Day: August 31, 2015

On stepping down from church volunteering

I’m in a reflective mood today. A lot has changed in recent years and even weeks, and some days I find myself reeling at the incredible shifts I’ve experienced in my life. Most recently, I’ve ended all of my volunteer commitments at my church community. There are numerous reasons for it, a mix of positive decision making (it’s time to start something new) and negative concerns (being a volunteer in a megachurch comes with a lot of stress and pressure and anecdotally, for those of us with quieter or quirkier personalities, often a sense of being terribly insignificant in a sea of loud and charismatic people). This is something I feel like I want to write and share with my blog readers, even though there’s a chance I’ll regret being so open about some of my struggles. At the same time, I don’t always want to write on just surface-level ideas. It’s possible that some people reading this will find there are elements with which they can identify. I must state, as clearly as possible, that though some of what I write here may seem critical or negative, I am not throwing the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. I am just sharing my own story, with its highs and lows, with a lot of it expressed in hindsight, myself having already gone through a personal journey of processing through it, journalling through it, and generally having mostly dealt with the worst of the raw emotions.

In stepping down from volunteering, it’s a strange blend of feeling terribly sad that there’s no turning back – I’ve drawn a line in the sand and it’s time for me to move on. There’s a sense of frustration – one of the big reasons I left is for health reasons, but all things considered I would’ve preferred it if I could’ve just staying in the routine of volunteering three or four times a month. I loved the work I did. I will desperately miss it. There’s a sense of fear – I have just cut myself off from two ministries, which have formed the basis of my social interactions for several years. I find myself hoping that I won’t lose every friend I made over that time; but the realist in me also knows, from experience and from conversations with those who have left in the past, that megachurch social dynamics often result in those who have left being inadvertently shunned. It’s not necessarily a deliberate shunning: I suspect that when church involvement consumes so much of your life, sometimes several evenings a week, there just isn’t time or energy to stay in touch with those who’ve left. I learned that the hard way about six years ago when a series of health crises and utter burn-out meant that I had to take a volunteering break – people I’d once shared my heart with were now ignoring me when they saw me or, gasp, unfriending me on facebook. I’m not complaining, by the way, this is old information and where it used to hurt it’s not raw like it was at the time. I had at the time returned to university to complete my sociology degree as a mature age student, and I realised that so much of what was going on could be conveniently plugged into a sociological/group psychology framework explaining the accidental shunning behaviour. For me, getting that academic perspective assisted in the transition from feeling upset to simply seeing it as an unfortunate group dynamic. That was in the late 2000s, and around 2010 I returned to volunteering in church as a way to keep in touch with community, as well as a way to work on my personal development. But I returned on some strict provisos: I would only volunteer on my terms, and never again would I allow the pastors to push me to breaking point. I told them that the second that church involvement detracted from my personal life, I would be out of there. It’s now 2015 and I am facing the reality that, as positive as the last five years have been, the experience is now sapping the joy and energy from my life and commitments as a mother and wife and friend. I have to stick to my promise to myself – to get out before it again pushes me to burn out. And how hard it is to say goodbye to the pastors who were a support to me, those who did notice me quietly working away on the fringes of the community. I will save and print the kind words they wrote to me in a folder I keep of encouraging words sent to me, so that when I feel down I will be able to recall that I wasn’t as overlooked as I might have felt.

In the case of the first ministry that I recently left, intercessory prayer, that was once a month for about five years. We’d sit together on a Saturday evening and pray spontaneously, Pentecostal-style, sharing what we had read in the Bible and hoping for healing and growth in each other’s lives, asking God that our church community would be a place of unity and kindness and hope. I loved those prayers and I still agree wholeheartedly with them, that the church we prayed for would be a place of life and healing for those who enter its doors. In that time I got to know this lovely group of older migrant women and we didn’t just pray together, we eventually came to share meals together, our hopes and thoughts, generous sharing of resources if one of us was going through tough times, and as the only Anglo-Celtic-Australian in the group we had some fascinating discussions about the similarities and differences between our cultures. I was able to give them insight into this strange Aussie culture they had moved into, while I learned from them about their various homelands and cultural customs, including Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, and China.

The second ministry, which I only stepped down from a few days ago, was youth ministry. It’s been an integral part of my life for eight of the last ten years (I took a break halfway through). The twenty-somethings who run the programme nowadays probably don’t remember me, but I remember some of them attending the programme as Year 7s (Year 7 is the first year of high school in our state, usually started when a child is 12-13 years old). As a megachurch, we have hundreds of children aged 12 to 18 in the programme. The youth ministry has a number of different aspects. There are the fortnightly small groups (life group, cell group, Bible study, whatever you want to call it). The other weeks are “live nights,” when the groups all gather together, in their hundreds, for live music, preaching, and socialising. Because our church has multiple campuses, usually these nights are run at their respective local campus – but every so often all of them would be bused to the campus I was based at. The last time I volunteered at one of these nights was, incidentally, the largest crowd we have ever had, due to a special guest speaker. Every spare room in the church had to be opened up as an overflow room. Almost two thousand teenagers and their parents packed out the building, many of them having to stand in the foyer. There are also different wings of the youth programme that send pastoral care teams into local schools, running lunchtime sessions with students about anti-bullying, conflict resolution and self-confidence – though I was never personally involved in that. They also occasionally organise large groups of youth members to undertake social action. We’ve had groups of kids descend on local public high schools for working bees, as well as overseas trips to work among impoverished communities.

I absolutely loved my involvement in youth ministry. More than any other ministry I’ve volunteered in over the years, youth was the one that gave me joy and a sense I was doing something tangible. I had done other things – leading Bible study groups for young adults, praying with new converts, praying for the sick and anointing them with oil, and a few times even preaching based on my testimony at women’s meetings. But in youth, I did all of that, and more. At various times I ran small groups. I mentored young leaders. For a while I was writing the youth Bible studies to be sent to all the group leaders. Sometimes I visited other leaders’ groups to run Bible-study sessions on specific topics – usually Christian apologetics. I worked at the live nights café, which as a bit of a wall-flower introvert, was a great way to get to meet the teenagers and other leaders. Sure, on paper I was just selling them junk food, but for a number of the high school kids, hanging out with the café volunteers evidently became a safe space for them to talk about how they were going. I really loved that aspect of it, providing a safe space for teenagers who felt a bit isolated from the rest of the group, and that’s what I will miss the most. I also ran prayer groups during the meetings, and occasionally spent time sharing the hope of the Gospel with non-Christian kids who were visiting and wanted someone to talk to. Once in a while I was able to connect kids facing pretty heavy problems with people who could help them – there are some kids dealing with some horrible suffering in their lives, and I am grateful our church had staff available to refer them to the appropriate services. I ran a welcoming and hospitality team, co-ordinating volunteers, managing their rosters, and working very hard on Friday nights to ensure that every kid who walked in through the door received a friendly greeting. As I used to tell my team members, “We get teenagers coming in here who may have had a terrible week. They might be getting bullied at school, they might have some difficult stuff going on at home, and they might feel like there’s not a person in the world who cares. We’re here to make sure that at least once this week, that kid is going to feel noticed, cared for, and a part of a community that wants them here.” And as a team leader, I always tried to make sure I was flexible and realistic, not condemning the volunteers who couldn’t make it for whatever reason (because I knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of that condemnation).

Now, I know there are all sorts of pros and cons being a teenager raised in a church and youth programme. Some love it. Some are left forever traumatised by the bizarre and disturbing things that some youth ministries do involving humiliating icebreaker activities (though I didn’t see any of that in our programme, except for once in a blue moon those activities where kids compete to eat the most disgusting combinations of food imaginable, and as a vegetarian, I make no apologies for the fact that I consistently find that sort of thing profoundly disgusting). I know that a church sadly isn’t always a positive and helpful environment. I know, from personal experience, that churches can be a hideously impersonal factory of cookie cutter believers who, once they’re assimilated, are reduced to free slave labour and, to put it bluntly, made to feel like an economic unit propping up the career aspirations of the pastors, while struggling to make ends meet and having to tell their kids that a decent meal will have to wait until pay day. It’s terrible, to be honest, what a dysfunctional church community can do to a person who genuinely just wants to express their love for Jesus and ends up exploited, burnt out and tossed to the side.

But I can also say with all personal integrity that in those spaces where I had the opportunity to try to use the church system as a way to support people, I did. And I had plenty of volunteers working alongside me who felt the same way. In my time there, in a somewhat politicised, slightly conservative church, I was adamant that young people who felt marginalised by church culture needed to be free to be themselves around me. The goths, the emos, the quietly queer kids from ultra-conservative families, the heavy metal heads, the eccentric, the vegetarians, the kids from broken families, the kids who dressed differently, the mentally ill kids, the super intellectual kids, the quiet kids who got lost in the crowd – I tried to reach out to them. I admittedly and sadly wasn’t always great at supporting GLBT kids, but when I learned about the shocking statistics of mental illness and suicide among gay teenagers, I could no longer pretend it was unimportant. My philosophy was that I would try to meet young people right where they were at in their journeys. In some of those cases I could identify with their sense of feeling different, too. I knew what it was like to be pushed to the edges as a teenager (I was a nerd, a freak, a goth, a geek, a vegetarian, and a heavy metal fanatic with dyed black hair during the Spice Girls and boy bands era – not because I chose to be different, I was just being me). Was I always successful at being kind, patient and caring? Probably not, though I certainly hope I was. But I always sought to treat the young people that crossed my path in youth ministry with respect, kindness and understanding. My motivation was, “I want to speak the life and encouragement to them that I wished I could’ve had in high school.” There was something cathartic in the sense that I could somehow redeem my own difficult teenage and young adult years by helping the generation behind me in the areas I felt were lacking.

So it was very hard for me to move on. I spent close to a year wrestling with the decision. But there were a number of factors involved that spurred me to make that decision.

Firstly, my mental health deteriorated significantly. I don’t like writing about it or sharing it widely, but it’s an intrinsic part of my reality and it’s not going to magically disappear: a few years ago I was diagnosed with a set of mental illnesses that require regular follow-up treatment with a clinical psychologist and doctor. On average, for the last three years, I have had about thirteen to fifteen appointments a year at the medical clinic with a couple of different specialists to see how I’m tracking. It’s the kind of disorder that is permanent, and I will never be fully cured; but it is able to be managed and its debilitating effects minimised, with appropriate treatment and lifestyle adjustments. It’s sort of like diabetes, I suspect, where in certain forms it’s able to be treated but not cured. It doesn’t make me dangerous or irrational or unintelligent; it just makes simple things, like leading a full and productive life, really, really difficult, it makes my physical health a bit more fragile than it ought to be, and it saps my energy, as well as my ability to accurately interpret interpersonal relationships (a skill I have thankfully developed with the assistance of a clinical psychologist).

When I finally dragged myself to the doctor to see what was wrong with me, as it had started manifesting as serious physical symptoms, they were able to tell me it was at a level of severity that indicated I had been suffering mental illness for most of my life. It just hadn’t been diagnosed, and therefore had gone untreated for longer than most people would be willing to tolerate the symptoms I was experiencing. Unfortunately, in the context of certain types of Christian community, mental illness is treated as if it is a spiritual condition, and this attitude can ultimately exacerbate the symptoms. But I can testify that despite my efforts, and the efforts of other sufferers around me who have shared their similar stories with me, mental illness does not magically dissipate with prayer, anointing with oil, deliverance ministry, extra gratitude, praying through Lamentations and Job and the gloomier of the Psalms, more prayer, and serving more ministries. Yet, this is how my supposed long-term bad mood and melancholy attitude was addressed. It was (claimed) that a spirit of paganism attached to me, or that, as one congregant informed me, because I had practiced Wicca and Asatru for a short couple of years prior to joining a Pentecostal church, I would be forever in danger of Satan re-entering my life – “Satan will find it easier to dig his claws into you,” as she unhelpfully informed me. When I was battling severe symptoms, manifesting in such ways as constantly low moods, extreme lethargy, heart palpitations, breathing problems, temporary memory loss, difficulty doing simple tasks like reading or cleaning, not knowing that a simple trip to the doctor could have changed my life around, I was told to hang more Bible verses on my pinboard, and to do more work for church. When I was having full-blown panic attacks in church meetings, people laid hands on me to pray, telling me I was under spiritual attack and that I must have more faith. Yet the very act of dragging myself to church every single week while suffering a condition that can leave people bedridden, not to mention the time, energy and money I poured into church – was that in itself not an act of faith? If I hadn’t had faith, I would not have been there in the first place.

And though now I can look at all that with rational hindsight, and see it for the controlling and spiritually manipulative social dynamic that it is, at the time, in the midst of extreme emotional vulnerability, I went along with it. I couldn’t begin to describe the damage that those years caused, not just to my mind, but to my practical life choices. I believe that if I had not been socially and emotionally crippled by my particular set of long-term then-undiagnosed mental illnesses, I would have made some very different life choices regarding where we lived, where we attended church and where we sent our kids to school. Conversely, as Aslan the Lion from Narnia would have said (paraphrase), “To know what would have happened…? No one is ever told that.” I would not likely have made the decision to send my children to a very strict Christian religious school, and at the time we placed our kids on the waiting list for enrollment, I even went as far as asking my education lecturers at uni for any information I could use to talk my husband out of it. Unfortunately, they were being far too diplomatic about it to say anything strongly enough to change my husband’s mind, even though I knew my professors were sceptical about religious schools. I believe that if my mental state had been healthier, I also would not have poured so much into church when my real life demanded attention, too. My husband and I had one night a week when we were both not at a church commitment of some sort, while juggling two then-preschool children, and him with a new and high intensity career, and me returning to university. How good it would’ve been if the pastors I then answered to could have said, “You’re doing too much, focus on your children and your education, because that’s important, too.” Instead, they added burden upon burden, demanding that I do more and more – more meetings, more duties, more ministries to serve. (These are pastors I am no longer in contact with, and have not spoken to in several years.) Nor would I have been so quick to allow myself to be used and exploited by those pastors that had incredible influence over my life.

(As a side note, I do believe in prayer, in some forms – call what I do mindfulness or contemplation or something that will one day be rationally explained by quantum mechanical principles if you want, but I no longer see prayer as a magic formula for making God fix stuff, though perhaps He can and does, and I have things in my life I believe were affected by prayer, but I am convinced that prayer and wise action must go hand-in-hand.)

With all that critique, the question follows, am I still a Christian? Yes, though the form of Christianity I accept and follow now is in some ways quite different to that which I have followed for most of the last decade. I do still belong to a church community and believe that the social and communal aspects of church are very important to continued spiritual growth and mental health – when they are done in a healthy fashion.

What I have now is more similar to what I had as a child in a socially progressive Catholic community. It’s a simpler faith, and more open to the idea that God transcends all our human definitions, a God whose goodness and image can be found and expressed in all sorts of people – even if, dare I say it, they believe in a different religion or worldview. A simple faith in God as something or SomeOne both external to, yet intrinsic to the universe, a being that cannot be adequately defined, whose truth permeates all things that are good and pure and noble, an essentially genderless being, a creator, yes, but not necessarily creationist, a God whose highest being is Love. A God who embraces the physical and material realms as very good creation, and who shines through even the brokenness of the world. A God who is embodied in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, of whom St Columcille (Columba) said, “Christ is my Druid.” I very much like the Druidic notion of Jesus Christ, a spirituality that sees the material and spiritual realms as intimately connected and interwoven, not divided in a Platonic or gnostic hierarchy. The God who is also Holy Spirit, the outpouring of the creative life and energy of God, in whom we live and move and have our being. Not an angry old man in the sky, that’s for sure.

[Note: as it is impossible to give a full and complete definition of God, who is surely infinitely in/definable, do not assume that the omission here of any standard points of theology is reflective of my rejection thereof, but rather that for space and time’s sake I chose to not write a typical “statement of faith.” I still ascribe to all those basic standard Christian beliefs, Trinitarian, salvation by grace expressed through good works, and admittedly I sit more on the apocatastasis side of the fence, which while historically accepted in some ancient Christian traditions just isn’t as popular as the thought of God throwing people in Hell for some reason – anyway, more to the point, it’s how I express my faith that has shifted, not my core theology.]

Some readers will have picked up on the fact that a lot of what I say here strongly relates to Catholic-Christian mysticism, and I would have to agree that much of it is derived from there. That is the path I seem inexorably and irresistibly drawn to. Sadly, for many of my Christian friends, this is the equivalent of heresy or backsliding; whereas I see it embodied in various forms and at various points in history by the mainstream liturgical traditions. Maybe – hopefully – I’m moving into what the Franciscan priest Fr Richard Rohr calls “second half of life religion.” (See the videos I’ve shared on this blog of him speaking to learn more.) I haven’t thrown out the theology: I’m exploring theology at what feels to me to be a deeper level. Instead of reading the Bible with the intention of finding the “one true and correct interpretation,” I’d rather engage with the Living and Active Word (Hebrews 4:12) through lectio divina – meditative Bible reading. Instead of getting defensive about my faith with apologetics, I want to share my faith through natural, organic dialogue springing from genuine friendship, with me talking about something that has genuine life and joy for me; rather than trying to convince other people they have to believe what I believe. The interesting outcome of that is that as I’ve relaxed, and stopped thinking, “I have to evangelise,” I have had a lot more opportunities to share the Gospel with others. How counter-intuitive, and yet, how brilliant. Because it’s not about me trying to convince them I’m right and they’re wrong, and that takes the pressure off everyone.

So, to summarise, the first reason I stepped down from volunteering is because now that I am burnt-out for Jesus, and not in a good way, and I need to enter a time of rest and recovery. For all those years of volunteering, I was also undertaking university studies and raising two young kids, living far from family and my old friends and feeling very isolated, scraping together what little income we had to try to “do the right thing” and send the kids to the Christian private school. I am very, very worn out. My immune system has taken a beating – I get sick a lot and suffer a huge range of allergic conditions. I get tired very quickly. I have enough energy to get through the essentials before collapsing into bed at the end of the day. Socialising profoundly drains me so that I have to space out catch-ups, and even then I can barely handle more than one person at a time – and that’s with people I actually like and whose company I enjoy! And yes, there are plenty of things I do to help all that, like probiotics, healthy eating, frequent check-ups with the doctor, regular sessions with a clinical psychologist, journalling, cognitive behavioural therapy, meditation, frequent exercise (bike riding, yoga, aerobics, walking, and gardening constitute my current fitness regime), diaphragmatic breathing exercises, participating in an online support group for mental illness sufferers, social media fasting, working on my personal hobbies, and simply resting instead of drowning in caffeine – but when you’re battling the types of conditions I’ve developed, there’s no magic to-do list that will fix it.

Secondly, I find myself drawn to a new phase or stage in my life, one where I will probably end up changing churches. Stepping away from volunteering will make it easier to leave if and when the time comes. I don’t know what triggered wanting to leave, but it’s a mix of good and bad things. I think that when my health more-or-less disintegrated in something of a nervous breakdown (and thankfully it waited until after graduation, because it would’ve really been horrendous to have to quit my university studies after fighting so hard to get there in the first place), I was confronted with questions of what really mattered to me. At that time we chose to take our kids out of the church school, temporarily homeschooling them before finding public (government) schools for them to attend.

Then there are the positive motivators for detaching from church. My visits to Taizé prayer meetings have rekindled in me a love for the reverent ceremony of Catholicism. I know there’s a lot that isn’t brilliant about Catholicism, and one look at the headlines most weeks will attest to that, but I find a lot of beauty in the hymns, the Eucharistic liturgy, and the quieter forms of prayer. For me it is a safe space. I also greatly appreciate the mainstream liturgical churches that are willing to take action on environmentalist concerns. When I was taking my Honours in Environmental Sociology (for my American readers, I’m not sure what your equivalent is, but here, Honours is a qualification one step above a Bachelor degree, one step below Masters – it usually comes after receiving consistently high marks after a minimum of four years at university), I got very tired very quickly of trying to convince my fellow congregants that while I understood where their scepticism about climate change originated, arguing over the fact it wasn’t “Biblical” would not alter the reality of the serious devastating impacts already occurring across the planet, adversely affecting the lives of the poor and vulnerable in developing nations, not to mention the impact on plant and animal life. But when you’re convinced that Jesus is coming back any moment now (for the last 2,000 years they’ve been saying that, so don’t hold your breath…) and you think He’s going to set fire to the late great Planet Earth and turn it into Hell, of course you don’t care that the global average temperatures are rising and that these are causing increased extremes in weather patterns in some areas. (Surprised by Hope by NT Wright is my current top-recommended book for any Christian wanting to learn more about that.)

Further to that, there’s the fact that my oldest child is now attending the youth ministry I volunteered in and I wanted to give him the space to experience it without me helicopter parenting him, though he seemed a little sad that I wouldn’t be there. It’s strange to be in a situation where I, as parent, am the one seemingly rebelling against church involvement, while my teenage child gets into it. And really, given the choice, if my child’s teenage “rebellion” (or, as I like to think of it, psychologically and sociologically healthy normal act of adolescent individuating) is choosing to get further involved in church, I’d much prefer that option to getting caught up in illegal activities. And for all my personal negative experiences at various points in the past as a volunteer there, for my son it is a great and positive experience. He loves it. He is able to stay in touch with his friends, who he missed dreadfully after leaving the religious school. He enjoys the Bible studies, gets along well with his leaders, and I will not take that from him.

And after years of involvement, there’s a sense that as the younger leaders come through and take over, they really have no clue who us older leaders are. There’s something painful about answering to much-younger leaders, not because they’re young, but because they often appear very disinterested in learning from the older, more experienced leaders. And, frustratingly, when the awards are given out to leaders for significant contributions, it’s always seems to be the same small group of leaders, over and over. As brilliant as their work is, it is hurtful to be repeatedly overlooked – something that’s been a pattern in my experiences for years, now. I’ve been told that sociologically that’s pretty typical of any large volunteer organisation, and not just religious groups: those of us who are quiet tend to be missed in the crowd. We are expected to turn up and do our work, to comply, to be at every meeting, but if we ever express our disappointment that the same dozen or so people are always recognised while the rest of us aren’t, it’s reframed for us as, “You should be happy because God notices what you do.” Ten years of being on the receiving end of that line is too much. I never did the work with the expectation of being rewarded for it, and in many ways the work was its own reward; but, when there is a big on-stage award ceremony celebrating “all our volunteers who’ve served for seven years or more,” and I was once again ignored (though I received a subsequent apology when a friend complained on my behalf), and despite being the leader who once upon a time trained the volunteers they did reward – as in, I had been there longer than all of them – it reached the point where I felt very strongly that my contribution was simply unrecognised and, therefore, unnecessary. In short, I was wasting my time. But this wasn’t a one-off. I’d had several different pastors over the years in that ministry, many that are no longer members of our church, having to try to explain to me why, at the end of year celebrations, I was always one of the only people who missed out on so much as a generic thank you card. A simple, “We accidentally didn’t tick a box next to your name on the database,” would’ve been preferable to the various bizarre explanations they invented to appease my annual bewilderment.

Am I bitter about it? I hope not. I am not interested in harbouring a grudge. Life is too short to waste on unforgiveness. And as my husband reminds me, when we were in our early 20s we were pretty blinkered and convinced we were in the right, too. There’s a good chance I have many times inadvertently overlooked someone, not out of malice, just simply out of not noticing them. And I grieve thinking that I may have possibly ostracised individuals for no reason other than them not catching my attention. I can’t blame the younger volunteers for not noticing someone almost fifteen years older than them, quietly working over in the corner and certainly not taking centre stage.

So here I am, risking my social life, my sense of purpose as expressed through meaningful activity, my connections, and my normal routine, and choosing to step down from nearly every single aspect of church involvement. I sort of hope my small contribution – small from the church’s perspective, even though in my own life’s context it was massive – was valuable enough that my absence will be noticed; but in the context of a megachurch where there are literally thousands of others who could easily step into my roles, it is not likely that my leaving will have much impact. I don’t know what the next step is. I barely attend church services anymore. They are too triggering to my mental illness symptoms. It’s not an excuse, it’s just cold, hard and terribly inconvenient fact. The sheer crowd size, the noise levels, the hours spent every weekend in the long church services, the flashing stage lights and loud band, the intensely emotive performance by the worship band – I know that many people find these things fun and enjoyable and I’m not disputing that. Different styles and expressions of church work for different people. But I’ve awoken to the reality that it’s probably not the right style for me. I don’t think there’s one right way to “do” church, and I think it can be as diverse as there are different and unique individuals that make up each congregation. My next question is where and how do I find community that operates in a way that helps my own health and spiritual growth, where I can contribute in a meaningful fashion, and where there is a safe space to explore my understandings of God without accusations of “backsliding” thrown at me any time I so much as read a Rob Bell book or decide to skip a service and travel two hours to the beautiful south-western coast to go find God in Nature by praying at a moonlit beach instead (like I did last Easter)? But I am very much taking my time. I am not in a rush to find a new church. I have visited some Catholic churches in the last two years, as well as attending Taizé services in Uniting, Anglican and Lutheran churches, and have found them transformative, uplifting and grace-filled. There are a few days a week where I listen to sermon podcasts and lectures from a variety of denominational perspectives. I still pray and read my Bible and read Christian books. I am taking steps to keep my mind occupied, too, developing my NaNoWriMo ideas and I even signed up to take a short introductory science course via Open Universities Australia. I am connecting with friends from different churches, as well as friends who’ve deconverted or who are suffering cases of “post traumatic church syndrome,” listening to their stories and realising I’m not the only one struggling with the fallout from unhealthy church dynamics. (Note: I am not Bible bashing or evangelising my deconverted friends, and though I am open with them about my faith I am keenly aware they’ve heard it all before – I nowadays see my role as being a good listener, not a good apologist for the Christian faith.)

So, those are my ponderings for today. Too long; didn’t read? I’ve stepped down from church involvement and it’s a hard and emotionally draining choice, but being involved was already hard and emotionally draining, so I chose the option that would be better for my mental and physical health.

Disclaimer: I am not attacking individuals I currently have any involvement with at church. I am conscious of the fact that different individuals can be involved in the same communities and have very different experiences. I know the church I’ve been involved in is a predominantly positive, healing kind of place, and that’s probably why the congregation is so huge – we get a lot of ex-cult members through the doors who find it to be a space of recovery. It is a community that does a lot of brilliant work in the local community. There are thousands of individuals that call the church home who have experienced great love and acceptance there. I do not deny their stories. At the same time, there are those of us who have found it a somewhat mixed experience; and some who have found it terrible. Our stories and experiences are valid, too, even if they aren’t perfect stories. I have nothing but positive wishes for my church and hope it will continue to be a place where people find healing and acceptance. I hope that it will only increase in its loving approach to those who enter through the doors. I didn’t spend so many years of my life, time, energy, money, prayers and work to want to see it do anything but flourish. And while I don’t reasonably expect that members of the church are reading this, if any are, I just want to reiterate that I am not trying to detract from the church’s great work and positive aspects despite my being honest about some of the negative experiences I have had among some pockets of the community there.

(And if people I know in real life are reading this and decide for whatever reason to reshare it on facebook, though I’d prefer they don’t, at least don’t tag me in it, thanks!)

Clarification: when I use the word “charismatic” here, even though I am referring to a Pentecostal church, I am using “charismatic” in the sense of those who have strong, extroverted personalities, with a talent for leading others; and not in the sense of the Biblical Gifts of the Spirit.

Note: in discussions of the difficult aspects of church life, I must hasten to add that I do not consider myself to have been in a cult. There are some very specific sociological factors that make a religion a cult, and these were not present in any meaningful way in the church’s structure or leadership. However, there were cult-like aspects in certain social contexts, and even cultish cliques within the very diverse crowd. One of the great things about it is that the church leadership do not try to control the entirety of people’s beliefs. But the group of people I first fell in with socially there, none of whom I have any continued contact with, had cultish tendencies, such as an excessive amount of influence over private decision making, a set of behavioural controls over everything from others’ clothes to hairstyle to music to career options, attempts to control people’s political affiliations, a convinced belief that women are to give all decision-making to their husbands, a morbid fascination with conspiracy theories, strict control over other people’s personal relationships, using techniques like deconstructing a person’s reputation through cruel gossip to keep individuals in line, very skewed and potentially dangerous ideas regarding modern medicine versus prayer, an extreme guardedness towards “outsiders” (which could include committed Christians from the very same church if they weren’t deemed “on fire” enough), a very dualistic approach to life where most things are deemed evil, and a characterisation of the world as at war, with all people being either for Jesus or against Him. Unfortunately, as a young and vulnerable mentally ill person at the time I joined this social group, I did not have the personal strength nor vocabulary to critique what I was learning from them. Thank God, literally, that I returned to my sociology degree and learned the vocabulary to critique damaging group dynamics there.