After reading and enjoying the recent BCC post Review of Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy, I checked my local library for a copy. Not available. So I settled for her earlier book Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (HarperOne, 2006). Taylor is an ordained Episcopal priest who served for ten years in a large Atlanta congregation, then took a rector position (head priest, like a Mormon bishop) of a smaller congregation in a small town in northern Georgia. After five years, she stepped down. The book is her reflections on that difficult personal decision. This post is my reflections on her reflections.
Not Really a Faith Crisis. The middle section of the book relates how Taylor took the rector position with the sense that this was the perfect spot for her, just the kind of congregation she wanted to serve in, then five years later found herself worn out and depressed over the day-to-day grind of serving the spiritual needs of a flock 24/7. In other lines of work, this is called “compassion fatigue” and it is a common thing. Okay, time to find a new job. But for a pastor or priest, that’s tougher to do, in part because it feels like walking away from your chosen vocation and letting God down.
But let’s be clear. She didn’t lose her faith in God. She didn’t lose her commitment to the Episcopal Church or to the vows she had taken as an ordained priest. Stepping down as rector, she was expected to find another place to attend church (as a courtesy to the new rector), which she did. Sometimes this was Backyard Church, just watching the birds out back and enjoying the breeze and thinking about God. As faith transitions go, this was a pretty soft landing. It doesn’t hold a candle to the traumatic Mormon exits that one reads almost daily in Facebook groups. She didn’t lose friends or family. Her network of fellow priests was supportive. No one called her names or treated her badly. There were times reading when I just said, “Oh stop whining, lady, and move on. You don’t have it bad at all.” Frankly, I though the most enjoyable chapter had nothing to do with her faith reflections. It was her account of hosting a days-long Native American Sun Dance festival on her large rural property, with hundreds of visitors camped out for a week.
Clergy and Mormon Vocations. Of course the LDS Church doesn’t have professional clergy, which doesn’t mean we don’t have clergy. It just means they are part-time, unpaid, and untrained. Another difference: they don’t volunteer, they are called. They might be delighted or quietly pleased or even mildly unhappy about being called as a bishop or SP, but they don’t volunteer. It’s worth reflecting on those few “callings” in the Church that people do volunteer and self-recruit for: Missionary service, senior missions of many varieties, CES teaching positions, faculty positions at the BYUs. Can you think of any others? These sometimes are Mormon “vocations” to those who prepare and volunteer for them.
My sense is that when bishops or SPs are released, at least in the States, they are quite happy to step down and have very little difficulty relinquishing the position. They’re happy to sit in the pews instead of on the stand. They’re happy to not have to chair meetings and conduct interviews. That transition was much tougher for Taylor stepping down from her rector position, even though she was still a priest in good standing. I think the best parallel in the Church is the difficulty missionaries have in “stepping down” from their mission before the appointed two years.
A Few Reflective Quotations. The author is a fine writer, so there were a few passages, particularly in the short third section of the book, that resonated a bit for me, a Mormon reader. I’ll just pick a few to share.
In the twenty-first year of my priesthood, I empty the bag of my old convictions on the kitchen table to decide what I will keep. (p. 213)
We all plan to clean out the garage or the hall closet (next week, next month …) but do we ever sit down to clear out the mental clutter and garbage that has accumulated? What an interesting exercise. I certainly haven’t done that in any systematic way. I’m afraid if I did, there wouldn’t be anything left.
I thought that being faithful was about becoming someone other than who I was, in other words, and it was not until this project failed that I began to wonder if my human wholeness might be more useful to God than my exhausting goodness. (p. 219)
“Exhausting goodness” is a good description for what a lot of active Church members practice. It might be what the Church expects of its members. “Human wholeness” is a concept worth pondering in a religious and LDS context. I suspect most active Mormons, confronted with the question, would define it in terms of Church activity and family. I think there’s more to it. Wouldn’t that make a great Sunday School lesson or two?
During my early years in parish ministry, I conceived of faith as the core certainty about God and godly things that equipped me for the ministry. When people had questions about Jesus’s divinity or the activity of the Holy Spirit, I had reasonable answers for them. When they wanted to know why terrible things happened to good people, I could at least introduce them to the language of theodicy. Not until my father died did I feel my way into a different concept of faith. (p. 223)
LDS faith is still mostly about certainty. Those who adopt a more nuanced (that’s the popular term) approach or a Middle Way (another popular term) often move in that direction because of a traumatic personal or family event that just doesn’t line up with the Standard LDS Model (just made that one up). A few people just read books to get there.
Here’s a final quote, snippets pulled from that last few pages of the book, pages 225-229. I’ll just throw it out there for your consideration.
Many years ago now, when I was invited to speak at a church gathering, my host said, “Tell us what is saving your life now.” It was such a good question …. Although we might use different words to describe it, most of us know what is killing us. … Teaching school is saving my life now. … Living in relationship with creation is saving my life now. … Observing the Sabbath is saving my life now. … Encountering God in other people is saving my life now. … Committing myself to the task of becoming fully human is saving my life now.