Yesterday I blogged about how leaving the ministry and the old theological circles I ran in is far more like a divorce than anything else. I have not only had to leave a job, I have lost some friends, and more acquaintances. Not everyone is gone from my life, and others who had been in the periphery have become closer. I have had to begin restructuring my entire life. What I had built everything upon is now no longer a primary part of it. I am sure I would have had some sorrow moving from one church to another, but that is not what happened.
Yesterday I primarily spoke about how leaving the ministry felt like a divorce from my end. Tonight I am trying to look at it from another perspective. I do not intend to presume what all of those in my life have felt or are feeling. Nor do I suspect I can ever fully grasp how my departure has left those in the church I used to pastor. Some things can only be known by experiencing them. I do know about the feedback I have received, though. Many were hurt, angry, and sad. If leaving the ministry is like a divorce, my old congregation, above all, was the party left with all the baggage. They were in the dark until I announced I had lost my faith and could not preach or lead them anymore. They were the ones left with the house and the bank account, but also with all the questions.
I can’t know exactly what they are feeling, but I can infer a bit. When I was a pastor I had trusted friends and fellow elders walk away without so much as a good-bye. For some of these people I saw the signs and was able to insulate myself for what was coming. For others, I was blindsided, much the way I blindsided my church. I was deeply wounded that they would not have talked to me earlier. I was angry at how they could abandon me and those who loved them so easily. I was sad, believing some left in sin. I understand it more now. Someday maybe those I hurt will understand as well.
Since I have left, a lot of friends who are no longer conservative evangelicals have contacted me. Over and over I have gotten the question, “How did you get out when you were so deep in?” I understand the sentiment, but think the question is wrong. It presupposes that I was trying to get out, or that we all want to get out, but we are stuck. Admittedly I did feel stuck for a few months before I quit, but the moment I did I saw how truly free I had always been.
On the flip side, some of my more conservative evangelical friends have asked how I could do this. Some, I am sure, mean how could I do this to them. Like the spouse left behind, they need answers. It seemed all was well at dinner the night before, how could I walk out the door on them now? This, too, seems like a legitimate question, but I assert it is also flawed from the outset. It also imagines I had this planned. Maybe not from the start of church planting, but somewhere along the way, I planned to burn out and leave a shipwreck in my wake. The question makes it seem like I wanted to leave, like it was a choice I had.
In reality I had no choice but to leave, and the situation in its entirety had no good choices. I could have continued to lie to myself and others. I could have remained in the theological box I knew so well. I faked it for months, why not longer? That is no choice, though. That would have been as much a betrayal as what actually happened, probably more so. Nor could I have remained the pastor of a church that was Southern Baptist and Acts 29. Both organizations believe in inerrancy, and I simply do not. Now, my church could have pulled out from these organizations, but it was founded upon principles I no longer believe in. I would have had to convince every elder, deacon, and member that what we had believed in for so long was wrong. I doubt they wanted or want that. The moment I became honest about where I was, I honestly could not pastor the church I began any longer.
Finally, as I speak with others, regardless of the camp they fall into, there is an assumption that I wanted this to happen. Either I was trying to get out or leading maliciously when I was a fraud all along- possibly not even a Christian. I did not want this to happen. Many of our beliefs are not choices, they are things thrust upon us. The reason I stayed as long as I did was because I was sure I was just “in a desert,” in a bad place. I had been told we all have doubts, but eventually they go away. Sure, sometimes we can push them out of our mind, but these doubts would not leave. They returned stronger every time, and with other questions to boot. I desperately wanted them to simply vanish. I wanted to plant another church. I wanted to preach. I didn’t want to have a crisis of faith. I didn’t want to come to believe that what I was taught at seminary was false. I didn’t want to wake up one day and think that everything I had done was for naught. No one wants that.
I know it doesn’t seem fair. I know it feels like I was more in control of the situation than others. In some degree they are both true statements. In others ways they are both false. I don’t think I was in as much control as others think, although in the position I was, I did hold all the cards. The congregation had no say in my departure, but I assure you, neither did I. Sometimes the fates are cruel in that way.
Of course my leaving ministry isn’t exactly like a divorce. There are reasons people stop being committed to the other that is surely their own fault. For some, it may seem like I have become less committed through my own actions. I have been told I was too prideful and arrogant, not praying enough, or in the right way, not reading my Bible enough and not reading the “right books” enough. (And by right, they mean books that do not indulge skepticism.) In the end, I was not having faith. Maybe all of that is true. I am inclined to respectfully disagree.
In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter. I have hurt others, and for that I am sorry. People feel betrayed and bewildered. I understand. That was never my intention. People are angry with me, sad for me, happy for me, and excited for me. I can not control others reactions. None of us can. All I can do is let people know I never intended any of this. Someday, when the proceedings are finalized, maybe we can be friends again. Sometimes in divorces that happens. In the mean time, I do regret some things, and not others. No one is perfect, and we all make mistakes. The saddest part about human relationships is that we can only be truly soul wounded by those closest to us. As a pastor, I was close to a lot of people. That means my fall out has more consequences than an average Joe. I am sorry for that as well.