I freaking hate going to church because they’re all a bunch of hypocritical pricks. Talk to me.
– Signed, almost everybody I meet who knows I went to seminary
As they trained me to say when I started raising money for charities, “I agree, I understand.” You always start from a place of agreement. People won’t listen otherwise. This “I agree, I understand” also has the rare virtue of being true.
I’ll never forget leaving an interview with the pastor of my church which left me particularly disheartened. The guy was a fake. It was clear by comparing what he preached with what he told me in confidence. I wrote a press release for a denominational news service. I couldn’t say what I wanted, because they were giving me $500, or as much as I made in a week at my job serving the homeless at a big shelter in downtown Fort Worth.
As I drove home in my seminary student standard issue 2002 Saturn SL2, I heard Keith Richards’ version of “The Nearness of You.” That old junkie had more sincerity in his voice than the poseur I’d just interviewed.
Years later I was the chief spokesman for a business venture between the church I was affiliated with and the ministries I served as executive director that were housed on their campus. It had been explained to me that we were a joint venture because church thrift stores didn’t have to pay sales taxes.
“That six percent could really add up,” they’d said. “It’ll be more money for the ministries.”
Faith to move mountains, right?
I went to Jaycees, retirement communities (it was in Florida, so there were lots of those), other churches, whatever and ask for donations and volunteers. I would have done anything to help the ministries. I felt good about it and the money was rolling in.
They called me into the accountant’s office and suggested I sign off on a $20,000 check from those funds to remodel the stage in the church’s sanctuary. I was livid. Everything I had told these people was a lie. That money was intended for the poor, not the privileged who needed laser lights in order to worship more meaningfully. If the pastor was too scared to ask the members of the church for his pet renovation project all he had to do was ask me. I knew how to get people to fork over their cash. It’s really not that hard. Better yet, he could ask the pastor emeritus who asked for free stuff all the time. Everywhere. Seriously. We’d be a restaurant and Charles would ask for a free piece of key lime pie or whatever – and get it almost every time.
There was no faith involved. It was all just greed, fear and unyielding desires to increase numbers and protect the institution at all costs. We’d sit there in staff meetings and the ministers would laugh about the singles ministries as the “odd for God squad.”
You remember that passage when Jesus called his own people weirdos? Me neither. But we were all encouraged to be “professional Christians” in staff meetings.
Mother’s Day was a Lifetime Achievement ceremony at the Oscars. Father’s Day was going to the Principal’s Office in middle school. Even in the misogynist, backwards Southern Baptist Convention these guys were absolutely terrified of women. They knew that 65 percent of the money and 80 percent of the volunteer hours came from women. We nixed a $50,000 project that had been approved by the deacons and the church staff and, most importantly, the accountants, because the pastor’s wife, wasn’t “sure.” Not, “it’s a bad idea.” Not, “I think this won’t work.” Just, “Suzy’s not sure about it.” The project had precisely zero to do with her. She wasn’t even employed by the church. The Roman Emperor Tiberius used to walk through the Senate and when they all kissed his imperial behind, he’d call them “men fit to be slaves.” I thought the same thing.
Staff meetings were really good gossip sessions if nothing else. If a guy cheated on his wife he was total scum. If a wife cheated on her husband the conversation went, “I wonder what he did to make her do that?”
The big phrase is “cognitive dissonance.” I could not reconcile Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with what I saw. Eventually I snapped. I didn’t have the maturity yet to be the change I wanted to see.
So I do agree. And I do understand. I don’t go to church now. The gift I received in seminary of a rock-solid theological education makes it nearly impossible to sit through the institution-building, bumbling mess of a nightmare butchering the text of Romans that passes for biblical exposition.
Further, I met my now ex-wife at church. The thought of accidentally falling for another, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church” gal who thinks, with ignorant, fearful ministerial sanction, that any problems between she and I must be my fault alone makes me physically ill. And the modern church is a factory for that kind. I’d rather die alone, thanks. They never get on to the bit about “wives, respect your husbands,” because if they do, they might not have enough people for the nursery next Sunday.
But there’s still the matter of the truth claims of faith. I can’t deny the faith. I can’t deny what I saw. I personally saw miracles big and small. Alcoholics who became sober, productive and successful. Families reunited. Children healed emotionally and spiritually and even physically. Fundraising efforts that can only be described as acts of God. I was talented and diligent, but my skill does not explain how these things came together.
These things happened in spite of vengeful, incompetent, rude, dishonest people. God is real. The Bible is drilled into my head, whether I want it there or not. I still approach people with the mindset I learned from Paige Patterson, namely, “always preach to the brokenhearted, because there’s one in every pew.” If you knew the suffering that people tell their ministers about, you’d have a lot more compassion.
So I don’t have any easy answers. The Bible itself says people suck (That would be the Samuel Standard Version, a free paraphrase), so it shouldn’t be a surprise.
Seminary taught me to “live in the tensions.” God is all powerful, all knowing and all good, and yet evil exists. He is merciful and yet just. People are made in the image of God and yet capable of Auschwitz. Maybe, just maybe, someday I’ll find my way back. If I do, it may not be for long, though. If you start speaking truth to these guys, you’re likely to get “dis-fellowshipped.”
So for now I’ll just follow that great sage Ronnie Van Zant, late bishop of Jacksonville, Florida, and be a simple man and not forget “there is someone up above.” It’s not like I could forget if I tried.
Samuel holds a master of divinity from a large Southern Baptist seminary in Fort Worth. He completed coursework for a Ph.D. in New Testament before he left, too. He served various ministries from 2005-2016 before getting into something more straightforward and honest – selling cars.