Dear Little Church: It’s Time for Me to Move On
by Monika Arnold | 16 October 2020 |
This is hard. I pray it lands gently, and that it’s an opportunity for reflection for all of us.
There are so many things I love about you, dear church; the traditional old-fashioned hymns, song service, kneeling for prayer, that you’re a multicultural group. I know that all of you members love the Lord. I appreciate every one of your hardships and successes, the special stories of your adventures and the love you have for your families.
However, I never quite felt that I fully fit in. As time passed I began having some doubts. I stuck with it because I was supposed to. I did the bulletin. I filled in where asked. I did what people asked me to do. I loved our picnics at the lake and having friends to my home for Sabbath meals after church.
And then COVID-19 happened. We sheltered at home. It was then I realized: I didn’t miss going to church. I found my quiet time for worship at home and it was peaceful.
I didn’t miss Sabbath School. Honestly, everything seemed to come back to Daniel, Revelation, the Three Angels, years equal days, the little horn, beasts, and 1844. I’d heard it so many times that I tuned out. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I began making my grocery lists during class.
With some exceptions, I didn’t miss the preaching which, while always well-intentioned, seemed often redundant—again, those same themes over and over again. So often the sermons seemed to reflect the speaker’s personal political or cultural paradigm rather than a theological exploration and teaching of scripture.
I didn’t miss doing the bulletin. Every week I had to chase the information, and if there was one error, you seemed happy to point it out to me. Often my bulletin ended up being inaccurate anyway because someone didn’t show up or didn’t want to participate. And after all that work, it was sad to see them left on the pews or in trash cans after the service.
I finally have the courage to tell you that I am searching: searching for a richer experience, a deeper learning experience and a broader mission. I’m looking for a more engaged community that shares its blessings with a greater audience. I want a church that is useful, and not just one that reminds us weekly of how great the traditional Adventist message is.
So yes, I am relieved. Relieved to finally realize what I need, and what I don’t need.
I’d like to say, “It’s not you. It’s me.” But really, I suppose, it is both of us. That’s what I want to talk to you about in this letter.
How I got here
I didn’t grow up in the Adventist church. My dad was Roman Catholic and my mother’s family Adventist, but they didn’t raise us in any church. Then in my late 30s I had a spiritual experience that led me to know the Lord—a true blessing during a very difficult time.
I could just have easily landed in the Catholic church. In northeastern Ohio there are many Catholics. My grandmother had taken us to all the holiday services, Christmas, Easter, neighbor kids’ communions and friends’ weddings. Later I went to university in Austria, and attended weekly mass. I loved the beauty of the churches, the music, the reverence when you walk in, the history. I am in awe of the gifts bestowed upon men to design our cathedrals of worship—not unlike the beauty of the sanctuary and the temple in the Bible. Unlike most Adventist churches I’m familiar with, it’s not acceptable to socialize in a Roman Catholic sanctuary, so going to church was calm, peaceful. I liked going there. It was simply more complicated and takes longer to become a Catholic than an Adventist. It requires Catholic Education classes, going through the Pre-catechumenate process, attending mass, going to confession, receiving a sponsor, three public celebrations, etc.
Geography was the primary reason I chose our little congregation. After working 50 to 60 hours a week, spending more than two hours a day in a car, often coming home exhausted after day or late night flights, I simply did not want to drive over 30 minutes on Sabbath morning.
I also believed that because I was most familiar growing up with traditional old-fashioned Adventism, this is where I would feel most at home. Church can be an uncomfortable place when you are brand new to church going!
When I found you, you had 85 members, 35 to 50 in attendance. It was a lovely little place, though a wee bit old-fashioned. The service was traditional: Sabbath school, followed by announcements, opening rituals, hymns, taking up an offering, children’s story, special music, divine message, benediction.
I did my best to fit in. I took on the bulletin, and volunteered for other tasks. I saw, but I never got used to, how hard it was to get anything done. We never had enough volunteers for the children’s story. We were always searching for a piano player. We had a wonderful beginning of a Women’s Ministry when seven of us ventured down to West Virginia for a fellowship adventure and got to know each other better; but it never got any further traction when we returned.
A simple renovation of the bathroom and lower level lasted almost two years. I volunteered the services of a close friend, a contractor who agreed to help, but I was gently advised his assistance wasn’t needed.
My mother would remind me every week not to expect so much from church. It’s not like work, she told me. However, to be honest, I expected more from my church than from my workplace! I’d supposed that people gathered in God’s name would have a commitment to doing our best, to be efficient, to manage the budget wisely, to have a plan, to be organized, participate, be aware of the needs of others, make efficient business decisions, treat all people with dignity, respect, kindness and mind our manners.
I realized that church for some of you was more about rules than reflecting the character of Christ. I remember the day we were to have a picnic potluck and I was told that it was probably best not to light a charcoal grill in the park on Sabbath to heat veggie dogs and burgers. What is the difference between turning on a stove or oven versus starting a charcoal grill to heat up food and burn some marshmallows for the kids?
Or even the Sabbath when our guest speaker, who I know loves the Lord, advised it was probably best that women don’t wear trousers. I was so troubled that I followed up with him to ask if this was indeed what he meant. Back at home, I reread the passage from Deuteronomy to figure out how to justify Jesus and His robe, or William Wallace and his kilt. (Later, when I had to crawl beneath a desk to troubleshoot an audio connection, I was grateful I almost always wear pants!)
As for theology: the sanctuary doctrine was confusing, and never made sense to me. I couldn’t find evidence in the Bible for it—but I was never able to bring that up with you at church. I have two college degrees, but some of you made me feel small and stupid when I tried to challenge anything in a Sabbath School discussion. Though the Spirit was telling me to ask questions, I became increasingly quiet.
I also was troubled by what I perceived as dignity and respect issues. Catholics, members of the LGBTQ community, even politicians, were often disparaged as examples of fallen humanity—mean-spirited conversations that are really never appropriate when talking about our fellow man.
The question is, do we grow if we don’t share the same values with members of our church? We all love the Lord, but we live our lives in very different ways. It’s important, I began to realize, that we worship with people who share our values. And I don’t think you would ever feel comfortable with my values.
I know that if you knew that I have dear gay friends whom I love and support, that I attended a gay wedding, that one of my best friends from high school has a transgender son, that I believe women should be ordained, that a woman is quite capable of being President of the United States or of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, even that I knit on Sabbath, I would open myself to your judgment. I became more sensitive to the perceived judgment from my church family than judgment from our Lord.
Nor were you ever quite appreciative of my skills. In all these years that I have attended, despite my expertise in sales, contract work, my business acumen and organization skills, I have only felt as good as the number of mistakes in my bulletin—that some never failed to point out.
I liked, at first, that you were multicultural. But I found that didn’t extend to people outside the group. Though we speak various languages and come from various cultural backgrounds, we still keep to our own circle of comfort. We don’t fellowship outside of Sabbath, and only with one another.
I am a single, divorced mom who works full time. I know you didn’t mean to hurt me, but there were often insensitivities to how we discussed marriage, divorce and family. I remember a Sabbath lesson that used an example of a young girl who was committed to an arranged marriage, how eventually she learned to be happy. How do we know that this marriage was brought together by God? I had so many questions and was afraid to share my thoughts, because our dear church always speaks in absolutes.
Then the election came, and our dear little church became a mirror of what was happening outside the church. I needed you to be a relief, a quiet place, a place of hope. Instead, that’s when our lovely little church truly became exhausting to me.
Guest speakers showed up who said, “I don’t mean to preach about politics, but …”—and then they went on to preach politics. I was troubled when the Sabbath after the election, one member testified that Sabbath keepers (the Kushner family) were now in the White House!
Some of you advised me that to be an Adventist I must be a Republican. I have Bob Marley and Bernie Sanders bumper stickers on my car, so you must have known that I did not identify with this party. Sometimes you said it in jest, but it still bothered me when you called me a socialist, regardless of how many times I tried to explain intelligently to you my views on capitalism and a democratic republic.
You often introduced conspiracy theories in Sabbath School discussions, even in sermons. Some felt compelled to explain and justify why they wore or didn’t wear masks, framing it as a freedom and liberty issue—as if we weren’t in a pandemic.
I felt sad and confused. Mostly, I stayed quiet. I was afraid to be me when I was with you. I was, I think, somewhat timid because I didn’t grow up in the church, so I allowed you to intimidate me into silence, even though the Holy Spirit was telling me some of these things didn’t make any sense, and weren’t the gospel.
When is it time?
For a long time I thought God brought me there to help you move the church forward. I had wanted to be a responsible member, to be part of a vision and mission. I wanted to energize and mobilize and extend our reach in the community. I even suggested that we define our church goals, create a one-, two-, five-, even 10-year plan.
But I now know you didn’t want to change. You are content, proud of your traditions, your message. That is OK—it works for you. It doesn’t work for me anymore. I am looking for a community that can self-reflect and possibly self-correct, that will listen to advice and be open to change.
When COVID-19 happened, my work—an industry that was and continues to be completely devastated by the pandemic—became exhausting. Thousands of job losses, friends and colleagues of many years were saying goodbye. A colleague lost her mom and dad to COVID-19. Family members were affected with job and income loss. When Sabbath came I was drained. We all desire the sanctuary of fellowship in Christ and a safe place, “on earth as it is in heaven.” I wanted that quiet permission to rest and be grateful.
But I went home more upset than when I came. So I began to wonder: do I fit in here anymore? How long should I stay when I’m always uncomfortable? How long should I just try to “get along”? How much does one compromise before losing oneself? How long does one ignore the nudge of the Holy Spirit in one’s heart and mind before you say “enough!”?
When we hire people at work, not only do we evaluate a candidate’s qualifications, but we also look for a good fit. What style suits the team and its mission? I’ve come to think about the church I’m part of in the same way. We may say that all of us are Christ-centered Adventists but wow! is there a difference in how we live out that faith!
New thoughts, new people
Because of COVID-19, I started attending an online event called the Adventist Today Sabbath Seminar. One Sabbath as we were finishing a two-hour class one member mentioned that he feels more “in church” in the ATSS than he did in his real church! I thought, “Me too!” I was at last gathered with people who understood faith in Jesus Christ as I did. The members there helped me to articulate what was I searching for, and alerted me to resources to research for my own understanding.
I’ve dived into some new reading: Bonhoeffer, Graham Maxwell, even some Jesuit writers. Can you imagine that all these years in the church no one had ever mentioned Graham Maxwell, one of the great theological communicators of our church? Or Desmond Ford? It was always difficult for me to digest the writings of Ellen White, but after adding this new reading I have advanced in my appreciation for her.
I sought and found a community that is more flexible, more curious and embraces all people without judgment.
I love you, dear friends in your traditional Adventist church. I’ve prayed a lot about this. And now, I feel, it may be best that we separate, so I can feel that I’m being true to the promptings of the Spirit.
I’m moving on. Please don’t take it personally. I still love you. But maybe our parting is for the best. Maybe it’s not you or me. Maybe it’s the Spirit.
Monika Arnold grew up Cleveland, Ohio. She works in the airline industry in global sales. She loves to travel, and is an avid knitter.