Sunday, November 26, 2006

"Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith"

The cat was acting very strangely this morning, slinking around with a worried expression on her face and acting like the place was full of land mines. I would have put more consideration into her strange behavior but I was preoccupied by the fact that there was no hot water, and I was running late for church. So after accusing her of being quite the eccentric girl I kissed her goodbye and thought no more about it.

When the sexton and I discovered about 18" of water in the basement later this afternoon, the cat's behavior was suddenly comprehensible. Now I have to wonder what she thought of me when I had sniffed the musty air like a total dolt, murmuring "Gee, what's that damp smell?" I'm sure I'll find the little kitty-cat sized evacuation rowboat around here someday.

Anyway, that's how I came to read Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith this afternoon: I couldn't very well study for exams or write my newsletter column or make phone calls while the plummer was here and intermittently chatting with me, could I?

I really love Barbara Brown Taylor's writing, but here's the thing: she has always irked me as she thrilled me. Know why? Because she always seemed so damned holy I wanted to pinch her. No matter how much I loved the ministry, she loved it more, and in more exquisitely articulate terms. No matter how much I loved God, Barbara Brown Taylor had a much sexier, more intimate thing going with God. No matter how many insights I gained from the Bible, I could never be nearly as insightful about it as Barbara Brown Taylor was. No matter how deep my encounters with parishioners, she always had much more death-defying, tears-inducing stories to relate.

Remember in "The Brady Bunch" when Jan has that little middle child fit and says, "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!!" Remember that?
I began to have that middle child tantrum in my mind every time I read something of Barbara Brown Taylor's:
"Barbara, Barbara, Barbara!"

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, the story of Taylor's total burn-out from the parish ministry was therefore somewhat of a strange relief, and I don't mean that in an unkind way. I mean that I somehow knew it was coming. As holy as she seemed to be, and as gorgeous her prose, Barbara Brown Taylor never seemed to have any real fun with her work, and that spelled doom to me.

This is a beautifully written book, but as dressed up as it is with deep insights and memorable phrases, it's still just a book about extreme clergy burn-out. It seems to me that she almost could have left this topic well enough alone. I sense a contrived quality to her writing here that is totally absent in her other books and articles, suggesting to me that this was not the book Taylor so much wanted and needed to write, but felt she owed her readers by way of explanation.

You didn't owe us that, Barbara.

I am no longer jealous of Barbara Brown Taylor. It is clear to me that her perfection as a writer had a clear parallel in her perfectionism as a parish priest, and no one can bear the burden of such perfectionism and stay juicy and vital enough to do the work. Parish ministers, read this book and let it be a cautionary tale against taking yourself and your work too seriously, trying to be holy rather than whole, and allowing your collar to strangle you.


Blogger juniper68 said...

I just this week got four pages into this book, put it back down and told my long suffering spouse, "I really don't think I can read this, what with winter coming on and everything."

Like you, I'm totally down with BBT, and I heard her preach The Sermon once, a little old tape of which sustained me through all those grueling years of seminary.

BUT I just dont want to hear about this paradigm of ministry again. It's overdone and it's time to be about creating a new paradigm instead. I've seen you write around the edges of a generational divide between boomer and x-er ministers (mostly at Beauty Tips), but I think there's something more to be said (and I hope you will say it!) about how it's incumbent on our generation not only to be less frumpy than previously, but also not try to work as hard as our fore fathers (bless 'em) worked, OR SEEMED TO, when in fact, they had an unpaid associate/sunday school teacher/organist and hostess in the form of the pastor's wife, a now pretty much extinct spesis (gads! spelling!), at least in my denominational neck of the woods. Time to get a new way that takes into account the reality of our lives now.

Excuse the long run on sentence, but this subject - living into a new way to do minsitry that doesnt mean we have to perish on the cross of our own overwork and perfectionism - is a passion for me.

And that great sermon from BBT? It was all about Peter, what a fuck up he was and yet ultimately the one who was chosen to create the church. It's HIM we are descended from, not Jesus. The job of JESUS is already taken.

Ok, the main point is. I'm not reading that book. And thanks for saving me from feeling like I should slog thru it.

Thanks for this blog. Hope your basement is dry soon.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Juniper, you dropped the f-bomb! (Something else perfect ministers should never do, apparently!)

I love what you wrote. I hope you write more about it.

A friend said to me today, "I don't know how you keep up with all the people you need to care for." And I said, "It helps a lot that they care for each other so well."

Shared ministry isn't a buzzword. It's how this HAS to be done, or we all die inside, or become alcoholics, or martyrs, or offenders, or absentee parents and spouses, or shopaholics, or 400 lb. people living from the neck up, or...

You really don't have to read this book. It's just a big eulogy for that old Pastor As Perfect Savior model that no one can live up to. I don't think BBT is really clear on that yet, but that's okay. We are.

Blogger Eclectic Ascetic said...

I'm writing a paper about BB Taylor for one of my seminary classes. The quotation that I dwelt on when reading Leaving Church is a passage she wrote in The Preaching Life: "By the time I was a senior, my advisor had nudged me into applying for two different fellowships—one for doctoral work in religious studies and the other for a trial year in seminary. Had I received the first one, my career path would have been clear; I would have become a teacher. But I received the second one instead, and arrived at Yale Divinity School in the fall of 1973 without a clue what I was doing there” (22).

So was her career path to teaching a circuitous one, and she now chooses to preach three out of every four Sundays more as a teacher, less as a priest?

My argument with the book is that it almost entirely neglects to note that her growing fame as a preacher contributed to her problems in her parish. She's said so in interviews, but not in her book about leaving Grace-Calvary Church.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Eclectic, yes!! She mentions her fame as a preacher in ONE SENTENCE,and grossly downplays it which struck me as extremely disingenuous and avoidant.

I felt the same disappointment with Rita Nakashima-Brock and Rebecca Parker's "Proverbs of Ashes." To me, focused so intensely on their victimhood as women, it never acknowledged their tremendous POWER as religious leaders and theologians. I became quite disgusted with what I found to be a kind of denial of their own power, a fact of their lives that never factored into their narrative.

I'm tired of well-known women religious who tell tales of woe and victimization without honestly dealing with their own authority, fame and power. Hey girls, it's high time we stopped being coy about this. If you're going to emphasize how many families left the church because you're a woman, you should just as honestly report that while you were there, you became a best-selling author and extremely celebrated preacher.

Anonymous jinnis said...

Rock on and amen to all of the above. PB, I think your point about Proverbs of Ashes is one of the reasons why I have not taken the time to read the whole book, though I have heard from the authors themselves and read many exerpts.

As for the paradigm shift - yes! It must be done. A most esteemed colleague, and my spouse's mentor, said that ministers should be envied for the quality of their lives, not pitied. As much as I am concerned about living with a tight budget, I am so aware of having a wonderful quality of life because of ministry. In returning to parish ministry after several years in education, I am back where I fit best. And in working part-time with a small congregation I have a new appreciation for the members' intelligence and ability as well as how I can't work over what is required if I am to be of good service with them and respect the boundaries of my time.

Blogger Caroline Divine said...

I was struck by how very clerical her model of ministry was.

And the book has a strange naivete.

Now what I wonder is whether she's gone from the frying pan into the fire. Because teaching college isn't exactly sitting around eating bonbons.

I also wonder whether she was a priest first and a Christian second. That's a problem, I think. (And if I forget, someone please remind me)

I agree with you about the celebrity factor. Odd she doesn't mention it. It's as if that part of her life hardly existed.

Re: Proverbs of Ashes, I do recommend it to students for its critique of atonement (though womanist theologian Delores Williams did that critique long before -- I recommend her too and more often) but with a slight clunk in my stomach, because I found the self-disclosure in the book too much. What has this amount of self-disclosure done to the authors' positions as quite public religious leaders? Even in good feminist truth-telling (and other kinds too) are there no boundaries we ought to keep? (That's a rhetorical question. Of course there are.) Could the authors have accomplished the same goal, same theological critique, with some personal disclosure, but not quite quite so much? Was anyone else here uncomfortable with the "too much information" factor?

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Caroline, I was deeply uncomfortable with the TMI factor in "Proverbs." It wasn't just the information that was too much, but the way it transformed the book from a theological work informed by personal experience to a kind of Theology as Therapy offering that I think will become very quickly dated.

I kept thinking, "If I was a student or faculty member at Starr-King, would I be able to lean on my dean, knowing that she so recently was deeply depressed to the point of suicide?"

I think the authors' pain and suffering could have been used in the service of the topic in a far more appropriate way, and should have been.

I greatly admire both women's smarts and accomplishments but I think the book was terribly flawed by the "over-sharing" so typical of our confessional era.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Though I'm one of the large number or enthusiastic lurkers, I figured I'd jump in here.

First, thank you for giving another perspective to the two books... that is going to make both of them easier to read. Theology as Therapy is, indeed, a trap.

Second, regarding your thought, depression is a common mental disorder, treatable in many ways. I'm sure you weren't implying that she was 'damaged goods' for revealing what she did. Would it have been honest if she didn't mention it?

When she returns from her year off to resume the post of president of the school, the community will be glad to have her back.

Blogger Berrysmom said...

I am disturbed by the critique of TMI in "Proverbs of Ashes." Yes, I confess to being a major fan of Rebecca Parker (she was my advisor in seminary, as well as being the president of the school). After graduation, I was also in a ministerial support group with her as she was working out a lot of the personal issues which eventually appeared in "P of A."

As someone who was geographically and emotionally close to Starr King while the book was being written, I can assure you that the personal material in it (at least Rebecca's; I can't speak for Rita) was well-processed and worked-through before appearing in print. If you were in personal contact with her, you would not have had any doubts about "leaning" on her.

I do not doubt the value of the confessional nature of this work. It is through our stories that the word is made flesh, and others can identify with the stories and make their own meaning from them. Of course it's not the only theology we need, but it has a value of its own.

Sorry, maybe I'm the one who is being naive and un-critical. But I loved "Leaving Church" (see my review of it -- Eat This Book -- on my own blog) even though it made me sad for BBT. What I read as the final message is that, for some clergy, it is necessary to leave church in order to find God. That in itself is sad, but I believe it's true and noteworthy.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Thanks for all your terrific comments.

Anonymous from SKSM : I think, actually, that I am implying the exact opposite of what you think I might be implying. I think that all of these authors implied that they *themselves* are "damaged goods" on some level, and I don't believe that. At least that's what I, an outside admirer, felt when they all emphasized their oppression or victimization as women to the exclusion of their tremendous success.

I think it depends on what kind of feminist you are, and of what generation. This is a broad generalization, but I am of a generation that is totally hip to the fact that sexism is a major oppression in our history and in our current society, and I just *assume* that all the women I admire as leaders have fought their way through that jungle, and have the battle scars to show for it. When they write a major work, therefore, I'm looking not just for the stories of pain, but for the stories of HOW THEY MANAGE, ENJOY and USE POWER today. Women in liberal religious leadership are rare enough that I am hungry to know what that's like. When there's a tremendous emphasis on "back story," I feel that I'm not receiving their wisdom so much as I'm doing circle therapy. One strengthens and inspires, the other makes me feel stuck in the past with them. I keep wanting to say, "But what about TODAY? Are these old violations so insurmountable that we must all now lead from our wounds? Is that what it costs to be a pioneering woman?"
I don't think I accept that as the truth.

I feel that all three of these authors "led from their wounds" in authoring these books, and they were books I really needed, so my disappointment was extra deep.


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