When Leaving Hurts
By J. LeBron McBride, PhD*
I entered the Adventist Church at the age of twenty-two after a close friendship with a professor who was a SDA and taught at a state college. I spent eleven years in the church which included a difficult time of transitioning out of it. This article is an overview of my personal crisis of denominational identity. It was a spiritual crisis of horrific magnitude, but it became an opportunity for growth in understanding others, church, religious dynamics, and myself. It is now one of those events that I would never want to repeat, but one that I would not want to remove from my history.
It was exciting. It was stimulating. This newfound spiritual belief system blew like fresh rain through spring leaves in the convolutions of my mind. It gave me structure in the midst of my grasping young adulthood. I joined the church, became zealous for the cause, and soon packed my bags, and off to seminary I went to prepare for the ministry. For me, the sun rose and set on my new denomination.
Then slowly, gradually, there appeared thread size cracks, then gaping holes in this belief system I once accepted so readily. At first it was easy to deny the cracks existed, those pointing to the cracks had to be wrong. Slowly the staggering options before me began to confront me like a two-by-four placed forcefully between my eyes. I could continue my theological sidestepping or I could admit to my new understanding. As the theological storm gathered overhead, the castle of theological security I had built began to deteriorate with increasing rapidity. I was exposed to an increasing crisis of denominational identity. The internal turmoil was horrific.
I watched as lines of battle were drawn. Labels such as conservative and liberal made it easier to identify who was on each side. But these labels were also confusing because there was no consensus about what they really meant. Slowly but surely loyalty to the denomination was questioned. If you were in the camp attempting to hang on to the status quo, you were attacked for not understanding the real historical roots of the church. If you were for change, you were accused of being a radical and not a true member of the church. Shortly, the debate escalated far beyond words to resignations and firings. Many who had given their entire lives to the work of the church were suddenly ostracized and without church employment.
Theological navel gazing became the favorite pastime. I found myself caught up in hairsplitting discussions and readings. The medieval theologians who debated over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin had nothing on our attention to trivia. There was a certain enticement, sometimes an addiction, in the pursuit of the answers to the theological controversy. As I now reflect upon it, this was largely unproductive.
The fact is, I gradually found myself out of harmony with the beliefs of my denomination. My love affair with it kept me hanging on for several years, but the relationship could no longer be sustained. For a number of years, I sought to affirm the things that I could and keep a low profile on the issues that I could not accept or that would create too much controversy. But after awhile this no longer seemed entirely ethical. I watched as my more outspoken friends got fired or were moved to an ecclesiastical Siberia. The spiritual crisis grew inside me until I at last decided to resign and change to another denomination. Later I wrote the following to a friend:
To put my experience in the form of a metaphor: As you know, I didn’t move when a little water got into the ship. When the storm clouds gathered overhead, many were leaving then and I too was tempted, but I hung on. I didn’t leave when the storm hit full force. More left then and I grew more and more frustrated. I attempted to repair where I could even though at times I too wanted to jump. However, when things got back to normal and I realized no preparations were being made for the coming of another storm, that all was back to the same old rock-a-long status quo, and nothing, not even the storm had awakened the captains and most of the sailors, I finally decided it was time to jump ship!
It was a decision made slowly and prayerfully. It was a decision I have never regretted making. However, it was a painful decision because many friends and church members felt betrayed and had no understanding of what I was doing. My association with persons from my seminary and my ministerial friends would never be the same again. There was loss involved because of my personal life investment in the denomination. I had to grieve, but the healing has come and I am happy with my decision.
Since those times I have come to realize that what happened to me in my small denomination is only a microcosm of a similar struggle that has occurred and is occurring in many denominations. It has characterized religious groups no matter where one looks in history or where one looks on the face of the globe. In fact, the New Testament rings of controversy. It reminds me of the short poem someone wrote: “To dwell above with saints we love, oh, that will be glory! To dwell below with saints we know, oh, that’s another story!” Part of the difficulty has to do I suppose with the smorgasbord of personalities we have in our churches, part from our temptation to exclude those who disagree with us due to our own insecurities, part from the way institutions tend to allow the hierarchical assumptions and structures to become rigidified, part from the generalization of theological “expertise,” and on and on we could go. Let’s face it, none of us and no church has a monopoly on becoming unbalanced.
Considerations When In A Denominational Crisis
From my experience and my perspective, I would like to share some reflections on important considerations for those confronted by a personal crisis of denominational identity:
In the heat of controversy it can be a temptation to react too quickly and then later question if one did the right thing. It is best to allow time for processing and so as to have as few regrets as possible. Unless conscience is being compromised it is usually best to move slowly. There isn’t necessarily any merit in being the first casualty in a theological turkey shoot. It is also important not to reject everything because some parts are bad; all religious movements have their share of problems. It is important to assess the depth of the conflict and the potential adjustment one can make to it.
I found it very helpful to seek out trusted persons of greater experience and discuss the issues with them. Many had the wisdom to give me a deeper insight to the issues at hand. They also helped me distinguish between the trivial and the essential. There was something about this contact with those of more experience that was a stabilizing influence in a sea of uncertainty.
Large institutions normally change slowly if at all. Therefore, it may well be that denominations have to be left behind for ones that are more in harmony with a person’s developing beliefs. On the other hand, there may be a place for you that will take you out of the theological battles (at least for awhile), but that will still allow continued personal study and a challenging ministry.
In most theological controversies there are extremes on both sides of the issues. It is easy to narrow our focus in the heat of battle and lose sight of the larger teachings of the gospel. We can lose sight of the monumental teachings such as grace, gospel freedom, and love to God and humankind (even our theological enemies). We can suffer from theological myopia, blind to the larger issues. Charles Simeon wrote in 1825: “The truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme, but in both extremes.” This is not bad counsel to ponder in the midst of extremes. The tendency is to limit our focus to one extreme, believing we have all the “truth.” Actually, in such circumstances we need a theological wide-angle lens and a wide-angle heart, which takes in even those with whom we disagree.
There is disappointment when our belief system is challenged, changed, or possibly even collapsed. Shifting something that is or has been so important to us, and an integral or intrinsic part of our existence cannot be done without an experience of loss. We may find ourselves with spiritual numbness, with confusion, with fear, with sadness, with anger to name a few reactions. There may be a questioning of more fundamental doctrines in the process. It is important that we work through this rather than stifle the process.
We cannot maintain the intensity of denominational controversy forever or we will most likely become negative persons. At some point we must stop focusing on the negative and controversial and move on with our lives. It may necessitate a change of career position or denomination, but we must move on. The saddest persons I witness in this area are those who have hung on to controversy so long that they are stuck in destructive thought patterns. A life should not be based on negatives. Some controversy can be stimulating and growth producing, but continued feeding on such can leave us spiritual skeletons.
My own experience with a personal crisis of denominational identity was a grueling process, yet it was also a process of my growing spiritual development. I am changed as a result. It has broadened my perspective of the church and of the Christian community. I am not so confident that I have all the doctrinal answers as I once was, but there is a certain freedom in realizing that no person and no denomination has all the answers. We are all spiritual pilgrims searching and struggling.
No denomination is perfect. However, I finally came to the conclusion that it is important to belong to a denomination where my spiritual journey is not stifled, but enhanced. The jungle of continual controversy and antagonism has given way to opportunities for my spiritual renewal.
*Forms of this article appeared in the books Disappointment with the Church © Copyright 2000 by J. LeBron McBride, Ph.D. and Spiritual Crisis: Surviving Trauma To The Soul © Copyright 1998. Used by permission of LeBron McBride, PhD and Haworth Press.