what it’s like to…slip off the slope
* this is part of a recent series called “what it’s like…”, interviews with people in all kinds of circumstances sharing what it feels like. you can see the other posts so far here.
my guess is that a lot of you reading here have been told in some way, shape or form, that you might be treading dangerous ground because of your changing faith, that you are on a “slippery slope” and had better be careful. i know many people who are in the midst of changing faith. it’s scary. it’s weird. it’s confusing. and it’s also very, very freeing. i always say that i slipped off the slope and found the most solid ground i’ve ever been on. at the same time, the slipping is freaky. i met david hayward, also known as the naked pastor, when i first started blogging and we’ve stayed connected ever since. his cartoons make me laugh almost every day. he is a prophetic voice out here in blogland and also knows what it feels like to lose so much of what he once held dear when it comes to a structured & clearly defined faith system. listen in to what this wild & crazy journey of shifting faith has felt like for him.
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describe a little bit about you & your faith experience & how you metaphorically “slipped off the slope” from conservative christianity?
I was baptized Anglican as a baby but we pretty much went to conservative churches as I grew up. In my teens we became committed members of a Baptist church and then after a few years switched to Pentecostal. Being a part of youth group was a huge thing for me. I then went to a Pentecostal bible college then to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and finally ended up being ordained into the Presbyterian Church in Canada in 1987. I served the Presbyterian Church for many years, but then we switched to Vineyard in 1995. I planted several independent churches starting in 2002 and and in 2010, after years of wriggling under the pressure to behave and conform, I finally left the ministry and the church.
I’ve always struggled theologically with conservative Christianity, but that’s the culture I’ve always found myself in. I think it was because I loved charismatic worship and prophetic stuff and all that, but I loved deep theology at the same time. My experience is that it was either/or: you could be theologically liberal but not charismatic, or you could be charismatic but not theologically liberal.
As my blog nakedpastor gained an audience and my thoughts were obviously starting to leak out to the public, it became more and more of an issue with my church as well as with those I was accountable to. It finally came to a head one night in a meeting when I suddenly realized that the church and I were no longer compatible. Within a couple of weeks I was gone.
how would you describe where you are at right now in your faith?
I am a Christian, but I would say that the same way I would say I’m a Canadian. It is so much of my heritage and DNA that I would personally feel foolish denying it. And I feel no compulsion to reject my Christian heritage. I still think theologically. My intellectual framework is Christian. But my mind has obviously exploded the confining categories. I said recently that my home is in Christianity but I have cottages everywhere.
It can’t really be explained logically, can it? But it can be known and experienced. I hope my z-theory that I am writing will articulate this for people
it’s tough to be a pastor without all the answers. what has it been like for you to lose the comforts of a church to lead and a doctrine to follow?
The comforts that came with the church came with a cost. I compare it to the delicious food the farmer provided for the rabbits in Watership Down. But the deal was that every once in a while he could kill a rabbit for food. Often being a part of community comes with incredible benefits. That is one of the marvelous strengths of Christianity and the church: fellowship. Unfortunately it often comes at a price, and that is your intellectual freedom, your individuality, and your uniqueness. It also often means hiding huge parts of yourself in order to belong. Your right to ask questions, even as pastor, should never be surrendered. Never!
Doctrinally, I was never a follower. I mean, there is doctrine I love and appreciate and respect. I am deeply indebted to the Reformed tradition and theology. It was a revolutionary time in my life. But I also love mystical theology, liberation theology, and so on. Mix that all in with an appreciation for Buddhism, philosophy and other schools of thought and you’re making yourself into someone who will have difficulty conforming or fitting into any pattern.
what do you know now, a few years into these big shifts, that you wish you had known when you started?
For some reason, I have a sense that my life has been directed. I have this powerful feeling that all things have come my way at their proper time and I’ve come to where I am at the right speed. If I knew then what I know now… who knows… I probably would have been a lot more arrogant or disrespectful. I might have put a lot of things at risk. I might not have been able to hold my family together. Who knows?
I do think that I could have been a lot more patient, gracious and loving with all people. That’s something I’ve learned is most important. I mean… I knew that before, but only intellectually. It hadn’t sunk into the roots of who I am like it has now.
I would like to say though that these big shifts I’ve gone through were far more traumatic than I anticipated. There were no warnings signs out there. There was a sudden convergence of all kinds of factors… empty nest, bankruptcy, job loss, unemployment, loss of friends, losing the church, mid-life… you name it… that created a never before seen kind of accident where I nearly lost everything. Fortunately I found a great counselor who helped me maneuver through all that chaos. And Lisa, my wife, is absolutely amazing.
what are some of the things people did or said to you over these past years that hurt?
I think the thing that has hurt the most is the rejection I’ve experienced by the church. Of course, people will say, “Well, you’re the one who left!” And that’s true. But we left with the understanding that we would reunite with the community and provide support.
Some people had no problem telling me I was a lousy pastor, not doing a good job, was this my true calling, that I needed to quit and find other work, etc. It was painful.
And my blog draws fire. I get hate mail every day, criticisms, judgments, condemnations. What’s weird to me is that I’m passionate about the church and Christianity. I love being in the game. But many Christians see me as an enemy and either dismiss me, reject me, or worse, pity me.
what are some of the things people did or said to you that have been balm to your soul?
Thanks for this question because it is a reminder that even though I ruffle many feathers, I also smooth some. There are plenty of people I help. My cartoons say things some people need to hear or see. I can cheer people up, get them thinking, help them make some necessary changes in their lives, and link them up with other like-minded people. I get thanked every day. And it does me a lot of good to know when I have really assisted someone in their spiritual journey.
My new venture, http://davidhayward.ca is providing a trusted and trusting community for me. Incredible people are gathering there, and it’s providing something I’ve really needed. It is providing me with a lot of happiness, fellowship and food for thought. It’s marvelous! I really look forward to meeting more people there. I invite your readers!
what are some of things you’ve cried out to God over this process?
When we were in the church we had such a strong sense of destiny for ourselves personally and for the church. We stuck with the church through a horrendous church split in 1997 as well as a perpetual onslaught of disrespect and lack of support from our neighboring churches and even our denomination itself that lasted years. There was some support but little. Sometimes it felt like a long erosion, a slow steady leak in the bottom of the pail. But we hung in there over the long haul because we had a strong sense that the fulfillment of all those promises was just around the corner. That corner never came. To this day I wonder what all that was about. Why? Why did we endure? For what? Did I give up? And if I did, did I give up too early? Were we just on the edge of the Promised Land?
When I was in the church I was in a religious culture that emphasized hearing from God. Hearing from God was an every day occurrence, several times a day! During the last year or so I started going through a rather traumatic spiritual transformation initiated by a dream. All my searching, theological anguish and intellectual struggle came to rest. It’s not that I don’t think about these things anymore, but the anxiety suddenly dissipated. This transformation played a key role in me finally leaving the ministry and the church. It’s been over two years now, and my mind is very restful. I am at peace. I no longer see prayer as incidents but as life. I used to see prayer like taking a breath, whereas now it is like breathing. My days and life are permeated with a sense of Presence and Peace. I go through moments, but I always come back to this place of a Nothingness that is full of Benediction.
what advice to have for the many people who are shifting, too, and feel really disoriented?
First of all, I think it is very important to realize that spiritual evolution is not only natural, but healthy and necessary. I mean, even our biblical heroes went through very dramatic and traumatic spiritual changes. Shouldn’t we at least expect the same. So, as one of my friends told me, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. Everything’s small stuff.” Spiritual transition is normal and healthy. If you have found a place or can find a place that gives room for this, then awesome! If not, then you have to find a way to do this anyway. You must be transformed! You know this. If there’s community to support this transition, then great. If not, then you must anyway.
In saying that, though, it is also very helpful to find a mentor or counselor or coach who can cheer you through your transition. I know it helped me. In fact, it was indispensable. Find someone who believes in you and can help you through probably one of the most difficult changes in your life.
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thanks, david, for your ongoing honesty & vulnerability. you have helped so many others over the past chunk of years by sharing your story through words and art. if any of you are interested in a safe, supportive, and caring place to talk about these shifts, check out http://davidhayward.ca. it’s an awesome community of others who are finding their way, slowly, surely, in all kinds of wild and beautiful ways. i’d love to hear what any of these thoughts stirred up in you today.