On breaking up with church…

Church. As in the building. Not religion, which is completely different.

However, before I go ANY further, a disclaimer: Everything in this post – like in any others I write – is completely my own opinion and experience. I don’t claim to know everything, especially on this topic, but I know what I feel in my heart, and that’s really what this is about. All of this came about not because of one person or one thing, but a multitude of stuff at once. That said, I don’t want anyone to feel anything is their fault or problem, I just wanna express my feelings on something that’s been an important part of my life, and, for the last couple years, a really challenging part of my life.

I have written and re-written this post in my head about 6 times in the past few months. It never felt right, and I still had all of this guilt wrapped up in it and I couldn’t write it from a place that wasn’t just hurt. Now? I’m a little tiny bit removed from it and need to write. So. Here goes. (Also it’s a long one, so get a cup of coffee or something.)

For 20 years, I went to the same church. We joined when I was about 13, after a few years drifting from where we were previously. I was in the youth group the entire time I was of age to be. I got confirmed in that church and it helped to build on the spiritual foundation that got me where I am today.

I have so many great memories from that church. I met people without whom my life would not be the same. I don’t have many memories of elementary school in terms of church, so I consider SPC to be where I grew up.

It was through this church I got to learn how to serve others. I learned how to practice what was preached. Literally. I was able to expand my view of the world, and more importantly, my heart, into Jamaica and make some lasting relationships I’m so grateful for. This church family got my family through some very hard times, in losing three of my grandparents. I never doubted for once that they were all there for me and for my family.

When I was in college, I didn’t go to church when I was at school. Any breaks or trips home, however, I was at my home church. It felt weird going anywhere else, so I didn’t. When I graduated and moved out of town, I didn’t go to any church in the city where I was living either (well, I did once, and it was nuts so that ended that). It was the same thing. It felt weird going anywhere else. I didn’t belong there. I belonged at SPC.

In 2008, when I moved back to Louisville for a job, my youngest sister was in youth group. I noticed that several of the younger adults who had been youth leaders when I was in had moved on…they had kids of their own now, and couldn’t devote the time they once had. A couple of my friends who had gone through youth group with me were also moving home at that time, having just graduated from college. I floated the idea that maybe we could be youth leaders, and try and give the youth the experiences we’d had at their age, and the friendships we’d had with our leaders.

After a few years, the reins were handed to us when the youth pastor left the church. And the rest – as they say – is history.

You may have seen on this very blog posts from my time as a youth leader. Those relationships with Jamaica I mentioned? I got to go back three more times after that initial trip, all three as a youth leader. And our Jamaican friends came here. And I watched as our respective groups solidified friendships that stretched across the ocean that separates us.

Some of the most redeeming moments in my life – and especially in my faith – came from my time as a youth leader. I am beyond grateful for my time with those youth I was able to lead, and with whom I am lucky enough to still have relationships with. They are some of the very best humans I know.

I did the youth leader thing for 8 years. Eight. Eiiiiiiiiiight. 5+ of which where I was basically in charge of the whole shebang. I hosted fundraisers. I planned lock-ins. I lead games and helped with youth-led worship and variety show-type skits. (One of those friends that started the youth leader thing was with me through it all. And she got her husband involved, and we gradually got other young adult couples in our church to help out as well. I was not a lone wolf here. Just clarifying.)

I knew everyone’s allergies. Food preferences. How to de-escalate the situation if they got mad or upset at something or someone. Who would speak up and who was terrified of any kind of attention. I knew everyone’s moods and tempers and drama like they were my own. When a new young person came to church, I was usually dispatched to go talk to them and tell them to come to youth group, because somehow I was doing something right. I did not take a vacation that wasn’t youth-related for three or so years.

All of this was awesome. Fine. Good. It was what I somehow felt called to do. I hadn’t gone to seminary, I hadn’t studied religion, I was just good with teenagers. They liked me (or at least one of the youth leaders) and kept coming back…to the point where that group grew to the biggest numbers I’d seen since my own days in youth group.

What it also was, was exhausting. Keep in mind that I was doing this in my free time – I had a full-time job (and in more recent years, one I was MISERABLE at), and somewhat of a social life. My vacation time and some weekends were going to youth retreats, ski trips, mission trips, etc.

For a lot of years, this was fine. Until it wasn’t. It became a full-time job. And with having a full-time job already, and a bit of a life, it was a lot. And I unfortunately stopped getting as much out of the experience as I had before.

I was losing God in it all. I was doing all these things for Church. At least, that’s what it felt like. The youth were all still awesome. People were constantly telling me how awesome they were and how awesome I was doing with them, but something had changed.

A little over a year ago, I realized what was happening. It wasn’t about God for me anymore. It was about Church. I was doing a lot for a lot of other people – which is fine, to me that’s what Christianity is about – but it also had stopped making me as happy as it once had. I wasn’t doing it for the right reasons anymore. I was doing it because I had been for so long, and if I didn’t, who would? I was doing it because I wanted to see these kids through graduation and make sure they had a good experience and relationship with the church and their spirituality. But I sat in church on Sundays and didn’t pay attention.

Physically, I was there a lot. Mentally? Rarely. Couldn’t tell you a message that stuck out to me during that time, because I wasn’t paying attention to them. I couldn’t. My mind was racing – and sometimes stressing – about things with the youth: Which ones are here today? Are they staying for PYC? Did the person assigned to make lunch remember to make lunch? Do they remember we have vegetarians and one with a tree nut allergy? What if they order pizza again for like the third week in a row? Will the youth pay attention to the lesson I prepared? Or like the games we came up with? Oh, there’s a new kid in the back – should I go invite them to youth? Should I have a youth invite them to youth? Which one? Has everybody paid for the trip next month? Who still needs to get a passport so they can go to Jamaica?

It was nonstop. And it was stress. Constantly. So I decided to take a break. I stepped back considerably on my responsibilities with the youth and tried to get back to where I used to be – get back to that feeling I’d had before, that I was where I belonged and doing the right things and working on my relationship with God.

I gave it time, and gave myself time. I attended on Sundays as just another worshipper, putting youth-related anxieties out of my mind and trying to focus on the Word and its meaning in my life.

And… um. I couldn’t do it. As time went on, it became more apparent. Whether it was because of the previous 8 years or in spite of it, I no longer felt I had a place in that church. Not Church. Or Religion. But that specific church. 20 years there, and I felt like it wasn’t mine anymore. I felt like there wasn’t anything there for me. And that thought? That was pretty devastating.

Where was I supposed to go? Am I just done with church now? Do I just continue to live in my beliefs and leave that community of faith? That community in general?

The good news is – we had something to talk about in therapy again, as I had started a new job that I loved so no longer had to talk about my old boss and why I thought she hated me and all things good in this world.

My therapist, again, who I love a lot (hi i know you’re reading!), said something during this time that stuck with me. She talked about how I was kind of going through a breakup. I was breaking up with Church. And getting back together with God. I’d done so much work in the past couple of years to get myself mentally and emotionally to a really really good place. It was OK to want to take care of myself in this situation too.

So I did. Started to, anyway. I started 2017 off attending a different church. I went fairly regularly, but gave myself permission to skip when I felt like it. And I was just Laura. Regular ol’ worshipper there in the pew, to listen to the message and take it out into the world and apply it to my life and be reminded why I believe and why my faith is what it is.

I started looking forward to Sundays again, and to being in church and singing and listening to the prayers and the preaching. I came home re-energized and unstressed, and I had nothing to worry about church-related except showing up on time for the service again the next Sunday.

This new church I was attending never pressured me to join, which was good, because the thought of that scared me. Because if I joined over here, it meant that it was really over with the other one. And that’s kinda heavy. There was guilt and more stress and “who am i letting down” by being here instead of there.

Until 2 weeks ago.

The message was part of a series about the book of John. The pastor was saying how a lot of times there’s a word in John that people have translated to mean “believe.” But, in fact, an actual translation of that word really was “trust.” And that changes everything.

He talked about trusting in what’s ahead. Trusting in God and not worrying about it all because he’s there, and he will be no matter what. You just have to let go of what’s holding you down or back and just trust that it’s going to be OK.

And then he finished the sermon and we sang a song and all of the sudden I was crying.

I hadn’t cried this whole time about the church thing. I’d been stressed and anxious, but I hadn’t cried. And now I was. Because I was finally letting go, and trusting all would be OK. I trusted that everyone around me  – and most importantly God – wanted me to be where I felt I belonged, where my faith felt strongest. It would be fine. I would be fine.

I joined that afternoon, and have sense felt a peace about my decisions that lead me there. I still mourn the 20 years I had at SPC. And am still so grateful for all it gave me. It was where I belonged, and needed to be, for a very, very long time.

And now that I’ve gotten this all written out I feel even better – because my heart comes out best through my fingers. In writing.

Whether you go to a church building or have your “church” experience in your own way, or whether you believe in God or not, I hope that you have a chance to find the peace that comes with knowing you’re where you need to be.

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