The Day I Walked Out of Church
-Rev Melissa Fain-
For the next month or so I'm going to shine the light on myself. I'm doing this because all of us within the church are guilty, and someone has to be the example for others. Part of embracing God's grace, is admitting our fallibleness.
When our family first moved to Georgia, we asked our minister in Kansas City where we should go. He gave us the name of a church, where he thought the minister and our family would be a good fit. Having arrived, we discovered, that specific minister had just left. There was an interim, and they were in the search and call process. (Interims are ministers for congregationally led churches that are in between permanent calls. The Search and Call process in the Christian Church, is serious business. Ministers have multiple references they must submit. They must prove they either completed the MDiv program with ordination within a Disciples of Christ region, or they must prove they were accepted within a region to switch standing from their previous denomination to ours. There are also multiple questionnaires for both the churches and the ministers.) We joined this congregation during this process. We immediately fell in love with the associate minister, who was also doubling as the youth minister.
My youth minister was a very smart, creative, and energetic woman. She loved youth, and we loved her. She was a very illustrative preacher, and was my very first example of a female minister. In fact, I’d say she was the best preacher I had ever heard up to that point. Part of me wondered why they didn’t hire her as the senior minister, and pick a new associate. At the time, I knew nothing about how gender played a role in church politics. As of today, only 25% of church pastoral roles in the Christian Church, (Disciples of Christ) are filled by women. I’d wonder what that percentage is with senior pastorates. I’d wager it’s much lower.
Anyway, when they finally picked their new Senior Pastor, he was apparently the real deal, having won multiple preaching awards. He would eventually become the minister of one of the more well known churches in the denomination, and become the General Moderator for the General Church. This guy was no joke, and I did really enjoy his sermons.
Then the unthinkable happened. (Well, unthinkable for a bunch of middle school kids.) Apparently, the senior minister, and the associate did not get along. My first thought was, why would the Elders pick a senior minister who didn’t get along with the current team. My second thought was, who wouldn’t like our associate. The senior minister gave an ultimatum. It was her or him. Secretly, the elders met, discussed, and asked for the associate’s resignation.
This is where the story gets fuzzy. Not for me. I’ve always been clear on the facts from my end of the story. It gets fuzzy because this is where the story becomes public knowledge. Public knowledge is a funny thing. While more people know it, the opinions and stories change and warp. Here say becomes fact. Feelings become actuality. Even the story from the participants have wandered a bit from the cold hard truth.
This is what happened from my perspective.
When the youth heard about the resignation, our first question was, “Was this discussed with the congregation?” The answer was obviously no. The reason this was an important question was because we were a congregationally led church. Elders are lay leaders of the church, and do many things within the church, but I believed the congregation as a whole would be the final say on matters of the church. Our second question was, “What did she do that required such privacy?” Back then I thought resignations were asked for to hide infidelity, breaches in boundaries, and ultimately things to protect the minister from further scrutiny. Since then I’ve discovered resignations are often asked for to protect the church from looking bad. This church was put in a situation where someone had to go, but how they went about it was wrong. I’ve seen situations where the resignation was trying to hide something much worse. Conflict, in and of itself, is good. How we deal with the conflict can make the situation better or worse. How this church dealt with conflict was wrong, and I was part of it.
I knew I needed to leave the church. The Elders chose the Senior Minister; we did not. It wasn’t what we did that was wrong. It was how we did it.
It was decided, when the Senior Minister went to the lectern to give his sermon, the youth group would stand and walk out of the sanctuary. We spent a good week planning for this exit. Word got around it was going to happen. We were told, if we were going to do what we were going to do, it was humbly requested we go straight to the youth room to talk to an Elder.
There was talk about just walking out. They didn’t listen to us, why should we listen to them. I don’t know who suggested it, but it was decided we would take the higher road. We would listen to what the Elder had to say.
On the day in question, we all filed in and sat in our spots. Some of the youth told us they were not joining. In fact, some were sitting with their parents instead of sitting with the youth. We very respectfully participated, sitting silently when we were supposed to be silent, and singing or speaking when we were supposed to. When it came time for the sermon, he stood up, went to the lectern. I was the first to stand. The other youth were shuffling, but not getting up. I stood, and and others stood and filed out. We were so proud of ourselves. I was so proud of myself. We did it! We showed him!
Until, I visited my old church in Kansas City. Telling my old pastor what happened, he stopped me. “That was you?”
“Wait,” I responded. “You knew about that already?”
“Yeah! Ministers from all over are talking about it.”
That’s when I began to know the true impact of my actions. I had helped break a church. Years after the incident, this church would have to work through that damage I was a part of making. It didn’t matter that I wasn't part of starting the break, I most definitely helped finish it.
When I was finally old enough to drive, I went one Sunday and after the worship apologized to the minister. I didn’t have to agree with his part in the brokenness, but I did have to seek forgiveness for my part in it. (See, I learned something from my elementary school days.) He accepted my apology, and I moved on. As he would eventually become the General Moderator for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) it didn’t really hurt him too badly. It did hurt the church, and for that I am eternally sorry.
The Problem: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well.” Matthew 5:38-39 CEB. There are places in the bible were interpretation can change how the scripture is viewed. This is not one of those places. This is also the first real example where I was clearly part of the problem. We want to point to the finger to one “bad guy,” one person or a few people who have damaged the church. The truth is darker than that. The “good guys” do bad things too. Until we are willing to be honest about how broken we really are, the problem will simply continue.
What I learned: I discovered that even the smallest, meekest kid can act in a way that can be heard across state lines. Make those actions worthy of sharing. When you do something, ask yourself: Is this something I would be proud to know people three states over know about? If the answer is no, perhaps it should be left undone.
Advent is closer than you think. We will have a devotionals here in December. If you want your own copy, you can download the PDF or get the Kindle edition. Check this out on our Upcoming Events page.