This series of blog posts has been a years long search for understanding for me. I am sure I am not 100% correct in my thinking in every area, but I’ve tried the best I can to see things from multiple angles and perspectives. It is not my goal to place blame or complain, nor to make excuses for myself. My goal is to simply state what I see are issues facing Christian churches that I can no longer subject myself to. This is a multi-part blog series because I want to make sure I express myself thoroughly and well.
It's taken me two blog posts to get to this point. I’ve covered division in the church and why I I think we take that to extremes. And I’ve touched on issues I’ve seen in church leadership. In this post I want to finish that topic by explaining what I’ve seen and experienced personally and what I would need to see and experience in order to return to church.
This part scares me the most. It’s easy to give reasons and Bible verses on where I think the church is missing it. It’s not easy to open myself up and share wounds that people might pick at and roll their eyes at or subject me to religious ranting about how wrong I am.
And maybe I am wrong. I’m willing to accept that I don’t have it all figured out. In fact, I know I don’t have it all figured out. But what I won’t do is patiently let people steamroll over me with words that do not have love behind them. So if you read this, get angry, and feel the need to put me in my place. Don’t. If, however, you read this and have concerns founded on Biblical principals, AND understand that my experiences and the emotions I experienced in them are valid and the pain I felt was real, then let’s talk.
As I said before, I grew up in church. I participated in pretty much everything there was to participate in unless it had anything to do with sports.
I know, in part, that my own life journey – my traumas and perceptions – have played a role in my ability to feel like I belong somewhere. But I also know there were times growing up when I saw a closeness between church leaders and my peers that I wished I could have but didn’t. A comfortableness between myself and someone I looked up to that would have allowed me to speak freely about struggles I had.
I often felt invisible as a child. And often boasted of this. I could go under the radar at school, undetected by teachers most of the time. An average student, quiet, attentive. The friends I had in my neighborhood were never in any of my classes at school, in fact I never saw them at school. Instead, I would read books, draw pictures of cats, and observe people. Sometimes I got lonely, but mostly it was just normal that I was always alone. I had friends in my neighborhood after all, and friends at church.
Although churches changed several times, my aloneness didn’t start to bother me until I was a teenager. I went to youth group, I had lots of “friends.” I adored my youth pastors. I babysat their kids, did some house cleaning for them, and even took piano lessons from them for a short time when they found I was possibly interested in playing for the youth worship team. When I did make the band, it didn’t last. I was too nervous being in front of people to keep track of where the other band members were, which is kind of crazy since after those youth pastors stepped down and moved away, I ended up leading worship and playing the piano at the same time for a while. And hated it because I knew I wasn’t equipped for the role.
I remember being jealous of some of the other kids and the easy relationship they had with the youth pastors. I wanted to joke around with them too. I wanted to be part of the circle of kids they communicated with on a regular basis. But opening up to people was extremely difficult for me back then. When people took the time to get to know me first, it was easier. But few people were willing to break through my outer shell. I wanted to be noticed and liked but didn’t feel like I could put myself out there. I needed someone to see me. Otherwise, I felt like I was just in the way. An inconvenience that most people just had to deal with as part of their busy lives. A trauma response I didn’t know about until recently.
Just before the youth pastors announced they were stepping down and moving away, my grandma committed suicide. I was supposed to be doing something for the youth pastors that week, I don’t remember what, and had to call and cancel. When I told them why I broke down sobbing. It was the first time I had really shown emotion to them.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but they were dealing with their own emotional stuff. They were sympathetic and prayed for me, but after that call there was no checking in to see how I was. The lack of response I got from them confirmed in my mind that I didn’t matter. A few days later, one of the girls in the youth group text me the news that they were stepping down and moving away. I had some understanding that, that was why they hadn’t checked in with me. But somehow I’d hoped that once I returned home and saw them in person, they would be a source of comfort. This news dashed that hope. Once again, I found myself in a position where my problems were an inconvenient blip on someone else’s radar. But this time it hurt really, really bad.
The youth group fell apart after that. Kid’s whose parents never came regularly stopped coming, some of the families left the church. I kept expecting someone to come and talk to us, to explain what was happening, and why. To offer us comfort. But no one did. Things were whispered, and rumors spread, but no open conversation happened. Things came out about various leaders in that church (not the youth pastors) that made me realize why the youth pastors had chosen to step down and leave. I don’t know how many of the other kids heard about those things, but being quiet and attentive, I heard things.
I talked about some of these things with my mom, and I’m sure other families talked about it too, maybe even to each other. But at church everyone acted as if nothing had happened. It was all smiles and hugs. But I couldn’t smile or hug and I started to withdraw into myself. I mistrusted the happy faces around me who were also spreading horrible rumors. I was convinced changes were coming to the leadership, but no change came. I hated that the youth were scattered, and no one seemed to care.
I stayed at that church for quite some time after this, I don’t remember how long exactly, maybe a year? I was too old for the youth group and hurting too much to have the energy to help out there anymore. Many people left, including most of the kids I’d been in youth group with. We didn’t stay in touch. Every Sunday I hoped someone would see how much I was hurting and reach out. These people had known me for five years, watched me grow up. Saw me get baptized. Watched me in plays. Celebrated my high school graduation. Surely some of them knew me well enough by now to know I was not okay.
I don’t remember the circumstances around how this conversation came up, but it was the last straw for me. The pastor’s wife came up to me, gave me a hug, and said she’d noticed and heard (possibly from my mom? I don’t remember) that I’d been unhappy for quite some time and didn’t know why she never said anything before. I was trying to choke back tears and couldn’t speak, but I nodded. I had been unhappy. And finally, someone was reaching out! But then someone came up and pulled her away – she was needed elsewhere. I waited. Lingering after church to see if she would come talk to me about how miserable I’d been. She didn’t. Nor did she call me that week or talk to me the next Sunday. That was my last Sunday there. I couldn’t stay where no one cared about me. I was too miserable and didn’t know how to bear my heart to people I didn’t trust to care for it. Despite the rumors, I would have spilled my guts to her if she’d showed me compassion.
Over the next four or five years, I occasionally tried out a new church but never felt welcome at any of them. People seemed fake to me. I got into the habit of counting to three whenever someone greeted me at the door of a church with “Welcome! How are you today?” to see if they would wait for an answer before moving on. Most did not. I struggled with depression for most of that time, but continued to pray and read my Bible on my own.
I didn’t stop having a relationship with Jesus during that time. I did my best to pray. I still read my Bible and tried to grow in my relationship with Jesus on my own. But I was still hurting too. And then one day I decided to try yet another church. It was a small church, and I was only able to come during the midweek service or Sunday evening service because I worked Sunday mornings. People noticed. They talked to me and passed my three second test. For the first time in a long time I felt hope.
After several months I was able to switch my work schedule and started coming on Sunday mornings. I volunteered to work with the kids, started attending the women’s ministry events. I met my husband. A few years later Craig and I were married in that church. That came with some pangs from the church leadership that I won’t go into here, but I think our wedding was the beginning of the end for us at that church.
Craig was over the sound team, I was over the preschool department. We had a ten-year-old special needs child we were trying to raise. Craig started having problems with the leadership in regards to the sound. He struggled to find people who wanted to be part of the sound team. The worship leader, had her own ideas of what she wanted the sound to be and would often change things without telling Craig, and would often ignore his advice and expertise.
I started having trouble finding enough people to help in the nursery and preschool, and soon both of us were working every single Sunday and at every special event. We were burnt out. We asked for help, we asked for a break, the leaders over us promised relief, but it never came. For once I’d voiced a need – thanks in large part to Craig being such a great support to me - but again my problems and issues were put aside and I felt like I was being a burden for being exhausted. I didn’t know what to do except to keep trudging forward.
Then issues started popping up with our son. Parents came to us with complaints. We were called into the pastor’s office and were told to keep him close to us and not let him wander freely or be alone with other kids. Exasperated, we asked how we were supposed to do that with both of us serving all the time. Their only suggestion was to recommend some parenting books for us to read and tell him to stay within sight of one of us before or after church. So we did. And the old hurt I’d felt before came rushing back. Only now I wasn’t their only inconvenience, my whole family was. This is also about the time I started having anxiety on the regular, which I didn’t realize had become a struggle for me until years later.
I don’t blame what happened at church for the anxiety I had. The anxiety came from the trauma I experienced as a baby. It was at this point though, that it began to surface in ways that I could recognize as anxiety.
It didn’t take long for our son to feel excluded and punished and as a result he started acting out more. Around that time, I’d called the pastors, desperate for someone to come help me when our son had a violent outburst at home. They were otherwise engaged (if I remember correctly, they were out to dinner with other church members) but prayed for us – which was a nice gesture I guess but since I was in crisis mode and working my way through contacts to find someone who could physically be there with us, their prayer was irritating.
It wasn’t too long after that, that we decided to leave that church. We were all miserable and even though we had reached out for help and comfort, we didn’t receive it. Granted, the pastors weren’t equipped to help us with our son. I suspect we overwhelmed them. But it still hurt. The work we did made us believe we had value to the leadership there. But the philosophy of the pastor was that if you had a problem with the church, then you shouldn’t let the door hit you on the way out. He said it pretty often from the pulpit and it irked me every single time.
A month later, I got together with a couple of ladies I considered to be my friends from that church and had coffee with them. One of them asked me how the preschool classes were going. She didn’t know we’d left because we worked so much, no one ever saw us and the leadership apparently didn’t say anything about us leaving. It was an awkward moment as I tried to explain why we weren’t going there anymore – without placing blame or making anyone in the church look bad. I don’t even remember what I said, but I know there was a lot of stumbling over words and probably not making much sense. Those two ladies never reached out to me again after that.
A year later, we attended a Worship at the Capital event – a yearly event where Christian churches of all denominations are invited to come and worship together. Worship bands from different churches are picked to lead worship. Ironically, the churches all stay in their own church groups and very few people mingle with people from other churches. I saw many members of the church we’d attended there, including the pastors. They saw us. I know because we sat pretty close to them and I watched them intently to see if they would notice and what they would do. All averted their gaze, and no one came to talk to us. We left early and I cried on the way home.
The next church we went to, we went because the people there knew our son and were kind to him. At first, I was determined not to volunteer for anything. But the pastors wanted me to take over the kid’s ministry because they knew I had experience in leading that department. We met with them to talk about why I didn’t want to serve in the church. I explained my history with serving in churches and how painful it had been for me.
The answer I got at the time seemed reasonable to me. It doesn’t anymore. The pastor told me I needed to learn how to say no and not spend all my time at church working. I needed to focus on building relationship with people instead. The problem with this is, I was already saying no. I didn’t want to serve. They didn’t ask me to serve that day, but there was a constant buzz around me from that time, from several people in the church suggesting I would be a good fit for the role. It felt very orchestrated.
Craig helped with sound, and I, eventually, ran the kid’s ministry. I had determined not to give in simply because I seemed like the popular choice. I spent a good deal of time praying over it and felt okay about accepting the position. After a couple of years, our son no longer wanted to go to church and wasn’t living at home for the most part. I threw myself into serving and teaching the kids with no expectations for any kind of meaningful relationships with anyone there because I knew the pattern I was getting myself into.
I did however, meet my friend Courtnie there, and we became best friends. I helped her write her book. She is the only one who broke through my very hard shell. Since I helped her write her book, I knew what her struggles were. She’d opened up to me and trusted me in a way no one ever had before. She would occasionally call me sobbing because a fresh trauma had erupted from working on the book. I would listen, and we would pray. I would lead her through inner healing. At the time, I was immersed in brain science books because I was trying to find solutions for our son. I often talked to Courtnie about what I read because I felt it would be helpful to her. She agreed.
Sometime after the book was done, I was called into the pastor’s office and was told I had influence over Courtnie and needed to be careful what I said to her about her past trauma because they believed I had been saying things to her that were convincing her not to listen to them. And since they had been walking her through counseling for several years, they knew better than I did what she needed and what was best for her.
I had not been saying anything of the kind and was deeply hurt by their words. And even though I was certain I hadn’t said anything wrong that would lead Courtnie away from their council, I second guessed everything I said to Courtnie for the next two months, wondering if my friendship was hurting her somehow. I agonized over it. Lost sleep at night replaying our most recent conversations over in my head. She noticed that I became withdrawn and kept asking me to tell her what was bothering me. I knew I couldn’t do that though, because if I did have influence over her, and told her what the pastor said, she really wouldn’t want to listen to them and I would be in even more trouble. But eventually she wore me down, and I told her. And sure enough, she was angry.
From the time I told Courtnie about that meeting, I had problems with the pastor. I wasn’t called to his office again for the above-mentioned reason, but I no longer had a voice. Any suggestions I made were ignored or reworked. I offended the pastor on more than one occasion. Once he told me I offended him because I never returned his smile when he passed me in the church. Never mind that I was constantly irritated with him because he wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say. Apparently, it only mattered that I appeared happy in his presence.
I also offended him because I didn’t go to the front for an alter call one Sunday. I got called into the office for that one. The truth is, he’d said some things in his sermon I didn’t agree with and I was in my seat engrossed in thinking it over and praying about to see if I was missing something and didn’t realize he’d repeatedly asked every single person to come forward for this particular alter call. I told him so.
And then at his insistence had to tell him what I hadn’t agreed with – something I never, ever do. But I spoke up and told him. He wanted me to apologize for not getting up for the alter call. I was a leader in the church after all and everyone saw me rebelling against him. The only apology I could offer was to say sorry that his feeling has been hurt. I knew I’d done nothing wrong, and I was angry. I hadn’t been rebellious, I simply hadn’t heard him.
When we moved to our current house, it was an hour drive to church each Sunday, but we committed to keep going until they could find replacements for our positions. After two or three months and no replacements being found, we stepped down and stopped going to that church. We tried a few churches near our new home but we were both burnt out and we both knew if we did find a church, we would most likely start serving again and find ourselves right back in the pattern that leaves us wounded.
So why don’t I attend church anymore?
Church is not supposed to be about making the pastors look good. It’s not supposed to be a loyal members only club. It’s also not supposed to be about the handful of people who do all the serving and work themselves to death while everyone else just enjoys their pre and post service coffee, snacks, and chats. It’s not supposed to be about a worship team trying to create an environment that brings worship out of people. People should be coming to church wanting to worship no matter if music is from a CD, a full band, or there is no music. It’s not supposed to be a religious ritual. It’s not supposed to be a place to fellowship with a certain group of people once or twice a week. It’s not supposed to be a place where there are programs to entertain kids so parents can get a dose of the Word and hope it gets them through the next week.
Church is supposed to be a place where lives are changed. Have I heard messages that have made me think and encouraged me to make changes in my life? Yes, absolutely. Have I found encouragement from groups and activities that churches offer? Yes. Have I gotten words of wisdom, prayed over, and ministered to in churches? Yes, definitly.
But those encounters have been far and few between. Most of my spiritual growth has been gained because I know God is real and no matter how much disappointment and pain I endure at church, I know God is good and He will not leave me. It’s been gripping tightly to Him and refusing to let go as I try to understand the circumstances I've found myself in. Allowing Him to reveal things about Himself through any and all means – people, nature, my own experiences, the experiences of others, through correction, through heartache, through love. Learning to hear His voice for myself and learning to trust His voice and not giving up when I can’t find someone more spiritually mature to mentor me.
It hasn’t stopped me from wanting Christian community. But it has stopped me from going back to church. Because I have boundaries now. I refuse to let anyone be a leader over me who doesn’t care about me. I refuse to let anyone influence me or have authority over me who doesn’t know me, or who shows no interest in getting to know me. I refuse the rules of the church – written and unwritten – that say I can’t talk about what’s bothering me when I disagree with the establishment, or that say I’m the problem if I disagree with the leadership. I refuse to be used and discarded. I refuse to be told that I can’t do certain things in the church because I’m a woman – especially if I feel God has called me to do exactly those things.
Does this mean I don’t think there needs to be order in the church? No. But the order that’s currently in place isn’t working. We have leaders who are only leaders because they’re willing men of a certain age. Not because they have any spiritual maturity or wisdom. We have leaders who don’t care to show their weaknesses, or who make their followers believe they’re flawed because they see a weakness in the leader.
If the woman at the well had walked into a church today, she would have been put in her place. Not allowed to serve because she was in a relationship outside of marriage. Not allowed to teach, because what could a woman possibly teach a man? Yet, she ran into town and brought crowds of people – men and women - to Jesus. Instead of keeping people in their place, we should be introducing them to Jesus. And not just introducing them but teaching them how to speak one on one with Him.
When I begin to see and hear about church leaders who live up to the Bible’s definition of an overseer, shepherd, and pastor, then I might revisit the possibility of returning to church. Until then, I will continue to seek Jesus, love people, and search for a community of believers who can love and accept me just the way I am, who are willing to work out their salvation in faith, hope, and love despite whatever differences we may have.