Almost exactly 12 years ago this month, I had a free-fall out of a mega-church pastor job that landed me on the side of the road, bleeding, broken, and questioning pretty much everything that I believed.
Damn, that’s a long time.
Some days, honestly, it feels like yesterday.
For me, this crisis of faith and ministry was one of the best things that ever happened to me – and also one of the most brutal. There were days I could barely breathe, and then there were other days I couldn’t get enough of the fresh air and freedom that being untethered to a dysfunctional system brought.
That particular moment in my story 12 years ago was centered on issues of destructive power, equality for folks on the margins, and the fall-out of using my voice in a system that truly wouldn’t tolerate anyone rocking the boat. But the truth is that my faith shift wasn’t just about what happened at big church. It was about what had been happening for many years leading up to it—the controlling leadership, the gifted women who never held any power, the certainty about the Bible that didn’t at all resonate with my experience with it, the homogeneity of the groups I was in, the Christian bubble, the ugliness against the LGBT+ community, the looking-good-on-the-outside-but-suffering-on-the-inside with no safe places to share it.
I am thankful for this fall out, though, because it lead to an unraveling that even 12 years later, still has new layers to unwind.
During this season of what in Faith Shift I call Unraveling—when everything we once knew comes part—I lost my ability to read the Bible without feeling completely allergic to it, to sing worship songs in any shape or form, to listen to a sermon on pretty much any topic, to pray without wondering “who in the $*#&!$&! am I even praying to?” or to hear people quote scripture verses without breaking out in hives.
In Unraveling, when we lose particular beliefs, we begin to lose the structures that are built on those beliefs (churches, ministries, groups). When we lose those structures, we lose relationships, friendships, and people we used to think were our family, our forever friends. And then, when we lose all of those things, we often end up losing our identity.
Who are we without particular beliefs?
Who are we apart from the churches or ministry roles or groups we were affiliated with?
Who are we if we aren’t sure what we believe or if we even believe at all anymore?
So much of my identity was built on being a good and faithful Christian woman, a team player, a you-can-always-count-on-me-to-play-nice kind of person. Unraveling lead me to become comfortable with a feeling that I was not used to feeling—disapproval.
People around me were shocked that I was no longer playing nice.
They were stunned by my anger and honesty.
They were completely freaked out that I was saying things about God that felt like heresy to them
In my opinion, living with others’ disapproval is one of the most important parts of faith shifting. In systems that thrive on conformity and homogeneity, many of us didn’t learn to individuate properly, to own our thoughts, feelings, actions, and beliefs. I know some people truly did like me more when I was toeing the line, nodding my head, and doing-what-I-needed-to-do-to-belong.
I have been accused of being angry, rebellious, divisive, unfaithful, and leading people astray.
The truth is just that 12 years ago I learned to become more honest.
Honest about my questions and doubts about God.
Honest about my questions and doubts about church.
Honest about my questions and doubts about the Bible.
The saddest thing to me is how few spaces we really have to be honest. The churches I was part of said that we could, but the truth is that we really couldn’t. Our honesty would be met with solutions or prayers or advice or sometimes even church discipline.
12 years later, the thing I’m most grateful for is the healing that happens when we become more honest and connect with other people who are truly honest, too. People who don’t try to fix us or bring us back to church or pray for us to “come back to Jesus”, but who are asking the same questions, sharing the same doubts, wrestling with the same fears, and are brave enough to share it out loud, too.
This is why spaces like Nomad, and others I know of, are so healing. Kindreds help us survive. They help us not feel quite so crazy. They help remind us we’re not alone.
On some days I still can’t believe how little has come back for me—how allergic I still am to worship music, how tough it is to engage with the Bible freely, how I can’t fully articulate what I believe without immediately poking holes in it.
On other days I am beyond grateful for the freedom I can now walk in, unhindered by systems telling me what’s acceptable and what’s not. For an ever-expanding view of God that sometimes makes me smile. For the diverse relationships I have with people from other faiths or no faith at all. For being able to follow Jesus and not have to check off a long list of what that means in terms of specific beliefs. And for the beautiful gift of living with the “I don’t knows” and not worrying about striving to find the answers.
My guess is that in the Nomad community people are all over the place when it comes to how long you’ve been wrestling with their faith, how you got there, and how you’re doing in it, but my hope for all of us is the same—keep walking. It’s a bumpy, weird, and lonely road, but it does, indeed, lead to new life.
If you want to learn more about Kathy’s faith journey, and the lessons she’s learnt along the way, then have a look at her book Faith Shift: Finding Your way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart. She also blogs and runs events and courses, all of which you can find out about at her website.