Leaving Church: What I'm Learning (Part 1)
“Come and help us learn to be the people of God in the neighborhood where we find ourselves.” Three and a half years ago, we moved our family from Thousand Oaks, CA to the Portland, Oregon area—Beaverton, to be specific. We left our jobs at Pepperdine: I was associate chaplain, and my husband Dave had been a counselor but had recently transitioned over to teaching psychology classes part-time so he could be home with the kids more. Life was pretty close to perfect. But it was interrupted by a call: “Come and help us learn to be the people of God in the neighborhood where we find ourselves.” That’s how this associate minister position was pitched to me. And ultimately it’s what tipped the scales of discernment, calling me away from the wonderful career I had at Pepperdine, to be a “missionary in residence” with a gender-inclusive Church of Christ in Oregon.
I had seven years of graduate school, conferring both a master’s and a doctorate. I had over 12 years of experience working and teaching in higher education. But working for a church? That was a whole new ballgame. I knew churches had been accused of burning ministers, and there are lots of insurance agents out there who were *once* Christian ministers. But in my excitement over being offered what I thought was a once-in-a-lifetime ministry position that I wasn’t sure would ever happen in my lifetime, I naively thought I could escape the risk of getting burned.
It seems to be true that when you work for a church, the ups and downs and gains and losses have a deeper significance than in other industries. When I worked at Pepperdine and a co-worker announced they were leaving, I maybe felt sad but didn’t feel personally hurt. When I worked for the church, each departure felt deeply personal—they weren’t just changing the scenery, they were shifting their loyalties and had given up on us as a community. Each time a member of the visioning team left, I was devastated. These were the people who told me and Dave about their hopes and dreams for this church, and how invested they were. They were the search committee—the discerners who brought us here. And then they gave up and walked away. It was heartbreaking.
When I received the news that the new leadership team realized the church was bleeding money and it was my position that would be cut, I felt the jagged bottom of that pit. Regardless of the reality of the cold hard numbers, it still felt deeply personal. They had given up on this new thing we were doing together and pulled the plug. The rejection was more painful than I could have imagined.
This is what I’m learning about leaving ministry and leaving church: you can leave it, but it won’t leave you. I’ve been attending church since I was in the womb, and have been involved in ministry whether paid or unpaid since I was a teenager. It’s so deeply woven into the fabric of my being that my soul grieves its absence, my heart aches over the distance. I haven’t figured out how to be just a member in the community I used to help shape, pastor, and lead. And I’m not sure I ever will. What was once so pregnant with possibility is now a painful reminder of a vocational miscarriage.
Before we ever accepted the job and moved, the big what-if that was on our minds was of course: what if this doesn’t work out? After we’ve uprooted our family and walked away from great jobs and friends and family and church, after we’ve sold our home and answered this call, what if it doesn’t work out? They’ve told us my salary will come from savings for three years, but what if nothing changes with the budget and they can’t afford to keep me after that? Will we be able to stay with this church? Will we stay in Oregon?
Lots of things fell into place to enable us to stay in Oregon. Just when I was getting laid off, Dave got a promotion. And I was offered a nice temporary, flexible gig in local government that allows me to be home with the kids in the afternoons and on breaks from school. And I’ve been building my writing and speaking career. So financially, yes we could stay in Oregon for a while longer. And I’m so grateful for the ways I can see God taking care of us through what was a season of anxiety and depression and so much uncertainty.
But we haven’t been able to stay at the church. We tried. We hung on for three months with the knowledge that my job was being eliminated. We kept trying after that because our kids wanted to be there—this was their church home. But it wasn’t our church home anymore. Yes we still loved the people there, but we no longer felt hopeful about the church’s future. We felt so frustrated, hurt by, and disappointed with leadership. I’ve asked a number of ministers how you do this—how you go back to being “just” a member and whether that’s even possible. The answer, I’m finding, is it depends. It depends on the circumstances, the context, the people … it just depends. For us, it’s not workable.
When you’ve been burned by a church and are disenchanted with the American institutionalized church, then what?
In my next post I’ll share about “ministry at large” and what church looks like for us right now.