Saturday, July 7, 2012

Changing Churches (part 3 and the end for now)

Some random thoughts and I'll probably leave this alone for a while again. After all, I haven't actually joined the new church, just started the "inquirers classes." But some things that flash through me now and then.

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Someone said it shouldn't matter what kind of church I join (Episcopalian or Lutheran) because it's all one Body of Christ. Yes, I pretty well agree with this. I have longstanding connections to Episcopalians, seeing as how I attended seminary on an Episcopalian campus (although in in a Lutheran program). I've long enjoyed interactions of varying sorts with Episcopalians. 

My angst about joining an Episcopalian church (and I'm quite comfortable calling it "angst" with all the things that might mean) has to do with the networks and systems that I'm already familiar with. I have a joke about not wanting to leave the Lutheran church because I know pretty well where all the traps lie in those woods and I didn't want to learn where the traps lay in any other woods. 

But it may be because I have been to seminary that I hesitate all the more. I'm more acutely aware of the subtle differences in theological perspectives and, perhaps more important to me, hierarchical structures. I know how to move among Lutherans. I know where offense may be given or taken, I know how to talk to the hierarchy, I know the power the hierarchy has. This is slightly different in the Episcopal church and it makes the ground shift a little beneath me. I can't go into specifics, but as I say, it's subtle. Suffice to say, that this sort of thing is the best and worst of denominational politics (which can be good as well as horrific).

I stumbled upon my own analogy there. Yes, changing churches is a bit like an earthquake. I'm terrified of earthquakes. It's why I've never visited the west coast. I can't imagine anything more unsettling than the ground beneath me shifting and shaking. Changing churches---denominations---is, for me, something akin to being in an earthquake, where you're shaking and things are moving about, falling, and suddenly things are not where you left it.

And that includes things like my support of organizations like Lutheran World Relief. A few dollars out my paycheck goes to LWR every month and I doubt that will change anytime soon. I continue to think they do good work. But now I'm confronted with Episcopalian equivalents, and I imagine they also do good work. Is there some dissonance in supporting these things across denominational lines? It's a foolish question in many ways. And the ground continues to shift underfoot . . .

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One thing that has become apparent to me in the last half decade is that graduating from seminary 15 years ago was more significant than I might have thought for a bit. I came out of seminary and thought I'd just go back to being another person in the pew and be just like I was before seminary. For a bit, that worked, facilitated by a pastor who understood that to be my desire. People seem to assume that I didn't pursue ordination because I'm gay, but after four years of seminary, I still could not discern a called to ordained ministry. I went to study, but that was the only call I ever discerned: study.

This gets complicated and is a book in itself (which I've tried to write and it got stuck). Suffice to say that I had a moment, at the turn of the century, when next to everything I believed fell away and I wasn't sure if I was a Christian anymore. (Perhaps that's still open to discussion!)

As I became more involved in a congregation again, I found those years of "formation" were not completely shed. This is a problem insofar as I have opinions---educated opinions, even---on how a church might be arranged and run. Having lost many layers of theology along the way, those opinions are not always in the mainstream. To an extent, I can tolerate the mainstream way of things, but once I entered positions of church leadership, I realized I was at odds with pretty much all the other leadership.

It became very difficult to navigate my feelings---my ecclesiological doubts go pretty much to the foundation of how a congregation might arrange itself.---and live in that "trained to pastor, but not a pastor" space.  But once you're enmeshed, it's next to impossible to get disentangled.

So it became apparent to me that I needed to change altogether. To keep with the seminary training, I began to think of it as time to "put in my mobility papers," Lutheran pastor language for letting the Bishop know it was time to change parishes.

One more illustration. I had proposed a performance installation for the lenten Wednesday evening services. I'd offered or proposed other things before, which were always turned down, but this felt different and thought it might have a chance, if a slim one. In the committee meeting wherein I proposed this, I was asked, "Is this something you really want to take on?" In that moment, I knew I had done a very poor job of telling this congregation who I am. I answered, "This is what I'm trained to do," but inside my head, I realized that people saw only the seminary education, not the two degrees in the arts. It was turned down ("Not the right time"---the answer I generally got and should have learned long ago usually means "Never," especially if you hear it more than twice) but even more, I knew I had an image of someone other than I wanted to be seen as. I have to take responsibility for some of that, and at the same time, I didn't now how to turn that around.

So here I am. Changing churches.

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 This is new on many levels for me. One of the oddest things for me is to change churches without moving. Anytime I've changed church membership, it was because I've moved to a new city. 

Doing it this way cannot help but highlight that something was, if not "wrong," then certainly not "right." I'm trying to make the change without talking smack about the congregation I'm leaving. There are lovely people there who have been nothing but kind to me. Are there complaints I have? Obviously. Are there ways I'm at fault? Obviously. 

I've tried to reflect publicly, here, primarily on my own character flaws or else my own shifts in what I discovered I needed. My disappointments are also plain, I guess, if not specifically, then between the lines. 

The truth is, it was never a good fit. I nearly left years ago and stayed because  friend was going through cancer there. Between then and her death, I thought I had maybe found a way to be a member there, but it was short lived. 

This challenges my ecclesiology, such as it is. My ideal is that it shouldn't matter what church you belong to, but I know it's only an ideal. Even so, I thought this might be "close enough." It wasn't. And it's a divorce in an earthquake and it's weird and uncomfortable and . . . freeing. 

All the ways I'm broken, I know no congregation is going to feel completely comfortable. And as I said at the start of this post, I'm only in inquiry classes at the new church, so who know what might happen there as I step forward in this journey, not always having enough light for the next step. 

But for now, this seems right. I've felt affirmed from many directions. My broken bits seem, so far, to fit better in this new congregation. Time will tell.

I'm becoming quite comfortable with the notion that this may be my next "call," and that in a few years it will be perfectly fine to once again put in my mobility papers. After all, we're all one Body of Christ. It shouldn't matter where I worship. 


  1. blessings on your journey. may it lead you always closer to Him.

  2. Neil,
    A wonderfully open post, but then you've always seemed that way to me, even as an ooger! My seminary experience was similar in that I never felt comfortable with a Baptist understanding of ordination. So my call was not much ministry as "I'll let you know." As a Catholic revert from Baptist/Evangelicalism I'm back in a Church I know somewhat, but with many changes in the 25 years I was gone!
    Further up and further in!