-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.