When Pastoral Care turns sour

In this article, Simon explains why he got involved with churches, including some that he now has different thoughts about.

Getting rid of the self-imposed rules

‘There are a lot of rules in your life.’ This was one of the first observations my therapist made about my approach to life. It was last autumn (2019) and I had gone to her because I knew I was in trouble mentally and needed help. Depression and anxiety had been with me for most of my life but particularly since 2016 when I lost my mother through suicide and a job I loved through redundancy in the space of a few weeks.

One of my main mental struggles was with my evangelical faith. When my mother took her own life it was like an earthquake had hit and I didn’t recognise my life, yet alone the God I used to believe in, anymore. I still don’t. I struggled on with the charismatic Anglican church I was then a part of, but felt I had to try to live up to impossible standards of faith and also felt judged. There seemed to be  a way of doing things and behaving that I couldn’t do any more, or even pretend to do any more, and so I left the church.

I really wanted to find a way of reconnecting with God though - the real God, not the one of my evangelical imaginings, and so after my nine month course of therapy had finished I set up a few weekly one hour sessions with my local vicar, Sarah (who in a former life was briefly my singing teacher!) Over our nine months together my therapist had given me permission to be a human being, to be true to myself and to feel and express pain. Describing herself as a post evangelical, Sarah quickly gave me permission to be a questioning, thinking, doubting Christian.

Why did I need that permission?

I now believe the simplistic and unquestioning approach to my faith, that couldn’t help me cope when my world fell apart dated from my years in a ‘shepherding’ church, where members had to tow a definite party line, believe the right things, listen to the right teaching etc. And to not do that was seen as rebellion, and to rebel against the church leadership (all male, obviously) was tantamount to rebelling against God.  Not something to be advised.

In my teens I used to read widely, Henri Nouwen, Jean Vanier, David Watson, Tom Smail etc., but when in my early 20s I moved into a new area and joined a house church, the personal pastor allocated for me and my new wife examined my bookcase on his first visit (yes they really did things like that) and there were a lot of frowns and a worried expression on his face, particularly when he saw my copy of The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder. That book was quickly disposed of, and thereafter I felt as though I was seen as a bit suspect and one who needed careful watching.

Why did I willingly join and stay in a church like that?

I belief this was due to the emotional and physical neglect I had suffered as a child. I was desperate to feel like I belonged somewhere, and to be given a clear structure to my life. And yes, rules to obey. And so, not to ruffle feathers I started largely existing on a diet of approved authors and speakers, tried to copy the behaviours and mannerisms of my elders and get into the culture of the church.  And even though, shepherding was eventually seen for what it was and quietly dropped by my church ‘stream’ about ten years later, and a few years after that I had left that church anyway, that sort of thinking, and a belief that that was the way to survive in a church stayed with me until life hit me with stuff that I couldn’t cope with. Pass me a copy of The Politics of Jesus someone!

Simon, 29/09/2020
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