The Dark Year of the Soul
by Chris TerryNelson
I’ve been waiting a long time to write this post, but now that I have begun, I feel myself wanting to stop. The darkness, the loneliness creeps in, making me wonder if it’s worthwhile to be vulnerable at this stage. I suppose I wanted to wait until I was completely done with preaching before I posted it, for reasons that should be become obvious to you. As many of you already know, I left pastoral ministry in September of 2013. I had been doing pulpit supply every other week at a small Presbyterian USA church about an hour south of Nashville, not only to help pay the bills, but because I felt that I needed to do this to really see if I was still called to the ministry, to see if I could make peace with God and faith and church and serve other people in this capacity. Well, this past Sunday I told them that it was my last Sunday preaching, and that I had taken a job as a full-time audio video technician. I also announced this on Facebook. What concerned most people was the fact that I said it was my last time preaching “ever.” And so I want to explain why I feel that, as far as I know, I will never return to the pulpit, and will be rescinding my ordination on August 12th.
Those who know me best know that while I can put up a good academic intellectual facade, my true self comes alive when my emotional life is engaged. And so, when I talk about my relationship with God, it was an emotional connection to something beyond myself. The way I thought about that connection changed over time, but the feeling was what mattered to me. I felt loved when I was alone – not many people know what that feels like. I recall all the bus rides to and from school, leaning my forehead against the vinyl cover of the seat in front of me, letting my internal world swirl like a spiritual storm. It was vast and beautiful in there, and God was always present to me.
What spurred my faith as a teenager was the fact that it made me feel different and unique at school. It was also what gave me access to my youth group, a select group of peers among whom I felt like I could fit in. It was a place I could explore this inner world with others.
My faith gave me access to community, to tradition, to adulthood. I was an evangelical, but one who was out to prove that you could be evangelical and still be cool. That was always the greatest compliment I could receive from non-believers. That I had somehow managed to not be a total asshole meant that I was an anomaly, that I was special (noticing a theme yet?).
Faith was central to my identity. People respected me for taking it seriously. I truly believe this created a feedback loop that meant I could be alone with God, because of all these benefits – safety, security, identity, love, purpose, etc. I went to work with YWAM (Youth With A Mission) to do a Discipleship Training School for 6 months in Australia. I came home and volunteered with my church youth ministry. I began studying philosophy and theology, but always with an eye towards holiness. Up until this point, my faith had been on a steady growth curve since the age of 12.
And then it happened. My home church underwent a split, and I saw a different side to the adults I had looked up to. It was an ugly side, fueled by anxiety and suspicion. The details don’t really matter, but it was the first time where I saw the church become unhinged. I didn’t know what to do with this new information, because it threatened my plan. I had decided that I would become a pastor, and was leaving for seminary in six months.
It was at that point that I think my faith began to fall apart. However, I managed to stave off this crisis by escaping into my head. And there’s no better place to attempt to put faith into one’s head than in seminary. It’s funny, because there was a woman at church who had warned me that seminary is where faith goes to die. I shrugged this off as a pietistic anti-intellectual truism. But she was right, in a way that betrays the fragility of belief.
Once I began seminary, I began to notice that I was not praying as much. All the evangelical students at Princeton Seminary would complain about how our spiritual lives were drying up. We tried to find the right churches that would give us the worship boost we craved, but mostly we were disappointed and forced into a mainline existence through field education requirements. I ended up doing my field ed. at a PCUSA church plant, and that became a kind of default track (as one pastor joked, the reason to go Presbyterian could be summed up in one word: pension!).
As I spoke with pastors and mentors, they gave me words to describe this experience. It was called a “dark night of the soul,” and it would pass with time. It was part of the test of one’s faith. And so I waited, and waited, and waited. Meanwhile, I was successfully jumping through the hoops of ordination. In my examinations before the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, I began to feel somewhat uncomfortable with the fact that no one was asking me about my relationship with Jesus or my spiritual life. They wanted to know my theology, and I knew how to impress on that front.
My first call was at a small Presbyterian church in Nashville. This church, like the other churches I had interned at, was full of loving people. I was overjoyed that I had even found a call. They believed in me and gave me a chance to grow as a young preacher. They say the first year of pastoral ministry you can do no wrong, the second year you can do no right, and the third year either you or some of your parishioners will leave. Unfortunately, when I came to my third year, both happened. The inner void that I had denied for so long had finally caught up with me. By this time, I had become an expert at speaking in what Eugene Peterson calls “the stained-glass voice.” I knew how to sound pious, and I believed that if I just preached and behaved my way into faith with other people that it would take hold. But it didn’t. We had a wonderful three years together, and the relationships from church are still extremely meaningful to me. The fact that so many people found me to be a helpful, healing presence only exacerbated my own sense that I was really an imposter (another feeling I was told by pastors would go away with time but never did).
I should mention that I was in therapy since beginning my role as pastor, in order to help me process the grief of my father-in-law’s death, and to help me transition into ministry. As I look back, my pastoral counselor wonders if the work we were doing was in some sense a catalyst for the changes that I’m describing to you now. I believe that to be an accurate assessment.
I began to have some scary dreams in my last six months of ministry. The first one was of letting my black lab, Yoshi, outside to go pee in the middle of the night. I stood behind the screen door, waiting for him to come back in. All of a sudden, a tiger appeared. My dog froze and so did I. The tiger lingered towards Yoshi, and stopped in front of him, and rolled over. “Awww, he wants to play!” And so Yoshi, excited by a new and interesting friend, began to play along. They wrestled for a bit, and then things started to turn. The tiger became hungry, more aggressive in its play. It pinned Yoshi down. Instead of nibbling on Yoshi’s ears, the tiger began to bite them off. Pinned down, Yoshi began to whimper for help. I couldn’t move. Slowly the tiger picked him apart, until I couldn’t take it anymore, and woke up. I had a migraine that day, but had to show up for a presbytery meeting. I got to the meeting, but was in such bad shape that I had to leave. I pulled over to the side of the road and called my wife, as if i had just witnessed a real trauma. I didn’t know what the dream meant, but I felt like I needed to leave the church in order to get relief. My wife promised me that I could do that, and that we would be ok.
After some counseling sessions (some with my therapist and others with dear friends late into the night), I realized that I was simultaneously playing all three roles in the dream: me the bystander, me the dog, and me the tiger. I was watching myself fall apart. At first I enjoyed the novelty and the play of the new, but then the reality of decay set in.
I’ll tell you about the second dream in my next post. Thank you for journeying with me thus far.