Knocked Down, Not Out
Why I am currently a church-less Christian.
Note for you, reader.
What I want every reader to know before we get going is this; I am not happy about being church-less. This is not something I am proud of or would ever encourage. I hope these feelings will be made clear as you continue to read but I feel the need to be explicit about this upfront. A few years ago, it became somewhat popular to have an experience of “deconstructing one’s faith” when things got hard. I was no fan of this trend. Throughout the history of the Church, it was always taught and encouraged to lean further into Christ when life got difficult. When facing challenges, we were to fast, pray, read Holy Scripture, talk with our elders, and our community, and use all of these resources to strengthen our faith and trust that Christ was indeed working for the good of those who love Him and who are called according to his purpose. Not to retreat from Christ, and the Church community, and then whine for all to hear about your “deconstruction” experience in an attempt to win sympathy. Anyway….. the church-less state I find myself in is not something I am proud of, nor is it something I will allow to become permanent. Yet this is where I am.
I also will not be naming the church or pastor that caused so much pain to me here in this piece. The pastor, unfortunately, died quite suddenly a few years ago before I had a chance to speak with him again. I have no ill will towards him, his family, or the church and I think naming them here would be inappropriate.
A Brief Personal History
Before we get to the event which led to my church-less state, I feel it is necessary to do a little table setting to help explain more of who I am, where I am from, and what my relationship with the Church was up until now. I am from the state of Georgia. That is in the Southeastern part of the United States if I’m privileged enough to have any non-Americans reading. Here, there is a church on every corner! Well… not really. Not every single corner. But there are a lot. While there are many denominations, the most prominent one when I was young was that of the Southern Baptists. This is where my church-going foundation was built. I’m doing a little guesswork here, but from the ages of 5-12, my twin brother and I were members of Tanners Baptist Church. Every Sunday morning, and every Wednesday evening, my PawPaw brought us to church. But our time at church did not stop there. Many weekends and summers with PawPaw were spent at the church cutting grass, cleaning, and my brother and I even “helped” my grandfather rebuild the baptismal pool. I was baptized in this church at the age of 7. I don’t remember all the details of the baptism process, but I remember feeling compelled to be baptized. Around the age of 12, we moved to Covington, GA, and would not regularly attend church again until I was 15 when we moved to Barnesville, GA. Upon the invitation of a friend, my brother and I started going to Barnesville First United Methodist Church. Here, we got deeply involved. My brother played drums in the praise band and I worked the soundboard for the contemporary and traditional services. We were regular attendees of youth group activities and even went on several mission trips with the youth. I’m trying to be brief but I must emphasize that Barnesville First United Methodist Church will always have a special place in my heart. This was my first experience of being an outsider, and having a church community welcome my family with open arms. This is where I learned that you can become so close with friends, that they do indeed become family. There are many people who I met here who are still and will always be a part of my life.
After my freshman year of community college, I transferred to Georgia Southern in Statesboro, GA. I’ll admit, the college party lifestyle got the best of me for a little while and regular church attendance was put on hold. Eventually, through an invitation from the same person who invited me to the church in Barnesville, oddly enough, I once again got involved in ministry. This was an introduction to the Assemblies of God denomination as I became a part of their college campus ministry Chi Alpha. I started serving at Chi Alpha by running the soundboard, which lead to helping set up and tear down all the equipment we used to run our weekly Worship Services. I eventually joined Bible study groups and led Bible study groups. From there, I joined the leadership team and began to hold weekly discipleship meetings with different students. After graduation, I joined the staff of Chi Alpha and became a campus missionary.
I LOVED being a part of Chi Alpha. I loved the Bible Studies, the discipleship meetings, and every single bit of work that went into the ministry was something I did out of pure love for the ministry. It was not always easy. College students and the college lifestyle, combined with personal tragedy made certain times in the ministry extremely difficult for me. Yet as I age and have time to reflect on my time as a member of Chi Alpha, the have nothing but love for the time I spent with those people. It was truly the best job I could ever have had and I would have done it for free if that were possible.
As all things do in our fallen world, my time with Chi Alpha did end. But the ending was sweet. I was getting married to the lovely girl I met through Chi Alpha and was moving to Columbus, Ga to be closer to family, get jobs and start a family of our own. My goal at this point was to continue working in ministry and that seemed to be working out perfectly. Upon moving to Columbus, I ran into a friend I knew through Chi Alpha who already lived here. He told me that a local church, which he was a member of, was looking to hire a youth pastor. He encouraged me to apply and so I did. I met with the Pastor, did interviews with the board, and was thrilled to be offered the position and accepted it on the spot! My wife and I were to be married, and the job would be waiting for me when we got back from our honeymoon. I would soon be married and a full-time vocational minister. As far as I was concerned, my life was almost perfect.
A Slow Start
July 15, 2017, I was officially the new Youth Pastor at an Assemblies of God Church. The situation was a little more awkward than one would have hoped, but that was understandable given the circumstances. I only knew one member of the Church. I was getting to know the Pastor and his wife. I was a stranger to the congregation. This didn’t bother me and I understood an outside hire was not ideal, but it seemed to be the best option at the time. However, things quickly became uncomfortable between the church members and I. Remember this was 2017. A very sensitive time politically and socially in the U.S. Donald Trump had caused many to draw hard lines on where they stood as he divided voters in pursuit of becoming President. And a string of violent deaths of our black brothers and sisters at the hands of police put a tension on race relations that was more palpable than it had been in years. Upon casual discussion of these issues with the church staff and congregation, I made It pretty clear that I was not a hardcore Republican and was not a blind follower of President Trump. I also expressed unease about how easy it was for these church-going “Christians” to condemn these black victims and not even consider the fact that maybe the police were too violent and treated them more harshly than their white peers. There seemed to be no empathy or nuance going on here whatsoever. While these things rubbed me the wrong way I reminded myself that I was new to the church and that with more time, I would learn more about how the congregants thought and hoped to learn they were more thoughtful. This seemed to be the best approach. While I was disappointed with the adults, the kids who made up the youth group were fantastic.
The number of youth active in the group fluctuated a bit, but the core of the group was made of 8 kids. All of these children belonged to 3 families who had attended the church for years but because of the range of ages, they hardly interacted with each other. The youngest of the group was 10 and the oldest was 17. I don’t think I need to go to great lengths to point out that the general interests and struggles are dramatically different for a 10-year-old vs those of a 17-year-old. Even just 3 years apart, the issues 13-year-old faces are wildly different from those of a 16-year-old. Ideally, a youth group would be split between middle schoolers and high schoolers to mediate some of those differences. But because of the small size of the group, limited space, and scarce resources, I was to pastor these kids together and figure out how to make it work. It was not ideal, but I was up for the challenge.
We had weekly Bible studies each Wednesday evening and Sunday School every Sunday morning. I was also required to plan at least one outing or fun activity a month. I was new at this and was far from perfect but overall, things were going pretty well until Labor Day weekend was approaching. I had made up my mind to not plan an activity for Labor Day weekend. Here was my thought process: These families spend enough time away from each other. The parents went to work every day while the kids went to school. Then they all had their extracurricular activities, plus weekly church services. So on Labor Day, when they have a three-day weekend, why not let them spend it together as much as they can instead of packing another event in for them to attend? Let’s prioritize the rare extra family time they have. This seemed reasonable to me. Then I was approached by older women in the church. She asked me what I was planning for the youth for Labor Day. I told her I had nothing planned and told her why. She huffed and puffed and said “But my grandson is coming to town!” To which I replied “That’s great! You’ll have a lot of time to spend with him.” She looked at me with a mean scowl and said “You aren’t going to do anything with the youth for Labor Day?!?” With a bit more attitude than was necessary, I said “I am not planning an entire event for your grandson who doesn’t even attend the church. Sorry.” She huffed and puffed some more and as you probably already guess, she went and told the Senior Pastor, my boss, all that was said.
In his very mild manner, the pastor approached me a few hours later to talk about what happened. He asked if I was sure I didn’t want to plan anything for the kids for Labor Day. I explained to him how I saw that extended weekend as a great opportunity for the families to be together and assured him of the plans I already had for September. He then explained that this one particular grandson who was going to be visiting was from sort of a broken family and that the grandmother was trying to make sure he had a good time while he was in town. I then asked, “Wouldn’t his grandparents know how to make sure he has a good time versus me, a random youth pastor he doesn’t know and won’t get to know? The Pastor did not have a response. I then asked him if he understood my reasons for not having an event. He said that he did and even agreed with the sentiment of my decision, but instructed me to always have an activity for the youth for any holiday moving forward. I conceded and agreed.
I decided to look at that experience as a learning opportunity and moved on quickly. And as far as I could tell, the youth were making progress. I had talked with each of them individually and had developed plans with them to help make reading scripture and prayer a daily practice. They were telling me about what they had been reading and talked with me about what they were learning. I was beginning to grow close to them. We had put together several very good events and I was also starting to feel at home among the congregation. Then around the middle of December, just six months into the job, the church board sucker-punched me in the gut.
Without any inclination of a problem, the pastor approached me on a Wednesday afternoon and told me that the board and he decided that “because I had not doubled or tripled the size of the youth group” they were considering letting me go and I had 45 days to “turn the ship around”. I was at a loss for words. I have no recollection of how the conversation ended but I knew at that point my time as a youth pastor would be abruptly ended. Anyone who has worked in ministry for even a few years understands that building a strong community of any size requires years of hard work. I hadn’t done it in six months and that’s it? I’m cut off? How does that make sense?
My mind was racing. I was furious and confused. I haven’t doubled or tripled the size of the group. Is that what this was about? Seriously. The church itself had not doubled or tripled or grown at all in my 6 months there but no one seemed to be talking about replacing the pastor. I don’t get it…
A few days later I spoke to the pastor again to see what I needed to do in the eyes of the board, other than grow, that would help me keep my job. It was said that they needed to see results, yet he would not elaborate on what that meant. He also said they would like to see my plans for the next 6 months. At this point, I was starting to realize the board was only concerned about numbers. I didn’t want to believe that but that’s what it seemed like. Seeing as how I didn’t have the numbers they wanted to I presented them with results I felt were more important. I sent them screenshots of text messages ( with names edited out for privacy) of conversations I had with the kids telling me how their prayer life was better than it had ever been and that they were reading more scripture than before I had started. I gave them written reflections (again with names edited out) about how they felt closer to Christ. I also gave them text messages from a 13-year-old who told me that he had finished reading the book of Romans. After a few texts about how proud I was of him for finishing the book and what he thought of it, I asked him “What book are you going to read next?” To which he replied “1 Corinthians. I think I am going to read all of Paul’s letters.” How amazing! A 13-year-old boy taking it upon himself to start reading Paul’s letters and all it took was a little encouragement from me, his youth pastor! As great as it was to be able to gather these results, the fact that I had to collect this information and present it to the board made me feel…terrible. This all seemed backward. God was at work in this youth group. He was growing their relationships with Him, enriching their prayer life, and nurturing them through Scripture and here I was having to take what was happening and trying to quantify it as if I worked for a corporation. I felt like I was being forced to take credit for work that God had done to save my job. Along with these results, I laid out the curriculum and plans I had developed for the next few months into a neat booklet and presented all the members of the board with what they asked for. It was at this time I finally thought to myself that if this was how it was going to be if I was going to have to jump through hoops to justify my position every time the board decided our numbers were not sufficient, maybe I didn’t want to waste my time for this church anyway. This thought alone made me even more upset. I was supposed to be the permanent youth pastor after a slew of others. That’s what everyone said they wanted. And now the church administration was causing me to question my loyalty to the kids. Despite my best efforts, I was told at the beginning of February that I would be let go on Wednesday, February 15th of 2017, just seven months after I started. I finished my time peacefully as I began looking for other jobs.
Kicked while Down
As a newly married man, I was so embarrassed to be out of work and relying solely on my wife’s income. She never judged me for it and was extremely supportive but still, no man wants to be in that position. After two months of unemployment and little progress, I filed for unemployment benefits. It was only after I sent in the required forms that I realized that because of the church’s non-profit status, they would be paying for my unemployment benefits. When I found that out, I honestly regretted filing for unemployment. I wasn’t trying to get any money out of the church. That wasn’t my goal. But at the same time, we were struggling and that was all I could do to help. And here came the kick. The church appealed my application for unemployment benefits. We then had to schedule a court hearing to determine whether I should receive the benefits or not. The hearing was just a phone call between the pastor, myself, and a judge who would guide the conversation and then determine the outcome. During the hearing, the Pastor proceeded to demean and diminish any work that I had done during my time at the church. He called me lazy and said that the expectation for growth was made clear to me from the beginning. My response was the same as it has been. When I started working at the church, I was never told they expected such explosive growth. As the youth pastor, my concern was for the spiritual development and well-being of the youth. My focus was on making sure they knew how to pray, that they had a routine of reading scripture, and to be there to help guide them in their walk with Christ. If the Pastor expected me to just entertain the youth and put all my energy into growing in numbers, he should have said so in the beginning. Because if he had, I never would have taken the job because that is not why I ever got into ministry. The hearing ended and we were told to look out for an email with the judge's decision in the following week. At this point, I didn’t care what the judge decided. Not only had the pastor fired me 7 months into the job, but now he had told a judge that I was lazy and useless as a minister. The silver lining here is that the judge fell on my side. He determined that the pastor and church board did not properly inform me of their expectations when I was hired and they were now required to pay me for the time I had been unemployed. I won. But this was not a victory I was proud of. I never wanted to go to court against the church. Even though I was proven right in the end, the damage had been done. My flaming desire to be an active member and minister in a church had been extinguished. And just for good measure, the church smothered that flame a bit further when neither the state nor I could get them to pay me the benefits I was owed. Fortunately for them, the same week it was determined I won the appeal, I also landed a new job and was no longer in need of their money. So, instead of going to lengths to get the money, I dropped it and moved on with my life.
After being fired from the church, and the way I was fired, my wife and I decided to take a break from church for a few months and then we would search for a new one. However, the job I had at the time had me working on Sundays and Wednesdays. It was also so physically demanding that my attendance would have meant very little because I probably would be on the edge of sleep the entire time. Eventually, I got a much better job where attending any church would have been easier and then we started having babies. Hauling around a young toddler and a newborn with reflux is just a little overwhelming right now. I know these are all excuses and I need to get my family in church, but life is just very hectic right now. Those are the practical reasons. But I must admit, the scars from what happened, even though that was six years ago now, are fresh enough to give me pause. And I believe I have also changed.
Though I have not attended church, my prayer life and scripture reading habits have remained very strong and even improved since I was let go. I have also been diving into Christian tradition, learning more about the early church and all of this has led me to a couple of conclusions. The main one is that I am done with the Assemblies of God denomination. Oddly enough this has nothing to do with being fired from an AG church. I simply no longer agree with some of the things they teach. The main thing is the subject of speaking tongues. Through my reading and research, I can confidently say the way “speaking in tongues” functions at these churches is simply not biblical. This limits my options because where I live there are a plethora of AG churches. So I know that denomination is out of consideration, and now I am not sure where to go. The Methodist (see great article here) and Presbyterian churches seem to be in disarray. The Baptists have their obvious flaws. I’m not sure I agree with some of the main teachings of Catholicism and though I am very interested in the Orthodox Church, it’s quite far from my house and I’m not sure the rest of my family would be as interested in it as I am.
I feel a desperate need to get my young family into a church and to become active members of the community, I just don’t know where to start. But I do know that I love Christ, I long to be a regular member and active member in a local church. It will happen. I may have been knocked down, but I am not out!
Please pray for me and my family, that we find a local church. If you have any suggestions on how to find a new church, feel free to share them with me.
If you have made it this far, thank you so much for reading. If you enjoyed this, please consider subscribing to my newsletter. Until next time! God Bless!