Hello everyone. I am the kind of person that prefers one-on-one conversation, but I decided to take a risk and share a portion of my story here. I attended The Young Church / Grace Church in Mt. Pleasant for something like 8 years, and have been gone from there almost as long. I have almost no ongoing anger or raw hurt from my leaving, though it took me a number of years to heal, and healing is something I realize periodically I still get a chance to do more of. I am one of those people who absolutely loves Jesus still, and who holds out hope that communities of faith (in their various forms) can be a real source of good in this world. I have a family, an amazing network of supportive friends, and was able to do the incredibly grueling work of leaving Grace but not leaving the area.
It is hard for me to know what pieces of my history to include here, but I have decided to focus on a few things. I recognize that some of these things are symptoms of a larger problem, and for me they added up to enough sickness to get out and get help.
I had some major concerns regarding the handling of mental health/counseling issues in the church. I had been concerned as I watched how others’ mental health issues were responded to and how strong confrontation, focus on sin, and role of repentance was used as a way to address much more complicated emotional, mental, and sexual health issues. And I did a lot of journal-writing as I realized I was entering a period of facing my own emotional and mental-health struggles. I reached out for help during a particularly difficult time, asking for a break from leading a ministry as I also worked full-time and attended graduate school. But my requests for help were dismissed, and I was told to rely more on God. I developed depression, slept approximately 5 hours a night, and gained and lost 15-20 pounds multiple times in a 6 month period. The real pain came from the period several months later (when I was about to marry a recent church-leader and participating in marriage counseling) when I was told to step-down from leadership because I wasn’t fit to lead. I was told that my team’s potential was limited because of my weak, insecure leadership. I was told, and I still hear the words, “You don’t know your own heart,” and I was encouraged to “focus on adjusting to marriage.” Looking back, I can see that this end of leading freed me up to move toward things I was more passionate about, and ultimately left the church to focus on, but at the time it was incredibly painful. I had asked to step down, but wasn’t given space to do so until someone else determined I wasn’t “fit to lead.”
Secondly, prior to leaving Grace, I (and those I shared the leaving journey with) tried to have conversations about some of our concerns. The more we tried to talk, the more we got ignored, stalled, and even silenced. After trying for some time, we realized efforts were futile, and determined to exit. We wrote letters of love, care, and thankfulness, while politely stating our reasons. We didn’t want to just disappear as many of the “leavers” before us did. We got one short response from one person saying we would be missed. Eventually, my husband and I were invited to the pastor’s house to have a friendly dinner and discuss some next steps. This was rescheduled by the pastor and his wife multiple times. Then he told us that he announced to the church-body that he would be having dinner with us. (“Surely, I thought, it will happen now! They’ve got accountability from the church to follow-up with us now!”) Then, our daughter got sick the night we had scheduled dinner, and my husband suggested that I go myself, since I was the one really wanting to keep working toward resolution and peaceful connection post-leaving. When the pastor and his wife caught on that I would be coming with our other (healthy) child, and not my husband, they told me not to come. I had developed enough bravery to go by myself, and I was denied. No efforts were made by them to reschedule. I’m sure there was no follow-up announcement to the church-body to say, “Hey, we didn’t actually have dinner with them, we didn’t really listen! We just rescheduled a lot and then refused to talk alone to the wife.” A symptom of a bigger problem.
Unfortunately, things like this continued. For many years, I was ignored by Grace-goers at the library, farmer’s market, and grocery store. It took me some time to adjust to needing energy for that every time I went to public places. But I can be stubborn, and I determined not to give up; I looked for opportunities to say hi, to show love, and just kept showing up – and determined to let others initiate more conversation with me if they desired. And of course, I recognize that many of those at Grace could have been NOT saying hi to me for a host of different reasons, such as being hurt by our leaving, being busy, being confused, or maybe even just because they don’t like awkward conversations. But, unfortunately, I was informed of several conversations in which members of the church were warned not to talk to me/us, as if we were poisonous or against Christ and his church. On one occasion, a Grace Church staff member intervened to prevent an acquaintance of ours, a new person in town, from renting a spare room from us. I also put energy into supporting several friends as they dealt with the pain of being defamed as false-rumors were spread about them, by leadership at Grace Church. Over the years, I had made a point to be honest about my concerns, but respectful, and grateful for the good parts of our time at Grace. And in return I (and many of my fellow-leavers) got black-listed. (Thankfully, I don’t actually think that was the return on our investment of love and kindness in the big picture of things, just in the Grace Church community!)
It has taken me a while to live into the knowledge that my whole story – all my triumphs, mistakes, desires, and interests – are a part of what makes me a child of God, they are a part of how I express my faith and participate in the kingdom of God, and they are how I worship. They are not irrelevant, and they are not even sins to be confessed (as I was told when I was in my challenging graduate school / early marriage years at Grace). My thoughts, my passions, and my interests as a female/mother/friend/helper/daughter contribute a lot to this world – to my family, friends, and my greater communities. And while I respect and enjoy my husband, I didn’t even need to have him read over this before I posted it, because I know he loves me and wants me to exist in this world as I am, not as an extension of him and the things he would say.
I am aware that all churches have their struggles, and as an extension of a family, they all surely have unhealthy characteristics at times. We all have areas of brokenness that we bring into these churches, how could that not be reflected in our relationships at times. But when families start to develop unhealthy patterns, they need to reach out for help, regroup, listen to each other, and set a few changes into effect if they are to continue on. And it’s natural to let some of their members venture out into the world for a time (such as to get a first job or attend college) and to circle back in when they are ready so they can share their experience with the family, enriching all. If Grace Church is to continue, they must develop an ability to do this, however difficult it may seem.
I have, over the years, made attempts to apologize for and own up to my responsibility for the ways I participated in this unhealthy community. And I welcome those who may recognize me and remember hurts from interactions with me to bring those to my attention. There is so much more I could say, but for now, I will leave it at this.