Exit Plan 

Editor’s Note: Welcome to Chapter Two of the story about the evangelical ministerial staff who left both their church and their religion.  /Linda LaScola, Editor

===========================

By “Fresh LA”

Nothing was off the table. We could talk about anything and question everything. This was the beginning to an outcome none of us could have predicted.

The small group that met on my backyard patio consisted of staff, church members, neighbors, friends of my teenage kids and sometimes even area pastors. My patio served as a safe place to converse, laugh, cry as needed and just be. However, through the years, it was my core staff of four to six who came regularly. We were very close, having served the same church for almost 18 years.

Together, we started an evangelical church with nine adults in the early 2000’s. At its zenith, it grew to 350.  This was a monumental feat in a community that was predominately Catholic. Actually, 80% of our members were former Catholics seeking refuge from years of abuse, shame and fear. The rest were a mix of AA members and fundamentalists who loved the accepting atmosphere and crazy good music. I had the most in common with this last group.

Our patio gatherings happened organically. There was no set time. Sometimes my wife and I would come home and find people hanging out waiting for us to show up! Since my patio was the venue, I’ll take credit for what affectionately became known as “Patio Church” — the catalyst that led to an inevitable exodus for me and my staff. Later, we experienced individual awakenings, realizing on various levels that we had left the irrational, shame/guilt religious culture we had grown up in.

When it was just church staff, our conversations frequently began with “shop talk” related to the various ministries we individually led. Our church was thriving, and the challenges were numerous. My patio was a safe place to air frustrations, to sigh, laugh and spin off into creative brainstorming. We would often run the gamut, discussing pop culture, music, physics, art, books, philosophy, the latest news and old memories.

As the sun set on the patio, our conversations often turned to the subject of being, and what we were encouraging people to become, now and eternally. As the flames turned into glowing coals in my fire pit, our conversation would become introspective with questions such as:

Why are we who we are right now? Are we always going to be this way? Can we be something else? Do we have a choice? How do we transcend the narrow-minded expectations that have been placed upon us?

We often referred to this claustrophobic why/how space as “The Damn Dark Room.”  We were desperate not only to find the answers for ourselves, but for those we served.

Over the course of three short years, we began to realize how our evangelical faith and messaging largely inhibited reason, problem solving and maturity.

Could it be that the faith culture we had devoted our lives to was antithetic, serving as both hero and archenemy?

This was the chief quandary that occupied our staff patio conversations.

On a side note, it’s amazing that my staff served with me for almost two decades. Most churches experience a tremendous amount of staff turnover. Somehow, we did not.

Patio Church originated from a shared ache to be truly free. I can honestly say that our highest pursuit was to discover a pathway of genuine transformation – for those we served and for ourselves. I know this sounds super altruistic, but it’s true. It was never in our minds to leave our church or our religion. In the early times of searching, we explored the limits of a more generous orthodoxy via Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, Marcus Borg, Robert Capon, etc. Their insightful writings pacified us for a season, but proved to have a short shelf life.

My staff and I hosted seminars, retreats and taught small groups featuring meditative “stillness” prayer and how to “forgive God” and ourselves. We revamped Children’s Ministry lessons so the focus would less on Bible stories and more on honesty and coping skills. There were minor pushbacks to this, but never anything that detoured our progress. My sermon series were a rebranding of the 12-Steps with titles such as, Breathing Under Water, Naked & Afraid, Being Human, etc.

It all went super well until Trump happened!

After two years of reconstruction within the church, the sad outcome became painfully obvious. The rise of Trump had energized the fundamentalist minority within the congregation. They started carrying concealed side arms to Sunday services and dominating small-group meetings with right-wing talking points. They were also obsessed with end-of-the-world predictions. The amount of damage control required to deal with them eventually eclipsed our normal ministerial duties.

Frankly, my staff and I were worn out. After 18 years of being in building/rebuilding mode, we didn’t have much gas left to launch the church beyond the TRUMP-HUMP.

After a private Patio Church heart-to-heart, we agreed on an exit plan – from our church – not from Christianity. At this point, my staff and I still had no idea that we’d end up as Universalists, “nones” and humanists! It wasn’t until we were completely out of ministry, that staff and their spouses realized how “OUT” we had become.

Eventually, we devised a simple plan that would enable us to transition out of our ministerial roles while finding new jobs and helping the church to move on without us. It’s important to note that convincing members to follow us or stop believing was never part of that plan.Privately, we made a spreadsheet with drop-dead dates for positions that needed to be filled, our own at the top of that list. I hosted a series of all-church fireside chats, where I introduced only my departure and the need for a Transitional Leadership Team and volunteers. We scheduled these “chats” during the time that was always set aside for the annual volunteer drive — strategic to say the least. The public reason I gave for leaving was honest and to the point: after almost two decades of serving, I needed a break.

Initially, church members were shocked and saddened. Never in their wildest dreams had they imagined my departure. Nonetheless, in a few short weeks, they accepted it; especially since I assured them I would stay on for 90 days to assist with the transition. During that time, I helped maintain stability for my staff and the congregation.

My core staff members quietly recruited their replacements as we had previously planned. Everything proceeded like clockwork.  At the end of three months, we finished training the new church administration ahead of our private spreadsheet schedule. At last, we could turn in our keys and enjoy a lazy Sunday brunch together! It should also be noted that after leaving, my staff and I remained available to the church as unpaid consultants. The new leadership didn’t hesitate to seek us out during that time and we were happy to assist.

So, what is life like now?

I’m a construction project manager working remotely with national/international brands. The very talented former worship leader does the same in a cubical across from me. The administrator works in the county clerk’s office and remains one of my dearest friends. The former head of A/V is a HVAC engineer – he always was, though—and yes, he’s a very close friend, too. Others cut hair, sell cars, work in the public-school system, etc.

If you’re wondering how we found jobs, there’s no great revelation to share. We sought help writing our resumes via Google, and then applied and interviewed. Ultimately, we found jobs through referrals from within the church.  This is a testament to our gracious exit and the authentic relationships we had established.  It also helped that some of us had worked part-time jobs in addition to our work at the church.  If you know a little about church planting, you know that side jobs are often a necessity.

Did it happen in the blink of an eye? No. Were there discouraging times? Yes. We didn’t always know what to do, but with each experience we learned how to approach our next opportunity.

As for Patio Church, it’s currently on hiatus. However, there are frequent Deconversion Parties. They are a blast! I will tell you more about these later, once I receive the “blessing” of my former staff.  Meanwhile, for anyone interested in hosting one, it’s simple:

“Wherever two or more are gathered in the name of honesty and free thought, lo, the festive spirit of new beginnings shall be in thy midst.”

Thus saith, Fresh LA.

**Editor’s Question** What are your thoughts on the clergy group de-conversion aspect of this story? (added, 7-2-18)

=====================

Bio: “Fresh LA” is a child of the 70s who grew up northeast of St. Louis, MO. His life journey involved a two-century old family farm, a mid-west Bible college, almost 30 years of church planting in the northeast and responsibilities as a professional evangelical adviser, nationally and abroad. These days, he’s content to work as a project manager by day, and at night, blog about his past and present experiences as a human, nothing more and nothing less. To learn more, visit http://www.freshLA.me.

>>>>Photo Credits:  by Michael Vadon – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_September_3_2015.jpg#/ ; personal photo by Fresh LA

 

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  • Jim Jones

    > The rise of Trump had energized the fundamentalist minority within the congregation. They started carrying concealed side arms to Sunday services and dominating small-group meetings with right-wing talking points. They were also obsessed with end-of-the-world predictions.

    And that’s how a religion dies.

    The only way to ‘save’ Christianity IMO is to emulate Fred Rogers, an ordained minister who did not preach to children but instead exemplified kindness as the only way to live. The myth about his stolen car is an example of how fiction can work as well as fact.

    There are good parts in the bible, and lessons can be taught from it, esp. Matthew 15:25-30. Just-so stories like Noah’s Ark should not be part of any teachings.

    And of course all claims of literal truth are poison.

    As for those leaving the church/religion and looking for jobs or careers, if nothing else some security might be obtained by reading these (most libraries have them or can get them):

    Howard L. Shenson’s book, “How to Develop and Promote Successful Seminars and Workshops”

    Robert L. Jolles book, “How to Run Seminars and Workshops: Presentation Skills for Consultants, Trainers, Teachers, and Salespeople”

    Well worth owning IMO if you do this sort of work or are contemplating it (seems like a natural for a preacher). Cheap books even to buy (used).

    • Despite what Trump does the his Evangelical Base is not going to survive. Even if Roe is overturned the CLAWS will be coming out. Because the YOUTH this time are ENGAGED and MOTIVATED we seen this with march for our lives and the womens march. Ask Pence and his supporters, HOW bad to you want the population to SMACK you down?

      • mason

        I’m so hoping you are right.

        • Base and leadership is getting OLDER, while young adults are abandoning religion, also Evangelicals in the abortion debate like the Vatican in the recent Ireland vote cannot really stand on the MORALITY platform, while they support a 3x divorcee who raw dogs porn stars and they are endorsing Dennis Hof for Nevada election. The guy who is a owner of the Bunny ranch Brothel and a string of strip clubs.

          With the Vatican it was years of atrocities in Ireland and covering up child sex abuse.

          • mason

            Maybe truth will one day actually set humans free from the lies and fables that theisms have sold for centuries like a counterfeit https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/65f2091bad5b7f940e00bd2c1afb957a6da26411cfbd0c9a2346b0eb29c6051f.jpg Rolex watch.

          • srh1965

            In which Bible do unicorns or satyrs appear? The rest, yes.

          • mason

            In Numbers 23:22 and 24:8, the Bible speaks of the strength of a unicorn.
            Deuteronomy 33:17, Psalms 22: 21 and Psalms 92:10 speak of the unicorn’s horn.
            Job 39:10 and 39:10 both speak of the unicorn not tilling the earth.
            In Psalms 29:6, the unicorn is likened to a young calf skipping, while Isiah 34:7 mentions unicorns in the same context as bulls and bullocks.

            In many versions of the Bible, two verses from Isaiah (13:21 and 34:14) use the English word “satyr” as a translation for the Hebrew word “sa’iyr”. … Although Satyrs are often negatively characterized in Greek and Roman mythology, the Satyrs in this poem are docile, helpful creatures

          • srh1965

            Well, not having read that bizarre, dishonest book in a few years, I stand corrected (although after checking a couple of your verses, the unicorn seems confined to the King James version).

          • mason

            the King James … the “authorized” version

      • Jim Jones

        Actually they’re all weaseling because without the precious unborn their money and votes will go way down

        • Lark62

          The anti-abortion movement is like a dog chasing a car. They don’t really expect to catch it, and wouldn’t know what to do with it if they did.

          The “babies are being murdered” nonsense was a way to get sheep to mindlessly vote for anyone who mouthed the correct words, no matter how vile. If they overturn Roe v Wade, they’re screwed.

          • Jim Jones

            Unless they can get racism started up again.

  • mason

    Fresh LA, “We could talk about anything and question everything.”

    One would think that this would be one of the most basic inalienable human rights, … but it’s a right, a freedom, I couldn’t have even imagined was mine to claim as an indoctrinated Baptist child. It took me until age 30 to start conducting Patio Church in my brain. Oh how sweet it has been claiming and exercising that right for 47 years!

    Did the patio church move into the living room in winter or use space heaters? 🙂

    What was the reason the congregation understood as to why you were leaving leadership and the pulpit?

    Your church and the division caused by the current POTUS is a true microcosm of what has happened nationally. I think in the long run it will serve to expose the dark underbelly of the fundamentalist Evangelicals, lead to an implosion, and an outright rejection by the younger generations.

  • Fresh LA, this is a powerful story, and thanks for sharing. As a child, I was an avid questioner, and my mom indulged me. However, she cautioned me that these sorts of questions would not be taken well in our Southern Baptist church, and they weren’t entertained at all at my fundamentalist Christian school. Without the school, I probably woukd have found peace in questioning much earlier, but fear of eternal damnation in hell is hard to overcome.

    It is interesting that even in your open and social justice minded church that the fundamentalist pro-Trump crowd came to the fore.

  • viaten

    People started bringing guns to church? Did you consider a “No guns allowed” sign? I don’t know how such things are enforced or if you could bring in the police if needed.

    It’s good you were all of a similar mind. It seems you were all introspective individually and as a group. I wish all religious people could do that but it seems many dare not for fear that even entertaining the slightest doubt, even hypothetically, will anger God.

    • mason

      Viaten, Let me know if you find a church, temple, or synagogue with this inscription carved in the granite over the entrance … “Welcome pilgrim! Here we talk about anything and question everything.”

      Or this meme and others like it hanging on the walls inside:

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/cd1c16da293b0f6bdc78fdedbc13b13441e392ab644582f2d8028bcdb0e35f49.jpg

      • Linda_LaScola

        At my old Episcopal Church, St Mark’s on Capitol Hill, there was a sign out front saying “Skeptics Welcome Here.”

        • mason

          “Welcome”, … but “talk about anything and question everything?” Skeptics, non-believers, atheists have always been welcome even in the Evangelical cult meetings, but welcome to sit and listen. So were skeptics permitted to talk about and question at St. Marks?

          • Linda_LaScola

            Actually, at St Marks, the priest was openly agnostic. We “celebrated” the regular Episcopal order of service every Sunday, but in his mind and in the mind of many of the congregants, it was all symbolism and meaningful myth.

            People could, and did, believe what they wanted. When the bishop came for confirmation Sunday, he called us his “unitarian” parish.

          • mason

            “in mind of many ….it was all symbolism and meaningful myth.” A hopeful sign of human progress … how many years ago did Christian liberalism even emerge?

          • ElizabetB.

            Intriguingly, many say that what is new is not liberalism, but fundamentalism. Prior to the Enlightenment, a more metaphorical understanding was the norm, but —

            “Under the rising pressure of scientific and critical scholarship, the Bible’s defenders took on a much stronger standard of truth. They argued that the Bible was not just infallible but ‘inerrant’—that is, completely accurate in every scientific, historical, or geographical reference. Any remaining flaws, they argued, occurred in the translation or transmission of texts. The ‘original autographs,’ the Bible’s first drafts, in other words, were perfect in every respect.

            “In effect, conservative defenders of scripture were adopting a new standard of proof, one that rested on the same assumptions underlying the higher criticism. The Bible was not true because of what it taught, the traditional argument used by Protestants since the Reformation, but because it squared with modern scientific and historical scholarship. The proof, therefore, was no longer internal but external. The inerrancy doctrine became the focus of controversy in the 1880s and 1890s, leading to a series of public heresy trials in the Presbyterian church, the most famous of which led to the defrocking of the historian Charles A. Briggs, a professor at New York City’s Union Seminary, in 1893….”
            http://religion.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.001.0001/acrefore-9780199340378-e-419

            (In seminary I had to laugh when it dawned on me that the authoritative Hebrew lexicon revered by literalists that we were using — the BDB or “Brown-Driver-Briggs” — was that heretic Charles Briggs I’d been reading about!)

            So in a way, you could say Christianity needs to return to its metaphorical, poetic roots : )

          • mason

            Return? Just when would that anomaly historic period be? You’re probably jesting, but just in case … 🙂

            Christianity, for most of its past 2000 plus years has been a ruthless, my way or the highway, sword gun cannon marauding imperialistic religious-political force that spread its brutal conquest roots all over Europe, N&S America and disseminated all other religions and cultures? Truly the world’s most prolific religious or political holocaust.

            The metaphorical, poetic, and very recent Christian evolution by some clergy is merely an attempt to save Christianity from its rapid decline and being exposed by science and rational-moral thought for the gaslighting myth and false dilemma scam it has always been.

            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/62c20cd4760e628143634de5c060af9d54fccf37807e9f614ba097e3420662b8.jpg

          • ElizabetB.

            Thank you for the great pic!!!

            Yes, I wondered how that theory fits everything together, too…. Maybe we get fanatical about *our* metaphor & poetry vs *your* metaphor & poetry!!! Will report back when I run across more : )

            Your pic reminds me of one of my favorites — https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0e1230178356acd68d6e8446ed91da58f71eede69bb0638ac81cfe19f4e3c6a0.png

          • mason

            yep … love it … as they say, “The victors write the history books.”

          • srh1965

            You could be right. My own experience in the 1980s of several UK fundamentalist, evangelical churches was that they were desperate to find any fake evidence that would make the accounts and claims of the Bible seem truly scientifically accurate. They struggled very hard.

      • ElizabetB.

        Remember John Shuck & his BYOG — Bring Your Own God : ) that he wrote about on Friendly Atheist: “I’m a Presbyterian Minister Who Doesn’t Believe in God.”
        http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2015/03/17/im-a-presbyterian-minister-who-doesnt-believe-in-god-2/
        He’s in Oregon now, where the church banner reads
        Welcome to Southminster… A safe and challenging place to grow, explore, question and make a difference.

  • ThaneOfDrones

    Happy Independence Day.

  • Carter Warden – aka Adam Mann

    A very interesting scenario. I think this unique situation stems somewhat from the bond formed among the leadership for this to happen and may be a rather unlikely thing to see again or at least on a regular basis. Having said that, I just heard Bart Campolo speak a the Secular Student Alliance Conference this past weekend and he shared about an evangelical megachurch of thousands, EastLake Community Church outside of Seattle, Washington, where the leadership became more liberal supporting full inclusion and affirmation of LGBTQ+ people. As a result they lost people as the staff became more liberal and now they basically have a 500 member secular church of sorts.
    https://bartcampolo.org/2018/01/302-happens-evangelical-megachurch-becomes-lgbtq-inclusive-ryan-meeks

    • Linda_LaScola

      Fascinating!

    • FreshLA

      I’ve been listening to EastLake’s podcast for just over 2 months. Great people and they have some very talented singer-songwriters.

    • mason

      They are definitely more inclusive but if this is the same group I’m not seeing any real move at all to being rational/secular in their statement of faith about God, eternal life only through Jesus, the messiah-savior, supernatural, etc. etc. 500 member secular church of sorts? Am I missing something? Unless this link is to the wrong group, looks very theistic and Evangelical but they’re being nicer than the Bible to the LGBT community. https://www.eastgatecommunitychurch.com/beliefs/

  • mason

    There are things that used to be legal under the guise of freedom of religion in the US like slavery, segregation, child labor that are now illegal. Mental child abuse, preaching LGBT hate and bigotry (of course in the name of Christian love), homosexual Evangelical conversion therapy, also need to be classified as banned, criminal, and/or hate crimes.

    The UK is already taking legal steps on behalf of LGBT persons. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/u-k-government-vows-end-abhorrent-practice-gay-conversion-therapy-n888646

  • ElizabetB.

    Fresh, thank you so much for sharing this remarkable journey!! I am hoping that future posts — or book? — will include some of the details of Patio Church conversations. They sound wonderful!

  • srh1965

    Interesting account of leaving faith behind. If you are now a non-believer, why would you want to help the church you led to continue? Surely it would be more consistent to be honest, tell the church you no longer accepted their evidence-free beliefs, and the rest is up to them.

    • Bravo Sierra

      It seems to me that someone who cares about a community of people would not want to see their lives disrupted unnecessarily. After filling a leadership role, telling them, “I no longer believe, so now you’re on your own,” would kind of be a rotten move.

      • srh1965

        Not really. It sounds more like not having the courage of your convictions. If you really understand the nonsense that is a religious faith, it does no-one a service to help others keep on believing it and carry on the rigmarole of the rituals that go with such beliefs.

        • Bravo Sierra

          It doesn’t do yourself or anyone any service to alienate yourself from a community that you built. It’s better to keep your promises and let others make their own choices, rather than pulling the rug out from other people’s way of life.