An American Christian Chapter XIV — Isolation Part II
This is part two of Isolation. If you haven’t read part one, please start here.
The following two accounts are from different people who wanted to share their struggles with isolation. One is another GTC alumni, and the other is a friend from a similar background. These stories may feel familiar to many people and foreign to others. We all deal with some form of isolation in our lives, even if it’s not connected to a church.
I hope that those of you reading this that feel that brand of isolation can find solace in another person’s story.
You are not alone.
I started attending the Jones’s church my sophomore year of High School in 2002. I was heavily involved with the youth group, children’s Sunday church, small groups, and everything the church had to offer. I also did two years of GTC, one year of YWAM in Cambodia at Janice’s recommendation, then back to heavy involvement with the church.
If I wasn’t at work, I was at church. Despite my constant involvement, I did not have any healthy relationships or connections once I left GTC — I always felt like an outsider. At one point, a long-standing elder member of the church told me she never talked to me and preferred my sister over me because of the way I dress (hoodies and jeans were my go-to). My only friends in the church were the youth girls in my small group. For a brief moment when I was “spending time” with a member of the Jones’s inner circle, I was invited back into that GTC bubble. I was invited to the Jones’s house all the time, and I felt connected to other adults, but the second this person and I stopped hanging out, it was like I, again, no longer existed.
I was really struggling with depression, and I was in a very dark place. I felt far away from God, as well. I tried talking to the other leaders and even the youth pastor at the time, Chad Cosgrove, and his advice to me was to start dating a guy who had just joined the church so I wouldn’t feel lonely anymore. No concern over depression or spiritual struggles — “A boyfriend will solve all your issues.”
I struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts since I was nine years old, but this season of my life was so dark I couldn’t see the light anymore. I didn’t start getting panic attacks and real anxiety issues until I was in GTC. Rumors began to spread about me throughout the church- I heard the Jones family, GTC members, and so on talking about me, but none of them checked to see if I was OK — they just believed the rumors and counted me out. I felt isolated, and I couldn’t take it anymore, so I left the church.
My heart was broken — my dreams, my value as a person — it was all based on my involvement at that church. I couldn’t talk to anyone at the church or get help because I was “the sinner.” I felt like I had to hide, I was ashamed, and I was a failure. A couple of people wanted my friendship after I left the church, but I shut them out because I felt like I was such a terrible person that I didn’t deserve to have them in my life. My relationship with my sister was almost destroyed — she was still involved with the church at that time, and they taught us to cut off those who were not Godly. A constant youth message was “you are a reflection of the company you keep,” so we stopped talking for a long time — it hurt me on a profound level.
I am guilty of cutting people off in the past because of that teaching — I have lost so many friends because of it. I wish I could go back and just show compassion and the love of Jesus instead of the Holier than thou judgment we were shown. This mindset conditioned me to believe that I was damaged and that I am a terrible person who is going to Hell. All of us who left the church were. The last ten years, I brushed all of it under the rug — it was a whole different life that I never talked about — I don’t know how to talk about it because I still feel like the bad guy.
Until I read these posts, I realized that I am not alone and what we went through was neither normal nor healthy.
I was born and raised in the church. I fell asleep on many a pew, and most of my memories from my formative days of childhood, adolescence, and youth, and even into early adulthood were within the walls of a church building. I gave my blood, sweat, and tears mentoring and leading worship and speaking at retreats, camps, events, conferences. I can still go in my mind’s eye to youth conventions and smell the raging teenage hormones, covered by poor hygiene or too much cologne or Victoria’s Secret Body Spray. Maybe Bath and Body Works, because, you know, Christians should perhaps avoid Victoria’s Secret. All these aroma’s mixed with dry ice from the smoke machines.
I met my ex-spouse in church when I was in elementary school, and we went to the same middle, high school, and college together. We were both on staff at different churches after college and got married, not super young, both in our 20’s, but I somehow felt that I was getting old for being single, and that’s part of what led to our relationship. I didn’t meet anyone in the church that I was too interested in romantically, and at that point in my life, I also didn’t do a lot outside of the church world.
Our marriage was isolating. My ex became a pastor on staff at a new location, and even though I was ordained, I wasn’t hired or considered for pastoral staff. We struggled with everything from my depression and anxiety to financial management, mostly with communication, anger, and physical intimacy. It was unbearable at times, and despite being on leadership at a large church, it was rare to find people (including other staff members) to trust and who would be supportive in our seeking of healing.
Our marriage did not last. And it ended when neither of us was paid church staff, but where we were both heavily involved in serving and weekly volunteering. We were both known to be on stage any given week and were close to the leadership. When my ex decided to file for divorce and move out, I got a lot of unsolicited advice from people in our church: just keep praying for him; if you’re in physical pain, just grin and bear it; here’s a book about praying your spouse back, “you know, he’s distraught, maybe if you just notice what’s happening with him more,” and even after he was in other relationships and our divorce was final, I was chastised by a former friend who said, “it doesn’t matter what he says, you should still pray for him to return and you should just wait faithfully and stay single, so you don’t break your vows.”
I’m not going to assume ill-intent from all of these people, but I did recognize the deeply internalized patriarchy in all those words and exhortations and gestures. I must’ve been too “emasculating, too vocal, too feminist.” And I wholly owned my imperfections and areas where I was disrespectful, intentionally unkind, or spiteful and hurt my ex. But the ownership and commitment to change were not mutual. And so, at the end of the day, I went from having several close “couple friends” to having what felt like no one.
I hit reset on my life, found new jobs, and detoxed from church for quite a while. It felt that this idea was reinforced within the church that I was defective, that I was both too much and not enough. It has been an ache.
I didn’t just lose my marriage; I lost the whole community that I was raised in, that raised me, that I wanted to spend my heart investing in, but couldn’t bear to stay in when he was moving on without me.
There are few words for how desolate it all felt. My new group of friends became fellow divorcees, friends who had similar backgrounds and weren’t very involved in church anymore. They were present for me and held me in ways that highlighted how I’d been abandoned and rejected by the church.
It took a few years, but I’m involved in church again now. A church that’s smaller, less performance-oriented, more accepting, and much different than the one I grew up in. I wrestle with my faith and what the Church means — how it fails as an institution and a family, and how it has also held some unfathomable goodness and rich generosity to me.
I sit in the paradox that I don’t belong in the same way I felt I had growing up and feel a bit like a spiritual orphan or nomad. Yet, I feel a sense of belonging with the other questioners, outsiders, the wounded ones, the noise-makers, the dissenters. I have lived the pain of isolation from those in the church and the comfort of embrace from people who’ve been willing to grow and transcend the confines of certainty that were ill-fitting.
I want to walk with others who are willing to not only admit their imperfections but also to explore how vast God’s love and goodness might be, how it may be better than I hope, and nothing that I was taught to fear.
I understand that this kind of content can feel especially bleak, and I know not everyone has experienced isolation because of a church. It is not my intent to bring people down or make them feel worse from reading this. However, it is paramount that stories like this continue to be shared.
I know there are countless more, and if I could publish them all, I would. I would also love to publish more redemptive and hopeful stories, stories of people healing from isolating circumstances. This will come, but the proverbial thorn has to be removed first.
If you are reading this now and feel isolated either from people within the church or from people outside of the church, please reach out to someone you trust. It doesn’t matter what that person’s belief system is, so long as you feel comfortable sharing with them. If you don’t have someone like that, please reach out on Instagram via DM or read here and find a community where you feel safe.
There is a whole world of people that love you; it’s just a matter of finding them.