The Emotional Difficulties of Leaving the Ministry
Previously entitled: A Cup of Coffee With Brother Greg
As someone who also left the ministry some 27 years ago, even after all these years, I still am haunted by my experiences with it. When I look back on how I first got wrapped up in a fundamentalist form of Christianity, it began with a religious experience I had during a weekend Christian "retreat" for high school students. I was asking myself whether there really is some sort of God who exists and has any concern for me. I called out to this unknown being, and suddenly felt waves of gentle energy passing through me.
The experience was powerful, wonderful, and bewildering and I needed some time and space to reflect for myself on what I had experienced. But the Christians around me were arrogantly self-assured about how I should understand my private experience that it had to do with Jesus "entering my life" and with his becoming my "lord and savior," and that in response to my experience, I needed to start reading the Bible, attending worship services, and cleaning up my lifestyle. It's easier, many years later, to understand the emotional pressures an evangelizing crowd can create to sweep a young student into the gnarly arms of a rather alien set of beliefs and life choices.
I look back on it, and I see an organized religion that played on my fears of mortality by offering a promise of eternal life. It kept me in line by using that promise to pressure me into following the conventions of the religion, which mostly served to reinforce the personal morality ideals of American suburban life, including certain values about politics, marriage, sexuality, careers, and material goods, etc. the things that make a society feel more secure about itself.
Soon after I graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary, which followed four years majoring in religious studies at Yale University, I decided to stop the process of getting ordained. And later I decided to get away from Christianity altogether. I don't think my decision to leave the faith was so much an intellectual one as it was an emotional one. It was the result of no longer asking "What's the truth about who is God?" or "What's the evidence regarding whether God exists?" but of asking, "What is the motivation for believing in God?" I felt that a lot of the motivation was fear of mortality, of having no purpose in life, and of loneliness. I could see that I was very fearful about these things, and knew I would no longer be able to hide under "faith" to push these fears away. The big tradeoff was a feeling of enormous liberation. I felt I could begin to really feel my interactions with people, not as I thought I "ought" to feel them, but as I really felt.
I had felt incredibly stifled by the heavy focus, especially from fundamentalists and so-called "evangelical" Christians, on the personal moral demands of being a Christian. It seemed like I could spend my whole life worrying about doing "good" things like smiling at people, saying nice things, and doing nice deeds while avoiding "bad" things like drinking,getting angry, having sex outside of marriage (I was single), and enjoying other sensual pleasures. Christianity had seemed harsh and overwhelmingly restrictive, a way to keep me away from ever getting a full sense of whatit feels like to be human.
I think a big part of what had helped give me an ability to more critically assess the Christian ethos I had entered was my love of songs. Igrew up at a time when a great deal of wonderful music and powerfully poetic song lyrics flooded the airwaves. I taught myself to play guitar, and then I taught myself to write songs. I believed I could become an excellent songwriter, if I kept working at it. The problem I faced, as a Christian, was feeling pressure to write "Christian" songs either hymns or songs with some sort of proselytizing message. I resisted the pressureto do this. I really wanted to write songs simply about people and real feelings. I wanted to write about what I really felt rather than about what I thought I "ought" to feel. I think this helped me really develop as a songwriter, and it helped me question the imposition of restraining, biblical language on my thoughts and feelings. It helped me a great deal,in creating some distance from Christianity, to stick to my own convictions about writing songs and story-songs that were true to experience. I continue to value this area of deep creativity in my life. If you want, you can hear some of my songs at: Brother Greg Returns, or you can purchase "Brother Greg" songs through
Amazon.com, iTunes, and CDbaby.com.
I found that once I decided to abandon the ministry, it took awhile to then abandon Christianity. For months, I kept on attending church services. Istill wanted some connection with it. But then, as I became emotionally more confident about facing my fears of living in the world with no Christian God, I found myself feeling increasingly liberated. For awhile, I foundmyself doing all the things I felt were forbidden by my former faith, including drinking, trying psychedelic drugs, having sex (I wasn't married).
One of my biggest fears, after leaving the ministry, was that I had no real options to make a living, because all I was trained to do was to be aminister. I can imagine that many ministers who would like to leave the ministry are frightened by a lack of other career options. It took me a year to figure this out, grateful for being able to hold down a relatively simple and low-paying job, as I sorted through the options. I decided I liked writing, and I decided to pursue a career in publishing by attending a graduate school for journalism. Since then, I've become a medical writer and editor. For awhile, I wrote for and then managed a couple of medical magazines, and later I went freelance. I have found the field interesting, and it has provided a good way to earn a living.
Another difficulty about leaving the ministry, of course, was having to announce my decision to my family and to the various people who had known me as a Christian headed for the ministry. My mother thought I was wasting time looking to return to school to find another occupation. My father thought I had shown some promise as a minister and should reconsider it. Even an instructor at the seminary thought I was worrying too much about what I believed in and should reconsider the ministry with reduced expectations about the meaning of it. It was hard, sometimes, to remind myself that I had to live my own life according to my own needs and beliefs.
I still wonder about the religious experience I had in high school I don't deny the strong memory of it; I just admit that I don't really know just what happened then. Admitting to uncertainty has been my most honest response, and I can live with it. I have some private thoughts about it, but I admit these are just speculations.
***A note from Brian***
Brother Greg got me thinking about "fringe" cases. Although technically Greg never made it into the ministry but just the threshold of it. Hisstory nevertheless is compelling! I might also add that he was wiser than I was!
So whenever there is a future "fringe" case, if the story is a good one I will post it onto the blog with the introductory saying...
A Cup of Coffee with...
Worley June 15, 2009 Ex-minister.org
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