In July of 2014, I began applying to a PhD program at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. My husband and I were living in Indiana at the time, so he began looking for jobs in the Toledo area in anticipation of my acceptance. He ended up getting his dream job as the youth director of a church near Toledo (for more on this story, check out my blog post called How We Ended Up in Ohio). We moved in November 2014 and I found out I was accepted to the PhD program in April 2015. God had truly blessed our journey to Ohio.
We later learned that the church had been under financial stress since (and probably before) Justin and I arrived (although we didn't know the extent of the financial difficulties until recently). The issues have continued to get worse and, as a result, the church made the decision to eliminate their children's director and youth director positions. After about 15 months at the church, Justin was without a job. (However, God has blessed us immensely and allowed Justin to begin a position in the youth program at a different church the day after his last day at the previous church!)
Justin and I are sad that we had to leave the students at the church who have become like family to us. We've shared meals with these kids, listened to their stories, gotten to know them, shared mission trip experiences with them. We truly care about them, and it has been hard to leave when we feel like we had just gotten integrated.
But now that Justin is no longer employed by the church, I can honestly say that I am not sad we are gone. The job we thought would be Justin's "dream job" turned out to be very different than we had hoped. I have no doubt in my mind that God purposefully brought us to that church, but I would be lying if I didn't say that I am glad we have moved on.
Our experience at that church started out as an uphill battle. As one of very few young couples in the congregation, my husband and I were constantly judged and complained about. These judgements came in the form of complaints to the staff. I once volunteered to serve communion at the Christmas Eve service when someone didn't show up for their post. Someone later complained that "I didn't do it right." My husband once wore a shirt to church that read "I Love My Wife." Someone complained that the shirt was "inappropriate." Justin once had his hands in his pockets during the church service. Someone complained to the leadership that "he shouldn't worship with his hands in his pockets." I always thought worshiping God was a personal experience - something unique to each person. Apparently this isn't a universal belief.
My husband also served on the worship team as the only drummer in the congregation, very rarely having a week off from serving. This was completely voluntary and he gave up time with family every Thursday night to practice and got up early every Sunday morning to play with the band. Justin's volunteering was met with numerous complaints about how his "drumming was too loud" and a staff member even said "if he's going to drum that loud, I'm not going to stay at this church." He often drummed with his shoes off so he could get a feel for the drum pedals, and this was also met with rude comments and complaints. People were quick to judge without getting to know us.
The senior leadership at the church proved to be extremely difficult. While my husband was the youth director, he was constantly micromanaged to the point where he had no control over what happened in the youth program. The senior pastor would often sit in the back of the room during the middle school youth group meetings and interrupt him while he was teaching and undermine his authority. The senior pastor once even said "get to the point" while Justin was on stage speaking during a Sunday morning service.
His middle school leaders proved to be less than helpful and wouldn't interact with the students. This left Justin feeling overwhelmed in the middle school ministry. A family (father, mother, and adult daughter) served as "volunteers"
with the middle school program, and I witnessed on several occasions
where they would sit in the back of the room (despite Justin asking them
to sit with the kids), talking and playing on their cell phones, being
disruptive, and not helping Justin with the rowdy group of kids. Did I
mention the father of this family was part of the senior leadership at
the church? No one in that family ever spoke a word to me, ignoring me
completely and often leaving right after the middle school youth group
without acknowledging Justin, saying goodbye, or asking how they could
help with cleanup. The wife of one of our senior leadership members volunteered with the high school ministry, but would be on her cell phone during the entire youth group meeting, not interacting with or talking to any of the students or leaders.
Anytime a situation arose where Justin needed the support of the senior leadership, they would be quick to "throw him under the bus" without discussing the issue with him first. There was no loyalty or unity among the staff members, so Justin was often on his own. After making some changes to the confirmation program at the church, an upset parent (who was also on the council at the church and from the same family as the middle school youth "volunteers") called Justin on his office phone. I walked into his office to pick him up for lunch and witnessed the parent screaming at my husband through the phone. This kind of behavior was not uncommon at the church; instead of talking things out, members of the congregation were quick to judge, complain, and condemn. This behavior was brought to the attention of the senior leadership just to have them take the side of the angry parent.
I never felt welcomed at that church. I dreaded Sunday mornings when I would walk into the church and awkwardly stand around until the service started. The only people who ever spoke to me were a few of the kids from the youth program, the three adult leaders who served in the youth program, and some parents of the kids. No one really tried to get to know us. After Justin and I had been at the church for 6 months, it was brought up to the senior pastor that there should have been a "get-to-know-you" event so the church could get to know us. The pastor then scheduled an event where very few people showed up.
This event was scheduled on the same day as my little brother's senior night for baseball, an event that was important to me and that I promised him we would be at. As this required us driving back to Indiana, I asked Justin if he could talk to the pastor about rescheduling for the following Sunday. I listened to the conversation on speakerphone as the pastor told Justin that "it would be too much of a pain to change it" and that "my priorities weren't in order if I was choosing my family over my church family." I was appalled. Justin and I have two vehicles, an older one and a newer one. As I have to commute to school each day, I often drive the newer, more reliable vehicle. The senior pastor was once bold enough to tell Justin that I shouldn't get used to driving the newer vehicle, implying that the "man of the family" should be entitled to the newer, nicer vehicle. A close friend of mine at the church also witnessed the senior pastor yelling at his wife in public. These instances, among others, made me question whether the senior pastor had any respect for women. My husband also witnessed the senior pastor making racist comments on several occasions.
Last November, my cousin Rachel passed away at the age of 25. In the midst of my family's grief, the church knew about the situation and didn't reach out. Justin was in Indiana for graduate school when this took place, so I was alone and no one from the church tried to contact me. The pastor even gave Justin a hard time about taking time off for the funeral. When Justin returned to work on Tuesday, the pastor said he would have given Justin an extra day off if he would have "communicated better about the situation." Instead, we went to Indiana for one day to turn around and hurry back so Justin could be back for work. This didn't just affect my husband, if affected me and my family in a very fragile time.
Last summer, Justin was so sick that he had been vomiting for days. On a Saturday, there was a youth event and Justin called the senior pastor to let him know he couldn't make it. The pastor responded by telling him he needed to be there, no matter what. Justin ended up in the hospital due to this illness, and all the pastor could say was get to the church as soon as possible. No one in senior leadership offered to visit Justin at the hospital. There was no compassion or love in that place.
When the church began experiencing extreme financial difficulties, Justin approached the senior pastor about having the staff fast and pray together about the issues. The senior pastor ignored the idea, then presented it as his own idea the following week at the staff meeting. Since the senior pastor acted like he didn't want to do the fast the week before, Justin began fasting/praying with a mentor in the church. They did the Daniel Fast (which is essentially vegan with no sugar) together for 10 days. The senior pastor started fasting/praying as well and announced to the church that he was doing it (even though fasting is supposed to be a private matter), but he continued to eat what he wanted, even encouraging other members of the staff to break their fast and go get fast food with him. A few days after the fast started for the senior pastor, I saw him eating meat and desserts when I stopped in to pick Justin up from the church. There was no honesty, transparency, or commitment with the senior leadership.
One of the aspects of this senior leadership that bothered me the most was their attitude toward Justin's education. When Justin interviewed for the job, he was very clear and up-front that he was still in graduate school in Indiana and would have to periodically travel back to Indiana for classes (the structure of the program only required him to be present at the college in-person 2-3 times per semester). Every time he needed to go back to Indiana for class, his request was met with disdain and complaints. The senior leadership put no value on Justin's education, even though it was a masters in ministry degree that was helping him be better at his job. The church made him take vacation days when he would need to travel for school, so at the end of the year, he had no remaining vacation days. When Justin would put in a request for a class, the senior pastor would respond with comments like "you have to go again?" and "when will this be over?" The senior pastor even mentioned to Justin once that "he better not be using office time for homework." Last semester, Justin was getting ready to go back to Indiana for his final class of the year. The senior pastor was so mad that he had to cover the middle school ministry while Justin was gone that he sent Justin and email requesting a laundry list of unnecessary tasks and items before he left, including a list of names with a biography of every student in the middle school group (even though the senior pastor had been serving in the middle school ministry for awhile and was a small group leader). When Justin asked why he needed all that information even though he had never requested it before, the senior pastor responded with "just do what I say." I always thought the senior leadership would value Justin's higher education and appreciate that he was furthering himself and trying to become better at his job, but I was very much mistaken.
There is so much more I could say, but I don't have the time or the energy to record it all here. I have kept quiet for the entirety of Justin's employment at the church because I didn't want to jeopardize his job. However, I felt like these things needed to be said. And, as I always say, writing is therapeutic for me.
So, Justin and I are no longer a part of that church, and it really has been a positive transition for us. I have no respect for a church that would allow senior leadership to treat people the way my husband and I were treated. In my opinion, the church is going through extreme financial hardship because so many people have left the congregation due to the senior leadership in the church being offensive, hurtful, unkind, and not "practicing what they preach." I have never seen such terrible leadership in my entire life. It's astounding the awful things that people do, and have done, in the name of God.
When Justin and I moved to Ohio, we were a young, newly-married couple just getting the hang of "adult life." We uprooted our family to move to a new state for the job. We were apprehensive about this big step and new experience, and our fears came true - we were met with judgement and unkindness at the new church. AT A CHURCH! A church is where God's people are supposed to come together, to help each other, to be united. But we were ignored and judged. How would the senior leadership want their young adult children to be treated at a church, at God's house? I can't imagine they would want them to be treated like we were.
The only thing I can do is pray that God heals the church. I pray only the best for the church, and I truly hope that God intervenes and saves it from the financial crisis it is going through. I will pray for healing for Justin and I as we integrate into this new church congregation. This transition has not been easy, but just as coming to Ohio was a blessing, I truly feel that our transition out of the church has also a blessing.
We still feel God calling us to ministry, and we will stay in Ohio until I've completed my program at Bowling Green. I'm excited to see what God has in store for us in the coming years.
God is good all the time.
All the time God is good.