I guess it’s about time I got into one of my experiences with leaving a church. I think about it a lot. Especially when visiting churches and observing how a church involves and interacts with those coming in the door. It is a church I used to belong to and then made the hard decision to leave. I’m not revealing the name because it doesn’t really matter- it could really be anywhere. I will call it OldChurch.
OldChurch seemed like a really great place to be. In many ways it was. We had a variety of members with different views of how to live their Christianity. Each week at service we all greeted each other during a very vigorous passing of the peace in which we left our seats and wandered about for few minutes. It made me feel close to everyone to be able to smile and talk to them about their lives and families. OldChurch had some pretty good ministries for the needy and shared the building with other groups that did good works during the week. I volunteered for a number of projects at OldChurch and liked the fellowship dinners we held afterwards. I was often asked to help out with projects once it became clear I liked doing so. And things went well.
Now I tend to get into depressions periodically; sometimes they are mild and sometimes worse. I deal with that in a variety of ways and at a variety of speeds, but so far I’ve always come out on the other side. Well it was getting to that again and I was feeling blue. I was asked to participate in an event as one of the leaders. I said no. This was met with total confusion. Tracey said no? But she always says yes. Well no was my answer and they weren’t going to get a different one by acting surprised. But it didn’t end there. I was asked to help with several other projects, each of which I declined. More confusion followed. It was somehow incomprehensible that I refuse. It slowly became clear that these were seen as duties I was shirking. I was there to serve and it was not a choice. It was a requirement. That’s saying nothing of the fact that I was going through something kinda heavy at the time. It began to be a drag to show up on Sunday. It made me sad. Finally I realized it was more painful to attend church than stay home. So I left.
Many times I wondered how this could happen. I loved these people and this place. All the same OldChurch drove me away. I do not blame any individual member. I don’t think it was anyone’s fault. Rather I think it was a damaging mentality that managed to pervade a lot of what we did as a church group. Take for instance the treatment of visitors vs members: we were really big into greeting visitors warmly. It was one of the things that first drew me to OldChurch. But more energy was focused on greeting newcomers than becoming close to current members. No one saw that I was having a problem because there was no one I was really close to. Giving hugs and asking after one’s family is nice, but no one really knew me beyond that. So I felt alone and no one really understood or even tried. The second problem was the high focus on church participation. It should never have felt like volunteering was an obligation. And I don’t think that was the intent. But it happened. Words were used like ‘spiritual gifts’ and ‘be more’. There was a campaign to do more as a church. At the same time OldChurch was experiencing low membership and money problems. I think the idea was to become so active and vibrant that people would be drawn to OldChurch and fill the seats- thus solving attendance and money issues. Besides not working, this plan created undue pressure to ‘volunteer’. And this pressure was not something I imagined. One of my last interactions with OldChurch was a fundraiser, the paperwork for which I was handed and told “There’s no one else to do this.” As I understand it the woman who gave me the task was herself handed the paperwork and told, “Don’t worry, Tracey will do it.” So, while I felt very attached to OldChurch, I had to admit there were serious problems and it was time to leave.
One of the main things I take from this experience (besides sadness) is an aversion to false closeness. I wonder if that comes with territory though. Churches are an entity unlike most others in our world. They aren’t exactly a business, although they do require money. They aren’t exactly a set of friends because they don’t always have common interests or know everyone in the group. They aren’t exactly a club because they deal with matters of the importance of life and what we are here for. And they aren’t a governing body because they really can’t enforce the rules they preach. So what in hecks are they? They are something unique. And that means churches cannot expect to be a business or a club, or a government or a set of friends. I think churches need realistic expectations about what they are. You should not expect to be close to everyone in your church. You should expect friendliness from everyone and the possibility of close friendship with a few. I think there is another question to be answered here as well: should we serve the church or should the church serve us? Is the church as an entity mainly a place where people find things they seek, or where people go to serve others? Is there a way to do both effectively? I guess the answer could go either way depending on the church. With OldChurch it was a problem with too much serving others and not enough taking care of members internally. Other churches may have the opposite problem. Ultimately I think it is about balance. And again I am back to the refrain “that’s why I’m doing this project”- to see how possible such a balance is and if there are churches doing it right or wrong.