Over the weekend, Past Christian achieved 3500 views–not bad, considering it is quite a low-key blog with very little in the way of visuals (that’s intentional), which is not yet four months old. As with each 100 views passed, I put up a little announcement about it and a link to the blog on my Facebook page. What happened next surprised me.
A pre-Facebook friend asked me a question, as follows:
I stopped going to church on the Sunday before Christmas 2009. The intention was to step back and recover from experiences that left a few bruises, but I found that the desire to re-enter never returned. Several good friends from church have sought me out to ask how I am, but in nearly five years no one in an official capacity (lay or ordained) has ever shown an interest in my absence or the reasons why. Then this week I received an email from a new-ish minister asking to meet for a chat – I have absolutely no idea where to begin or even whether to meet at all. Any thoughts?
(NB: Usually anything that links to the blog is set to “public” and anyone can view it. To respect the privacy of the participants, I have since changed this particular conversation to “friends only”. My friend said that she was happy to have me share here what followed, but I still do not wish to disclose her name or location.)
This triggered one of the longest exchanges I’ve ever had on my own Facebook page (and only myself, the friend who initially responded, and one other Facebook-only friend participated). It reassured me that although my experience of distancing myself from the church is my own in every detail, I am not alone in having sensed that, for a time at least, church isn’t the best thing for me.
But it also made me sad and angry. This friend has been a committed and involved Christian for her entire life. She has valued the traditions of the church, valued the community as a place of spiritual growth. Her words are as follows:
I still believe that faith grows in community. I miss the cycle of the church year, rhythms of corporate prayer, and that sense of being caught up in the Christian narrative.
And yet (she did not specify exactly how), that went wrong enough to feel a need to separate, at least for a time, from something she had deeply valued. The word that keeps coming up is “bruise”:
The intention was to step back and recover from experiences that left a few bruises, but I found that the desire to re-enter never returned.
the lack of contact over the past 5 years has now become the main and very tender bruise.
I asked whether it was her own absence from church, or the fact that nobody in a leadership position had ever attempted to contact her, that was the bruise; she responded:
The second is the bruise, but the first is a source of continuing sadness…
There is much in the church that she values, as stated above, yet she doesn’t feel that she can return (at least at present):
But I cannot face acquiring more bruises just to access them – I wouldn’t ask that of anyone else so why do I expect it of myself?
And that useful gauge of “what would you say to someone else in a similar situation?” emerged:
I sometimes think if I were listening to a friend describe her relationship in similar terms, I would have no hesitation in urging her to get out.
When only those who are close friends reach out to see if a former fellow-congregant is okay (who might have done so whether or not they were “Christian”–Christians have no monopoly on care or friendship), but the more official representatives of the institution do nothing of the sort, it raises questions (probably more for me) about what “community” means. And after five years, to have a new-ish minister request a meeting can bring up a lot of unwelcome feelings. My friend wonders whether to accept, having voiced that
my fear is getting angry or emotional in the process and consequently not heard.
Which is not altogether unreasonable–I took a meeting with a priest last summer, and that was precisely what happened to me.
The third participant in the conversation suggested that it might be helpful to try to articulate what was needed or wanted in a church community (even if the attempt wasn’t entirely successful). My friend’s response was:
to be part of a church whose members are more than disposable goods.
OUCH. For my friend to feel that, ouch. But I can only imagine how poorly that would sit with most church leaders.
And yet, they need that “ouch”. Because it’s not the “ouch” of a violent attack, but the “ouch” of a hypodermic needle delivering much-needed medication. The churches are very bad with understanding why people leave. They are perhaps even worse at coping with people who return after a long absence. And worse yet at managing the period in between–which might explain people leaving and not coming back.
And that has to change. Two things appear to me as crucial for that to happen.
The first is that ministerial education has to address the issue–even admit it exists. Training needs to be developed for both pre-ordination instruction and for continuing ministerial education for active clergy. I have ideas about what that might entail, but I am not in a position to do much about putting those ideas into action.
The second is that the stories of people who leave the church have to be heard. And that is something to which I might be able to contribute.
I invite anyone who wants to share a story of leaving church (and returning, if that has happened) to share it with me and readers on my blog. I am more interested in the kinds of stories my friend has shared–the big stuff like sexual misconduct or escaping from mind-controlling cults is perhaps better dealt with elsewhere. But after an impromptu but extended Facebook discussion between people who have dedicated much of their lives and resources to the church prior to leaving, these stories must be told. Especially when I suspect we are not the only ones who expect that church is a place where we will be “bruised”.
Over the next few days, I will be working on a format to help facilitate the telling of these stories, by giving them a format. Anything shared will protect your identity and location. My intuition is that over a range of shared experiences, certain themes will emerge. If that happens, it may be useful to organize it into something more enduring and accessible than posts on a low-key blog.
If you have a story to share, my email is on the “about” page for the blog; if you know someone who might wish to share a story, please point them in this direction. Please be in touch, and thank you for your generosity and courage.