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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…And you will hereafter refer to me as such

You might have heard that I work with teenagers at my church..

If you haven’t, I suggest reading one or all of these before going further:

Chaperoning at the Happiest Place on Earth
Wherein I am either the worst chaperone or the best one
Joining the club
Self-esteem boosters with Sarah

So yeah. I’m one of five adults that helps lead our youth group, and with that title comes power and as Uncle Ben Parker says, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

(Or Stan Lee says it – I took a picture of him from five feet away once, look!)

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Anyway, I’m getting off topic. Sorry. It’s the holidays, I’m delirious.

Most recently, one of the events we did with the youth was the 30-Hour Famine, a fundraising event benefiting World Vision’s hunger relief efforts and as part of it we play a bunch of games, have a lock-in and don’t eat for 30 hours straight.

I took charge of this particular event, at least as far as getting the info and game stuff we needed ordered.

Well. Apparently if you have stuff delivered to a church now it automatically makes you a Rev. Because this is what was on the box.

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I think that means I can perform weddings now, so… add that to the resume.

Went to the chapel..

..but I wasn’t the one who got married. Don’t worry, y’all will know long before that happens someday.

Nah, my most recent wedding is one where I TOOK THE PICTURES. Like, the official pictures. That people buy. And will keep in their house forever.

Yes I’ve done this twice before (most recently last summer for my BFF, Ashley).

But this wedding was for someone I didn’t know personally until she called and asked to meet me to discuss photographing her wedding.

She got my business card from my therapist, of all people, and liked my portfolio and what do ya know, the second weekend in August, I was shooting a special day for a sweet couple in maybe one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen.

I gave them about 500 or so to choose from. Here are a couple less than that.

Self-esteem boosters with Sarah

Welcome to a new feature, here on the ol’ blog, in which you will hear the frequent “compliments” I get from one of the teenagers in the youth group I work with – an eighth-grade girl named Sarah.

She’s been on a roll lately. She’s unfiltered, which I can definitely appreciate because, well, people are amazed at things I say most of the time.

She’ll give me what she calls “compliments.” I wouldn’t go as far to call them that. But I appreciate every single one.

Most recently, I got this one after I started walking up the ramp to the youth room in front of her.

Sarah: “Laura, you’ve got a flat butt.”
Me: “I KNOW.”
Sarah: “No, but like, I mean that in a good way. It’s nice.”

Best Week Ever. Greatest Hits.

I’m just about done telling/showing you about the Jamaica trip. Except for one more thing to tell you about later that’s such a big deal it gets its own post. And here’s a hint: It involves crossing something off my List.

But that’s for another time.

I took almost 1000 pictures that week. Well personally I probably took about 600. I gave my camera to kids/Jordon a whole lot.

I’ve shown you several, and none really do the week or the relationships we have with our friends there any justice.

But these are my absolute favorites from the trip. Please enjoy.
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Best Week Ever. Part 1.

This summer, for the third time in 10 years, I’ve gotten to take a trip to my happy place.

You see, in 2004, our youth group got the chance to visit with our sister church in Mandeville, Jamaica. We gained some awesome friendships (more about that later) and a home away from home that we couldn’t wait to return to.

Fast-forward to 2009, when I went back, this time not as a “youth” but as a “chaperone.” I’m going to go ahead and leave that one in quotes because I still don’t believe I should be in charge of anything ever. But people keep asking me to be…

This exchange – us going to Jamaica and our friends coming here – started because of an amazing youth leader/associate pastor we’ve had for the past 10 years.

Earlier this year, we had the unfortunate and gut-wrenching task of saying goodbye to her as she moved on from the church and myself and two other young adults tried desperately to keep our heads above water and come even the slightest bit close to filling one of the toes of those shoes.

One big thing to contend with in her absence was this exchange program. For the first time, it fell on me to get it all together. Again – why am I in charge of things? I’m not old enough to be. Definitely not mature enough.

Long story short, because of the amazing foundation she’d built and all she’d prepared for us within the church, the trip this summer went off without a hitch.

I went to Jamaica for the third time this summer and have it on good authority that that makes me officially Jamaican.

Along with me this time were six of my youth group babies (aka my high schoolers) and, for part of the week, our pastor.

I’ve got so much to tell you about this trip but you’re 300 words in now so I’ll give you a break until next time. For now, look at just a few of the pictures I took. (Don’t worry you’ll get more later.)

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I filled up my memory card that week, you guys. That’s like 1,000 pictures.

I’m tellin’ ya. Happy place. Stay tuned.

Secret ingredient

So at youth group, we let the youths cook.

Yeah, I really just said “youths” so I could use that gif. Because I love it so much.

We gave them the ingredients but no recipes. However, next time they would like things to be different.

Jonathan, twelfth-grader: “Next time we should get to bring our own ingredients.”
Mark, sixth-grader: “Yeah, I’m bringing my mom.”

Mark has already figured out my approach to cooking. Good on him for learning it at such a young age.

Iron Cheflets

Every Sunday afternoon I spend a couple hours with some pretty awesome teenagers. Allegedly, I am kind of responsible for what they do during that time, which is why last week I had them cook lunch for all of us.

Those who can’t do, teach, right?

No seriously, I can’t cook, but the mission of the day wash’t just to make food for us. We didn’t give them recipes, we just gave them ingredients. And said “Here, make some stuff.”

And we ended up with a delicious lunch, with no help from adults whatsoever.

Here’s a look at how we got there, because that’s way more entertaining than saying “We watched them cook for an hour.” ‘Cause that’s what we did. Chaperoning, y’all. And not a single person got burnt on the oven. I call that a successful day.

I’m going to see about hiring them to make dinners to send over to my house every night. That could work, right?

Pretty sure that name didn’t appear in the Bible but bonus points for creativity

I’ve signed up to help teach four- and five-year-old Sunday School because I’m a glutton for punishment I enjoyed helping Rachel out when she was teaching last year and the one week I’ve attended so far did not disappoint.

The lady that’s doing most of the teaching (I’m there for cat-herding and craft assistance) is the sweetest woman you’ll ever meet and she has a grandson in the class. Her other grandson, Wyatt, apparently came to the class last week, even though he’s 3.

That age is big on repetition so for Sunday School the past two weeks they’ve learned the story about Abraham and Sarah.

Or they’re supposed to.

Because apparently, last week, after the lesson when the teacher asked the class what Abraham’s wife’s name was (after it had been repeated multiple times) Wyatt called out confidently: “LADY GAGA.”

It’s gonna be a fun year…