Leaving Church

When I was first ordained someone gave me a book of Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermons. I put them aside on a bookshelf meaning to read them some time but those early days of new ministry were awfully busy. Reading was way down on my list of priorities. I had had years of reading at University and Theological College… I wanted to be DOING.

Perhaps a couple of years later I heard someone raving about Barbara Brown Taylor, so I dug out the book and had a wee glimpse. Oh what a treat. What joys lay therein. These were sermons to dream over, to ponder, to come back to time and time again. And yes, I will confess to having pinched the odd idea from her.

A couple of years ago I heard that she had left the American Episcopal Church and my heart sank. What on earth had driven her to leave a successful ministry and go into teaching? She who was an icon for all women clergy in parish ministry. She whose preaching was so grounded in the people she served. She whose gift for storytelling and making connections was such an inspiration to the rest of us?

Leaving Church is the book that tells that story. I read it over two days with a pencil by my side marking phrases, paragraphs, whole pages to ponder again and share with my literary journal later. It is the book that you want all your busy, frazzled clergy friends to read before its too late. Passages like this:

I was not doing so well on the inside either.  In spite of my best intentions, I had dug myself back into the same hole that I had left All Saints’ to escape. My tiredness was so deep that it had seeped into my bones. I was out more nights than I was home. No matter how many new day planners I bought, none of them told when I had done enough. If I spent enough time at the nursing home then I neglected to return telephone calls, and if I put enough thought into the vestry meeting then I was less likely to catch mistakes in the Sunday bulletin.  As soon as I managed to convince myself that these were not cardinal sins, one of them would result in an oversight that caused a parishioner’s meltdown… (p98)

…Behind my heroic image of myself I saw my tiresome perfectionism, my resentment of those who did not try as hard as I did, and my huge appetite for approval. I saw the forgiving faces of my family, left behind every holiday for the past fifteen years, while I went to conduct services for other people and their families.  (p102)

In the end BBT ends up in a good place. She seems happy finding new ways of being creative with God teaching spirituality to young people.  Those of us who may not have such opportunities need to do something first before we end up disillusioned and very, very tired.

As my network of support seems to mainly come from social media like Facebook and Twitter these days, perhaps the church needs to look at ways of peer support in this area. As more clergy leave the church we need to ask why? BBT goes a long way to answering honestly some of those questions.

Leaving Church

5 thoughts on “Leaving Church

  1. How I agree, and while you have a large support group on social media – and are ahead of the game there perhaps? there is a huge gap in the way we support each other, in ministry. Whether it is that bone-tiredness, or the deep hurt caused by some event/comment directed at us, or the failure of something with much love and time invested in it, it is beyond us to carry it all without human support in addition to God – or more precisely, humans acting as God’s agents.

  2. Yes – caring is good and knowing when to tolerate things not being done as well as one could do them is in fact a way of caring in itself. Getting things right is good,. and for other people – getting things somewhat wrong is a necessary step to learning how to get them right. Being a mother is good, and teaching others not to need a mother is the best gift a mother can give them.

  3. My biggest problem is that I want Holy Week (and church in general) to be as exciting as my first Holy Week was. I will never forget it and I want everyone to have that experience so it needs to be perfect. Of course, the funny thing is that it probably wasn’t perfect behind the scenes. Let go and let God, Ruth. (Yes, but God ain’t going to get the pew sheets looking gorgeous…)

    • Ah, Ruth, how that resonates with me, too – my first Holy Week was at Old St Paul’s and nothing has ever been like it. How dearly I would love others to know that experience, but it is not mine to give.
      I am reminded of a service in Hawick many years ago, where I felt so depressed at what seemed a ‘disappointing’ [!] sermon/worship; came out and was seized by an acquaintance who said it had transformed her life. It really had, and we are still friends. So perfection is our desire, but God works as you know so well, through the most imperfect things…

  4. I’ve had to learn that my perfectionism can easily tip over into weakness and yes, sin. Just because it ain’t perfect doesn’t mean that it’s useless. A favourite verse, which I go back to time and again because it takes me back to God’s realities, is ‘my strength is made perfect in weakness.’ It’s OK to be weak, not to get things perfect, to ask for help – sometimes that brings the love flowing more than any amount of wonderfully-organised ministry!

    That sounds a challenging book. We need very clear boundaries in ministry, and to get used to that constant feeling that we will never do enough. Also, to remember that only God is irreplaceable … we are not!

    Very thought-provoking post, beautifully-written – thanks.

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