What does a de-converted minister do with all their stuff?
I was an ordained minister for almost three years when I asked to leave and have my license revoked because I could no longer see any reason to believe in God. I have now moved out of the house I was living in (provided by the parish I worked for) and into an apartment. Packing, tying up loose ends, saying good-bye and moving can be painful no matter what the surrounding circumstances, but in this context I found myself dealing with more stress and depression than any previous move I’ve made.
I boxed the birthday card the Sunday school had made for me, telling me, “Yu are a good Minster”. I packed away the photos of the confirmation class I taught, and the farewell gifts presented to me by the congregations I ministered to. I also found, and carefully packed, gifts I had been given at my ordination: from my family, from the congregation of the church I interned at, and even a a few from some of the dear women who had taught me Sunday school decades previously. They were all so proud and so happy for me at my ordination. I felt like such a disappointment as I put their gifts in boxes to go with me on my move. I couldn’t throw these things out, though. Not yet. It would hurt too much. It doesn’t matter that I have no practical use for greeting cards, angel statuettes, or portable communion kits. I look at these things and think about the people who gave these to me, people who felt that God had touched their lives through me, and now I could not even manage to believe that there is a God who could do so.
Then there are the things I’ve bought myself, with God in mind. Shelves full of books I bought, knowing that I would be in rural parishes and would have access to no theological library other than one I brought with me. Shelf after shelf of books on preaching, pastoral care, ethics, theology, liturgy and the Bible. I had to decide what I wanted to do with these now. Do I try to sell these to other clergy, or keep them in case I find some reason to believe once again and sense a renewed call to ordained ministry. I can’t imagine this happening, but years ago, I couldn’t imagine not believing. The limits of my imagination have been proven to be smaller than the limits of what the future might hold.
I end up deciding to keep the books, and the Christian videos too. The videos are of Rob Bell and Veggie Tales, for the most part. My wife is still Christian and enjoys watching these.
CD’s of Christian music go into boxes, and I find myself wondering if I even know what sort of music I like. I bought Christian CD’s because I knew I could trust the lyrics, more than any actual appreciation for the music. It’s not that I don’t like the music, or didn’t, but what do I listen to now?
One of the most personally disturbing moments for me is packing away my clergy vestments: those black shirts with the white, plastic collar tabs; the long, white gowns (albs) and colourful scarves (stoles). My mother made me those stoles, and one of those albs was a gift from the church I interned at. And now the whole lot is packed in the same box as my tie-dyed lab coat and purple zoot suit. How long will it take before these vestments which told people who I was and what I stood for become simply costume pieces like the clothing they are being boxed in with? Do I want them to? If not, what do I want?
I respectfully burned the holy oils, returned the dried palm branches to the church, and solemnly poured the holy water into the garden, but there is so much I have left. Books, CDs, DVDs, shirts, “Jesus junk” and mementos… I am finally moved into my apartment, and have been for a week, but there are boxes I do not want to open again. At the same time, I do not want to throw them out. They are part of who I was, and helped make me who I am. They are gifts from loved ones, or investments into a future I no longer expect to have, but sometimes still wish I did.
Over the last several months, I have seen many metaphors for de-conversion on different websites such as this one. Lately, the metaphor that resonates most strongly with me is divorce. My friends and family still claim to see God, continue relationships with God, invite God to gatherings and grow nervous about offending me by mentioning God in my presence in case I am angered by our recent separation.
I am not angered that God has left me, or abandoned me or betrayed me. I don’t feel that is the case. After all, God has a perfectly understandable reason for not being a part of my life. God does not exist. I just can’t bring myself to take that personally. So, I am not angry, but I am sometimes very depressed that life is not how I pictured it would be, the world is not as I thought and I am not in a relationship I had devoted my life to. Perhaps this is part of growing up- a process that hopefully does not stop with becoming an adult- but that does not make anything any less painful. I do try to not take that pain out on my loved ones as I try to guess how best to respond to their attempts at tactful circumspection.
The divorce metaphor is underscored for me in that it seems in the aftermath of my committed relationship, I have been allowed to keep everything but the house, and almost everything I have reminds me of God and the relationship I thought we had. I want to start anew, but at the same time do not want to disown or even disrespect who I was. I can not progress from the past by disdaining it, but by building on it. Figuring out how to do so is not easy, and having to downsize as I move from a house to an apartment adds an extra layer of complexity to ice the cake with, but life is beginning to look up again as I enter into some new beginnings and re-establish some old relationships.
This is what I’ve been up to, and part of why you haven’t been hearing from me in the last month. And it leaves me with a question to those of you who have travelled similar paths as I am now:
When you de-converted, what did you do with all of your “stuff”?