Sitting in the circle, I listened to each person introduce themselves and give a brief version of the story that led up to them being there that day. There were a lot of tears, some anger and bitterness, and a lot of brokenness. When it came time for me, I managed to get out my introduction alright, but when I started recounting why I was there, I only got a couple sentences out before I started choking up. I had to cut my story short as it was hard to talk through the sobbing. I was embarrassed for having broken down in front of total strangers, yet I was also relieved. I knew these people understood my situation and would not judge me. This was my first night at D.W.S; a support group for those who had been divorced, widowed, or separated.
According to the Holmes & Rahe Stress Scale, divorce is the second most stressful life event one can experience. About eight years ago I went through a painful and ugly divorce and can safely say it was the most traumatic experience of my life. After a year of trying to deal with the pain and emotions on my own, I finally had to be honest with myself and face the fact that I wasn’t getting any better. It was that admittance of helplessness that led me to D.W.S. I spent the next 30 weeks going through the programs and working through the stages of grief. Without this group and their support, I have no idea how long it would have taken me to work through all the pain, anger, guilt, and depression I faced from having had the most important things in my life taken from me.
It has been nearly a year now since I quit going to church. Walking away from something that you are actively involved in and is such a big part of your life can be difficult. In a lot of ways, it’s very much like the ending of a relationship. Many of the emotions I’ve felt since leaving the church echo those I felt when my marriage fell apart.
One of the stages that was toughest for me to work through after my divorce was anger and resentment. Having been betrayed, hurt, and disrespected by the action and words of my ex, anger was the quickest emotion to present itself, and the slowest to let go of. I am also finding it difficult to hide the anger and resentment I feel towards the Church. Anger from all the times I asked questions or shared views that were dismissed, ridiculed, or even laughed at. Anger from all of the injustices done to others in the name of the Bible. Anger from the church’s refusal to acknowledge its own shortcomings and wrongdoings. Anger for their anti-intellectual and frankly, ignorant, view of the world and of culture, that is hurting itself and others.
When you are married, your family is the reason you get up in the morning, the nucleus of your existence. Waking up alone in an empty house makes it difficult to face the day. The Church is good at providing people with a sense of purpose, and giving them something to be involved in, both individually and collectively. It gives people a sense that they are a part of something bigger then themselves. When one leaves that community, it can be difficult to find things that give you the same sense of purpose.
Divorce is one of those life experiences that unless you’ve been through one yourself, it can be nearly impossible to fully relate. People will often sympathize with you by using their own stories of past breakups, or lost friendships. As difficult as these things may be, they pale in comparison to devastation of divorce. Until I found D.W.S., I had an overwhelming sense of isolation, that I was totally alone in my experiences and feelings. When struggling through the process of unpacking my faith and critically analyzing it, I felt that I had to keep this integral part of myself a secret. I knew that if I shared my thoughts with others, they would be met with looks of shock, fear, and disappointment, and would inevitably lead to conversations aimed at addressing my “backsliding” and “liberal theology”. Church is not conducive to new ideas or free expressions, it is an institution that exists on the ideal of conformity. Living with secrets, in isolation, eats away at you from the inside. You wish there was someone who understood, you wish there was someone you could talk to who “got it,” who understood what you are going through and who won’t cast judgment or pretend to sympathize.
One critical difference between my divorce and my departure from the Church/Christianity is that no one ever pulled me aside and told me how wrong I was to separate from my wife. Due to the circumstances surrounding our breakup, most everyone was on my side and supportive. Some even wondered why I held on as long as I did. Yet, when you leave your formal faith, there is no shortage of people wanting to email, message, or meet you and tell you just how wrong you are. The tribalistic mentality of Christianity dictates that people must do all they can to keep fellow believers from “back-sliding”. While I can somewhat appreciate their concern (though I often doubt their sincerity), telling someone they are wrong and trying to push them back into the system that caused so much distress is not a “loving” thing to do, no matter how nice about you are. And when trying to coerce you back into the fold doesn’t work, they do what seems to be all too natural for them to do; they cut you out of their lives.
After my divorce, most of the friendships that we had formed through the years faded away. I don’t believe anyone’s intentions were malicious. Couples we once knew most likely didn’t want to take sides or get caught in the middle. Some people didn’t know what to say, so they kept their distance. Still others grew tired of seeing me so bitter and lonely, saying things like, “It’s been a year, shouldn’t you be over this by now?” After word gets around that you no longer go to church, and with it the cliches of “back-sliding” and “losing faith,” you will notice people distancing themselves from you. While I know that some people simply don’t know what to say or how to relate, there is an ugly trend among many Christians of punishing people by withholding relationships. As Benjamin Corey observes, “Today’s Evangelicalism does this to folks who think outside Evangelical lines– it strips them of relationships, cuts them off, and severs ties. I can’t count the number of emails I get with folks sharing their stories in this regard– it is sadly all too commonplace.” Neil Carter had a similar experience when he left his faith. The bottom line is; it hurts to lose friendships and it feels like a betrayal to find out that many of your friendships were based on the condition of belonging to the right tribe.
In the early stages after my wife had left, I would lay awake at night analyzing everything that went wrong, racking my brain to figure out all the things I might have done differently, and looking for any possible way of making the marriage work. I learned in D.W.S. that this stage is known as “bargaining”. I thought long and hard about decision to walk away from my faith and the church I had been a part of for so many years. It was not a decision that came easily, and I was constantly second-guessing myself.
Some would look at me and say, “The fact that you are going through all of this is a sign that you’ve made the wrong decision.” No. I made the right decision. Just as I can look back at my failed marriage and say with certainty that I realize now that it was not meant to be, so too can I now look back even after a year, and know that I made the right decision. I was not kicked out or asked to leave the church. I did it on my own accord, but it had to be done. My relationship with the church was not a healthy one, mainly because the Church itself is not healthy.
There were times after my divorce, during the earliest stages of grief when I wondered if I could ever love and trust someone again. It took a lot of time and effort to get to the point where I was able to, but now here I am; having been married to an incredible women now for almost six years. Our marriage is everything my first one was not. Will there come a day when I get involved in a church again and call it home? Maybe. I haven’t completely written it off. When I hear about churches like Nadia Bolz-Weber’s House for All Saints and Sinners and Jay Bakker’s Revolution, it gives me hope that I might someday find a community I can belong to.
I know there are a lot of others out there like myself; people who were either outed from their churches, or left on their own accord. People who still love Jesus and want to have a faith-based community, but found the church lacking. If that’s you, I feel your pain; I know what you are going through. I know it hurts, I know you’re angry, and I know it can be confusing and lonely sometimes. Hang in there, it does get better, I promise.
If you are a leader in a church who wants to dismiss me, and the rest of us, as ones who simply didn’t try hard enough, didn’t read the Bible or pray enough, didn’t have enough faith, didn’t believe the right things, want to start their own religion, or who wants to live “rebellious” lives…
My story is not an isolated one. Every week, more and more people leave the church and never return. Every week more churches close their doors. While some church leaders try to do damage control, play down the numbers, or pretend it’s not happening, still others want to point the fingers at everyone but themselves and cast the blame.
It’s not us, Church- it’s you.
As much as it hurts to leave, it had to be done. For our emotional and spiritual well-being, we had to walk away. If you truly care about people, then start listening to them and stop casting judgment. Listen to why people leave and make an honest attempt to do something about it. At least make an attempt to understand. Start with John Pavlovitz’s excellent article, Dear Church, Here’s Why People Are Leaving You. Then read Benjamin Corey’s article that accurately summarizes my own reasons for leaving the church, 5 Reasons Why Evangelicalism Completely Lost Me.
I hope there’s a brighter future for the Church. The Church of American is not known for it’s love like it should be. It’s known for it’s ignorance, intolerance, and exclusivity.
That needs to change.
I hope that one day the church can be a place of refuge and safety for all those who feel beaten down and broken, a place where all can feel welcomed and loved, a place that overcomes the tribalistic lines that society draws around us. A community that encourages questions, and doesn’t pretend that it has all the right answers.
Until that day, I fear there are going to be many more people left in the wake of the Church. So common are stories like mine (and even worse), that psychologists and mental health professions now have a term for it: Religious Trauma Syndrome, also known as Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome. Maybe it’s time we start offering support groups for these people, a place like D.W.S but for people have have broken up with the church. I can tell you from my own experience and others I’ve come in contact with that it is certainly needed.