Feeble Knees

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Member of the Body

Originally, I intended to stay out of the Church Membership conversation started by Reid at Faith Gambler, then extended by Messy Christian. But darn it all, I can't keep my mouth shut!

My attitudes about church membership have done a complete 360 in the last ten years. I started out a complete Lone Ranger Christian, and happily so. The fellowship that God and I had in my living room, sitting on the couch at two AM reading the gospels together was pretty rich, and I was rather satisfied with it. Eventually I began attending church, then joined it, then left it, and here I am again, lone and churchless as ever.

The first two years before I became a member of my former church were the best years I spent there. Sadly, for me it seemed to all go downhill once I became a card-carrying member. Granted there were many reasons why I became unhappy there and eventually left, but in fairness that decision had more to do with certain goings on than my membership status. But the rigors of being a member didn't help much either.

Originally, I had no intention of joining up (and this was before I knew the whole list of "don'ts" that would be drilled into us during the membership classes). But during my second year there they had a "crisis" where an adult who was involved in children's ministry said or did something related to Halloween that got everyone's knickers in a twist. The offending adult was chastised and I think removed from ministry (though I'm not certain). Not long after that, it became mandatory for anyone who wanted to minister in any capacity to attend membership classes and become a member. This included ushers, choir, nursery workers, the whole shebang.

I was very torn. I didn't really want to be a member of any church. But by then I had grown to love my church very much and had just started in a couple of ministries and wanted to continue. So against my gut feelings on the subject, I enrolled in and completed the membership course, or as I like to call it, "Legalism 101".

I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member ~ Groucho Marx

On my most reasonable days, I can still defend church membership courses. The church has a responsibility to uphold its beliefs and protect its traditions. I understand that. I absolutely am in agreement with any church's insistence that those who minister to youth, children and infants undergo training and certification (and don't forget criminal background checks). But making someone swear that they'll never take their kids to Disney World or redeem that Barnes and Noble gift certificate your Aunt Mabel gave you last Christmas, just so you can usher? Well in my mind that crosses the line. But I went a long with it, because I had a heart for Jesus and I thought I was doing The Right Thing™ by being obedient and teachable.

When it became apparent to me that my life was now an open book to be examined by the entire leadership, but that this openness was not at all reciprocal, I began to have some doubts. A leader could scrutinize everything I did, but when I had genuine questions and alarms about certain church-sanctioned events, I was given the brush-off. Things I said in confidence to my pastor were preached from the pulpit, much to my consternation. When I sought to pursue ministry opportunities in an outside, non-denominational organization, it was met with stiff resistance and admonition from leadership.

While sheep were to be completely transparent and accountable to leadership for every thought, word and deed, whether in or outside the church, the leaders themselves were not. Children of the leadership were the ones who were most often flaunting the "rules", yet the remained in ministry. They bragged of seeing certain movies while out of town, giggled about secret tattoos and yet remained aloof and silent when the rest of us got called on the carpet for oh, not attending so-and-so's prayer meeting.

Accountability is important; people in ministry should be accountable to those over them. But as individuals, Christians are first and foremost accountable for what kind of lordship they permit over their lives. I realized too late that I'd submitted myself to authority that I did not trust, and to leaders who stepped over the line.

If you paid your tithes by check, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what your salary was. In my church, you tithed ten percent of the gross, not the net. This was hammered home repeatedly. Granted it was tough for families and single people struggling to make ends meet to dish out week after week to a Cadillac-driving pastor. If you failed to give your regular expected amount one week due to circumstances beyond your control, you were called in for it and removed from ministry unless you paid up ASAP, no ifs ands or buts.

I tried so hard to be faithful. I did everything that was asked. When unemployed for several months, I dutifully tithed my unemployment checks (the gross, not the net) though this left me with little money left for food. (I just managed to cover bills with some help from family members who knew I was in tough shape, but they didn't know how tough). Though I'd given generously and faithfully when special collections were taken for families in financial need, no help was offered me. To this day I'd love to know why. I suspect it was because as a single woman, I was breaking some unwritten rule that I should have been living at home with my parents, not in an apartment by myself where no one could keep proper tabs on me. So if I struggled, their expectation was that I shouldn't be succeeding on my own anyway. That was never said out loud, but boy it was felt.

A couple months ago I was going through the stack of business cards in my purse and found the card the church gave me on the day I was formally recognized as a member. Inwardly I was thankful I hadn't been in any accidents where an EMT or other person would have discovered the card and contacted my former church. Isn't that awful? I hate to admit that I even think that way, but these thoughts do occur to me. I still worry that my name is on the rolls somewhere with a big red asterisk next to it, or worse, branded with a big red indelible "Backslider" stamp.

I'm having enough trouble these days even wanting to go to church at all. Picturing a day where I could become a member of another church is even harder, though I won't ever rule out that possibility. More than anything I fear becoming so embittered by my lousy experience that I lose my way and begin to refuse the Grace that saved me. There are healthier churches out there, and saner leaders, I do have faith in that. If and when I do pick a church to start attending regularly, I intend to have a nice chat with the pastor about my experiences and scars. I'd tell him or her that I don't intend to join up, if that's ok. That it would take a miracle of the highest order for me to change my mind (not an impossibility; God can do anything after all). If they're okay with that, then it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

EDIT: fixed typos, incorrect trademark code, eliminated some of the repetition. Note to self: do not post before having morning cup of tea!

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