I have hesitated to post my story for two reasons:
First…I don’t have the extreme horror stories of power-hungry leaders or abuse that many of you have described. Overwhelmingly, my friends and co-workers have been wonderful people who are interested in the things of God….as they interpret ‘god’.
Second…I am still working on my feelings for the church. While many of you seem so convinced, I have mixed emotions about my involvement with organized religion and am not sure where I will land. The truth is, I still care deeply about my (former) church, the denomination, and its leaders…but I now question some of the assumptions that our ‘mission’ is based on.
For these reasons, I am feeling very vulnerable about sharing. But I am trusting there is space here for even me 🙂
* * SOME BACKGROUND * *
I have been in the church business for most of my adult life as lay leader, worship leader, teacher/preacher, administrator and church planter/pastor. I have been instrumental in building the church structure that so many despise. Sure…I saw stuff I didn’t like, questioned many things, and dealt with my own personal hurt. But, time and again, I shook off my disappointment and remained the church’s champion; defending the bone-head things people do (including me) because I understand that we are all imperfect. Instead of leaving, I always felt compelled to help us/church do better. I wanted to be the place I felt we could be by God’s spirit.
The demise of my marriage (pastor/husband of 22 years left family/church) was the first crisis that tested my feelings/beliefs about the church. In the middle of this tragedy, I received little (read none) pastoral oversight. After much grappling with my pain and struggle over my vocation, I believed I heard God confirm my call to senior leadership in the local church, so I stayed to help the church recover and eventually left for an admin staff position at another of our churches.
Fast forward many years, where I am now in the middle of a huge crisis of faith that includes my theology/ecclesiology being challenged at every turn and where I can no longer ignore the huge problems I see.
I have come to the slow and painful conclusion that something is wrong…terribly wrong.
* * LEADERS ARE HUMAN FIRST * *
In 2008, my pastor and I began discussions about me launching another church plant – this time as a single woman. After a couple of years wrestling through the complexity of my unique situation, we finally agreed to go for it and in early spring of 2011, I began to put things into motion.
A few months later, I entered into a relationship with a man who was in the process of a divorce…separated, but clearly still married. The news of this relationship came out in a very public way, which compromised everything. Initially, I was devastated and terribly upset that I may have caused shame on the church. I was so focused on the church that, in typically unhealthy fashion, I didn’t even think about my own feelings or needs.
At first, everyone was wonderful. The pastor conveyed nothing but love and care for me, and truthfully, if I was in his position I might not have done anything differently.
I did what was asked of me, but there was no clear plan, no follow through and little direction to help us process things. In a flash, I went from being a very visible, vibrant leader who spoke on Sundays and who was soon to be launched as a new church planter, to someone who couldn’t even lead worship in small group. This with little explanation or oversight.
Even though I had repented and stopped seeing this man (before it became public), I suddenly had a huge ‘A’ on my chest. Though I knew God and I were okay, I got the sense that others were looking for something more; more sorrow…more promises…more tears, more flagellation.
I resented that a great deal.
I felt all along that God was right there helping me process this relationship and giving me discernment…even when I was not making the best decisions.The reactions from mere mortals felt like a slap in the face to what I understood discipleship to be.
I clearly remember one encounter with a close friend (and board member) who, with tears in her eyes, expressed grief over how ‘devastating’ this all was. That made me so angry. I didn’t feel like my life was devastated…but I knew what she meant. She was devastated for me. Instinctively she knew that everything had changed. Though I don’t believe it changed people’s love for me, there was really no place in the system for me…not if I was going to be 100% honest in my struggles.
But why? Why is there such drama because a leader is fully human? In our attempts to make things look pretty and sterile, we have created a place where people/leaders can’t be honest. Eventually people crack or the bubble becomes so sterile that others come and go but cannot be themselves.
* * CLIPPING THROUGH THE CRACKS * *
During the six months after this incident (where I stayed connected and tried to follow through on what was asked of me), no one…NO ONE…asked me about my heart. People seemed to want me to get to the bottom of how I could slip up and do such a terrible thing so I could get back on the road I was on. I couldn’t struggle in full honesty. I couldn’t talk about the beauty of being in love again for the first time since my divorce (since this was forbidden). I couldn’t talk about the pain of losing him or of the public humiliation (since I brought it on myself).
I ignored my heart, my head, my own intuition and and what I felt God said to me and stayed away from this man. A major turning point came when I remember thinking…”Am I doing these things because I believe they are the best for me? Or because it is someone else’s idea of ‘right’ and the only route back into leadership?” At that point, I knew I had to be true to myself even if it meant further separation from the church.
So I slipped away…which was easy because no one called. I took another job and then one missed Sunday turned into weeks. When I received the first stock postcard the staff sends to absentees that says, ‘they missed me’…I lost it. I dug my heels in and wondered just how long would I have to miss before someone really noticed or cared? Well…the weeks turned into months. Still, no one called.
And slowly…I just seemed to fall through the cracks.
* * QUESTIONS * *
Cleary, I messed up. But my mistakes were in making decisions that went against my personal convictions and because I compromised my own wisdom….but:
? How could that negate the way I had spent my entire adult life?
? What should forgiveness in a community look like?
? How much does one have to repent before absolution?
? Why are we so scandalized by humanity?
? What differentiates service vs leadership, and does one slip-up mean we are forever disqualified?
As these questions arose, so did others. I began to look closer at the ideas of Original Sin, the Atonement and Heaven/Hell. Until 10 months ago, I never remember a time when I did not wholeheartedly believe the story. Now, I just don’t know.
The slope has become quite slippery, indeed.
* * NOW…I AM JUST MAD * *
My ecclesiology has/is being reshaped and I am looking at the church very differently. I can’t seem to defend her anymore. I need to say out loud that some things are just not right, or fruitful or beneficial. And I need to say out loud that I am mad. I am mad because….
– – I am expendable. It has been easier to let me fall through the cracks then to do the hard work of messy.
– – In the church, there is room for a testimony (in the past tense), but not for letting people process through their very real struggles.
– – If, as a leader, I can’t model what it means to wrestle with my humanity…what is it that we are offering people?
– – After an entire life of sincerely trying to live for God…my integrity, character and ability to lead were immediately called into question because of a bad decision. Using this yardstick, what hope do any of us have to measure up?
– – We have created a place where only the strong can make it: A RELIGIOUS SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST. If this could happen to me, what about all the people who cycle through the church doors who aren’t as strong? What about those who can’t ask the questions or aren’t able to find the resources.
– – We are focusing so much energy and resource to produce a once-a-week event that we are overlooking the very thing we are trying to do…connection with people.
– – We try to program the process of discipleship in a classroom model that wears out weary families and leaves little room for authentic relationship, which we all say we want.
– – I ignored my own self care to tirelessly serve. This is no one else’s fault….but I am kinda mad at God….all along I was praying for wisdom, guidance, clarity and direction….wth?
– – I have lost so much…and I fear naming many years as wasted, focused on the wrong things.
– – If I abandon this thing I have given my life to, what does that mean about me? And worse…what does that say about God ?
– – I know what it would take to fix everything and get back there. I don’t think I want to go back, but it angers me that I am tempted.
– – I have no object of my anger. I can point to no one person who did anything to me. How have we created such a flawed system that well-meaning people who want to get it right, seem impotent to do the very thing they say they want?
I have not (yet) totally abandoned the system, but am only peripherally connected. I have had a few fruitful conversations with the pastor and one other staff member…but I don’t know where I will go from here. In regards to the church, I am left with questions, disappointments and doubts. Every now and then I feel excitement because of the freedom I feel….but somewhat scared as well.
Thank you for listening and for this space to express and process this odd love/hate thing I have going on with the church.