Year in review
From burnout to Jubilee
|John Thornton||Jul 15, 2019|
Earlier today, Ephesus Baptist Church voted to re-found as Jubilee Baptist Church. I still feel excited and overwhelmed by it all.
A year ago today, while working as a pastor of youth, adults, and missions at another church, I got back from a week of youth camp. I didn’t quite know then that, even as annoying as I found the camp, I wouldn’t have as much fun or joy as a minister at that particular church again.
Ten months ago a congregant at that church griped at me in front of two other pastors and about ten other church members because of how displeasing they found the new Sunday school room I had assigned their class.
Nine months ago I would sit down with two congregants threatening to leave the church because they didn’t like that I thought a socialist society would improve people’s lives or that I led the young adults in the church to read a book on faith and labor unions.
Eight months ago tomorrow I spent the night as a volunteer in a homeless shelter with a group of older, wealthier white congregants from the church and a few days later served a meal to a group of poor mostly latinx families at an elementary school our church had done a backpack meals program for.
That whole week my anxiety built. I don’t do well when I feel ashamed or embarassed. I get tense and want to run away especially when the people around me don’t feel the same. That week I finally came to the conclusion that I have no hope in slowly moving privileged people to do better by going with them to situations with a terrible power imbalance between them and the poor and then having coffee after to try to expand their horizons. I hate serving those meals, and I hate having to stand around homeless people in that way because I can’t imagine how I would want a bunch of nice, rich, white people being around me if I didn’t have enough money to pay the bills or had to sleep outside. It just feels like an awful way to be with one another. I will always harbor suspicion of people of immense privilege and power that can only recognize they possess it when they think of themselves as blessed compared to people that have less. That doesn’t describe everyone at the church. It doesn’t describe most people there. It described enough though. They were small in number, but they routinely let me know what they thought of me though usually through someone else. Healthy communication wasn’t a strong point for this community.
There was more to it than just those few people. Criticisms delivered via emails (if you’re a congregant don’t do that to your pastor). I felt so stifled and disempowered in every aspect of my job I couldn’t do any of the things I enjoyed the way enjoyed. My work with the youth and young adults suffered. I like to argue and clarify, and at times I came across as short and disinterested to many in the church because at times I was short and disinterested. I tried to do better and sometimes I did. I grew a lot, learned to listen more, to table my anger and anxiety and explain myself with as much clarity as possible. Writing helped but not enough.
Eight months and twenty-three days ago I burned out. I had woken up angry and anxious every morning for longer than I could remember. I endured every Sunday morning believing the church might have pointed itself in a direction I could go with and that if I held on we’d get there together. I still think that could have been the case, but reality says otherwise. That Sunday morning I carried all that anxiety of the week of spending a night of shame around a bunch of homeless people wishing I could get on their side to get away from the rich people from the church. I brought the year with me, the countless times I’d told poor people our church couldn’t help them because we didn’t have funds available when in reality I knew it resulted from too many people disagreeing with the cavalier attitude with which I dispensed our benevolence funds to the poor. During the announcements that Sunday morning I spoke from the pulpit about the low-income housing directly behind the church that the Housing Authority had recently put up for sale. I spoke a bit out of turn and a bit too harshly about our options to help. I spoke directly (and direct communication wasn’t a strong suit for most people in the congregation) because we didn’t have any options because the power of capital and capitalists will defeat a small church in downtown every time especially when most of the members of that church have no sense that the problem is capitalism. I could guess that a poll would’ve found that some percentage of the congregation loved what I had to say and an equal number hated it and the majority didn’t remember it after they got lunch.
Either way, I have no doubt that my words made no difference in the suffering of the lives of the poor living in the housing complex which is all that matters to God and so all that should matter to any of us.
Eight months and twenty-two days ago the pastor, who I love and respect, sat down with me, and we agreed that we both needed to think about whether or not I could continue working at the church. I apologized for making her life difficult and her job harder. I felt bad that I couldn’t get on the same page as the rest of the church. She worried that I just wanted to tear institutions down and can’t work within them. We both knew something had broken and we had to figure it out and see if we could repair it. Every day, I talked to my dad and another pastor I’d worked for before trying to make sense of what was going on. If I couldn’t cut it at this church, did I have a future in ministry at all?
Eight months and twenty-days ago I drove a few hours to the mountains for a vacation with some of my best friends from grad school scheduled six months in advance of that week. I hadn’t eaten or slept much. My hair was falling out. I couldn’t get my blood pressure down. The first night we ate chili and drank and played games, and I didn’t say much about things at the church. The next morning while washing dishes after breakfast I started talking to David, a former roommate, about the previous few months. I described situation after situation, each stressful in its own right but not the worst thing that could happen to a minister. For ministers that burnout, it’s aggregate not the particulars. I told him how normal all of it felt, how I thought the direction the church could go made it worth it. Eventually everyone began listening, and they told me that stress was a normal reaction to the situation I’d found myself in and that I needed to get out. I agreed.
Kevin and Caitlin went on that trip. Kevin and I went to Baylor and Duke divinity together. We met while drinking beer, talking theology (okay, Rob Bell) and watching Baylor football. A few years later we went to Duke divinity school together. I was the first non family member, non doctor to hold their daughter, Agnes, just a few years prior to the mountain trip. She was on that trip too and now makes it a habit to come sit next to me during the sermons at church whether her dad preaches or not.
Ephesus Baptist, the church Kevin had pastored for three years since we graduated had realized they needed to change and the week of the mountain trip Kevin decided to pitch them on the idea of re-planting. They had a building, eager though tired members, and some money they’d raised to build a family life center they never got around to. Kevin wanted to see if they’d get on board with using the money to hire two other pastors, take some time off and then restart as a new church with a new name in the fall. They did.
“Yeah, man, get the hell out of there, move back to Durham, and let’s do this thing.” Those few days in the mountains we talked about paying off people’s debts and supporting labor organizing. We talked about how we wouldn’t try to overburden people with a bunch of programming and how we’d keep worship simple, short, and a place of refuge. We talked about how we’d get to do what we’re good at with Kevin planning and leading worship, providing the kind of practical and theological backbone to the church. I could go get people in the doors, think up new ideas, figure out the details, and then hand them off to our institutional structures. We knew we’d need someone who was good at building and cultivating the community internally. We found Heather a few months later, and it’s been the perfect fit of gifts, personality, and style. We didn’t know Heather was out there when we were in the mountains but we should’ve figured.
I drove back from the mountains and practiced telling the pastor that I didn’t think this was a good fit and I needed to leave. When I said it out-loud to myself I immediately felt a relief. I was done and ready to move on.
The next few months were a blur. I went home to Dallas. I tried to recover. I spent a month in Winston with no job and still woke up angry and anxious but less so than before. I wrote a piece of writing that wound up as the cover of a magazine. I had a piece published at Vox. I also lived a block from the church and had a hard time walking past it. Most times I’d go out of my way to avoid it. I miss the youth and the people in their 20’s and 30’s. I miss Gary who looks like Bernie Sanders but hasn’t raised his voice his entire life. I miss my friends there and wish I’d said a more proper goodbye but hope they know I just needed to leave and get somewhere new. Waking up angry and anxious is hard and sometimes all you can do is get out.
Four months ago I moved back to Durham. Since then, Kevin, Heather, and I have slowly but surely built something alongside the congregants of Ephesus Baptist. We built Jubilee Baptist. People joined the church. They took on leadership. We asked what they wanted to do with a church, what they thought God had for us and when they answered we said “Okay. Let’s do that.” They’ve done so not because we have great, relevant programming or because we played great music or gave a nod and a wink to social justice. They might have shown up because Kevin preaches really well or because I’m extroverted as hell or because Heather has deep relationships that she’s spent years cultivating with care. But I think they could see a vision of what we could do otherwise and how we could worship, gather, struggle, and liberate because God calls us to do those things and we should do them creatively as people that don’t answer to the powers of this world. They see that we could live together in ways in which we don’t have to defer to the wealthiest among us and that we can pay off each other’s debts and that labor unions are a good thing because they build people’s collective power and that’s the only way we win a better world here and now.
In Winston I felt like I could only tear things down. People kept telling me I occupied the “prophetic” role in the church, that I could only serve as the voice pointing out what we did wrong and I came to believe that I couldn’t build something right or good. I do believe in tearing down bad and destructive institutions no matter my attachment to them because things are bad right now and we can blame our institutions. We should get rid of them and build something else that does better to reflect the God we know through Jesus, the one that takes the side of the poor, the working people, the indebted, the oppressed. That’s what we’re doing at Jubilee Baptist Church, but that’s also what I hoped to do at my previous church. I once wrote out my vision for what that church could become. I go back to it every now and then because it’s what I get to do now.
About nine hours ago, forty people voted to found Jubilee Baptist Church, a church that worships, gathers, struggles, and liberates because we love as if a different world is possible. I have gotten to invite friends to a church I’m proud of now not just one I hope exists in a few years. I get to write more openly about my political convictions and people actually show up because of it. I have learned that I know how to “pastorally” (a bullshit term) counsel members going through a divorce (a not bullshit thing to do) and build up an institution capable and worthy of being called Christian. I have gotten to empower congregants that tell me that their dream is teaching Marx to a church or leading a support group for working people to talk about their jobs and organizing their coworkers. I get to see people doing what gives them life in the midst of a crummy job and destructive world and we do it together.
I don’t know where God will take us. I don’t know what we have ahead of us. It could end up so much worse than had I toughed it out at my previous church or had I taken my time to find a safer place to land. I don’t care because I don’t know. God will figure it out and it’ll work or it won’t.
To learn more about Jubilee Baptist Church click here.