I sat across the table from one of my favorite people at lunch today. I was a young youth minister’s wife when this young man was a sophomore in high school and in the youth group at the church where my husband was on staff. We loved this kid deeply and have told our own sons stories about him over the years. He was in town on business this weekend and I hadn’t seen him in over 15 years. He’s a husband and father now. He’s every bit as wonderful as an adult as I imagined he would be back when he was 15. I was thrilled to take my own son, who happens to be a sophomore, along to meet him.
Sitting in a local restaurant on a Sunday at lunchtime, the joy slowly turned to weirdness for me. I realized that he probably still sees me as the young woman he once knew. He remembers me when I was on the front end of this journey…still hoping, still joyful, still dreaming, still trusting. We had already left this local church under devastating circumstances and gone to our second church (his church) in hopes that we would never experience such heartbreak in ministry again. Just as we formed strong bonds with his youth group, a small group of men secretly plotted to fire the pastor. After another horrendous experience watching a minister and his young family suffer a severe wounding at the hands of deacons and “church people”, we left ministry for good.
As I sat across from this young man at lunch, I struggled with my words when the conversation turned to church. Church has always been his frame of reference for us. I realized that, because he was just 16 when we left his church and because adults don’t talk about the circumstances of church politics with young people, he probably has only a vague understanding of why we left, if any at all. As he attempted to explain to me why he and his wife are not currently attending church, I eased him off the hook…grateful that he was unknowingly easing me off the hook, too.
How do you tell a guy who trusted you when you shared Jesus with him as a teenager that you are now “unchurched”…without it just being weird? How do you agree with him that you also no longer want to be a part of a Baptist church (even though you were in Baptist ministry)…without it being weird?
The sad realization set in. I’m not who I used to be when he knew me best. I wish I were for his sake. But, I’m not. I love him today as much as I loved him then. I hope he could tell.
As usual, the weirdness became palpable as we sat visiting and laughing (while secret thoughts of how disappointed in me he must be swirled through my head)…and then a member of FBC, eating lunch after church, stopped by our table…and I introduced my long ago church past to my recent church past.
Tonight I struggle with the question: “Who am I, really?” I am a believer in God in the deepest part of my soul. I know that. But I was also one of you, church people. I believed the things you said. I bought in to your culture. I spent 45 years serving and “fellowshipping” with you. I married a seminary student and we struggled to pay for a religious education in order to be “in the ministry” at your church. And, then, I was burned over and over by your secrecy and deceit…and watched others experience the same. Now I feel guilty for leaving? I question who I am? How is any of this possible?