leaving a church well (or, is your church spiritually co-dependent?)

I’ve left 11 churches in my life.

I never bothered counting, but I did this morning as I was thinking about this post.

No, I was never kicked out (sorry to disappoint). Some departures were due to moves to and from schools, etc. Other moves were conscious decisions for other reasons.

About 10 years ago, my wife and I made the conscious decision to begin attending a local Nazarene church. Our reasons had a lot to do family factors and very little, if anything, to do with theology. We needed a major break and our family was at a stage where a change had to happen. We wound up staying with these Nazarenes for about 6 years.

Early on in our stay, the senior pastor told me that sometimes families wind up in this church, stay for a while, catch their breath, relax a bit, and then move on to the next phase of  their journey. He felt that being a spiritual inn, an oasis, a place of refuge, was part of that church’s ministry. He sensed already we might fit that description.

As it turned out, after 6 years and what seemed like thousands of spiritual miles, we wound up leaving these Nazarenes for an Episcopal church. The transition was supported, encouraged, and blessed by the Nazarenes, and we’ve been doing the stand, kneel, prayer book, 12 minute homily thing for 3 years now.

There was no expectation that this particular Nazarene church, its leaders, its programs, or its doctrine were intended by God to be the final word for everyone who walks through the door.

I have not always had this experience when leaving a church. Moving to the Nazarene church was interpreted by our previous church leadership as spiritually unwise, willfully risking the confidence provided by (one version of ) “sound doctrine” and subjecting myself and my family to “false teaching.”

The unstated (but didn’t really need to be) subtext was that this church and its denomination represented the best and most true expression of the Christian faith, and to depart from it was settling for something less than what God wanted, ever bordering on spiritual rebellion.

That latter experience was similar to the following story I recently read in David G. Benner’s Spirituality and the Awakening Self: The Sacred Journey of Transformation (for previous posts on this book see here, here, and here).

Benner recounts how he was called in to help a church deal with their dwindling numbers. Many in that congregation were leaving for churches that had a more contemplative/liturgical dimension.

Fearful of their shrinking numbers, this church wanted to bring a contemplative dimension to their church, too, and asked Benner for help. Picking up Benner’s description:

When I asked why they wouldn’t feel gratified that they had been able to help more people move to the stage of their journey where they could now benefit from something a little different, one of the senior pastors said, “I hate to use business terms, but the short answer is that we are concerned about losing our market share.”

Covering for him, another quickly added that of course they were concerned about the continuing spiritual growth of their members, not just market share, and that they really believed that they were in the best position in their city to give people what they needed–and to give them everything that they needed for every stage of their spiritual journey.

I was quite taken aback by the arrogance this displayed but on reflection realized how typical their possessiveness of adherents probably was. Perhaps what made them different from most other churches was simply their success in keeping as many people dependent on them for as long as they did. But many other churches undoubtedly share their assumption that they have everything their members and adherents could ever need spiritually….

Nothing is harder for communities than to support members who feel they need to move beyond the community. The healthiest communities of belonging do this well and therefore always remain an important part of the person who needs to move beyond them.

The unhealthiest are those who perceive as failure the fact that they do not have everything members need at every stage of their journey. But this is simply taking the matter too personally. It is tribal functioning rather than truly communal functioning.

Such groups need to get over themselves and see that communities exist for the support of others, not their control. Like enmeshed familes or codependent marriages and partnerships, such communities fail to see the other as separate from themselves and to celebrate this fact and then help people achieve this differentiation in a healthy manner. (my emphasis; pp. 177-178)

I am glad for how this Nazarene church handled our transition, for, as Benner says, this congregation will forever “remain an important part” of who we are and who we are becoming.

If you ask me, one reason God might have for different denominations and traditions is that they reflect different stages of the spiritual journey. This view can be contrasted to the notion that only one denomination or theological tradition is essentially “correct” and others are “false” or of less value and simply need to catch up.


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