Why would a person feel the need to leave a church behind, in order to find themselves? This again sounds crazy, much like my previous article, and the podcast episodes on this topic with Gary Hayes. We suggested that someone may have to contemplate leaving the church to find God. It’s ironic, absurd, and (in principle at least) seems the exact opposite of what I believe the church is supposed to be all about. The church is where people go to “find God,” and learn about their own emotional and spiritual makeup. Isn’t it?
Let me try and paint an idealized version of one of the major aspects of what I believe the church is supposed to be all about. What is the purpose of the church, anyway?
The Church: The Body of Christ?
As I understand passages like Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12, Paul in both cases makes the argument that the church is made up much like our own human bodies. All the organs and parts are (ideally) meant to function and work together for the common good; the body is supposed to grow, become mature and healthy when all of that takes place. God has created each of us uniquely to function in that body, just like the various parts of our own human bodies work.
The whole “body metaphor” that Paul develops to describe the church is predicated upon the basis of our individual spiritual gifts, skills, abilities and passions. No two people are alike—every one of us is unique and different in terms of personality, giftedness, passions and temperament—and it takes hard work to figure out where you and I fit into that body. But as we proceed along the journey to “become who we are,” in the context of a loving and supportive community, this is how it can happen.
Paul is also unapologetic about the role of leaders within the church. What are they meant to be doing? According to how I read Paul, leaders in particular are primarily put in place by Christ, the head of the church, and given critical leadership gifts. Leaders, then, should (ideally) exist to help people discover and nurture their spiritual gifts, personality traits, temperaments and passions. When this all happens, argues Paul (according to both passages listed above), the people within the church—not just the leaders alone—engage in “the works of ministry” as they are equipped, and empowered, by the leaders.
So much for the nutshell biblical-theological overview of what I believe church is supposed to be about.
Leaving Church to Find Yourself
Let’s now return to the question at hand: why would anybody contemplate leaving such a nurturing, supportive, welcoming, equipping and empowering community to find themselves? If all those wonderful activities that I just described above were indeed happening, then surely a person would be finding themselves in the church! Why would anyone ever leave such a wonderful place of discovery, growth and maturity?
I believe the root of the problem is this: for so many people, their experiences of church are the exact opposite of what I just described–that idealized picture of what church is to be. Many Christians report that the church is where they learn this lesson: in order to be accepted and valued by leadership, you must fit into a certain mold, a cookie-cutter mentality. In other words, often there’s a “one-size-fits-all” approach to mission, evangelism, spirituality, etc. The implicit message given out by preachers and leaders alike is this: “Deny who you really are in terms of gifts, personality and temperament; learn to become (or at least pretend to be) someone, and something, that you are not.”
As Paul would say, however, a spleen can never become an ear, no matter how hard it tries to deny what, and who, it is. Better to embrace your “spleen-ness” and learn what it means to be true to who God made you to be. As I tell my students: “If you’re a big toe, then be the best big toe you can be!” You’ll be far more compelling, missional, effective, whatever, by being true to who, and what, you are.
Wearing the Mask
Moreover, oftentimes church is the place where most of us learn to hide our true selves, and our deepest problems, for fear of being condemned by other members, or those in leadership; it’s also the place where so many of us learn to “wear a mask” in the efforts to try and desperately look like we have it all together spiritually. Many churches are full of families who are falling apart at home, but who attend on Sundays and project an air of calm serenity and happiness. There may be incredible dysfunction or abuse at home; marriages on the rocks; but come to church on Sunday, paste on a plastic smile, and all is well with the world.
Just as an example: in my family, when I was a kid, on many Sunday mornings, we had to endure a major ordeal. Oftentimes my mother would yell at us, all the way to church, for being the last one out of the door of the house. One of us slackers had made us late for church, yet again! And we heard all about it for the entire 30-minute ride to church. But then, as our car pulled into the church parking lot, she would turn to us children—cowering in the back seat of the car—wag her finger and say severely, “Now put on a smile! We’re about to go into the church!”
And so, even as children, at a very early age we learned a valuable lesson: as we entered the building, regardless of what went on at home, or even in the car mere minutes beforehand, we had to “play the game.” We learned to wipe away the tears before we walked through the front door and put on a happy face—even though we were emotionally damaged and were dying inside. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because even if people noticed we looked upset or hurt, people didn’t interfere in other families’ business. In fact, nobody–including the preacher too– ever talked about anything even remotely real, too, from what I recall.
Churches and Mental Health Issues
There’s another aspect to this whole thing of humanity, also. According to Steve Austin, many churches are so often places where people can’t admit they struggle with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, stress, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and so much more. Or if they do finally work up the courage to admit their problems to a pastor, the answer they may hear back from that pastor is to prescribe the “magic Jesus pill”—say a quick prayer, and God will solve your problem. On to the next meeting or activity, then; important things to do for God, you know. Can’t spend too much time dealing with this person’s problems—God, you’d better come through for me on this one!
Leaders: Up on the Pedestal, Please!
And what about leaders of churches? Can they afford to be truly themselves, and express their core humanity? To some extent, I believe, in some cases, the answer is a partial “Yes.” In other words, some pastors (especially in North America in your more “progressive churches”) may be able to get away with having an alcoholic drink, or smoking that cigar (or even cigarettes!) They may listen to secular music, and even have some tattoos or piercings, and all of that may be viewed as hip and cool by their parishioners. All well and good.
But what if that pastor or leader has very real and serious doubts about his or her faith? When a personal tragedy strikes their life, can they express their wavering trust in a supposedly almighty, loving God? What if they are questioning the official line about the Bible being completely error-free, the infallible and authoritative Word of God? Or whatever the pet doctrine or values their church or denomination sets up as the be-all, end-all of the discussion. What if they don’t agree with the recently-published Nashville Statement and think that members of the LGBTQ community are to be welcomed in their church community? And the list goes on.
As Steve Austin commented in our podcast, it was his public airing of doubts about his faith that resulted in him getting sacked from a church ministry position. Upon being let go from the church, he was informed as to the reason: “You can be a pastor and have doubts. You just can’t be a pastor, and publicly have doubts about your faith.” The fact is this: in so many churches, leaders are put up on a pedestal by the congregation, and are viewed as “paragons of the faith,” shining examples of what a “successful Christian person” is meant to look like.
Many years ago, I recall the words of a veteran pastor, in a leadership conference, dispensing this sage advice to church leaders: “Pastors and church leaders, you should be able to say the following statement, in all honesty and sincerity, to your congregation: ‘If you want to be a success in your Christian life, then follow my example in every area of your life. If you do that, then you’ll be a victorious Christian.” No pressure at all, then.
No wonder so many pastors and church leaders are burning out, and leaving the ministry at a record pace. Can you imagine, trying to live up to such a clearly impossible standard of behavior and spirituality? I certainly wouldn’t want to try, although I did try for more than a decade when I was a pastor. Predictably, I burned out and left the ministry like so many others.
Apparently, given such an impossibly-high standard of setting such an example, leaders and pastors don’t (or can’t afford to, anyway) have any doubts about the Bible, or about their faith at all; they’ve got all the answers, after all. The proof is in the pudding: he or she regularly and consistently preaches those truths about both the Bible and the faith every Sunday in the service.
But I wonder what would happen if that preacher dared to ask her congregation just to consider affirming the LGBTQ community, and welcoming them into the church? What would happen if that church leader asked people to question whether or not Paul could have been misogynistic in his attitudes toward women? Or had the courage to dare to question any of the core doctrines on which their church or denomination is based? Or simply expressed his or her very real doubts and concerns about God, or the infallibility of the Bible as the Word of God? I don’t think it would take very long for that pastor or leader to be out pounding the pavement, desperately looking for another source of income to pay their bills and feed the family.
By now, hopefully the absurdity and irony of the situation should be made a little bit clearer.
Why leave the church to find your humanity?
In my case—speaking personally now—I made the difficult decision, several years ago, to walk away from the church. This was hard, because church had been a huge part of my identity for most of my adult life, both as a Christian and then later as a church leader.
I came to that conclusion, however, primarily over the frustrating issue that my gifts and passions weren’t being utilized at all by our current church. Frankly, over the years I grew tired of going to the leadership—cap in hand, essentially—and begging for a chance to do this or that activity that I knew I was good at, or passionate about, only to be told “We’ll discuss your idea, we’ll pray about it; and then later get back to you.” And of course, they never did, and the frustration mounted.
It was a conversation with a good friend of mine, Tim, that finally did it for me. When I was expressing my frustration to him at being blocked all the time by those in leadership, he said this: “Don’t take it personally. They do it to basically everyone. I’ve been at this church for years now, and I’ve seen scores of mature and gifted Christians like you walk out the door in frustration, never to return. They just finally get tired of being rebuffed by the leadership, so they finally give up and leave.”
What an incredibly sad statement! How many wonderful, gifted and passionate people who could have made a huge difference, both in that church and that community, were lost forever to that church? All they wanted to do—shockingly—was to serve, to minister, to do what they were passionate about, and good at; and for their troubles, they were consistently turned away by the leadership, so they finally quit the place.
Can you really blame them?
Some other church or community, hopefully, is making use of their gifts and passions elsewhere. Unfortunately, many—like me—refuse to darken the door of any more churches because of those hurtful and damaging experiences.
That conversation that I had with Tim, however, was a huge help to me, because I finally saw that I had in fact been taking it personally. What I discovered was that it wasn’t really about me; it was mostly about the fact that people quite simply couldn’t break into the little clique that actually ran the place. You know, the ones at the top of the food chain who got to do all the “important” and high-profile jobs and ministries around the church.
Unfortunately, this is an all-too common scenario in so many churches, isn’t it?
And so, I walked away and in a strange way, found myself; or at least, I feel like that’s what I’m in the process of doing. I’m not beholden to anybody for financial support in a church leadership context; I don’t have to prop up any sort of system. My salary doesn’t depend on the donations of pleased (or displeased) members that I’ve offended by being real. The people that I hang around with (bikers, rockers, LGBTQ; people working on construction sites, etc.). don’t expect me to wear a mask and be a fake. They don’t care that I have full-sleeve tattoos, long hair, or drink a pint or two; they let me listen to whatever music I want without condemning me; I can talk to whoever I want, and feel absolutely zero pressure to conform to some sort of fundamentalist behavioural standards imposed on me by some preacher quoting Bible verses at me, or proof-texting some long list of black-and-white doctrinal statement.
All this is incredibly freeing! How ironic that I had to leave church behind to learn who I am.
I am finding God in the real-ness of becoming who I am; will you join me on this journey?