Deciding To Stay or Leave your Faith Community

When you’re unsure of your place in your faith community

(An earlier, shorter version of this was published in the February 2019 issue of Roargasm zine.)

People who are experiencing a faith crisis/transition often come to a cross-road in their spiritual lives–deciding to stay or leave your faith community.  This is a big question that often feels like you have two choice, either stay or go.  If you have been connected and involved in your faith community for a long time, it can be really hard to imagine leaving, while at the same time it can be really painful to stay.  What is one to do?  Should I stay or should I go?

An all-or-nothing paradigm

So many religious institutions present religious activity as an all-or-nothing paradigm:  You are either part of the church/institution or you are not. You either believe in God or you don’t. The “church” is true or it’s not. For those who have grown up in faith traditions that strongly identify as “the true religion” it can be particularly jarring when you start to question that “truth.”  In the same binary manner, you might think, “well, I’ve found out that x, y, and z are actually not true, therefore it must all be false.”  This either/or paradigm only offers 2 choices—stay in or get out.

I would suggest that regardless of which side of this argument you are on, it is a dichotomy that limits you in exactly the same way, regardless of your choice.  And this either/or thinking causes us to be judgmental on both ends of the spectrum—those “in” the religion judge those “out” of the religion as lost or sinful.  While those “out” of the religion judge those “in” the it as being blind or naïve.  Binary thinking leads to judgment and a sense of superiority.  It creates exclusion boundaries.  While personal boundaries are extremely important, exclusionary boundaries are damaging.  Such ideologies set us up for the us vs. them mentality that Jesus seemed to be cautioning against.  And exclusionary boundaries set us up for pride.

Is there another option?

Barring any abusive situations, in which I believe one should definitely find a way to leave, is there an option in between staying and leaving?  Is there a middle ground?  Ihope so.  I’m in the midst of finding out.  It requires carving out a new space, one in which I can accept people who might struggle us non-binary thinkers and at the same time, be confident enough in my own spirituality that their thoughts or judgements don’t push me away.  And it asks me to embrace paradox. I’m learning to hold space for those “in” the church as well as those “out of” the church.  It can be tricky.  What I am finding is that it requires me to really trust the other persons spiritual journey.  And as much as I want to feel like my faith community trusts my journey, I must trust theirs.

Deciding to stay or go

Making your decision to stay or leave your faith community partially depends on which “stage of grief” you are in.  If you are in the Angry stage, it’s really difficult to hold space for others.  In that stage you are learning to hold space for your own feelings and experiences, and that is extremely important work to do.  But as you move into the Acceptance stage, your perspective on your journey has usually shifted.

The thing is, if we make a decision in the stage of anger, we may be limiting our thoughts on what choices are available to us.  I’m not suggesting one stays in their faith institution at all costs.  But I am also not saying that leaving is the only option.

Personally, I have partially stepped back from my activity with my faith institution.  I participate in those things that feel right to me while giving myself permission to disengage when necessary.  Coming from an institution that teaches one should never say “no” to a request given by your religious leader, I have finally come to the point where I can say no. It feels right for me, at this point in my journey.  It was when I was really angry that I

first stepped back into partial activity.  I had already committed myself to making choices based on love, not fear.  One of my favorite scriptures is 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.”  I believe that when things are fear-based, they are not coming from the Source of Love (aka God).  So my first step back was done out of self-love; full participation was no longer safe for my spiritual and emotional health.

What is the Middle Way?

But back to the binary decision of staying or leaving. What is the Middle Way?  In Buddhism, the Middle Way is the path between extremes.  From my point of view, it is the embodiment of “yes/and” (<link coming>) thinking.  In this situation, deciding to stay in or leave your faith community, what would the Middle Way look like?  I believe it requires a willingness to live on the boundary.  It requires not being fully immersed with either the “in” group “out” group.  And it requires a broader acceptance, a willingness to withhold judgment.  Living on the edge can quickly lead one to feel marginalized. So that Middle Way requires a deep sense of one’s own spiritual authority and worth.  And those things require one to consistently tend to their own spiritual life.

 

Richard Rohr is a Franciscan of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation(www.cac.org). He is a philosopher who has taught me a lot about faith journeys.  In the “The Eight Core Principles” of the Center for Action and Contemplation, principle #4, “On The Edge Of Inside,” considers this middle space. In it he says:

“To live on the edge of the inside is different than being an insider, a “company man,” or a dues paying member. Yes, you have learned the rules and you understand and honor the system as far as it goes, but you do not need to protect it, defend it, or promote it. It has served its initial and helpful function. You have learned the rules well enough to know how to “break the rules properly” which is not really to break them at all, but to find their true purpose . . . A doorkeeper must love both the inside and the outside of his or her group, and know how to move between thesetwo loves.”

Doorkeeper

I love the imagery of being a doorkeeper, as it reminds me of someone who both welcomes those coming in and thanking those who are leaving.  It resonates with my innate drive to be a peacekeeper.  But being on the edge, or at the margin, or finding a middle way, is far from easy. It takes a lot of practice.  It takes time being on both sides of the group. You have to be willing to let go of being a “card-carrying” member and realize that your voice may not carry as much weight as it once did.  But it also allows you to help others along the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am not trying to convince anyone to either stay or go. Personally, I don’t worry much about the choice someone else makes in their faith journey.  I know many people who have found a way to stay within their faith community (with a more nuanced approach) and I know many who have left altogether.  At the same time, I am aware of those of us trying to eke out a Middle Way. And I honor everyone’s choice.  My purpose in writing this is to help break

down binary thinking and provide some new perspectives on your choices.  Working through a faith crisis takes time and patience.  Take a deep breath, slow down, and really listen to the guide within you.  I honestly believe the Divine will guide you on your very own path.  Your inner moral compass is the divine within yourself.  Let go of fear.  Search for love.

So, maybe…

So, maybe there is a way to both stay and go.  Finding this middle ground requires spending time both inside and outside the institution and learning to regularly travel between the two. It’s not a path many chose, so there are very few guides.  But if you like to take the road less
traveled and want to test your trail blazing skills, this might be a path to consider.  If nothing else, considering the Middle Way might stir up some creative answers of your own.  Your Middle Way will most definitely look different than mine.  That’s the beauty of life, the beauty of living a “yes, and” life.  The options are endless.

 

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