“Why do you hang in there with your denomination? I feel like I’ve lost so much staying, and I’m angry.” —H.
I hear you, H.
I read a response to one of the latest stories of church member exclusion a few weeks ago. It included this line: “We each need to journey as far as our faith will carry us, even to disfellowship status.”
Having your membership taken away isn’t the only way to separate from a denomination. Sometimes people and groups grow differently. Sometimes, as you did, we discover a new pool from the one we grew up swimming in and we jump into the new pool neck-deep: conversion and de-conversion are both real phenomena, and they can both involve a lot of self-reflection, stress, and disruption.
When I get questions about leaving or staying—and I get them a lot—I notice that many of us frame separating as the worst possible outcome. I understand the hook in that framing, but what if separation isn’t always the worst thing that could happen? What if some level of separating frees us to come together again at a different level than surface identity or group membership? Perhaps we already do this at a small scale.
Not everyone is aligned with their chosen faith community at every single level from personal identity to shared practices or from organizational policy to public rhetoric. Sometimes people who share core values with an organization are completely repelled by the outer vehicle that those values express through.
We can vary from each other and still relate with respect and in solidarity from however close or far we find fits best at a given time. Relationship can be dynamic, and maybe it already is; we just don’t have a common language to describe it in our culture. Our culture says we’re either in or out; you’re either for me or against me. Ultimately, however, I don’t think gaining, having, or dropping voting membership status is the real point here.
So here’s a different way to look at this. If a faith community is like a train, then you need to know where you are going, you need to know when to get on, when to get off, how to do both safely, and why it is not necessary to derail the train in order to get to your destination.
If a faith community is like a family, then you need to know who you are, what structures your family set up for you before you were born, which elements in those structures are plastic and which are fixed, how these structures advantage and disadvantage you, how you can uniquely and healthily contribute to that family, and how you can maximize its advantages for yourself while transmuting the disadvantages it’s bundled with.
I don’t define my faith of origin as a millstone around my neck: there are many ways in which it set me up for a low-drama adult life and I’m grateful for that. I’m sure it inclined me to education and holism in ways I don’t think I would’ve developed without it. It also ended my athletic career much earlier than it would’ve ended otherwise: I couldn’t leap into basketball training I was invited to because the scheduling clashed with church.
So, yes, affiliating with this specific denomination foreclosed some options for me. Maybe in a parallel universe I was never Adventist but still went to Texas Tech and became that world’s Sheryl Swoopes.
West Churchman was a systems scientist who worked in the first half of the 20th Century just as traditional social systems began to break down. Once asked about progress, he wrote this:
“The individuation process, as the way of development and maturation of the psyche, does not follow a straight line, nor does it always lead onwards and upwards. The course it follows is rather ‘stadial,’ consisting of progress and regress, flux and stagnation in alternating sequence. Only when we glance back over a long stretch of the way can we notice the development. If we wish to mark out the way somehow or other, it can equally well be considered a ‘spiral,’ the same problems and motifs occurring again and again on different levels.”
So figure out what’s true in your case. Where are you going? What’s the nature of your family? What if your relationship to your faith group is less about the mechanics of membership and more about intentionally adopting a space where you can hone your unique contributions?
What if the group is at first an incubator and then later on a practice zone for you to train in? And what if you are meant to outgrow your early coaches and training gear; what if you also find other spaces to grow in, contribute to, and learn from?
Must all your spaces be mutually exclusive?
Take some time this month to reflect on what your denomination has been for you historically. And then take twice as much time to imagine—wildly—how you might engage that space differently.
My bet is that there are many more possible answers for you than Participate Begrudgingly or Dump The Lot. And I’m looking forward to hearing more from you as you shape those possibilities and choose the ones you want to live in.