Leaving Church

The first time I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s new memoir, Leaving Church, I was disturbed. The problem was not with the writing (she’s a gifted writer, and this book certainly ranks as one of her best), not with the story she tells (anyone in parish ministry will recognize the settings and circumstances she describes), and not with her story’s emotional or spiritual depth (her honesty and transparency at certain points are breath-taking). What I found disturbing is that she actually did something most pastors at one time or another threaten to do. She left the church–not God, not faith in God, but the church. She left the demanding, often exasperating world of parish ministry for a much different way of life. One day–and her decision, as she describes it, does seem rather abrupt–she just packed up and left. Her congregation barely had enough time to plan a fitting farewell.

Then I read the book again–a compliment enough, I suppose, since I seldom start over again after finishing a book, no matter how good I thought it was. The second time through I found my response to be more measured, more understanding. I felt sad and disappointed. Parish ministry, I realized, has lost one of its best practitioners. At the time of her departure, according to my math, Taylor could have had another twenty years, maybe more, of active ministry. I already miss her as a colleague. We need a few more like her.

It’s possible, of course, that my reactions reveal more about me than about Taylor, who (by the way) is now a religion professor at Piedmont College and an adjunct professor of Christian spirituality at Columbia Theological Seminary. Book Cover Over the years, I’ve had my low moments in ministry too. If someone had offered me a teaching job out of the blue at one of those low moments–who knows? I might have packed up and left too. But college teaching jobs don’t open up very often, and as Taylor herself admits, she had few other prospects for employment–that is, without “a significant loss of status” (114).

At least one reviewer has already criticized Taylor on this point: with a teaching job (an endowed chair, no less), several book contracts, and some lucrative speaking engagements to fall back on, many more pastors might be willing to say good bye and good riddance to parish ministry. This criticism seems to me to be unfair. Taylor is an enormously talented preacher, teacher, and writer. Parish ministry was not, as it turned out, what she was called to do with her life, even though she was certain it was when she first pursued it. Besides, she is still doing ministry. She is merely serving in a different way. I say, good for her.

My lingering concern about the book has to do with something Taylor never quite states, but surely implies–namely, that there is something decidedly unhealthy and unsustainable about the way parish ministry is being practiced by most of us in the field. She asks: “With just seven days in a week, where is the time to be a good preacher, teacher, pastor, prophet, celebrant, prayer, writer, foot washer, administrator, community activist, clergy colleague, student of scripture, and wholesome exemplar of the gospel?” (45-46) Her story shows that she could no longer keep going in the role, but the deeper question is: can anyone really do this work? The way the church exists today, with its various expectations and demands, can anyone realistically do it well?

Taylor is at her best when she describes parish life and the role of the pastor. Some of the incidents she relates are tender, others are humorous, and still others are…well, they’re painful to read because they’re true. She characterizes the deference that church members showed her in public settings as “well intentioned…[but also] as distancing as a velvet rope in a museum.” At another point she writes: “People treated me like the Virgin Mary’s younger sister” (144-45). I think I understand that one.

Such observations beg for further exploration. Memoirs by their very nature have limitations, and Leaving Church, after all, is Taylor’s story. But as I was reading it I found myself wanting to ask questions. What is it about the pastoral role, for example, that sets us apart from the congregations we serve? Is there something inevitable about the distance she describes between pastor and church members? If “velvet rope” deference is in fact inevitable, is there a way to prepare for it?

I wondered at times about the mentoring that Taylor received along the way. Though she is mostly complimentary about her colleagues in ministry, she rather casually remarks that the rector at the Atlanta church where she served for nine years mostly encouraged her to move from being an associate to being the rector of her own church. With a different sort of role model, a different sort of coaching, would Taylor have found a way to stay in parish ministry? We’ll never know. I hope that in her teaching, however, she is encouraging students for ministry to think differently about the pastoral role. I hope that she is encouraging them, for example, not to neglect the Sabbath, which she reports having rediscovered only after leaving the church.

Taylor, it is true, was in a more dif- ficult situation than most. She was admitted to seminary when few women were going there, and fewer still were serving churches. Having served on the staff of a large Atlanta church, she left for what she thought would be her dream position–rector of Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in Clarkesville, Georgia, a town with two stop lights and a population of 1,500. Within a few months of her arrival, she heard that a number of families left the church when they heard that it had called a woman to serve as rector. That she survived for five and a half years in this setting is probably evidence of Taylor’s personal gifts and skills. Actually, “survived” doesn’t quite describe her experience. Within months of her arrival, this tiny church was growing in membership and in number of Sunday worship opportunities. Talk of a building campaign to accommodate the growth was at least one factor that influenced her decision to leave.

The life she describes in Clarkesville–the life all pastors know–“exhausted my spiritual savings,” as she puts it (127). Sixty-hour weeks (closer to eighty around the holidays), more evenings at church than at home, never taking a full day away, plus church conflict over human sexuality would constitute difficult working conditions for anyone, but in her situation they wore her out. In the end, she was tired, depressed, and spiritually empty. Who wouldn’t be?

Taylor reports that she was a part of three clergy groups, but only one in which she could be fully honest. (What was she doing in the other two? And was she fully honest in the one group where she says she felt safe enough to be honest?) I found it interesting that she never gathered her vestry together and confided in them, told them the whole story about her fatigue and her lack of a spiritual life. I suppose I know why she didn’t. Over the years the number of times that I have spoken honestly to my elders about struggles I face is small. And in hindsight I don’t know how effective those conversations really were. To be fair to my elders, they were never sure what to do when I spoke honestly to them. They were sympathetic, of course. They sincerely wanted to be helpful. But something about their role and mine–the “velvet rope,” maybe–prevented us from having the kinds of conversations that at times we needed to have.

I also found it interesting that Taylor never reports asking for a meeting with the bishop. Since my own tradition has no bishops except the corporate kind known as a presbytery, I’m probably naïve about this. There have been times when I’ve fantasized about calling the bishop I don’t have, reporting my difficulty, and then getting the pastoral care I’ve needed. There have been days when I wanted
to be Anglican just so that I would have a person to call. If bishops aren’t pastors to pastors, then who is? No one, it appears, was ever a pastor to Taylor.

As I read Taylor’s account of her ministry, I sensed that during her time in Clarkesville she was essentially on her own, with no peers, no leadership board, and no bishop to help. That’s quite a story. If Taylor’s is similar to the stories of other pastors, then there is something unhealthy and unsustainable about the way parish ministry is currently being practiced. How do any of us survive?

Or maybe the question should be: Isn’t it amazing that so many of us stick it out? Isn’t it amazing that so many pastors serve the church for forty, fifty, even sixty years? I would like to read a memoir from one of those people.

Douglas Brouwer is senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan.