To the youth, families and friends I worked with in ministry

I know I said that yesterday's post would be the last on the topic for now, but I've realized that there's an important piece that still needs to be communicated. Due to the nature of the blogosphere, I usually feel like I'm writing into a sort of black abyss that occasionally sends back messages. I realize though that most of the people who read are people who I've worked with in some capacity, and there are at least 1 - 2 youth who were in my youth group who tune in. I wanted to address you all directly before I changed the subject. (The need for this post was brought to my attention by the few friends who were gracious enough to challenge me on some of this stuff - what I'm doing and the way I'm going about it.)

Most of the people who have responded to this series of posts have been supportive - folks for whom my experience resonates in some way, or people who are just generally supportive types. What I would guess is that, actually, 'support' and empathy aren't the only emotions that I'm evoking for people in doing this, and that most of you who are having more of a difficult time with it aren't speaking up b/c you're nice and gracious. For those of you who've known me primarily as a youth pastor, aspirant, colleague or spiritual mentor, I would guess that there's at least a significant amount of confusion about my decision to stop going to church and start saying things like "I also definitely feel a need to disassociate from Christianity - in part b/c it's misleading to others to identify myself as a Christian, and in part because my ideas about God (or, maybe, lack thereof) simply don't fit well into the traditional Christian structure". At least confusion and some sadness, a sense of betrayal, deception, and probably at least a bit of disgust. That really is hard for me, because I care about you all, and owe a lot to you - you've contributed a lot to my life. Apologies that this is so long - I've tried to highlight the key points.

There's no good way to do what I've done, in moving from a position in ministry and leadership to a position outside of the church, and especially so when you're working with youth, and I would expect that this step represents a burning of bridges for some people. But I want to put a few things together that are important to explain myself and let you know how I feel now about my time in ministry and the struggles that I was having while I was there. Some of this you might have seen before, but I wanted it to be in one package for those of you who I've known through ministry. This post is a bit of an apology, and a bit of an attempt to honor the positive experiences that we had together.

1) Although I've struggled with questions related to God and Church since college, and there were thoughts and emotions on the backburner for quite awhile, I didn't seriously question my commitment to the Episcopal Church or the Christian faith until a lot of negative experiences and overcommitment cascaded into burnout in November or December 2009. Even then, I didn't make a firm and final decision to separate myself from the church until after I finished at St. Margaret's, in Summer 2010. By January I was sure that I needed a church hiatus, but I also knew that I needed perspective 'on the other side' of ministry before making any firm decisions. I didn't talk publicly (or privately w/St. Margaret's folks) about a lot of the struggles I was having during January - June for a variety of reasons - I was still wrestling with things, was in 'if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all' mode, and genuinely wanted to finish the job I was being paid to do in a way that honored the community. I still care about the St. Margaret's and Dio of Olympia communities, and I wanted to make the transition out of my position of ministry in as healthy a way as possible.

2) I say all of that b/c I know that with all of this crap I've been writing recently, my sincerity and commitment during my time in ministry will be drawn into question - and along with that maybe the validity of the spiritual growth that you experienced with me as your minister? There were personal doubts there, but I did my best to be honest then and now. I took kids through confirmation courses 3/4 years that I was in ministry, including this one - I don't know if this makes sense, but I'm still happy and honored to have done so. I think that the Episcopal Church is a generally beautiful place to live out your faith and explore the mystery of God, and I'm still a supporter of its mission and people.

Along the same lines, in terms of what I tried to communicate about the church and God, again this might sound strange but not much has changed from when I was a minister. I haven't gone through a spiritual crisis in the sense that my beliefs have changed. I actually think there's still plenty of room for someone with beliefs like mine in the Episcopal Church, and in many liberal Christian churches. I talk a lot about agnosticism and so forth, but I'm not any more liberal than a lot of people who still find the Church to be a good place to be.

In some ways this is what all of that 'Emerging Church' stuff was about - I've had struggles with the reality of what the church is for quite some time, and was working for reform while I was inside. (That's also something I enjoyed about working with youth - they have the capacity to shape and change things in the future.) One thing that I came to is that church membership is like a marriage (and particularly ministry work) - you can't expect the other party (or the church) to change for you without changing yourself. In that, I realized that I wasn't willing (or able) to change in the ways that I felt I was being required to, and I'm not really well suited to the 'reformer' role. I don't like the controversy, attention and social abrasion that comes along with it. It burnt me out.

3) Maybe the most difficult thing in this process has been deciding what to say and how. I'm guessing that even talking about this is creating a certain level of angst for both those who can empathize and those who are totally confused. I'm also guessing that it's making some of you think I'm a jerk for not being totally honest at least during my last few months of ministry. I'll admit that I avoided some difficult conversations during the first part of this year for selfish reasons related to self-preservation and I'm sorry for that. I have tried to navigate a difficult situation as gracefully and honestly as I could. I'm being open now, even though I know it will cause problems, because I really do think that honesty about these things is better for everyone involved, and the internet can be a decent place to get things out that you might not have the opportunity or guts to say out loud.

4) In terms of why I have eventually quit, in summary it's all about my own history with religion. The Episcopal Church is a generally healthy place to be religious, I think, but I came to it with quite a bit of baggage around religion - my religious upbringing messed with my sense of personal value, worldview, self-confidence, sexuality, and just about everything else. When I ran into relatively small challenges in the Episcopal Church, it brought all of that stuff back up and made me angry and depressed, and I've realized that I'm not able to relate to religion in healthy ways at this stage in life. It's hard to separate the people from the system, but my leaving really is about the way I relate to the system. (I think this is also why it's important for me to not self-identify as a Christian - Even though a lot of my beliefs still fit the bill, and I've been shaped by the culture, the word comes along with too much personal baggage.) That's sad, because it's the people that get hurt.

5) If I have spiritual or theological advice to pass along, it's that questions related to God, church and spirituality are generally impossible to answer in any conclusive way, and the best you can do is follow the track that seems to be working - producing the most love, compassion, peace, sense of truth, and so forth in your situation. For me, that's changed and honesty, I think, requires spiritual humility and a willingness to change from individuals and religious institutions. But don't look at my decision to not participate in organized religion as a critique of organized religion for you. It played a crucial role in my life for 30 years, and for many people is the best possible path towards God. For the youth and families that I've worked with, I hope you'll be honest and courageous enough to follow God and seek truth where you find it - inside of religion or out. And I hope you still like me.

Comments

Dave Paisley said…
What I'd say mostly is stop beating yourself up :)

You're doing an admirable job of being as open as you can. Regarding Jan-June, if we all went around being totally honest about our feelings all the time the world wold be a pretty messed up place.

It seems to me you're taking a break from Churchianity.

As a 27 year youth ministry veteran myself, one of the things that continually strikes me is how unrealistic it is to expect teenagers to be perfect little Christians at age 18 - and yet classic youth ministry tries to do that. Or 30 or 40 or 50, 60, 70.

Anyway, you know I'll always be in your corner :)
Tim Mathis said…
Thanks for the support, and the thoughts Dave. Unrealistic expectations for myself, for the church, and for others has historically been one of my big spiritual problems. It's also a problem that, I think, churches normally encourage.

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