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How I'd Feel If I Was His Ex-Parishioner
A Response To Alexander Lang's Departure: Why I Left The Church
A blog post this past weekend was shared in social media by dozens of clergy colleagues around the country. I began to notice there was an energetic response to the article by clergy, but not so much by parishioners. A member of my own congregation, particularly attuned to topics related to parish ministry because of her passion for the church, offered this response, which she has graciously agreed to as a guest column here on the blog. The italicized paragraphs are quotes from Lang’s blog…
Since what you were interested in is my thoughts as a parishioner, I tried not to get off on misandrist/therapy/etc. rabbit trails. Here it goes:
In my sermon, I told my congregation that I was exhausted from writing, memorizing and preaching sermons week after week for 10 years, which is true. However, there are other reasons why I'm leaving that I didn't have time to discuss in my sermon and I want to utilize this article to do a deep dive into how I came to my decision."
As a parishioner, this would boil my blood. It's wild for him to announce a departure IN MAY and BY SEPTEMBER for him to claim he hadn't had time to explain his decision...and then go on to explain in it in like 3,000 words.
He cites the two main reasons he left to be the immense stress of the job and feelings of being lonely and isolated: I won't comment on the first one, because I think any parishioner would look at pastoring and acknowledge it's very hard in a different way than most of us experience.
However, I WILL comment on the lonely/isolation part. He acknowledges that he made friends in his congregation, but it's in the section where he's talking about how hard it is to be "enmeshed" in peoples' lives. As a congregant, I'm wondering what he shared with his friends, and how they failed to show up for him. I'm wondering why I didn't get an email about it, because I'm typically a person who is emailing the pastor to check in. I would be so sad to hear he had been lonely and felt isolated, but I'd be very mad to read about it on the internet instead of, at the very very least, hearing about it from the pulpit.
"It is a privilege to be given a window into these very private aspects of people’s lives, but the responsibility that comes with that privilege can often be overwhelming in ways that those on the outside of the pastorate cannot fully comprehend." I see this, and this is what I experience as a counselor. But it's literally the heart of the jobs we have, right? To witness, to bear, to join, and to minister. It's the good part, the affirming part, right? Are clergy as deeply INTO this part as I am? This is where God comes to me in the work I do, and I hope that's at least a little true for clergy, too.
I know that's real. I bet there are some "mudslinging" and backdoor meetings going on leading up to any church split. As his congregant, I would wonder how he addressed those folks, or why he felt he couldn't. I don't know. I would try not to victim blame...but I wouldn't have liked to have found out this way.
Pastors ARE "expected" to be lots of things. I've heard pastors voice that fact. Good boundaries would be for clergy to identify our expectations and push back when necessary in the moment. For example, be vocal with the council that the pastor wants to see us take more lead on X, Y, or Z. As a parishioner, I'd wonder when he felt we were projecting these things on him, how he pushed back, or why he felt like he couldn't. Was he scared to push back because of us...or because of capitalism? Like, he has a ton of school debt and a degree where he can't make money, so pushback on us loses him his job, etc. etc. etc. Were there times when I asked too much of him, and he didn't say anything? Because I personally would've loved the chance to have that conversation. I love a good boundaries-setting sesh. Who was it? Who couldn't he have that convo with?
"As the pastor, I felt like a punching bag and no matter how much abuse was thrown my way, I simply had to grin and bear it."
I have trouble separating my feelings as a parishioner from my thoughts as a counselor with regards to how he talks about expectations, abuse, etc. He has a very pronounced external locus of control, and I wonder if that's something he's able to see/challenge/etc. But I'm very sorry that was his experience. Nobody's job should be to absorb abuse.
Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset
As a parishioner, reading this part would kill me. I don't think it's my orientation to the world, and I don't think it's MOST peoples' orientation. This part would feel like he was saying, "See, even my counselor thinks y'all are whack." This part sucks, as a parishioner. It's very moralized and very pointed and very mean. And as a counselor, I have seen that what we call "fixed mindset" often comes from trauma. And even if it's not trauma-based, "fixed mindset" is ALWAYS a defense mechanism. It's self-protective. Has his work with people not enabled him to understand this? It kinda seems like pastoral work could or should! Instead of saying, "No one wants to be involved at church anymore," I see healthy clergy, for example, looking around and saying, "Huh, I don't understand what people want from church anymore. Let's ask." and then when they don't get a very loud response, they say so from the pulpit, and they start asking again in different ways.
If I was his parishioner, reading this blog post would leave me feeling the same feelings I now call "gaslighting" in my former marriage: I'm trying as hard as I can, it's never enough, and when he tells the story, I don't recognize myself in it. In HIS story, I'm the bad guy. In MY story, he's someone that I guess I didn't understand. Same for me as Alexander's parishioner: I was doing as much as I could and what I thought was wanted from me, I guess it wasn't enough, and in his story, it's my fault. But when I'm reading his story, I'm wondering if I ever knew him at all.
R. Danielle Howerton, LMSW, parishioner
Two additional notes: First, I’ve linked below what I consider the best clergy response to Lang’s article, a piece on worker solidarity by Benjamin Dueholm.
Second, I think this dynamic of reader response criticism, of realizing how “lay people” (for lack of a better term) feel about church and clergy vs. how clergy feel, plays a significant role in how one receives Lang’s blog post. In striving to empathize with his parishioners and the church more generally, and also out of an apparently very different context of serving for a long time as a pastor in churches, I for one wish Lang would have had the courage to have said all the things he said in the blog post during his tenure as pastor at the congregation, rather than during his “announced departure.”