In my previous post in what is apparently going to be a series, 🙂 I rambled for awhile about the idea of leaving the institutional church structure, including some of my own story and reflecting on what I had actually left behind, and what I didn’t leave. So the next step on this stream-of-consciousness journey is to talk about why I left the institutional church.
Admittedly, this is going to be a personal post, because among those people who have “left,” we haven’t all left for exactly the same reasons. If you’re looking for a something to relate to in this post, you might find a few things that resonate with you, and you might find some things you don’t resonate with at all–and that’s because these are my reasons for leaving, not necessarily yours. And as you’ll see, my journey is a little unique.
So many people can point to a particular moment when they made a conscious decision to leave the institutional church behind, or to leave behind a specific congregation. The reasons may be varied, but they include being hurt, being isolated, feeling out-of-place, feeling irrelevant, or perhaps just not seeing the point of it all. All very valid reasons.
For me, the leaving process was much more layered, because you see, I was coming from the standpoint of an ordained minister, first on staff at an institutional church, then overseeing my own (tiny) congregation in our home, along with The Wild One. For me, it wasn’t so much a conscious decision to leave as much as it was a realization that I was already out the door. I had been “leaving” in my heart and in my thought processes for many years–my ideas about what the church should be were becoming vastly different from those of the institutional leadership around me. But I was still holding on stubbornly, thinking of myself as part of this structure, and thinking I could reform it from within (or perhaps from alongside). Then there was a moment when a pastor publicly confronted me over something fairly insignificant, then refused to engage my attempts to reconcile the relationship. That’s when I realized the issue wasn’t really the issue–that pastor was threatened not by what I’d said or done, but by my entire approach to ministry in general. That’s when I realized I was no longer “in”–I was on the backside of the door, given the left foot of fellowship, and the door locked behind me. So for me, the “conscious decision” part of this was not really choosing to leave–it was choosing to embrace the truth of where I was. I was already gone. My whole approach to faith and ministry was no longer compatible with the institutional church. I was just sort of the last person to realize it. 🙂
For me, I think the whole “leaving” process actually began earlier than I thought. I came of age within ministry circles at the forefront of the burgeoning charismatic movement, and my musical gifts got me onto megachurch platforms and on the chapel stage of a prominent Christian university. As much as I valued my acceptance within these circles, and as much as I found a home on these ministry platforms, I saw certain inconsistencies very early on. I heard the hushed stories of prominent televangelists who were secreted into hospitals for drug addiction, or the whispers of scandals of other sorts behind the scenes. I had a front row seat to watch how some of the more prominent leaders in our circles treated people when they weren’t on the platform. I saw the hypocrisy, the lack of character, and the pressure to put up a front, even back then. I tried not to judge, but I had a more ideal image of what the church should be like, and I determined then to be on the right side of that image, to be an agent of change.
Then I took a position at a small church as a worship leader, and I realized many of those same inconsistencies that I’d seen in the bigger circles were present in the smaller circles as well. Not so much the scandal part (although it happens), but certainly the manipulation, the gossip, the behind-the-scenes insecurity, the hypocrisy, the pressure to keep up appearances–all of that was there. Again, I stayed part of that process, trying to belong, but having my doubts as to whether this is how it really should be. And when The Wild One and I felt the call to leave that church to start our own in another town, we determined again to try and be an agent of change–to make a clean break and to fashion that new community with a different set of ideals. Looking back, I see that leaving that church was one more step toward leaving institutional Christianity, although we didn’t know it yet. We still saw no difference between the church and the institution–we just thought it could be done better.
Then came ten years of house church. Even though the first five of those years we were a house church trying to become a megachurch, 🙂 even on this small scale I was able to experience the pressures firsthand that came with pastoring an institution. I found myself having to choose over and over between upholding the stated vision of the church and hurting people within that community whose brokenness was getting in the way. I felt the pressure of defending my position of authority, even when no one was challenging it, just because the whole sense of hierarchy demanded it.
And then there was the dynamic of trying to work with other pastors in the community. First off, we were trying to do collaborative church efforts in a town that is a shark tank where pastors see one another as the “competition.” Secondly, our increasingly non-conventional approach to ministry was apparently perceived as a threat. I could tell you some stories, but I’ll refrain (for now). Suffice it to say that by the time that pastor I mentioned earlier called us out publicly, I could see for the first time how we must look from the standpoint of the institution, and how incompatible we had become to that way of thinking.
Even then, however, that confrontation wasn’t the final blow. It wasn’t that this guy had said “no” to us–it was that after the fact, no one else came around us to say “yes.” It was as if even many of the friends we had managed to make in ministry there were just watching, waiting to see if we would survive, but very few managed to step up to show support–certainly not enough.
In fact, our house church did survive the blow, and we prospered in our living room for another three years before we made the move to Denver. But that confrontation really marked the end of any sense of effectiveness we felt in public ministry outside the walls of our home. And it became the focal point for me to acknowledge that we needed to embrace the idea of mission, ministry, and indeed a walk of faith, outside of the institutions that surrounded Christianity.
So all this rambling describes how I left, but the why may still be unclear. So let me summarize it, based on what I’ve just shared:
I left because saw the inconsistencies between what should be and what actually was.
I left because when I tried to be an agent of change for those inconsistencies, I was met with resistance.
I left because I increasingly saw those inconsistencies standing in the way of effective ministry, rather than furthering God’s kingdom.
I left because I wanted something more.
I left because I wanted a more authentic, more vibrant faith, and I found that more outside the walls than within them.
Oh, and there’s one more reason that is an undercurrent with all of this–and it ties in to my blogger friend Kathy’s post a couple of weeks ago that actually started me on this stream of thought. And for this one, I have to change “I” to “we” because it involves my whole family (not that the other reasons didn’t involve them, too–but you’ll see what I mean in a moment). Here it is:
We left to save our souls.
You see, through all this internal struggle I was having in my own journey of faith, The Wild One and The Director were struggling even more, and unlike me, they were more honest and self-aware of those struggles. In a couple of posts very early on in this blog, I described The Wild One’s attempts to fit into the box of institutional ministry while being married to me, and how she often found herself in “trouble” for not being able to fit. The Director (my son, for those who aren’t picking up on it) literally watched while his parents took blow after blow, suffering injustice after injustice at the hands of the church while trying to do what was right and keep a good attitude–and it deeply impacted his own view of faith and the church. The end result was that all of us were suffering emotionally and mentally from the pressure, more than we even realized. Making our “leaving” official set us free in ways I can’t even describe, and we’ve been personally happier, more fulfilled and healthier overall since we made that choice.
The other day, The Wild One found some old photos of us from our days in Tulsa. She was shocked at the difference between how we looked then and how we look now. Seriously, we look ten years younger now than we did then. That’s evidence enough.
Again, we are still part of the Body of Christ, and the heart for mission is still within us. And again, our experience isn’t an indicator for what anyone else has experienced, or what they should do about it. For us, we just believe that our faith is more real, and our mission more effective, without the added baggage of institutional Christianity associated with it.
So that’s why I left. In the next post, I’ll try to ramble a bit about what, if anything, could possibly compel me to return.