I miss going to church.
That might come as a surprise to those who have followed my 3-year journey out of church in general and pastoral ministry in particular. Perhaps some will smirk and harumph, I knew it, confident both in their righteous place within an organized congregation and in my assured misery outside “the will of God.” I have heard all kinds of reactions when people learn my once-full-time-pastoring family no longer attends church, from the “don’t neglect the meeting together of the saints” chastisement, to the “I’ve been hurt too” simultaneous justification and dismissal of my complex reality, to the “hell yeah! Church is toxic!” celebrations of our exodus, intended to be encouraging but ultimately denying the pain of this transition.
The truth is much more complicated and messy than any of these responses could hope to contain. Indeed, church has not been a safe place for me for a long time. The restrictions were stifling, the standards overbearing, the pressures of being pastor’s wife requiring me to deny or hide my selfhood, my passions, and my convictions. The politics of church itself are nauseating, not to mention the enmeshment of evangelicalism in right-wing American politics that has created the heretic cult of Christian Nationalism. I couldn’t stay, and as much as I wanted the answer to be just attending another church, being on the outside has shown me many of the biggest problems are intrinsic to the institution as we know it. That’s not to say every church and/or pastor is problematic and to be avoided, but every church and/or pastor is complicit in the problems plaguing the Church as a whole. While there are those who recognize this truth, and some even actively work to dismantle harmful systems, the reality of doing this work from the inside is incomprehensibly exhausting and riddled with conflicts, nuance, and pain along the way.
There are plenty of things I definitely do not miss about going to church. I don’t miss wrangling my kids or other people’s to where they’re supposed to be, getting stopped in the halls by those feigning concern as an excuse to gossip, agonizing over room lists for youth retreats, or getting lectured by the building administrator on needing liability waivers for kids playing basketball in the church gym. I don’t miss trying to control my face when the charismatic worship leader changes keys in effort to rouse a despondent crowd, attempting to explain the denomination’s faulty theology to questioning teenagers without saying something that will make their parents leave the church, or even genuinely laughing when a parent/congregant/fellow pastor tells my husband he needs to control his wife (hahahahaha). To be frank, I don’t even miss the community of having a church to belong to, a small group to attend, or a Bible study to lead. Being a pastor’s wife (even when not leading, that is a role we live 24/7) meant I must always consider how my participation could affect others. That constant evaluation, relentless concern, inescapable self-editing led to suffocating anxiety, crippling fear of letting people down, and paralyzing imposter syndrome. While I’ve made progress in therapy, I don’t know that I’ll ever fully overcome my knee-jerk distrust of other Christians.
Honestly, what I miss is the certainty. I miss knowing what each weekend would hold, knowing who I would see and what they might say. I miss the steady rhythm of Sundays and Wednesdays, seasonal retreats and youth camps, kids’ Christmas plays and VBSes and pretending we’re not participating in pagan rituals with our Easter egg hunts and October “Fall Festivals” of costumes and candy. I miss the camaraderie of my childhood, back when McDonald’s had 29 cent hamburgers every Wednesday, so the youth group would go after church and buy out the whole kitchen. I miss the old Garcia’s restaurant where we would eat lunch with friends every Sunday, and the whole youth group getting in trouble when we were supposed to be setting up games at VBS but we just jumped on the inflatables before the kids got outside. I miss the days of our first youth pastoring job, when we would stay after church and play volleyball until way past dark or go to Sonic and make the staff hate us for being so loud at the patio tables. I miss retreats and late-night talks and funny stories and inappropriate jokes whispered between the leaders in hopes the pastor’s kid might not overhear and rat us out.
I miss the safety and convenience of believing wholeheartedly in the boxes I had created to understand the world, the lines church drew that made nice, neat sense for me but simultaneously excluded countless beloved children whom Jesus calls his own. While I wouldn’t choose to go back to ignorance and bigotry, I can’t deny that it was comfortable and easy for me: a white, American, educated, middle class, heterosexual, cisgendered woman in the Bible Belt. *eye roll*
So maybe it’s not so much that I miss going to church; what I really miss is the person I used to be who actually enjoyed it. That little girl had a safe, happy childhood, and that young woman made some really good memories throughout her twenties, but she had been sick and dying for years before I finally laid her to rest. She was suffocating in the asphyxiating conditions of membership to the country club of American evangelicalism, dyspneic beneath the weight of expectations, traditions, dogmas, inescapable “ways we’ve just always done it.” After years of arrhythmia – a stumbling, jumbling, back-and-forth between love for people and disdain for the church’s approach – her heart for the institution experienced cardiac arrest, and I finally stopped desperately administering CPR and let her go. She received no palliative treatments, no comforting anesthesia or end of life care. It was so sudden that for a while I wondered if it had really happened or if this was all just a dream from which I would soon wake, only to find myself serving and leading and loving in another, “different” kind of church. But denial is just the first stage of grief, and grieving is exactly what I have been doing.
I grieve for the woman that used to be so certain, used to know exactly who she was, exactly who God was, exactly what he wanted from us. (Yeah, THAT is long gone.) I grieve the lost sense of belonging in religious spaces; though occasionally I allow myself to stand on the fringes and indulge in certain practices from time to time – receiving ashes or attending a baptism or showing up to some church’s community event – I know I’m just passing through, and this is no longer my home. I grieve the death of our dream, the life and the ministry my husband and I always envisioned, that we worked so hard to build. We were and still are incredibly proud of our accomplishments in ministry, the safety we carefully curated for students and the authenticity of our leadership. We made plenty of mistakes, of course, but we never compromised our convictions, even when it cost us, and to be honest, a lot of pastors can’t say the same. But we didn’t know it would cost us our future and everything that we ever planned. We held space for all kinds of diversions and winding side roads and unexpected routes, but we never thought the destination would change. The life we have always known, always planned, worked so diligently to create is dead, and we are grieving. We grieve tremendously at the loss of friends we expected to survive the journey with us, but they have since parted ways. Perhaps that is for the best, that we all take our own paths without fear or shame, but we never for an instant thought we would be doing this alone. Call us naive, but there were some friends we really believed would be forever, and we grieve the loss of those relationships, those envisioned futures, those together dreams.
In spite of all that, maybe even because of it, I am so grateful for where we are right now. I’m not exactly sure where that is… It’s what the Bible both literally and metaphorically calls “the wilderness,” this liminal space in between the security of walled cities and established communities, where there are wild animals and treacherous cliffs and dangers both seen and unseen. We have left behind brick and mortar homes, easily traversed paved roads, convenience of access to both people and places that bring comfort in times of need. We are pulling a cart through muddy paths and across rocky slopes and fjording rivers hoping for the best. We get lost, wander without direction, and sometimes find ourselves circling back to the place we just left. We are living in tents now, and at times it feels like exile.
But the biblical wilderness is more than danger and wandering and fear. Wilderness is both where Jesus was tempted and where he retreated to pray. This is where Hagar was banished and where she met and named God; it’s where Elijah begged for death and where he saw Yahweh with his own eyes; it took Jacob face to face with his past mistakes and simultaneously brought forgiveness and healing. Indeed, wilderness may be frightening, but here salvation is found.
This space is vast, quiet, free from the distractions and expectations of city life. It’s like camping off-grid, with skies so clear you can see the Milky Way, where your breath is taken away by panoramic views rather than choked out by pollution of false doctrines. This is the stillness where you can experience the fragile beauty of a doe grazing with her fawns, see lions and gazelles drinking from different sides of the same watering hole, hear the swelling rush of a nearby spring after the rain. Wilderness can be frightening when all you’ve ever known is city life, but now that we’ve been here a while, it feels a lot more like freedom. It feels like connecting to nature and the God that lives in and through all of Creation. It feels like experiencing Holy Spirit not in the fire nor the wind but in the still small voice, a whisper I could never quite hear amidst the busyness and noise of church life.
Our church exodus was like a wrecking ball to what had been my slowly deconstructing faith. At times I feel like I’m standing amid the rubble of my former self, and it would be a lot easier to simply run away. But when I surrender to the wilderness, I see these rocks not as the byproduct of a disaster but rather the building blocks of something new. Here I find a field full of stones that, once cleared, can be used for a wall to protect the vineyard I plant inside. These broken pieces fit together in new ways to build a home not just for myself, but with many extra rooms to shelter others who wander until they find their way.
I no longer fear the dangers of life outside the establishment; now that I have learned the paths the animals follow, I can see that this place has always been a providential home for many – snakes and jackals and spiders that aren’t welcome in the pristine halls of civilization except when caged and controlled. I may be living in a tent for now, but through the mess of my deconstruction, God has provided the materials to build a safe haven for others who may not have those tools yet themselves. Maybe their time here is temporary, they just need a place to shelter and heal from the blisters and injuries they have sustained on their journey. Perhaps others will stay long enough to learn what they need to build their own homes elsewhere, and hopefully teach us their wisdom while they’re here. Together, we can map a way to safety for any and all who seek it.
There will be some with finely made carriages and strongly bred horses to carry them through this place between places, and they will pass right by without stopping: to those I wish well and am grateful they kept some distance as they hurried on their way. But for those who need us, for those who are staggering across wasteland without a blanket or water or a compass to guide them, we will always leave the light on and welcome them in. Because we know what it’s like to be desperate. And we know what it’s like to be found.
I do miss going to church. But I am certainly not alone.