Since leaving Elmbrook, “church” has taken on an incredibly different meaning in my life. Not only have I struggled to process through my own painful experiences, but a weird thing has happened - as soon as I told people that I used to be a pastor and was no longer a part of a church, the stories poured out. Stories of rejection, abuse, hurt, anger, and deep wounding. It’s not just a few stories either - they have been gushing out all around me.
These are stories, experiences, traumas that need to be listened to and learned from. These are real people, with very real experiences that cannot be ignored or written of with simple quips about “personal responsibility” or “God’s deep love for his bride, the Church”. Something is wrong. Really, really wrong.
And I am not the only one who’s noticed.
The Barna Group recently did some research on this ever-growing population of those who love Jesus, but cannot find their place in the church… you can check it out here: https://www.barna.com/research/meet-love-jesus-not-church/.
The typical response of the church-going individual to statistics such as these is, in my opinion, completely disparaging. Instead of looking at ourselves and asking how we are contributing to a very real issue, we tend to place the blame back on the individual who cannot seem to fit within our midst. We say things like, “Well, if you love Jesus, you have to love His Bride” or “you’ll never find a perfect church because there’s people in every one of them” or even “The Church is the hope of the world.” To my shame, I have had these conversations often; and not one of them has ended with the humility of actually hearing and questioning the status quo.
So, instead of writing off this ever-increasing group of people who love Jesus but don’t love the Church, what if we listened to their stories? What if we withheld judgement and held our understanding of what church must be with an open hand? What if the Holy Spirit is doing something new and we are missing it because we are not listening?
So, for those who want to listen, here is my story of church.
The Church captured my heart at a very young age. My parents were a part of starting Westbrook Church - from the day I was born, this was a part of my life. And from the earliest days, I understood that church was family and it was about relationships. You didn’t leave your family. No matter what.
I loved Westbrook more and more every year I was there. I didn't love her because she was shiny and polished, with all of the best games and most recent curriculums… There was something deeper than that. I fell in love with the Story of God communicated through really normal people who loved Jesus. The Church spoke to me stories of great courage, adventure, sacrifice and significance. She gave me a vision of the person I wanted to be and a sense of purpose in my life. She brought comfort and hope in the midst of chaotic places in my life. With her, I knew that I belonged.
It seemed fitting that at the age of 21 I would find myself on staff at the church I had grown up at and never left. I had so much passion, time and energy. I wanted to learn everything I possibly could about working with students, about theological issues, about the Bible… I worked hard, much more than I was paid for, but it was all a joy.
When I was 23, this church I had loved so deeply fell apart. It was ugly: people standing up in the church aisles and screaming at each other, ugly. Many of the pastoral staff resigned; these were the men and women who had invested countless hours in my life, helping me flourish, and they were suddenly gone.
I stayed. I believed I could help bring healing and shield students from all of the pain. I believed in the goodness of those within the church. I believed in the power of prayer. I believed I would see healing. I was asked to be the Director of Student Ministries and I enthusiastically accepted.
During all of this chaos, my dreams of meeting someone who I could connect with at a soul-level, were coming true. I was single for over five years - since I graduated from high school. I didn’t even date. I was so concerned about my personal integrity, honoring God, and not allowing others to stumble, that I was overly conservative and cautious. But, I was longing for a partner.
A few months after our church fell apart, I began talking with a college freshman, who was serving in our Student Ministries. He was (and still is) my match. We talked for hours and hours about philosophy, theology and the Bible. We dreamed about what God would do in the world and with us. We laughed together and prayed together. It was a gift, God’s kindness to me.
We told no one about our relationship for awhile (outside of our families and a few close friends). If I, the Student Ministry Director, was going to announce a relationship, I wanted to be damn sure it was something that was going to last. After a number of months, we cautiously began to tell students and leaders.
Then, the closed door meetings began. Moms, who had loved me, encouraged me, and prayed for me came into my office and told me they were withdrawing their students from the ministry out of fear that I would pursue a dating relationship with their children. They went to the board of elders to ask that I be removed from my position. They collectively labeled me as a child predator. So the elders engaged. They asked me to stop dating Dustin or to resign. I was devastated. My church had turned on me without any warning.
My dad had these incredibly wise words for me in the midst of the chaos, “Linnea, there are plenty of jobs and plenty of churches out there, but there is only one Dustin.” I resigned the next day.
I wrote a letter to the board of elders after a few months. These were men whose families I knew well, who I had spent significant time with - serving, praying, and talking. I believed there was love and mutual respect in our relationship and I wanted them to know what had happened from my perspective because they had never asked.
Two weeks later I received a scathing letter in return. Cold. Harsh. Indicting me on all of my failures. Placing the responsibility entirely on my shoulders. I was broken.
I would love to say that the next church I landed at brought healing, but it was quite the opposite. For me, it felt foreign and suffocating. I was anonymous. Only a few people knew my name, even though the church was quite small. I was simply Dustin’s girlfriend. My sense of belonging, safety, purpose… were gone. My faith was intact, but I struggled.
I graduated from college and began pursuing jobs in the nonprofit sector. But I was longing to work in ministry once more. It’s not a surprise to me now that nothing other than that ended up working out. My heart was set on a role within the church.
And then, like magic, it happened. A friend I had known from my days at Westbrook came into the coffee place I was working at and asked me if I wanted a job at Elmbrook. My dreams were coming true. A job opened up for me in the High School Ministry and the largest church in Wisconsin.
Dustin and I got married a few months after I started at Elmbrook, and we went about investing ourselves into the lives of students. It was a joy. I remember sitting around our 500sqft apartment that was packed with students and feeling full once again. Healing was coming. God was redeeming the pain.
However, it was not long until Elmbrook turned a corner also. Their long term Senior Pastor resigned and rumors began to circulate that he was pushed out of his role. Valid or not, this triggered something in me. The pain from my experience at Westbrook surged through my veins again.
The search was on for the next Senior Pastor. He came, promising revitalization and growth. Because of my past, I was skeptical.
The next years were fraught with significant reduction in staff. Those of us who survived the initial firings lived in consistent fear of whether or not we would be next. The pressure on us to produce was overwhelming. The tension in the air was palpable.
Yet, we didn’t leave. Dustin and I made Elmbrook our home. We loved the staff and the families there. She had become a part of us. So, we stayed. We hoped. We pressed on and prayed. But, it only got worse from there.
It’s easy to look back now and see at least a dozen places I should have spoken up and stood my ground. Moments I should have taken better care of myself and my family. But when you are living within an unhealthy system it is nearly impossible to see the disfunction - or to be healthy yourself.
During my last few years at Elmbrook, I slowly fell apart. I still look back at it and feel a bit sick to my stomach. I don’t know why I stayed. I worked 50+ hours a week and was told over and over it wasn’t enough, I had two premature babies and a husband who had cancer, my dad almost died while I was on a camping trip with students, I missed my sister’s bridal shower for “ministry” - and these are just some the “personal” things.
Wounds after wounds came from within: I was publicly berated by a pastor in an all staff meeting, was yelled at by a person who had once been a mentor and left to cry in her office when she left for a more important meeting, was nearly fired by the senior pastor because of a false rumor that no one ever asked me about, bullied almost daily by coworkers, was slandered and gossiped about, was fired twice from my position but asked to stay indefinitely until a suitable replacement could be found, was praised one moment and criticized the next… Thus, I slowly lost heart. When I would ask for help (with staff conflicts, with details, with overall office politics, and even theological misunderstandings), I was told this was an opportunity for me to grow spiritually.
I was burnt out. Completely fried. And I knew, more than anything, I wasn’t safe.
In my last six months at Elmbrook, I was no longer the High School Pastor; I had been let go for the second time so that someone with a more suitable “large group personality” could be found. I was asked to function as the High School Pastor until they hired my replacement. I loved our students and leaders so much, they had seen so much transition in the seven years I had been there, so I did. Enduring the retreats, multiple trips, and weekly programming for those six months was absolutely grueling. And instead of support from the “team” around me - I received only criticism.
Too much happened during my seven and a half years there. I had seen countless friends come and go from staff; I had four different direct bosses and four different senior pastors. We had completely restructured staff more than once and my role had changed countless times. Dustin had started to check out. I was alone and unknown. More than once I was called into my boss’s office and questioned about my loyalties and my theology. The church was trying to figure out if I was a liability. I was not safe. I could not be myself.
I chose to leave my role as a pastor at Elmbrook after seven and a half years. My investment was “celebrated” by a reception held in the hallway with some free church coffee as an incentive to come and say goodbye. No communication was sent out to the congregation that I was leaving. Volunteers I worked with for seven years had no clue I was no longer a part of their church. Two weeks after leaving a received my pastoral family picture in the mail - neatly wrapped in a small box. I was out. Alone. Abandoned once again.
And all hell started breaking loose.