This may be figurative for you as in, “There’s no going back to church as it was before the pandemic.” Or it may be literal, as in, "I'm not going back…period."
I have heard both. Pastors and parishioners come to spiritual direction wrestling with what the future looks like for their particular church and the Church as a whole.
Others come with the discovery that church attendance was part of a checklist they found relief from during the pandemic when it was no longer something they “had to do” because they couldn’t do it!
But things are beginning to open up. As more people receive vaccines and mask-mandates are lifted, some are feeling a growing pressure to figure out what they’re going to do when it comes to church (this includes pastors!).
Some tell me how much they miss being with their congregation and cannot wait to go back to in-person worship without the worry of virus spread. While these folks have regularly tuned-in to online worship, just thinking of returning to the building brings joy. It will be a type of homecoming to a family and place they long to see and be.
Yet this is not the sentiment of everyone.
Two months into the pandemic, a long-time church-goer said to me, “It’s astounding how little I miss church. That's definitely saying something to me.”
This person regularly comes to spiritual direction and regularly helps those in need, yet they have experienced a growing disconnect with their church over the past few years. The pandemic only heightened, or brought to the surface, what was covered by obligation and comparison. While those around them seemed to be enjoying and feeling nourished by the Sunday morning service, everything felt forced and inauthentic to them.
In spiritual direction they recalled continuously leaving spiritually starving and angry. They recounted every positive-thinking, heart-opening spiritual practice they have tried…and nothing changed. Their discontent and disgust just grew. The pandemic was in some ways a grace, offering a break from the inner turmoil of whether they should stay or leave.
Overly-simplistic truths like “Church is the people not the building” offer little help because church and church-going can be complicated depending on one’s personality, childhood, personal beliefs, and present experience of church-going and church-people. I know this, because I, too, have wrestled for decades, and continue to wrestle, with all that is intertwined with church/Church.
It’s been a long, liminal space for everyone. This threshold, or in-between time, can lead to deep questions or the acceptance of a clarity that has been clouded over by a sense of coerced duty and/or loyalty (whether the pressure comes from within or without).
Could leaving church actually be a sign of spiritual growth? It just may be.
My directee craves more than their congregation can offer. They want to go places theologically and spiritually their congregation is unwilling—perhaps unable—to go. Conversations have failed to lead to Shalom (peace and wholeness).
Even after many years, they may need to heed Jesus' call in Matthew 10, to “shake the dust from your feet” and leave. No need to demonize the pastor or congregation, it’s simply time to move on and continue one’s journey on and toward the path of Life. It’s not easy. There’s no one-size-fits-all way of leaving a place and people one had hoped would be life-giving.
It requires a lot of trust.
As my directee has wrestled with their discernment, I have never given them reasons to stay or leave or suggestions on how to stay or leave. I just listened. Ways of wisdom always arise as we release our stranglehold and wait for God's guidance (for the Holy Spirit is the true Spiritual Director, after all!).
So whether you are joyfully anticipating resurrection through returning to a beloved congregation or grieving the realization that you need to let something die for belovedness (including beloved community) to be born again, spiritual direction is a safe place during the in-between.
In spiritual direction, you will find permission to let your own inner wisdom be your guide. Allow the feelings of pressure and dread to speak. Listen to what your body has to say. Pay attention to the images your soul is offering. Become aware of patterns in the ways God has been at work in your own life story.
For God has been and always will be fully present to you and in you. The fullness of God's presence is equally with the person who worships in a church building (with 15 or 5000 people) as with the person who worships in ways that do not include a church building and its congregation.
To a group of young men, 13th century mystic, scholar, and Dominican priest, Meister Eckhart, said: "Whoever truly possesses God in the right way, possesses him in all places: on the street, in any company, as well as in a church or a remote place or in their cell…” (Walshe, 2008, Talks of Instruction, 6). He also once said,
Some people prefer solitude. They say their peace of mind depends on this.
May the wisdom of Meister Eckhart give us the boldness to listen to our own—and to stay and leave as the Spirit beckons.
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.