The news this week about the meltdown at Willow Creek Church triggers my own church issues.
I was not sexually abused or harassed — or at least the harassment I experienced was the least of my worries. (You mean lingering hugs, uninvited kisses, groping and grabbing by your male supervisors isn’t supposed to be endured and laughed off? Duly noted!)
If you believe the church is full of kind, warm, loving and generous people who help you, take care of you, and only have your and God’s best interests in mind, you’ve obviously never worked in one. You’re like naive me of the early 2000s.
A dirty little not-so-secret of the church is that it relies a great deal on volunteers to get it’s work done. That’s understandable in any non-profit when dealing with lots of work and low budgets. But volunteers are often subjected to the same kinds of pressures, or even more so, than employees of regular jobs. More so, that is, if you happen to be in the process to become a clergy person yourself. That becomes your supervisor’s license to wring you for every ounce of work you’re worth.
To them, you are a captive audience. They are the gatekeepers for you to become ordained, and they will not let you forget it for a second. They have no qualms about making ever-outsized demands, and working you way more than 40 hours per week, because its all part of your education. And it’s all for the glory of God. And remember, this is for zero pay. In fact, you usually have to shell out quite a bit of your own money. You may need to buy special clothes (vestments), purchase your own supplies for any groups you run, and are expected to donate money to the church (pledge). Yes, you pay them for the privilege of running you into the ground.
Doing The Lord’s Work
At the first church I got involved with as a volunteer, I was there so much that people began to ask me if I slept there. Not quite, but my husband and I did literally move in order to be closer to my church “job.” It seems foolhardy now to have been so invested when I was just a volunteer. But at the time, it made sense. I was planning on getting ordained and finding a church job, making a middle class salary for doing the Lord’s work (still waiting for that to happen).
For the first several years, I felt truly blessed. I willingly volunteered and said yes to anything they threw at me. Not having grown up in the church, I relished the opportunity to learn. I was constantly asked to serve on advisory committees, organize retreats, design liturgies, etc.
While doing all this, I was simultaneously trying to launch a screenwriting career, and kept up my writing, even producing and directing a play in one of the small black box theaters in Hollywood. It was synergistic to me. My ethical beliefs informed my writing, but more than that, for the first time since college, I had community in my life again.
Almost all my friends went to, and many worked for, the church. We attended many parties and dinners and had several at our own, modest apartment, where we live still. I was happy. My life had purpose. I began to feel the pull towards full time ministry (the “call” as we say in the church). I was so happy after that first meeting with a priest to discuss how to prepare for this. I felt like I was walking on air. Like a huge secret about my true nature had finally been revealed and made visible.
At first, little changed, except I began to be placed into other ministries where I hadn’t had experience before, such as children & youth. After doing this for about a year, I was turned down for the next step in the ordination process, which was to be given what’s called a “Discernment Committee.” While disappointing, I had no doubts that this was the path for me, and I still felt right about it.
Anytime you access deeper levels of leadership in an organization, you learn its “secrets,” which are, of course, not necessarily nefarious, but can often be disillusioning. Thus I began hear stories of people who had been ill-treated by the church. People told they weren’t good enough to even get to the point where I was and dip a toe in the ordination process. People pressed into doing personal errands for the priests — dry cleaning, airport rides. People being called at all hours to help them out of a jam and do the priest’s work for them, often without even a thank you. People being told personal information about other parishioners that was told “under the stole” — supposedly, a sacred vow of confidentiality.
These stories were unsettling, but they didn’t seem applicable to me. Surely I was more dedicated and serious than these others. At the very least, I was convinced that God had a plan for me. How could I know what God’s plans were for anyone else? This church was my home, way more of a home to me than my childhood home of 18 years had been. I was surrounded by friends, including some with positions and influence. I truly didn’t think anything bad could happen to me.
Then about a year later, I was finally given a committee and began monthly meetings, the idea being that they would help me “discern” God’s call to me. I imagined thoughtful, spiritual conversations about the nature of God and community, the role of the church and its ministers in the modern world, feedback and advice about how to continue to learn and grow in ministry. Instead, I got what turned out to be one of the worst years of my life.
At every meeting, I was made to feel not good enough. Not in terms of my work, which was roundly praised. Not good enough as a person. I was made to apologize for my life choices. I was questioned about deeply personal things, including some I later found out were supposed to be off limits according to the official guidelines of the ordination process (which I didn’t even know existed at the time), such as being asked to explain why I had never had children, and whether or not I had ever taken medication for depression. In a blatant breach of confidentiality, they brought in a therapist to meet with them (and without me).
I was told that I didn’t come across as genuine, that my call did not seem real to them. The fact that I’d completely dedicated my life full-time, without pay, for several years apparently was not evidence enough of the reality of my call, they wanted to feel it from me in the room. Believing I was doing the right thing — God’s will — I struggled over and over to give them what they were looking for. I handed over my soul to them and let them trample on it at will. I was sick to my stomach before every meeting. It felt like an evisceration.
I began to wake up in the middle of the night in panics, something which hadn’t happened to me before. I remember walking around the block with my husband one late night, convinced I was having a heart attack. A therapist, he knew an anxiety attack when he saw it. That experience initiated a battle with anxiety which continues even now, more than ten years later. A chronic mental illness brought on by a group that was supposed to be helping me.
Feels So Much Better
After almost a year of this, they finally issued their report which said essentially, maybe I was called, but they wouldn’t support me. I had poured my life into this, was told no, and was not given any plan or timeline about where to go from there. They immediately banned me from the altar, the most meaningful and sacramental of my ministries. I would no more be allowed to give communion or offer healing prayers to my brothers and sisters. Imagine not being able to serve your own family members at the table.
I was hurt. Devastated, even. But despite the pain I felt, there was something deep down that had not changed. The call I felt from God had not gone away at all. It was as strong as ever, like a rock on a cliff, unmoved by the ocean storm. So I stayed. After all, despite the hurt, that was my community, my home. All my friends were there. But my eyes had been opened.
A year later, after continuing the ministries I was allowed to, when I found out that new people were being brought into discernment, the official ordination process, and no one had even bothered to follow up with me, I realized that I had to be true to my call. I made an appointment with my priest supervisor and told her I was leaving. She seemed stunned and had little to say. I walked out to my car where I had cued up on a CD one of my favorite songs, “Tonight, I Have to Leave It,” by the Shout Out Louds. I cranked it up and drove back the short distance home.
So I heard it’s no good to run
But it feels so much better, now that it’s done,
But tonight, I have to leave it,
Yes, tonight, I have to leave it.
I quit that church but did not leave The Church, finally being ordained twelve long years after first confessing to my priest the sacred call within my heart. In the years since I left, there have been moments of healing, even joy, as well as new injuries. But nothing has felt so freeing as that moment when I broke the shackles of a place that wanted not only my blood, sweat and tears, but also my soul.
Quitting is not easy, even when you’re not making any money. That “job” was my passion, my home, but I had to let it go. I doubt I will ever find a community like that again. But it felt good to put my own innocent, crushed soul first for the first time in several years. To refuse to let them continue to violate what was deepest and truest about me. No matter how much of yourself you’ve poured into something you love, if it starts to destroy you, you have to quit. And so I did. Thanks be to God.