A hot topic in evangelical circles these days is deconstruction. Typically the term refers to the path people take once they discover they are in an abusive church. Or when they have experienced abuse of any form in church.
Let’s be clear: Abuse occurs in every faith community. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that hierarchical churches may be more prone to abuse and coverup, as bureaucracies inherently circle the wagons when they feel threatened.
Of course, deconstruction also happens when people simply become disillusioned with the church.
So why does deconstruction matter? What leads to deconstruction? What happens during deconstruction? And what follows?
Why it matters
Let’s start with the easiest of the three.
Understanding deconstruction has two primary benefits:
- For the denomination itself, it provides insight into why people leave the church. That’s important, since the church appears to be dying.
- For those of us who are deconstructing, understanding the process can help ease the suffering and anxiety
That includes dealing with the underlying reasons for deconstruction, and the resulting trauma. This may include lost trust, the loss of deeply held convictions, the loss of long-term friendships, and the loss of the family system that prevails within the church.
It also includes the trauma that results from deconstruction itself.
And I can speak personally to the pain that is an inherent part of the process. It is gut wrenching. Soul-searing. Profound.
One path: Disillusionment
One of the paths to deconstruction is disillusionment.
Publicly, the Episcopal Church proclaims itself to be “loving, liberating, life-giving,” but for many the reality is far different.
Before we go further, let’s also smash one recurring myth in this area. The majority who have left are not members of ACNA angry over human sexuality. Indeed, the staggering losses in church membership over the last decade make clear that the ACNA crowd constitute a minuscule portion of the loss. Further, even with pre-pandemic numbers, average Sunday attendance last year alone dropped 12 percent. (It should be noted that attendance is typically low during the pre-pandemic quarter used in reporting, so this number should be viewed with some caution.)
So why are people becoming disillusioned, leaving, and deconstructing their experiences with the Episcopal church? The reasons are varied and wide-ranging:
- Property recovery litigation. Few disagree with the decision to fight back. But many see the LGBT community as a scapegoat in the fight, with the mainstream church being largely indifferent to marriage equality until recently. Similar challenges remain when it comes to women, race, and minority groups in the church.
- Conflictive organizational dynamics, which are identified in the denomination’s own studies. Indeed, a 2010 survey shows that 61 percent of parishes experienced serious conflict in the last 5 years, with 93 percent of those reporting serious conflict also reporting a loss of membership as a result.
- Organizational inertia. As a recent study by the Diocese of Vermont shows, there are a staggering number of committees, groups, and task forces scattered at every level of the church, with confused lines of accountability. As a result, it is difficult to manage even basic decisions.
- Lack of accountability/urgency. This has been around forever. Indeed, the task force that examined the Heather Cook DUI debacle identified this as one of the root causes of the church’s failure to address impairment. Yet even now, little has been done about this issue.
- Illusory solutions. Whether it’s the Litany of Repentance over #metoo, or the endless transactional solutions of discussion groups and listening sessions, people are tired of virtue signaling, meetings, and paper.
- Clericalism. Far too many clergy operate under a 1970’s worldview, in which they are mini-monarchs who can surround themselves with sycophants, and do whatever they want.
- Clergy narcissism. Many estimate that roughly one in three clergy suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, marked by an excessive need for attention and indifference to the welfare of others. And while the original Canadian study on this topic has serious flaws, others believe the number to be correct. This includes one professional friend of mine, the equivalent of a bishop in his denomination, and an expert on pastoral counseling. It also is important to remember that narcissists include not only the showboats, but the covert narcissists, who derive attention from being seemingly sweet and kind.
- Inability to change. Just as our understanding of issues changes over time, so too is the church called to change. Yet the church in many ways is reactionary, refusing even to adhere to basic standards of conduct in both for- and non-profit organizations.
Another path to deconstruction: Abuse
Another path to deconstruction is abuse.
This is a topic that is poorly understood in the denomination. Why? Because the church largely came to rest on the topic of sexual misconduct and stopped there. This, despite the fact that our Roman sisters and brothers recently officially added spiritual abuse to their safe church efforts.
Abuse-related issues include:
- A dismal track record in addressing abuse. Even clergy sexual abuse cases are far too often brushed aside, with one bishop, now teaching at the Virginia Theological Seminary, telling a victim that he would pray for her.
- Failure to understand the disciplinary canons. This has been noted many times, including by the Standing Committee on Constitution and Canons (SCC).
- Reluctance to pursue discipline. Far too many dioceses follow a live-and-let-live approach, with some fearing that any formal response will be too draconian. As a result, every diocese has priests well known by insiders to be bad news, yet some linger on forever. Indeed, being bad news is no impediment to serving on most standing committees. As long as your parish is growing, you’re good.
- Inability to recognize spiritual abuse. the Rev. Canon Robin Hammeal-Urban, an expert on clergy discipline, notes in her excellent book Wholeness After Betrayal: Restoring Trust in the Wake of Misconductreports that the first several incidents of spiritual abuse are often dismissed out of hand by judicatories as minor squabble. Many dioceses won’t touch the issue at all.
- Failure to recognize the damage caused. As the SCC says in a report to General Convention: “A poorly handled [complaint] can cause unnecessary — and often irreparable — harm to both relationships and reputations of all parties involved.”
- Conflict avoidance. This is true at every level of the church, and many will sit on their hands on let their parish go down the drain versus addressing conflict.
- Failure to understand lasting effect. Far too often both laity and church officials fail to understand that unresolved issues can harm parishes and dioceses for generations to come.
- Flawed theology of forgiveness. Noted by the task force that studied the Heather Cook debacle, far too many in the Episcopal Church have an underdeveloped theology of forgiveness that promotes endless second chances.
- Entanglement with disillusionment. It goes without saying that disillusionment arises from abuse.
The role of trauma
So how does trauma align with deconstruction? It does so in several ways:
- Trauma can be the impetus to deconstruction. This can be the trauma that comes from disillusion with the church, the trauma of abuse, or other factors.
- Trauma inevitably results from deconstruction. This includes the loss of support systems, friendships, deeply held beliefs, and feelings of betrayal. All of these are a normal part of the grieving process.
- Trauma can be profound. For many, me included, the trauma can be raw, painful, and powerful. For some, it leads to PTSD, even suicide. Some evidence suggests the risk of suicide is particularly high for LGBT persons.
- Trauma responses often are unhelpful. Far too often, persons hurt by the church are told to simply find another church. That is arrogant and may actually add to the trauma.
- Trauma may lead to avoidant behavior. It’s no secret that churches themselves are often the cause of people leaving the church, and often organized religion altogether.
How deconstruction happens
There’s no one path through the maze of deconstruction, regardless of the cause.
For some, the process is gradual, with a surprising number of church members going for years before pulling the plug. Others, perhaps more fortunate, have an abrupt departure following a bad experience in church.
Among Episcopalians, I note several patterns:
- Very few experience a church or rector who reaches out to them to show love or concern when it becomes obvious that pastoral or church relationships have melted down.
- Trauma and anger abound, yet many retain an affection for the church.
- Moving through the stages of grief and loss can be lengthy, sometimes going on for years.
- People move back and forth in the grieving process. As Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross noted in her study of the dying process, the stages of grief are not really steps so much as cycles.
- A surprising number of former Episcopalians retain affection for the church.
- It’s common to lose friends within one’s former parish, or even to be treated as the enemy.
- Episcopalians tend towards passive-aggressive forms of departure, with many quietly walking away, or withholding financial support. This comports with the overall high levels of conflict within the denomination, as well as relatively poor skill sets when it comes to moving through conflict.
- For many, counseling helps. This doesn’t need to be formal; it can be as simple as having contact with a much-loved friend in similar circumstances. And the good news is that, with the massive exodus from the church, there are many of us in that category!
- People rarely understand the situation of the person who leaves. Many who leave remain deeply faithful, even as they abandon the label “Christian” or renounce “Christianity.” Others may have no real label that can be applied, while remaining passionate about matters of faith.
- Many see a profound disconnect between the Gospel and the Episcopal Church. And that includes us liberals.
- There are often rest-stops during deconstruction. This may be another Episcopal church. It may be another progressive faith tradition, such as the Society of Friends (Quakers) or Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
- Many acquire a new hobby to fill the void. For me, I quit writing for Episcopal Café, while expanding my overall writing output. This can help the person process through deconstruction.
- There is always a small circle of trusted people on the inside. It may be a trusted priest, an advisor during Title IV proceedings, or a friend from church. These people may be highly valued by the person leaving the church.
- Finding a successor to the church is tough. Many are not ready to move to the free-wheeling theology of the UUA. Others may find the absence of clericalism among the Quakers liberating, while still missing the Eucharistic theology of the Episcopal church.
- There are often several efforts to be heard, to seek mediation or reconciliation, or to find healing before fully deconstructing from the church.
- Dioceses, which already are poor at supporting their parishes in times of change or conflict, are typically worse than useless and may add to the trauma.
- There is a profound lack of introspection in the Episcopal church over these issues. People who leave too often get the label “disgruntled,” and get brushed aside.
One thing is clear: The Episcopal Church has done little to understand why people are leaving it, or what it can do to address the issue. Indeed, the church often presents itself as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition — the very antithesis of the gospel’s view of faith.
And while the church now has an official policy for clergy who wish to return to the church, it has no such approach for those who have left. Indeed, the church seems to forget that the easiest “customers” to acquire are those who have already “bought” from your organization.
Thus, it would benefit the church both to understand the reasons people leave, and to invite them back. For example, parishes might hold Reconciliation Days, when former members could return, no questions asked, and speak with pastoral care experts if they so wished.
And while suffering is a part of deconstruction, as the Buddha taught, it is an inevitable part of life. Finding the space to let go may indeed bring enlightenment.