Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith Barbara Brown Taylor
What an interesting book and what an interesting time for me to read it. Since leaving my position in the church more than six months ago, I have been discerning what is next. For many reasons including geography, a full-time position in the church may not be where God is calling me next. This book is the story of an ordained woman feeling the call away from parish ministry and a call into teaching religion in a college. Our stories are not the same, and yet, there are similarities too.
Months ago while visiting a friend, she let me borrow this book. It has sat on my bookshelf for a bit. Once I began reading the book, it went very quickly. You could say I devoured it. Since I first read Barbara Brown Taylor (or BBT as my friends and I call her. Truth be told, the one time I met her I don’t think I said much of anything to her. Just hi. I was too awestruck. BBT is our kind and quick way of addressing her when discussing her books), I have always found something in her writing that resonated with me. I expected nothing less in this book and I was not disappointed.
This book made me wonder about the ways in which we support our clergy. I wonder if the author had reached out for help if she might have continued as a parish priest. What safe places exist for our clergy to express their doubts, failures, concerns, needs, and desires? This is not to say that I think she should have continued as a parish priest. I think moving on to a new things was the best choice for her. I just heard some pain in her words and wished that a better support system had been available to her or she had made use of it.
Toward the end of the book, the author raises some excellent questions about the church and how we are the church. I thought of this as I sat in a church on Sunday morning that needed weekly offerings of $9000 to support itself. And right down the street only two blocks away was another church of the same denomination. I wondered about the history of these two churches, and I wondered how we might create more partnerships between churches.
I would recommend this book for all clergy-even if you aren’t considering leaving your current call, this book may help you support someone who is leaving or it may offer you support to ask the question and share your own doubts. I recommend this book for church people who want an inside look at what life is like for clergy. I recommend this book for any faithful people who have doubted. I recommend this book for people who would like to look at faith in a new way.
“I guess you could say that my losses have been chiefly in the area of faith, and specifically in the area of being certain who God is, what God wants of me, and what it means to be Christian in a world where religion often seems to do more harm than good” (xii).
“At what point did a person decide that he or she was holy enough to do something like that? Being a priest seemed only slightly less dicey to me than being chief engineer at a nuclear plant. In both cases, one needed to know how to approach great power without loosing great danger and getting fried in the process. All in all, I was happier in the pew” (31). This quote is from when the author is discerning her call to ministry. Interestingly, after serving for years she has difficulty being in the pews again. This is a struggle with which I can relate.
“When my friend Matilda lay dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease, she said that she had prepared all of her life to choose between good and evil. What no one had prepared her for, she lamented, was to choose between the good, the better, and the best–and yet this capacity turned out to be the one that she most needed as she watched the sands of her life run out” (46).
“I never like the panic before the service, when I served as a human memo board for every question and concern that people had to post somewhere before they could settle down and pray” (92-93). I found this quote fascinating. As I was reading these words, I understood why people felt the need to share things with me right before worship. I have been told some of the oddest stories and strangest tidbits before worship. Also, I have been told someone died, someone is in the hospital, the liturgist isn’t here, the sound system isn’t working, there is a misprint in the bulletin, etc. Framing all of these comments as things people need to pass along to someone else before they can worship, helps me to see why I was the one who has told these important and not-that-important things right before leading worship!
“Most of us like thinking we are God’s only children” (95).
“Because they were not old enough to serve on committees or wrangle over the order of worship, the children often had a better grasp of what church was all about than the rest of us did” (97). As I read this quote, I made this note. BBT gets it right so often in just one line.
“He reminded me that salvation is not something that happens only at the end of a person’s life. Salvation happens every time someone with a key uses it to open a door he could lock instead” (115). I love this image and want to be someone who spends more time opening doors than locking them.
“Today I will bear the narcissistic wound of knowing that there are others who can say my lines when I am not there, including some who can say them better, and that while God may welcome my willingness to play a part, this show will go on with or without me, for as long as God has breath to bring more players to life” (141). As I have visited churches over the past few months, I have seen this in action. Other people are doing what I once did. People are worshiping in so many churches across the world, and my part in that has changed. Worship continues.
“Gradually I remembered what I had known all along, which is that church is a not a stopping place but a starting place for discerning God’s presence in this world. By offering people a place where they may engage the steady practice of listening to divine words and celebrating divine sacraments, church can help people gain a feel for how God shows up–not only in Holy Bibles and Holy Communion but also in near neighborhoods, mysterious strangers, sliced bread, and grocery store wine. This way, when they leave the church, they no more leave God than God leaves them” (165).
“There was no mastering divinity. My vocation was to love God and my neighbor, and that was something I could do anywhere, with anyone, with and without a collar. My priesthood was not what I did but who I was. In this new light, nothing was wasted. All that had gone before was blessing, and all yet to come was more” (209).
“Like most Christians, I have my own canon, in which I hear God speaking most directly to me, but I also like the parts in which God sounds like an alien, since those parts remind me that God does not belong to me. I do not pretend to read the Bible any more objectively than those who wrote it for me. To read it literally strikes me as a terrible refusal of their literary gifts” (216).
“All these years later, the way many of us are doing church is broken and we know it, even if we do not know what to do about it. We proclaim the priesthood of all believers while we continue living with hierarchical clergy, liturgy, and architecture. We follows a Lord who challenged the religious and political institutions of his time while we fund and defend our own. We speak and sing of divine transformation while we do everything in our power to maintain our equilibrium. If redeeming things continue to happen to us in spite of these contradictions in our life together, then I think that this is because God is faithful even when we are not. When we are able to trust the gospel that our human love of God and one another is the sum total of what we were put on earth to do, and that we have everything we need to be human, then redeeming things will continue to happen, both because and in spite of us” (220).