The other day I made an announcement on my Facebook page about some exciting things happening in my professional and personal life. The announcement involves the church and a Bible College where I will be doing some teaching next year. A friend of mine later commented that my willingness to 'trust in spiritual institutions gives me hope.'
That statement gave me hope.
I'm not sure why I haven't given up entirely on the church. I spent the better part of the first half of my life drowning in church culture. I was an active prodigal as a teenager. As a younger man I spent time as an altar boy in a small Methodist church. I was baptized. Sanctified. Left home at barely 21 for Bible College. Graduated four years later, ordained, and began preaching at my first church at the ripe age of 25. From there it was all down hill.
My first church ministry, in West Virginia, lasted a little more than a year. I could not come close to managing local Appalachian church politics at that age. I made some critical relationship mistakes and they turned on me faster than vultures on a carcass. I moved back home with my wife and son and took a job in a Burger King as a manager and later as a laborer in a shop my dad managed. It was dirty, filthy, and back-breaking work, but I did it with a gusto unmatched by anyone else in the shop. All the while I attended my home church and became involved to the extent that I could in the ministry there–teaching, preaching occasionally, and singing in the choir.
Then came an opportunity to preach again–in West Virginia. I jumped at the opportunity and the church seemed like a perfect fit: I was close to my family and my wife's family, there was strong leadership, the congregation was fairly good sized, and they had little debt. I could be involved with other preachers in the area who shared my theological background. Once again I made some critical errors in judgment–thinking that the things that mattered most mattered most and misunderstanding the delicate balance between personal relationships and leadership. After about two and half years I was out again. It was a difficult choice, but since I was leaving one church and entering directly into another ministry the time gap wasn't as painful as the first ministry had been–that is, that sense of despair that comes from not knowing where or when or if I would preach again.
Still, there were a lot of hurt feelings on the way out of the church. Some of those relationships have not, to this day, been healed. I have wept over that fact, but this side of the new heavens and new earth, I suspect they will remain broken.
So I went to my third church (technically, my fifth, but I'm not reckoning the two youth ministry positions I held while in Bible College) in the fall of 1999 and there I would remain for nearly 10 years. I had finally found my place to belong and be and become. Immediately upon moving to the area we found a church poised for growth. I met a childhood friend who, along with her husband and sons, lived in the area and didn't have a church. The church had a good base of young people who were eager for change and ready to support the work. The building was paid for. I was ready. Surely this was the providence of God finally leading me to the place he wanted me to be, a place I could be used, a place where I could raise my family.
That was in 1999. Things rolled on from bad to worse as the true colors of the church began to bleed through the veneer. Within the first year, two of our young families had decided to leave and enter the ministry. Within two years, I had no elders. Within three years, due to a large township sewer project, the church was $70,000 in debt. But we pressed on as best we could and God was faithful. He provided an abundance of offerings and we saw some growth in our membership–even though quite a few had come and gone for a variety of reasons. Still, our honeymoon lasted barely a year.
In 2008 my wife and I decided it was time to buy our first house. We wanted to put down roots in the community. Our children were by now getting older and we wanted to think about them being near friends and we also were thinking that our long term plans did not involve living in a 100 year old parsonage for the rest of our lives. We took the plunge. The church supported our decision and adjusted my salary accordingly and voted 100% to approve the budget for the next year.
In 2009, less than a year after we bought our 'dream' house, and nearly 10 years into the ministry, I was informed on a late July Saturday morning that I was being given two choices. The first choice was to resign immediately and receive six week's salary. This was a salary that had been reduced by 20% earlier in the spring. The other option was to refuse to resign, be fired immediately, and receive one week's worth of vacation pay. I was assured by one of the trustees who was used during this time that 'It was nothing personal.'
Here it is 5 years later. I'm no longer in ministry, at least not in the paid, professional sense. I'm no hero, but despite all of this (and there is much more besides), I still belong to the church. I still worship with the church. Soon I will be serving in the church again and soon after that I will be working in a parachurch organization. I gave my friend hope, and yet I'm not sure I even understand why I haven't given up on the church. Still I think I have a hint at why.
It's very simply that of all the horrible experiences I have had in churches, and of all the different ways I have managed to embarrass the church, my home church has never once given up on me. They have invited me back to preach. They have let me teach. They have let me sing. They have supported my family when we were unbelievably in a bad way. And anytime that I have gone into the church building since 1983 people have known me, spoken to me, and loved me. And here I am, five years after the latest debacle, and my home church has welcomed us back yet again.
I realize that the church in general has done a lot of things to screw up the world. I also realize that the church is made up of really horrible people at times–I have lived it. I realize that some Christians have a way of driving people away from the church with their judgmental attitudes, terrible theological ideas, and despicable social commentary, but I also know my own experience is this: the Church has loved me, welcomed me, and done everything they could to support me. I've made a lot of poor choices and I've done my share of embarrassing things, but there is at least one church in the world where I will always be able to show my face and know that someone will love me.
I suppose what is amazing is not so much that I haven't given up on the church as much as that the church hasn't given up on me. And I think by extension this means that neither has Jesus.