if you’re just joining the conversation here, i am in the middle of posting a series of interviews with people i know both in and outside of the refuge who for all kinds of reasons live “on the margins.” sometimes it’s the margins of society, other times it’s the margins of “the church.” sometimes it’s both. so far, we’ve touched on:
although i will never be able to hit all of the issues that people struggle with that somehow make them feel relegated to the margins, i do hope that we can somehow connect the dots to the parts that we or others might relate to. when i was reflecting on the last post about special needs kids, i was thinking that many of the same issues apply to parents of kids who are struggling with drugs, alcohol, depression, and a wide range of other issues that somehow edge them off to the fringes of the average church. i am guessing that many parents can relate to christina’s feelings in that respect.
with that said, i wanted to give you entrance into an unfortunately very typical story of a dedicated christian leader who ended up getting a divorce and suddenly found himself on the “outs” of church. yeah, i know many who can relate. it is so sad for me to say this, but i really think the average suburban church is made for the average couple with a few well-behaved kids (note that i’m not saying all churches, just the average kind, i know there are many communities deeply dedicated to singles, etc.). but what happens when marriages fall apart and all that was once shiny and happy is no more?
unfortunately, many times folks really just don’t do well with this kind of pain & those in the midst of it often end up feeling tossed aside, ignored, abandoned, ditched, or dismissed. here’s a look into one person’s story. i met “jake” this past year through another friend. he lives across town & we hang out for coffee now and then. i love his heart, his honesty, his pursuit of healing. but i hate what happened to him when the fallout of his divorce ravaged his faith, his heart, his ministry:
share a little of your background, what your faith journey has sort of been like, and how you found yourself divorced after years of ministry?
I grew up in a fundamental type of church and “prayed” to receive Christ” at a young age, but it was not until I was in college that I really had a good handle on what it meant to be a follower of Christ at least as the Evangelical Church would describe it. My wife and I were very involved in our church, teaching Sunday School, Deacon, Trustee, all different areas of leadership. We spent 10 years in Asia as Missionaries and then I spent 9 years leading a Faith Based Non Profit working around the globe. Being a guy and a workaholic, doing God’s work, I guess that I missed something along the way as far as taking care of my marriage: two years ago my wife told me she was leaving me. I was in shock as she followed through with the divorce.
can you describe what the initial response was to you, a person in leadership, having a crumbling marriage?
Out of fear I kept it very secret as long as I could. I knew from past experience that this was not going to be a good thing. I have seen others marginalized and in many cases “put out” of the group because of divorce, it was like they suddenly came down with a disease. I only shared the issue with a couple of people and when things finally came to the point of needing to be public a lot of people told me that “they would be praying for us” but very few took any time to go further than that. I also began to get the feeling that I was now somehow on the outside or at least looked at as having “an issue” that they did not know what to do with, secretly hoping that maybe it will somehow just go away. I think that the initial response was one of fear. I had a couple of people who said “if this could happen to you, what could happen to us?”
how did your divorce throw you into the category of being “marginalized”?
First off I lost my job, the Board of Directors did not see how they could have a leader who was divorced or at that time going through a divorce. At that point I was out of a job and not sure exactly where I fit in the Christian culture.
what were some of the places that you have found relief during your healing journey post-divorce?
Truthfully, I found most of my relief in 3 places. My patio and front porch, where I would sit and smoke a cigar (I know, really nasty) and either listen for God to speak or often shout at him about my situation. Second was with a couple of good friends who would just sit and allow me to talk. Third was with a Divorce Recovery Group that I joined. Honestly, it was a lot of time alone and just allowing God to talk to me and me to him.
what have been some of the greatest sources of pain in the process?
Besides the actual divorce and the pain of the rejection, it has been the rejection that I have felt from the “Christian” friends that I thought I had and people in general who just do not know how to come alongside another person in pain. It is the judgment that I have felt from the evangelical world–not the church as an organism but the church as an organization.
where was God in all of this, what were some of the things you would cry out to him?
God was there and he showed up in many different ways, through people and phone calls at just the right time, by talking to me while I was on the patio or porch, by allowing me to vent my feelings, frustrations, pain, fear and just making me feel like I was not being judged like I felt from church people.
what has it felt like for you, to become an “outsider” after so many years as an “insider”?
The worst feeling is that I no longer have a place at the table, I know that I have almost 40 years of experience both in churches, on the mission field, in organizational leadership, but I am no longer welcome. I no longer have a voice in any of the circles I used to be in. I feel like it is a waste of me and what I really do have to offer.
what are some of the things that have shifted in your faith post-divorce?
God has become more real to me, personally. I must have time now in silence and sitting with him. It is no longer about “doing more” for God but “allowing my being” to be attached to him. I want to believe that I am no longer as judgmental as I once was. I am learning it is about journeying with others where they are not where I think they should be in their faith/life journey.
what are some of the things that have shifted in your relationship with “the church” post-divorce?
I am no longer attending an evangelical church. I have no plans on moving back into that world unless there is a bolt of lightning or direct message from God. I do attend on an irregular basis services at an Anglican church close to my home but the Priest and I have a deal: I am just there to hide and meet God in a formal way. My new church is a small group us who get together once a month for poker and fun. We do more “church” in that setting than I have done in years.
can you describe what you have lost.
First and foremost, I lost my identity. I also lost what I thought was my family (the church), people I thought were friends and colleagues.
can you describe what you have gained?
A clearer picture of what the “body”, “the organism” of Christ should look like. It is about loving each other as we want and need to be loved. It is about journeying with people right where they are today, not where we think they should be to fit our ideal or the groups’ ideal. I have a freedom to journey with God in new and fun ways that has become deep and rich in ways I hadn’t imagined.
are there any really stupid things christians have said to you along the way that made you want to scream?
“As a divorced person you no longer fit the description of a Christian leader…”
“It scares me to be around you now.”
“I don’t understand why you are blaming the church for your problem.”
“Your situation has brought shame on the church”
“We might lose money and people because of our status…” (not said but implied, no guts to come out and say it directly.)
what are some of the ways people have helped you the most?
Listen and sit on the garbage heap with me, not comment or try and fix, just sit and listen.
what are some of the things you cry out to God in the middle of the night?
Why won’t you just fix this so I can get on with life.
what have you learned about yourself, about God as you have struggled and scraped to heal & rebuild?
I have learned that I am going to be ok. God spoke to me one day and said, “I will not guarantee your marriage, your job or your life circumstance, but I will tell you that YOU will be ok.” God has not abandoned me, he still loves and cares very deeply not only about me but those who have hurt me and those I have hurt.
what scares you the most about opening up your heart to christian community again?
Not going to happen in the traditional circle, there is absolutely no trust on my part that they can or will try and understand. Bottom line, I do not want to be rejected again and have a deep sense that I would be.
what words do you have for someone who is in the midst of a christian divorce, especially when they are in leadership/ministry?
You will be ok, the core you, not your perceived you. Please get in touch with me and we will have coffee and I will listen, without judgment and allow you to tell your story. It is important to tell it out loud to people who will truly listen.
what words do you have for “the church” when it comes to journeying alongside men & women in this same situation, what would you like them to know?
Learn to follow Jesus and his example, not a cultural façade that has been given to you that in no way exemplifies Christ, no matter what you have been taught by the “church”. Jesus did not throw Peter away even after he had denied him 3 times; he met him where he was and restored him to an even greater ministry. People who have gone through tough times may need a time out but they can and will come back strong. Allow them to lead the way.
thank you, jake, for sharing a piece of your story with us. i know many men & women who found more meaningful & rich relationship with God through their divorce but lost their communities, ministries, and all that they had once known–and unfortunately had no one to sit on the garbage heap with them. i do hope and pray that we as Christ-followers continue to learn grace & mercy & restoration & long-haul-unconditional-love-where-there’s-no-more-“outs” when our brothers & sisters walk through the dark valleys of real life.