“Why I Left My Church”: PT. 1 (Justin)

This story is as vulnerable as my wife and I can possibly be. She and I spent several months discussing how this should be approached, and we decided it would be best to co-write this together. This will be a two-part article, one about my experience and one about hers. I have no intentions to manipulate, slander, or harm any individual. I simply want to get my story out for those who relate, and hopefully the leadership of this church will have the decency to sit with this and recognize the harm that they do.

June 6, 2013. I messaged my youth pastor’s friend who had recently spoken at my church. I went to an Assemblies of God church in Warner Robins, GA where I had begun a very intense spiritual journey. I was a worship leader, zealous to be a pastor, sixteen years old, and moving to Summerville, SC. I messaged this pastor excited about my move saying, “I don’t know if you remember me. I go to The Assembly in Warner Robins. Your best friend used to be my youth pastor. My parents keep saying that there’s a chance we could move back to Charleston. I wanted to let you know that if we move I would absolutely love to head over your way and get plugged in.” After a few long weeks of messaging back and forth, I finally visited the church, and I eventually joined.

After five years in this church, I had been a worship leader, a youth leader, a small group leader, and served in the kid’s ministry for four years. I had decided to go to the college at the church, which was accredited by Southeastern University. My first year I fit in. I was a fundamentalist, evangelical, and sold out to Pentecostalism. Everything changed during my second year of college.

What prompted the change? I began getting serious about my schooling. I was so passionate about theology and philosophy. I actually read my textbooks, talked with professors, and was passionate about what I was receiving from Southeastern. I began to see a difference between academics and what churches believe. I was learning, my theology was changing, and I began to realize that I didn’t fit in. My education was changing me.

I had a girlfriend at the time. We’d been together for three years, and like every young couple, our hormones were raging, and a moment came that changed everything for me. Audrey and I were hammocking in the park, and we were kissing. I was touching her breasts. Little did we know, her parents had tracked her on the phone via “find my friends” on their iPhones. When they arrived, I heard her mom say, “Hey guys, what are you doing?” The hammock was ripped open and her mom screamed, “Get off now!” I was frozen by shock and wasn’t able to respond. Her parents flipped me out of the hammock. I called the pastor I was serving under and asked to speak with him. Not only was I terrified and embarrassed, I was extremely angry. When I went to meet with the pastor, Audrey’s parents had set up a meeting. It’s quite funny. After talking with that Pastor present-day, who is now one of my best friends, I found out that he and the college director had to act the way they did simply because of Audrey’s parents’ involvement. In my mentor’s eyes, I had done nothing wrong. The word spread to the lead pastor over time. I was punished simply because of my now wife’s parents unnecessary involvement and over the top actions against me touching her boob.

That wasn’t the only time I got in trouble. I got in trouble for two other things directly from my college’s director. I have been vaping since I was seventeen. I vape because I picked up smoking at the age of 15. I didn’t want to succumb to the high amounts of poison in cigarettes, and it was a safer option compared to inhaling black smoke. My director had gotten the word that I was vaping. He had no problem with it until word was spreading about me vaping. I got written up. The second was profanity, which several of my housemates used. I had even heard my college’s director say “shit” in front of us all out of frustration. I began to notice that people were making sure they were covering their backs while they were on staff. A lot of people seemed to be correcting others out of fear rather than conviction. This didn’t sit well with me.

After constant deconstructing and life experience, I decided to create a blog to let out my frustrations. I wanted to help others, and I began writing with the expectation of teaching, being vulnerable, and helping people learn theology. There was a point where I was about a year into my writing and it was brought up in a staff retreat. The church was discussing a social media handbook that they would be releasing revolving around staff, leaders, and volunteers. The pastor who had brought it up in the meeting told me that my website was brought up to point out that being vocal and honest about where we are at in our spirituality can be productive. It turned out that it wasn’t. The pastors didn’t like the content that I was exploring.

There’s a bit of information that only a small handful of people know that ties all of this together. It’s one of the most painful things I had ever experienced. I was going to be a pastor at this church. I knew my pay, I knew when I would be signing my paperwork, and I had talked with my friend who was the kid’s director about it for about six months leading up to it. I was going to have my dream job after five years of volunteering, putting off time with family, and being fully engulfed in this church. I chose this church over having a personal life. I was fully devoted. This all is useful information when we reflect back on the fact that none of the pastors liked my writings. To be straightforward, the senior pastor was pretty upset with what I was doing. He scheduled a meeting with the kid’s director, who I mentioned earlier as one of my best friends, and told him that I couldn’t be on staff if I believed the things that I wrote about. I wasn’t allowed to do exactly what I was doing, being the right-hand man for a kids pastor if I believed anything that I was writing about. In other words, I wasn’t allowed to be on staff with the education that I was given. I wasn’t allowed to be on staff after giving my everything for five years. I wasn’t allowed to be a kids pastor. Prior to that, I was told that the pastor didn’t want me to be on staff due to the gossip about me touching Audrey’s boob that spread through the church. After that moment, I became more vocal than ever.

Facebook was my new platform. I became full throttle with my website and became vulnerable in my openness. My theology changed, my politics changed, and I wanted nothing more than to live out what I believed. There was one particular instance that promoted the definite decision to leave the church. I had made a post concerning Jesus not being a Republican. There was someone in my friends list on Facebook who commented on how Jesus would support any political party so long as they aren’t Democrats because, in his opinion, the main Democratic political push was to legalize and support all abortions. After an extensive conversation in the comments section, I had ended the discussion. That Sunday, I found out that the Campus Life Director said that the guy made me “look like an idiot” from watching that conversation take place over Facebook, all the while the person he was talking to agreed with my perspective. I was talked down about behind my back without him ever talking to me to my face.

Five years. Five years and my reputation was summed up to being an idiot, a heretic, and a nobody. I was denied a job, I wasn’t given grace. I was treated with shame. I was never allowed to give my input. I never once was talked to by the pastors who had problems with me. Five years, and it was all worth nothing. In honesty, there were more meetings about me than I want to talk about here. With my full experience, I could write a book. There’s too much that can be talked about. Five years is a long time of pressure, pains, grievances, resentments, and abuse. I was never given a voice. I was never asked to talk about it. The Senior Pastor never once asked me in for a meeting. The Campus Life Director never once asked me for my perspective or built a relationship with me. The oligarchy still continues today, even after the College Pastor, the Kids Director, and the Family Life Pastor all left. All three of the Family pastors were gone. Nobody could take what was going on. It dragged us down, made us anxious and depressed, and impacted us in ways it shouldn’t.

My one hope is that this story would help others. I don’t care if you disagree with me. I don’t care if anyone has a problem with me. I don’t care if this creates issues. I want to continue to help people who have experienced spiritual frustrations just as I have. I want these pastors to know that their actions were wrong. I want to see a change in the future not only for hurting ex-evangelicals but also in the way this church will treat its future staff and volunteers. I chose not to say names because if these people read this, they will know who they are. I hope that this helps you understand my poems more, my perspective, and why I’m so passionate about this work. May all of you find comfort in knowing that you’re not alone.

6 thoughts on ““Why I Left My Church”: PT. 1 (Justin)

  1. I love you to the moon and back! I don’t think I have ever been as happy for you as the day you left that church. Hearing you struggle because of the things they were doing was so hard. It is pastors’ like those that make “church” an ugly word in so many people’s minds. It scares me how many people actually buy into them and their beliefs. Church’s are full of sinners…as they should be! No one on Earth is perfect, nor will ever be. God forgives, so should they. It is not our job to pass judgement and condemn, but to teach the Lord’s way and guide our brother’s and sister’s to live as he would want us too. You are making a difference. NEVER let anyone hinder you from what you have been called to do.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You are one of the most courageous people I know! Keep asking questions and exploring new ground-you will go far beyond where those people dare to go. Go where you are celebrated because there are enough people out there who will celebrate you and life is too dam short to be tolerated/ignored. You are enough

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I see this a lot from other denominations too. There’s a holier-than-thou attitude in a lot of churches’ leadership and it results in intellectually curious people, and people who are doing normal human things like being sexually active as consenting adults, being made to feel worthless and less-than. Best wishes to you in your journey.

    Liked by 1 person

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