My friend Hannah sits across from me over a bowl of soup that sits cold and untouched. Tears sit stubborn in her eyes, refusing to make the jump down her cheeks. I eat and listen as she tells me how exhausted she is, how hopeless and rejected she feels and how her church-turned-workplace has transformed from a refuge to a place of stress. For the past year or so she has served faithfully on staff at her church in Atlanta and suddenly finds herself done in every way. She tells me the story, reads me an email and a handful of texts from her pastor-turned-employer who continues to load on demands and responsibilities to her already overloaded plate. For a few weeks now she’s been begging for reprieve and Mr. Pastor/Employer’s responses have been unsympathetic and even reprimanding.
Hannah feels burned, burnt out and betrayed. The relationship that was once that of a sheep and a shepherd now resembles an angry rider atop a tired horse, a bit in her mouth and spurs piercing her sides as she gasps for breath. She tells me she’s quitting. Maybe leaving the church. She just can’t do this anymore.
Hannah’s story is not uncommon and hearing it feels like déjà vu as I relive my own similar story from a while back. Hannah knows I’ve been burned by ministry before too and I think that’s why she feels safe to talk to me about it. I’ve heard it several times before from other friends and countless survey takers in Buenos Aires: altar boys, Sunday school teachers, worship leaders, even ministers, missionaries, and other church employees—faithful church workers that get poured out and trampled upon by their leadership and suddenly find themselves on the fringes of the Church. Sometimes it’s a matter of burn out, sometimes a judgment or character accusation, both of which force a faithful person to feel unworthy of service and a detriment to the ministry.
A few interesting things happen when you find yourself on the fringes of the Church. Initially my spiritual life developed ulcers. I couldn’t swallow or hold down any spiritual nourishment—reading the bible or praying made me feel distraught. I developed a fear of God out of some complex that I was being punished. I knew in my head that I had done nothing wrong but in my heart I felt as if my accusers’ judgments of me were God’s judgments. As I healed and sorted through my feelings, this subsided and I was eventually able to separate the loving character of God from the actions of a single man.
But something else happened to me on the fringes: I encountered Jesus in a way I never imagined. I had been reading through the four Gospels and it was as if I discovered a new light switch in an old familiar room.
I saw for the first time the Jesus who himself wrestled with the religious authorities of his day and was eventually crucified for it. The Jesus whose friends were the marginalized, the beat up and burnt out. The Jesus who defended the accused from those who would stone her. If there was anybody in this world who understood my feelings it was Jesus. He met me there on the fringes.
For the first time I felt more comfortable among nonchristians, folks who had no expectations of me and weren’t judging me according to some impossible standard. It felt safer to be around them than believers. I found myself suddenly identifying with those the Church had marginalized: the LGBT community and other minorities who had experienced the pain church folks are often guilty of inflicting. And we bonded over this Jesus, not the one whose name has been used in vain for political or personal gain.
Eventually I would fall back in love with Christ’s bride and I’ll tell you about that sometime too. But my point is this: experiencing the fringes was a purposeful and necessary pain. One that drew me closer to Jesus and closer to those he’d probably be hanging out with these days. And it shined a light upon my own pharisaical heart and showed me how I too had unknowingly judged or rejected others. It was my time on the fringes that now propels me into ministry.
I look at Hannah. “Another one bites the dust.” Echoes from a snarky dark corner of my heart. But just last week I knelt down before God and thanked him for my time on the fringes, for the beautiful weaving he was making with the frayed edges of my heart.
I hope Hannah will get there too eventually. And it will be this time in her life that she’ll look back on as a time when God held her close and taught her grace. We the Church do so much damage but with God’s help we can be healers too.
God, give us grace that we may right the wrongs we have done. May we show the grace that you have shown us and heal others as you have healed us. Show up in our fringes, Jesus, and weave us back into your heart.