I did something really brave on Sunday. I joined my church community as a member. It took me 2 and a half years to be willing to do that. At my church (it's so fun to say that, like using the word "fiance" right after a proposal), the membership responsibilities are not intensely binding or rigid but I feel serious about making a verbal commitment to a community of people. I waited until I was truly ready. Sunday, I felt ready to be vulnerable, open and shaped by other people in the area of my faith. That is a really big deal. My faith process has been something I have guarded viscerally since we left the churches of Christ. I have fended off many influences over the years and have treated my soul as the precious thing it is. I wanted to tighten that circle of influence and church was left out. To allow it to be shaped by a church community felt threatening for a long time. When you feel threatened about something precious, you circle the wagons. You've got to. If you're not in church for this reason, I commend you.
After we left full-time ministry, we participated in a local church plant with safe friends. That season (about 1 and a half years) was all about unpacking our pain and we were surrounded with support during that time. It was so special to have church friends our age who weren't threatened by our grief or who felt compelled to defend against it. We were angry. We were confused. We were in shock. It was a painful, but precious time and we hold dear all those friends who held us up and loved us through that.
Then we went through my difficult pregnancy with Penny (where I couldn't sit in the church chairs) and Tim was ready for space when it came to long sermons and regular church attendance. That began a 2 year period where we did not really attend church at all. There were logistical challenges with my pregnancy and afterwards, the mental health stuff did not foster enough flexibility in us to try to be in church with young kids (it can be incredibly stressful). Sometimes attending church is just too hard.
Once things stabilized at home, (about 2 and a half years ago), I visited my current church on my own. It's called Bridgeport United Church of Christ. One of my dearest friends, Danna, had been inviting me for about a year. She and I have similar back stories with our church of Christ history and professional ministry experiences (read: trauma) and she had found a home there. So right after Christmas, in 2014, I climbed the steps of Bridgeport alone. I was nervous. I can't begin to tell you how scary it can be to walk through the doors of a church. For me, it was the act of not knowing the rhythms of a strange community coupled with the triggers of talking about and engaging in faith activities in a group setting. If you judge people who don't want to keep visiting around, you are out of touch with what that process is like. And if church trauma is involved, forget it.
So it was scary. But it was also shockingly lovely. I had spent the previous few years charting my own course. I was trusting my instincts, reading a lot, bouncing ideas and experiences off trusted friends and "practicing" my faith. My Reverend talks about the concept of faith as a practice a lot and I love it. I had started my first blog, Mutterings from a Perfectionist, and was actively unpacking my perfectionism and sifting through my values. Let's face it: faith isn't something you hold with full knowledge and certainty. For me, faith has become potentially making an ass of myself and learning a lot by listening. It's a practice. This idea also emphasizes that perfection is actually a barrier to faith versus the goal. Very healthy for me indeed!
I found myself in a room with people who were practicing their faith with activism and community engagement that left my new life in the dust. Not in an invalidating way, but in the way that I knew I could learn from these people and actually grow in the practice of my faith. Before, I was having to tune out church messages to pursue what I felt was right, in particular, obsessive focus on my behavior and qualifying it as sinful or not sinful. I wanted to learn how to love myself and love others. I wanted to be relevant in the world, not separate from it. I wanted my faith to be fused with my passion for activism, not as an act of rebellion from it. I found myself coming to terms with the fact that I could pursue this path on my own as I had been, or I could join a community that spurred me on in this process, that filled me with encouragement, that affirmed my grief about our culture and gave me opportunities to do something about it. Wow!
I didn't know there was such thing as a progressive Christian faith. I had already decided to keep Jesus and leave behind conservatism. But I assumed that meant I could not have church. And I was okay with that. Hell, avoiding church allowed me to leave that painful baggage in the past. Confronting it on top of everything else I was facing in my life, was just too hard. And then I walked into Bridgeport. And it was beautiful. It really moved me. I found my home. I knew it that very first week. And, like a lover who'd been burned, it just took me a really long time to be ready to live in full community with my friends at church. I needed to do church completely on my terms. And I still often recoil when anything is asked of me there. It's a gut reaction. I'm afraid of being used. I'm afraid of saying yes when I should say no. I'm afraid that sometimes yes will be the right thing. I don't want to give. I don't want to serve. I don't want to be obligated. And I really, really don't want to be betrayed again. But I've decided to knowingly look that fear in the eyes and try. And I have stumbled through it even as a visitor all this time. I'm choosing community knowing that for me, it is a bit of a minefield. But I believe the benefit outweighs the risks and that is a huge deal. I am so, so grateful to have found Bridgeport and to have been able to salvage faith community in my life. It was so unexpected and unnecessary. What a gift!
Here are the things I affirmed during the ceremony:
That I profess Jesus as the center of my faith
That I will be faithful to this community
That I will challenge this community to be the best version of itself and to live up to the things we say we believe
That I will allow myself to be changed, shaped and transformed by this community as I live into my called identity as a beloved child of God
Because it was Pentecost Sunday, there was a big focus on the Holy Spirit and it was also our church's 19th anniversary, so many questions were asked of the community and many stories were told about how participation in our church life had made a difference in everyone's lives. It was beautiful. We found that so many of us were transplants from other church movements. We were sojourners who'd found our way home. We ended church with a picnic. There were dogs and children running around and it was a good reminder that community doesn't have to be restrictive or homogeneous. It just has to be honest.
During that 5 year period between our firing and now (it'll be 6 years in a few weeks), Tim and I as individuals kind of went in different directions. And I don't mean opposite directions, just living into the fact that we have different needs spiritually. I don't know what that looks like in the long-term (which caused me great anxiety initially) but at this point, it has looks like me attending Bridgeport and him staying home. As a introvert and moderate, Tim just doesn't feel like church is home anymore. He doesn't really fit in conservative or progressive Christianity and sadly, that doesn't leave a lot of options. He hasn't found a place that really fits and he feels fine without that weekly rhythm. He's not uninterested, but he's not pursuing it either.
It is a tricky thing to "let" your former minister spouse not attend church. I use quotations because it is his decision. If I truly respect my husband and his faith process (as he does mine) then those are his choices to make. And it is a total judgment to assume that he's not a Christian or a person of faith just because he doesn't sit in a pew every week. How many people sit in a pew and then live like assholes? Sorry, but it's true. I can be an encouragement by checking in with him, engaging him in spiritual conversation and just being there for him as a friend. But it is not my job to lead him spiritually and neither is it his job to lead me. We were raised to believe that men are the spiritual leaders of the home. I've even heard people say that it's your job to get your spouse to heaven. I choose not to live in the fear of hell for myself or for my family. I choose to respect my husband's faith process, holding the truth that we are very different in approach, spiritual need and giftedness. And here's the thing - we always were. We're living more honestly now. He's not pushing himself to lead others. He's taking better care of himself. And I'm staying true to my love for him and the family we've made. I have so many friends who've wrestled with this. I know so many women who attend church alone with their children. They receive glances of pity every single week. Guess what? We're not spiritual widows. People change. Things happen. Life hurts and we process that differently. And we love our husbands! When faced with a change of direction for a spouse, we can hold on for dear life, nag until all love is gone or we can release control and live in respect and love. I am not afraid.
The other thing that's fun in a challenging way about this is it forces the church-going spouse to be accountable to him or herself. There's a certain shoulders-back grit that comes from making a spiritual commitment for yourself and your children as an individual. I'm in charge of my faith process. I collaborate with my fellow church members, but my soul is my own garden to tend and that is a beautiful thing. May the flowers grow in your garden. May the fruit rise up to nourish you and your children. May you pursue and work out your faith with freedom and grace. May you find a safety net under you that you never knew was there. That net is big enough for me, my children and for my non-church-going husband. It's big enough for you too.