Leaving Church

I've sat on this post for months now, waiting to get my heart in the right place, waiting to make sure I wasn't anger-blogging. (I made that term up, but I think it is a thing.) But words are what I do, and here's the thing I've found...sometimes we find community when we share the things that aren't pretty, the things that we think make us most alone. Words set us free. 

One Sunday morning I sat on my couch browsing Facebook when an unexpected question caught my eye. “What do you do when you don’t feel you can stay at your church any longer because the core beliefs have shifted?”

The post in its entirety was an uncanny echo of my situation at the time, so much so that I almost double-checked to make sure I hadn't written it myself. I sat and watched as response after response rolled in. “I’ve been there too. It’s hard.” “I’m so sorry, I know what that hurt feels like.” “We were in leadership when this happened, we’re well past it now but it still hurts.” Suddenly there we were, a community of women with ash-smudged hands, not only acknowledging that church is hard, but that it can wound deeply, sometimes with a slow smoldering and sometimes with the ferocity of a wildfire.

Church is hard, if you are really going to give it your all. Sure, you can show up when you feel like it, step away from building close relationships, slip in late and leave early and never really give your heart away. But sometimes you settle in. You sit on couches together and you listen to the hearts that speak, you offer generous hugs and gather around the sacramental coffee table. These people become your people. Your children grow up together, new babies are born, jobs are celebrated, and losses are mourned. “These will always be my people,” you think. “This will always be my place.”

And then it happens. Sometimes it’s ‘easy’. A new job, a move, a spreading of wings as you fly away.
And sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you see the flames creeping up over the top of the hill. You wait, thinking it will die down, but the smoke begins to choke and the fire grows hotter until all you can do is flee.

If we are really honest, the flames come more often than many people admit.

I try to be fair on my blog. There are always multiple sides to a story, and I get the benefit of telling mine in the public sphere. So I’ve kept mostly quiet while I sit by the embers of what used to be, because what we experience is subjective, formed out of our histories, our beliefs, our personalities. It would be unjust for us to expect everyone to share in our experience in exactly the same way, and the fire that rages and leaves us with the dusting of ash on our skin may be another person’s comfort, another person’s hope. Just because I don’t understand how doesn’t mean it can’t be so.

But this is the reality…church can wound us deeply, and what do you do when you love deeply but the flames are leaving scars? What do you do when the healthiest choice seems to be to leave?
If you have been a ‘good church girl (or guy)’ for any length of time you will no doubt hear all of the voices in your head telling you the same refrain. You may even hear them from the people you love.

“You just aren’t submitting to authority.”

“Church is a covenant, how dare you break it?”

“What about the greater good of the community?”

“It’s the consumeristic mind set, you just want a place that makes you feel good and meets all of your shopping list of requirements.”

Please hear me when I say this. It is okay to go. It really, truly is okay to leave a church.

How do you know when it’s time to go?

It may begin as that twitch in your eye, that nervous tic that begins jumping wildly every Sunday morning without fail. It may be the tense shoulders, the upset stomach, or the migraines that plague you whenever you are under stress. It might be the panic attack, the insomnia, the tightness in your chest. If you’ve lived long enough, you will have learned to recognize the signs that you are under stress; you will have learned to connect the dots. Eventually, as you assess your life and all of the stressors in it, you will follow the dots back to their origin. Somehow you will not be surprised when it all points back to church.

Then what?

Push into the discomfort. Ask hard questions. Speak up. You may find that things are easily resolved. Or you may hit a brick wall. You may be labeled, judged, dismissed. Still, if you are growing stronger in faith, if you are hungry to know Christ more, if you can sense a common goal beyond the disagreements on theology, then it may be that you need to stay, to work through the difficulties together.

Sometimes, though, we know that growth won’t happen if we stay. We've hit the point at which we are surviving, not thriving. Our focus begins to shift from living out the call of Christ’s beautiful Kingdom and towards the nagging questions, “Am I really saved? Am I saved enough? Is God looking at me with disapproval? What if I haven’t QUITE done everything right enough? What if I haven’t dotted all my theological ‘i’s and crossed all the theological ‘t’s?” Our passion for the Good News begins to dim, suffocating in the smoke. 

Leaving isn't easy, it shouldn't be easy, not if you've built community. You may be surprised at unexpected moments by how much it still hurts, even when you know to the depth of your soul that you made the right choice. There may be days when you are angry, days when you cry, days when the only reason you step through the door of a church again is because you still believe somewhere deep inside that the Church is good because God is good. You will slip in and slip out, uncertain about giving your heart away. You will be silent when you gather in small groups. You will bite your tongue to keep the questions in because you are afraid. The 'heretic' label hurts; you don't want to walk that road again. You will wonder if you can ever truly love the Church again. 

I'd like to say that it all works out in the end, that you'll find your place, that you will laugh and mourn and drink coffee and gather together and it will be good. I can't guarantee that. I hope for that. I can tell you that sometimes the place you find will be unexpected. I can tell you that trying to find that exact replica of your church 'before' can be a recipe for disappointment. The Church is a living, breathing body, each one different from the next, and just as we love our friends in all their beauty and imperfection, so too we need to love the Church for what it is, and not what we wish it would be.

But I can tell you this much: with time, you will find your passion again. Good News will be good news, and you will find new ways to fall in love with Jesus. I can also tell you that when you find your voice again it will be freer, bolder, and hopefully wiser. You may carry the memory of the scent of smoke with you for years, but you also carry embers, flickers of hope in a darkened world.

(It should probably go without saying that if a church is spiritually abusive, you need to leave. That is far beyond the scope of this post, and there are many books and websites out there which can help you to recognize abuse and leave it behind. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by Jeff VanVonderen and David Johnson is a good place to start.)


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