About a year ago I was driving through Detroit’s east side trying to find an opening to get on the freeway. As I cruised along the service drive, I came upon an incredibly worn-down chair with a cardboard sign underneath it. As I waited out the stoplight, I imaged the stories this chair held. It clearly at one time belonged to a dining room set but somehow made its way perfectly in position to create a moment of pause. Since I was running behind, I snapped a photo and hightailed it to my destination.
I promised myself I would remember this chair and write about it, but I completely forgot in the fog of the day. Yet, here I am a year later thinking about it.
We had a vision night at our church where we started talking about goals. As we brought up our goals, we landed on the focus that we as a church we’re not good at being in community with each other. As a congregation we were tasked to start simply being together. Stay for coffee hour, hangout with each other outside of services and don’t rely on church programs to facilitate this.
Easy enough right?
I’m not so sure.
As we continued in the conversation, I could feel my heart start pounding. I started breathing heavier and hands started to shake. My fight or flight response started to kick into high gear and I realized I was having a physical reaction to past trauma.
Some might think it’s odd to have trauma around creating church community but the rest of us understand it too well.
In fact, I know of hundreds of people spanning across three generations who are coming to terms with their religious trauma. There’s even a term called Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) to describe this phenomenon. What causes it? Honestly, it’s a variety of reasons but I can pinpoint some things that happened to me that bring this out.
There’s naturally occurring community and then there’s manufactured community. It’s a similar concept to cultivating, growing and eating a fresh picked strawberry vs eating a strawberry shaped fruit snack from a bag. One version is created by laboring together and seeing it through because you genuinely want to be there and cultivate relationships. Our other example is something prepackaged, inauthentic and without value. For a while you’ll have satisfaction but there’s no long-term benefit and can cause long term harm. It’s the easy way.
This manufactured community is forced upon churchgoers for the sake of “being the body of Christ”. In turn the unnatural politicking of church bastardizes the relationship and people start pulling “rank”. Every interaction becomes a small group with a leader rather than friends having real relationships. You honest to goodness get sick of seeing each other too. You’re hanging out at church, church events, talking about church when you’re not at church because all your friendships exist at church and every disagreement becomes a church wide gossip column. It’s unhealthy because the only way to walk out on a poor friendship is to walk away from the whole thing. This is only magnified when one person is on staff at the church and the other is a congregant.
Don’t get me wrong I respect the hardships many clergy people go through and sympathize with those who genuinely try to reduce themselves and magnify Christ by doing the right things. I do not respect people who take the side of abusers, manipulators and those who powerful. To me a clergy person should be first among equals. First among equals in that they are devoted to the body of Christ and the building of the church as a priority above those who have not accepted that call. They’re the stewards of the body of Christ. Clergy are not to be revered or treated higher than the congregants.
I have experienced clergy using nepotism to settle disputes between individuals. I have experienced clergy saying that an abusive husband was not an abuser since their wife who is a Muslim was being disobedient. I have been bullied by deacons/pastors’ wives over not giving special treatment to their children when I was the ministry lead. Frankly, I’ve directly been lied about by clergy and their family which resulted in my leaving a church...not once but twice.
If the clergy are not for the people then who is? Who can they go to when hurt? If they’re part of the harm, then how can they be a part of the healing?
Variation in Convictions
Convictions are personal in the church. What you may wrestle with another person might not. What may bring you flourishing might bring destruction to others. We have a responsibility to take each other in mind when living out our lives. This means that despite our theological and lifestyle differences we need to hold each other in grace.
Case in point: we don’t drink. It’s not a religious conviction it’s a medical conviction. I have a kidney transplant and alcoholism runs in the family on both sides. It’s just better we stay away. This is one of the key reasons we were ostracized in a previous community. Everyone would get together to get plastered and not invite us because we don’t drink. All the while they would Snapchat us, text us and send us photos showing them all together. Without us. Every. Single. Weekend.
When I brought it to their attention we were “taking it the wrong way” and they wanted to respect our not drinking. It never stopped and slowly the non-drinking time together stopped so we disengaged. As it turns out they were straight trash talking us out of paranoia we were doing the same. This immaturity ultimately leads to a total breakdown in community and when discussed with the pastor they just said they’re immature and move on but to keep coming. That was a hard pass for us. This was the tip of the iceberg but a practical example.
Now that we’ve highlighted some causes for trauma, I want to turn the attention back to the chair.
This chair could still bear some weight but probably not a lot. At one point it could carry a person I’m sure, but the elements have worn it down. It’s no longer in the pristine condition it once was and probably wouldn’t look good at the table next to its counterparts. This chair does however have character. This chair brings authenticity. It’s being weathered is the very thing that stairs down the face of those who say it doesn’t belong anymore. Ultimately, the best part of a table is that it’s not set by the chairs.
Our table is set by Christ. Our table as Christians does not discount one chair over another. Our table is not the sum of perfection but the humility of God. All are welcome at that table. We are welcome to flourish, commune with and be cared for by the great high priest. We are not forced to be there, not controlled by Christ when we get there, and our differences do not make one dish better than another. If anyone tells you otherwise, they’re wrong and don’t you forget it.