and I felt the swift kick in the pants (*cough* skirt) I needed. I no longer had peace in the fellowship that I had been a part of for so many years.

We told our parents in August we couldn’t continue and they were both very supportive and understanding. We told our elders. We did not write an “exit letter.” (This is shaping up to be one, though) We had been pretty vocal, so figured people would know our reasons. Since we left in August, one worker has reached out to see if we are “ok”. Our elder’s wife has reached out several times, yet her husband has never uttered a word to us. The silence is deafening from others. Not one from our gospel meeting has reached out. A few others throughout the state have said they are “sad” that we left meetings. We are not sure why there would be sadness as we are still serving God and our relationship is much stronger with him. We don’t fault them, we ourselves have done that in the past, let those who have left have “their space” and figure things out all while we prayed for them to return to meetings.

We watched a couple of church services online before we attended, and it was comforting to hear messages where nothing was added to or taken away from God’s Holy Word. One week Shane decided to attend in-person. I was not ready, again relating to feeling comfortable. The morning he decided to attend, the kids asked if we were all going. I couldn’t answer because I didn’t have a good excuse. The kids started to get ready and our youngest was very excited to “try a new meeting.” Our oldest was excited to try the Sunday school, but I was leery because of the trust we had put in our old church and was not at all comfortable sending him to strangers. Ultimately something was pulling me to my feet and making me get ready. I was nervous and felt like I would throw up.

Going into a church building can be scary. We have been told that churches that meet in a building specifically for that church are wrong. But the thing that spoke volumes to us when we walked in was the joy on people’s faces. We saw more joy walking ten feet into that church building than we did at any gospel meeting we have attended in the last 15 years. We also saw more young families than we had in our area in that same time. That first Sunday we heard about faith. It should not be a group of people, or a church, but it should be only in God and what he leads us to do. On the way home from that service we were in shock and Shane started crying and asked, “How have we been taught so wrong?” What he meant by “wrong” was that we had been told by the workers to trust in their ministry, and have faith in “The Way,” but rarely did we hear about putting that faith and trust in Jesus.

We have been attending that same church ever since August. Every Sunday we have learned something new, something that has connected the Old Testament to the New Testament and showed our need for Jesus. We are not saying we were never fed in meetings, but we did feel like it was a bunch of the same platitudes on repeat. We wanted to learn and understand more and did not feel like we were maturing as believers. We were starved and didn’t know it. We were not taught how to truly pray or read our Bible. Most who have gone to meetings, can probably admit that a lot of the reading was one study chapter per week trying to find a gem to share for Wednesday night, followed by a study on our own where we again just shared a couple verses that spoke to us on Sunday morning. The rest of our service was to check the boxes of attending gospel meetings, special meetings, and conventions.

When we make the blanket statement of “we were taught,” we mean from the workers, not from our parents. I was raised more “liberally” than Shane, though in the same fellowship. I was allowed to wear pants to school and to cut my hair. We had a television growing up and celebrated Christmas. We went to movies and dances and were encouraged to have school friends. My parents often pushed back against exclusivity and divorced and remarried doctrine. Even though my parents taught me that works would not save us, I was still implicitly being taught by what the workers and others said in meetings and doubted that I was truly saved by grace.

Some “A HA!” Moments that we have had in the past months are as follows.

Obviously, most churches don’t have homeless, unpaid, celibate ministers, and they meet in buildings they own or rent. But as we have learned, many of the workers were not celibate anyway, and were given money at everyone’s doorstep, a car and a roof over their head every night. We were taught those verses in Acts 17 that God does not dwell in temples made by man. Apparently rented halls and convention grounds outfitted for four days of use per year don’t count as “temples made by man.”

We have been preached at from Matthew 10 our whole lives about Jesus sending out the disciples 2×2. Somehow the rest of the that scripture was missed where it says, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” It appears the workers should only be going to the Jewish people and following several other commandments Jesus gave, if they are going to follow Matthew 10 as their foundational doctrine. In Matthew 28 in the Great Commission, Jesus now sends out the disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Jesus is calling ALL believers to be disciples and make more disciples by spreading the good news of the gospel. It’s not like going 2×2 is wrong, it’s just not a requirement. It’s been harmful in many ways though as the workers have indoctrinated people to think 2×2 is “The Way and The Truth,” when Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus didn’t say, you had to hear the gospel from a worker and “profess” (known as the “Living Witness Doctrine”). 

We were made to feel that we were never good enough and that although Jesus died for us, we needed to earn salvation. This is false doctrine. Ephesians 2:8-9 says “For by grace you have been saved through faith. That this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Jesus on the cross uttered his last words, “It is finished.” We are saved by grace through faith, and we can never earn salvation no matter how perfect we try to live our lives. Even the thief on the cross was saved due to his belief, nothing of himself. When we accept Jesus as not only our savior, but as our Lord, he works in our lives to change our hearts that we can’t help but live differently and follow wherever he leads us as a disciple.

We were taught too much other twisted scripture and wrong doctrine in meetings to list, but the important thing is we are following Jesus and are confident he will continue to reveal his Word to us and help us grow and disciple our children and others. If we were to stay and hope for change in doctrine and traditions it would take time that we felt we did not have. Like our good friend shared with us:

Changing the doctrine in an expeditious manner would require actively preaching against what has been preached in the past (e.g. what has been spoken from the platform in the past is incorrect, and now we need to correct it). I see very little to no chance of that happening. Without that, any change in the doctrine will take decades, if not a century or more, to undo 120 years of incorrect teaching by simple osmosis and attrition (i.e. the people preaching the incorrect doctrine dying off). Our children need change in the next few years, or immediately in some cases. They, and we, don’t have decades to wait. This is why staying and waiting for change is not an option.

For years we have been praying to feel a community around us, despite being comfortable in our meeting here, we never really felt connected. The church we now attend 30 minutes from our house is attended by two of our neighbors. All these years we could have had fellowship with them and had no idea. But now God has provided that. Shane attends a men’s discipleship Bible study on Wednesday night with three others from church (two are the neighbors). I attend a women’s Bible study at the church on Thursdays and our neighbor carpools with me. God has opened scripture up to us and made us excited to read our Bibles.

We have found many other books and podcasts that have helped our understanding grow. Learning about the Triune God (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit) has been such a blessing and now we see it everywhere in the Bible! We know that no church is perfect and are thankful for the discernment God has taught us. We look back and realize we didn’t feel connected because God was only mentioned during the hours of meeting and rarely did we talk about his glory and what he had done in our lives in all the meals, conventions, and other gatherings we shared with others.

Now months later, while we are still processing a lifetime of spiritual trauma, we have so much joy in serving God. I was reluctant to admit we had suffered any trauma because we were not physically abused, but in the teaching of wrong doctrine, we did suffer a different kind of trauma. We have healing and deconstructing to do yet, but God is great! He has blessed us beyond anything we could have ever imagined. His Holy Spirit is evident working in our lives and the lives of Christians around us. It is hard to believe we bought into the exclusiveness of meetings, even though we said we didn’t, there was still a part of us that thought we were “different” than other Christians. We missed out on worshipping with so many other beautiful Christians because they didn’t go to meetings.

Maybe you feel you can’t leave meetings because it is all you have ever known and all your family still goes. Maybe your children are of an age of understanding and you are scared to uproot them. Maybe you are scared of losing relationships and wondering what you would do for worship. Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” If you have been in meetings for any period of time, you probably have religious trauma, but know that Jesus can give love, peace, and healing. Jesus will unburden you from legalism.

Those who know us, know Shane is very “black and white” and I see the “gray areas,” so please know, we love you and trust you’re doing what God wants you to be doing. All we care about is that you are truly serving Jesus and him alone, that you have joy in serving him, and that you are being taught straight from the Bible.

Yours in Christ,

Shane and Nikelle (Winberg) Garner
Ripon, Wisconsin
February 14, 2024

If you want a great book on the history of the 2×2 sect that was started by William Irvine in 1897 in Ireland, read the book written by Cherie Kropp-Ehrig, Preserving the Truth: The Church without a Name and Its Founder, William Irvine. The time, energy, and detail she put into researching the history of the 2×2 sect is incredible.

CCF and other resources have been so instrumental in helping people realize they are not alone in their thoughts and experiences. We were always told not to read anything on the “evil internet” about meetings, now we know why, the workers were scared of people finding “The Truth.”

Shane stepped down from being a host of CCF in October 2023.