-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I wrote about the time before Fig Tree came into being. Explaining "how" Fig Tree came into existence will be difficult. Some of what happened is organic, and it's challenging to explain organic things. They tend to happen all on their own. Most of it is simply on this blog. Written throughout the years. I will try my best as I begin to bring 9 years together in just a few posts.
On being pushed off a cliff
I had two choices at the end of my tenure in the broken church.
I could pretend nothing was wrong, and just lovingly leave the church (as if that was love.) I was only two weeks post-partum with no job prospects, but I would pretend all of it was exactly what I wanted to do with my life and my family's life! That would have given me a repel line, to come down from my spot and figure out a new position from there.
Or, I could do what I did, which was live into the truth. I was pushed from the cliff with the words, "With what you've gone through, you'll bounce back."
Those words have haunted me. The person who spoke them, gave himself peace of mind, and gave me two terrible worlds. If I bounced back it would become almost justification for the push that left a post-partum minister crumpled in a broken heap. If I didn't bounce back, I'd have to remember he was sleeping well every night because of his words. They were his security blanket, not mine. Every time something went well, those words have mocked me. Every time something failed, those words were a sick reminder that they never meant anything.
Now, 9 years out, I'm finally at a place where they lost their meaning, that if something big happens I neither completely failed, or bounced back. Still, it took 9 years being haunted to exorcize those words.
Since middle school, I've wanted to start a Disciples of Christ church in North West Georgia. I have seen so many drive 40+ minutes to get to a DoC church. I remember it was almost a badge of honor to be the person who had the longest drive. It was a game I usually won. My first Church job was an hour and 15 minute drive. Every DoC church is at least a 35 minute drive for me, but people around me seem content with their half-hour drives. Almost proud.
In reality, those drives were a sign of the Church as a whole being broken. The Church used to be foundational to the community. You knew the people around you. When a Church did missions in the community, it was their community. Now, many churches are full of outsiders, anchored to a community that doesn't belong to 90% of the congregants.
I had a false belief. If a church could be started in the community where people lived, it would be a first step to fix the Church.
That's where I started. It had nothing to do with the internet or online presence. I was just a minister who saw the vacant hole in North West Georgia and wanted to fill it. What I didn't take into account was no one else would be on board, or if they were, there were other issues keeping them from joining.
Nine years ago, many churches were beginning to seriously feel the 80% decline sounded by so many statisticians. Some of these churches were bleeding out congregants. Nine years ago the Church was already in crisis mode.
A church can't go anywhere when in the middle of crisis.
Christians have created a false equivalency with movement. Not all movement is good. True, movement is one of the signs of health, but when something breaks that brokenness needs fixing before movement can resume. Churches in crisis sometimes are so shocked by their own brokenness, they attempt to move anyway, which only breaks themselves more. (Have you ever tried to walk on a newly broken leg? It's not pretty.)
So many of the churches around me were too busy trying to fake health, so they couldn't sponsor or assist me in any way. Everyone talked the big game. Everyone told me I was doing something worthwhile, but when it came to helping me start a church, they all balked up. I was the Little Red Hen, and they were all the animals saying they wanted the fruits but not the work to get to them.
So that's when I decided to start online. This move was done to primarily gain interest among people my age and younger. I knew most of the young Christians who were going off to college were not coming back to church. Today, I realize I was simply pulling from within, which is what many new plants did. Very few new Christians join churches. Often times it's people born into the church, or transfers of membership. This would look like false growth to the medium and large churches that saw an increase of membership with small churches dying away. (Just so you know: It's false growth today as some churches who have digital options find sheep from other flocks.) We are the Body of Christ, which means we have spent the past decade in hypothermia. The blood of the Church went to the largest parts of the Body, leaving the appendages to freeze away. It's only a matter of time before the largest parts of the Body start to die as well.
I began in the most obvious of places, I had a Skype meeting with the minister of the only Disciple's online congregation. She gave me some good basic advice. The best being, look at the camera like it's an actual person, which it is. Someone is watching from the other side, and it's how you make eye contact. That one piece of advice has actually changed how I talk online. I'm not preaching, like I would at the pulpit. Sermons don't translate. I'm having a conversation about God.
I was very broken 9 years ago. I'd done such a good job working on my previous brokenness in Seminary, that I was very aware of what was going on, I just thought being aware meant being okay. In reality, I'll be processing all my brokenness for the rest of my life. With my earlier trauma I can see my coping mechanisms. (i.e. When stressed I create. When forced into a job, and feel trapped, I do the best job I can in my limited space.) With the newer trauma it's more about triggers.
Yes, triggers are real. When the phrase "Are you triggered?" is used as a joke, it negates a very real experience. It's an experience I know. For me, Facebook became my own trigger. I would see happy posts from my former call, or someone would share something about the church, and all those anxieties would roll back. Even my daughter's birthday, the event they used to pick the date they'd ask me to leave, was a reminder. I had to process those wounds, but the denomination had no way to pay me while I processed, and they had just gutted the counselor assistance for ministers and family.
Also, one of the ways I used to deal with woundedness was to announce I was fine. Back when I was younger, my woundedness had been used against me. In my mind, nothing good ever came from naming my own woundedness. I didn't need people seeing a freak, so I kept it all hidden away. No one knew I needed help, because I never said I needed help.
Finally, depression took hold. I'm sure it was a combination of post-partum hormones dropping and the experience at the previous call, but I know it hit. I was never officially diagnosed. I can tell you there's a difference between being sad and being depressed. Depression isn't sadness. It sucks all emotions out of your world. Good, bad, they are all muted. It then heightens things that shouldn't be heightened. Almost like your body is trying to self-correct your sounds become more pronounced. Then, any loud noise becomes dangerous. You want to scream at them just to make them stop. Finally, the world becomes a zero sum game. You see nothing, so the only thing you can fixate on is nothing. Then you realize there is a feeling you can feel: terror.
Many people can't name what they are going through. I could. And I had two kids to care for, and a husband who needed me. Being needed gave me the ability to turn my mind off and just work.
My breakthrough moment happened, when I finally sat my husband down and told him what I had been feeling. I named it. In doing that, I was suddenly opened the door to real healing. Did I need a therapist. Hell yeah! Did I get one? Nope! Did my husband tell me to get one? Hell yeah! We spent our limited funds on the kids, and that's where I wanted them to go. Don't applaud me for that. Just know it happened, and I'm on the other side now.
In July of 2012, Fig Tree launched online.
While watching Celebrity Apprentice, Penn Jillette would say something that has stuck with me all these years later. It wasn't said until 2013 during Celebrity Apprentice All Stars.
He basically said, "We are playing two games. One is the game you literally win (in his case Celebrity Apprentice). The other game is more important. The other game is how people perceive you." The show was setting up Donald Trump not choosing him as the Celebrity Apprentice, but showing he was still winning the more important game.
Understand, and I'll go into it with more detail next week, I've taken those words to heart. I've lost so many "games." Those immediate loses stack up. (Because that's what naturally happens when you attempt things that are new. People don't get what you're doing or it's not a good fit. Or they get what you're doing and it scares them.) Jillette's words have given me context. I call it the "Long Game." Sure, I lost the immediate game, but am I still winning the "long game"? Almost always, the answer is yes. But more on that, next week.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Last week I spent some time on pieces of Fig Tree related to my call. (Trigger warning on neglect and sexual attack.)
This week I'm here to talk about the lynch pin event that consummated Fig Tree. I use that word to say, this point in my life, created the pieces to make Fig Tree real. There were events leading up to it. I had been part of a new church plant in the 90's, I had discussed the need to for a North West Georgia church. This event became the most important event to Fig Tree's being planted like a child in a womb.
Before: Called to brokenness.
"I'm so sorry Pastor. They told me it would destroy the church if I didn't vote the way they wanted."
They were words I wrote in my journal when I realized I was in danger of forgetting them. Very important words that were not true, but brought the truth of my situation down on it.
"I'm so sorry," I answered. Before me was a woman who was completely broken. Bullied into making a decision she didn't want to make. She probably had more cause to be sorry to me. I was a new mother. My daughter was born, I gave myself only two weeks and said I was coming back. I remember I was rushing to come back, because that's what I do. I couldn't be honest about my own self-care. Turned out the Elder team was just waiting for those words "I'm ready," and they were going to let me go.
Well, "let me go" are the wrong words. The right words were, "Ask for my resignation." They were words that held consequence. Churches knew what they meant, because they used them too. It was when they fired a minister, but they wanted to save face while doing it. Resigning was a way to help the minister find their next job.
This is going to sound backwards at first, but follow along with me. I didn't want to resign, I wanted to be fired. Why did they feel I was bad enough to fire, but leave me room to preach, teach, or comfort anyone within a 100 ft radius of any church?! If I was that bad, I needed to be called out and named for it. More than that, if I didn't deserve to be fired, why would I hide it for any future minister who felt that specific church could be a good fit? I already knew what the darkness could bring. I already knew the pain of brokenness breaking others. Now I was feeling it all again, but with my adopted family. It somehow hurt so much more this time around.
I answered this woman, who regretted being turned on a lie, and I told her this: "You cannot change what has happened. You can only change what is to come." I told her what's done is done. She was manipulated, and I forgive her. Now, she knows for sure, and can make a difference for the future.
I tried that with everyone who felt as betrayed as me. I told them to stay in the church. It didn't work. Firing a new mother ended up breaking the church more than keeping me on. The ones who instigated the act got what they wanted, but there was a church split in the process. I begged members to stay, but they all felt they needed to worship in a healthy church community. I got it, and I'm happy for them.
Meanwhile it left me and my family with new levels of brokenness I had yet to experience. I felt, for the first time, the emptiness of depression. I stared into the void, and got lost in the darkness. My husband and I couldn't turn to one another at first, because we were both dealing with the same thing and with all the responsibility and exhaustion of a newborn.
When we came back home, I was unemployed. My son was without a school. We discovered multiple family members were dealing with life threatening illness. Also, my immediate family had decided to all move away so I couldn't turn to the them the way I wanted. Does much of that sound familiar? This was 9 years ago for me. I get what many of you are going through, because I lived it a different way almost a decade ago.
Being Called to Brokenness
I started with the end, because the end explains the beginning. My previous church experiences had opened my eyes to brokenness in the church. My first call was to a church that just had a split. Instead of moving forward, they attempted to recollect their members like missing pieces of a ship. Only, instead of finding new pieces to mend the missing ones, they kept trying to find the exact member to put right the ship. The entire church could be summed up with a hole they had in a wall. A picture was angerly ripped off the wall, leaving the hole, and they refused to patch it until they got their picture back.
My seminary intern experience started with clergy abuse. I had been brought on after the fact. I watched them work through the pain openly, and in a healthy way. I was able to witness what the light could do to the darkness.
But I was done with brokenness. I prayed to God for a church that would just help me form my ministerial call. I didn't want my first church to be broken. Maybe in 10 years, when I've been in the church for awhile, but not now.
That wasn't in the cards.
The church lied. I say they lied, because point blank, they lied. They were broken.
Their first break happened in the late 70's to early 80's. A minister wanted to move the church in a charismatic direction. Half the church didn't want it, so they fired the minister. He took the other half of the congregation and started a new church. It was the moment those left behind believed ministers were dangerous. This danger wasn't something they would explicitly feel. The danger only manifested itself when a minister would begin discussing the scary word, "change."
All good ministers will eventually talk about change. Every Church has to move forward. Only, implicitly change had shown itself to be bad. Minister after minister would be asked to resign once they introduced change. Minister after minister would oblige. These ministers didn't want to destroy their careers with one small rural church.
Their second break happened when they hired their first female minister. No, not me. I was their second. I would love to sit down and talk to the first. She was a broken soul herself. While she was working for the church, she tried to take her own life. They had to let her go. I want to hug her so hard! I want to tell her she is loved! I want to share war stories. I'm sure her brokenness and the church's brokenness just broke one another a little bit more. Brokenness breaks. Always. I hope she found grace wherever she landed.
When I came for my interview I had three questions that needed to be answered:
Not only did they lie, I spent most of the call incomplete. It took about 6 months for my husband to come up with my son. About 4 months in I broke my ankle and couldn't make shut-in visits without another congregant driving me to their house. (Their biggest expectation was visits to shut ins, to a degree that was way more than many churches expect.) When my ankle was finally on the mend, I became pregnant with my daughter. When my daughter was born I felt I would finally be well enough to really get some work done. Only, this is a church that was broken by change, and I was past due for expulsion.
A final quote from this period of my call came from a former congregant. She had heard I was moving on and she dryly said to me, "They did it again."
The opening of the floodgates
There are so many people who have now been broken by church. There are congregants and ministers. There are people who don't even call themselves Christian having been wounded by some congregation or minister.
Once I became one of them, their stories were finally told. I heard story after story that were different from my own, but shared the same heartbeat. I had become one of them, and in becoming one of them, I was now safe.
It wasn't until I was on the other side, that I also realized, my old self was part of the problem. I had been scary; someone to avoid. I finally saw who I was through someone else's eyes, and it was terrifying. I understood why the newly broken wanted to just burn the system down. Something good had been subverted and perverted. Those who hadn't been hurt by it yet couldn't understand what they had become.
The experience had turned me into a child of God that didn't belong anywhere. I no longer belonged in an established church because I could see dangers that weren't known to me before. No one in those institutions had the power to change them because they couldn't truly see them. I also didn't belong in the secular world, still having a deep reverence for God. I was using vocabulary that came with danger. I could see how the real truth was looked at like the subverted and perverted shadow.
Something had to happen- but that's for next week.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Much of what has brought us here today was built with "before", "during", and "yet to be." Each of these played a vital role in the existence of Fig Tree Christian, and towards the mission of finding God already in the digital wilderness.
My Pastoral Calling to this kind of ministry
I used to wear my trauma like a badge because I knew my trauma had shaped me. Many of the choices I made as an older child, and young adult were exclusively because of the trauma. Today, I try not to highlight that part of me often. I have too much work to do to sit down and regale the world around a campfire. I also know how many unknowingly treat trauma victims and survivors as an oddity. People gather, listen, pick apart, dissect, and leave. They become grateful the person they examined and pulled apart was not them, and they go about their lives. I learned this kind of sharing doesn't help others like me, and it doesn't help me. If you wonder why victims and survivors are less likely to share their personal stories, that's why.
Still, we are here today because of moments that happened before Fig Tree was even a sparkle in my eye.
I was a child of divorce. Back in the 80's it was believed women were the better caretakers than the men. Therefore, custody was handed to my mother.
There's something I always say and write. "Brokenness breaks- always." I know this because I lived it. My mom was broken. From her brokenness, she broke my sister and myself. She married an abusive drunk. For those two years we were neglected, and abused through neglect. We were locked in places, and had to sneak food to eat. I am not mad at my mom. Broken people, while broken, don't realize they are breaking others.
When my dad finally won custody, we found ourselves with my Grandma, my dad's mom.
Divorce sucks. It has long reaching fingers that jab at strange times. There was this belief that my mom's side of the family was treating me better than my sister. My Dad's side of the family reacted poorly, choosing to treat my sister with more love and care than myself. It was torture.
I can remember vividly an event, where my dad left us at the apartment, because he needed to help my aunt with something at my grandma's house. The boy across the hall rang the doorbell, asking if he could talk to me. When I opened the door a little, he pulled me out, shut the door, and pushed me against the door. He began grinding against me. I screamed for my sister to open the door, when she finally did it took both of us to close the door behind us, as the boy was using his body weight to try to push himself in. Then, he went from window to window to look at us.
I called my grandma's house to get my dad to come home. My aunt picked up the phone. I begged her to get dad. She told me he was busy. I told her what happened. Her response is burned in my memory as deep as the boy is now forever seared. "You are being selfish. Don't call back." She hung up.
Dad was not told what happened to me. He wouldn't find out until he got home that night. (Just so we're clear, Dad would have come home if his sister had taken a moment to tell him what was going on. He saved us in many ways.)
That night solidified that I couldn't push into my biological family for support, so I turned to the only family I had left: The church. I adopted myself into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.) My entire world revolved around church. I joined any group that would have a child. I sang in the choir. I evangelized for the youth. I asked to participate in worship. I found my voice. I began to piece myself back together. While the world around me burned, the church was an oasis.
Early work in the church:
At first I only volunteered. I would help with the food pantry. I would come at strange times and volunteer for a project. I lived at the church, so any event would bring me with it. I did not miss Sunday worship, and as soon as I could drive I was sometimes the only one in the family who showed up.
Eventually, I aged out of youth group, and I had to start thinking about what I was going to do. I was feeling the call to ministry. At the time I thought it was music ministry, because music was the only real voice I had. I decided to work for the church. Camp Staff was suggested as a good start, so I sent my resume to the only Disciples of Christ camping program with Camp Staff within a 4 hour radius: Christmount. They had just finished hiring, but if I wanted to be kitchen staff, I could stay with the staff and come on board.
The following two years I was on Camp Staff. Then the Youth/Choir director at Loganville Christian Church, followed by the Youth Director at Brookhaven Christian Church. I lived breathed and ate church. It was my everything.
I went to seminary at Candler School of Theology, and became the Seminary Intern at First Christian Church of Atlanta, in Tucker.
Seminary is an important step in a ministerial calling. Of course I can buy any book written by any theologian, but I wouldn't know how to use it. Seminary taught me how to navigate through historical and Biblical understanding. Before seminary, I didn't know. I wasn't aware of the codewords, or the secret hand signals. I kid some, but it's important for ministers to understand the reasoning of theological traditions inside and outside their own. My early adult self dropped into random churches thinking that would be enough. Back then, visiting other denominations was like a test of faith. I would proudly state, "I'm a Disciple because I've been to 8 churches outside the denomination and I feel I'm still a Disciple." While the visiting was good, it was the seminary classes that explained what was going on in them that really rocked me.
I also was able to process my brokenness, and realize how my brokenness was further abused or mocked. The key being, brokenness is not something that is dealt with in the church. A broken system or person is proof that God is not a giant wishing machine. It's also proof that Christianity doesn't magically become easy because you said some words and were dunked in water in front of people. Through seminary, I learned the entire nation had become so afraid of loss and grief, that they were ostracizing anyone who proved loss and grief existed.
It was the first time I could see why Christians were personally happy with me talking about overcoming trauma, but went away when it came to processing grief. I was an oxymoron to their theological world: A suffering Christian.
Seminary was also personally good for me in another way as a person and as a minister. It was a refining fire where I became better because I learned I was not okay. In become better, I became someone who was better prepared for ministry.
In the midst of this transition I met my husband, and had my first child.
My husband is not a theologian, or in any kind of ministry job. Looking back, I realize I would have never found my spouse within my denomination because I had made them my family. I love my husband and my son. They came into my life when I was still naïve. Who I was when my son was born vs who I am now is drastically different. More about that next week.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Before the Pandemic hit, I expressed the need to be outside the system to the community of Fig Tree Christian. I left room for discussion, and there was support. Fig Tree has almost always pulled non-denominationally or multi-denominationally. The only descent was realizing moving away from a denomination would mean ministers could no longer use Fig Tree as their church on their standing forms. (I have issues with this and how it's negatively impacted non-traditional ministries, but that's a discussion for another time.)
I crafted an open letter of "resignation,"
Before, no one even bothered to tell me hi. I was forgotten. After the post, it got weird.
I was told they would not take me or Fig Tree off the books. We were still part of the denomination, something they did for a year, you know, just in case. Which would have been fine to ride it out another year, and let them feel like they were helping us, but it was not across the board. As a minister, I never got the ministerial card. As a church, when the pandemic hit, Fig Tree wasn't included in the online resources. (Yeah, you read that right. The online church in Georgia, that had been online for years, was not on the online list of resources.) The region chose to keep us where it benefited them, and lose us where it benefited us. They became leaches. It was not helpful, and it made the community angry to see what a denomination could do.
Any time someone tried to contact me over this past year, it was either to "talk" or to seek something. No one came to us to ask the very important question, "How can we help?" Why would they? No one asked that question before. Why would they do it now?
God has called me out.
If I were to be completely honest right now, this call happened in front of my computer back in September of 2011, in Bedford, Kentucky. A very strong question came to me: "Would you rather be comfortable or do what is right?" It was such a jarring question! Of course I would want to walk the right path. Doing what's right, is right. Eventually what's right wins, so discomfort eventually comes anyway. It was a no-brainer. What followed was even more jarring, "I'm sorry. I'm so, so, sorry."
I had this realization, as I was lovingly pushed off the ministerial cliff by a congregant only a month and a half later, that eventually (in some future), I would move away from the denomination I loved. It was merely an itch back then; a melancholy thought. It was something I didn't want, and actively fought against. Yet, as opportunities came up, opportunities I would have been amazing at, like New Church ministry, or Youth leadership- I didn't even submit my name. I just somehow knew I wasn't supposed to. God has always moved me with baby steps. Transitioned me with gentle nudges. I innately knew, those were not my opportunities. If I went for them it would put me on the wrong path.
Imagine trying to explain to your husband why going for something related to your field wasn't right. I've been a server, a retail worker, and a sub. I did that instead of going for ministerial jobs because it felt right.
Meanwhile, those nudges have become a full turn. By the time I realized where it was going I was ugly crying with my friend over the phone. At that point I was still trying to "fix" it, include the denomination into what Fig Tree was doing. Begging anyone to be part of the process.
No one helped.
Know this- it was with deep lamentations that we left. Most of the community was ready for the split before I truly was. Now, after only being included in ways that benefited the denomination, I feel used. It would have been better just to let us go when we asked to go. Why would we want to stay when things happened the way they did?
Fig Tree in the wilderness
One last note, and maybe this note is for all you churches out there feeling the breaking breathes of life slipping through your doors:
God has been calling us outside our brick and mortar buildings for over a decade now. We were forced out, and instead of figuring out how God was already in the digital landscape, we simply recreated what we already knew. We've all done a great job preaching inwards.
I'm done pretending evangelism. I'm through trying to save the calloused husk of the old church. An important statement was made in 2019, and we ignored it because he made it in front of stained glass windows: "Are we trying to follow Christ, or save a building?" Maybe we all need to be asking that question.
God asked me to leave when that action held power, when I still had a choice one way or another.
Come with me. Let's try something new, fail, learn something, and try something else! I am not going to save your church, but I will follow God. Wherever God may lead me, I will follow.