The pastor couldn’t have been more than five minutes into his sermon when I starting getting antsy. I leaned over to my husband and whispered, “He needs to be careful with this.” We were visiting a new church, an experience that nearly always puts me on edge. Whenever I attend a worship service for the first time, I come prepared with my mental checklist of liturgical offenses, ready to check each one off, so I can tally them up later and justify why we need to eliminate yet another congregation from our list of possibilities.
I recognize that my attitude about church is downright terrible, and that if I want to participate in a faith community, I have to find a way to deal with this impulse to judge so quickly and fiercely. Up until that point I had been working really hard that morning not to go to that negative place in my mind. If that meant cutting the pastor some slack, then so be it. “Give him a chance,” I said to myself.
The sermon was the first in a series about church membership and was loosely inspired by the story found in both Mark and Matthew in which a man is healed of demons which Jesus casts into a herd of pigs. When the man begs to stay with Jesus, Jesus says that he must go back to his community and share about how God had healed him. The pastor spoke about this as an example of when God calls us not to a new place, but to remain where we are. To stay put.
The pastor spoke about his own affinity for fleeing, how almost like clockwork every four years he gets the itch to move to a new place. Speaking to a congregation of mostly young adults, he talked about the generational shift among millennials who unlike their older counterparts no longer expect to live in a single place for their entire lives, nor to work for a single employer for their entire careers. Millennials, of which I am technically a part, have grown so accustomed to upheaval and transition that fleeing has become our default mechanism for coping with boredom, conflict, and discomfort. When the going gets tough, the millennials get going…out the door.
This trend among young people is particularly alarming for institutions like the church, so it’s no wonder that a pastor preaching a sermon on church membership would focus on it. He talked about how over the last few decades our collective understanding of what it means to be a regular church attendee has shifted from showing up weekly to showing up a few times a year. To commit to a church, the pastor continued, means that we agree to show up and stay put.
Remain where you are. Commit.
Gazing around the packed room I looked at all of the women, men, and children taking in his words. How many of them, I wondered, were in situations of abuse that they are trying to flee? What were these words on the virtue of staying put doing to them? Didn’t the pastor know that this was the first Sunday in October, and that it was Domestic Violence Awareness Month? I prayed a quick prayer that his words wouldn’t cause them harm.
Stay put. Commit.
As he continued talking, I couldn’t help but return to that my mental checklist of typical church behavior that irritates me: a white, privileged man not acknowledging his bias, referencing only biblical men, male scholars, and other male ministers. Check. Check. Check! The more he talked, the more agitated I became. But since the sermon was about staying, I stayed even though his words made me squirm. I listened even though I wanted to disengage completely. I tried my best to give him the benefit of the doubt. I waited patiently for the caveat that would surely come. But it never did.
I’ve grown weary of the notion that church decline is due solely to my generation’s fear of commitment and nomadic tendencies. It’s also that we no longer subscribe to the notion that we ought to preserve the institution for the institution’s sake. As I’ve journeyed with my sisters and brothers who have made the decision to leave the church, I have witnessed their arduous struggle to break free. Sometimes leaving is a moment to be both grieved and celebrated at the same time.
Over the last few weeks I’ve had difficult, important conversations with close friends and colleagues who are in the midst of huge transitions in their lives. In their own ways, each of them has mustered up the strength to move on from their present circumstances, either to seek something they desperately need or to leave behind something that is sucking them dry. None of them is doing so without tremendous courage.
I know that this pastor had every good intention. In many ways his words were a much needed counterbalance to a culture that lures us into a perpetual search for “elsewhere.” But I also know that “for everything there is a season,” and there is both a time to stay and a time to leave. We must honor both.
Katey Zeh, M.Div is a strategist, writer, and educator who inspires intentional communities to create a more just, compassionate world through building connection, sacred truth telling, and striving for the common good. In 2010 Zeh launched the first and only denominationally-sponsored advocacy campaign focused on improving global reproductive health for The United Methodist Church. She has written extensively about global maternal health, family planning, and women’s sacred worth for outlets including Huffington Post, Sojourners, Religion Dispatches, Response magazine, the Good Mother Project, Mothering Matters, the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion, and the United Methodist News Service. Find her on Twitter at @ktzeh or on her website www.kateyzeh.com.