There are four primary reasons why I stopped working with churches. From 2000 until 2011, I worked with four different congregations before leaving over dishonesty, collective PTSD, theological issues, and the overall agenda of the Church. Whatever my issues with houses of faith might be now, I still look back on those experiences with great affection. Those were wonderful years and a great way to have spent my Twenties.
Of course, I have my doubts and glances over the shoulder at what could have been. I sometimes wonder whether I might have been happier signing on with an insurance company out of college, for instance, or what would have happened had I gone to law school instead of signing a contract, but every time I do look back with full intensity, it “makes sense.” I don’t think any other avenue was available to me then – I wanted to work with churches so strongly that I was oblivious to the alternatives. That’s who I was then. It was the life I wanted. And like any bildungsroman, by the time I turned 30, that person was gone. I was thoroughly done. Burnt out. Exhausted – mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. When I quit that last church in December of 2011, it was with a great measure of disgust and open, vocal animosity. I didn’t even want to coast through the holidays – I just wanted to kick the proverbial dirt off my shoes and get on with it.
The life of religious leaders is a secret one, no matter how much lip service is given towards being transparent and honest. The nature of the profession means you are always coming up against ideas – some new, some well worn real challenges to your convictions and beliefs. Most are entirely reasonable – even Scientology sounds reasonable within the context of their unique worldview. Many ideas or experiences cause you to pause for months, even years, while putting the wellbeing of someone else before yourself or your own internal “headspace” and spiritual experience. It’s a perfect set-up for internal atrophy – you’re never really sure whether the idea you set to the side will move on, either stagnating into a pollutant, growing into a life-giving organism, or whether it will just dissipate like a biodegradable product. What matters is not your own health, what matters is whether this person in front of you is okay. You do not matter. They do. And so you must create an alternative self to take on that responsibility.
After talking to dozens of pastors and professors together with hundreds of other spiritual leaders and volunteers over the years, the consistent problems that we (myself included) bring up and share have to deal with living dual lives. Our ability to care for someone else necessitated a division into private and public lives. There was the image we projected and upheld, then there was the real self riddled with insecurities and doubts. Those two were not often synched. Rather, they were all too often antagonistic toward one another, heightening the internal pressures we experienced.
Recently, Vice-President Joe Biden was asked whether he would run for President in the 2016 election. Biden responded, “Would you want a job that, in fact, every day you had to get up and you had to modulate what you said and believed?” That is a sobering question for anyone seeking to live in a public way. It’s also one many people seeking a public life skip over. The dichotomy of image and self are often at odds with one another. “The struggle,” as they say, “is real” and not simply a nice turn of phrase in a textbook. This duality manifests in different ways, of course. For a few, it means their double life will catch up to them, their nightmares will be realized, and they will be shamed until they leave the public sphere. Faced with manifest incongruency, a person will either take their own life as in the case of seminary professor John Gibson or be forced to construct a new narrative to continue living, as is the case of Jimmy Swaggart and his “revelation of the Cross” shortly after being caught with a prostitute. For others, this will mean redirecting those pressures onto their congregation; it is not enough that they feel strongly about this or that social issue but “God” does as well – and the people in the pews better shape up and agree or there will be hell to pay! Still, another will simply acclimate. Following the path of least resistance, instead of shaping a parishioner into the best version of themselves, a spiritual leader too often will compromise her or his own beliefs, integrity, or constitution to fit in. It’s not worth fighting over. Tired from the dozens of tedious arguments and bickering, sideways comments, and passive aggressive bullshit, it’s just easier to go along with the tide of what color the chairs in the banquet hall should be and whether or not God hates or loves certain people. Growing up near the wetlands of Louisiana, I feel that it is similar to coastal erosion. Day by day, you will never notice. But a week or especially a year later, the change is all too apparent. It seems a common thing to see a zealous initiate enter a new church with strongly articulated ideals only to, just a bit later, blur those lines or change direction altogether. They will, in time, announce that having an impressive sound system or video capability is more important than genocide or human trafficking “over there,” in some far away place. If God really cared, then God needs to go tell someone else “because we need X amount of contributions” to fulfill the vision God has given us. The division is almost everywhere, once you begin to hear it. It is a divisiveness, a categorization and compartmentalization that insists upon itself in every sphere of life.
I cannot emphasize how common this change has been, how strong the pull of gravity to make little accommodations. It was an ever-present temptation to me, I freely admit, and a frequent problem for my friends and fellows. This was only the tip of the iceberg, though, of challenges that I and my fellow church workers faced. I’m sure that you have seen some of the symptoms peek out if you have been attending literally any house of worship of any faith for over a month. Too often what we see are symptoms of larger problems – the pastor whose hug lasts just a little bit too long, the deacon who slips a $20 into their pocket after collecting tithes “to make change,” or the spouse of a minister who loudly tells their Bible study how difficult it is to stay faithful and handily has a story about a “friend who suffers from this problem.” These are symptoms, not the real issue, though it may take time to identify and measure what that real problem truly really is.
The major reason I left a career I loved was because of the need among ministers and spiritual leaders to hide who they are (present tense), to lie to the people we were tasked with leading, helping, inspiring, and encouraging. Let me emphasize that was my reason. There are many reasons I could point to for the high turnover rate of spiritual care and pastoral leadership. For me, it was the dishonesty. It makes sense, I suppose, that just a few days ago I asked myself during a meditation exercise what my highest truth was and to my genuine surprise, the clear and strong answer was “truth.” Seated on the floor, I began to cry for about five minutes, lamenting the years I spent seeking that inside a house of worship. All I wanted was to be honest and for people to be honest with me.
Spiritual leaders are rarely balanced – they either take from the people or give too much. They overexert themselves until something snaps and they simply “peace out” on the whole project. Case in point. Like any broken relationship, without the comfort that they so readily provide for others, a person begin to self-soothe and too often find solace in destructive behaviors and habits which only reinforce their need for distance and privacy. Intuitively, they know that if their shady habits are found out, they will face the same correction they mete out to others, if not harsher to be make an example of. It’s a classic Catch-22 whose only prevention is overwork and hypervigilance until death. Again, like any relationship, the tell-tale signs are all too apparent and virtually scream out at you once you know what you’re looking at.
I think ministry is probably the single largest field where lying is encouraged – explicitly as much as implicitly – and congregations help facilitate an atmosphere of intolerance, unrealistic expectation, and a high degree of projection/transference on their leaders. That’s a heavy statement. Even a general, sweeping one. So when I say “lying” is encouraged, I do not necessarily mean malicious dishonesty. I also mean the subtle, small ways that leaders must bend the truth so that their congregation does not get upset or feel disturbed. The system a pastor either creates or sustains with the congregation necessitates functional dishonesty, and it is this system that warps what is generous, honest and of good report.
When I tell people this, they often laugh nervously or respond with some reason why I am wrong. It’s a brush off. Knowing this doesn’t stop it from stinging, but I know it’s hard to deal with an uncomfortable truth from someone making a disparaging remark about your own belief system. Typically, their responses begin with a version of “The Bible says…” and they will quote a verse to me as though I’ve never heard it, or “Well, I just believe…” as though I just need to believe the right thing. These verses are often taken way out of context to support the idea that spiritual leaders never lie and live holier lives — an inherent statement of classist holiness — or come from a misunderstanding of faith. Another response from those who see my point but still want to be generous will be a form of “Well, my friend is in ministry and he says…” as though hearing a second-hand second opinion from someone I’ve never met can diminish a decade of my own intimate experiences. That always feels like a smack in the face, albeit well-intentioned, equivalent to someone saying, “Well, my friend is married and his marriage is doing wonderfully.” Umm… okay? Great? Not really sure that this is a competition? Privileging your own experience does not diminish the experience of someone else. As I often say, “We’re all in different places at different times” and my unique advantage inclined me to see things that could not be endured in good conscience. I think what I experienced is a frequent thing, but not universally applicable.
These conversations and their derivatives only reinforce my position. The Bible doesn’t say spiritual leaders are right or moral or honest, or even that everyone must experience life and God in the same way. Quite the contrary. Even among the Gospel writers, Jesus left differing, at times even competing impressions of who he was, the purpose he saw in his own life, and what he asked his disciples to do. Going back to the Hebrew Scriptures, once the Jews organized their religion, the Jewish priesthood became corrupted; Aaron helped facilitate the creation of idols, his sons (the next generation) offered “strange fire”, a few generations later, Samuel’s sons abused the people of Israel. Even in exile, the prophets lamented the blatant corruption all around them – primarily within their own religion. By the time of the New Testament, Jesus and Paul are practically rolling their eyes on every page, hands in the air with so much as a “Bitch, please…”. They’re completely over it. Jesus throws people out of the temple, says the leaders cannot be trusted, and sets in motion a chain of events leading to his death all because he maintains something is rotten in the house of Jerusalem. Paul picks up the same attitude, warning the churches he visits that there are all kinds of false people among them, even leading them. By the end of the Christian scriptures, “the beloved disciple” John claimed that he foresaw a future where religion itself will become a “whore” similar to the excess of Babylon – an accusation that takes on special importance once you have read this charge in the Hebrew Scriptures which, to come full circle, accuse the Jewish people of accepting and reveling in such corruption.
But let me take a step back. I don’t see this as problematic, necessarily.
People are people. Whether they work for a temple, tabernacle, or Taco Bell doesn’t change things. Professional secret: You don’t magically become perfect the moment you put on Sunday threads. I know people are people. I know religious people will lie. I know pastors will do terrible things under the banner of “God said so.” And while it never stops hurting me down in the way-deep, I’m not surprised by it and I’ve learned to accept it. It’s not problematic for me. I didn’t quit working with churches because a pastor confessed to me and other staff members that he had molested congregants. I didn’t quit working with churches because a team of unethical deacons asked if I would become their new pastor “if we quietly fire the current pastor.” I quit working with churches because none of us could be honest about it. We were not allowed to confront these problems head-on, work through them by forgiving or seeking justice, and call things by their right name. Molestation was downgraded to “a mistake.” Unethical behavior was “what God is telling me in prayer.” Someone who outright stole from the church and funnelled money was “a little confused.” We – leaders and laity – were working together to maintain an atmosphere of untruth that was warping our sensibilities. Again, all of these things could have been worked through, forgiven, or set right if we had only been honest about it. It created a gaslighting effect for many of us. Whenever we would voice our concerns or (god forbid) call these things out, the events were minimized or we were quietly asked if we were innocent in our own hearts, lest we cast that parabolic first stone. Long-term, the incongruency set in place the necessary elements for a form of post traumatic stress disorder where the reality we saw was not the world supported by our cultural context.
Even now, almost five years after my last tithe-supported paycheck, I feel the same way I did then. I accept that dishonesty is “normal” for many congregations while also making the conscious personal decision not to participate in it. Tough stuff comes with the territory. If Moses and Ezekiel and Jesus said spiritual leadership was downright evil sometimes, it shouldn’t come a surprise to us now. “Oh, you’re stealing the people’s money? And saying God told you that was okay? Hunh! Well, I swear… I’ve never heard of that!” seems a bit too naive to believe. “People are people,” as they say and I didn’t want to perpetuate a false identity where anyone thought I was above them, holier, or without fault. I question every decision I make from dating to diet, so why should divinity be different? And I wanted to be honest about that – about my doubts, my failures, even my outrage. The best way to live honestly, for me, was to step away from religious leadership.
As a writer, I pick up odd jobs where I can. It’s hard to explain on dating sites, for instance, that I own a furniture store, write, am a freelance editor and ghostwriter who wants to start a small publishing company, who currently studies sexology for fun as much as professional reasons, and that I do business consulting and marketing research, and (coming back to the furniture store) spend most of my days scouring the Gulf Coast as a purchaser. On a poetic day, I refer to this as “alchemy.” I find something no longer valuable, see the value in it, and make it so. The up-side to all of these enterprises is that I meet lots of different people.
Take Street Prophet Carla, for example.
Street Prophet Carla and I met two years ago. “Hi, I’m Carla,” she boomed. “I’m a street prophet.” I was taken off guard (I’m told my otherwise animated face goes blank when this happens) and she found this funny. So naturally she hugged me. Apparently, people find me endearing if they are able to startle me.
Street Prophet Carla goes to church every week “soon as the doors open” and reminds me I need to go to church every time we meet. “You know, the Lord loves you, but you can lose your love for the Lord.” I tried explaining to her once that I studied Theology at a seminary in California and have a professional Masters in religion. Any love lost between the Lord and I has nothing to do with not attending church – symptoms, not the cause. The program ended not terribly long ago in fact and, to be honest, I feel a bit fried from the experience. Returning to a typically Evangelical Sunday service feels a lot like giving someone with a drug addiction a bit of candy. Yes, the candy is nice and thank you very much, but it will never give me the same rush as sitting in a room with world scholars who pushed the limits of my spiritual experience and understanding. “Song, sermon, silence” is foreign after that. In fact, the two are very far apart which is why Carla told me in return, “Oh, you must’ve gone to seminary and stopped loving Jesus.”
My thoughts towards religion cannot be solved with “I’ll pray for you” or “just have faith.” They are deeper, longer, and more complex than that and I feel God is most present in my life when I am taking a long time to think through a matter. Still, for Carla, “The Lord doesn’t care what you know – that’s actually what sends you to Hell!”
This is another piece of the puzzle, why so many Thirtysomethings have left the Church never to return. Their intellectual, personal, professional, and relational experience are not just viewed with suspicion, they do not matter at all. Take for example the doctoral student whose gender qualifies her for nursery duty or the police officer whose fellow congregants ask him to help get them out of a speeding ticket – what is important to the system is not who you are, but how you can be a cog to make someone else’s life easier. That’s what Jesus died for and why Buddha sat under the bodhi tree – so you could be stripped of your identity. Being unique? Well, that sends you to Hell.
To be told that my studies – in religion, no less – will send me to Hell or contribute to such an experience is confusing and deeply offensive. That Carla didn’t even miss a beat in saying this shows me how prevalent this type of ignorance really is among those who go to religious services “soon as the doors open.” And while I still enjoy Carla and our conversations, while I might ask Carla to pray for me, while I feel a distant appreciation for her devotion which I do not share, I know I can never fully share myself with her because three years of my life in a field of study that I thoroughly enjoy is “actually what will send me to Hell.” To be blunt, to stay the course in a religious environment creates components of PTSD. The microaggressions, the gaslighting, the positional changes of how you phrase things – theft or “confusion”, molestation or a “mistake” – goes directly against the grain of what religion is supposed to do. Religion is supposed to awaken us to the world, not numb us. I think Karl Marx was categorically correct when he wrote
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.
Notice I am saying that Marx is right. He correctly names a problem. But he should not be right. Religion can be a great complement to how we live life – not just today in a Modern or even (post)Post-Modern world. Though I am a Christian who prefers synagogue, I get positively giddy when I am able to read about, talk about, or experience new religions. Buddhism allows for an amazing collection of ideas, Islam possesses so much beauty, and together the religions of the world inspire us to be better, to do better, and to work together for the common good of today as much as tomorrow. But even while that is what religion should do, the reality is religion too often does none of those things. Once we begin to congregate, things go awry. The love of the Almighty quickly becomes hostile and our ideas about peace and love turn sharply towards which group of people is going to Hell the fastest. As should be obvious, this is not inherently religion’s fault. After all, religion is an idea. An ideal. A direction of life. A compulsion. It is when we bring humans into the proverbial picture, with their experiences and fears, that religion is marred.
One of the challenges I enjoyed the most when I was in ministry was sitting with someone and hearing their life story. I suppose this is a quality of someone who writes – I enjoy hearing how a decision plays out, how something that happened a decade ago can color what came after. The way a small detail casts a chiaroscuro to the whole painting of a life. You sit with someone and you realize that the reason they are antagonistic to another member of the congregation is because of a brief exchange three years prior not because their pie sold at the bake sale first. Whatever judgements I might have had going into those meetings with congregants dissipated as I began to see the person sitting across from me as a person and not a problem, a person who had really amazing ideas that were hidden because of the way they were being presented.
Again, this is a lot like talking to someone with PTSD. Their panic attacks and strange behavior makes sense once you know what happened. You begin to think, “Well gosh! Their ‘bad’ behavior is how anyone would act!” Their ‘crazy’ behavior and choices seem well-thought out and sensible. This person is reacting to an entire chain of events, not the immediate thing we are supposed to be talking about. A key to understanding this, I discovered, was seeing the prophecies of Ezekiel in light of post traumatic stress. As the story of Ezekiel unwinds, we see a Jewish priest led into slavery. His wife dies. The temple where he worshipped is destroyed. And we have not yet finished the first page of his story.
Think of that – Ezekiel’s whole world abruptly ends without explanation. That is how his story begins. How could what follows not be seen in light of those sudden, tragic, and debilitating events? In parallel, I believe one of the reasons a show like The Walking Dead has been so popular is because that is how the story begins. A man is shot. When he wakes up, his world is not just different as though numerable changes can be undone to restore it. No. The entire world is gone. Every system he knew, every measure of security he once had is gone. His identity is gone. His friends are dead and never coming back. You can no longer appeal to a higher law, because there isn’t one. Nothing will ever be the same, no matter how hard he works to set it right. We, as viewers relate to that. It’s a “true” story even if it is fantastic or a form of magical realism. Yes, there are elements of truth here, but put under the microscope of believability, they do not hold up to scrutiny. With someone who is experiencing PTSD, logic does not work. Facts are inconsequential. What matters is the experience itself, how it all connects to the way we see the world and perceive it; in this way, what happened is more real to us than the facts.
Biblical scholars have canonized or validated the prophets because their stories are true – historically, they may be questionable, but the story is true because it is too real to ignore. The same rubric can be applied to Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Here is a man ready to go to war and who really, really does not want to be an instrument of destruction. But his whole vision is the very thing he rejects. These mythologies are true because they are relatable. Across time and space, humans “get” both what is said and what is hidden behind the text. But even though we might accept this suspension of belief for ourselves, even though we accept that having faith does not mean we are always smiling, we cannot extend this same measure of understanding to our fellow congregants or especially our leaders. They must embody everything we want to be, not everything we are. Anger, disappointment and rage fuel our need for happiness and catharsis – even if we know, intuitively, that the idyllic world we seek is a lie. Our need for joy demands that we live a lie. It is the myth of substitutionary redemption; someone else must suffer for our happiness. Someone else must be imprisoned for our release. Someone else must study for our education.
The consequence of PTSD-infused religion is devastation. Notice I am distinguishing here between people who experience symptoms of PTSD, the cause of those feelings, and the consequences. Harvard president Drew Faust in her book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008) writes that “The war’s staggering human cost demanded a new sense of national destiny, one designed to ensure that lives had been sacrificed for appropriately lofty ends.” Taking this statement and applying it to religion, a congregation must be convinced that hurting someone else must appropriately “fit” into their own agenda. Where religion has historically called for us to destroy ourselves, to allow the waves of destruction to wash over us in the hope of a resurrection, something has changed. That is, hating the right people moves from the inadvisable (after all, God loves everyone) to divinely sanctioned (God love everyone, sure, but he holds a special hatred for those people) when it helps that congregation endure. This is why there is an acrimonious “working friendship” between Baptists and Presbyterians who privately ridicule one another. Living under the conditions of war – material, physical, spiritual – requires collateral damage, so people groups can go to hell. Certain sexual behaviors or political opponents can go to hell. Anyone can go to hell as long as it helps complete our own narrative.
Stepping down to the quotidian level, how easy is it to say that the girl at Starbucks is a bitch because she never gets my order right? This always happens. That bitch needs to be taught a lesson. In fact, no. I want to speak to a manager! The manager needs to fire this girl! What matters here are three things: 1) there is an identifiably real event – my order was not correct, 2) the vague belief that this always happens, and 3) the fatalist view that this always happens to me. I have been victimized by this person, these people (the employees of Starbucks) and so I must now appeal to an authority figure to establish justice. I am the victim. I have been victimized. This long train of offense must stop. And in like fashion, we liberally bumper-sticker God’s name on our chariot of justice. If only our religious narrative allowed us to accept that the world is not the same, that justice was always a construct, and that the world we are now living in demands that we bind together rather than tear apart. Which one sounds like an overreaction and which one sounds like a healthy interaction with the world we now find ourselves in? A congregation is a collection of lunatics who want to tell each other the world is a certain way. God has not abandoned us. God has abandoned those people over there. We are good. We are doing the right thing. God wants us to have a nice sound system. And for many, it is important to be there “soon as the doors open” because the world outside of those walls is hard to find yourself in – after all, it’s not the world you want, it’s not the world you grew up with, and not a world you can control. Many, like Carla the Street Prophet, find their identity in a small, confined, simple space and only peek out to communicate to a world that threatens the safety of their insulated, self-sustaining center that they are not happy living that way.
This experience, my experience as much as Carla’s, is mirrored in thousands of different, unique ways every Sunday with fellow believers. Each of us at some point arrives at the overwhelming realization that who we are is not who is wanted. Our doubts and fears, our experiences and intimations, who we are behind closed doors is not welcome in the church, despite claims to the contrary. God might “accept you just as you are” but the congregation won’t. It is difficult to admit this loneliness, to verbalize it, so we pursue whatever avenues will allow us to find the fewest common denominators and build an identity around that, all the while suppressing who we really are. It’s too much, too overwhelming, too terrifying, to admit we share these fears alongside our joys. And so we give up. The resignations are small, barely noticeable. And besides, who cares? It is more important in that moment to be loved – whatever the cost – than to fight back. Everything we have been raised to believe about ourselves has led us to this moment. We need to be nice. We need to behave. We need to be quiet. Intensely held emotions or thoughts make things difficult. Isn’t it better to just go along with it? After all, God loves us more this way. And so will everyone else.
If it seems I am turning this idea inside and out, speaking from two points which do not seem to agree with one another but are mirrored by overinflation, stress, isolationism, and the threat of a collective, then you are reading me correctly. The demands placed upon us within and without the walls of a congregation are hard and how we adapt or learn from those experiences changes us. The difference is that a congregation has very intense pressures of how you are supposed to be changed and offers a very simple conformity. This is especially true of leaders. In the movie Keeping the Faith (2000), a rabbi says to his priest friend, “Jews want their rabbi to be the kind of Jew they don’t have the time to be.” The priest friend says, “Yeah, and Catholics want their priest to be the kind of Catholic they don’t have the discipline to be.” In other words, we want a religious leader to be impeccable. If they are married, the whole family needs to be without blame or blemish. This kind of thinking has warped two generations of my family.
After WWII, my grandfather got out of the Navy and married the woman who would become my grandmother. They loved each other, quite literally, until the days they died. A lovely, heartbreaking story for another time, however. The important thing to know here is that after they got married, my grandfather went to work in the coal mines of West Virginia and on weekends would hold revival meetings with his brother. Before long, my grandfather started a correspondence course to become a minister and preached somewhere in the continental United States every weekend for over half a century, without fail. After a few years of revival meetings and itinerant preaching, he felt God was telling him to settle down, build a family, and become a pastor. So he did. And that’s where everything went wrong.
My family has a form of paranoia that borders on the delusional at times. Sisters turn against sisters, mothers physically abuse daughters, daughters run away from home only to show up years later married and selling plastic home decor out of a suitcase. Or maybe she went to nursing school. It’s been quite the whirl knowing these people. But the root of our disorder comes from the secrecy my grandparents instilled in their daughters (who would later pass it on to me and my cousins). They felt that the congregations they led were always looking for flaws and cracks in the perfectly polished, well-mannered image they were presenting. “Don’t do that or your father will lose his job and you’ll be responsible for all of us being poor and on the streets!” was what my grandmother told my mother and aunts. It was a mantra drilled into them. “Don’t do this, or your father will lose his job because of you and we will be poor.” Before long, “you can’t go there/ do this / buy that / wear that /style your hair that way or else your father will lose his job” became warnings not to talk about the family at all. Not at sleepovers, not at school with teachers or friends, not even with the doctor. No one could be trusted. And while I wish I could chalk all of this up to paranoia and superstition in my grandmother, the truth was she was right. My grandfather did lose jobs because of our family. Once a congregation found out our family wasn’t perfect, suddenly God spoke to them that it was time they were “called” elsewhere. My grandparents “felt the call” to go somewhere else whenever unclassified information leaked – hissing “Who told?!” in the car as they drove away in the middle of the night – and consequently moved every two to three years (sometimes within the same year). This created an atmosphere of constant anxiety which later blossomed into depression and long-standing health issues among their daughters, not to mention severe issues with sustaining friendships or parent/child relationships whenever my cousins and I came along.
By the time that I started considering working with churches, I already knew how things were behind the curtain. People were people. But my mother still begged me, in tears, not to take that first job with a church. Not to even take that that first step. “You don’t know how awful people can be,” she told me. It’s the kind of memory that sticks with you.
A congregation is a beautiful thing. When people come together on a regular basis, they can extend a degree of affirmation, stability, openness, and genuine compassion that is unparalleled in a society so focused on isolationism and the accumulation of wealth. Few things make me happier than a good sermon where people are navigating a thought together or a big pot-luck. It’s like the family I never had. When I visit churches, I don’t care if they welcome me. I’m fine watching them interact with one another. The familiarity between members is really something that gives me hope. But then again, this “family” might very well turn on you if they knew you (gasp) drank a beer on vacation or (gasp) had a tattoo or (gasp of all gasps) had sex before marriage. Like all families, being “one of us” is not always a stable status.
In other words, being a part of a church arouses feelings similar to PTSD. I can feel a deep sense of pride, take note of how good things are going for others, while still having a panic attack. Memories of broken friendships, strained relationships, abandonment, and the prevailing duality of “family” with those lingering questions of loyalty and independence make me confused. My brain, after visiting a new church, feels cloudy as though it cannot process the past and the present simultaneously or even differentiate between the two. And so I adapt, left to my own devices, however I can.
The pursuit of transparency and knowing a congregation’s reaction are chased soon after with the difference of belief. When I was younger, right after my parent’s divorce, I recall a minister preaching that Bugs Bunny was “of the devil because he wears dresses. Now…. think about it,” she said. “You know it’s true.” That’s the first time that I can recall taking note of bad theology. I was 11. When I was in college, I started working with a Pentecostal church and was told that unless I spoke in tongues, I wasn’t a real Christian. And then there was the time that I was working with a Baptist church and was told I “must have committed some terrible sin if you question your salvation” since I do question my salvation. Frequently. “Well, you can’t be a Baptist then. You must not be a real Christian.” That’s been the prevailing sticker – “You must not be a real Christian.” I guess I’m just good at faking it.
One of the things I am ambivalent about the way local churches modify their beliefs. Two churches are on each side of the road and even though they are of the same denomination, they will nuance their community of beliefs. I love that, or at least it makes me hopeful because it means people are thinking for themselves and deciding there are certain beliefs they simply cannot live with – like welcoming gays, speaking in tongues, even raising your hands during the musical part of a service. Churches are diverse. But too often, they focus on inconsequential issues and become antagonistic. Their beliefs become warped and, without hearing an alternative, this broken tune becomes their anthem.
A Baptist church once asked me to get re-baptized “into the Southern Baptist Church” (not the universal, worldwide, ancient Church, but into the Southern Baptist Church/denomination) because “if it didn’t happen with us, it’s not real.” That’s not really important, I feel. If someone says they were baptized and have committed their life to an idea… why do they need to be baptized into a local church? Is this a sales game – you need to boost your quarterly numbers? Come off it. And while that’s a small issue, these “inconsequential” issues pop up in intensely held ways that, when you hear the whole story, are thoroughly anti-religion.
Baptists formed their denomination because they felt people needed to decide to be baptized – being baptized when you were a baby, before you could actually make that decision for yourself didn’t work for them. I would agree with that. It’s important that each of us claim a faith narrative for ourselves, not passively accept the one someone else chose for us. But then Baptists aligned with slavery during the Civil War and that’s how their group split and became the American and Southern Baptists denominations. Which means, now, that Southern Baptists not only still have this idea that where, when, and how you were baptized matters (I once visited a seminary where the guide told me they spent 10 weeks “just learning how to dunk people under water the right way”) but now they have this history of racism which manifests in profound ways. Like the way they promote traditionally white ideals of marriage and family, direct American missions trips to saving ghettos and housing projects (those savages living in squalor), and denigrate the “tribalism” of those living in the Middle East. There’s a reason why Batman’s parents die in every one of the movies; you don’t really get away from your origin story. So if the leader misunderstands (or misinterprets) the teachings of their denomination or scripture, what sounds rational and sequential to the “tradition” of that origin story as it is quilted in the language of that community can be a deadly force. Like the time a Assemblies of God pastor I worked for told one of his congregants that her wheelchair-bound daughter wasn’t welcome at the church anymore because “I know she can get out of that wheelchair, I just know it, and if she chooses to stay there, it lowers the faith of the whole church.” As terrible as that statement was, it made sense in relationship to that church and that pastor* once you knew the church’s origin story. It even made sense to the mother, who stopped bringing her daughter to church. Even now, years later, I “get” what he was saying because I know the origin story of the pastor, the denomination, and that particular church. But that has never made what he said right or inherently “Christian.”
A better way to say this is to point to theology. That is, theology and origin stories are always tied together. How you interpret that origin is how you will embody that theology – one looks at the past, one at the present, and always the twain shall meet. Make no mistake, theology matters. To use an image from my childhood, theology is like the reigns on a horse. Once you put the bit in their mouth, you can force the horse/congregation to go lots of places they would rather not go. When I see or hear bad theology, I refuse to be led somewhere dangerous — like questioning the legitimacy of someone’s spiritual experience because it wasn’t with our church, our denomination, our pastor. This is why there is so many discussions about theology and doctrine among the religious – “theology” is a catch-all term for the myriad of ways we understand and interpret the teachings of religion. Despite what theologians (myself included) might say, theology is never about belief. It’s about all of these issues – spiritual experience, doctrine, worldview, political ideology, the whole shaboozy. They are all touched by and informed by our concept of the thoughts and intents of God, how we interact with and manifest that in our own lives, and what kind of future we see for humanity. For example, a key part of Evangelical theology is the return of Jesus. Jesus will return one day, lead a war that will destroy the nations of the world, and then set fire to the Earth. Because of this, Evangelicals are not a strong voice on environmental or ecological issues. They are a bit too nihilistic. Jews, in contrast, believe that tikkun olam or “repairing the world” is something every Jew must do – if God gave the world as a gift to the peoples of the world, then they must bear responsibility for sustaining it by all means necessary. This is why Jews plant trees for peace, at the death of a loved one, or simply as a housing project over the weekend. Then again, you will see Allahu Akbar, the Muslim teaching that “God is greater” appear in greetings and salutations, the five daily prayers, protests, the cries of war, and the whispers of a father to his newborn child. Our theological understanding touches almost every part of our lives. I know many solid Evangelicals who invite God into the bedroom before they have sex or will pray for parking spots at a grocery store before they leave their house. It’s that all-encompassing.
Which is why theology is currently tearing some religions apart and revitalizing others. In the Baptist tradition, the influence of “Reformed” theology (a derivative interpretation of the writings of early, especially European, Protestants like John Calvin) is doing more to destroy congregations than anything else. It’s astounding how an interpretation of an interpretation of the Bible by a 500-years deceased Swiss theologian can burn down churches faster than any act of terrorism. But here we are. Meanwhile, disenfranchised Jews scattered across the world are able to come together in solidarity over their shared identity. They are laying aside their political, cultural, even religious differences to stand on the basic assumption that “we’re all descendants of Abraham, we’re all family, so we have to stick together.”
Taking (current) Vice President Joe Biden’s comment another direction, when he was interviewed by Stephen Colbert, who asked whether Biden would ever be running for President, he again responded, “Would you want a job that, in fact, every day you had to get up and you had to modulate what you said and believed?” That sums up the experience of most spiritual leaders – not just having to modulate their personal life, who they are, but also what they believe down in the way deep. They get “burnt out” because they are unable to live authentic lives, confess their faults, and openly discuss what they really believe. What we believe navigates our lives. Think of how psychologically disruptive it must be to have the way you interact with the cosmos always changing. Ellen DeGeneres put it similarly when she said, “I had everything I’d hoped for, but I wasn’t being myself, so I decided to be honest about who I was. It was strange. The people who loved me for being funny suddenly didn’t like me for being… me.”
If I were still in leadership at a church and said, “I’m not Pro-Life because I believe all life is sacred,” the takeaway would be that I think abortion is okay. Which is not what was just said. I would have to unpack my political, religious, and social beliefs to accurately translate what that sentence means for me (short version: why do we privilege only the lives of the young? does our ageism know no bounds?). But, again, even then the takeaway would still be “well, he said he’s fine with abortion” which again is not what was said. So much gets lost in translation from pulpit to pew that it has become unrealistic to give the time and space necessary to work out what we really think, feel, and believe. You must now – quite literally – leave your country of origin and go to a deserted place just to feel human again. Going to a battlezone of belief and sit in uncomfortable chairs on a Sunday between the hours of 10am and noon won’t fix things. What we need is an overhaul the likes of which no established congregation wants to endure. It’s much easier to “go somewhere else” than fix the place you’re in.
How to “read” our theologically-informed world is a long and thoroughly engaging discussion for me. The only other topic I love as much as theology is relationships. I love understanding why people make the relational choices that they make. But, getting back to my point, how we discuss theology is important. And when a leader gets it wrong, things can go off track really quickly. Empowered congregations will react to this in strong ways as well – they might fire their pastor for believing the wrong thing, the church might split over what songs they choose to sing, or these might be a catalyst to bring everyone to the same table and “get on the same page.” We might disagree over whether or not the world was created in seven literal days, but we still believe that God is good, is willing to help those who are making an effort, and is worthy to be praised. Those shared beliefs are a great start to rebuilding trust in the congregation. But this balancing act of “saying the right thing” and “doing the right thing” becomes untenable for many spiritual leaders who are – let’s not forget – trying to juggle their own lives while walking the tightrope of personal and private.
But what happens when your theology asserts itself above humanity? For all Fundamentalists and many who identify, to greater and lesser degrees, as theologically conservative, this means privileging the idea of God over and against the self. This has roots in the rejection of Humanism, which I can understand and even see the merit of to some extent. A strong theological concept of God does, at times, favor a theistic reading of history and lends itself to the negation of humanity. After all, God is omnipotent and humans are, relatively speaking, the new neighbor in the community. However, the final break from Churchianity that I endured was the decisive break from the teachings of Jesus to take care of the poor, marginalized, and oppressed.
It’s easy to say churches “don’t look at the world around them.” I believe that is untrue for the most part. Churches are keenly aware of what is happening around them and choose to reject what they see for their own interests. It’s the principle of John Nash’s Economic Game Theory used for religious ends. Everyone will do what is their own best interest to the detriment of all. No, churches are not blind. They are choosing to turn their backs on the world. It just so happens that they see that world differently than other Christians, other faith groups, and especially the non-religious. A world where a church can prioritize a new building project over the poor – financially, spiritually, materially poor – who live next door to them is anathema to me and I accept that, again, this is my own perception but it is a relief that I am not alone in this belief. The Pope has expressed these same sentiments. As have many Jews, like Rabbi Sharon Brous, who oversees Ikar synagogue in Los Angeles and has consciously led them without a building for several years now. Personally, I think Rabbi Brous is at the frontier of religion right now. Her congregation meet each week in a schoolhouse (implied message: education is important), a home (implied message: family is important), or a park (implied message: nature/environment is important) for their weekly parshah readings.
Religious communities have an agenda. Whether that agenda is self-preservation or charity or being a great place to meet and marry someone, there is an overriding agenda that permeates the atmosphere and facilitates their programs, preaching, and production. The churches that I once worked with or for primarily focused on drawing people in. It didn’t matter what we did with them once we got them in the door! What mattered were the numbers. Filled seats translated into higher weekly revenues, higher revenues translated into higher lines of credit, higher lines of credit translated into radio and television capabilities which (full circle) created a new market of potential revenue streams. While I prepared marketing plans and budgets, I was also busy teaching Sunday school, occasionally preaching, and laying the groundwork for long-term projects. Nothing that happens in a church staff meeting surprises me. From cupcakes to confessions to the quotidian, I saw stuff that would horrify the average person but the part that felt the most sickening wasn’t any of those things. It was the way we discussed people who needed help.
When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, I was finishing undergrad studies in business and working for my first church. My mother had already cried, begging me not to work for them months previous. I had just given a lecture at the college’s annual conference on megachurches and was watching a tropical storm make it’s way towards land. I grew up outside of New Orleans. Most of my childhood memories are at City Park or sitting outside of my dad’s lectures on Finance at Delgado reading a comic book. Tropical storms don’t really phase me. Rain and seasonal flooding are a part of living in New Orleans, so I wasn’t particularly worried until what we now know as “The Storm.”
In the days that followed, the entire staff (except for the pastor) and dozens of members of the congregation wanted to know how we could help. Should we send food and supplies? Should we stay where we were and open the church as a temporary shelter? What the documentaries strongly hint at but don’t necessarily get into is that the entire state was left in confusion. It wasn’t just New Orleans. Then-Governor Kathleen Blanco kept reassuring the people of Louisiana that the situation was under control. I’m ashamed to say that believed her. Many did. We just couldn’t believe the images we were seeing on our televisions before power went out across the state. At the time, I was in the Northwest region, near Shreveport and wanted to believe the best. My dad was able to borrow a phone to tell me that he was okay, the family home had lost some roofing and there was substantial water damage, but everything would be okay. And so I believed them,
And then the buses came.
The buses were filled with hollow-eyed people who had just watched their homes get washed away. Lifetimes of memories, photographs, home movies, grandma’s knitting were all gone now. And so was grandma.
Now that we could see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears how bad things really were, the congregation exploded. They demanded that the pastor open the church as a refuge. That we collect food and supplies. That we do something. Anything. We couldn’t sit by and do nothing.
But that’s what we did. Nothing.
We wanted to believe in our leaders so much, wanted to believe Governor Blanco that things were alright, believe President Bush that he did care about black people, that we had learned from 9/11, that the pastor was talking to the people who knew the situation that we just waited.
When we finally did something, anything, we sang songs. The church went to the college, which had opened up several buildings for people to take hot showers, lament in their own way, and get something to eat and we sang songs. That’s it. We stood there, plugged in our amps, and sang about how God was going to make everything better.
The pastor tried to explain to those of us who were feeling unmitigated anger that we were not actually angry with him, we were angry with ourselves and maybe we needed to pray about that. Meanwhile, he took his scheduled vacation to Arkansas.
In my mind, that vacation is inextricably linked to the events of Katrina. When people ask me where I was during the storm, I begin by telling the truth – I was four hours away. And then details become foggy because I don’t want to admit that I, like so many, blindly followed a pastor who was afraid “if we let people in, they’ll just need stuff and we can’t have them stealing from us” and felt that, during a crisis, “well, Brother Randall, they have families for that.” His vacation was the ultimate embodiment of everything he stood for – when there is a crisis and people need you, you take your vacation. Our “agenda” was one of self-preservation and never was it more clear to me than that conversation.
Again, every religious group has some kind of agenda and that agenda is usually wrapped up in discussions of politics and theology or a “worldview.” How we see the world determines how we interact with it. It took me a long time, but I began to understand that the pastor didn’t care about refugees or child slavery or crisis. He didn’t even care about those who died just a few hours away or the orphans and homeless just ten minutes away because he believed in “evacuation theology.” This term was coined to explain why so many Christians can turn away from the issues of the world. People who subscribe to “evacuation theology” want to leave this world and there is no hope in saving it. The best thing to do is just leave and take a vacation with Jesus. Apparently, quite literally.
In an ironic turn, it was Katrina that made me spiritually homeless. After that conversation with my pastor, I lost all confidence in “church.” What rallied me was knowing that I was not alone. Many members of the church felt similarly, especially two of the singers that night at the college. But that only gave me the impetus to move on and work for another church where things were not really that different. And then another. And another. What it took me so long to realize isn’t that “all churches are the same” but that they are guided by unique interests of their respective parts. The cohort. The globus. The legion. There is a spirit that animates a community of faith and guide them towards similar interests – be they raising support and awareness for social justice issues through outreach programs or monthly “guest speakers” similar to Rotary Club, protecting their own self-interests through education modules, or developing an after-school (i.e. “recruiting”) program like Awanas, or minimal engagement by doing none of these and meeting only once a week on Sunday mornings. Notice I pass no judgment on these, only noting that the one mission I cannot get behind is “protect our interests to the neglect of all others.” That cuts against not only Christian principles, but the ideals of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and the enduring world religions.
Candidly, I think this attitude is symptomatic of many churches in the Southern United States. There is a lingering mindset that someone might invade and take what is “ours.” This is, I suppose, why the Civil War is still referred to tangentially as “The War of Northern Aggression,” because Southerners were “invaded” by the North who broke up their rights to property, slavery, and individual liberties (the last one being one of the few matters that the South was quite progressive on). There remains a lingering suspicion that to give any piece of your own rights or property away, even as charity, will lead to another invasion – refugees need food for tonight, but then they will bother us for food tomorrow as and soon demand it as a human right.
This is the mindset I reject entirely, within and without a religious body. We are too interested in our own agendas to consider the needs of the many, trading in a currency that says E Pluribus Unum while entirely rejecting that principle. Right after Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis in 2013, he issued an 85 page letter to the Catholic Church, the Evangelii Gaudium (the Joy of the Gospel) where he wrote
I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a church concerned with being at the center and then ends up by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. My hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, ‘Give them something to eat.’
I find great release in these words. Pope Francis prefers a church with these attributes. While I accept that spiritual leaders can be corrupted (myself included) and that congregations can become hostile towards one another, at the end of the day I “accept” this because I am not ready to reject the idea of The Church entirely. There are still many churches who strive to genuinely live in, with, and out the teachings of scripture – both Hebrew and Christian scripture as much as the great maxims in Buddhism and the poetic integrity of the Quaran. There is good in the world, embodied in acts of kindness, setting aside self-interest, and pursuit of ethical living with one another, nature, and all of the creatures of the world.
*Spoiler alert: within three months, the pastor resigned because of a “moral failure.” Three months after that, he started a new church on the other side of town “because God told me that it doesn’t matter what I’ve done, what matters is who I am,” a nice play on words when read together with the call of Moses story in Exodus 3:14.