Category Archives: Group Dynamics

Welcome to our church!

People are awkward.

Several weeks back I saw someone at the church I’ve been attending who I wanted to get to know better (read, was physically attracted to said person). We’ll call this person Jordan. At a church social I introduced myself, got talking with Jordan and their friends, and before I knew it was scheduled to go get coffee with Jordan and some friends of theirs. The day of the coffee outing came, we went and I had a great time. I got to ride there and back with Jordan and found they¬†have some personality/character traits I really appreciate/connect with, we have some things in common, and Jordan still floors me physically.

Naturally I Facebook friend Jordan and others I went with, writing a short sincere message in friending Jordan.

Immediately Jordan’s friends accept my request and write back. Jordan has yet to accept the request or respond. It’s been a month, and I can tell Jordan’s been active on Facebook. If that were the only thing that’d be fine. And to be fair, I’ve only been to church/outings with Jordan’s friends two/three times since the coffee outing. But Jordan also has not approached me in church during passing the peace and hasn’t made it easy to say hi before or after the service. People can converse with friends in such a way that they are ready to expand their conversational circle, or they can stand pretty closed-off-like which is mostly what I’ve seen. I haven’t really heard anything back from Jordan’s friends since then either.

Well, this hurts. I get it that Jordan is not interested. That’s been made painfully clear. Was it necessary to go so far as to just reject me as a person? I am the new person at the church, I reached out and then I got shunned. Or at least that’s how it feels on a rainy day like today.

Giving the benefit of the doubt, I know interacting with people you have recently met or hardly know can be awkward and difficult. Perhaps no one is really to blame here. Or perhaps it’s all my fault. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so shy and should just try a little harder to include myself in that chatty circle of friends after the service? Perhaps I should not care about how the situation feels and just make sure to say hi to Jordan and chat if we can? Or perhaps I should never have introduced myself, should have known they have a significant other (which I still don’t know), should have known they aren’t into people of my sex (which I don’t know)?

You can probably tell I’m a verbal processor (hmm, not a computer processor: I am a processor of words… I weigh them, spit them out, receive feedback and repeat). My hope is that through writing about this, and getting responses, I can understand the situation better and more clearly discern what I should do now and should anticipate in similar future circumstances. Do you know what I mean?

Self-loathing, suicide, seminary

People hate, hurt, and kill themselves at seminary. I’m not writing this to attack seminaries, but to dispel notions that seminarians have their shit together more than anyone else. We’re broken people, too.

A friend told me last week that she had been considering suicide. Not all the time, but occasionally. She might still be. I love her a lot, she has good friends, and she’s doing better in her classes this semester than last. But all the same emptiness and self-hate surge through her life. She made relationship decisions she wasn’t proud of last semester, ones that reverberate still. Family hasn’t been very supportive. Thoughts of finding work and paying off her amassed debt after graduating are depressing.

A recent study conducted by Duke showed that ministers are twice as likely to suffer from depression than the general population (Clergy More Likely to Suffer from Depression, Anxiety). The reasons for this are many and I don’t really want to get into them all here. I think a lot of it though comes from unreal expectations/thoughts that laypeople have of their “Christian leaders”. And I hope to disabuse them of some of these beliefs.

It seems the primary belief to address is that Christian leaders are qualitatively different from the rest of us. This explains how they can do so much, and have energy to comfort so many hurting people and effectively minister to believers and non-believers alike while still looking good and raising decent children. If this is what you think, you need to think again. I would say look again, but as argued in my last post (The abuse of sharing “my testimony”), you don’t have a right to your leader’s personal life and depending on the situation and leadership style it’s good for the leader to have some distance from her flock.

Christian leaders are just people. Your favorite one probably verbally abuses his children when parishioners are gone or masturbates over hardcore porn when her husband is out or has trouble mustering the courage to ask his neighbors to put their dog inside when it’s barking like crazy. If you have the opportunity to get to experience the hospitality of Christian leaders, I advise you to take it. I have had this privilege, with some “spiritual giants” of our generation. More beneficial than receiving strings of spiritual pearls of wisdom or fare of godly conversation, I came to see my heroes were just as flawed, backwards, broken and normal as I was.

I heard recently that the two groups CAPS, Duke’s counseling/psychological services center (I’ve found it helpful: http://studentaffairs.duke.edu/caps) sees most are Divinity School students and PhD students. Yes, seminarians are messed-up, perhaps more so than other people. But I like that they know it. And I hope we can grow in that knowledge, and the people we serve can appreciate it.

The abuse of sharing “my testimony”

Christians love to share their testimonies, or life stories, or whatever you want to call it. These stories range in depth and scope depending on audience but they usually cover before you choose to believe and follow Christ and after, centering on Christ’s redemptive work in the middle. Christians share testimonies for a few reasons: to share their faith with a non-believer, to bolster the faith of another believer. What I have participated in most has been sharing testimonies for the purpose of getting “real”, being vulnerable with a small group I was participating in through choice (e.g. a Christian ministry) or compulsion (e.g. mandated by work or school). The intention is that, through showing who we all really are, we will better understand and love one another.

The intentions – increased love and understanding – are well and good. But the means? Is it really necessary to share my testimony in the way it is generally expected to accomplish these ends? Or do the ends even justify the means? Allow me to argue that small group testimony sharing as generally practiced is abusive.

It is abusive because the expectation is that you will give others some means to understand you better whether they merit this personal knowledge or not. That you all accept Jesus as Lord does not qualify you all to know each other personally. The idea is strange: we share the same presuppositions, we claim to have a mutual friend named Jesus, so we ought to spill all our beans to each other.

I am not arguing that privacy or secrets are somehow better than disclosure. The inability to let others into your life must surely be problematic for anyone desiring to thrive as a social being. Furthermore, there may be something powerful in confession, or at least discussing our inner thoughts with others, to help us reform our peccadilloes or idiosyncrasies. I am arguing that the information of who touched you when you were younger, or what makes your heart sing or why your father went to prison is information no one else has a right to, and thus small group testimony sharing operates on false and potentially destructive premises.

In small group settings there is a lot of pressure to perform, to be real, to expose your dirty laundry with all of its stains. The result is that many people feel pressured to say things they should not have to say or simply should not say or they end up spinning yarns that deceive others and conceal themselves. I love honesty. I love truth. But I’ll echo Bonhoeffer and say that truth belongs to those who deserve it.

I like Duke’s small groups and I like the idea of creating a vulnerable, authentic community. But I think the idea of “testimony time” needs some re-thinking. What would you recommend?

“You are who you hang with”. Must I be?

It would be worthwhile to explore the effect community is having on my beliefs even while it is happening.

I mean this:

I came in as a conservative, inerrantist-leaning believer. Then I found Christian pluralism and the silence of God in my life too hard to reconcile with my presuppositions. So I dropped belief and became a skeptic and agnostic.

Skepticism provides no m.o. so I have defaulted to certain patterns. To name them, I would say I am operating under pragmatism, self-interest, and Christian-informed ethics.

My skepticism allows me both to question the point of divinity school in general if there is no god, but also opens me to the idea that, if there is a right way of believing and practicing, Duke — with its mainstream, sola scriptura sed non nuda scriptura (idea I take from Daniel Treier, that Christians best use Scripture as the only divine authority but not divorced from tradition) approach to scripture and tradition, historical-criticism-informed biblical interpretation, and narrative based ethics — might have it. (I should probably drop the idea there is one right way of doing anything…)

If I do not come into contact with communities I can trust and identify with that hold different belief systems, I will probably eventually accept some version of Ducal Christianity. It would be the only option I have; there is nothing else before me.

In fact, I’m calling it now — I am going to become a Christian believer again. Considering my background and environment, the community of friends I most identify with here, I just see it so plainly before me. And that excites me; I’m happy about it: frankly, agnosticism/skepticism, while eradicating much of my guilt, have a metaphysical emptiness resulting in an existential sadness.

But I’m not at that point yet, and I also find this fated “return to the fold” sad, a failure on my part to push the skeptical envelope.

What could I do to avoid merely “becoming who I hang with” (to paraphrase dear old Mum)?

1) Drop out (problems here — I need a job, I want to teach something in university someday, Mum and Dad would not be happy).

2) Study somewhere else for a semester (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), for example – I could be comfortable in that environment if simultaneously frustrated with the foreshortened scholastic inquiry. However, now that I’m in Durham I don’t want to move).

3) Temporarily associate with a church or religion quite foreign to me (I don’t want to do this).

Questions: What other options do I have? Should I reconsider any of the above three?

How can we avoid being conditioned by the ones we most trust into the beliefs we have and hold?

If we can’t, how can we really believe Christianity is truth?

If people’s beliefs are determined by those they most closely associate with and if Christianity is truth, how can people growing up in non-Christian societies be faulted by God, a long-held soteriological position?