A fear of (church) commitment

I don’t have a church home. Since Christmas Eve, I’ve been to a Sunday morning service once. This is rare for me. Sometimes I work on Sunday mornings, some weeks I sleep in after working late the night before. Other times I just don’t go. It’s not because I don’t like the particular church I’ve been attending, I do. I like the “contemporary” late-morning service and communion every Sunday and the wife and husband co-pastor team. I haven’t gotten involved in any ministries or Sunday school classes or introduced myself to people in the lobby afterward, though. I slip in a few minutes after the service starts and take a seat by myself in the back few rows. After the benediction and closing song, I get my coat and drive to the donut shop that’s on the route home. They’re half price from 11-noon. Praise the Lord! It’s a sweet-toothed introvert’s dream scenario.

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I just finished Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday about her struggle with the church and sort of finding her way back to it through Christian practices. Similar to the last book I finished, Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, Evans doesn’t provide hard conclusions or answers, but she does present thoughtful questions and ideas. She doesn’t shy away from aspects of the Church and specific churches that haven’t sat well with her and ticked her off. But along with those painful stories are moments of love and joy and rediscovery of the mystery of faith and connection. I can relate to Evans’ cycles of connection to and distance from the church and faith. Coming out of 2017, a difficult year for me on many fronts, I felt far away from my own faith and spiritual community. I’ve let that tension sit for a while, focusing instead on reading books and nurturing relationships with people who love me. But now, I’m ready to explore that gray area and figure out what it means for me.

My last experience getting “plugged in” (a Christian-ese phrase worthy of an eye roll) at a church began about a year and a half ago. Different city, different denomination, different relationship status. My partner had just moved to my area of the Midwest and started working in a youth ministry position at a church. I began going to Sunday church services there to support him. Faith is important to me, and I wanted it to be important in our relationship. It made sense that I go to this new church with him. “That’s what people do in committed relationships, right?” I thought.

The church building was tucked onto a street corner on the north side of Chicago, a few blocks from a Family Dollar on Montrose Avenue and Alps Pancake House on Irving and Elston. The pastor was smart and interesting and very welcoming to me. Even so, I struggled with knowing how I fit in. I did my best to introduce myself to people (often multiple times). There weren’t many adults in their mid-20s without kids. I desperately wanted to be known and seen as my own person. I wanted to be involved, but I was also working two jobs and about to start graduate school. Where was the time?

When the bulletin notice came up that the pastor was hosting a membership interest class, I thought, “That’s it! I (actually, we) should become members! We’ll meet people, people will meet us, we’ll be a part of church life. This is the right thing to do.” Looking back, my brilliant idea was lacking some key reasons to join a church. Like, oh I don’t know, maybe because I connect to the ministry and mission work the church is doing and want to be a bigger part of it. Or because I want to be joined with this family and body as a church member. Or because I want to support this particular church with my time, finances, ideas, and heart. I had the “commit” part down. I wonder if being in the midst of that season of heavy commitment–in a marriage-bound relationship and starting a graduate program–caused me to believe that another commitment would help the rest of my life fall into place. I would finally feel centered and on the right track, like a good person/fiancée/Christian/woman. This is what it would take to keep moving my life forward.

So I did it. I met with board members and learned about the history of the church and talked about my “faith journey.” And last spring, I walked to the front of the sanctuary with the other new members to be prayed over and welcomed into the church family. I stood in front of the congregation and an anxious pit in my gut traveled up to my lungs, restricting my breath and pushing my heart to beat faster, faster. This is a visceral response I now recognize as my body screaming, like Miss Clavel in Madeline, “SOMETHING IS NOT RIGHT!” Minus the song.

At that point in my life, I hadn’t yet realized that I was experiencing anxiety and depression. I’d spent all of my academic life studying psychology and behavior and methods of treatment, but I couldn’t fully recognize the signs in myself. Deciding to commit to a church and connect with the people in it while crying in the middle of services, feeling lonely, losing weight, not sleeping…is nearly impossible. Or at least it was for me.

When I consider getting involved in another church now, the underlying emotion that creeps in is fear. I’m afraid that the same things are going to come up: loneliness, anxiety, sadness, depression, isolation. My therapist would probably ask me, “Do you think that’s possible?” Maybe. “Is it probable?” No. The conditions are completely different now, both internally (I’m physically and psychologically healthier) and externally (I’m not in the same city, apartment, relationship, or job). I’m no longer seeking an in-road at a church in order to fulfill some need to be a perfect, committed person.

I could write about the challenges of being part of a church as a single adult woman, but I’ll save that conversation for another post.

I believe that we aren’t meant to live life on our own. And as a Christian, I believe that I’m not meant to experience and explore my faith alone. I want to have people in my life who support me in my faith, people I can engage with on a spiritual level. I want to be known again. So maybe I’m ready to get back to church. Pray for me, friends. Thanks for reading.

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