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Religious Autobiography 2002-2004
Part 2 of this series is here: Religious Autobiography 1998-2002
As expected, the church in Adrian offered me a job after I graduated. We moved to Adrian, bought a house and I became the associate minister at Adrian Christian Church. My duties included running the youth program (grades 7-12), helping with worship services and music and about 1/4 of the Sunday morning preaching.
I recognize now that when I quit that job two years later, that was an important step in my transition toward atheism. I told myself and everyone else that I would be taking a step away from heavy involvement in the church, and I planned to approach faith again on my own terms. But even then, I knew that nonbelief was a possible outcome of this process. Now that I'm looking back, I'm trying to understand how and when that transition to atheism began.
Maybe this is guesswork, and maybe revising history, but I have to look back at that period during my junior year in college when I was disillusioned with CCF. I knew deep down I had not really addressed my doubts and I was standing on the brink of a life in missions. Becoming a Bible translator would have been a huge act of faith. It would've been difficult and dangerous. To have chosen that vocation I would've had to have been totally convinced of the truth of Christianity. The fact is, when I was faced with a decision, I blinked. I chose the path that, while still ministry, was easier and more comfortable. Concerns about the safety of my family, and the fact that Sara wasn't excited about moving to the other side of the world must've played into this decision. But I wonder if I was doubting even then. By taking the church job in my hometown I may have been hedging my bets just a bit.
But if I had any serious doubts during that period it must have been subconscious. I was dedicated to the work I was doing, and for the most part I enjoyed it. Though I tried my best, and probably did some good, my time working with the youth of the church ultimately confirmed my suspicion but I was not cut out for that type of work. I loved the kids, but I knew that the job did not fit my personality. I also knew that youth ministry required a level of faith that I wasn't sure I had. There were moments when I just wasn't sure if I really bought into the ideas that I was teaching.
I did a sermon series on reasons for believing in God. I was convincing myself for the most part, but I was still not exposed to other opinions either in my research or in the feedback on my sermons. The three arguments I used were the teleological argument, the cosmological argument and especially the moral argument. Now I see these as very weak arguments, but by carefully avoiding counter-arguments I was able to preserve my faith.
By the summer of 2004, I was ready to quit. I don't think there is any one factor that brought me to this point. It was a combination of things. I was simply getting burnt out on youth ministry. The fact that I didn't love it made the hard work more difficult to bear. I couldn't stand summer camps.
My views were beginning to diverge from the church in several ways. I guess I was becoming more liberal, religiously and politically. I felt that the unity of all Christians, peace, caring for the poor and the environment were more important than the particular doctrines and traditions of the Independent Christian Church. Paul had hired another associate minister who was more traditional and conservative than either of us. This new preacher and his wife had been ousted from several congregations in the preceding years. We always assumed that their churches had treated them unfairly. But I soon came to understand why a church would want to be rid of them. The fact that their divisive and partisan stances were recognized as an important part of the church played into my view that I didn't fit in with the staff, including Paul, or with the church.
My political views were changing, too. Driven mostly by the failures in Iraq and the politics of fear, I decided to support John Kerry for President around the time that he was wrapping up the Democratic nomination. The church members may not have been primarily Republicans, but in church staff meetings my views were in the minority.
There was trouble in my devotional life as well. I was finding less satisfaction and value in the time I spent reading the Bible and praying. I tried praying from the lectionary for a while. It was a new thing for me and I appreciated the fact that I was participating in a ritual that involved millions of Christians reading the same scriptures and saying the same prayers. I liked the community connection, but it didn't help my suspicion that there was no one on the other end of the prayer. I wasn't feeling God's presence.
As I discovered that ministry wasn't for me, I did have ideas about what I would like to do. Brendan Creecy gave me web space to play with and showed me how to use an FTP client and set up a content management system. I created a web site for the church and was maintaining a personal blog on Brendan's site. I knew I wanted to do tech stuff for a career, so it was excitement about this new direction and not just frustration with the church job that made me want to quit.
All of this, and especially the differences of opinion and personality in the staff, made it hard for me to keep working there. I wanted to get away from the job, from the church and from religion. And I wanted to go toward web development.
In August of 2004 I took the high school kids on a trip to Nationwide Youth Roundup in Colorado. It was a week of camping and religious indoctrination. I had some conflict with the other associate pastor's wife. She was one of the adults who volunteered to go on the trip. In the weeks leading up to the trip she did a lot of complaining and telling me how to do my job. Sara and I both had words with her. On the day before we left for the trip this woman decided to stay home. That was a relief. I decided before the trip that this would be one last chance to fall in love with youth ministry. If I went through the week and didn't have doubts about quitting, then I thought I could consider myself released from my calling (not that I fully bought into the idea of being called by God into ministry.) It was a decent trip. The kids had fun and there were no major problems. I tried pretty hard to get this one kid to open up and talk about something spiritual, but that failed. The guy who had led that first small group I was in at CCF just happened to be at NYR with his youth group. I talked to him about wanting to get out and he was very understanding. He had gone through a similar transition. On the way home from the trip I decided that if I left the job I would be happier. I wouldn't regret it. I wasn't rejecting the work I had done, but I was ready to move on.
About a month later, after talking with Sara, Paul and the church board, I announced my resignation to the church. I couldn't really start looking for a job in Adrian until after I resigned unless I wanted the parishioners to find out that I was quitting through the grapevine. So, I gave two weeks notice and didn't even have any prospects for new jobs. I interviewed at a bank here in town. On the day after my last day at the church the bank offered me a job. It was scary, but I was only unemployed for about 24 hours.
Part 4 of this series is here: Religious Autobiography 2004-2007
Man, I was thinking about that NYR just recently. I remember kind of freaking out there about what I was about to get myself into, that night I just started crying. I had forgotten about all that other drama though. I don’t miss that at all.
Yeah, I left the day after we got back from Colorado. Talk about a whirlwind trip.