Community and quitting

Between bone names and articulations, I'm taking a little study break. I'm enjoying breathing some life back into this blog, and there's another aspect of this religious shift that I would really like to explore - I'll probably return to it at various points, but I wanted to dash out a few thoughts.

The topic is community, and the idea is that I want to be clear about the difference and relationship between my leaving behind one form of religious practice and my leaving behind a religious community.

1: I owe a whole lot to Christians.

Most of my family and friends are Christians of some sort, and most of the formative events of my life have happened in a Christian context. Until about four months ago I was a Christian minister, and I made a living during the first stage of my career because Christians donated money so that I could work to build up the Christian community. Christian thinkers have shaped my philosophy and worldview, Christian artists have shaped my aesthetic sensibilities, and Christian friends have enabled me to go through this process of discernment that led from the ordination track to nursing and eventually leaving organized religion. I believe in the beauty and value of Christian community, and I've benefitted from participating in various forms of such throughout my life, and fully expect to continue to benefit from connection with Christians through this next stage. The hardest part about being publicly honest about where I am religiously is feeling that I'll be letting my Christian friends down or dividing myself from them(you) in some way. The hardest part of not maintaining connections to Episcopal activities will be the weakening of relationships that would have potentially been strengthened there.

2: My decision to leave was triggered by a series of experiences that were damaging for me, which occurred in the context of Christian community.

This is something that I haven't talked about a lot because leaving church for me isn't primarily a response to any one bad experience, I've hurt a lot of people myself, and I definitely don't have an interest in badmouthing people who I've had differences with (which, consequently, is why you won't get many details here about negative events). The church is full of people, and people have problems, and through church we can often learn to get past that. Still, while I haven't really want to draw attention to it, the fact is that when I decided to leave it was in the middle of a mess (after a series of other, smaller messes) that felt deeply damaging to me personally, socially and professionally. It was that mess that triggered my thinking on its current trajectory, and I probably wouldn't have changed career or spiritual paths immediately if I hadn't gone through it, to be honest. I've had an underlying dissatisfaction for quite some time, but that solidified things and played a catalyzing role for me. (A negative experience similarly catalyzed my departure from evangelicalism back in the day, which I might talk about sometime b/c in retrospect it's pretty funny.) I still don't know what exactly to do with that, but it's undeniable that there's some bitterness lingering for me.

3. When I decided to leave, I was in a leadership role in my community and had to figure out how to manage that, which I probably did (and am doing) a bit clumsily.

When I was having conversations with Angel and deciding to leave (November - December 2009), I was employed as a youth minister. I really loved (and still love) the kids and families I was working with, and I believed (and believe) that church could play a positive role for them and could help to facilitate their spiritual and personal well-being. I still felt (and feel) a deep personal connection to, and respect for, Anglicanism and Christianity, and I didn't want to mess it up (and still don't) for the kids I was working with. (The one thing I feel bad about in that process is that I led people to believe I'd be continuing with church in some capacity after I finished up my employment - my thinking basically was that I couldn't handle the full quitting conversation at the time, and that it would undermine my role with the youth I was working with - I think I might have been wrong on the second point, but the first was definitely true. I haven't really been able to talk about quitting without being angry about it until recently.) I've never wanted to 'take anyone down with me', so to speak, and I'm serious when I say that this shift is really about my own relationship with religion - it's not a gesture towards the value of religion as a whole, or for anyone else. So, my instinct towards online self-revelation is kind of a pain in my skinny butt. I feel bad doing it, but also think that honesty is better for me, and will be valuable for other people who are going through similar experiences of dissatisfaction/damage related to their religious experience. In some backwards way I also think it's better for me to be honest with the kids and families that I worked with as well, instead of leaving open questions and skirting difficult conversations.

4. I'm leaving, in part, because I want my community to broaden, but I also want to maintain my connection with my Christian friends.

Alan Jones, one of my favorite Episcopalians, said, in paraphrase, that "I believe" is just one way of saying that "I belong to this particular tribe". As someone working as a minister, I think that was especially true for me - my religion defined what I did and who I associated with on a regular basis, and how I related to people outside of my religion. Even before leaving, I usually felt more of a personal affinity to agnostics than to the average church goer. Now I'm saying "I don't believe" not as a way of saying that I want to quit the tribe so much as I'm looking for (and investing my belief in) a way to have a tribe that's bigger, or maybe maintaining some kind of cross-tribal citizenship. There's an undeniable way that religious identification binds you to people in the same camp, and divides you from people in other camps. Is that valuable? I don't know, but it is what it is. I'm sure this process will mean that I have fewer and less deep connections with some of my Christian friends, and less opportunities to connect with them, but I have to say that after 12 years in various sorts of Christian bubbles as a theology student and then minister, I need to invest in breathing other kinds of air on a more regular basis. (It might not be as big a deal to me if I hadn't been so centrally involved in church for all of those years, but that's where that experience has placed me.)

The important summary to all of this is that I really wish that leaving behind a religion didn't mean causing damage to community relationships, but I'm realistic about the fact that it's a decision that has consequences - some good, some bad. I'm not quitting because of the community, but I am hoping that this will mean a circle of friends that is less defined by my religious affiliation than it has been in recent years.


divatobe said…
Oh, how this post resonates with me. Thank you for writing with such raw honesty.
kc said…
This very much resonates with me as well, although I haven't formally served as a church leader--for pay that is :-) I find it reassuring that other people I know (though I know I don't know you and Angel well yet!) who have put a lot of themselves into Christian communities also experience feelings of ambivalence about some church things, who desire a larger community, and who struggle to sort out what Christianity has meant and will mean in their lives. Thank you for the writing you've done on this topic (re: what you wrote on FB, I am not bored or wishing for a topic change--I personally find this topic both fascinating and relatable--but I totally understand if you're wanting to bring in other parts of your life, too.) -kristin (tim & alison's friend)