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The Year of Leaving Church

Last year I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time. Photos do not do it justice, you just have to be there.

Father's Day marks one year since my husband, Mat, and I led our last worship set and officially quit our full-time ministry jobs. I didn't know at the time that quitting ministry meant we'd be quitting church altogether. 

"Spirituality tends to be more about unlearning than learning."
Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond

Mat wanted to be a youth pastor for the long haul, and I was content in my role as The Worst Pastor's Wife Ever. I didn't fit, never had and knew I never would, but was willing to exist in whatever role was required so long as it meant I'd be with my husband. By removing the expectations of ministry from our lives, we realized there was so much more under the surface that we couldn't have prepared ourselves for. We were angry, bitter, and desperate for relief. The church was no longer a place for us to thrive. We found solace in wandering - physically and mentally - without knowing it would induce the appearance of separation.

Mat spent his last year of ministry suffering through an intense burnout that was never given the weight it deserved - by us, or by the church. He operated off his own strength, going through the motions and pretending he had a relationship with God, and we perceived that to be enough. "As long as you look spiritually healthy and sound spiritually healthy, that's all that matters," our new motto. We were both content to fake it and hide the intensity of his burnout. Even after telling those closest to us, it wasn't until he wrote publicly about it on my former blog, that we realized how serious it was and what the prescription should've been: a long sabbatical coupled with therapy. But we couldn't afford it, and the church couldn't afford for both of us to be gone for an extended "vacation". It was all beside the point anyway because Mat refused to say he was depressed. He couldn't admit to the overwhelm, and I protected him so he didn't have to fully accept it. We called it "a season". I think a lot of people, once they recognized how I had stepped in for my husband, shouldering his emotions and general well-being, thought I was a great wife. Looking back, I think I enabled him more than helped him because I didn't want to "do" ministry either. With my husband's flame extinguished, I gave myself permission to check out spiritually as well. Church had become the place where we were the furthest from ourselves.

The day after we quit ministry, we hit the road for an undetermined amount of time and, unbeknownst to me, a chasm as vast as the Grand Canyon began to grow between what I believed and what the church had always taught me to believe. I didn't fall into it, I jumped into it.

Sarah Bessey knows.

To no one's surprise, I'm sure, I'm a contrarian. The more I'm encouraged to do something, the more I'll move away from doing that thing. I didn't go to college for that very reason. It's my weird, personal - and often self-righteous - way to buck trends, and shun popularity. So when more and more readers began to tell me how much I needed to read Sarah Bessey's blog and her books, particularly Out of Sorts, the less I wanted to care at all about who she was and what she had to say.

But when Sarah showed up on a podcast I've been listening to - The Deconstructionists - I secretly indulged, telling no one until now, just to see what all the fuss was about. And in her words, I heard my own and I cried.

"We wanted each other. We didn't marry ministry." 
Sarah Bessey, on leaving ministry with her husband

Leaving church came with a load of baggage; assumptions and expectations and expressed disappointment from those on the outside looking in. Because I began to write more honestly about my thought process, those external voices began to separate my husband and I - him on the "right" side, me on the "wrong". To them, Mat was the "good Christian" for dealing with his heathen, controlling wife, "Poor Mat. Look what he has to deal with. His wife just won't let him do what he's so talented at, what he was made for: ministry. She's holding him back." Mat was told that people were praying for me, just me, because my faith was clearly in crisis. I wondered, if this is my faith in crisis - this discovering what I truly believe and feeling more connected to God than I ever have - then what does it mean for Mat's faith? I feared his faith must be dead. But nobody would have ever guessed. I'm the easier one to blame.

When others assume separation in a marriage, they don't realize the harm they can do. I questioned myself, my husband, and our commitment to one another as we sought comfort in different things: me in my changing beliefs, him in avoiding his own. I dared to utter the words, "Maybe he would be better off without me." I allowed the careless remarks to make me forget that Mat and I are in this chasm together. When I fearlessly jumped in, so did he. 

"We often received a lot of judgment because of the choice we were making to choose one other because they saw me as a liability to him. Everybody wished that I would just get in line, smarten up, and said as much to both of us, that I was 'costing a man of God his ministry'. It's a big burden, a lot of shame to carry. And to be honest, I carried a lot of it. 

"The problem is you hit this point where you cannot be intellectually and spiritually dishonest anymore. And once you hit that point, no matter how much guilt and shame you feel, you feel like you have to be at the very least honest. That is a tremendously beautiful place between you and the Holy Spirit, but to outside eyes, it can be terrifying. Because oftentimes, to other people, they haven't let themselves get to that point so you can be a threat; you can be perceived as threatening the community or the church or you're threatening the young people and all these other things. 

If you're in that season, find the few people who are willing to walk that with you."
Sarah Bessey

Above all else, I knew my honesty was the most important thing. I just couldn't stomach myself otherwise, and I'm the only one who has to live inside my head and hear the cries of my shushed heart. I swallowed the guilt and shame whole, and then let it pass.

Living in Retirement

We have been to four church services in the past year, each one more painful than the last. So we quit going. For a while, we thought if Mat was being asked to speak or share one of his many talents at a church service or youth camp, we could deal because he'd be getting paid. The last Sunday we attempted this, we drove the 45 minutes home in silence, holding hands. Without saying a word, we both knew Mat was officially done in this capacity. Sundays became just another day of the week; a day to focus on rest and quality time together that didn't include dressing up and going to a gathering we were growing ever more resentful of.

Regardless, I know my husband will eventually find himself back in a church. His faith desires the accountability of this kind of community. And when he's ready, I'll be right by his side. I don't need church - the program, the large group get together - the way he may need it again, but I need him and he needs me. 

Besides, it's all great research for my own discovery process.

So Mat and I continue to choose each other. He doesn't always agree with what I write here, nor do I need him to. We didn't marry our opinions or our beliefs, and we certainly didn't marry Christianity. The important thing is that he has given me the space I need to explore what I want to believe and in turn, I have given him the space to take a break from all things God-related. Leaving ministry, and church, has strengthened our resolve and our dedication to one another. And maybe that has been the whole point. Our marriage is experiencing a resurgence.

As Mat applies for full-time work - because Father's Day also marks 12 months without dual income - he is asked by potential employers why he left his previous job. "I stared at that question for what felt like hours. Then, without hesitation, I typed two words: I retired. And that, being retired from youth ministry, feels appropriate."

I'm seeking myself, and I've found God.

I emailed Sarah Bessey after finishing the podcast and thanked her. I told her that as soon as I was ready to re-introduce Christian memoirs and self-help books to my reading list, Out of Sorts would likely be the first one cracked open. In the meantime, I'll just focus on being myself - the non-churchgoing spiritual seeker - for every step of this never-ending journey. That's all, I believe, God has ever really wanted of any of us.

"While some Christian visions of the spiritual life imply that as we become more like Christ we look more and more like each other, such a cultic expectation of loss of individuality has nothing in common with genuine Christian spirituality. 

"Being yourself would not make any spiritual sense if your uniqueness were not of immense value to God. But each person is exactly that - of inestimable value to God."
David G. Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself

Aimee Halfpenny

Sarah Malcangi