Disentangling a Complicated Web
When every aspect of your life is tied to the Church
Note: The story of my faith journey, church trauma, and spiritual abuse is inextricably linked to the stories of my parents and sisters, but this is my story. Their experiences, memories, and hurt are separate from my own and I do not speak for them. Details are also their own and not mine to share, and so I keep the details where they matter only to my own experiences.
Second note: This piece starts with heavy exposition to set the scene. Our family’s involvement in the Church and my struggles as an adult are complicated in a lot of ways, and knowing how it all started is important to the narrative and reflection.
Growing up, it seemed like we were never not in church.
While my dad served in a congregation when I was born, by the time I could start collecting meaningful memories, he was teaching at one of Detroit’s Lutheran high schools. For eight years, his primary service to the church body was in the classroom. But my parents were also very active in our local church, which was exactly two blocks (one-quarter of a mile) from our house. Every Sunday morning (and every Wednesday during Advent and Lent), our family walked those city blocks and entered through the back door. My dad volunteered in a variety of ways and sometimes taught Bible study, my mom often played organ and observed our behavior from the balcony. We never missed church or Sunday School or a single Vacation Bible School. My parents may not have been working in officially “called” positions, but they felt called to serve in every way possible.
This calling to serve also extended to my schooling. While our church had a preschool that I gladly attended as a four-year-old, it did not have an attached school. However, there was another Lutheran church and school a few miles away that partnered with our congregation to offer students the same discount as members at their church, and so my elementary education started at a Lutheran elementary school in Detroit’s inner city. I had excellent and dedicated teachers who loved me as a student and as a person. I was in class with my best friend, who was also a member of our church. I also attended weekly chapel services heavily steeped in traditional Lutheran worship, complete with nearly weekly singing of Matins. Over thirty years later, I can still easily slip into Matins from the 1982 hymnal without the help of the words and music in front of me. And while it is comforting, I have never understood why they felt that was the best form of worship for a racially mixed student body in Detroit’s inner city.
Church had always been integral to my life, but when my dad took a new position in Illinois the summer I turned nine, our family’s involvement in the Church became even more tangled. Had our family situation not exploded, everything might have been fine. We started the new experience in a new church with my mom continuing at the organ and my dad involved in worship and Bible study, but now our school was also connected to the same church we attended. Every Sunday morning I saw most of the kids I spent every day with at school. I saw my teachers at church. I saw my friend’s parents at church. My worship and school life was completely tangled in everything church, which also means that my social life was primarily tangled in everything church. For the year after my dad resigned from his position, we still faithfully attended with our dad, our mom missing many Sundays so that she would work as an organist at an Episcopal church. As painful as it was for her to not attend with her family, I sometimes wondered if it was easier for her to not be in worship with people who she felt had betrayed our family.
Then we moved to Wyoming. Our new house was across the street from the church where my dad would serve for the next five years. When our new pastor and his family moved in a year later, they were less than two blocks away. Their second daughter became a classmate and best friend and our families spent many hours together over the next four years. Because of my dad’s position and the close proximity of the building, we were at church all of the time. The year after we moved, three of the four of us girls were also attending school directly across the street. Our church involvement deepened as I became involved in youth group and worship and handbells. Even when I started attending our town’s public high school, I still spent most of my spare time involved in church activities.
That began to change some when our family moved back to Michigan the summer before my junior year of high school.1 The new church where my dad served was eight miles away from our house and in a completely different town. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t attend school with the kids at our church. We weren’t involved in the same activities. Sunday morning Bible study usually included me and maybe two or three other teenagers at the church who had no interest in me or what I had to offer them as friends or even acquaintances. Over the next two years, my spiritual nourishment came from my youth group friends outside of my church. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel at home where our family worshipped, and it left me feeling adrift.
By the time I started attending the Lutheran college in Nebraska where my father and several aunts and uncles had attended, I was eager to have the opportunity to attend church where I wanted to, not where my parents forced me to attend. And yet I still ended up attending the large church across the street from campus, enjoying regular contemporary worship for the first time in my life. The freedom to attend church if I wanted to—I still attended out of habit and guilt even when I was exhausted after a long night out with friends—and where I wanted to, was novel, but I embraced it. When I returned home over the summers, I struggled to readjust to the church life my parents had settled into, especially after my dad resigned his position at the end of my freshman year and my parents started attending the Lutheran church close to our house.2
During my college years I was surrounded by fellow Lutherans who had similar worship life experiences as mine. Their entire lives had been tangled up in their involvement in their local churches and many of my peers were preparing for careers in the Church that would send them right back into the worlds they had left behind. And yet for most of us, this was both normal and expected. Very few of us took a moment to discuss just how much of our lives and identities were tied up into our experiences in our local churches.
When Jeff and I got married, I decided we were going to attend the Lutheran church that was closer to our temporary apartment in Southwest Michigan. I was waiting for a teaching position and we were still geographically close to both of our parents, but I had never really felt at home in my parents’ congregation. For the first time, I truly felt like I was making a decision for myself.
My first Lutheran high school teaching position on the far south side of Chicago opened up many doors for us in terms of Lutheran church options, although I was strongly encouraged to attend a church that was a part of the association related to the school. In the three years that we lived there, we never fully settled on a church, although I did eventually transfer my membership to a church closer to the house we had purchased in Indiana. My Christian Reformed raised husband wouldn’t officially join a Lutheran church until years later, when we lived in Fort Wayne.
When we moved to Indianapolis, I fell in love with one church immediately, and for the first time since I was sixteen, I felt like I was home. Leaving to move to Fort Wayne was a punch in the gut, especially since we would spend the next two years church “shopping” to find the right place, only to finally both join a church that felt just mostly right most of the time. The move to Texas settled us into a new church home where I had friends, enjoyed Bible study, and trusted that my children’s bodies and souls were being cared for by their teachers, Sunday school teachers, and Wednesday night leaders.
And then everything fell apart.
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