A plea to church leaders from the invisible woman in the church pew

Let me be completely honest: I’m angry right now. It’s a dangerous thing to be angry while blogging, and I’ll probably wait an hour or two after writing before hitting the publish button, but I think this is something that needs to be said.

Ever since I first posted about feeling invisible in church, I’ve received emails and comments on that post and the subsequent ones on the same topic. So many people are hurting. They feel alone in church. They feel that no one cares, that they have no friendships, that they might be physically sitting on the church pews but no one sees them. This is sad.

What is sadder to me is that, in many of these stories, the people have tried to fit in at a particular church:

  • Bible studies.
  • Small groups.
  • Ministry involvement.

If these things weren’t available, often they tried to start them. Tried . . . and failed, for reasons too many to count. (Lack of leader support, not spiritually gifted in that area, etc.) Too many people have told me, “I thought I was the only one who felt like this!” And then they thank me for sharing because it’s helped to know that someone cares, even if it’s a total stranger in cyberspace.

Yet at many of the churches I’ve attended and visited, the majority claimed to be a caring body of believers. They urge people to join small groups or Bible studies or get involved in various ministries. These are the best ways to make you feel like you belong, I’ve been told.

But my blog readers have done all these things, and they haven’t worked. They’re still alone. Still hurting. Still invisible in the church pew. All these wonderful, promising things that are supposed to help us follow Christ together and share life and blah-blah-blah: they’re failing.

I’m sure there are people for who these groups and methods work. They’ve found close friends and feel totally accepted and loved at church. Terrific. But others are falling through the cracks.

People are asking me to pray, and I am. I’m heartbroken for them.

But at this point, I’m also frustrated. The one group of people I haven’t heard from on this topic are church leaders. (There have been a few. Thank you.)

I can’t imagine that they are entirely ignorant of this problem. (I think some leaders acknowledge that this happens at other churches, but convince themselves that their church is not like that. Maybe that’s true. Maybe not.)

Nor can I imagine that pastors, elders, and deacons don’t give a damn that people feel rejected and alone. I’m sure many or most do. (For example, when I told my psychiatrist that I’d had a negative experience visiting his church–I was totally ignored both times I attended–he nodded and said, “People come to the church through small groups, so they don’t feel the need to reach out to people in the pews. The leaders know this is a problem, but we don’t know what to do about it.”)

Nor can I imagine that the leaders want congregation members and visitors to suffer silently. (There would be exceptions; egotistical masochists end up in every profession, unfortunately. But surely most pastors desire to have a pastor’s heart: compassionate and merciful, shepherding people like Christ, the Good Shepherd, does. Imperfectly, to be sure, but longing to help and guide.)

So what’s the problem?

Why can’t leaders acknowledge that sometimes methods fail?

That includes

  • The join-a-small-group method:

(This seems to elicit more enthusiasm in my area than it deserves. Many involve the church putting the groups together, so you might end up with a group of people you don’t like or trust or even know, and somehow you’re supposed to “do life together” with weekly meetings that are heavy on food and fellowship and light on anything more substantial than coffee cake and sweet tea. It’s an introvert’s–and nutritionist’s–nightmare. Maybe the small group idea works better when you’re already friends and get to pick each other. But then how do outsiders join?)

  • The participate-in-a-Bible-study method: 

(A lecture-based group isn’t conducive to building friendships. And the discussion-based ones aren’t either, as it’s too easy for one or two people to dominate or derail the discussion, many people are too intimidated by public speaking or feel too ignorant to talk, and a lot of Bible studies are filled with fluffy material that doesn’t satisfy mature believers or educate and equip young ones.)

  • The get-involved-in-a-ministry method:

(Theoretically, this should work. Working alongside other people is a terrific way of getting to know others. But I’ve heard from people who said that they signed up to help in a particular area but were never contacted by the leaders. A variation on this situation is where there’s a small clique that owns that ministry and they don’t want to share the work, power, or glory. It’s “theirs.” Another variation: the same clique allows you to do the gruntwork but your ideas and concerns aren’t heard, and you’re never really accepted by the people who are involved. Your gifts are never fully utilized. You walk away frustrated.)

All three methods are things that I’ve been told by church leaders (and read in various places) are great ways to feel like I belong in church. I’ve tried all three. None of them are bad. All work for certain people in certain circumstances. (Praise God and give him glory!) But none work for everyone. And for some people, they don’t work at all, and those are the people writing to me. Pastors and leaders, why is this?

Please hear me: I’m not blaming the pastors. Often, they’re doing the best they can: preaching until they’re hoarse about loving others around us, trying to set a good example in their own lives, truly trying to reach the lonely among the members. But the congregation members are hardhearted. In that situation, I’m not sure there’s anything they can do besides pray.

I realize that the pastor’s role is difficult. I understand that. I understand they’re torn in 500 different directions, personal and professional, and feel overwhelmed and alone and frustrated. I understand the burnout rate is high, the depression rate is incredibly bad, and there’s often no one they can confide in within their church. I understand that there’s a thousand different aspects to that job that I’ll never understand because I’ve never done it. I get that. I don’t want to add a burden to their heavy load.

But I’d like to hear from church leaders about why some Christians might try so hard, do all the build-friendships-at-church methods, and still end up alone on Sunday morning. What is going wrong? How can we, as the body of Christ, move beyond mere methods to something more substantial? How can we stop having people fall through the cracks? What would you advise my lonely readers to do? 


(P.S.: I did wait a while to cool down and edit this. If you feel condemned by my words, I ask your forgiveness and please let me know so I can edit.) 

Advertisements

Invisible in Church? Here’s my story

file-1This past Sunday, I had someone email me because my post “Me, the Invisible Woman in the Church Pew” struck a chord with her and she wanted to know the end of the story. What did I do? What have I done? The post was written several years ago–2013, to be precise–so naturally, she was curious.

Is there an end to this story?

Short answer: Not really.

Long answer: It’s complicated.

Here’s where I was in December 2013: My family was attending a megachurch (5000+ members), and my husband and I were visiting various adult Sunday school classes to find the right place to fit. After three different classes, including one where we stayed for 2-3 months of faithful weekly attendance, we still felt invisible. No one knew us. That week, my mom ran into an acquaintance from her church. This younger woman and her family now attended this megachurch; she recommended her class. My husband and I did like the class and felt more connected. (Yay!) Unfortunately, some doctrinal issues arose and we didn’t feel that we could continue attending a church where these things were taught. (Sigh.)

At the same time, we had transferred our elementary aged daughters to a new school and were moving to a different area of the county. It was a good point to try the churches in this new area. My mom ran into a woman from one church we’d visited in the past, but had felt was too far from our then-current home, and that woman said the church would love to have us, as we were now close to the building the church had bought. (Yes, my mother talks to many people.)

I visited other churches but ultimately, we did end up back at that church.

Now, this church has many things in its favor. Good children’s and youth ministries. Solid, excellent preaching. Godly leaders who are trying to learn from the mistakes that other churches have made. A willingness to address tough issues. A desire to reach out to the community. A desire to help people assimilate and connect within the church. These are all things that we appreciate, and that work in its favor.

Me “fitting in” is not one of them. After months, I still felt invisible. I didn’t “fit” with the women. Or the men, either, for that matter. (They were mostly electrical/mechanical/aerospace engineers, who have many lovely and valuable characteristics–I’m married to a rocket scientist–but tolerance for minority opinions isn’t one of them. They also tend to marry nurses or teachers, though I haven’t figured out why. Me? I’m neither of those. And I’m definitely not a tech person.)

The other problem was that the ways the church presented for “fitting in” were all things that have been disasters or near-disasters for me in the past.

  • Ladies’ Bible studies: I’ve never had a positive experience with one.
  • Small groups: I’ve had mixed results.
  • Ministry opportunities: I had no interest in nursery duty (I got sick from the little sweeties’ germs); children’s ministries (ditto); youth ministry (my teen told me that she absolutely, positively, please-mom-don’t-you’re-embarrassing-me!! did NOT want me there); hospitality (not my gift); or greeting (ditto). Not only did I not have interest in these things, I had no energy for them, either.

My husband and I agreed that he and the girls should continue going there and I should explore other churches in the area. Which I did. Once.

Different megachurch. Same issues.

At that point, I decided that there were three options:

  1. Quit church. 
  2. Visit more churches. 
  3. Stay at our current church. 

file-3Let’s take option #1. Many Christians have “quit church.” They’re frustrated, they’re hurt, they’re angered by theology or people or both, so they quit attending church, or perhaps make only sporadic appearances at church.

While I understand why individuals might choose this option and sympathize, this isn’t for me. (I wrote a post in 2012 about why I haven’t quit church, and it still applies now.) It goes against my theological bent and my personality. Say what you like about me, but I’m too darned stubborn to give up on something that matters to me. (This same stubborn streak–you can call it “grit” or perseverance–got me through college and has kept me writing, even when I’d rather give up.)

I also think that this sets a poor example for my daughters. What does it tell them about persevering through difficult circumstances or learning to accept and love others even when they aren’t like me?

file-2On to option #2: visit other churches. That takes energy. Unfortunately, that is one thing I don’t have. I’ve never been a high-energy person; even my “manic” episodes are low(er)-key compared with other people’s. This has worsened over the past year.

(We’re fairly certain that I have chronic fatigue syndrome, which has to be the most unfortunately-named disease around. “Fatigue” is nothing like what I’m feeling now. It doesn’t describe the joint pain, muscle aches, mental fog, the exhaustion that any exertion exacerbates and no amount of rest alleviates. Oh, and by the way, a lot of people dismiss it as “all in my head” or “laziness.” Mm-hm. Yeah. So please don’t tell me that you’re tired, too.)

I looked online at other churches. It was mostly more of the same. Nothing piqued my interest enough to offset the energy it would take to get me there.

file-4Option #3: Stay at the same church.

This is the one I chose.  The Sunday I visited megachurch #2, my husband and one of the elders, a friend of his, talked about my situation. The elder mentioned that his wife didn’t feel like she fit in, either. As a result of this conversation, we’ve been to their house for dinner and had a great time. They’re coming to our house for dinner tonight, which I hope will also be fun.

It makes a tremendous difference to have 2 people who I know and who know me. Attending church feels easier, and I don’t feel quite as invisible as before.

Remember that this church has many things working in its favor. It’s a relatively healthy church and I had seen them make positive steps toward inclusion of women in leadership. I respect the leaders and teachers. There are a few doctrinal issues where I differ from them, but they’re tolerable for me.

Many of those who have commented or emailed me about that original post are not in healthy churches. They’re in toxic ones. So my choice may not be an option for everyone.

file

But if you’re feeling invisible at church, don’t lose hope. In Genesis, Hagar names God “El Roi”: the God who sees. No one is invisible to him. He cares. There are probably other people sitting in your sanctuary, sharing your pews, singing the same songs, who feel like you do. The hard part is finding them. It’s hard, yes, but not hopeless.

Persevere, my friend. Keep going.


A long post, yes, but if you simply can’t get enough of my writing on this subject, here’s some related posts: 

The Anatomy of a Church Search

Dissection was never my favorite science lab. I appreciate the value of it in theory. Just don’t hand me the knife.

Still, sometimes a dissection is the best way to learn how things are structured—a frog, a pig, a human body—after that structure no longer serves its original purpose. So now that my family has found a new church home, I’ve been thinking about the structure and shape of our multi-year search. What worked? What didn’t? What did I learn, about God, myself, Christianity as practiced in my sliver of the cosmos?

It’s painful to remember.

56d0ab62f95543cf8c64d90920768000

To begin: Watch our beloved church split. It was a bit like watching a person die, in that it was almost impossible to see the exact moment when our unity died. All I know is that one day, I woke up to find myself a stranger in my church. It was like someone had changed the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, and overnight I was an alien in a foreign country even though I hadn’t moved.

Grapple with questions. Uncertainty. Anger. And always, under it all, depression, one that threatened to cover me. Quit work on my third novel, mid-first draft. Contemplate taking down my blog. What’s the use?

Remain silent about my depressive episode at church. There was no one left to tell.

Realize that we need a new church.

Take a deep breath, make a game plan, consider where to visit. Hear invitations from friends:

“Come visit, we’d love to have you!”

Week 1, visit Church #1. Traditional service, older congregation. Feel the novelty of a different style of service, the warmth of greetings, and a jolt of relief at what is absent: talk about church conflict. My children are baffled by the organ and unfamiliar hymns.

Week 2, visit Church #2. Contemporary service, congregation based on small groups, not Sunday school. Feel rejected. Miscalculate driving time, arrive too early, and sit in a coffee-bar styled narthex for a long time. No one speaks to us. My children complain that the music was too loud.

Week 3, visit Church #3. Blended service. The church meets in an elementary school cafeteria. It’s a church plant from our old church, so we know some people. Feel welcomed. I wonder if this is it? Is this home?

Week 4, visit Church #4. This, too, is a plant from the old church, who partnered with several other congregations to start a church in this area of town. I enjoy the service, but my children complain about the loud music.

Week 5, revisit Church #3. We stay there for two-to-three months. It’s a long drive, and despite the apparent friendliness of the congregation, I have a hard time connecting.

Truthfully, I’m having a hard time overall. My previous life had revolved around home and church. I lost all my friends when the church split, and I didn’t have anything to mitigate my loneliness. I hadn’t grieved the split, the loss of friends, the loss of a place where I had felt accepted.

Back to Church #1. Stay there long enough to realize that we weren’t making friendships.

Go to house church. No. The less said, the better.

Go to Megachurch. Try four Sunday school classes before one class is friendly to us. We settle for the next few months. After a while, certain teachings ruffle my feathers (or, more accurately, pluck them out altogether). But where can we go that we haven’t already gone?

Another school year begins. The school system goes wonky and my previously school-loving kids come home each day whining, “We hate school.” At Christmas, we transfer the kids to a private school far away from our home. The transfer is a success: both kids make friends, are adequately challenged in their academic studies, want to be involved in extracurricular activities. But the drive is a hassle. The house goes on the market. Sells in a month. We move out one day, close on two houses the next, and move in a third day.

And I start looking for a church alone.

At some point, I look in the church directory published in our weekly newspaper. A full third of the area churches are Southern Baptist; another third are Church of Christ; the final third is an assortment of conservative denominations and non-denominational startups run by people younger than me.

Church #6 is recommended by my psychiatrist. It’s small-group based. That means that if you’re not in a small group, everyone will ignore you, even if you tell the smiling greeter that it’s your first time in the building. This happens two Sundays. So even though the preaching is excellent, I don’t return for a third visit.

Church #7 is recommended a new neighbor. It’s decent. But no one but my neighbor talks to me, and the sermon feels a bit more inspired by Guideposts than Scripture.

Church #8 is an unfamiliar denomination, with a liturgical service (a new thing for me) in an extremely small church. Even though everyone is friendly, there are hardly any children, and none that are my daughters’ ages.

Week Number-I-Lost-Count: I melt down after my husband and kids leave for the megachurch. I thought I would return to the liturgical church, but I can’t bear to walk into a building by myself again.

That week, my mother took takes the girls to the pool and meets a member of Church #3, who invites us back to that church. They’re moving into a building—no more sharing space with school cafeteria equipment—and our new house is close.

Why not?

And that’s where we have been for the past year-and-a-half.

It’s been three years since we started looking for a church. The kids like it, especially the almost-teenage girl. My husband works in the nursery and has friends there. Me?

I like the music.

I like the preaching.

I dread Sunday mornings.

But what other options are there? I won’t throw away 9/10ths of what I believe to attend a church that allows for female ordination. I agree with much of what this church teaches, but not everything. My husband has urged me to continue speaking up in Sunday school class.

“These men need to understand other points of view because they only see things from a white male perspective of privilege. You’re showing them alternate perspectives.

True.

But it’s hard to keep talking when I’m interrupted.

It’s irritating to have my words misunderstood.

It’s frustrating to keep talking when I know that if my husband isn’t around, then no one will openly side with me.

It’s lonely to walk into a Sunday school class filled with men who ignore me because I’m female and God forbid they make small talk with someone of the opposite gender! (Friendship is out of the question.)

It’s humiliating to continue speaking up when I’m not treated as an equal; to be treated as an ignorant child instead of a knowledgeable adult; to be told that if I believe in egalitarian principles, then I don’t take the Bible seriously.

They may need my perspective, but why do I have to feel beaten down afterward?

Now I understand why people quit church. I haven’t; I’m not attending Sunday school anymore, that’s all. But now I know why other people might walk away from church entirely.

 

P.S.: Two things I should make clear.

  1. This church does have good things going for it.
  2. I don’t expect to find a church that believes EVERYTHING I do; but I do want respect for my differing opinions, which aren’t that strange.

 

 

 

 

Three things I’m tired of hearing & one that made my heart thankful

In the time since a white racist opened fire in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, there has been many words spoken, many words written, and many varied reactions to this hate crime. I’ve followed the news coverage online. One of the benefits/drawbacks of reading a news story online is the comments on the story. Some of them are intelligent, some more emotional in nature, and some just plain boneheaded. Here’s a few things I’m really tired of reading, followed by one thing I was very thankful to hear.

photo by jdurham, morgueFile.com
photo by jdurham, morgueFile.com

“The Civil War wasn’t about slavery!”  Really? Then why did several of the seceding states say that slavery was a huge part of their decision to leave the Union? South Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia identified themselves with the institution of slavery in their declarations of independence.

  • South Carolina’s laments that their Constitutional “right” to be a slave-owning state has been denied.
  • Mississippi’s second sentence declares, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.” It then continues in a nasty vein about the black race. “There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”
  • From Georgia: “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic.” Therefore, of course, Georgia had to secede from the Union.

State’s rights? Sure, that was the reason: the U.S. government was threatening the state’s right to keep people enslaved.

photo by brigwer, morgueFile.com
photo by brigwer, morgueFile.com

“There’s no such thing as white privilege.” I’ve heard this one in various forms over the years. (Strangely, it’s all white people speaking.) But if someone has a privilege, will they necessarily see that they have that privilege?

Think about this in a different context. Every time I’ve listened to people who have returned from a short-term mission in a different country, they comment on how they didn’t realize how rich they were until they saw Third World poverty.

  • They didn’t see their economic privilege of having running water until they saw people who walk miles to the nearest well.
  • They didn’t see the privilege of having a floor until they walked into a hut with a dirt floor.
  • They didn’t see the privilege of owning shoes until they saw people who didn’t.

If you’re immersed in a white bubble, can you even see how that bubble protects and benefits you?

photo by FrakLopez, morgueFile.com
photo by FrakLopez, morgueFile.com

Silence. This is the comment that is most disturbing because it’s not a comment at all. It’s just silence. No reaction to racial violence, no tears, no anger, no grief, nothing. There’s no acknowledgment that this act of hatred ended the lives of actual people. It’s the comment that means you might view the nine victims as numbers, abstractions, statistics.

Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Sr., and Depayne Middleton-Doctor.

They are more than names. They are people. Not statistics. Not abstract concepts. People. (Read more about them here.)   

As Kiara Imani Williams writes,

“The next time you think about these issues, don’t think about them in the abstract. Don’t think about them in a political framework. Make it personal.”

When I make it personal, I see:

  • my daughters’ close friends, two vibrant, funny girls;
  • the vice president of our ladies’ association, who also manages to be the soccer team mom and work and keep our fundraising activities running smoothly;
  • her daughter, the 6th grade SGA president and member of my daughter’s soccer team;
  • her teenage son, who always greets me with a friendly smile even though that probably isn’t ‘cool’ in junior high;
  • my neighbors, the ones who bought my younger daughter an Olaf-the-Snowman t-shirt for her birthday, the one she wants to wear every day;
  • the store greeter who smiles when I come into the store and brightens even a shopping trip at Wal-Mart.

When I see them, it’s impossible to stay silent.

That’s why I was thankful that my church talked openly about the tragedy. Considering that this is a small, almost entirely white church, I feared that it would be glossed over. But our minister spoke about it and about how our own denomination is finally facing its history of racism. The guest minister mentioned it several times in his sermon on (appropriately I think) the armor of God in Ephesians 6.

I’ve had a lot of issues with this church; I’ve written about them in the past. But if they’re serious about racial reconciliation and rooting out the sin of racism, then I’m thankful to be there.

Blog schedule, novel writing, and being invisible at church (again)

Two things.

Number one. I’ve written that I’m starting a new novel. It’s going well, in case you were wondering, but it’s also exhausting: pouring all my creative energies into a first draft doesn’t leave me with enough creative energy to blog several times a week.

So I’m cutting back on my blog until I finish the first draft of The Color of Bones. (That’s my tentative title. Please don’t tell me if some other novel is named that! Or please do, because then I can rename it.)  At the rate I’m going, I should hit my goal of 80,000 words by the end of June.

Until then, I’ll blog once a week. You can use all that time you’d normally spend reading my posts doing something meaningful. (Like watching cat videos on YouTube.)

Number two, on a more serious note. A year and a half ago, I wrote a post called “Me, the Invisible Woman in the Church Pew.” I received quite a few comments. I’m still receiving comments on the post and even the occasional private email, many of them telling heartbreaking stories of being rejected in church.

(I don’t fit in at church is one of the top searches that brings people to my blog. Variations include cliques at church, church cliques, and invisible at church.)

Today, using the information made available by the commenter, I made a chart of their demographics: gender, age, marital status, and whether the person was an introvert or extrovert. I was trying to see what, if any, common denominators they held. Geography didn’t seem to be a factor. Most people didn’t mention denomination or theology.

Out of twenty commenters, sixteen were female, four male. There were a variety of ages and marital statuses mentioned; some mentioned children, others did not.

I had to do a little guessing about the introversion versus extraversion trait. Not everyone mentioned it. But of those who did mention it, a significant percent said they were introverts. This included people who said they had actively tried to participate in church activities, even when they were uncomfortable in groups or were rejected.

These were not passive, sit-on-the-pews types of people who waited for others to come to them. They volunteered. They did Bible studies, led Bible studies, organized fellowships. They did things that many introverts would be exhausted by doing and may or may not have been gifted and called to do.

Yet they still identified with being invisible at church.

Something is wrong.

I know that many pastors and church leaders would recognize this as an issue in their church. But recognizing a problem and finding a solution are two different things. To a certain extent, this problem won’t be resolved in this life; some people are going to be cliquish and unfriendly and show superficial concern for others no matter what. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

So I’d like to hear from those in positions of power (and influence) at church. It doesn’t matter what position, whether you’re paid staff or a volunteer.

  1. How do you perceive this problem? Is it a problem in your congregation?
  2. What are you doing—or have thought about doing—to promote a genuinely friendly church atmosphere? Beyond friendliness, what do you do to promote genuine, deep relationships between the people in your congregation?
  3. Finally, what would you like to see the “invisible people” do? In other words, what do you expect from us, particularly those who have been in the church for years and still don’t feel accepted?

In my experience, it’s relatively easy to help first time visitors feel welcome. (Note “relatively.” I didn’t say it happened often.) They’re more easily identified, for one thing.

By comparison, it’s much harder to help those long time church attenders or members who feel excluded, even after years of attending the same church. They may be involved in volunteer work, etc., and still never feel a part of the church body.

I welcome your thoughts, whether you’re a church leader or not. If you have ideas, please share them.