I used to be a minister. I love(d) God, Jesus, and worship. I can safely say I’ve experienced God in personal ways. The path into and out of ministry is interesting and has its fair share of lessons.
I still believe in God and Jesus, but I no longer go to church. In fact, I attribute church to the downfall of my marriage and two deeply spiritual traumas which soured me to religion altogether. Perhaps things will change, but for now I’m content to live life apart from God and be the prodigal son, so to speak.
I did not grow up as a church-goer. My dad was agnostic/atheist. My mom was a recovering Catholic. Church was a Christmas and Easter thing. We went sparingly to sing carols on Christmas Eve, but that was it.
As someone who is not very bright (even though I scored high on standardized tests to be placed in classes with students a grade-level above me in elementary school, I had to be tutored when I was in junior high so I wouldn’t fail my classes; I still think I may have some undiagnosed learning disability), my mom did not blame me for not performing well in school, but the schools themselves. She wanted me to go to Archbishop Mitty High School. This was 1991.
I got in and was exposed to religion on a daily basis. Everything–and I mean EVERYTHING–was Catholic. The freshmen orientation had prayers. Kids were making the sign of the cross. Catholic mass on the first day of school, and I had never gone to a Catholic service before; I took communion not knowing I wasn’t supposed to take communion. Crosses and religious art were in every hallway, classroom, and office. I remember thinking “Where the fuck am I? What the fuck did I get myself into?” My first two years, all I wanted to do was go back to my old school, be with my old friends, and was thoroughly depressed (don’t worry, that’s another story/lesson I’ll share).
Junior high and high school are formative years, especially if you’re a shy kid with a huge sex drive. Puberty hit me early in seventh grade and I became obsessed with girls. All I wanted was a girlfriend, but I was so awkward that girls knew to keep their distance. After years of having my heart broken numerous times in ways that seem earth-shattering at the time, a girl finally noticed me my junior year. She was a senior and very religious. She was also the chaplain’s teacher-assistant. She was my first in many things physically (not sex, remember she was very religious, but basically everything else including being my first kiss) and introduced me to the school’s chaplain who took me on my senior year. That was the beginning of my time in campus ministry, and religious life in general.
I liked it. I had always believed in God, but never explored religion since it meant rules and morality, like no sex before marriage. But I gave it a shot. I was baptized and confirmed my senior year. Spirituality was now a part of my life, and I explored.
Through a series of events in which I ebbed and flowed with my spirituality, I met up with my friend from Mitty at UCSB who became an evangelical Christian and is still a model Christian to this day. He was part of GCF, the Gaucho Christian Fellowship. I started going to Bible studies, exploring God, and even started leading Bible studies (again, another story that will be told). I met my future wife through GCF. I went to Goleta Community Covenant Church, which was awesome. The pastor was great, the fellowship was great, I was growing so much. I LOVED going to church. It was the only time in my life when I actually looked forward to going to church. I remember crying as the pastor prayed over us at our last service before coming home since I knew things would change; I feared I would never find another church like GCC, and I was correct.
I came home to San Jose and did not find a church I liked (surprise, surprise). I drifted away, started a job, and was quickly losing the faith I had grown to love. I was still dating my future wife, but she was working on the East Coast.
(A note: my future wife grew up in the church. She was very involved and took to church like a fish to water. She was always my encouragement during times in which my faith waned. She still encourages me today.)
I hated my job. Long hours, no social life. I grew really fat and depressed. I remembered my college years and how much joy I had in church. By this time, I was married but still not happy. Maybe I was so depressed because God was calling me to a life of ministry, and I was ignoring His call? Maybe?
I enrolled in seminary and my first class was New Testament Theology: the Gospels. WHAT A CLASS! It was so awesome to learn so much about the Gospels I had never known existed! I figured all classes in seminary must be like this class, so I decided to keep going. Unfortunately most of the other classes were drab and boring. But I stuck it out for five years, working and going to school at night and on weekends. I eventually earned a Master of Divinity. I was on my way!
Ironically graduating seminary was the beginning of the end of my spiritual career. I was working part-time at a church that was very affluent and very nepotistic. The saying “it’s not what you know but who you know” rings especially true for this church where there’s an established social hierarchy and people want to ascend to the inner pastoral staff’s circle. Pastors selected are close friends of pastors already on staff. The pastor I worked for/under probably had/has no business being a pastor, but because he was a protege of one of the senior pastors, he was hired as one of the youth pastors after not succeeding as an executive at a clothing retail company.
My wife and I were attending this church when she returned from the East Coast. While it didn’t have the same authenticity of GCC, it had good messages from the lead pastor and a good community, so we went.
I knew landing a job there was slim to none since I was an outsider, not someone plugged into the church, even when they split and planted a new church in Willow Glen. This particular pastor assured me he would “go to bat” (literally his words) for me in my job search as a reference, so imagine my surprise when I was turned down at a church in Pleasanton because of a bad reference. He gave me what he felt was an “honest review” of me, which is to say he did not recommend me for various reasons. At the same time, the church plant he was part of also hired someone to do youth ministry, a kid who was a family member of a staff member. He had no problem using me for a stop-gap, but no intention of hiring me, or letting another church hire me. Nepotism combined with hypocrisy at a church? Say it ain’t so!
That’s when I was exposed to a brutal truth I did not want to believe with churches: most are not concerned with the spiritual well-being of others if it means having to focus their attention on their flaws. They would rather live with the flaws and hurt people than admit flaws and work to correct them.
This was reinforced at the next and last church for which I worked. A retired classmate of mine at Fuller recommended me as a part-time youth pastor since the church was dying. The lead pastor was simply too old and politically conservative to be an effective minister in Silicon Valley and the church couldn’t afford to keep two full-time ministers on the payroll. I came into a dying church without much hope. They still used the organ, sang hymns, and had a very “old people” feel despite efforts to adopt to a changing Silicon Valley culture.
The church council knew things needed to change to keep the church going. They tasked me with exploring a second service focused on my generation while the lead pastor was off on one of his many church-funded missionary trips to Africa in which he was referred to as “bishop” and treated with pomp-and-circumstance as if the president himself came to town. I explored it with church members and everyone was excited to be part of something new and exciting. It was organic, not forced, a clear indication that this was a blessed commission. When the lead pastor heard that I was commissioned to do this, he squashed the idea, told me that I work for him and not the council, and quickly reasserted his dominance that he leads the church and we need to follow him as he follows Christ. Fascism in the church is real.
Needless to say the church continued to decline and the council decided changes needed to be made. It was floated to hire me as the new senior pastor and let the previous senior pastor work part-time while transitioning to retirement (truth be told, he would have worked until the end; he had a huge paycheck, could make his own schedule, and answered to almost no one). At a council meeting, they floated the idea to him, and in order to save his own job, he threw me under the bus and staved off being fired with the promise that if things didn’t change in the next year, he would quit (he quit a year later after things didn’t change). This was the second time a so-called minister threw me under a bus. Fool me once . . . I quit and have had a sour taste in my mouth ever since. If God wants to enable these pastors to run His church, I’ll just not go anymore. I tried going to a final church, and while it wasn’t terrible, I saw a lot of the politics I saw in previous churches and could not invest. My faith in church was dead.
This was also the beginning of the end of my marriage as my wife has always been a church goer. According to Job, I should let the abuse endure and be okay, but I’m not Job. Those “pastors” weren’t pastors, they were self-righteous leaders who assumed that because they were put in positions of spiritual power, whatever they did was ordained by God in some strange way. They had no problem with the abuse they inflicted since they were pastors, and my hurt was simply my problem. I lost faith in churches in general and in a marriage where faith is important, a schism formed that could not be repaired. I grew unhappy in my marriage, but that’s another story.
I try to be a good person. I try to be caring and sacrificial for others. But I learned that in order to be happy with who I am, I shouldn’t feel abused or disrespected or uncared-for by others. This is a lesson I’m still in the process of learning, but thankfully now I’m starting to see that when I feel I’m being taken for granted, used, or treated in ways that lack respect, I need to get out of that situation or else I’ll continue to see myself of unworthy of being loved. We all want to be loved, and I hope we all can find people that show their love in actionable ways. The churches preached a good game, but their actions showed a different truth than the ones they were preaching.