What is it that brings on a denominational transition? It can be many different things, depending on the person and the circumstances. I am offering my musings on this experience in ways that may speak into other people’s lives. Today’s post is an account of the inside story, next week comes the outside story.
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:11–14)
In an age when every Christian denomination seems to lose more members than it gains, it is easy to overlook a category of sincere mature Christian women and men who struggle with quite a different issue. Whether it be through the sharing of life with a spouse of another denomination, through a maturing of faith which results in tension with the beliefs and practices of one’s adhering church, or simply through a “holy encounter” facilitated by a pastoral presence or liturgical witness in another Christian tradition, making a denominational switch can be attractive and easy, but can also bring about an agonizing period of painful questions, doubt and struggles. In all cases a switch of this nature is considered not because of a lack of faith, but because of its opposite, i.e. a deeper and maturing faith.
Whether brought on abruptly or gradually, the inner transformation leading to the decision to change one’s denominational identity and allegiance can be heart-wrenching, dangerous and painful as well as attractive, inviting and affirming.
The biblical figure of Ruth is an apt companion for anyone who embarks on such a journey. In the face of tremendous loss (husband, brother-in-law and father-in-law all die) Ruth felt compelled to choose an unknown and precarious future (Ruth 1:15-18). It is not enough for Ruth to be thrust into liminal space by the deaths of the men who secured women’s social status, security and future. Ruth ruthlessly exacerbates this already chaotic situation, this liminal space, by turning her back on her native country, religion and culture by choosing to go to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi. Those who see her leaving shake their heads; those who see her coming shake their heads (Ruth 1:19). What is she doing? How dare she renounce social and gender status, ethnic origin, religion and culture? What makes her think life will be better as a foreigner, a widow and an outcast in Naomi’s homeland? Why?
While the outside world may look on with shock and incredulity, the Ruths in our churches enter a powerful and comprehensive transformation facing all the risks and dangers which the very act of leaving behind the familiar and cherished entails. It bears the features of a crisis – doubt, fear, chaos, anxiety, loneliness, resistance, loss. It is an intense journey from orientation through disorientation to re-orientation. It is a dangerous opportunity, indeed.
Inklings of the need to move one’s spirit into another religious home often first awaken in the heart and mind. Doubt creeps in about the ability of the home tradition to feed and sustain one’s spiritual life and mission in the world. Sometimes this realization is thrust upon a person by painful experiences of loss and exclusion, abuse and betrayal, making it impossible to continue to drink from the ecclesial wellspring. What once was a source of inspiration and faith, a haven of safety, a life-giving and love-giving community, shrivels and dies. Other times the realization that the time for departure has come is caused by discoveries and callings, dreams and desires indicating a purpose for one’s life that either is prohibited by, or cannot be adequately fulfilled in, one’s religious home tradition.
For he says, ‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’
See, now is the acceptable time;
see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor. 6:2)
When the time for denominational exit/transfer is upon a person, something significant shifts in one’s universe. No matter how the advent of the transition announces itself, it can feel like the shifting of tectonic plates deep in one’s psyche. One woman said, “I knew the time (to change) was upon me when I noted in shock that my heart no longer believed my own answers (as to why I’m staying in this church).” How long this process of transformation takes varies widely, depending on the person, the situation and the level of grief and letting go which needs to be worked through as well as the person’s emotional and mental resources (human and other) to negotiate the denominational transition. The more deeply engaged one is with one’s initial faith tradition, the more difficult the transition can be.
Before the internal process of disengaging and exiting reaches a point of no return, the person may have made various attempts at avoiding the inevitable leaving. Great efforts may have been made to find creative ways to stay within one’s tradition. The notion of needing to leave can trigger denial or anger, as well as unspeakable grief and loss, as with a death or a divorce. Resisting the scope of this loss, a person may have tried to deny the inner intra-psychic shifts in his/herself. Other times the eagerness to move to a place of less pain is greater than the felt loss; in that case transition may look smooth. A sense of grief can still wash over her/him, however, after the transfer has made a return to one’s former religious home next to impossible. It is then that Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene take on very personal significance: “Do not hold on to me” (John 20:17).
As the beckoning to new life in another tradition grows stronger, a parallel movement occurs by a mental, emotional and spiritual disengaging from one’s former religious home. A “stepping out of the box” and living outside of any denomination may be an essential intermediate stage before a new denominational affiliation becomes possible. This liminal space may serve to establish solid spiritual ground under the person’s feet apart from any denominational identification. Eventually a sustained and informed movement “toward” something new and full(er), replacing the focus of moving “away” from the old, occurs in one’s mind-heart-spirit. Inner peace, clarity and joy will release new energy and courage for the task ahead. A heartfelt encounter with the risen Christ in the new liturgical and ecclesial context becomes crucial, after Mary Magdalene’s example. Once Mary let go of how she knew Jesus on earth, her heart opened to welcome the new risen Jesus and she exclaimed “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).
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