This is part of my long-term series of personal journal anecdotes relating to my faith journey. I understand that not all of my blog readers will not identify with these posts and by all means, please keep scrolling. I have written on this topic elsewhere that my posts pertaining to this topic are aimed at (1) people interested in religious deconversion stories and, (2) people who are struggling with their own faith and want to read “testimonies” from those who leave.
I understand and respect that many of my readers have positive interactions with religion. I must re-iterate that my lived experience is my own; it is not a commentary nor attack on anyone else’s faith journey.
Time frame: June 2016
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Keywords: Mental health, anxiety, friendships, depression, generalised anxiety disorder, deconversion, church culture, Pentecostalism, parenting.
Not that I was counting the days, but some six and a half months had passed since I last set foot in the church grounds. It was closer to eight months since I had set foot inside the building. Maybe even longer. It was maybe ten months since I had last attended with any frequency. If anything, I was quietly surprised at how quickly that time had gone.
I didn’t particularly want to go, but I had no choice. Child No. 1 was/is still a happily committed member of the church and he’s at an age where the last thing I want to do is to force him to leave. Pushing him away now would likely backfire on all of us later on; I’d rather that he exercise some autonomy in the situation. As long as church is a positive, affirming, helpful environment for him, I will continue to support his attendance. It’s just that normally I or The Husband drop No.1 off and pick him up at the door, without us entering the building. However, on this specific occasion, he was heading off to the annual youth camp and that meant that I had to go in and help him register. The Husband was still at work until later in the evening and wouldn’t be able to take No.1. to church.
It wasn’t so bad. Not as bad as my anxiously disordered mind had anticipated.
But it was, in retrospect, surprisingly hurtful. I think it may have given me an insight into how other people had felt in the past when I’d exclaimed, “Wow! I hadn’t realised you’d left church!” only to have them point out that they’d been gone for several months, but don’t worry, because no one else had realised their absence either. After my own recent experiences, I wish I could re-do those conversations and say that even if they felt unnoticed, their contributions were significant and I was grateful to have journeyed alongside them for a time.
I pulled up in the car park, my heart racing. I was trying to not dwell on my negative ruminating thoughts too much. Yes, it had been almost a year since I’d last been near a youth event; and when I finally left after ten years of faithful volunteer service I’d been profoundly let-down by their complete lack of thanks or gratitude or even noticing my existence. I mean, my goodness, to think of the hours of counselling I’d subsequently undergone with my clinical psychologist and mental health doctor in an effort to shake the resulting bout of severe depression when I left.
I desperately missed youth ministry, but, it would seem, youth ministry did not miss me.
Quite frankly, I felt used, exploited, unnoticed, unimportant and insignificant. As I said at the time, a simple “Thank you” card, or a parting gift (which they always gave to the more popular volunteers when they left) would have been nice. In fact, it may well have proven the difference between me leaving when I did or perhaps staying. Now, I know, it probably sounds like whinging to anyone who hasn’t been there, done that. If you haven’t experienced religious control, psychological abuse or emotional manipulation, you may mistakenly think it’s as simple as leaving. It is almost impossible to describe to those who haven’t experienced it – is it cognitive dissonance? Social conditioning? Narcissistic manipulation and control? Many authors have written far better analyses of this issue than I could (see my list of recommended books HERE). But it’s no small thing to be used and abused by religious authorities. They noticed me as long as they needed my service and my compliance.
(I’ve since crossed paths with some of the youth pastors* – like one at a coffee shop a few weeks ago – and when I was about to say a genuinely friendly hello they looked me in the eye, then turned around and walked off. The weird thing about being shunned is that I have literally no idea what I did to precipitate it: I left “in good standing” with many kind words from the head elder; I still have a few good friends there; my children are still involved; and it seems to me that the worst thing I did was struggle financially for a time and develop health problems that didn’t respond to healing prayer. The shunning started even before I left the church. I don’t know. I now suspect it says more about them than it does about me.)
It certainly didn’t help that in the week prior to the camp, Child No.2 and I had come down with some cold or flu that had left us very ill. No.2 had missed four days of school, and as her doctor had foretold, I was obviously coming down with it, too, and that there wasn’t a whole lot we could do other than try to sleep it out and eat as healthily as possible.
I sat in the car for a minute, while my frustrated kids asked me to hurry up. I was staring at the surroundings. The trees were a tiny bit taller. The road leading into the carpark had been widened – a desperately-needed improvement in response to the absurd amount of traffic coming from the megachurch, community centre and school that shared the same property. I saw a number of familiar faces, though their names escaped me. Had it been so long that I had forgotten them, or was it that I never knew them to begin with?
I finally mustered up the courage to set foot on the carpark bitumen. It felt momentous: one small step for woman. Last time I stood in this carpark was for the annual volunteer end-of-year party, when I had miserably noted that out of the hundreds of people I knew, only three spoke to me in the course of a 3-hour party. (The shunning had begun and yet it’s not as if anyone had planned it. It’s so weird. Like, perhaps they’re not malicious, they’re just the most socially inept community I’ve ever met. The Husband, who grew up there, reckons that’s all it is: poor people skills in a community that fears “The World” [outsiders] and fears being attacked for their faith… in a predominantly Christian country, in a state with legally enshrined religious tolerance laws.)
At the time of the volunteer party, I was still an active member and participant in the church; I just wasn’t an active signed-up volunteer for the first time in several years. I didn’t see that as problematic, but they did. (A friend of mine later informed me that one of the pastors had put some pressure on her to convince me to return to being a Bible study leader and they didn’t like it when I kept saying “no.” Apparently everything else I was doing just wasn’t enough. Some of them were, I realise now, really controlling and completely lacking in empathy. What made them think being pastors was a good career choice for them, I can’t even imagine.)
As I hesitantly walked towards the foyer, it took on a far more heightened sense of significance for me than it really deserved. I noticed a few changes: a new footpath. Re-painted pedestrian crossing lines. One thing that hadn’t changed was that I was nearly run-over by a lady inexpertly piloting a four-wheel drive as I stepped onto the crossing: clearly the school parents were just as oblivious to pedestrians as ever before. I sometimes suspect they’re the reason for the invention of cars with braking sensors and reversing cameras.
I shouldn’t have felt so nervous. I talked back to my anxiety. Yes, I thought to myself, I am anxious. I acknowledge that. It is probably largely because I am physically ill with a virus that has left me depleted and currently unable to manage deeply-entrenched negative thought patterns. I am also anxious because this is my first time returning to a church community that hurt me in many ways – death by a thousand cuts, so to speak – yet I am worried that people will think less of me when I tell them I’ve left. I still have some good friends in these walls and I like them and don’t want to lose them over my leaving. I attended here for almost 15 years and yes, I had a lot of bad moments, but I also have good memories from this place.
Some friends of mine – also former church-goers whose child was attending the camp – had arranged to meet up with me there, but they were running late. Okay, technically they were on time, and I was early. I looked around for them frantically, not wanting to run the gauntlet of camp registration on my own, and sent texts letting them know I was there, but in the end it was worse to lurk outside the front doors waiting for them than it was to just go in.
I came prepared to answer the anticipated chorus of, “Where have you been?” questions.
Except that, to my bewilderment, no one asked.
Plenty of people talked to me as if literally nothing had changed. There were some of the mums whose kids once attended school with mine.
“Hi!” they’d say, waving as they speed-walked past me, “Sorry I can’t chat, busy as always!”
Some of the pastors included me in a light-hearted joke. Did they even know I had left? Did they even notice I hadn’t volunteered under their supervision for close to a year now?
It felt as though things were exactly the same as a year ago. I received some polite hellos, even some friendly short conversations, with people who hadn’t spoken to me since mid-2015. If not longer ago than that.
And while I was relieved to not be interrogated on my absence, I was a little disappointed – if not offended – by the complete and utter lack of this absence being noticed. Whether I was actively volunteering at church, or now, a year after quitting, and a few months after formally ending my membership, it seemed that nothing had changed.
There was a new footpath outside the building, a lick of fresh paint on the foyer walls, but otherwise it was all oddly familiar. As if I had never written that, “I wish to end my membership,” letter with all the sleepless nights and tears it carried with it. As if those pastors had completely forgotten how angry they were with me when I asked (very reasonably, I thought) what to say to my Atheist friends who wanted to know why the church had been mentioned negatively in the media. As if those pastors hadn’t even realised that I was no longer there, giving up my weekends to serve in their ministry. As if everything I had done for them out of my genuine desire to serve Christ was as nothing in their sight.
Despite that, in the midst of the friendly greetings, conversations, and hellos (though most given with the “I’m too busy to talk right now” caveat), I found myself thinking, This isn’t so bad. Why did I leave? They’re nice people. They mean well. I’m grateful my kid will have a fun weekend away with his church friends. I’d much rather be involved with a church than have no religious faith. What on Earth propelled me to end my membership?
And yet, as I reflected on it afterwards, I remembered that in the past this happened every time I went there. In the midst of that geographical and social space, in the midst of the friendly-enough people and the fancy building and the excitement and buzz of the community there, I momentarily forgot the other equally true reality I experienced because of that same community: sleepless nights, anxiety attacks, the controlling ideologies, the political and emotional manipulation, the unwavering false dichotomies presented as Gospel truths, the subversive hatred for the poor and marginalised, simplistic approaches to society and psychology, the regular sermon quotes of Christian writers from other denominations while simultaneously denouncing those denominations as forsaken by the Holy Spirit (as in, they regularly used Catholic and Anglican materials in their teaching, only to avoid giving credit, because let’s face it, if the congregation knew that the oft-quoted Richard Rohr is a Catholic priest, or Tom Wright an Anglican Bishop, riots may have broken out), the mandatory tithing / giving / donating / building fund / Christian school fees that resulted in my financial near-ruin, intrusive pastors who used their influence to control life decisions over which they had no rightful jurisdiction, the constant exhaustion from serving multiple nights a week and the negative effects that had on my relationships with non-Christian family members who were pushed aside in the name of Jesus-work, the insistence that people fit a narrow definition of appearance and behaviour and identity, the thought control, the loss of my creativity in an environment that policed art and music and literature as if they were conduits for ever-imminent satanic invasion, the fear mongering and absurd conspiracy theories, the antagonism towards science, and the way that people were treated as disposable objects to be exploited and then rejected if they dared to be anything less than prosperous and victorious Christians.
And in the end, returning there, if only for a 40-minute stint that felt like an eternity, was a reality check for me.
In the cold, grey building, the starkness of a purely functional megachurch with advertisements instead of art on the walls, in the stream of people saying ‘hello’ but never stopping to really ask how I was, I was reminded again that for all the positive aspects of the community, in the end I was still little more than an insignificant speck in the church that had taken up most of the last fifteen years of my existence.
A further thought: when I left, the reasons I didn’t advertise it were quite specific (for example, the religious narcissists in my life who don’t know because, quite frankly, I’m not certain they won’t try to make life very difficult for me if they find out). It was not a passive-aggressive attempt to garner attention. It was more about observing that it didn’t seem to matter how heavily involved The Husband and I were, nor for how many years (me for ~14 years, he since he was a young child), our absence was not noted by people we had once considered fairly close friends. People with whom we shared meals, prayers, life milestones, post-church coffees, and our heartfelt moments. They were not vague acquaintances. It’s interesting how friendships change over time. I understand they don’t need to be permanent friendships in order to be meaningful. But what was odd was that these people, by-and-large, seemed to have not noticed any change at all.
*Youth pastors, plural, because in a megachurch it seems to take a huge number of staff members to run the place. It’s the polar opposite of the small rural church of my childhood, where one parish priest did nearly all of the spiritual work.
This post published Monday, 11 July 2016.