As I slowly lowered my office phone back to my desk, I knew what I had to do.
I had to resign. I had no choice. My best friend from high school, who had been my roommate at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, had just given me an ultimatum.
“If you don’t step down, I will call and tell the Senior Pastor.”
My friend said what he said through tears. His voice was shaking and shivering all right. But I’m the one who felt the coldness. He said I died, but I said I felt alive.
I told him I was choosing to live as a gay man. Which meant I was going to be open about who I am, and no longer seek to be different.
And apparently, that idea was revolutionary. A friendship and a vocation ended with a click in a matter of minutes.
So, not long after that phone call, I did what I had to do. I resigned my position at the church. Since I had no choice in the matter, I’ve always internalized my departure as being kicked out of my church.
Of course, this was a big deal for me because church life had been my whole life. The church was my comfort zone and really my only zone.
I lived in the church I attended. I’m not exaggerating one bit. I was an unpaid, live-in, lay leader. I led my church’s college ministry, international mission trips, and a counseling program.
And my exposure to Christianity goes way back to my childhood. The one thing I wanted to be as a child was a missionary. I wanted to be an evangelist and share the good news in faraway lands.
But my best friend’s ultimatum was bad news. It was the kind of news that threatened to bury me and all my dreams.
Immediately after leaving the church, I was homeless so I stayed with a friend. I then started looking for jobs in Waco, Texas.
My desperation to find employment was thick, but my secular work experience was as thin as my hairline. I was worried about how my church experiences and spiritual gifts, as we called them, would translate to the secular working world. But they did.
I was quickly hired by a nonprofit organization that ran after-school programs for children in Waco, Texas.
Prior to that new job, I had never worked in the nonprofit sector. And I found I enjoyed serving in the nonprofit sector too. We even have some similar terms like service and servant leadership.
After my first nonprofit job, I went on to join a national service program called AmeriCorps. In that program, I was a full-time national service member who received a stipend in exchange for 10-months of service.
During my time in AmeriCorps, I served in a community center in Atlanta, GA, and I created a public art project. My time in AmeriCorps felt like domestic mission work, and I loved the opportunity to serve.
After my term of service in AmeriCorps, I was hired by a nonprofit organization in New Orleans to manage volunteer programs. I arrived in New Orleans two years after Hurricane Katrina, and there was still a lot of work to do.
While I was in New Orleans, I was saddled with all sorts of major responsibilities. It didn’t always seem like my work was counting, especially up against such big challenges. But, looking back, my time in New Orleans was some of the most personally enriching work I’ve done.
After my time in New Orleans, I was hired by the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS), which is a federal agency that manages AmeriCorps and service programs.
In my role at CNCS, I was responsible for outreach and recruitment of new AmeriCorps members. My job was to inspire potential members to consider joining AmeriCorps as I did several years prior.
CNCS and AmeriCorps are secular, but to me, as a recruiter, the new AmeriCorps members were like my converts. So, I guess I became a missionary and an evangelist for national and community service.
Overall, I found nonprofit work to be good work. I realized I was drawn to nonprofit work not only because I was hired, but for its similarities to ministry.
But my nonprofit work wasn’t a substitute for church life. Substitutions forced upon us have a way of feeling unwanted, not preferred, and undesirable.
My life after church work was more of a succession or a sequence of events rather than a substitute.
And, that’s an important distinction — sequence rather than substitute — because my need for a place of faith was unchanged. And, I was still entitled to a faith place too.
Before I was kicked out of my church, life outside the church was unknown to me. Staying at my church would have taken less faith than leaving.
But on the outside, I discovered my gifts, skills, and interests were still present even after church life. I was still valuable without church work. And, working outside of the church was valuable too.
But, I was certainly hurt by my friend who insisted I resign. It was a life-changing and heartbreaking moment. Even to this day, almost 20 years later, I’ve never heard his voice again after the click of that call. Gosh, I realize now how I still grieve for him. He still walks with me… the walking dead can disturb and haunt. I do not doubt how his actions and the hurt I felt really could have weighed me down for years.
But, even though faith communities may snatch both our spirit and our service, wounded people can heal. We can heal, while we heal.
I think about the story of the servant given one talent. In the story, he does nothing to grow his talent. In fact, he puts his talent in the ground. And the servant says he buried his talent because of his perceptions about the one who gave him the talent.
In my case, I didn’t want my hurt — and my perceptions of the church — to stop me from using my talents. I had some hard feelings toward my deity, other believers, and church leaders, but I still needed to be of good use.
It’s so much easier to bury our talents underground or hide them away. Maybe we think we’ll just wait a while before we do what we’re called to do. And that’s fair, sometimes we do need a break. Pain can make us procrastinate, especially when it comes to purpose. But, our talents don’t belong in time capsules.
So, even if we feel like we’ve only got one good talent, there’s more we can do. Even if we’re only used to doing one thing, there’s still more we can do.
And, of course, we can learn new abilities and skills too. We aren’t one-trick ponies confined to one act or one stage of life. Nay, I say.
So, for anyone who has been rejected or expelled from a faith community, your gifts and talents are still valid. Use them, don’t bury them for too long. You can bank on your talents, but you may have to transfer them.
You may have a hobby you could work on or put to good use. Or, there may be another outlet where you can serve. There may even be a whole different career option you’ll need to discover.
Our lives after we’ve been kicked out of our faith places may not look the same, that’s for sure. I struggled to understand my identity separate from my particular church and ministries. But I found much of me was the same even when separated from my church. It’s true, some good aspects of my life died in my old church. But it’s also true that some people, some pretenses, and some pressures that weren’t serving me well also went away too.
And, can you guess where I didn’t go after I was kicked out of my church? It starts with the letter H.
I didn’t go to hell in any sense of the word after I was kicked out of my church. Instead, I got a new life.
I’ve always believed in renewal, rebirth, resurrection, and reinventing ourselves. Hey, sometimes we reinvent ourselves by choice and other times by circumstance. But for every new incarnation, faith is in the remix.
There are also new communities of faith and work that await us. In my case, I found new homes for my heart and new work for my hands.
And by the way, I still expect to be a missionary one day. I’m not discounting what I’ve already done, but I’m not accepting substitutes. Instead, I believe I just haven’t got to that sequence and stage in my life yet.
So, when the church kicked me out, I went to a lot of places. I’d like to think I’m still going places. I guess it’s best to say I went on with my life.
And thankfully, it, and my story continue.