This is a memoir, not about someone coming to faith, but about a change in faith — the story of a woman whose life was committed to ordained ministry in the Episcopalian church, but who decided after twenty years to leave the ministry and, to some extent, her church too.
But not her faith in God. Leaving Church is a well-written, sensitive exploration of how a person’s faith may change in midlife and lead one in unexpected directions. Barbara Brown Taylor ends the book teaching college religion classes rather than pastoring a congregation. Her faith is less traditional than it was, but is still clearly grounded in a relationship with the Divine.
The thing that impressed me most about this book was the intimate and honest picture of what parish ministry is like for a deeply committed priest or minister. I don’t think this is something that varies much with denominational boundaries. Taylor’s description of her life and work — both in the big-city parish where she was part of a large pastoral team, and then in the quiet country church where she was rector after retreating in hopes of a simpler life — sounds much like I imagine my pastor’s description of his daily life would (and I am expecting the man to drop from a stress-related heart attack any day). As a lay person who has never felt the slightest attraction towards the ordained ministry (although I fervently wish it were an option for people of my gender in my church), it was interesting to read about how it looks from the inside. Taylor clearly recognized her own tendencies to be over-committed, her difficulty with drawing boundaries — yet in the end she could only combat those tendencies by leaving the ministry.
I disagree with her final conclusion — that maybe Jesus didn’t really call everyone to follow Him in a life of total committment and discipleship — but I can see why she reached it. I think Jesus did call everyone, lay and clergy, to that kind of life, but we simply don’t have enough models to show us a) how laypeople can live lives of total committment to Christ even while doing our “day jobs”, and b) even more sorely needed, how clergypeople can be totally committed without becoming totally burnt out.
This book makes a nice companion piece to Nora Gallagher’s Practicing Resurrection, the memoir of a layperson who prepared for ordained ministry and then decided God was not calling her to that life at that time, but to fuller service as a layperson. The missing memoir, the one I’d like to read, is the one from a clergyperson who managed to maintain balance and sanity in the midst of a life of service to the church. Is there such a memoir out there? (I know of at least one such clergyman — not my own pastor — but I also know he’s unlikely to write a memoir. For one thing, writing it would cut into his free time something vicious!)
Leaving Church is an enjoyable memoir, well worth reading, that talks not about the loss of faith but about how our perceptions of who we are and what we’re called to do can change unexpectedly on our life journey. Well worth reading.