I spent most of my life being part of a church. Growing up, we went every Sunday morning. When I was old enough, youth group was added. Sunday after Sunday, and then Wednesdays too, from birth through high school, I went to church. I did other things such as school and sports, but the majority of my family’s life was connected to the church or people from the church. Then at 18 I had a brief departure from church life, about four years total. I was going through a lot of upheaval personally. I clearly remember thinking that my questions, disappointment, and anger had no place in church. It was okay to question if you were new to church or not really involved. But the seasoned folks didn’t question God. So I did the work on my own and eventually made peace with God.
In my early 20’s, married, and looking for a community, I decided that I wanted to go back. More than anything else, it was the relationships I was looking for. But this was easier said than done because I have always had an edge to me – my personality, my humor, my outlook. I didn’t quite fit in with the “Snow White” types at church, but neither was I a rebel without a cause. I had a cause. It was depth mixed with a strong dose of reality. So I would look and sometimes find that ragtag group of people who took their faith seriously and knew how to have a good time. These are great people to hang out with because they’ll challenge your mind, warm your heart, and make you laugh. And they know how to have fun. Life is too short not to laugh heartily and regularly.
As I got older, I found myself not only growing comfortable with mystery and unanswerable questions, but insisting on them. I couldn’t profess a simplistic faith in a complicated world. I encountered realities that made me angry with God and I needed to be honest about that. And in this process – years of work – something incredible happened: God became bigger. The benefit of a big God is that this God can handle big questions and big emotions. The downside is that this God is significantly more aloof. Assurances didn’t come as quickly, but what I did have I could hold onto firmly. That is not to say I don’t have days and weeks at a time of doubt. In fact it would be more accurate to say that doubt is a regular guest at my dinner table of faith. But I believe the big God can handle it, one of my few assurances.
Along the way, I have learned that not everyone is okay with this kind of God. Some people need a very black-and-white God, to know who is in with God and who is out, what God requires and what God hates. Bible passages are picked and contextualized in modern circumstances to support this God. I have found this to be true in both conservative (right belief) and liberal (right action) churches. This kind of environment became increasingly unhelpful for my faith journey. I was aware that either my faith would be extinguished or I would eventually start fires all over the place. But I found people and people found me, other outsiders of the church, who were hungry for sharing a journey with a big God faith. Hearing about a God who could handle their shit, and hearing about a follower who had her own shit she was carrying turned out to be good news to people. I would like to say that it is my personality that drew these people to me. But I know better. It was the message I spoke that was resonating so deeply with some. And so I became increasingly drawn to the faithful and the questioning who lived outside the church, or least were on the parameters of the church, the questioners who were not quite mature enough for church leadership.
In the beginning I had hoped I could do my work in collaboration with the church. I did not want to be a pastor. I saw a beautiful partnership emerging in my imagination. I knew there were still many folks who found the existing church meaningful, and the church could continue to serve them well. And for the increasing population who had dismissed the church, those were the people I felt called to serve, and I wanted to do so with the church’s help and blessing. I believed both communities of faith would benefit from the other. But my church was not interested. I looked into other churches and talked to many pastors. Unfortunately there was baggage that seemed to keep getting in the way. The baggage carried by the church concerned its hierarchy, dwindling membership, and/or fear. The baggage carried by those outside the church concerned hurts, misunderstandings, and/or apathy. Perhaps I am oversimplifying but in my experience and the research I have done, I found these threads: the church is insisting on its relevance, and the people outside the church don’t care. If I stayed within the church walls, I would have to invest time and energy in serving, reassuring, and helping those already part of the church. Stepping outside those walls would allow me to devote all my energy to those who had no faith community yet desired one. My decision was an easy one to make.
Next : a reluctant pastor