Where have we been?

"indecision's bugging me / if you don't want me set me free"
The Clash, 1981

This is for my friends and acquaintances at church.

Our church has recently hired a new pastor, and the process of selecting and hiring him was fraught with conflict. While my husband and I were surprised and saddened by some of the ways that disagreement was approached during that process, that's not why we have left. This new pastor seems not to be our cup of tea in terms of his personal and preaching styles, but that is also not why.

We also haven't exactly left; as the lyric above suggests, we're fumbling into a transition period and we're not sure what's next.

The reason we are entering this transition is because of the music pastor. If you've ever heard me onstage at our church, you know that singing in worship is my passion and my gift. If you have only seen me rarely, that is the problem. I have not sung in our contemporary service since December of '10, and I have only sung at all in our traditional service twice this past summer. These two Sundays were to fill space while our choir was on hiatus. While I was happy to sing those days, it doesn't address the problem.

I tried to address the problem. I complained bitterly. As you know, this pastor chose someone close to him to be a kind of co-leader, and admitted to me that advancing that person's career was his priority. I wrote long, long emails and had long meetings with people I thought could at least get the pastor to moderate his position. Maybe he could advance that person's career 95% of the time, and throw me a bone once a quarter? No, apparently he would not. I tried hard to stay in conversation with this music pastor but it's my belief that he was not honest with me, and may not have been honest with us as a body about his intentions. In our last talk he told me something designed to hurt, and I found out it was an unambiguous lie.

There was so much more to it. Far more musicians and singers left than stayed, and any of them will agree that there was arrogance, unprofessional choices, hostility, condescension, and a culling of the less skilled singers that was needlessly ruthless and insulting. It was my belief that this pastor was operating out of his brokenness and inexperience, and with ten years' more experience and age, I hoped I could make a difference. Somewhere.

I could not. I tried to tell the discarded singers that the "professional world" is not this harsh, as this pastor would have them believe. (I have been to Broadway auditions kinder than the auditions this pastor set up). But they were (still are) so hurt by their demotions that I don't think I helped much. I told this pastor as gently as I could the effect that some of his less-than-worshipful choices were having, and the hurts caused by his less-than-friendly demeanor. He seemed to listen at first, but grew impatient as the months went by. I don't blame him - it's not fun to be disagreed with and challenged.

I tried to get people in leadership positions to get him to change, and I was told this pastor had been talked to, and then this pastor told me he would change. He asked if I wanted to "come back" to our contemporary service to solo and lead worship. I said I would.

Nearly two months later, I realize that I was suckered. Very little has changed.

So, yes, I am sulky and disappointed and offended that I don't have the spotlight as much as someone else. You can see it that way if you like. But what lies beneath is what really hurts, like a punch in the gut every Sunday I sit in that service. What's beneath is a church that doesn't seem to care.

When I was single, and a new Christian, my church at that time had very strict rules of conduct for singers and anyone who appeared on stage. Ours was a largely single congregation during that season and sexual purity was a big consideration. We were not allowed to allow even an appearance of impropriety because of how it would conflict with what we said onstage, with our songs and our presence. It made sense at the time, sort of; that my brother or my male cousin could not stay at my house seemed kind of strict. But the idea was that an observer who knew I was Christian but did not know anything else would see a man leaving my house in the morning and could easily decide I am a hypocrite. Observers like that don't ask, and so appearance in this case is crucial.

Now I get it. Because each week I sat in our service and saw a man who has acted in so many unkind, dishonest, self-seeking, and un-Christlike ways offer prayers and words of praise, I felt sicker. The church in which he makes these hollow statements and untrustworthy prayers echoes them back and the people in the pews smile and applaud. The blessing of God on our church, our efforts, our very selves, is called for and accepted. What can I believe? Who can I trust?

Trust God, you are saying. I get that. But I need to trust my church. I need to trust leaders, and search committees, and members of my "church family." If I do this, now, at our church, there is only one way I can go on, and that is to submit to a leader who has made deeply sinful choices, and to other leaders who choose to turn a blind eye, or who don't find me trustworthy or worth the trouble.

I have tried this, by the way. It works really well, if crying my guts out during the worship and drifting farther from God each week are what you'd call effective.

There is another answer to this situation, and it's what my husband and I have chosen to tell ourselves when we keep asking the same sad questions. This answer says that God has a path for me and for you and for everyone. Sometimes two different people will walk wildly different paths, even down the same aisle into the same sanctuary. It's a thing I call "stink." I am pretty much the same person, but in some church environments I have been welcomed, put to work, loved and accepted. In some other places I have been rejected or singled out for exclusion in ways that are just plain bizarre. Sometimes these two experiences have happened at the same church, but in different time periods. Sometimes I come up smelling like a rose, and sometimes it's the opposite. Is it about me? Maybe. I'm sure I can be annoying or grasping or arrogant or many other unflattering adjectives.

But I think it's God, saying no, sweetie. Walk this way. Find My path, it's over here. Maybe God has to put a powerful stink on me before I finally realize I need to move on.

This should be obvious now, since I was offered a singing job at another church, a church my family could someday join. It's clear we have at least a place to land for a while. I'd like to think it's a pretty obvious, two-boats-and-a-helicopter kind of rescue.

But my trust is shattered. Sure, this job is great, but when will it all change? When will the pastor who believes in me be fired and replaced by someone who wants polkas or Gregorian chant or goth metal worship? The church extends its arms now, and it's all sunshine and puppy dogs and potlucks and fellowship and praying for each other, and it will be wonderful. For a little while.

My heart tells me that somewhere it will be different. My broken heart says "seriously?" Somewhere ... where? over the rainbow? There will always be humans and pride and someone grabbing power from another person the way a toddler will grab the best toy - because he can. That sucks, but then it will all be coated with the sickly sweet frosting of "God's will" and 'God's leading" and that's when it really hurts. My broken heart tells me I'd better grow a thick lizard skin of cynicism and mistrust if I'm to survive being a Christian.

So that's my story. We have left, because we're not there on Sunday mornings. I'm tired of crying when I should be loving God. But I'm not ready to formally leave. This is partly because we don't have any place to formally go. But I am also feeling stubborn about it. I am not leaving my church. My church has left me and I'm trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces.


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