Years ago a family – wife, husband and daughter – visited our church. The couple had spent a lifetime in, as we say, a “sister Baptist church in our town,” but that church wasn’t so affirming of the sisters — or any women in leadership for that matter.
This couple loved the people of that church, but they loved their daughter more. They wanted her to raised in a community of faith that blessed God’s calling to both men and women. It was important to them that their daughter grow up in a church with ministers who were women as well as ministers who were men.
I thought of them as I read a Facebook post by Christian writer and speaker Sarah Bessey announcing that she and her family had left their church.
“We are no longer part of our local church nor are we connected with the Vineyard Canada at all” she wrote. “We have deep roots in our church and have loved our time alongside of each other. Of course we had our differences – who doesn’t? – but those differences didn’t seem to get in the way of our central commonality of loving God and loving people together.
“Are we called to be people working for change within a congregation? Or is it time to shake the dust from our feet?”
“Over the past eight years, there have been changes in all of us, of course. In some ways, we moved closer together; in others, it seems we moved further apart. Over the past year, it has become clear that our mutual ability to hold the tension of our disagreements has ended.”
Bessey has been clear in her support of full inclusion for LGBTQ children of God. Her church does not agree.
Leaving a church is a hard thing to do because we don’t just leave an institution; we leave a community of relationships and end a shared history. It’s even harder when we leave over matters of conscience. Those who have been our friends may feel judged and respond with anger or defensiveness. They may catapult us to the top of their prayer lists. They may try to convince us of how we are wrong and that we need to love Jesus more. They may drift out of our lives.
It can be hard to know when to leave a church. Are we called to be people working for change within a congregation? Or is it time to shake the dust from our feet? All over North America, United Methodists are asking themselves that question as they grapple with the recent vote that condemns homosexuality as sin and would prohibit United Methodist clergy from performing same sex marriages.
When do you stay and when do you go? For the family who became my friends, the presence of their daughter in their lives made the question more urgent. I suspect that for Bessey, the presence in her life of other people’s sons and daughters who happened to be gay made the question more urgent for her.
Sometimes God calls us to a place. Sometimes God calls us away. Sometimes we have a place to land, and sometimes it is not at all clear where the journey will lead. I have no handy measuring stick for knowing when we are called to stay. I know that not every community offers clear-cut options for us to find faith community.
This much I do know: when the price of belonging to a community means being silent about how we hear God speaking to us and how the gospel is working on us, then it’s time to start shaking off some dust.