I struggle these days when people ask for my bio. I’m a former pastor, former professor. It’s all about what I used to do. When I say I’m a blogger, this sounds, well…like something someone who lives in LA would say. (“Dude, I’m a writer.”) But for now, this is what I do and I love it, but still, the most poignant and perhaps relevant part of my bio is that I am a former pastor.
This past Sunday marked one year since I resigned my position at the Hollywood Adventist Church at the insistence of the Southern California Conference—my employer. There are plenty of stories out there about the circumstances surrounding my resignation (here and here, for starters). The issues that led to my resignation now seem like ancient history. I realize more than ever that they are like the persistent headache that sends a person to the doctor only to discover they have a brain tumor (let’s say, for the sake of a happy ending, that the tumor is operable and the patient lives out his years in good health). These were the presenting issues: denominational politics, church growth, money, dogma about sexuality, creation, and other social issues. But deeper issues were stirring in my heart.
I had worked for years on a postmodern, post-positivist faith for those on the margins of our society; a faith community that put people first and focused on justice; a community whose theological convictions took people’s physical existence and pain seriously. I worked very hard to stay Adventist, not because I believed it was the right or only way to be a Christian, but because I wanted to help my tribe grow to embrace the diversity of our beautiful world. Ultimately the sectarianism of my religious family proved too rigid, too threatened by the prospect of sharing the planet with a wide diversity of people.
The final time, when called before the “magistrates,” I didn’t have it in me to fight anymore. I no longer had the mental and emotional strength to hold the cognitive dissonance between my growing agnosticism on nearly every theological topic, between my creeping atheism (uncertain about the beingness of god) and my desire to hold space for spiritual seekers who had become my friends and closest companions in life.
People ask me if I miss being a pastor. The answer to that question is, of course, yes and no. Or no, and yes.
I don’t miss being a surrogate for people’s relationship to god. I don’t miss needing to believe difficult-to-believe things on behalf of my members. I don’t miss never having a weekend or the sheer exhaustion of Sunday mornings that was worse than any hangover I’ve ever had (remember, Adventists have church on Saturday). And I definitely don’t miss the experience of not having any real, mutual friendships—that every single relationship is made unavoidably complicated by my role as the person’s pastor.
I do, however, miss being involved with people as they navigate the momentous twists and turns of their lives: the joy and the pain, the celebration and mourning of significant life events. I miss the look of “Aha” in people’s faces as they let go of an old destructive idea and embrace something life-affirming. If I’m honest, I miss preaching, but not because it put me in front of a group of people. I always feel a little nauseous as I step up to speak in front of people. I miss it because I enjoyed weaving narratives together to shape a story that could give direction to the communal experience of a group of people in a particular social situation. I miss the prophetic role of speaking and acting for justice in my city. And I’m sad about the death of my dream of forming a community of resistance to the dominant narratives of our time (“free” markets and technology–more on that later).But honestly, at this one year mark, I’m mostly just relieved to not be enmeshed in religious life any longer. I am relieved to not have to pump everyone up like Tony Robbins, every Sabbath morning, and motivate them to give and share and serve. Because of this change, I am, as I said on Facebook on Sunday, “healthier and more alive than I’ve been in a very long time. I feel like I’ve been—pardon the expression—born again.” Which leads me to a question I’ve been asked a few times: what advice do I have for pastors?
Usually at this point I do something that I’m not famous for: thinking carefully before I speak. I don’t want to glibly say that every pastor should run for their lives while they still can, but without a doubt, some should. Several pastors I know have resigned in the time since I did, for similar reasons. So, after foreswearing flippancy I really am stuck. I wonder, is there a healthy way to be a pastor? In the final years of my career I developed a couple of chronic, mostly just annoying, diseases (anxiety disorder, acid reflux…that sort of thing). As I look back I wonder, what would I have done differently to better protect myself? Somehow, someway, there needs to be a different understanding of what pastors are for, deconstructing the expectations of the church members somehow. People came to my church for it’s authenticity (that’s what people said, over and over) but authenticity entails messiness and, let’s face it, people don’t want their pastor to be a mess, even if they know she is.
The best advice I have, after one year of freedom, is be true to yourself and your own intellectual and spiritual development. Be courageous. The world doesn’t have enough truly courageous people. Follow the questions. Don’t live in the dissonance for too long, especially at the expense of your health and your family. It’s just not worth it. Secondly, do better than I did at setting boundaries. People will take from you whatever you let them take. They don’t mean to, but that’s how the game is structured. Finally, get a psychotherapist and stick with it (I’m into three years with a wonderful analyst). Even though your church members know you’re human, faulty, have needs, and all the rest, they don’t want to hear about it or be responsible for it. So don’t lean on them for that.
Oh, and take a sabbatical. I never did.