When my church was hijacked by Karen Sutherland and her clique, I did not immediately wake up to the disaster that was Christianity. It took me many months to process all that had happened to me, and I am still doing so. I did not wake up one morning and realize my grand error. It was a gradual process to "grow wiser", as the Hayek quote in my header advises.
As the cult-like environment of the Church around me receded, I began to see more clearly. I began to realize how abnormal the Church was. That, at least, is the term that my wife and I began to use to describe our experiences in the Church.
This is still a bit hazy, so I have organized this post as a list of thoughts rather than a clearly-composed essay, but here goes:
1. The Church does not sanctify people; it profanes them.
That sentence was hard to write as I struggled to find an antonym for "sanctification", but that is what I saw in the Church.
There's probably some variation, but in the United Methodist Church, in general, there is no sanctification of members. On the contrary: Church is an accountability-free zone for members.
I saw members engage in the most outrageous behavior that would have, had they engaged in it at work, gotten them immediately fired: wild temper tantrums, overt lying, malicious gossip, and flagrant politicking.
But Church is a job that you can't get fired from. Most United Methodist congregations are so desperate for members that they will tolerate any behavior other than serious crimes at Church. Practically speaking, there's no way to be thrown out of Church -- and pastors know that they need every warm body in a pew or on a committee that they can get. A member has to really, really screw up before a pastor decides that it's not worth having him around, and become overtly dangerous before a pastor decides to get rid of him.
And so members often adjust their behavior to fit this environment. If they behaved so destructively at work, they would get fired. If they did so at home, they could lose their families. But at Church, they can relax all of their behavioral inhibitions. They can do as they please because they know that there will be no consequences. In this manner, Church is like a brothel; it is a place where you can do just about anything, so as long as you're willing to pay for it.
[No offense is intended to any prostitutes who may read this blog and be offended by that statement.]
To a much lesser extent, this was my experience with some clergy as well. At the DCOM meeting, members directly refused my attempts at reconciliation and reason. They explicitly denied that they had any obligation to act with justice. A couple even started yelling at me.
Now they would never dream of treating their parishioners this way. After all - those parishioners might leave, and then who would replace them on committee assignments, or worse, the collection plate?
But with a mere candidate -- a person lower than shit on the bottom of a rock -- and behind closed doors, they could do as they wish. They could take out their frustrations with the world on a candidate. After all, what can a candidate do but sit and take the abuse in silence? The conference room thus became an accountability-free zone.
But as I said, I did not see such rampant clergy misbehavior as I did among laity.
In the social environment of the Church, I saw people enabled to sin, rather than encouraged to sanctify. I even began to suspect that some people were attracted to Church membership only because it was a place to be unaccounatble, or a place to gain power over other people.
The Church is supposed to make people better. Instead, I saw it make people worse.
And that's seriously fucked-up.
2. The expectations placed upon candidates are beyond absurd.
So after Karen Sutherland hijacked my church, I faced the DCOM. Upon the advice (read: pressure) of the District Superintendent, they delayed my candidacy a year and instructed me to get counseling. The counselor -- one approved of by the committee -- would write a letter to the DCOM reporting on how well I did in counseling.
So let's sum up: my candidacy would be delayed for a year. During that year, I would be unemployed. Also, the Church told me to get counseling. Which I would have to pay for myself.
Does anyone else see the problem here?
I went through two counselors, the latter of which was fantastic. And both were absolutely shocked when I told them this. They were astonished that I was not only out of a job courtesy of the Church, but that I was expected to pay money for the counseling that they told me to get. And be active in ministry during this time of financial insolvency.
When I saw the shocked expressions of both counselors, I began to realize how absurd was the burden that the Church had placed upon me.
I found work -- eventually. What was so shocking about it was that I was not abused, manipulated, or slandered at the workplace. I was treated with respect and human decency -- in a completely secular workplace with co-workers who had no faith among them beyond a nominal Christianity.
I kept on waiting for the abuse to happen. It never has. Which is not to say that secular workplaces cannot be abusive and destructive -- far from it. But the Church had led me to expect work to be abusive and full of lies and manipulation. I had come to expect such things as normal.
But they were not.
I have learned that I don't have to be abused to have a job, and I sure as hell do not have to be abused by fellow Christians in order to fulfill some mission from God. That was a false idea -- a burden -- that they put upon me. Scriptural passages about persecution by the World on Christians were misinterpreted to excuse the inexcusable behavior of Christian leaders as somehow acceptable, if not praiseworthy, because the Bible spoke of it happening.
And I've shrugged that burden off my shoulders for good.
But back around to the main point of this section: the way that the (United Methodist) Church treats candidates.
For my current job, I was flown out for the interview -- at the expense of the firm -- and interviewed for half a day. They paid for it, and they treated me cordially. It was a challenging interview, but there were no mindgames, as one oft encounters in candidacy interviews.
Two weeks later, I was offered a job. And for a salary that would have probably taken me 20 years as an ordained elder to acquire.
By contrast, the Church: go to seminary for a 96-hour master's degree, write hundreds of pages of candidacy paperwork, go to interviews with committees and power brokers for -- at a bare, theoretical minimum -- 7 years, all of whom will amuse themselves with mind-fucking you.
All at your own expense.
At the end of this process, provided that you do everything right and make no foes whatsoever, you will get a high-stress, high-abuse job that pays $40K a year, and does very little to make the world a better place.
I know -- it's supposed to be a holy calling. But that was certainly not how my DCOM viewed it. These and my deeply corrupt District Superintendent and blatantly dishonest Bishop were the "holy men" who were supposed to be my leaders.
If there was some sort of holy calling in all of this, I don't see it.
And eventually, I woke up from the delusion that it was.
Shoot, let's say that my DS hadn't been a crook, or the Bishop and DCOM weren't willing to sacrifice me to cover for his screw-ups. The UMC candidacy process still would be a seriously fucked-up institution.
(Yes, I say 'fuck' now when appropriate. If it's a sin, it's an utterly insignificant sin in comparison to what which I have been a victim of.)
Here's what they don't tell you in seminary: there's a reason why the UMC makes the ordination process so arduous -- reams of forms to fill out and essays to write, candidate files "accidentally" lost en route to the Conference, faulty instructions "unintentionally" given to candidates -- for years and years on end.
Here's the reason: the UMC wants candidates to drop out of the system. I mean, with fewer and fewer churches to assign pastors to, the UMC has far more candidates than they have churches. So it creates a system that will induce so much irritation, annoyance, and frustration so that many candidates will drop out and the system won't have to deal with them. The rest will be ordained.
And that, ladies and gents, is abnormal. Deeply and profoundly abnormal. This is a very, very bad way to hire personnel at any company. But this is the way of the (United Methodist) Church.
The only thing more abnormal than the candidacy process is the fools who are willing to go through it. And it is only now, months later, that I have begun to realize how foolish I was to sign up.
3. The Church, if it can, will suck the life out of you.
I've written about this before. But it's been even more my mind this weekend.
I've had a three-day weekend because today is a holiday. And it occurred to me that I couldn't remember the last time that I had a three-day weekend. And barely a regular weekend.
That's because, as a Christian, my spare time was always devoured by the Church. Even long before seminary, my evenings and weekends had some sort of Church activity involved. I never stopped working.
Sometimes it was working for God, like visiting a parishioner in jail. But most of time, it was working for the Church. It was just some tedious task that kept up the institution of the Church for its own sake.
This morning, when many Christians would be in church, I sat in my pajamas with my dog in my lap and watched episodes of The Venture Brothers. I wasn't rushing around a church building doing some task. I wasn't reading some vitally important seminary assigned reading on Orthodox trinitarianism.
I wasn't busy. I had my life back again.
Sure, the Church talks about "Sabbath", but doesn't really mean it. I remember getting brochures in the mail from the Conference advertising "retreats" at various camping facilities. But these were really seminars on spiritual topics lasting all fucking day. If I'm going to retreat or have a sabbath, I want a cabin in the woods with a door mat that says "Go Away" in bold letters. Or I want a quite house and a DVD of Hogan's Heroes.
I sure as hell don't want work disguised as play.
I work a 40 hour/week job, have a baby to take care of, work out everyday and still have a bit of seminary, and I still have more time on my hands than I know what to do with. That excess time is what the Church took from me.
The Church will tell, directly or implicitly, to members that they must work a full-time job, take care of their families, do daily devotions, engage in a Bible study, worship every week, and engage in some significant work (not "ministry", but work) at the Church, and give 10% of their income to the Church, or they're not being faithful to God.
I vividly remember one Church member who often skipped Sunday morning services to go visit a friend who was in prison, Sunday being the only non-family visitation day at the prison. For this, she was deemed an uncommitted Christian.
That's fucked up. That's abnormal.
And that is the Church.
Now I've been beating up on the Church a lot lately, and I wish to express that not everyone in Christendom is evil incarnate. Far from it. Many Christian bloggers in particular have been supportive and kind. Many of them have stridently acted as Jesus Christ would.
I even have friends in the Florida Conference who would have stood up for me, but I kept them away so that they would not suffer retaliation for being a friend of mine.
But that doesn't redeem the Church. And it doesn't make the world of the Church less abnormal, less freakish, and less reasonable than it has been.
The Church is too isolated by its internal logic, too unaccountable for its unreasonableness.
The only thing that I can suggest is to get up and leave. That's what I did.
A couple of months ago, I mentioned that I was developing a set of personal laws. One of them, inspired by some profound statement uttered by my father years ago, is this:
You're always a slave to someone -- but try to have as few masters as possible.
I used to have three masters: my employer, the UMC hierarchy, and the seminary. They were my masters because they had the power to financially destroy me at will.
Now the UMC cannot control me. Seminary is almost over, and even if they found some reason to pick a fight with me (say, at the behest of the Bishop), I doubt that they would want to tangle with me having seen the havoc I have unleashed in the Florida Conference.
Soon, I'll be down to one master. One that demands only my work, not my soul, and pays me well for it.
And that, unlike the Church, is normal.
UPDATE: John Meunier writes about this post:
Every DCOM and candidate for ministry should read it. It should be talked about by men and women in positions of authority.
Thank you, John. I'm flattered. John continues:
John’s description of his experience may be one-sided; it is certainly not charitable to those who he feels have wronged him. His report may even be wrong. But tell me you have not heard candidates and young clergy who say things that hint of some of the things he is raging about here.
And if there are problems in the ordination and clergy accountability systems, can there be any doubt that we have deep problems throughout the church?
Can we ask hard and truthful questions about our own polity? Do we?
Is true discernment going on? Is true accountability in place? Do we speak the truth? Is the structure serving the mission of the church?
Do we talk about these questions enough?