In my early 30s, I had been teaching english in colleges for a decade and had graded about 10,000 papers and though i adored teaching, i was getting pretty burned out. I was approached by a pastor to consider using my teaching talent and going into ministry in the mainline denomination my family and I belonged to. initially i told him that there was no fucking way because i didn’t believe in organized religion; i belonged to a church in order to follow the jesus of the sermon on the mount and the god of the prophets, and to learn self-denial and servanthood. and not because i liked stained glass or hymns or committees. but, after much prayer and thinking and feeling by my wife and me, I decided to go to seminary and test the waters.
I absolutely loved seminary. we studied theological questions I’d never heard of or had the chance to wrestle with. big, open-ended stuff about god and christology and scripture and psychology and history. my mind and faith exploded. i wanted to share this with other people. that was a big part of what following jesus had come to mean for me.
and so i left teaching and went on staff at our church.
as it turns out, my experience of working for a religious organization wasn’t the same thing as my experience of following Jesus.
my job (both at this first church i worked at, and at another church where i worked afterwards) was to help make the organization successful. which made no sense to me, because my sense of Jesus was that he was all about descent and detachment and he had no interest in building a bigger, shinier thing. i could be wrong about that, but i think I’m not wrong. he didn’t work for the temple in jerusalem; he wasn’t a clergy person; he set up systems that were based on mutual interdependence and non-attachment to possessions or plans. the systems i was working for, however, required that i mediated conflicts between folks with competing interests (the color of the carpet in a given room, the language used in a worship gathering, who gets to have the multipurpose center, who gets to write the staff job descriptions). and i helped promote programs and increase numbers and membership. and i was at the service of hundreds of people, all of whom had different ideas about their church. Most of those people were lovely and delightful and a lot of what i did for ten years as a religious professional was enjoyable and positive and good. i got to teach and to learn. i got to experience meaningful worship and prayer and servanthood.
but, too, it was as if i had fallen into some inauthentic alternate universe in which i was no longer following jesus.
i couldn’t sleep. i started having migraines – and then having a migraine a day. i went to neurologists and counselors. i wept. i was falling apart. i became the Angry George Bailey. i was depressed and having an epic life crisis. i smiled on the outside but i was in terrible shape. i acted out. i couldn’t get peaceful. it took years of therapy and men’s work and soul work for me to see what had happened. it wasn’t about Church; it was my shit to work through. as i say, i was naive. i am an idealist. and i wanted to do good things and help –
but not at the price of my own soul. and what i felt – and what many clergy people feel – is that religion wanted to take my soul and my life and my will from me. (the language is “your calling to ministry.”) all that jesus shit is fine, but be sure the Communion cups are set out properly and set up the youth event the way Mrs. Williams the wealthy donor likes it done.
now, 25 years later, i can see why this was so hard for me much more clearly. but if you think that time has made me more accepting of the thing church folks often say at committee meetings, “Well, preacher, remember, a church is a business,” you are mistaken.
sometimes people who believe they are following jesus don’t see how much jesus mistrusted “the crowd,” groupthink, and The Way Things Are, and if that group of people think that numbers, finances, buildings, customer happiness, financial solvency, and measurable success are more important than compassion, inclusion, and calling bullshit on what is not what jesus did or said, then i think they aren’t clear about what their organization is trying to accomplish. hell, if it’s a business, just say it’s a business, but don’t put jesus’s name on it.
be clear: i’m not criticizing The Church or religion or multinational corporate denominations. i’m really not. the thing that happened was about me: the thing i chose just turned out, in my experience (not everyone’s), not to be the thing i thought it was. that’s why i hit the wall. and i learned that i can’t work for a corporation that says it is the house of god or the body of christ. i did it for ten years and it nearly killed me because i kept reading stupid impractical things like the sermon on the mount, and no business can follow that model of thinking or behaving. nothing can serve two masters.
BTW, the faith community where i work handles the money that comes in in a legal and professional manner. we have job descriptions and HR and records and rolls and policies and procedures and a board of directors and all that. those are corporate mechanisms, which can be helpful. but nothing is so sacred that it can’t be discarded. we are willing to burn anything we’ve created down to the ground if it doesn’t serve the only thing we exist to do, which is, to help people love god and love the world.
we joke that we don’t really have a sustainable business model … but it’s worked for nearly 14 years. and i sleep tolerably well at night.
and i also remember to take my migraine-prevention pills.