For When I Want to Leave Church

A therapist once suggested to me that I’m in an abusive relationship with churches. They keep hurting me, and I keep serving them nonetheless. And I keep wondering what to do with this.

You know what has helped? Lady Gaga.

Sitting in a church parking lot last January, I turned on my car and sighed as her 2016 hit song “Million Reasons” filled the front seat:

I bow down to pray

I try to make the worst seem better

Lord, show me the way

To cut through all this worn out leather

I’ve got about a hundred million reasons to walk away

But baby, I just need one good one to stay…

I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away.

In that moment, I did. That morning, I had met with a couple of priests about the possibility of my starting the ordination process, and the conversations had been significantly more difficult than expected. Suddenly hurtful words, identity and career confusion, and questions of gender bias in the Church all swam in my head.

In the weeks and months to come, I kept showing up (most of the time) at church and at my seminary classes, but I wondered why. I switched out the books on my bedside table from titles like To Be a Priest: Perspectives on Vocation and Ordination to Barbara Brown Taylor’s memoir Leaving Church. Most of all, I started having flashbacks to other sorts of betrayals by church folk over the years – from gossip, lies, and leadership breakdowns all the way to the time a youth minister had touched me inappropriately when I was in high school. I felt like I had been kicked down, gotten up, and been kicked down again one too many times.      

Through all that, I held on to two hard truths: being hurt by a church, for me at least, definitely doesn’t have to mean leaving God and probably doesn’t have to mean leaving God’s people. Might you decide to leave a particular lowercase-c church? Yes, you might discern that change is necessary; I know I have sometimes. But leaving the uppercase-c Church – God’s people coming together in myriad ways throughout the world and throughout history? Tempting as it has been to throw in the towel, that big-picture perception of the Church kept me in the game.   

Because, even as I sat in my cold car last winter, counting my hundred million reasons to walk away, the song didn’t end there. It kept going:   

But baby, I just need one good one to stay

That day, in that parking lot, this line became my prayer. It was a plea and a please, as in “Please, God, show me one good reason to stay in Church, because I can’t see it right now.” I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, couldn’t see the Christ in the Christians.

I didn’t see a logical reason to stay in Church – not quickly or clearly anyway. What I saw was Jesus. It may be a trite Sunday school kind of answer, but it’s also the truth.

Somewhere between the difficult conversations with my priests and the crying in the car, I had stopped by the church sanctuary to pray.

I sat in the front pew, surrounded by stained glass, gazing up and around and mostly straight ahead at the altar where each Sunday the body and blood of Christ is consecrated and offered to all of us, the body of believers. I had no clue what to pray and offered God only a few mutterings of “it’s not fair” and “I don’t think I can keep doing this.” But, I sensed Jesus ask me, as he did to the apostle Peter in John 21:15-17: “Do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord, you know I love you,” I thought.

“Then, feed my sheep,” I sensed Jesus respond.

Again, the question came: “Do you love me?”

Sigh. I know where this is going. “Geez, Jesus, yes, you know I love you.”

Three times I completed this mental exchange. Three times Jesus urged me to love completely instead of leave completely. Not a passive “love” that stays and accepts mistreatment. Rather, an active love that stays to follow Jesus by seeking an end to mistreatments.

When it comes to spiritual community, Love has sat patiently with me as I’ve counted a hundred million reasons to walk away, and it’s sung persistently to me that maybe there’s “one good one to stay.” One pretty good reason here and there to keep me holding on. And one perfectly good reason that keeps holding on to me – the One called Jesus.  

Julia Powers

Julia Powers is a writer, mental health advocate, and seminary student at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, NC. Her primary professional interests revolve around pastoral care & counseling, spiritual formation, and young adult ministries. You can find more of her writing at www.juliapowersblog.com.

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  • I can really relate to this on so many levels. And I love that you pulled in Lady Gaga! Thank you for sharing your heart.

  • Andrea Christiansen

    Julie, thank you for sharing! It may feel like a feeble gesture, but I just want to give you a big electronic hug. I’m sad for your hurts. I know you are not right next to me. But I am in the [C]hurch, and I want you to stay with me.