I’ve compiled a mental list of things I need to do this year, to push me forward on my spiritual journey. The list includes: visiting a Quaker meeting, going to a service at the Unity Center, trying out Catholic mass at the parish my friends attend, going to the Greek Orthodox Church at least once, and occasionally attending sacrament service with my husband at his LDS church. I’m considering trying the Methodist church again, and I for sure plan to continue attending and/or facilitating the Soul Sisters New Moon Circles. Oh, and I need to find out when and where I can attend a Stomp Dance.
If I seem a little all-over-the-map, maybe that’s because I am. I’m searching for religious community again, and it’s a need that feels more and more urgent, since I’ve been a church orphan for over three years by now. Finding a “church home” is tricky, however, because I have developed some pretty strong personal beliefs when it comes to committing to religious community.
The gathering must be inclusive. Not “sure, everyone can come” inclusive, but “why would gender, orientation, religion or race affect your place as part of this community?” inclusive. I want everyone’s differences to be seen as an asset to the community, not as something to get past.
The services cannot be single-pastor led. This is a big one, and it knocks out most of the options. I have long been uncomfortable with the amount of power a career pastor holds over their congregation. I’ve chosen churches based on the pastor who was leading at the time, and grieved as those same churches fall apart when he leaves, or is asked to resign for some reason.
Even more than the power, though, is this question I can’t get past: Why should we function as if the only person in this community carrying the Spirit of God is the pastor? Oh, we may teach that that all believers are filled with the Spirit, and are all capable of speaking for God, but then we function as if the pastor is the only one whose spiritual experiences and journey matter. I’m so over sitting week after week and listening to the same person teaching from their single perspective. I want a gathering where many voices are heard, each coming together with the next to paint a more beautiful picture of God at work in this world and these hearts.
Converting or joining cannot be required. So far, in my life, I’ve been a member of a non-denominational Pentecostal church, an Assembly of God church, a Baptist church and a Disciples of Christ congregation. I resisted complying to the excessive requirements (a 30 hour course on doctrine? Really??) placed on joining the church plant I attended for several years (until it folded) and I’m just really not interested in adding to this list. Membership creates an “us” that can be joined and a “them” who don’t really belong, no matter how active they are or how long they’ve been attending. This artificial separation is another thing I’m very over.
It needs to be established. The two churches which have truly been home to me in the last 15 years were both new. One was a church plant, the other an “alternative service” supported by a much larger church but meeting in a downtown art gallery. In both cases, the church folded when the money ran out. Attendance didn’t grow as fast as expected, or the pastor decided he was better as an entrepreneur than a pastor, or the small attendance meant that the “value per dollar” wasn’t high enough. Whatever the reasons, losing your church because someone decides it isn’t important enough to fund is devastating. Losing your church family because no one is willing to pick up the slack and keep meeting without being paid is to experience a whole series of deaths simultaneously. All this combined is an experience I’d rather avoid having again, thank you.
I need to be seen as an asset. My husband’s congregation welcomes me to sacrament service every time I attend with him. They are wonderful people who care about us, and check in when I’m not there. We share meals with them, have game nights together, and count a number of them among our good friends. They are also Mormons, and I just don’t expect to ever believe in Joseph Smith the way they do. Because I don’t believe (and because I’m done with joining churches, as I said), I will never be a member. This means that every time I speak up in Sunday school, or women’s group, I can feel every word I say being filtered through the “non-member speaking” lens. (My husband does not have this lens. It’s one of the reasons we’re married.) I’ll never be asked to teach a young women’s group, or lead a prayer. While I understand the function of this structure, I also cannot feel at home in a community which sees me as a beloved friend in need of conversion, rather than a follower of Christ who has something to contribute.
In other church contexts, the struggle is a bit different. I mean, let’s face it. I’m a little…unique. I carry a story, and a perspective that is at least somewhat nontraditional. What I seek is a community where that me-ness is seen as it is—something that can bring beauty and perspective to a religious community, if they want it. I’m also pretty doggone good at teaching Sunday School. I’m just saying.
As I sit with this list, I have to wonder why I’m trying again. It feels like so much work, this searching for a religious community. It’s like dating, really. Putting yourself out there after a particularly hard break up, with a new list of things you now know are important that you didn’t realize before. You thought it was fine that he played video games for hours a day and wouldn’t miss a football game. It wasn’t. Now you know better, know yourself better, and are ready to try again.
Why do I keep searching for a religious community where I fit? For the same reason you keep dating. I want someone to travel this crazy journey with, someone to “do faith” with, to actually put what I believe into practice by living it in community. We weren’t meant to be alone. We are a tribal species. I need my tribe.