The Dark Year of the Soul (Part 3)

by Chris TerryNelson

When I attempted to interpret the meaning of my dreams (the tiger eating my dog , the Voice beckoning me to take the leap into the black well to end unnecessary suffering), I began to realize that the dreams were themselves an interpretation of what my life was becoming. I was entering into a kind of paradox whereby I would lose what I had deemed to be the Good as the only gateway into the New – losing God in order to find Self, losing Self in order to find truth, losing transcendence in order to find immanence. God was becoming unnecessary, and because I was letting go of God (and God was letting go me), I began to let go of much more.

I began to feel liberated when I first let go of a specific doctrine and did not perish as a result – in this case, the doctrine of physical resurrection (thanks to a small book recommended by my dear friend, David Congdon, entitled “Secular Christianity” by Ronald Gregor Smith, a student of Bultmann). It wasn’t so much that I felt that physical resurrection had lost a battle to historical criticism – rather, it was lost because it was existentially meaningless to me. Our beliefs are pragmatic tools, and when they stop working for us, it becomes necessary to jettison them in favor of new ones. The more intensely I began to love life on its own terms, the less need I had for God as a mediating being, and the Church as a mediating structure.  I think we often fail to recognize the ways in which the content of belief is not nearly as important as the process of believing itself (something Peter Rollins helped me to recognize in his book, Insurrection). Believing has a certain function that is designed to help us, to act as salve for our woundedness, and it is rarely present-tense. Rather, believing helps give us a narrative of where we’ve come from and where we’re going, but often in a way that is supposed to make the present bearable for us. At best, it gives us an ethical framework for how we are supposed to act in the here and now.

But, as with most cases in which we interpret “evil” to be in the world, there comes a subtle point where one begins to realize that what we thought was a means of survival has actually kept us from thriving. This insight has wreaked havoc in the modern Christian missionary movement, as noted by the book with the succinct title, “When Helping Hurts.” This criticism is exactly what Marx spoke of what he called religion the opiate of the people. Opiates are effective painkillers and can help us to soothe when we are unable to deal with the root causes of the pain.  But they are unable to vanquish the source of pain, and they are also highly addictive, such that we become dependent on them in a way that costs us the very life we were hoping to uphold. As Pete said last night in his talk, “when we accept the promises of Heaven, there is always Hell to pay.”

And individuals aren’t the only ones with hell to pay.  We are beings-in-relation, which means we are believers-in-relation, and the crisis that gives way to change cannot help but create crisis in the lives of those we love and cherish. In the case of a crisis of belief, it’s not the shifting of the content of belief that matters, as much as the process by which it occurs. As the content of my beliefs began to shift (largely in the form of pure loss rather than substitution), I began to feel a strain on my relationships. It turned out that God was functioning as an ideology that helped to mediate my relationships, to give them meaning, to secure them. Of course, to many, I was their pastor. But really I was their friend too, and this was what marked me as a gifted pastor in their eyes. I had no intention of cutting off relationships when I began this journey, but my decision to no longer hinder or repress the change that was happening started putting others on the defensive. They felt like they were personally under attack, that I was hurting them, that I didn’t value my relationship with them. Anxiety was increasing, but as we know with most growth cycles in family systems theory, such anxiety is inevitable. What is not inevitable is how we choose to respond and deal with such anxiety.

My journey was exciting and adventurous as long as I kept it to myself and shared it only with like-minded people. I went to Belfast to hear Pete speak over three days, and made a wonderful group of friends with whom I could feel safe to explore. It was when I returned home, and began a process of “coming out,” so to speak, that I began to feel reality shifting in a not so favorable way. I’m highly sensitive to the anxiety of others, and I have a long history of taking responsibility for making others feel a certain way. My wife was the first to sense this shift in me, and I think she picked up on an emotional distance in me. She wanted to know what I was thinking, but when I would crack open the lid of my mind and heart, she was offended. We were caught in a difficult bind, a dance of ambivalence, whereby I would distance myself, she would pursue, I would turn around and disclose, she would be offended by the content of my honesty (which, I later realized, did NOT mean she was offended by the process of honesty itself!), and I would shutdown as a means of protecting myself and her from the discomfort and anxiety. The problem with shutting down (or stone-walling, as John Gottmann calls it), is it only exacerbates the problems and becomes a kind of relational neglect. My wife felt that I was living a lie, duping people from the pulpit, being inauthentic and lacking integrity. She pushed me, for better or for worse, to disclose the truth about what was going in my mind. My tension, the one I had to hold in the pulpit, was unbearable for her. She walked out of one of my sermons because the pain was too great. I wish I had held myself together, but once again, I felt her response was my fault. And because God was the center of our marriage, I began to feel that my decision to change and shift was a betrayal of our vows.

Church family systems are not unlike marital family systems in terms of how they function, and because I was the same man in the bedroom that I was in the pulpit, the same dynamics began to play out in my ministry. I began to shutdown emotionally as a pastor because I had already written the story of how it would end – there was no way to make it work, no way anybody would understand me, no way to remain a pastor given what was happening to me. What I didn’t realize was that I seriously overfunctioning as a caretaker by taking responsibility for the responses (and yes, some reactions) of my members, and trying to protect myself and them. In truth, knowing family systems theory didn’t help me practice self-differentiation. I was poorly differentiated from the beginning (the only difference is that I can accept that about myself now).

Some members began to pick up on an indifference, a lack of energy, a depressed mood during my sermons. They were emotionally connected with me, and immediately felt a distance. One member followed me into my study in tears and confronted me, saying, “Chris, you’re not yourself. What’s going on? If you’re not happy, you don’t have to stay here. We just want you to be happy!” I later invited this friend over for lunch to disclose how my beliefs were changing. I told her I did not believe in a physical resurrection anymore because I didn’t need to – it was unnecessary for me. Immediately in that moment, I felt her body shift, trying to hold herself together. And to her credit, she did, but in a way that brought a strong and painful boundary to our relationship: “Chris, I appreciate your honesty, but I will not be able to take communion from you anymore.” Again, rather than letting this member have her own experience, I internalized this message and took it personally: I had acted in a form of betrayal, and was responsible for her pain.

I preached a sermon where I attempted to explain my recent lethargy by disclosing my doubts, and preached about the need for the church to be a safe space for doubt and personal transformation. Many members greatly appreciated this disclosure and privately sent me messages of gratitude, sharing that such safety was what they wanted for themselves, and that it was unfair to allow congregants to doubt but not pastors. Unfortunately, not everyone was ready for this kind of self-disclosure, and it kicked up anxiety for them. One elder informed me that a big-giver in the congregation had approached him and said, “If Chris does this again, I’m not coming back. He should’ve dealt with his doubts in seminary!” The elder, being privy to the strained finances of the church, looked at me with great anxiety. He was caught between his duty to the church but also not wanting to see me get hurt. But the damage was done though – I was hurt. And now I was pissed at a church structure that could not journey with me.

I made the mistake of doubling-down in my next sermon. I unleashed a tirade of biblical historical criticism, declaring that a faith uninformed by scholarship is no faith at all, but merely naïveté. This did not go over well, to say the least, because again, it was so unlike me. Where was gentle, loving, Pastor Chris? I had gone from depressed one Sunday, to the point of over-sharing the next, and now angry (an emotion churches are not well-equipped to handle even when expressed in a healthy way).

I had informed my session of elders that I was indeed falling apart, feeling disconnected from my vocation. They wrote to my executive presbyter, who in turn met with me and gave me some wise counsel. At first, our agreement was to create a kind of buffer for self-exploration: no preaching for a month, continued therapy, and time to discern a longer-term plan of action. I told him that not only was I feeling disconnected from my vocation, but that I felt that God no longer was necessary. I met with all sorts of kind and wonderfully supportive pastors who were able to just be present with me in my crisis. Many of them had walked this road before – most had made amends, others had left. The choice was mine to make.

The last couple of weeks were total hell, and I was not of a clear mind. I wrote a sabbatical proposal, with the help of my executive presbyter, and sought approval from the session. But two things had happened right before I submitted it: I had enrolled in a web-development online course (because I felt financially vulnerable in the case that I should have to leave ministry for good), and my wife had gotten a full-time government job. My session wisely explained to me that if I was to take a real sabbatical, I could not begin training for another career (in hindsight, the fact that I had entertained this option openly revealed just how “out-the-door” I was). I ended my proposal in tears, with a huge apology, feeling so sorry for putting them through this, feeling like I was out of control, feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to stay put-together, and disclosing that I was tired of “faking it till I make it.”  After 3 years of ministry, I felt I had not gotten any closer to making it.  And this was not something that could be cured by taking one of those cherished jobs at another church as an associate in an urban context with hip young people.  There was something more afoot for me.

The executive presbyter later informed me that, based on discussion with the session, it would be recommended that I step down as pastor. This was based on two things: first, the nature of my struggle, which would likely not be settled in the short-term, and would leave the church hanging in the meantime, and perhaps create undue pressure on me to “make it work.” Second, I was informed that there were enough influential people in the church who would be extremely difficult to deal with if I returned. In some sense, I was greatly relieved. What really blew me away was that the session agreed to give me 4 months severance, so that there would be no doubt in my mind that they had truly loved me. And, despite all my doubts, I never once doubted the fact that this church had loved and accepted me or my family.  What I doubted was that “God/Jesus/Church” were somehow necessary for such love to occur.

The question was, having been loved and cherished by countless people throughout my life, could I learn to love myself on my own terms? What happens when you show compassion for yourself without God?   What happens when you realize that you’ve based your entire sense of worth on a reflected sense of self, loving and validating others in order to receive love and validation from them?

The tiger is not done with his meal, and the well goes deeper still…