Ever had one?
Exit interviews usually take place when an employee leaves a company, and the firm solicits feedback from the departing worker to get their no-holds-barred perspective of the workplace. Since the employee is already leaving, they can’t be fired for saying something their former employer might not want to hear.
Sometimes, when people leave a church, a friend of theirs, or maybe a leader in the church, will visit with them in an effort to address whatever issues of dissatisfaction they encountered. Churches can learn from mistakes the departing member encountered, so its ministry can be improved for the future.
If you have ever left a church, were you asked to do an exit interview? What if you had announced that this whole Christianity thing was making less and less sense to you, and you were thinking of walking away from your faith? Would you expect somebody would want to sit down and do an exit interview with you?
Years ago, after a messy divorce, “Karla” found herself in the distressing position of having to raise a young son on her own. She was told that in order to have peace and success in her life, despite her failed marriage, she needed to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. So she started attending a popular megachurch, and had a conversion experience she was told would usher her into a wonderful new world of faith and community.
Today, however, she’s walked away from it all. Still single, with her son now in high school, and after struggling through singles ministries at two different churches, she’s relinquished whatever faith she had in God, and says she’s moving on. We’re hiding her real identity, not for her privacy, but the privacy of the churches – and their members – whom Karla says helped sour her on Christianity.
“I'm not sure what Christians would call the circumstances behind my conversion, or how they would describe it,” she allows.
“I can tell you what led to me deciding to leave the church, and how Christians made me feel about it afterwards. I can tell you that very few actually asked me anything about it. More often than not, they discussed it among themselves, and simply deleted me on Facebook.”
Of course, in an exit interview, we only hear one side of the story. But Karla’s side reminds us that our actions matter. Plus, if she holds any maliciousness against us, she does a good job of hiding it.
“While it may sound like I have a right to be bitter about people within the church, I'm actually not,” she explains. “I mistakenly thought that when I started going to church, I would be attending with people who had already reconciled their lives with the god they believed in, and would be living lives that matched that reconciliation.”
Karla now believes she was wrong. According to her experiences, “Christians weren't any less lost than me.”
Since the congregation at her megachurch was so large, and its programming so vast, leaders were being recruited and deployed with minimal spiritual training and even less supervision. Despite being new in her faith, Karla was put into a leadership position in the singles ministry simply because she enthusiastically volunteered.
She discovered she wasn’t the only unqualified leader when her first homegroup experience began to unravel. During a particularly contentious meeting, their leader “screeched” at her for endorsing a television sitcom featuring cohabitating couples. Soon afterward, however, Karla and her young son saw the same guy in his own home watching a far more objectionable show on cable.
When she and her son relocated to a different part of town, she hoped a smaller church closer to their new home would provide better accountability.
Unfortunately, she was wrong. Karla recalls the summer her son wanted to attend children’s camp, but funds were exceptionally tight. In what appeared to be a nice surprise, their homegroup privately pooled their funds to pay her son’s way. However, the night before the trip, he injured himself in a fall, and couldn’t go.
A few months later, at work, Karla was chatting with a new customer. “Somehow, she started gossiping about this mother in her daughter-in-law's church who had faked her child's accident so she could pocket money a homegroup had contributed, instead of letting her poor child go on a trip. I realized – without letting her know – that the mother she was talking about was me.”
Karla managed to learn about at least one other wild rumor circulating in church about her. And her son also witnessed conduct unbecoming during two homegroup outings, as parents barely concealed their giddy consumption of liquor and then tried driving back to town.
Indeed, Karla had already been bothered by how much alcohol her religious friends imbibed away from church functions. It wasn’t as if these people were living under grace, she realized. “They were no different than me. They all needed something to fill a void they had.”
Hypocrisy is one thing. Pretending like it doesn’t exist is another. Karla began doubting the legitimacy of Christian faith after witnessing such “general unrest” among self-professed Christ-followers.
“Gossiping, drinking, marriages ending in divorce because of infidelity… They claimed others were wrong for being homosexual, and that their Bible teaches against those things, but it also teaches that gossip, fornication, and over-indulgence are wrong as well. Why can they ignore some teachings while telling others that what they are doing is wrong?”
Things just weren’t adding up for Karla.
“I was really disappointed in the lack of compassion for others outside the Christian faith… I really expected Christians to be more understanding of others, and didn't find that much at all.”
She began researching religious theory, and developed a rationale for why she wasn’t connecting with churched people, and why they seemed so empty, despite their religious activities.
“The churches we attended claimed to be the only way to ‘God,’ and that no other religion got you on the same path. I read some articles on cults. One of the main warning signs regarding cults is to be wary of anyone claiming that their way is the only way.”
Karla now sees church as simply another crutch, like abusing drugs, sex, and even food. To her, all religions – not just Christianity – represent dubious machines of rules and regulations to help explain human nature and scientific reality, and appeal to a spirituality unique to the human condition.
“I now realize the reason those Christians were so cruel,” she says. “They had a need that wasn’t being fulfilled in what they thought they believed.”
It’s at this point where many of us would feel compelled to pray for Karla, but she’s heard the “I’ll pray for you” mantra become a blithe cliché among churchgoers.
“Don’t pray for me,” she asks politely. “I have explored your option and found nothing that comforts me more than my own awareness of my own spirituality.”
The extent to which we let stories like Karla’s simply provide more anecdotal proof of the hypocrisy we know runs rampant in our churches, the more people like Karla are justified in their opinion of us.
Those of us faithfully committed to authentically modeling Christ’s holiness, grace, and truth, however, will prayerfully respect what Karla says.
Except, of course, her final request.
From his smorgasboard of church experience, ranging from the Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Presbyterian Church in America, Tim Laitinen brings a range of observations to his perspective on how we Americans worship, fellowship, and minister among our communities of faith. As a one-time employee of a Bible church in suburban Fort Worth, Texas and a former volunteer director of the contemporary Christian music ministry at New York City's legendary Calvary Baptist, he's seen our church culture from the inside out. You can read about his unique viewpoints at o-l-i.blogspot.com.
Publication date: July 18, 2013