When I first started blogging four years ago this month (at a now long-defunct site), I was in active leadership at Pasadena Mennonite Church. After several years of worshipping at All Saints Pasadena, I left for the Mennonites in mid-2002. I remained, however, active in youth ministry at All Saints.
I left the Mennonites and returned to All Saints in late 2004. It was exhausting to be part of two very different church cultures, and though I felt more at home theologically among the Anabaptists, I felt more culturally comfortable with the Anglicans. I’ve written about this journey back and forth before (see here, here, here).
While at times I’ve been unhappy with what I’ve heard from the pulpit at All Saints, I’ve stayed at this flagship church of progressive Episcopalianism out of my devotion to my beloved senior high youth group. For nearly eight years, I was active as both a confirmation class teacher and Wednesday night facilitator, and believe I played a valuable role in the lives of many young people there. Though at times I had theological and political differences with the church in which I worked, I was able to put those aside (most of the time, anyway) because of my loyalty to the teens.
But this past spring, the church leadership and I came to what I can only describe as a fundamental philosophical disagreement about what youth ministry is and ought to be. Because so many people (including teenagers) associated with All Saints Pasadena read this blog, I’m choosing to avoid sharing details of this profound split between myself and at least some members of the church staff. I will say that all the adults involved were passionately committed to the well-being of “our” teens. But that shared commitment was not enough to bridge a gulf over what it means to pastor teenagers and what it means to provide them with a safe, nurturing, loving spiritual environment. We hit an impasse, and as a result, I chose to leave. Everything remains amicable.*
I hate “church shopping.” I learned early on in my life as an adult convert that no one church was going to be perfect. As in some of my youthful romantic relationships, my church experiences followed a tiresome pattern: initial enthusiasm and idealization followed by gradual disillusionment, separation, and the repetition of the cycle. I broke that cycle with women at long last, and had hoped to break it with churches. But I didn’t make the kind of pledge to All Saints Pasadena that I did to my wife. And sometimes, being on a spiritual journey means moving on.
I’m not a cradle Episcopalian, a cradle Catholic, a cradle Mennonite, a cradle Pentecostal. I was raised by atheists, after all. I was baptized and confirmed into the Roman Catholic church as a college student, and began a spiritual journey that took me from studying (very briefly) to be a Dominican to the Assemblies of God, the Mennonite Church USA, and in and out of the Anglican Communion (at least twice). In that sense, there has indeed been some symmetry between my chaotic romantic life and my quest for a spiritual home in which my relationship with Jesus can flower.
Even before this serious disagreement with the All Saints leadership over what was best for the youth emerged, I was beginning to think it was time for me to find a different spiritual home. All Saints does many things well, but one thing it doesn’t do as often as I’d like: preach the central importance of relationship with Christ. Like many progressive, liberal churches, All Saints does a wonderful job of calling people to action. All Saints not only encourages political activism, it encourages valuable social work in the community. Faith without works is indeed dead faith. But works without faith often leave those who do the works exhausted and alienated and in desperate need of spiritual refreshment. And for me, that spiritual refreshment comes in the reminder that Jesus is Lord. And that reminder isn’t offered at All Saints as often as I’d like.
So I’ve been going to the Warehouse. I sit quietly in the back, participating with enthusiasm but without any desire to step forward into leadership. I have a bad habit with churches: I join them, start volunteering, and within six months, am invariably asked into leadership. I was only at All Saints Pasadena for two years before I was invited onto the Vestry (if you know how vestries work at large Episcopal parishes, that’s a fast trajectory); I was at Pasadena Mennonite for all of five months before I was placed on the Leadership Team.
Whenever I’ve joined a church in the past, I’ve compensated for my feelings of anxiety about a new experience by throwing myself into the center of that church’s life. My inner ENFP kicks in, and I start signing up for committees and volunteer opportunities, showing up early and staying late. And I’m a pretty smooth talkin’ guy who can project a considerable amount of enthusiasm when called upon, so invariably I end up in leadership much too soon. By the time I start asking questions about whether the church and I are really compatible, I’m enmeshed in responsibilities and duties. Heck, I asked each of my first three wives to marry me within four months of starting to date them. My family motto, passed on for generations, is “often in error, never in doubt.” In church and in relationships, I’ve lived that out for years.
I’ve known she who is today my wife for many years. We dated for nearly three years before getting married in 2005. Never before had I moved so slowly, and that willingness to do what is so against my impulsive nature has paid enormous dividends. It’s time for me to start practicing that same degree of care and caution in my church relationships. That doesn’t mean diminishing the intensity of my love for Jesus. It does mean allowing myself to go to church just to worship, without feeling compelled to start taking over. It means resisting the urge to move into leadership before I am ready. It means being okay with going somewhere where not everyone knows my name.
The other reason to be hesitant about doing more than worshipping at my “next” church: when I’m in leadership, I have an obligation not to make public statements that are at odds with church teaching. When I was at Pasadena Mennonite, I got into trouble because I take a publicly affirming position on gay marriage — and I also feel quite strongly that pre-marital sex is not always offensive to God. At All Saints Pasadena, I’ve taken issue with a variety of stances adopted by the church and its leadership. When I represent the church as a senior youth leader or a Vestryman or a Prayer Team coordinator, I have an obligation to conform my public reflections to church teaching. But as someone whose views don’t fit easily into any particular political or theological template, that’s very hard.
I know full well I don’t share every view held by the leadership at Lake Avenue (the parent church of Warehouse). I like the way folks get together there to praise God, and I want to be with them as they do it. But I’ll be in the cheap seats rather than right up front, at least for now. And though I’m sure I’ll end up in leadership and youth ministry again somewhere soon, I think it’s okay to take a time-out for now.
*2012 note: an earlier version of this post suggested that I had strained relations with one particular member of the ASC staff. I’ve altered the wording as I think that was a bit of an exaggeration, especially since that staff member and I have smoothed things over nicely since this was originally written.