By Becky Pamer
“I finally understand people who give up on church.” My friend Dee was one of the last people I expected to utter those words. Although she had suffered her share of misunderstandings and wounding criticisms during her decades of ministry in the church, she continued to advocate church attendance and participation. Now her pastor’s hurtful treatment had left her dazed and disheartened. She didn’t seem to have the motivation to bounce back. Sometimes I think that church involvement should come with a warning label: “Caution: May lead to disappointment, grief, and loss of appetite for church life.”
A Tale of Two Churches
I first grew disillusioned with church 17 years ago when the small church where my husband and I were youth directors blew apart due to an irreconcilable conflict between our pastors – one of whom was my dad. Through two years of church-wide turmoil, I spent myself providing moral support to my parents while carrying a full ministry load. By the time the dust settled, many of our friends had moved to other churches, our congregation was a battle-weary shell of its former self, and I was wrung out emotionally and spiritually. Our recovery process was slow and frustrating, but my husband and I assured ourselves that the worst troubles were over.
Then it happened again.
This time, the leadership crisis was even more devastating. Until then, my husband and I had never considered leaving the church in which we had both grown up. But after a long season of prayer, we sensed God directing us to move on.
To our relief, we quickly found a church that seemed the perfect fit. Within months we were both active in leadership. A few years later, I was hired to assist our women’s ministry director. I had found my niche. Life was good. Surely our church troubles were history.
Then it happened again.
During my fourth year as a ministry assistant, the church leaders made a series of decisions that shocked me. Doubts and deep sorrow invaded my heart as I observed how those decisions hurt others, including several of my close friends. Church-related woes could hit anywhere, seemingly without warning. That knowledge flattened my enthusiasm for church and ministry, and left me feeling vulnerable. Weekend worship services became exercises in containing my emotions. My job became a list of chores I made myself do. Eventually, the situation grew so painful that I resigned.
For the first time in my life, I felt like giving up on church. Why set myself up for more heartache? I reasoned. I wanted to quit.
Deep down, though, I longed for a compelling reason not to quit – something beyond grit-my-teeth obedience to Heb. 10:25: “Let us not give up meeting together.” But how could I find the motivation to stay involved in church after such negative experiences?
I haven’t found any easy answers, but I can share how God has helped me weather the storms of disillusionment.
What Good Will Come
Jesus shows by example how to develop a positive perspective on pain. The writer of Hebrews reminds me to “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that [I] will not grow weary and lose heart” (12:3). By focusing on “the joy set before him” (v. 2), Jesus walked through worse trials than I–or anyone–will ever encounter. Taking my cues from Him, I’m learning to focus on the reward of becoming stronger and more mature as a result of persevering through the difficult situations I’ve encountered at church. Through them, God is training me in holiness; the pain they cause will eventually produce “a harvest of righteousness and peace” (v. 11).
For example, God used the debilitating depression I experienced during the first leadership crisis to tear down my critical tendencies. Before, I often disparaged people who skipped Sunday services or Bible study. I had little tolerance for those who didn’t do their share of cookie baking, kitchen cleanup, or nursery duty.
Then depression drained my energy and fogged my brain. Most days, I could barely get my kids to school and make dinner. The smallest ministry obligation felt overwhelming. Even simple tasks, such as bringing snacks for an upcoming event, seized me with panic.
Embarrassed by my weakness, I began to skip church as often as I could. I could finally sympathize with people who limited their church involvement and I cringed at how quickly I had judged them. God was using adversity to soften my heart and strengthen my character.
A Time to Grieve
Strengthening my character does not mean dismissing the pain I experience. Disillusionment is all about loss, and taking time to grieve what has been lost is critical to recovery. As a result of church crises, I lost friends when we ended up in different congregations. I lost trust in leaders I once admired and respected. I lost the security of feeling safe at church. And I lost the enjoyment of church attendance and ministry. My safe little world was changed forever. No wonder I felt depressed.
Realizing my depression was grief-based gave me hope that I would get better, but my progress was fraught with setbacks. Too often, I depleted my low reserves doing church work I wasn’t ready to do. If I felt emotionally stable for a few weeks, I would assume I was on the mend and sign up to help with some church event. As the event drew near, I would panic. But instead of humbly begging off, I would wear myself out fulfilling my premature commitment.
I felt guilty taking extended time off from ministry to heal from church-related woes, especially when I compared my pain with that of others. But I’ve learned that it’s necessary. Spiritual and emotional wounds, like physical injuries, needn’t be life-threatening to warrant treatment; disillusionment with church is a legitimate ailment, requiring adequate rest and recovery time.
Committing to Forgive
As I worked through the hurt and loss that accompanied each church conflict, I uncovered anger and resentment toward those whose actions contributed to my grief. The teaching in Col. 3:13 used to make me flinch: “…forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” How could God expect me to forgive, regardless of the situation? I wondered. What if I just can’t do it?
Finally I tried obeying Him. At the suggestion of a wise counselor, I made a list of everyone I felt had wronged me and what they had done. I took that list to God, stating every name and grievance, and I committed to forgive each individual. My decision to forgive was final, but accomplishing it has taken time.
Some grudges rear their ugly heads again and again. When they do, I pray for the grace to keep forgiving, and I cling to God’s promise that “…he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Phil. 1:6). Not long ago, I realized that I still reacted sourly whenever someone mentioned an individual I thought I had forgiven years ago. As I prayed for help, God allowed me to see the offender in a more positive light, and I was able to release the remnant of resentment.
Forgiving those who have hurt us isn’t easy. But God insists that we forgive completely so that we will not be hindered from running “the race marked out for us” (Heb. 12:1). He enables us to forgive, working in us “to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13). And when our motivation flags, He offers inspiration in the example of Jesus, who forgave His torturers while suffering the greatest injustice ever perpetrated.
In the Pew Again
Eventually, it came time to reengage with a body of believers. In each situation, my husband and I prayed long and hard to know how and where. As we sought God’s direction for our most recent situation, I had to remind myself that abandoning the fellowship of believers is not an option. God designed me–and every believer–to participate in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-25). He longs for His family to stay connected so that we can encourage each other (Heb. 10:25).
Isolating ourselves from other believers is dangerous. The Apostle Paul cautions, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Like a lion stalking a heard, separating out a young or weak animal, then going in for the kill. Satan tries to lure us away from other believers so that he can attack us in our discouraged state.
Convinced that I needed to stay connected to the church, I committed to attend weekly worship services. To help me cope with the fresh feelings of grief or discomfort going to church sometimes brought, I allowed myself to arrive late, leave early, buy coffee on the way, jot notes in a journal, visit other churches occasionally, or even walk out if I needed to.
I’m learning to take each step toward ministry involvement carefully, in response to God’s leading. Starting over slowly has afforded an opportunity for me to rethink my passions, dreams, and goals.
Prepared for Imperfection
As a disillusioned churchgoer, I’ve struggled to figure out what I can expect from church and its leaders. The instructions in Heb. 12:14 guide me in balancing high expectations with fault-filled reality: “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy.” I, along with members of my congregation, must commit to maintaining healthy, peaceful relationships with others. This makes it easier to remain flexible about common areas of conflict, such as music, programming, preaching style–even leaders’ decisions. At the same time, I should expect my leaders to exemplify biblical standards of integrity and grace and to acknowledge their mistakes humbly.
I’ve also learned what not to expect from church. In the past, my whole life–family, friendships, social activities, vacations, even employment–revolved around the church. As a result, church crisis impacted every aspect of my life, and leaving a church meant losing my entire support system. Church is still an important part of my life, but it’s no longer the center of every friendship or endeavor. I interact more with the world around me and pursue relationships outside of, as well as within, my church.
Most important, I’ve learned not to put too much stock in human institutions or leaders, who will inevitably let me down. Psalm 118:8 reminds me, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.”
In Matt. 11:28, Jesus invites, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Even if more church conflicts and disillusionment hit, Jesus’ constant, unconditional friendship will provide the comfort and courage I need to face the challenges that come. He is my ultimate security, no matter what happens in my church.