An Amputation

I’m struggling with my beliefs on the church.

Don’t get me wrong of course. I’m still very faithful to my God. That has never been in question, to be honest. My general systematic framework of belief is still there.

But that ecclesiology bit… always needed some work.

Part of that is my anthropology, a concept I’ve been thinking about a great deal–so much so that I’m centering my dissertation around the question, or so my current thinking is going. What I believe about humanity has severely fluctuated over time. I used to reject the concept of total depravity of humanity. I desperately wanted to believe in the inherent goodness of people, and their capacity to do good in the world.

That belief is shaken. The reason for that lies in the church.

I’m going to lay some things out there for you, dear reader, that I have been sitting on for a while, partly because it’s not general knowledge, and it’s fairly sensitive. I’m going to start talking about how I got to be in the place where I am now. No longer a pastor. No longer in any sort of traditional ministry. And, for the time being, no longer a part of any church organization.

Believe me when I say that this is not a place I thought I would ever have thought that I would have been in the past. I was a die-hard for the United Methodist church. I mean, dyed in the wool, born and bred in the Methodist mold. Born in a Methodist hospital, raised in a Methodist household. It wasn’t for lack of nurture that I came to my faith tradition. Oh, I dabbled in other denominations–I was, as many of you know, Presbyterian in college–but my home remained with Wesley and those peculiar people of his.

I had known for years that I was called to ministry in some capacity. I doubled down to the point that I believed that I was called to United Methodist ordination as an elder. I went to a United Methodist school of theology. I did the courses, got the Master’s degree. I went through everything, firm in my belief that I was called to the office of elder.

Reality tends towards a praxis of rude awakening.

I was assigned as an associate pastor to a congregation that wanted an associate, but had a senior pastor who desperately did not want one at all. I had no clear direction, and what drive I had either was thwarted by my shattered preconceptions of what a senior pastor would and should be, and the loneliness of being sent to somewhere that was so far from my peers. I had hoped to be an associate somewhere in Houston, and craved the mentoring of a caring senior pastor, but got neither. Disappointed, but not defeated, I did my best in that appointment. I made my share of mistakes, but I’m proud of what I attempted to do there. Sadly, my attempts were not met with the results I expected.

A year and a half into my first appointment, I was given the ultimatum: mess up again, and you are out.

I was given very little confidence by my superiors. I was told that “many are called, few are chosen.” I was even told by a superior that I straight up was not actually called to be a pastor.

That hurt. A lot. A deep scar that I still carry.

I was moved to a different location. 2 churches who needed a senior pastor. Never mind that I had been given little instruction in how to manage churches as a senior pastor, mind you. Forget that I still very much craved a good mentor, and a metropolitan locale. The church told me I was to go elsewhere, and so I did, good little believer in the system that I was.

I floundered. I struggled. My health was in decline, my depression and anxiety worsened. I was surrounded by very few people of my own age or mentality. I felt isolated, spiritually, mentally, and physically.

The wound was deepening. The separation was widening.

For three years, I struggled. With some good mentoring by a few kind, caring pastors that I grew to be friends with, I believed I improved as a pastor. I honed my edge. I got better as a pastor. I got better at interpersonal relations, got more outgoing, did more things in the community. I thought I was making progress.

I was told it wasn’t enough.

Perhaps not outright, but to my ears, I was told that -I- wasn’t enough.

My superiors were resolute. They saw neither the gifts nor the graces for ordained ministry in the office of the elder. They saw me struggling in my context. They saw my mistakes as irreconcilable. Funny that, being church people, they saw me as not worth saving in this vocation, despite my insistence on my calling, despite my progress. My sins were too great. My failures too catastrophic. My fruits an unworthy offering. With a kind eye, they denied me the goal I had been seeking for ten years. They gave me a choice: give up, or be denied by the board of ministry officially.

I was too tired. I was too broken. My spirit was too wounded.

I gave up, and was amputated from my dream. A dream I had worked for ten years to achieve. A dream that, in part because of the hand that fate had dealt me, and in part because I had mismanaged the hand sufficiently, I could no longer see to fruition.

It’s been a rough few months, but I’m learning to cope with the grief of it all. Yes, it is grief. I’ve done reading on moving on. I’ve prayed quite a bit. But going back to school has hammered home the fact that, to be honest, I have no church home. My church rejected my call to ministry.

I do harbor resentment to the church, resentment that will probably take years to deal with in my conversations with God. I’m in a better place, both physically and emotionally. The California air and culture agree with me better than Texas did, but that doesn’t quite make it home. I’m not sure if I have a home, outside of my family. The United Methodist church has certainly not felt like home to me since my departure from ministry. That the church I was looking forward to joining as an elder, and changing from the inside, is on the brink of schism brings me no joy. Profound sadness has permeated my thoughts on the church, and its ongoing troubles only exacerbate that sadness.

My home denomination may not exist much longer, but whatever happens to it, it will happen with me as an outsider. Even if I found a United Methodist church to join with, it won’t ever truly feel like home, not after the rejection I’ve felt and experienced.

I feel that my ecclesiology has been amputated, and I was the one who had to cut the final strands. But amputation can be a good thing. It can salvage a limb that had gone gangrenous, or cancerous. It can even leave opportunity for replacement that, while maybe not ever organic, can still function similarly, with some determination and adjustments. It won’t ever be the same though. It can’t remain the same.

I can’t remain the same, and I can’t mourn forever.

I guess I’m grieving still, for the foreseeable future. I’m going to have to work on my beliefs on the church, and it may not be as strong as it once was.

But it will be healthier.

Here’s to health.

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About grantimusmax

Grant Barnes, aka Grantimus Maximus, aka The Nerdcore Theologian. Currently, he is a PhD Candidate at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California. He is a graduate of Perkins School of Theology with a Masters Degree in Divinity. He graduated from Texas State University Cum Laude with a Bachelor's degree in English, minor in History. He watches way too many movies, reads too many books, listens to too much music, and plays too many video games to ever join the mundane reality people claim is the "Real World." He rejects your reality, and replaces it with a vision of what could be, a better one, shaped by his love for God.
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