Farewell, Silence

Over about a year and a half starting in 2015, Nate and I decided we needed to leave the church. It was a long process of figuring out what we wanted, how we’d make money, where we’d go. We had multiple meetings with the church elders to talk about when and where and why. We were invited to an elders meeting. They told us at the beginning of the meeting in jest (I assume), what a great honor it was to be invited to one of their meetings. To me, they were peers who had made decisions about our pay and what we did with our time for years. To me the honor was theirs to hear our dreams and vision. At the meeting, I was terrified of saying anything that might be taken the wrong way., especially by the lead elder who seemed to take anything I did or said as a slight to him. I stayed mostly silent and let Nate do the talking. He told them we were looking for a house or apartment to move to a neighborhood on the West side. We’d spent a long time praying and exploring around the city. They told us another couple, an eldership couple, were also going to be leaving around the same time. Soon after, that couple’s plans were announced at church. We were told by the lead elder not to tell anyone about our plans to leave but that he would announce it to the church. Time went on and it got painful and uncomfortable that we would soon be leaving the church we had been so invested in for twelve years and no one had said a word publicly about it. When a friend called the lead elder’s wife about it to ask if there was a plan to announce our leaving, she yelled at the friend over the phone and made accusations of her. The lead elder emailed to say that they would be announcing our leaving a few months later to give time for celebrating the eldership couple because “they deserved that”. We stopped going to the church in August and returned in October for the church to announce we were leaving and have an after church reception in the hallway with cookies. This was so painful because of the many years we had invested and the contrast to the way other people were celebrated and sent off— with parties at the larger venue, thoughtful gifts and words, announced well ahead of time. They had done something to deserve it, I guess. Other long term, crucial members left to no fanfare as well. I won’t make conjectures as to the difference, that’s for them to decide.

We had communicated any time we were with any elders that we were looking for a place to live. Over the course of a year we had offered on 4 houses in the neighborhood. There are a bunch of reasons we chose this place- affordability, home ownership, that it was a border between several communities divided by race and class where we could build bridges, something that had been a long term value of ours . It was important to us to buy a house at this time, since we’d be working for ourselves. Not only does it take a long time to build up enough credibility to get a mortgage while self-employed, we had no idea what it was going to be like- whether it would work. We knew we probably wouldn’t be able to buy for years and with 3 kids and rental rates in Chicago as high or higher than the mortgages we were looking at, it felt like the necessary next step. After a long process, we had an accepted offer on a house. We’d gone from looking at foreclosed homes needing gut renos, to the highest priced home we’d seen in the neighborhood after nothing else worked out. They were asking too much and we got them to come way down to a comfortable price range for us. We got all our paperwork done, and were days from closing when the lead elder met with Nate to discuss a timeline for our departure.

Shortly after that conversation, the mortgage lender called the church office to confirm Nate’s employment. Apparently not understanding the consequence and just wanting to be truthful, the lead elder told him that we planned to leave the position. We lost the mortgage. The lender called to give us the news. He also told us we would lose the offer because there wasn’t enough time to work with another bank. We were devastated and had no idea what to do next. We’d already told our landlords we’d be closing on the house soon and moving out. There were no apartments available in the area where we wanted to move. In fact, anywhere in the city or near suburbs we moved was going to be a huge price jump from our current apartment, unless we went to Ohio or Indiana where our parents lived, leaving our dreams in Chicago. But our oldest was supposed to start kindergarten in just over a month, and our 3rd child to be born days before that. Was this the end of Chicago for us? What jobs would we do if we had no network and moved to a new place?

In desperation, Nate asked the church elders, could we have a few more months to work at the church to figure out what to do next? We waited a few days while they discussed. In the meantime, the elder’s wife emailed us, copying her husband, to tell us how they were sad about what we were going through and praying it would all work out. Brokenhearted and angry, I responded. I told them how we felt- undervalued, used, silenced, and shut out of relationship. I called them out for her being the one to contact us on “their” behalf. I was tired of her trying to show us compassion on his behalf, and him remaining silent. I tried to do the sandwich- say all the good things I could think of with the hard truths mixed in like horseradish. After I sent the email, I felt like a different person. I liked myself for the first time in a long time. I felt respect. I felt honest. I felt connected, for the first time in a long time. I had given up trying to make a relationship with them work, trying to be valued, trusted and understood. The elders got back to Nate that the timeline set a week or so before was solid- they had “never agreed to help us buy a house”.

Full of mercy, our mortgage lender found a solution for us. A stranger to us, he generously gave up his commission and helped us find a way to get another mortgage with another bank quickly. He helped us extend our contract time and told us how to get the paperwork done in time.

I received a backlash from the email. The elder acted as though completely surprised. The next Sunday at church his wife and I spoke. I had hurt him more than anyone else in all his years of ministry. What had changed between the meeting with the elders and now? (Answer: my silence). He was brokenhearted. I should apologize. I was unguarded. My husband had already apologized. None of what I said was true. They shared the email with others for accountability and the others agreed none of what I said was true. I told her I had shared the email with 2 people I looked up to as well, and they told me I did a good job. She insisted on knowing who they were.

We found out later that they had already committed to hiring a South African couple (meaning, I assume, hiring the man and recruiting his wife as a volunteer). We were reminded multiple times how generous they were being to us, because they would be tapering Nate’s work hours and pay for 4 months instead of cutting us off immediately after Nate was to stop working full time, when our daughter was born. The lead elder announced the new hire to the church, and for some reason felt the need to make it clear that they weren’t trying to “replace Nate”. There was no mention of me because, of course, in the church’s memory I had never been employed.

Writing all of this down, I realize why I’ve been so disturbed. Why I’ve been going over all of this in my head, why it keeps coming up. I’ve felt so unheard, unseen, so invisible and small. I haven’t even seen myself. And writing it down helps me see, Why I’ve been raging, tossing and turning inside, unable to settle, why I’ve been so uncomfortable. I see clearly that I was marginalized and silenced. I see that I was disrespected and mistreated. I see that I was trying to get something for a long time- a career, equal respect, the ability to use my voice and contribute- that I was never going to get in that community. I see that what I initially thought was a more progressively feminist space than I was used to was actually more oppressive to women than any church I had been to. I had had more voice at my summer camp, in my youth groups. There had been more expectation for my future contribution to the church in those spaces, more being seen, more opening of doors. Some of this was intentional- my questioning and exploratory personality and confusion over their discrimination offended them. Some of it was unintentional and just a result of the different cultural expectations we each had.

One thing that made me SO angry, and a large impetus for my infamous unguarded email was the way the lead elder treated Nate in the process of our leaving. I think now that this made me more angry because it proved to me that it wasn’t solely about my gender that they disrespected me and marginalized me. It wasn’t that I accepted this treatment, but I knew about it. Mistreating Nate was a new thing. Knowing that we were passionate, reading, listening, learning, discussing building bridges across lines of race, class and gender, he accused Nate, if he really wanted to learn from diverse voices, why was he planning not to come to the next Apostolic meeting to hear the South African guy who lead the church network speak? He couldn’t possibly have thought this was listening to diverse voices. Why didn’t he want to listen to yet another white South African man give the same message we’d been hearing for 12 years? Why didn’t we want to listen to a guy who the last time we heard him speak, vaguely referred to people who disagreed with him and boldly asserted that he knew he is never wrong because he is “all prayed up”? That he’s spent enough time in front of God to know that he isn’t wrong in the ways some vague church people have accused him? This public defending against people we didn’t know who’d accused him of things we didn’t know about was embarrassing and reminiscent of when the lead elder had asked a group of 20 some people who’d gathered, hurt by the elders response to a talk about race, for those people who had wronged him to apologize to him for how we’d apparently mistreated him. No one that I could see had any idea what he was talking about. I still don’t know if he was referring to the fact that we were all hurt and angry or if he had heard some specific thing that he felt was harmful to him that someone had said or done. This indirect addressing of relational problems was the source of so much paralysis in our church.

That August, after sending his first update email to friends and family about the work he was doing, the past finance team elder emailed Nate and said, “Why couldn’t you just do this stuff still working for the church? You didn’t have to leave to do any of this and you were getting paid.” Nate took the time to carefully and genuinely respond. The elder never acknowledged his response.

We left in silence to the wider church. We tried, so hard, to do our best. Our expectation to be sent in partnership from the community we considered family was gone. We moved at the beginning of August, had our daughter at the end of the month, and our oldest started kindergarten a few days after that. The church didn’t really know any of this. I don’t even know if the “eldership couples” (yes, that’s what they call them) knew a lot of this stuff. Most of even our closest friends didn’t know. We didn’t want to affect their relationship with the church and we believed in honor.

It’s not that I don’t believe in honor now, but rather that I see it differently. We would never slander and make stuff up. We would never try to destroy anyone’s relationships with others or tear them down. But being silent about the truth can be really dishonoring, not only to others’ growth and learning, to their ability to get through hard things and learn from them, but to ourselves. Nate and I had a large debt of honor to ourselves we had stacked up over the years. And this is a lesson for anyone in ministry: It is not honoring to God for you to have no boundaries. It’s unsustainable. It’s not kind, generous or honest to others. Nobody wants to take what you don’t want to give.

Or at least, they shouldn’t want that. And yet, through this process of healing, I see the emotional manipulation that we received from the beginning of our relationships in the church. I think it was rarely intentional and mostly subconscious, but many young couples swept into the dream of the kingdom of peace coming through this church and our work there together, so that we were willing to sacrifice anything we were told we needed to. Many of the elders did not have time for rest and for their families the way they wanted to deep down, and so when we tried to take time for those things we were shamed. Our “day off” was Mondays and one elder would intentionally schedule meetings with Nate that day because “he never got a weekend off”- he spent it volunteering at the church. Any mention of rest in front of certain elders brought a reminder that they could “never do that” but that was the sacrifice they gladly made “for the kingdom”. The leader of the church network openly taught that your kids and family come second to doing things for the kingdom- which really meant carrying out whatever vision the elders had for the church at that time. Elders were honored constantly for their sacrifices as heroes and legends. These words are so sharp and stark to me because nobody ever says them outloud. You aren’t supposed to openly disagree. That’s not allowed for people who aren’t elders- it’s divisive and not partnering with the vision God has given. It’s not celebrating what God is doing. Well, I call bullshit.

Each of our kids were named prophetically. Meaning, from something resonating in our insides. They ended up having significant meaning to us for one reason or another. Our daughter’s name is the literary word for a valley with a river running through it. To me, it felt like home, which is what we were seeking for our family at the time of her birth. It wasn’t until a couple years later I was looking at meanings for her name again and saw the secondary meaning: Farewell.

This painful, in some ways traumatizing transition was a goodbye to so much. More than leaving that church community and its employment, it was the beginning of more changes for us than we knew at the time. It was goodbye to a version of us that was dead now. The people-pleasing, honoring through doing whatever was asked of us, nicey-nice version of us was gone. The trusting and willing young ministry hopefuls were gone. Respecting people above ourselves just because of a biblical title they held was over. Waiting to be heard by an authority that didn’t want to hear from us was gone. We were the ones who would listen to ourselves, open doors for ourselves, and activate our beliefs. We just had to return to ourselves again, to remember ourselves, to practice saying no to other people’s ideas for us. And that would take time.