Being a Heretic Could Get You Kicked Out, But it Can Also Set You Free: On Rob Bell and My Journey out of Youth Ministry
Have you ever read Love Wins by Rob Bell? It's one of my favorite books, and one that was inspiring and transformative for me in my own life. I highly recommend it to anyone, and especially those who think deeply about their faith, their tradition and living a life that is unified with the values they espouse and ascribe to God. In some circles however, simply being associated with that book or its author can be
dangerous a liability.
Not a lot of people know this, but my departure from youth ministry was catalyzed with giving away the aforementioned book.
It happened like this (and also included lots of names and details that I won't share here):
I went out for coffee with one of my students and brought the book with me, having a strong sense that it was a timely gift for him. We talked about our personal story, and the stories we were writing. We talked about his questions. We talked about faith, doubt and what it means for God to be truly present. We talked about our issues with conventional ways of talking about God. Then I gave him the book. He read the back cover, flipped through some pages, thanked me, then set it face-up on the table. I remember a moment—just a flicker—of internal panic. "What if someone sees us?" I wondered. I'd already had conversations with many people who were concerned about my apparent affinity for Rob Bell, this would just be confirmation. I turned my thoughts back to my friend and to our conversation. Within minutes, a man who had walked in took notice of the book and asked some questions about it. I could tell the man was a Christian and I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that our exchange—while brief—was pleasant, or at least cordial. He had obviously read the book, and though he didn't seem to care for it to the extent I did, he asked me questions and gave space for my answers. The youth group member I was with and I returned to conversation, but before our meeting was over, I felt that God was saying in my heart, "Get ready to jump." I wondered if it had something to do with the book.
It wasn't long before news that I had given that book to a member of the youth group came back to my pastor, which prompted a meeting with my pastor and a key elder. They told me how they found out, and more importantly how it catalyzed what we all already knew, that I wasn't a fit. I didn't feel regret for what I had done, but I knew I didn't have support from the elders to present the kind of material that I would want to. They didn't fire me, but it was understood that what I did changed the current working relationship. I already knew I wasn't going to be the long-term youth pastor, only the interim, but rather than that lasting for months more, something had to change. My pastor asked me what I thought would be a good solution, given the circumstances. In thinking about it, I decided that what was best was to jump, make a speedy exit and help facilitate whatever other transitions the church and youth group would be going through in the coming season. Whether or not the decision was entirely mine to make, I made a decision, took ownership and took my next leap of faith.
The days, weeks and months following were hard... and rewarding.
My last several classes and youth group sessions were fraught with confusion, sadness, frustration and even anger on the part of some of the teenagers. Another youth pastor I knew sought me out to share his concerns with my theology. Upon my departure, several parents and church members sought me out in an effort to get the "real" story, as I had put most of the weight on myself in my reasons for leaving, and certainly didn't share this story. All in an effort to protect the church.
Soon after, I had depression that came in waves. It took me months to realize that a huge outlet and source of life for me wasn't there, and I was having withdrawals. I've had a couple other jobs since then but couldn't quite shake that feeling that I wasn't really living my purpose, and I certainly wasn't feeling a call in the way I did for the youth pastor position. Not to mention that this was happened right before the birth of my second child. Feelings ranged from angry, to sad, to bitter, to excited at new life and new possibilities, to confused about who I am and what I'm doing, to tired and hopeless, to hopeful and everywhere in between. These were some challenging times for me personally, but also extremely rewarding.
I had learned so many things about myself in my brief time as a youth pastor. I had given more focused attention to creating content, teaching, coordinating events, and most importantly, loving and mentoring young adults. I had faced some of my worst fears (yes, apparently criticism and getting kicked out were pretty high on my list) and come out on the other side. I had passionately and intentionally responded to a felt call from God. I had reinvested myself into a formative community of my past and created new possibilities. Now it was time for what was next. In the vacuous space that followed, I began asking new questions of myself and rethinking what is possible for my life. I'm still facing some of my fears and doubts, but know that they voices to be acknowledged rather than obstacles to avoid. I gained new confidence as I more authentically communicated who I am and what I believe, and I see more clearly how I can inspire others to be who they are. Rather than allowing myself to think and act and be the victim, I found ways to take ownership for where I am and for where I would go next.
Rather than merely being kicked out, I chose to leave.
A moment that could have cemented my worst fears instead became a catalyst for further growth and transformation.
If you are afraid to speak up, to stand up, to lead, to make mistakes, you may well avoid many of the things you fear. Unfortunately you may also avoid living a life that matters. For me, criticism and exclusion were two huge fears of mine that had to be faced as I lived from my core beliefs and my sense of what the spirit was saying. It meant saying farewell to a community I cared about sooner than I had expected. It also meant creating new possibilities for myself, my family and my communities that I might have missed had I tried to stay in someone else's box.
Being a heretic could get you kicked out, but it can also set you free.