Friday, October 15, 2010

gender, identity and the church

About a year ago, I was sitting in my therapist's office, answering for her a question I've answered many times before, to interlocutors both hostile and friendly: "why do you stay? why don't you just leave?"

Let me back up a bit. My very first appointment with this therapist, where you go through all the basic obvious stuff like who you are and what's driven you to seek therapy, I felt compelled to begin with, "Okay...well, to understand me and why I'm here, I'm going to have to explain something else first. Have you ever heard of the Churches of Christ?"

So, it shouldn't have been surprising to this doctor--and she was a pretty good therapist, so I'm pretty sure it wasn't, actually--that when I answered her "why don't you leave" question, I started talking about issues of identity. After all, I had begun my answer to "who are you" with explaining that to understand who I am and what my "issues" are, first you have to understand something about my church.

So, I said to her what I've said to many people in various ways: how can I leave something that is my home, a community that has shaped who I am, a people who have helped form me into the person I am today (however much they may not like the result)? How do you "leave" your own self?

It's not that it's impossible to do. I've had a front-row seat to observe what it means and what it takes to "leave." And so I know, not just by my own instincts, that it means redefining who you are.

I came across an observation just this week, from a friend of a friend, that leaving the CofC was harder than coming out of the closet. Think about that for a moment. Yeesh.

My therapist was slightly confused by this strong correlation of personal identity and church. I have a feeling she refrained from suggesting this was slightly cult-like. When I insisted to her that I was not alone or unique in this--that everyone I know in a similar situation to my own expresses this dilemma in the same way, as an issue of identity, I think she was even more confused. It didn't make sense to her that my sense of self would depend on this community that was less than affirming of the entirety of who I am. It seemed masochistic, backward, undifferentiated, and problematic--and if this wasn't simply my personal hangup but a broader problem for other people like me, then something must indeed be systemically wrong.

I parse it differently. Yes, there's something wrong, something systemically wrong, in our communities that are producing identity crises in people. But what's wrong is parasitic on what we're actually doing right.

So what is that we're doing--both rightly and wrongly? What we're talking about is one of the main functions of the church, the process of spiritual and personal formation. In our churches, this starts with "Cradle Roll" and never stops--adult Bible study classes in your average Church of Christ are a huge ministry priority. Now, if you're someone who's seriously interested in the process of catechesis and spiritual formation then there are a million things to talk about, positive and negative, about how churches in our tradition go about this ministry and how it might be better. My point is simply that it happens.

Within this process of spiritual and personal formation, we teach something important and theologically fundamental, again and again. We teach people who they are. This begins in Sunday school with felt boards and internalizing the narrative of God's creation. Who are we? We are creations of God. It continues up through elementary school age classes on topics like baptism and even in youth group studies on topics like how to avoid backrubs from the opposite sex. Who are we? Baptized believers, the elected and saved, children of God, joint-heirs with Christ, ambassadors for Christ.

In a broad but real sense, we get this right. We teach people who they are. We teach that everyone is a creation of God, a child of God, elected and saved, baptized and gifted with the Spirit, joint-heirs with and ambassadors for Christ. We teach that this gift of beloved, sought-after, dearly paid for, identity is intended for every human being on this planet. We get this part right.

So what goes wrong? How could someone brought up learning that their identity is chosen, loved, cherished, elevated, and gifted by God end up in an identity crisis fostered by the same community that taught them these things?

Answer: that someone is female.

Here's how it happens. (This is not theoretical. Nor, I hasten to add, is it merely personally anecdotal. This is a pattern traced out in the multiple narratives here on this blog and at Half the Church.) It happens like this: we believe it. We believe what the church teaches us about who we are. We internalize it. It becomes how we define ourselves and our relationships, not just to the church, but to the world. It shapes how we envision our future, our goals, our entire life. It shapes our desires, our choices, our sense of vocation.

And one day, when we bring the gift of who we are back to the church who taught us who we are, we are told: No. No, that's not the whole story of who you are. Or, yes, but. Yes, these things apply to you because they apply to everyone, but. They apply, but they apply differently. Yes, you are a creation of God and a child of God; yes, you are elected and saved; yes, you are baptized and gifted with the Spirit; yes, you are joint-heirs with and ambassadors for Christ--but, despite all of that, here are the things that you can't do. Because although these things apply, they carry an implicit limiting condition on what they can mean...for a woman.

Identity crisis? You bet. Because it's not simply about roles. It's not simply about a list of do's and don't's. It's about what it means to be a woman in our churches: someone to whom all the adjectives of Christian identity apply--until you take them seriously in all their fullness. Most women in our churches learn the implicit conditional on their Christian identity--soak it up at the same time they soak up everything else, and, most women in our churches, I dare to say, don't recognize the theological limits it implies. Which means that it's just a handful of women who, believing these lessons so utterly and staking their identities on them so thoroughly, find this theological limitation and reject it as impossibly contradictory to all they've been taught in their church their whole lives about who they are.

Ever wonder, along with my therapist and they countless others who've asked me this question, why these women don't simply leave? This is why. They are bringing to the church its own teaching about who they are, and asking it, "weren't you serious about this? didn't you mean it?" Ever wonder why these women typically spend years banging their head against the altar, saying these things over and over, until finally if they leave, they do so with bloodied foreheads and weary spirits? Because they're coming back again and again to the church with its own message of Christian identity, asking the church to simply recognize its own teachings.

It's not a Messiah complex, no matter what my therapist (probably) thought. It's not altruism. It's simply inevitable. Rightly or wrongly, wisely or foolishly, at some level, we're returning to the ecclesial authority of our lives, seeking affirmation of our identity where we were first taught to embrace it as our own: creations of God, children of God, elected and saved, baptized and gifted with the Spirit, joint-heirs with and ambassadors for Christ. Isn't this for me? Or are you going to take it all back?


Quiara said...

Jen, you write the things I want to say so often. The comment of your friend? That leaving is harder than coming out of the closet? I get that. I've said before that leaving the c's of C earlier this year is the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I stand by that. (And I've done some things that to the outside observer would seem a great deal harder.)

I've written about it a bit on my ordination blog, but it doesn't even start to sum it up.

But one thing I've learned that those who "hold out hope" for my return have yet to accept: I can't go back. As one female minister I work with now says, "When you've been freed, you don't go back to Egypt."

In leaving, something broke. And I can't figure out if it was a bridge or just me, but something is gone now. I still consider myself a member of the church that didn't want me, but I won't be able to attend one anymore.

But even then, I couldn't go that far. I wound up seeking ordination in a Disciples church, which is (as you know) sibling to the c's of C anyway.

JJT said...

I think the best thing people can do is find a community that affirms the fullness of those teachings of Christian identity--then, redefining "who you are" can be an act of affirmation, not negation. I'm glad you have. And yeah--how could you "go back?" It would be like voluntary spiritual amputation...

Hope said...

The older I become, the less I feel that I belong anywhere--and yes, I feel the proper Southern Reformation-esque shame that my elders would expect of me over that statement.

Rachel said...

Jen, Thank you so much for this post. I am really struggling with these issues. I just moved back to the south from Brookline CofC, which practices gender equality. I'm having trouble "going back" and also struggling to move forward somewhere else. This is a painful place in which to stand. Although I wouldn't wish it on anyone, I am glad for the company.

Indie Pereira said...

Just asked a friend if she thought it was harder to come out or to leave CofC and she said they were one and the same for her.

I agree with Quiara about never being able to go back. Never, never, never.

Mary Lou said...

Well said, Jen. I am struggling with issues of identity right now too, and although I'm not struggling to be a preacher, I come at the questions with so much extra baggage in my head from all the years of forced separation in my head--yes, you could be President. Yes, you can be a lawyer. Yes, you can be on the board of this or that organization. No, you can't lead singing at church. No, you can't serve communion.

It is hard to describe to someone who's not one of us. My therapist is Southern Baptist. I think she pretty well gets it.


Travis said...

My departure from the Church of Christ was easier than most. Partly because my leaving had nothing to do with my gender or my sexuality. I am a heterosexual male. I could have made it work. But I realized that in staying, I would never be the person I was created to be.

Since college, my MO has been “change agent.” It has been a long time since I appreciated the COC for what it was. I always looked at it for what it should be...or what I needed it to be. I wanted change, but ultimately I needed change for my sake, so that I could stay.

What broke my hold on the COC was the realization that no one really had my back; that is, I could want for change all day, but there would never be someone there to give me the support--and power--I needed to change the system. The institution has no power, and without power there will be no change. We can talk, share stories, change a few hearts, transform a few congregations (maybe) into truly inclusive, welcoming places, but the institution will remain, largely, untouched. Other denominations who have changed did so from the top down. Yes, there were grassroots movements, but ultimately, those grassroots got power, and decisions were made by the institutions themselves to change, whether local congregations were ready or not. Hearts followed (and some left the institution), but the change was made first.

In the COC, we have no mechanism for change. We have no “top” to go “down” from. Yet many act as if we do. We make grand statements, calling for change. We have “summits” and “conferences” and “lectureships” and we talk a lot of great stuff, but when we return to the congregation, nothing is different. People are given a hope that cannot be delivered.

Personally, leaving was easier than I expected. I left the pulpit to step into a great job. When we moved to New Orleans, a city without a COC stronghold where we had no relationships, we were able to find a great church that loves and supports us. It happens to be Methodist, but that’s not why we chose it.

We’ve been members for around 6 mos, and already my wife has been asked to teach the Adult Sunday school, pray publicly and serve communion (more than I’ve been asked to do publicly, mind you ;-). I’ve been asked to serve on the Church council next year.

In leaving, I’ve found peace and a place were I can be myself. But I’ve found more--a place that makes me a better person. A place I love, not for what it could be, but for what it is, and what we can become together. A place that makes me love God and people more. I even love the church more, and I love and the COC more, as well. Because now, I’m not stuck in a place that’s not a good fit. Now I can love this church that nurtured me for the good that it is, and that it brings to so many people.

If God cares about all this church stuff like we do, I’m sure she would want for us to find a place where we fit. A place that welcomes and loves us, not in spite of who we are, but because of who we are and what we can bring to this community. A church that leaves us better than we were when we entered. I think the COC can do that, for some people. But for many of my peers, it can’t and never will. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, evil or ungodly. It’s just not enough. It has been the vehicle through which God has given us our identity, but it’s not the only vehicle. Some of us need more, and we must go to where we can find it. But to stay and be denied our identity, this is not, I believe, what any God would desire for her children.

For me, the journey through the COC has been a journey of finding and embracing my identity. The COC put me on this path, but the path has taken me through her into new places. I have not lost any part of my identity along the way. Instead, I’m finding new and amazing things about myself that I never knew was there. I thank the COC for setting me on this journey, and I’m glad that I have been able to find other places to help me continue.

Keith Brenton said...

And Travis still uses the word "we" when he speaks of churches of Christ. I'm sure I would, too, if I could leave. It does become an element of our individual identities, and that bothers me.

I remain in a church family I have been a part of since 1984. I work there full-time. Have for five years. Love them. Love my job. I don't feel free to teach what I have come to believe on a number of matters which do not conform to church of Christ orthodoxy. I don't feel free to leave.

I fight the battle of Bedford Falls on the internet, when and where I can - and have the energy. I don't mention that among church family. I hope each time that it won't be filtered to someone in my church family who will want me to be fired over it.

(Though after the next issue of New Wineskins opens this week, that may not be something I can hope for anymore.)

SteveA said...

As a CofC preacher's kid, Harding grad, former mission intern, etc., I know how you feel. Had not heard before about it being easier for a gay CofC person to come out than leave "the church". That is all the more poignant in the light of recent gay-bullying induced suicides. Thought of your post when listening to that viral city councilman's testimony about growing up gay.

I've always thought the CofC would change. It seemed there was a lof ferment for that in the late sixties early seventies with the appearance of "Voices of Concern", Mission, and Integrity magazines. But it fizzled, unfortunately. At least some of the big city churches have opened up to a degree. And, I'm happy with my younger son's experience at Lipscomb.

MollieRMS said...

It's always such a loaded conversation. Are we "giving in" if we don't leave? Am I not fulfilling God's plan for me? Because, dang it, I don't want to leave! My CoC heritage runs deep in me and is attached to the core of who I am. I don't want to get tired and leave. Like Naomi said in the podcast, if I can't be strong enough to stick it out, who will? When will change happen if everyone who wants change, leaves? It's a scary thing. I don't know who or what I would have become if, when I began showing signs of ministry leadership, I'd had the FULL support of my elders. But I do know that I want my daughter connected to the rich and beautiful heritage of the CoC and our family for at least six generations. AND I want her to embrace fully the gifts given to her by God. I don't believe it's impossible. I can't. And I don't have it in me to give up. I've never been much of a quitter, anyway.

Scott Lybrand said...

JTB --

Thanks for this post. A couple of unorganized observations:

1. I now think of The Episcopal Church as "my" church. The migration has taken some time, but TEC is now my home. But, like Travis, I still use the word "we" when I talk about the CofC. You are right -- something about this denomination gets into your marrow and won't come out. I can leave, but I can never really leave.

2. The point of coming out of the closet is achieving true integrity of person (body, soul, spirit?). Coming out is first and foremost a search for wholeness. If you do not feel whole, if you cannot live an integrated life, perhaps it is time to move on.

3. It's just fucking hard (pardon my French). It just is. Tonight I was talking about my experiences to a group of fellow LGBTQ Christians, and I found that I still feel a deep sense of loss. And a little bit of anger. I think back on the years I was leaving the CofC as years wandering in the wilderness. Redefining who you are, learning to speak a new denominational language, and stepping (or being pushed) out into an unknown world is just...hard.

4. I secretly hope you stay. I secretly wish I'd stayed.

5. You are certainly correct that the identity crisis results largely from what the CofC does right. I cared about the church because it cared about me first. I was taught, nurtured, and loved by Churches of Christ, and I loved them in return. But when I tried to be the Christian I was made to be, my ministry was rejected. And continues to be rejected. Cue identity crisis.

6. Godspeed.

Dan Carlson said...

Like Travis, I'm a straight white male, which means I could pretty much have my run of any C of C. Yet even though I grew up attending one, raised by parents who both grew up attending one, I feel completely unattached to the group, and have for years.

Jen, you wrote that believing and internalizing the C of C's particular brand of theology is what drives women to identity crises. I think it's that same habit of internalizing it that makes "leaving" it so difficult. The C of C is notorious for (among other things) a blazingly condescending attitude toward any group that isn't the C of C, and thanks to pithy statements like "Speak where the Bible speaks, be silent where the Bible is silent," it's easy to see why many in the group think they haven't just found Christ but found the only avenue to him. That's why, for many, leaving is so hard: there's a part of you, however small or unnoticed, that thinks staying is the only way to be faithful.

I left -- or rather, drifted away -- after years of bland and unengaging classes, sermons that focused more on being nice than on the theological ramifications of following Jesus, and a fiercely blinded attitude toward change. For example, I love the sound and blend of acappella singing, but I find it idiotic when people presume that instrumental worship is somehow theologically wrong. It was exhausting trying to keep up with all the ways personal preferences were being passed off as spiritual truths. There are other reasons, but they're for another time.

Bottom line: I feel unattached to the C of C but not sure where to go or what to do. Haven't attended any church since around the spring of '08.

JJT said...

I do think that the hardline sectarianism complicates things--and that even progressive c'sofCs that have softened up on that traditional sectarianism often carry around a mitigated form of it in a sort of self-assured sense of being more doctrinally "right" (Christians only=not the only Christians, but the most correct Christians?).

But for me personally that's not been the primary issue prompting the identity crisis. It's much more that walking away would mean negotiating how to maintain the identity formed by the church, without the church there to affirm it.

But that's also a way of describing staying "in," isn't it, so what's the difference between staying or leaving, in that sense?