Sunday, January 22, 2012

Why I Skip Church

Today, our congregation held it's annual meeting. There was celebration of outreach and ministry coupled with hard conversations surrounding budget and declining attendance. It's not a unique story. In the Lutheran church and other churches, these conversations are happening often.

People asked, Why aren't people in church? Why did they stop coming? What do we need to do to get them back? The questions appeared throughout the meeting popping up in conversations about both budget (More people means more money, right? Not necessarily, but that's a different post) and program.

I can't answer these questions for anyone else, but I can answer two out of three of them in regards to myself because I am often not in church on a Sunday morning. When it comes to the budget conversation, my attendance matters little as our giving is debited from our checking account in order to ensure consistency as I am very aware that the church's costs do not change despite my bumpy attendance record.

I have lots of reasons to be in church on a Sunday morning, perhaps more than your average church-goer. First off, I am married to the pastor. Last week our neighbor skipped service only to come home to find my husband parked in her driveway. It was only because I was passing her house while out for a run and he needed to stop to ask me something. Nevertheless, there was a joke made about the guilt of her missing church only to find the pastor in her driveway. Well, the pastor is always in my driveway after church, and my house and even *gasp* my bed. It's important to our family to be a part of church. It's important for me to support my husband as a congregational leader and to be an active part of the community.

Second, I have my own seminary education that culminated in a Masters in Theology for Outdoor Ministry. I have worked as a camp director, a director of youth and family ministry, and currently serve as president for an outdoor ministry board of trustees. Church, community, and faith development are important to me. Raising children up in faith within the structure of a congregation is important to me. I think that adults, families, and children belong in church. I believe in the importance of corporate worship.

Despite the reasons I should be in church, I am often not. Sometimes it's because of a race I'm running; other times it's because my kids and I are out of town visiting friends or family. But sometimes, it's because I just can't handle it. I am the mother of two small children whose husband is busy during church being pastor. It's hard. It's really hard. It's exhausting and frustrating. Of all the things I do in a week, Sunday worship with my kids is possibly the hardest. It pushes me past the point of good parenting. I find myself feeding the kids snacks I'm not comfortable letting them eat in order to bribe them to sit or growling desperate demands for them to just sit still and listen. Worship brings out the worst in me while everyone watches... because I am, of course, the pastor's wife.

As we look at the church and attendance, I have to look at all those young families who are not at worship and say I get it. If someone as educated about and invested in faith formation and the church community myself struggles to get there, to survive it, and to want to do it again, I can imagine that the family without my background would give up pretty quickly. Something's gotta give. How we are doing church is not working in our culture and time, especially for young families.

Please don't tell me to put the kids in the nursery or to schedule worship during Sunday school, because for me that isn't the answer to solid faith formation and church revival. Worship is supposed to be about the Body of Christ gathering together to share in Word and Sacrament, not simply those in the Body of Christ over the age of eight who are willing to sit and do worship the way we've always done it.

Of course there's another piece of the Sunday morning struggle for me. On top of being a pastor's wife and a mom of two small kids doing the best she can to raise them up in faith, I live with, fight with, and attempt to survive depression and anxiety. Some weeks I simply can't face church. I can't face the struggle with the kids. I can't face the chit chat and the pretending-to-be-fine when inside I'm in so much pain I just want to crouch in a corner and sob. I can't face the numbness, going through the motions of worship without feeling a damn thing, wondering if I'll ever feel again. As someone whose faith has always been an integral part of her life, through both ups and downs, it is terrifying to sit in church and feel a complete and total disconnect between myself and God.

And that's why I'm not in church every Sunday. It's not because I don't want to be there. It's because it's just too hard sometimes. I want church to be a healing place, a place where I feel accepted, supported, and safe. I want worship to be somewhere that I show up for the good and the bad, because I know worship isn't just about me and my needs or even those of my kids, but for right now I just can't do it. That's my story. I'm sure everyone's story is a little different, but as a church, we need to find a way to  listen to those stories and figure out how we can be the church together despite our brokenness. I don't know how we do it, but I'm thankful for a God who accepts us in all our brokenness, even when we can't do church. I am thankful for a God who I'm sure is still out there even if I can't find that God these days.

Edited to add - this is not about my church, my congregation. This about the larger Church and the way we do Church, combined with what it means to live as both a pastor's wife, a mom of 2 young children, and someone fighting depression. Our congregation is filled with loving, faith-filled people excited to serve the community and support each other. I am thankful for that. But, it doesn't change everything written above.

15 comments:

  1. I love your honesty.

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  2. I will try to quickly share a Holden experience that I had last winter that helped me let go a little. A Mom of two was leading the service (singing the whole thing)As we gathered for service it was introduced that the lady and her 2 year old would be be leading. the two year old happily played/sang/ran to dad/danced(not always quietly) and the leader just kept right on going. I am not saying it is best to ignore your children for the service. I am saying that having children as an accepted part of worship is needed. it was great for me to see because a huge part of a good worship experience for me is being able to sing the music. I pretty much had given up even trying to sing for fear of the kids running off, needing something, or being loud. I can now say that as long as I can follow the music I am singing. the rest of the time when I should be listening though is still a struggle for me.

    I have no answers on how to make church work better for most families though. Nor can I imagine trying to do all services by myself. Tim plays piano once every three weeks and I dread those Sundays.

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  3. Thanks Mollie. Outdoor ministry settings have always proven to be the most welcoming of true inter-generational worship, at least for me.

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  4. I think your honesty is great. And I think it's great that you don't feel pressured to be the perfect pastor's family that's in church every week no matter what. Hopefully this is a season and as the kids get older and it gets easier, you'll be able to be there more. In our family, I"m the pastor and my husband is the pastor's spouse on Sundays. There are seasons he's there very little too with sick kids, and other things that have to be taken care of on a Sunday. Being a pastor family is often challenging!

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  5. This is a beautiful post. Thank you so much for your honesty and vulnerability. It's so rare to have someone in the ministry that is willing to share the honest truth about their faith and worship. Well done.

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  6. I can totally relate to your experience. We live 1/8th of a mile from the church in the parsonage, and my husband is the pastor. Our church family is wonderful, but Sundays are HARD! So much so that the whole family takes a nap after lunch no matter the schedule for the day. I have a two-year old son who thinks the church is his personal playground. Right now he goes to the nursery, but he ages out in July. I'm DREADING it!!!!! I want him in church but don't think I can handle the unbelievable pressure, real or imagined, for him to behave. Plus, I will have to drop choir so I can sit with him. :(. Did your church come up with ideas on how to better serve young families?? I'd love to share them with our church if you did.

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    1. It's Hard. Giving yourself grace is huge. We've done some education with the congregation as to why it's important to have children in worship, mostly on an informal, individual basis - telling stories, sharing moments, talking out concerns. We do offer "Little Lutheran" bags (we're Lutheran). They are little bags loaded with crayons, coloring sheets, stickers, small puzzles or quiet activities (think dollar store), tissues, and two small healthy-ish snacks (pretzels, granola bars, real-fruit fruit snacks, etc). People donate stickers and snacks every few months to replenish the supplies, and the bags are refilled each week. It really helps to give the kids something to do when their reach their limit on focusing. When my kids were younger, I saved the snacks for the sermon time when quiet was most important, and encouraged them to alternate between singing and participating in worship and playing with other things from the bags during the rest of the time.

      Also as a pastor's wife who is on my own during worship, I found finding a few helpful church members that I knew I could sit by who would be supportive was helpful. Also, sitting up front is key! You might feel like you are more 'on display' there but the kids can actually see so they are more engaged in worship. Seeing what is going on up at the altar is way more interesting than staring at people's backs. Hope maybe one of these help! Hang in there. I know it's hard, but what you do matters.

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  7. It must be extra hard being a pastor's wife! I can just imagine the judgement you must face! You are one brave soul to tell your secrets! I too, do not go to church anymore for some of the same reasons and some that are different. If you are interested you can read about it here- http://www.faithfulmomof9.com/my-statement-of-faith/
    I'm following you now. I'll be praying for you and checking in with you from time to time!

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  8. I am almost positive that you just put into words what I cannot - what I struggle to try to explain to those around me. My husband is a pastor and we have two boys - ages 2 and 6 months. I feel that Sunday mornings (and any other time there is a church event) are the worst part of my week. I often feel like a single parent as my husband has to be at church super early on Sundays, and has many evening and weekend responsibilities. Instead of stopping my two year old from doing something he shouldn't, people just watch him and then look to see if I'm paying attention. And then I get asked to schedule all sorts of things and be on all sorts of committees and be involved in so many things. I've finally learned to say no. What a freeing thing! I haven't been diagnosed with anxiety or depression, but then again, I haven't sought a doctor on that, but I think I most likely to do a certain extent. My husband would agree. It sucks having the closest family live three hours away - not having them to help out with kids or babysit every now and then. God bless those far too few people who actually give encouraging words or ask if they can help you out with something!

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  10. You speak for so many...bless your heart. I love this blog and will follow it! Now I don't feel like the only mama like this in the world!

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  11. I'll try to remember this when I'm gritting my teeth and attempting not to shed tears through Sunday(s). Very sensitively expressed. My husband is not a pastor but has a senior position in the 'management' side of a network of churches and I feel so much more pressured by this even if I may not have a reason to do so. Been so hard.

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  12. Just discovering your blog now Thank you especially for this one. Sometimes church is the hardest place in the world to be... My faith in Jesus is primary and I love my church and her people, but depression can make anywhere hard.... So, thank you.

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  13. WOW! Your description of depression and church attendance could have been a play by play of my life. People sometimes just don't get it when it comes to depression and anxiety. Even though I am on the right meds and in therapy, some days are still a struggle. I like to think that it is okay to have those feelings sometimes because I know that I am not numb and overly medicated. I think I have learned there are days you just have to accept that you can't handle everybody and everything and it is best to stay in a comfort zone and yes, that usually means away from a lot of people. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It is nice to know I am not the only one. Please know you have inspired me today!

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  14. Wow... your words have so much truth. Our culture lacks the understanding of a connected and involved family in so.many.ways. Depression among these types of parenting perspectives is soooo common.... I firmly believe it is lack of support.... the kind of support that is *needed* to be able to parent peacefully. Without someone to step in whenever mom needs a break... all day... extended family and friends right there... we get exhausted and depressed. The nursery suggestion is one of my biggest peeves... remove the thing causing stress... instead of a community of people stepping in to avoid the stressful situations - and also stepping in to include the little ones in the congregation.
    I would like to see churches worship in a true community-style way. Informally.... families together.... sitting in a circle.... activities for the littles in the center... I don't really know how it should be done - but we need to create communities - real communities of people that are interacting and being involved with parenting. Parenting skills are some of the most important missions we have among our culture... and the way our children deserve to be raised is just sooooo hard without that community of constant support.

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