My first priority post-divorce was immersing myself in the care of people that loved me while doing things that I enjoyed. One of those things was singing on the worship team at church. Singing in an ensemble or choir had been a part of my life for over 20 years. Being a part of a band creates a beautiful camaraderie that is exhilarating and life-giving. The church had recently hired a new worship pastor and I was getting to know him and his wife.
During the divorce process, the pastor asked that I take a break from serving on the worship team and in the children’s ministry while I sorted things out. He framed it as way to ensure that I didn’t feel pressure to serve if I didn’t have the capacity. I had been singing with the worship team for about a year at this point, but I agreed to the break because I was preparing to help welcome my nephew and planned to be traveling quite a bit. The pastor told me I could get back on the schedule whenever I was ready or if I felt the break was “stupid.”
Once I signed the final divorce decree, I felt ready to hop back into serving at the church. The pastor was on a sabbatical that began shortly before my divorce was final, so I approached the elder that helped me, as he was also on the worship team. I was surprised when he pushed back, saying that he needed to have a conversation with the other elders to consider the “ramifications” of me singing on the worship team. He touched base with me after their conversation and let me know that the elders wanted talk through the “ramifications” with the pastor when he returned from sabbatical. I pressed to try to understand more about what their concerns were, but he rudely told me that their decision was final and that he would not be giving me an explanation.
I decided to take my own sabbatical from the church as I recovered from the toll of advocating for myself throughout the divorce process. During my time away, I visited family, spent some time with my new nephew, and relaxed.
The pastor and elder followed up with me shortly after the pastor returned from his sabbatical and we set up a time to talk through my return to serving. They framed their approach as a way of caring about me, but they never asked me what I needed to feel cared for. The pastor and elder said that I could probably serve in the children’s ministry again, but they kept saying that they were concerned about the “ramifications” of me being seen on stage after the divorce. They never pointed to any specific concerns, but I deduced that they didn’t want to be seen as endorsing my divorce because then others may think it’s ok to do the same thing- even though they had previously said it was appropriate in my situation. They also added that they thought I took my sabbatical out of spite because “I didn’t get my way.” I clarified my reasoning for taking a sabbatical and tried, unsuccessfully, to get answers on when I could serve again. I also pointed out that, if there were certain standards or requirements to sing on the worship team, that had never been communicated to me previously and no one else on the worship team was undergoing the scrutiny that I was. The pastor said he would bring up the issue with the elders and touch base with me.
Several weeks went by and I followed up via e-mail. I was told they still didn’t have any answers. I reached out to the worship leader who I sang with when I first joined the team. I thought that, since she served with me consistently, she could address whatever concerns the leadership had. I never heard from her. I also never heard anything from the worship pastor who I had shared my story and the stage with. I decided to approach the pastor one Sunday after church to try to get clarification on the delay. Rather than addressing my concern, he questioned my persistence, saying that he doubted whether my heart was in the right place to serve.
That interaction reminded me of the dynamics in my marriage. Rather than be honest and up front, he chose to impute a negative motive to me. He was fine keeping me in limbo, even though I had expressed how the lack of community was impacting me negatively. I also started to see a dangerous power dynamic, where the pastor had to have control over every detail, and those around him not only had very little say, but they were also scared to oppose him.
I realized that, in keeping with my newfound freedom and practice of caring for myself, I needed to leave the church.
I let the pastor, the elders and their wives, and the worship leaders know that I would not be signing a membership covenant when it came time for renewal because I was not cared for after my divorce. Rather than lay out my issues in an e-mail, I let them know that I would be available to discuss them with whoever would like to know how to care better for folks in my situation. The pastor responded quickly in a manner to let folks know that he was handling the situation. He said he was sorry that I “didn’t feel cared for” and that he would follow up in another e-mail with the elders. He never did.
One of the elders‘ wives did reach out though, and we met to debrief. She let me know that after my divorce, they felt like they had failed. I realized that their goal was restoration of my marriage, and not the restoration of my dignity. They were more worried about my marriage than about me, and the fact that I had gained freedom was lost on them. After this conversation, none of the leaders at the church who said that they cared about me even bothered to reach out.
And that’s when it struck me: the leaders of the church were treating me the way they were because they believed they were doing the right thing. They believed that they were honoring God by pushing me to the side. They believed they were honoring God by being paternalistic over my divorce and subsequent healing. They believed they were honoring God by not allowing me to be seen. The care they said they had for me only extended to the edge of the box they believed I was allowed to occupy.
About a month after I officially ended my membership with the church, they held their annual women’s retreat. The retreat was open to non-members, and, though I was hesitant, I desired to fellowship with folks as I had previously and I decided to attend. I thought it would be an opportunity to connect with folks who just didn’t know what to say or how to help. The theme was “Women of the Well.” My reservations were quickly confirmed the first night when I read a program welcome note from the pastor where he referred to the Woman at the Well in the Bible as “ratchet,” while assuring us the women in attendance at the retreat were certainly “not like her.”
The speakers at the retreat focused on the book of Esther. And, as with many of the messages I heard about Esther, the focus was on her courage and bravery, but only one person briefly mentioned the first woman in the story, Queen Vashti, who was discarded by her husband after she declined to participate in his objectification of her.
I shared my thoughts at the end of the retreat during an open mic session. I shared that I relate with the Woman at the Well who- rather than being ratchet for having multiple husbands and living with a man she wasn’t married to- was actually likely abandoned by the people that were legally and culturally bound to care for her. I relate to Queen Vashti, who refused to endure abuse and was pushed aside by men who didn’t want other women to see and learn from her example. I encouraged the retreat attendees to recognize the value in their story, even when folks dismiss it.
I left the retreat with more sadness than I felt after getting divorced. I knew I had to grieve the loss of the community that I once held dear. I knew I had to grieve the reality that the “care” that I had received from my church was conditioned on me continually sacrificing my well-being. Most importantly, I knew that I could no longer run from the issue that the problems with my church were illuminating: the faith I had known my entire life had caused me more harm than good.