It has been over two months since I left the pastorate, longer since I began to question some of the more conservative theological pillars of evangelicalism. For the first few weeks of my journey, I was ecstatic. I was finally able to be open about who I had become. The stress and strain of pastoring that had been crushing my soul was finally off of me. I did not have to carry other people’s burdens in the way only a spiritual advisor can. I did not have to counsel anyone. It was like I had been born again. I use that term very intentionally.
Save for the first few days of leaving, which were a blur, during the first month, I was happier than I had been in recent memory. I had a spring to my step. When people asked me how I was, (always in a sober tone I might add) I would reply jovially, “I’m great,” to their utter disbelief. I would have to explain I really was great. I was better than I had been in months. I am not sure many of them believe me even now. How could I be happier without the Jesus I had loved so much? How could freedom mean I may possibly going to Hell? How could forgoing my calling for merely a “job” give me more joy that faithfully following God’s commands? I must have been deluded, or trying to delude myself and everyone else. I needed to come back to the fold before I went full apostate- the direction I know I am going- lest I face a worse Hell than others. Fear of hell is not really a fear when you doubt it exists, though, anymore than a fear of dragons would keep most modern-day people from venturing into caves. Hell was not going to stop me on my journey for truth.
I had been warned my one of my behaviorist friends that me leaving the ministry and my theology behind would be far more like having a divorce than simply leaving a job. I imagine when a divorce first happens, the party that initiates the proceedings is happy. Happier than they had been in a while. After all, if they were not unhappy, there would be no reason to leave. I’ve also been told that after the initial excitement, the new reality of being divorced gives way to a deep sadness. Not that they regret the decision, per se, just that they are sad, even as they are happy. There are good memories along with the bad. More than this, humans have an incredible ability to focus on the good once they get a little distance from a trauma. They mourn the good, even as they rejoice to not have any more bad. Not to mention what the other party goes through, the one who didn’t want the divorce or possibly never even saw it coming. And let’s not forget about the children.
When my friend told me to view my departure as a divorce, I agreed with him. I could see why he would give me that advice. I was not simply moving to a different job, I was leaving a life behind, complete with social rules, old “family,” networks, and behaviors. I very rarely pray anymore, and never at length. Leaving ministry for me, wasn’t a lateral move into a secular job market. It was a death and a rebirth. Last month, after multiple rejection letters from prospective employers, diminishing returns on time spent job searching, and the shear boredom than being unemployed is, my jubilation gave way to apathy. I was still happier than I had been in a long time, but the adrenaline was gone. New life patterns took over, and days became normal. That isn’t a bad thing. There would be something drastically wrong with me if I remained perpetually on cloud-nine and the dwindling savings account number and stress of paying bills didn’t affect me in some way. For a person to be fully human, events have to affect them and have an effect on them. It is software and robots who care nothing about the outside world.
Last week, for the first time since I left ministry, I mourned. This also is not a bad thing. I have been drawn continually away from evangelicalism, and some of it I will miss, I do miss. There are hymns and prayers that move the soul, there is the “mission,” and the fellowship. Late at night I put on one of my old worship music playlists and wept. Not because I had repented of my unbelief, but because part of me wishes I could. I have great memories of being part of a church, of being a pastor, even if I have a lot of bad ones as well. It seems that the final stage of divorce is upon me, or was upon me, or I was just sad one night and longed for something that cannot be anymore. To tell you the truth, there is still a lot of anger and pain and sorrow mixed into my feelings about the church, church planting, seminary, and everything else. Just like in a divorce, I am happier now for leaving, but that doesn’t mean I am not sad at times. And angry at others. And all of them at still yet others.
The journey so far has been anything but simple, and I imagine it will get more difficult before it is done. As the days pass into weeks, and the weeks pass into months, I find myself further and further away from what I staked my life upon for so long. The old arguments simply are not holding up anymore. A friend gave me a book called “Why I Believed,” by an ex-missionary. He thought his story may resonate with me. So far it has. I had decided to stay away from angry atheists, and even not so angry ones for a while. I have now begun indulging their arguments. Some of them seem reasonable, and others less so, but that is sort of the point. Hear everyone, let them have the platform, and chose whose world most coincides to reality.
I’m sure I will be sad again. And I’m sure I will read articles and books that contradict some of the agnostics who I avoided in seminary and now intend to read. And I’m sure that regardless of where I come out some will applaud and others will jeer and still others will be slightly indifferent. And all of this seems far more like a divorce than even my friend could have known, complete with kids I no longer see.