Why Did I Leave Church?

Once I spent 70 or so weekly hours serving in churches.

Now, 168 hours of a week hurry by like a commuter late for work and I never darken the proverbial sanctuary door.

I wonder why.

Last Friday, I cradled the hand of a dying woman and reminisced about the many hospice meetings we’d survived together. Until her illness, she volunteered at several local non-profits, including where I worked. While others in the hospice meetings were medical professionals, we were not. We shared whispered comments, occasionally rolled our eyes at the terminology, and added a little humor to the serious proceedings.

Now she’s dying.

I visited her.

Talking was not easy, but it was easy enough. She asked me, in between old and real and made-up memories from the past few years, if I still went to church.

Honesty felt the reasonable choice when Death shadows a room.

“No,” I said.

“Why not?” she asked.

+      +      +

Except for a few happy-go-lucky years in college, I’ve been a churchy guy. For over a half-century of being George and Fran’s kid and claiming a pew at the Baptist church, and then becoming (by the good graces and devilish humor of God), a United Methodist clergy, Sunday was habit. Sunday was the first, last, best, worst, busiest, bravest, loudest, quietest, most reverent, and reverently irreverent day of the week.

Oh, let’s be truthful. As a kid, church meant someday I’d be old enough to play on the congregation’s softball team. I’d seen Dad slug a homerun in a game and wanted to do that too. The LaRue boys and Mr. Richardson were the gods of the outfield, and playing with them seemed a noble goal. I’d sit through a thousand grim sermons about God’s displeasure with humanity to get a chance to swing the bat with the big boys.

While I selfishly dreamed of playing ball, mentors in church kept quietly revealing God’s love to me. I learned about hope. I felt my first glimpses of mortality when someone died. I croaked out (trust me, I have a lousy singing voice), “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so”—and believed it. I also couldn’t ignore the “Red, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight” lyrics. Radical Christian seeds of equality were planted in me long before witnessing how easily love-your-neighbor rusted like cheap metal siding when adult Christians selectively defined God’s laws and longing.

I was ordained over forty years ago. It was a hot night in Redding, at the northern end of California’s Central Valley. A bishop whose name I can’t remember placed his hands on my head and declared me a minister of the Gospel. Proclaim the “good news!” Administer the sacraments! Serve God, by following Jesus, with my heart and head, my feet and my used car, my bumbling prayers and twenty-minute sermons.

And lo, I did.

I had my degrees, divine guidance, and a denomination’s blessings. Over the decades, kind (and often brave) church folks welcomed me as their new pastor. They’d hand me the keys to the buildings as if I knew what I was doing. In churches suburban and rural, with stints as a hospice chaplain and campus minister, along with becoming a befuddled new church start pastor, I preached like the fool I was and am. I slogged through meetings. I did the bidding of my United Methodist superiors. I led a thousand people on church backpacks where the tall trees and granite spires proclaimed God’s creation better than me. I served communion, gobsmacked and humbled, to dairy farmers in Wisconsin, students in Oregon, small-town conservative Republicans, and loving left-leaning lesbians. I stumbled after Jesus with his radical, raucous notion of a beloved community. I witnessed that even the worst news we humans could crush others with, was never the last news in God’s gracious, fragile, eternal Realm of Love.

Now I don’t go to church. Don’t care to.

Maybe that will change later?

Don’t know. That’s the beauty of this mortal, flawed life we lead. Tell me what you’ll do tomorrow and I’ll mutter the old cliché: humans make plans, and the Holy laughs.

+      +      +

“Why not?” she asked, still dying. She gazed at me with her rheumy, bright eyes.

Still there and curious, Death edged close to listen.

I answered with, “I got tired of not seeing my wife.”

That’s the short version.

The long version is that I wearied of evening meetings and personnel issues. I was tired, though still inspired, of those Sundays where I’d preach and teach and return home exhausted. Then, predictably, we’d arrive at Advent and Lent, and I’d work a more furious pace. But my lovely, ever-understanding wife, given the nature of her job as a professor, would greet the hectic holy days as her holidays. My roaring Easter was her spring break. My breathtaking Christmas was her between-semesters breather.

“I like to spend time with her,” I declared.

While serving in what became my last church, United Methodist higher-ups pushed for a “new way” of ministry. We clergy were compelled to attend workshops on how to lead the modern congregation. It’s rough out there! Churches were stagnant! Clergy were confused! The world, Googled, Facebooked and Amazoned, had changed.

Gotta love the consultants, I’d heard versions of their prattle in the past . . . and some was righteously right. The church wasn’t built for complacency or for kowtowing to cultural whims. And yet, between powerpoints and pontificating, the well-traveled, well-paid, well-meaning expert berated us with,

  • Today’s pastors must make sacrifices.
  • Today’s pastors should spend more time serving the church.
  • Today’s pastors need to give all to Jesus.

(Okay, he didn’t quite say it that way. Nonetheless, however he spouted his truthy version, it’s what he meant. Give more, give better. Do more, do better.)

Yeah, I probably thought that then.

Now?

I was tired of not seeing my wife.

I was tired of not having a life.

In the last church I served, which was filled with the loveliest people I know, I just didn’t want to be there anymore. Or anywhere, anymore.

I wanted to write. I wanted to play with my dog. I wanted to sip wine with my wife on Saturday nights. Though I didn’t know it after leaving the church, did I also want to spend a little more time doing Jesus’ bidding in hospice?

The dying woman listens to my answer, and then changes the subject to something else.

Bored with my answer, Death retreats to another room for a snack or to check recent tweets.

Why did I leave church?

Or have I?

How I must disappoint, and certainly bemuse God with my wandering ways! And yet I love Jesus. The Nazarene, that old and forever new storyteller, saunters ahead in the path toward the Realm of Love, and keeps urging me forward.

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8 Comments

  1. Thanks for your honesty, Larry. And I hear ya! As a minister’s wife for over 40 years, I played all the roles: Sunday School teacher, VBS teacher, sang in a choir that desperately needed altos (!), started prayer groups (3 are still active), started young married couples class (no longer by that title but still active), was youth fellowship adviser, hosted groups in the home for new members to get to know older members, hosted Christmas open houses, etc., etc., etc. Our lives centered around the needs of the church, including postponing vacations or coming home early if someone died. So when he retired, I rejoiced!! I still go to church – until our new (Methodist) pastor arrived, I went mostly because they were my family that supported me during the 4 1/2 years I cared for my husband at home. Now I go because once again I am spiritually refreshed by the creative worship experiences our pastor conducts. But, as I think you are implying, our spirituality is measured by much more than whether we’re in church on Sundays. God meets us anywhere, any time. No, you are not disappointing God at all. You are still a messenger for Him in many ways, not of the least is with your Hospice folks. How I wish you could have been Hal’s Hospice chaplain!! We got nothing from that man’s visit. You are a letter from Christ. Enjoy!

  2. In our tiny foothill town, our little church provides something for people to do. Two services on Sunday (two different preachers and styles of preaching, Sunday School for all ages, Bible study for families, Monday a.m. (we have some men on disability) tumbling for kids on Monday afternoon, MMA twice a week, temple training (exercise, mostly women), other social activities–the town has little for anyone. And yes, we welcome everyone and it’s come as you are.

    1. Thanks, Marilyn. And you are so right about small towns and “little churches.” I once served in a Wisconsin “town” that would make Springville seem a bustling, big-time “city” . . . and how important that church was for all the residents.

  3. Well, Larry, maybe you were in church for a less than best reason. That spirituality has to be about the personal 1-1 relationship between you and God. Try the Catholic version: Mass. The relationship renewed in the Eucharist. People are only companions on the journey. Sermons are reflections for consideration. The priest is nothing more than a minister of the sacrament, one of the congregation. And, yes, many less than perfect. Keeping the eye on the Prize, Jesus, God’s Son, one with the Holy Spirit (very under rated in my opinion) the Light, the Creator, the First Cause, my Heavenly Father, ever with me. The Eucharist is the reason for Church. This is my point of view. We need each other to listen and learn. To minister to and receive ministry in many forms. We need a religion to handle the business end of congregating and enlightenment. Many people, many ideas many terms. And here we include Allah, Buddha, Confucius, ect….. Infinite isn’t it?

    1. Thanks, Anne. But you are wrong. I have served churches for the best reasons, thanks be to God. But I so appreciate you reading and responding!!

  4. So interesting to hear of your journey. I think all of us have stories of the detours our lifepath takes. You say you left church, but it doesn’t sound like you left God, just found him in alternate places. And thats the basic truth-God never “leaves”us.
    So glad you have found ways to engage with life and express your love in new ways that do not weary your soul into burnout. You have a lot to offer life.
    If you should ever decide to do that in company with others in any way-church in its many forms will still be there, because thats one of God’s places, too.
    Blessings on your journey…from a fellow traveler!

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