Monday, September 24, 2007

My Deconversion Story – In Which we Learn Loose Lips Sink Ships

My father was a deacon and my mother a deaconess for as long as I can remember. They were on every committee imaginable. One of my friends was the pastor’s son (whose mother was a deaconess) and my other friend also had parents in the same role as mine. In addition, our parents were friends, which meant that we would not only see each other at church (and school) but would often get together socially on the weekend.

Basically, this means that every piece of church news or gossip was available to us. There was nothing going on that didn’t pass through one or more of the three families. We suspected who was unhappy with the current board. Who wouldn’t run again as a deacon. Who was having marriage troubles.

Some of it was obvious. On Sunday we would all stay after church with our parents in some sort of committee meeting, and we would see “Mr. Bob” staying as well. And then “Mr. Bob” would stop attending our church. Even a child could add that up. Or some weekday evening the parents would get together, unexpectedly, and meet in our basement. No kids allowed. We knew we would only have to keep our ears and eyes open for the next few weeks, and the situation would betray itself.

Every child in the world is aware that the quieter your parents talk, the louder you listen. All the while pretending to be completely immersed in some other distraction and you are in no way paying attention to anything those parents are saying!

For a young boy growing up, this exposure to the upper-workings of the church revealed two things:

a) Churches are made up of people who are sometimes petty, spiteful, vengeful, and untrustworthy; and
b) Such information is pretty boring for a young boy.

This was adult gossip and politics. While we knew it was our duty as a child to learn as many secrets about our parents and their activities as possible—as we learned them, they turned out to be things that adults cared about. Very uninteresting to someone who wanted to build forts, or climb trees, or play sports. We didn’t care whether “Mr. Bob” was attending or not. It was far more enticing to use the meeting for an opportunity to run (unsupervised) in the sanctuary than to watch who was having problems with whom.

Growing up, the politics and machinations of the church was something that was perpetually evident, but left no impact on me. I realized that people sinned. That people fought. That sometimes people helped each other, and sometimes people hurt each other. Unwittingly, my parents were teaching me that Christians are neither glorious saints, nor terrible sinners. Someone leaving the church was as much a part of life as a newcomer being welcomed. It just…was.

We remained untouched by these sorts of politics. My family was not fighting with another. We were not avoiding sitting next to certain people at church. We seemed immune.

We were not.

The Baptist school I attended in 8th grade was independent. That means it was not under one particular church, but was run by a school board. In the late 70’s a scare was promulgating through the Christian community that independent Christian schools (such as ours) would lose their non-profit status unless they became associated with a Church. One of yet another scares of Government going after Christians. (False again, as it turns out.)

In our area there was only one church financially, practically and territorially feasible to assume this role. (Not ours.) At the end of my 8th grade school year, the board held a meeting to make the momentous decision—do they cease independence, and become a school under one church? My parents had many friends in this church and there were some rumblings as to problems with the pastor. Pastor Pete. People were concerned and issues were not being addressed.

Due to these concerns, as well as not quite buying the scare, my father (on the board) voted against placing the school under the church. The vote was 8-1 in favor. Guess who was odd man out? Pastor Pete (also on the board, and obviously one of the “8”) was furious that it was not unanimous.

That summer, as Baptist churches are wont to do—this particular church split. Our friends left the church (and school) to start another. To avoid expenses, and to help cement the situation, Pastor Pete assumed the role of principal at our school. I returned to my 9th grade year; my brother entering his 11th, happy and oblivious to the storm that was brewing.

Within the first month, I asked to leave a class to use the restroom. (You remember the bit—hall pass if a teacher catches you. The slip including the time you left and where you were going. That sort of thing) I was told I could not. Struck me funny—other kids had, and it was not an unusual occurrence to go to the bathroom. I shrugged it off. My brother mentioned the same thing happened to him. Odd.

I asked a teacher I was friendly with. After a bit of hemming and hawing, he said that word was out we were “trouble” and to not let us interrupt classes. Hall passes were not allowed. I asked if anyone else was on this list of “trouble” and the long moment of silence was answer enough.

Now, I was always a “bit of trouble.” Never anything to get suspend--…never anything to get expelled, but one that always seemed to be there when things happened. Now-a-days I would be what they call “a person of interest.” For me to have a reputation as a troublemaker…well…not exactly a “twist ending” if you know what I mean. But my brother? Nuts, his picture was next to “Goody Two-Shoes” in the Dictionary! I doubt he had ever received a punishment at school in his life! Calling him “trouble” was unthinkable.

Other items began to surface. If we were late, we were punished. If others were late; they were warned. We were not allowed to attend certain after-school functions. My parents took a week off so we could attend Basic Youth Seminars in Florida. We were not allowed to make-up the work.

A moment on personalities. We all have taken those personality tests. Growing up, LaHaye’s “Phlegmatic, Sanguine, Melancholy and Cleric” were popular. Myers-Briggs is common now. While they are fun and all—there is not much we can do to change our personalities. We may wish we were something different, but regardless of desire, or effort, we are stuck with who we are.

My personality has always been a bit happy-go-lucky. I cannot hold a grudge. No matter how much I hate you, or how mad I am, or how much you have hurt me—and my burning desire to be mad at you for ever and ever and ever…after a few days, I cannot sustain that anger. I figure, “what the heck, life is too short” and move on. Even if I wanted to; I can’t.

My brother, on the other hand, is very good at holding a grudge. Very, VERY good. Years are but drops in the bucket when he is angry. If he needs to be mad forever, then he will be. He also has a strong sense of what is fair. He wants all people to be treated equally. Including himself.

We had never been on the receiving end of “church discipline” (for lack of a better term.) This was new territory for us. And our personalities responded in two diverse directions. I was fascinated by it, and played it up for all it was worth. Even as a 14-year-old, I saw that “Good Girls like Bad Boys.” I didn’t even have to do anything that wrong, and I was getting a reputation! How cool is THAT?

Sadly, my brother was not able to take it in stride, due to his personality. The unfairness of the situation, coupled with being punished for things which did not deserve punishment made him very bitter. He was angry for years. I am no psychiatrist, but I don’t think he got over this until many years later when he became bitter about another situation. Hard to be bitter about two things at once. (And it could be that he had some justification. Another example was after we transferred the school sent my brother’s transcripts. His overall G.P.A. had dropped significantly overnight. It seemed that “mysteriously” a number of his listed grades were much lower than what we recalled. Only upon bringing out all his past report cards was it demonstrated that they had been deliberately lowered. Yes—that sort of thing happens.)

In the spring, the school held a weeklong Bible conference. The youth pastor of our church attended one of the sessions. Afterwards, Pastor Pete told our youth pastor he wanted to meet him. Privately.

“Do you know you have a family in your church running rough shod in our school? They take vacations whenever they want. They tell their sons to leave class whenever they feel like it. They show up at school functions unruly, and are often tardy.

“Now I am not going to say who it is, but the boys attend your youth ministry.” (We were the only brothers in the school also attending the church. This is equivalent of saying, “I am disguising them under the initials of ‘B. Franklin.’”) “We think you should address this issue as well. If you think they are causing trouble” [hint, hint, “If you want to make up situations in which they are causing trouble.”] “you feel free to let me know. And I will let you know if they are causing trouble here.”

Our youth pastor was dumb-founded. He didn’t know what to say. He knew exactly what family the principal/pastor was referring to. He would have to—he was my brother-in-law.

Yep. Because he had married my sister, his last name was (obviously) not the same as ours. Pastor Pete had not made the connection! The funniest part was the fact my brother-in-law and sister went with us on this vacation to Basic Youth Conflicts! He crawled out of that office, thinking, “That didn’t just happen. Did it?” We all wish we could have been there when ol’ Pastor Pete finally figured out the family relationship. Although with these types, it probably wouldn’t even have put a ding in the armor.

A month or so later, my brother and I were called to the office. Again. For something we did wrong. Again. They called our father to have a meeting after school. My brother seethed; I thought, “Oh boy is THIS great!” I was so terribly wrong.

My father came, and the pastor/principal started to launch into the diatribe as to another infraction on our part. My brother shrunk in his chair, saying, “Not fair; not fair” I (unusually) wisely stayed quiet, and the pastor went on and on. Finally my father had his full.

“O.K. That’s enough. We will go now.”
“No you will NOT! These boys are nothing but trouble, and will ALWAYS be nothing but trouble.”

My father got angry. Up until that very day, hour and minute, I had never seen my dad angry. Ever. We had been caught drinking alcohol the year before. He was disappointed. We had been caught doing all the things boys do—lying, cheating, punching each other, etc. He had punished us; he had talked to us. But he had never raised his voice at us. (Don’t worry, dear reader. My mother MORE than made up for my father. She yelled and got angry with us plenty of times.)

He stood up and started to yell at this pastor. I was terrified out of my mind. This was not the father I knew. This was…this was…it was like seeing Ghandi mow down a crowd of schoolchildren with a machine gun. It was not fun. It was not great. It was absolutely, mind-numbingly scary.

I don’t remember a single word he said. The pastor appeared as terrified as we. The room was so tense that we thought a single scrap of a chair or cough would be the equivalent of a bomb going off, and the entire school would explode in an upheaval of emotion. All I hoped was that my dad did not swing on the pastor—‘cause I don’t think he would have been able to stop.

After a few minutes, my father stopped, looked at us and said. “Go. Now.” (We drove to school, so we were driving separately.) We literally ran out of that room. Both of us got in the car, and drove home. No radio, dead silence. I don’t know what my brother was thinking, but I was certain my father was going to kill me when we got home.

I was not quite mature enough to figure out that dad was angry with the pastor. All I knew (being a kid) was that a man I had never seen yell before was as angry as I had ever seen anyone, and it had all started with my being in trouble. The most logical conclusion in the world was that he was going to kill us, bury us, and tell the world he never had those two boys.

When he got home, my father sat us down. First, he apologized for becoming angry like that. (!) Then he told us that we needed to grin and bear out the remainder of the year. We would not be going back to that school in the fall. Finally he told us if that pastor ever did anything like that again, we were to let him know at once.

And that…was that. We finished the year relatively pain-free. No more special treatment. No more unwarranted punishments. The last day, because we had already completed our exams, my brother and I showed up in jeans to say good-bye to our friends. They kicked us off school property for violating the dress code. We laughed. (My laughter was genuine.)

As it turned out, the summer after my 9th grade, my father obtained a new job that required a move. We would have changed schools anyway.

Afterwards we continued to attend church. Our parents continued in positions, which made us available to the inner-workings of Church Upper management secondhand. We grew to the point of assuming similar positions. I never got involved in church politics. I was raised with the knowledge of one person leaving would soon be replaced with another joining.

Many deconversion stories contain incidents where people discover that some Christians can be…despite all appearances…real cads. I have no such tales. You have just read the “worst” such incident in my life—and to me (excluding one evening in the principal’s office) it was quite enjoyable!

I grew up knowing of the embezzlers, the sexual predators, the affairs, and the domestic violence within the church. While I did not realize the specific crimes at the time, as I grew older and learned of similar situations, I could look back and recall those same meetings happening as I was young.

I grew up in church; I knew that sharing a personal struggle with some sin would often end up being next days “hot gossip.” I knew that people would be (and were) asked to leave for certain sins. I knew others that also struggled with sins, but dare not admit it for the same reasons I would not.

I grew up realizing Christians are humans. Nothing more. Nothing divine within (even if I thought there was at the time.)

I grew up knowing I was only one situation away from being called to a special meeting after church in which I would be asked to either support or decry a certain position, person or principle. And on the way to the meeting the deacons’ kids’ eyes would look at me with a sense of fatality. ‘Cause they were growing up just like me…

Chapter 6


  1. Heh, now get ready for the "Aha! You deconverted because your experiences just so happened to involve the hypocritical, nominal Christians--the ones that are not-at-all like me or like anyone in my church" protests to start all over again! ;)

    Wow, that's actually a pretty shitty experience, DagoodS. I actually never ran into anything like that, ever. Probably because, rather than being a deacon's kid (our church didn't have deacons), I was a Pastor's kid, and so it'd have been somewhat hard to be on the butt-end of such blatant ostracism unless a complete pastoral ousting was imminent.

    As such, of course, I know what it's like to be on the "information inside". :) Most of the time, though, it wasn't particularly juicy, and my parents actually did a pretty good job all-in-all from keeping us from learning things that we shouldn't.

    Mostly I just remember some of the bizarre reasons people would leave the church: it always seemed like, if someone was dissatisfied with my family or with the church and wanted to find another, they couldn't simply move to another church. No, they first had to justify themselves by beefing up their legitimate (but usually extremely minor) reasons, with unjustified personal or general attacks against my Dad or the church. Probably a few had legitimate complaints, but for the most part they were ridiculously baseless.

    Being a pastor means dealing with people, and people are... weird.

  2. Yeah, Micah Cowan, I saw from your comment linked last time that you were a pastor’s kid. I am not surprised you relate to the idea of both “being in the know” and not caring.

    I had forgotten the ridiculous justifications that people had for leaving a church. I knew of a couple that left because a picture they had donated had been moved from what they felt was a more prominent position to a less-trafficked area. (The halls were repainted, and it didn’t match.)

    However, the “reason” they gave for leaving was due to the fact the church was “not going in the right direction, spiritually.” They asked to take their painting with them!

    If people want to pick on this, or any other reason, to label my deconversion they are welcome.

    I only warn ‘em that I have more stories to tell…it might be a shame to pick one so early when a much better, much juicer reason could be used later on…*wink*

  3. Most of the churches I attended didn't have the sorts of church buildings people wanted to donate things to :) dad pastored Calvary Chapel of Sacramento, which meets in a glorified warehouse building. Dad also had a policy against crediting anyone with a "donated by"-style plaque, so any gifts were anonymous. I imagine people could spread the word that they donated it anyway, but that could be hard to do without being an obvious glory-hound. :)

    At one point in the church history, we were meeting in a really rather nice building owned by Seventh Day Adventists (which works out pretty well for both parties, since they hold their services on Saturdays). In an attempt to counter any potential tendencies toward getting caught up in the building, and formality, Dad started wearing hi-top tennis shoes to church while he preached

    Apparently, he lost a few attendees over this.... and gained an appropximately equivalent amount due to the small publicity it generated. :)

  4. I can understand why people would say "Judge the message, not the messangers."

    But at the same time, I can see why the behavior would play a part in de-conversion. It wouldn't be the full reason, but perhaps a piece, at most. It's just that if you see a consistent demonstration that Christians behave no better and no worse than non-Christians, it would make one question the belief system. Especially when that belief system says that you should see the best behavior from Christians.

    It might play a bigger role if the belief system also contains the idea that one can only be moral as a Christian.

  5. I can understand why people would say "Judge the message, not the messengers."

    Yeah; although in this case, the message itself indicates that certain qualities ought to be generally visible in its messengers, so they can't be entirely separated. :)

  6. Hi, dagoods. I stumbled across this blog and this series you're writing is absolutely brilliant. Even though I grew up Presbyterian in Georgia, the similarities in stories are remarkable.

    I am still a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and my faith is stronger than it was when I was in my late teens/early 20s. However, I have nothing but respect for your and your beliefs and thank you for being so honest about them.

    What you write here about church politics is absolutely spot-on. My sister and I "grew up" in a suburban PC(USA) church that was at around 700 members when I graduated high school. It was founded in the late 60s and had a turbulent history. My parents joined around the time I was born, and my dad served nearly continuously on the Session (governing body) as an Elder (roughly equivalent to your Deacons).

    First, a bunch of charismatics somehow got involved with the church (it was the 70s, and no one noticed). I'm told it was getting out of hand theologically, with faith healings, etc. Half the church left and formed an Assemblies of God church (that itself split over and over). Later, when First Baptist split (again, as both Baptists and Presbyterians are wont to do), half the departees came to our church. Many of these folks got on the Session and discovered that it gives laypeople serious constitutional power that can influence even the national church, something they never experienced in the SBC.

    My first encounter with church politics happened when I was six. While even the southern PCUS had been ordaining women for some time, it was a non-issue at First P. Until the Associate Pastor Nominating Committee picked a woman. Again, half the church left, this time forming a new congregation belonging to the conservative PCA (the "No Gurlz Club" for southern Presbyterians). I was of course too young to know the details, but my parents were upset and a lot of my friends suddenly weren't in Sunday School anymore.

    I received the prize for "Most Knowledgeable" in my second grade Sunday School class, and I kept the reputation up ever since. In my Youth Sunday meditations (we couldn't call them sermons), I was quoting Calvin and Luther. I knew more about the "Book of Confessions" than most members of the Session.

    My next major encounter with church politics (other than the breathtaking turnaround of choir directors, usually for petty reasons) was The Blue Hymnal. We used the 1950s Red Hymnbook, and they were falling apart. The publishing house owned by the PC(USA) had printed in 1990 a nice, new hymnal with some hymns in Spanish, Korean, and various native American languages. It had some of the very nice songs written in the 70s and 80s, as well as a few bombs. It went for inclusive language, though usually with an asterisk ("Good Christian Men* Rejoice" with "*or 'friends'"). It had several African-American spirituals (the term used rather than the Red hymnal's "negro spiritual"), arranged by the head of the board that compiled the hymnal, a black woman named Melva Costen.

    The blue hymnal was for some reason labeled by the right wing of the church as satanic, partly because of the inclusive language, but also because there was a gay man on the committee, which again was headed by a black(!) woman(!). The stated concern was that the PC(USA) had made a huge PR blunder in sponsoring a conference for women that degraded into a Goddess Fair. Despite all the damage control they tried, Louisville was held in serious suspicion as a den of heretics.

    My parents volunteered (with another couple, the husband would later become a Republican state legislator) for the Hymnal Committee. They examined each. and. every. page. for subversive messages and found none. They invited Melva Costen herself to speak to the Session (less than half showed up). Blue hymnals were placed in every elder's mailbox, and some proudly proclaimed that they'd never touch it and would vote against it no matter what my parents and the other couple reported. A public schoolteacher announced that "we're an American church. We don't need Spanish hymns." At the vote to adopt the hymnal, it was a dead tie. The aforementioned Associate cast the tiebreaker. Half the Session stood up to march out. The Senior pastor immediately made a motion to table the purchase until a later date. It succeeded.

    Years later, when a new senior pastor (who was on the board of a conservative political affinity group) replaced the retiring one, he introduced an "ecumenical" hymnal. It was greeted as more acceptable than the Blue Hell Hymnal. In a fervent patriotic salute to that schoolteacher, it contains (in both languages) "O Canada".

  7. Sorry I'm going on like this, but like any good Presbyterian once I get started...

    While I was in college, I came out. It was a huge weight off my shoulders, and it actually strengthened by faith as I was able to stop yelling at God to make me straight, and I discovered (thank God for the Internet) that there were not only lots of Christians, but lots of Presbyterians (in the PC(USA)!) who accepted gay people.

    In an incredibly unpleasant (at the time) but very necessary moment, I told my parents about myself and handed them the number for the PFLAG chapter. They invited the woman associate pastor over to talk with us, and I was hopeful, as I knew she had felt the sting of prejudice in the name of the Bible, and that she knew me since I was a child (and that she knew I wasn't the promiscuous femmy stereotype). I was greatly disappointed as she rattled off the name of some "ex-Gay" "ministries". I remember telling her that most of these programs are considered hogwash by reputable psychologists and actually cause an increase in suicides by those who can't change. I asked her, "Christ himself said 'by their fruits you shall know them'. If their fruits are depression and suicide, how can they be good?" Her response: "well, they so some good for some people."

    Despite her pledge of confidentiality, she told the new rightwing senior pastor, and I became a convenient football. I was away at college and was spared most of the worst, but my dad was really suffering. He was pouring all sorts of time and effort into a building committee (on time and on budget, BTW) and job woes simultaneously. My mom and dad started attending PFLAG meetings, where they met up with a lady (now a dear family friend) who reintroduced my dad to her pastor, whom my dad had worked with at Presbytery years earlier. On my trips home, we'd go to Pastor J's church and felt hope and love for the first time in years. While it was a fairly liberal in-town church, there was a particularly uppity conservative family. My mom regularly debated him in Sunday School, but I was astounded at how everyone loved them, even when they had profound disagreements with him.

    After a last, frustrating meeting with First P's senior pastor (in which the associate said, "maybe you should consider being pastored to elsewhere"), I decided I wouldn't go back. Pastor J had sadly moved to another town, and I was churchless for a while.

    My dad turned in a resignation letter to the Session, and received a phone call from only one member (the daughter of the retired pastor). Not a peep from the others (mainly trying to avoid us in the grocery store).

    Pastor J moved back, this time to a small church that had hemorrhaged members in the 90s after a particularly conservative pastor "made it clear who was and who was not welcome". Their Session decided then and there to make inclusion one of the church's top priorities and called Pastor J (who is well known for her advocacy of gay members, Elders, Deacons and Ministers). I described all these events to her in a private meeting, especially how I was reluctant to leave the church I grew up in. She told me "it sounds like that church has grown away from you, like it's gotten caught up with all the politics. Remember, they picked the nominating committee that picked [rightwing hack] and they approved him." She advised me that the best thing emotionally for me would be to "shake the dust off my feet" and move on. The folks at First P would still be neighbors and friends, but I would no longer have to fight the battles. I transferred my membership to this church and have never been happier.

    I've learned to embrace the mystery of a God I cannot comprehend, of a book written and translated imperfectly by men that gives me a glimpse of that God. Presbyterian theology helps somewhat in that I don't have to be obsessed with saving my or others' souls. I don't know if it's all true or not. I just close my eyes and take that step forward, hoping there's still solid ground. It may sound a bit agnostic and not orthodox enough, but I like it. I find comfort in the rituals, and feel like it truly does connect me with believers in every time and place.

    Sure there's politics at this new church. It's nowhere near as pervasive, as the events of the 90s shook them to their core and the oldtimers are making a concerted effort to suppress the instinct to resort to politics. Many of us newcomers come from other churches where we've been hurt by politics, and we make an effort too. Many new members come from no church at all and have been reluctant to join one because of all the politics. Don't get me wrong, I'm under no misapprehension (and I'm not out to convert you--I respect your beliefs). We've got church politics like anyone else (fortunately, it's still in the harmless stage), and it's entirely likely (or even almost inevitable) that over time, our worse nature will get the better of us. I only hope that we will be able to look back and remember how destructive it is. As Pastor J says (in a slightly different context), "we've got to learn to hug them tight even as we think about wringing their necks."

  8. Thanks for sharing your story, Flycandler. :)

  9. Thanks for the comments, flycandler!

    In our churches it was the transition from hymns (“Great Hymns of Faith” was the hymnal) in books, to choruses in PowerPoint, and pianos to bands that caused the splits/merger/splits.

    “I will never go to a church that has drums on the stage” was the rallying cry.

    In retrospect, considering the people starving to death, and wars, and crimes and single-parent homes and lonely seniors—it seems so petty.

    No apology whatsoever is necessary. I enjoyed your story, too.

  10. Micah,

    **although in this case, the message itself indicates that certain qualities ought to be generally visible in its messengers, so they can't be entirely separated. :)**

    Oh, I agree -- I had hoped I touched on that in the rest of my comments. If I see Christianity producing the same good/bad fruit as anything else, even atheism, then it would factor into the decision of whether or not to follow it.

  11. Really enjoying the story so far:) Just to chime in on Church politics - I saw a church split over versions of scripture; I have to admit, my father was the black-sheep here calling anything but the KJV, a 'perversion'. Still, one secret meeting discovered by accident was all it took and we were gonzo!