Disclaimer: No church is perfect, but no church is above reproach.
Yes, my former youth pastor, who had known me since I was 15 years old, told me to leave his church, my former church, First Assembly of Gainesville, FL now known as "Greenhouse." A church that was willing to support me financially during my two years on the mission field, yet unwilling to support me emotionally or spiritually when I returned broken and disarrayed. I think they wanted me to return in glory, glowing from the mission field, and instead I returned bloody and pale. And so I fell from the summit of "Christian greatness" and with that falling came layers of excommunication.
Where once mothers had begged me to spend time with their daughters, to "disciple them" that they might learn from my "example"; now they were steered away with hushed rumors and false sympathy.
Where once microphones, pulpits, stages, and publications had been offered to me to speak and share of my experiences on the mission field- now I was labeled as dangerous; one that needed to be monitored at a safe distance because of my questions and "failings".
Where once homes had been opened to me, meals and friendship shared- now I was literally shown the door and asked to leave; my doubts and thoughts seeming too toxic for proximity.
Where once my voice and opinions had been welcomed, now I was labeled as a heretic and one that needed to be quarantined.
I went from the topic of conversation and the beloved subject of inspiration to a name on VIP prayer cards; one that needed to be reached and saved.
As I've heard it so excellently put, I was "forced to trade belonging for authenticity" and in the trade I lost the only home church I had ever known, respect, friendships with years on their roster, and all support that came with it.
I came back from the mission field because it failed and because the life it demanded failed me. Plain and simple- it didn't work for me. It was the most unnatural contortion I have ever put myself through, one that has taken me years to unravel. For a long while people would ask, "So what's next? When you going back?" My answer was that I had no idea what was next but that I had no intention of ever returning to missions work. Bewilderment met optimism and tried to extend to me the benefit of the doubt, "So you just mean that what you're doing now you just consider your ministry/mission field right?" My solemn reply was, "No, no I do not. I think I'm just going to live and just be. And I think that's enough for God."
First Assembly picks its heroes that's for sure, people they put on parade before the congregation to say, 'Look at them. Follow their example. Be inspired by them. Etc' Such expectations and pressures are as debilitating as they are choking. I've seen heroes rise and fall and with every fall they are swept under the rug and turned away. Once you have been deemed one of the "Christian elite", any falling or failure is thus deemed weakness and the fault is entirely on you. So quickly, or one by one, your patches are removed and eventually you are removed as well.
If I sound bitter, forgive me, but I am not, I am weathered. The excommunication proved disappointing and painful not because of the fall from the church's pedestal, but because of the many friends who turned me away because of it. Their excommunication hurt far more than First Assembly's perhaps because in so many ways I had seen it coming from the church. In fact, by the time I was asked to leave, I had already figured out that I had no place there. No, what still disturbs me is the same harsh reality that we see with our soldiers- they are sent off to war in glory and honor, but have very little help waiting for when they return battered and bruised from the service we applauded them for.
It's such a pandemic amongst churches to send people off to be missionaries and fail them when it comes to their post-traumatic care that there are books written for missionaries to prepare them to return to a home-church that has no idea how to receive them. They're feeble attempts to prepare you for the feelings of betrayal and abandonment that actually await you.
When I came back, I begged for a meeting with my head pastor and my former youth pastor. I needed serious help, but I was denied any such meeting so as not to "bother them" and was instead arranged a preliminary meeting with the missions director at the time to determine if further meetings were required (meetings I never got). I met with her and shared with her my story, a story which fell on deaf ears and was instead retorted with opportunities where I was expected to serve in the church while I was back. I asked her, "I just have to know, why me? Why did First Assembly support me financially?" And she said that the simple answer was because she felt like God told them to. I suppose the greater underlying question I was really asking was, "Why did you support me financially if you have no intention of supporting me now?"
Churches, not just First Assembly, are excellent at sending people out yet terrible at receiving them. The Church has very little knowledge on how to deal with the brokenness of others because its members have very little knowledge on how to deal with their own. The demand on what you can do, what you can produce, is so high and yet the mortality rate of such demands is grossly higher.
I didn't leave First Assembly bitter or frustrated, however I became increasingly so when I found myself inside the walls of a safe church that did know how to care for me. It was the contrast of seeing how well church could be done that made me so frustrated at the church that, in hindsight, did me so wrong.
It's an unfair system we are stuck in, one that honors your service and abandons your need in return.
All you casualties of war need to know that it's a tragedy what was and is being done to you, you deserve better, you deserve to be cared for and loved well; you are worth infinitely more than what service you can provide, your worth is entirely separate from your works. You matter because you exist and there are those willing to love and care for you in the manner in which you deserve out there and I sincerely pray that you find each other.
All you stuck in the system, I do not blame you but I would hold you to account. I ask you to do better. Be accountable for your actions and bear the repercussions of such actions with grace and tenderness. Don't treat their burnout as a failure on their part, not when your church and your theology demands so much of them. Recognize and honor their humanity. Do no shame and abandon those who ask you for help. Do not ask others to go if you lack the ability to provide a safe return. And you also deserve better care than you currently are receiving because none of us have it together; no one is exempt from being a casualty in this war we have created in our Christian culture. We all of us deserve better.