Growing up in a Christian home, going to church was not an option. My mother was the only driving influence of getting us kids ready, packing us up in the car, and taking us to church. Our church of choice was natural. My parents actually met at a social event at Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Memphis, Tennessee. Not long after they married, a few of the young folks felt a calling to start a new church in the fast growing east section of the city. My parents were charter members which would be known as Kingsway Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). So it’s easy to surmise that Kingsway would be the only church I knew growing up. I didn't mind going. I actually loved it. I loved the church and it loved me back. I was rambunctious, they for the most part were patient. I was curious, they were informative. I had no concept of theology, traditions, or policy structure. All I cared about was the ice cold Kool-Aid and the sugar cookies given to us in Sunday school. There was conflict even then but I was too confused to take a side. One item of the times were the appointment of women to serve in the role of Elder. Our church at the time did not have any women Elders. I heard some say the role of the Elder was a person that was the spiritual leader. The Elders were to lead with grace, understanding, love, patience, kindness, acceptance, and forgiveness. To me, those qualities described my mother and Miss Betty, my Children's church leader. Back in the day, we had children's church which was a replica of the traditional services our parents and older siblings attended. I dreamed of making it to big church. That was my goal. I believed that if I sat still enough, listened to Ms. Betty, and followed the “rules” both spoken and unspoken, I could earn my way to “big church.” Big church was where the magic happened. My only goal was to get to sit in the huge cathedral sanctuary, with the communion table front and center, the choir in robes and the processional. The processional is when the choir, led by the acolytes, would march down the center isle, sing a hymn, while the preacher in his black robe trailed behind. I wanted desperately to be an acolyte or choir member. I dared not to dream to be the minister in the black robe. Dr. Arnett Winn was our pastor. He spoke in his deep baritone voice with such authority but also with a grace and kindness. He could also sing very well. On rare occasions he would sing the Lord’s Prayer and it sounded like a voice from heaven. He also had all the answers to any questions a young inquisitive kid like myself could throw at him. There was something very honorable not only about the man but about the position and role he held. I was shocked when I, along with the other children, were invited to his house as we prepared for baptism and Dr. Winn had on jeans. I guess I thought he had to wear his clerical robe everywhere he went. He fielded our questions. Most asked about Jesus, baptism, resurrection. I asked where was his rode. I can’t recall his answer as I was distracted as Mrs. Winn bring us a big bowl of popcorn. I really loved the church and I think it really loved me.
The vote was 8 to 5. After over a decade of faithful service, my ministry at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Centralia was over. After working three jobs with two kids I made my way through seminary. After countless sacrifices made by my family, after wearing the black robe, serving God for me was over. Three votes. I should have known, when I walked into the board meeting and saw six people in attendance who had not attended worship in over a year. When I heard lies and verbal attacks not on me but my wife and children, I knew my fate was already predetermined. Three votes. Individuals who poured accolades on me, those who I held their hand when their spouses died, those I visited when sick, or their loved one was in jail attacked me, my character and my family. What did I do to cause such a ruckus? I had asked for the church to have a outside audit of our finances. Better yet, I publicly but respectfully questioned the “powers that be”. I cannot honestly say I was not warned. One trustee vocally made his intentions known he was “out to get me gone.” Those who loved and supported me grieved in silence. They were just collateral damage. In three votes all the church’s ugliness, pain, anger where revealed for all to see.
How did church go from a place of love, grace, sanctuary, ice cold Kool-Aid and cookies, to one of disfigurement? As I walked out to my car, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Not the fact that I had lost my employment, but that the church, the living body of Christ, had become something to me that was unrecognizable. The church, which represents the living, breathing, working body of Christ for me transformed from something that was so magical, spiritual, and refreshing into three votes. How could a few people make such a decision for the entire faith community? How could you vote to terminate a pastor without even a conversation about their job performance? Why would church leaders lie and attack the children of the pastor?
These questions and so many others boiled up into my conscious as confusion, anger, and pain runneth over. I relived all the times I had to leave my children’s sporting events to tend to a parishioners needs. I remembered all the times I had to cut family vacations short to return to officiate a funeral. It brought to mind all the times I put my own life on hold to rush to the bedside of those in the church. I know it is a overused cliché, but I literally walked a little under a mile, in a blizzard, to be with a family as their loved one died. I mention these things not to elicit pity, inflate my ego, or sympathy but to illustrate how something could change so fast. For me, it was a spiritual crisis. As I drove home, I knew my time as a pastor was over.
This book I hope is both informative and therapeutic. It is not an counterattack. I have been loved, touched, nurtured, and accepted by the vast majority of people in the church my entire life. It is simply a way for me to process what happened and peel away the layers that have silently choked out those who seek Jesus. It is my love for Jesus’ living body, that I feel by revealing the truth, will heal all who have been hurt. It is a small way to pull down the curtain of secrecy that evolves and reveal both the good and bad. Our society needs a place of refuge, sanctuary, acceptance, more than ever. With all institutions failing, we need the church now more than ever. 80% of all full time clergy leave the ministry. Suicide and divorce rate is double for pastors than any other profession.
I hope by revealing what has been traditionally unseen for so long, we all can begin healing. In every church there is a underbelly of a beast. The role of the pastor is to protect the congregation from the beast. We all have that beast in our lives in some form. Sometimes we slay the beast or keep it at bay but other times the beast wins by three votes.