Recently, I read an article on the NPR.org about Teresa MacBain, a former Florida minister who no longer believes in God. (Click here for a link to the article). In a nutshell, MacBain, the daughter of a pastor, had been raised in a conservative Southern Baptist family and eventually became a pastor in the United Methodist Church. However, after questioning her faith she decided to profess herself to be an atheist. So, she came out publicly at the American Atheists convention in Bethesda, Maryland. As anyone might expect, the fallout resulted in the loss of her “job” and some very public backlash against her.
Unfortunately, the article left many unanswered questions. How did MacBain make the transition from conservative Southern Baptist to mainline United Methodist? What kind of minister she is in the United Methodist church (this is important because it would reveal how much formal training she does or does not have)? Why did she not utilize any of the resources available to United Methodist Ministers (counseling, mentoring, spiritual direction, etc…)?
Curiosity caused me to click the link. I read stories all the time about people who convert from atheism to Christianity. So, naturally, I wondered how the story would go if suddenly thrown into reverse. Remarkably, the stories were similar: A prolonged period of questioning followed by a hesitant acceptance of a new identity eventually leads to a public proclamation and a tearful, joyous embrace by a new community of supporters.
So… why was a seething? By the end of the article I was furious. After a caffeine-fueled journaling session and some deeper reflection I have come to realize that all my complaints fall into three categories… three key mistakes made by Teresa MacBain, by the “Christian” response, and by believers in general.
1) MacBain’s Mistakes
MacBain had apparently been struggling with her questions for quite a while… and had come to the realization that she did not believe in God. Yet, she continued to preach and to maintain her authority as minister of her church. She never alerted her District Superintendent that she was struggling with questions of belief. She never told her PPR (Pastor-Parish Relations) Committee that she was doubting. There is a trust relationship between a congregation and minister. People are counting on authenticity when we take our place of “power” on Sunday morning. So, for a congregation to learn via a viral Internet video that their minister is proclaiming a disbelief in God is a major violation of trust.
Without a word of confession to her church—with no “heads up” to the people who would suffer from her “coming out”—she treks off to Maryland, stands before 1,500 people and confesses for the world to hear that she is a minister who doesn’t believe. She returns home and her son sends her a text, telling her that her confession went viral. Only then does she decide its time to meet with her District Superintendant. But it’s too late. The damage is done.
She did everything wrong. And in doing everything wrong, she hurt a lot of people. I know it could not have been easy for her. A lifetime identity is being overturned and a new one is being born. But the difficulty of a journey does not give a person the right to harm others along the way.
We are ministers, not super humans. We have highs and lows in our spiritual lives the same as anyone else. We suffer. We struggle. And sometimes we doubt. We ask poignant questions. We toss and turn rather than sleep. We weep, we shout, and we laugh. Just like anyone else. And just like anyone else, we need to have people to whom we can turn. The United Methodist tradition of “Christian conferencing” is one way that we are supported in that journey. We are connected to a vast network of people and entities, all of which are offering to help us make sense out of those different spiritual seasons. MacBain ignored all that and went “lone ranger” on an issue that is so deeply intertwined with so many other people’s faith lives. Instead of turning to others, she turned to an iPhone: a device that could not think, respond, react… or challenge her. She chose to speak to an inanimate, silent object. Maybe she would have still accepted atheism even she had chosen a human being, but may she would have done it in a way that wouldn’t have hurt so many others and violated so much trust.
We are, after all, a part of the body of Christ. Just as we would not dare amputate a hand without first preparing the rest of the body, and then caring for the body after the shock, we should never just assume that we could just slice ourselves away and not cause harm to others.
2) An Unloving Christian Response
Granted, MacBain handled this the wrong way. But just because she made some mistakes, do others now have the right to wrong her? By no means.
Yet, wronging and attacking her is exactly what happened. She returned home to inevitable fallout. A lot of unloving actions began to occur: Uncalled for attacks on her character, cruel comments left on the internet… in general it was all-around hatefulness.
Her District Superintendant canceled the meeting she had requested and all around her people were talking about her, but not to her. I don’t know how anything productive could come out of shunning this woman. When a person goes from possessing faith deep enough to proclaim it daily to being so convinced of the non-existence of God that she would publically proclaim it, there is a real need for some good old fashioned Christian love. Obviously there are some things going on in her life that have left her unable to feel the love of God and that alone is the reason why her District Superintendant (and dare I say, Bishop) should have at the least had a conversation with her. How could we just leave her cut off like that? It seems so cold. And so unloving.
But it happens more often then we realize. Maybe not with something as dramatic as atheism, but every conference within the United Methodist Church has a list of men and women who were once ministers and are no longer. Some have been asked to leave the ministry. Some have asked to leave. Some were hurt. Some simply felt a calling elsewhere. Some have shed many, many tears and watched their families be torn asunder as they wrestled with their faith. And I am not aware of any program (mind you, I have not done the research) that keeps a relationship with these people so that the transition from ministry back to laity can happen and their spiritual lives can stay strong. Its unfathomable that we spend ten years nurturing and mentoring a person who wants to enter the ministry, and about ten seconds casting a yay or nay vote when they leave.
The proof of God’s existence in my life has always been one of love and grace. At my lowest moments, God’s love and strength sustained me on difficult journeys and have been my refuge. It is a love so profound that God would abandon the realm of divinity to take on human flesh and blood and become like us, to suffer and die for, to battle the forces of sin and death for us so that we could see and know and understand the extent of that love… that’s a love we should not be withholding anyone. Not even the people who disappoint us.
3) A Matter of Love and Judgment
MacBain is quoted as saying, “I was the one on the right track, and you were the ones that were going to burn in hell, and I’m happy to say as I stand before you right now, I’m going to burn with you.”
That is the sort of judgementalism that shouldn’t exist in our church. Anyone who assumes that they have the right to decide if someone else is burning is certainly not on the right track. It goes against everything Jesus Christ taught us—he is judge, not us. And as our judge he sat at tables with sinners, hung out with prostitutes, ate with tax collectors, died between a couple of criminals (and even invited one into paradise with him) and came back to us—the very people who had cried out “Crucify Him!” to show us the power of his love and forgiveness. So, if God can see the worth in the so-called unclean, in the untouchables, in those of differing faiths (remember the Syrophoenician woman of Mark 7?), and in us… then who are we to proclaim anyone is burning?
But that sort of black-or-white thought has infected our church. We have not been commanded to judge. We have been commanded to love and to share the gospel. If they don’t accept, we still don’t judge—we wipe the dust from our feet and move on. Jesus will handle the judging and we don’t need to burden our limited, human minds to do it.
This “right track” of MacBain’s defeats our Methodist (Christian) heritage of salvation by faith alone. There is no right track, no proper recipe to follow, no checklist of dos and don’ts that make us good and others bad. There is only faith. Yet, all too often, we assume anyone who doesn’t believe what we believe is already burning. Until we realize that the purpose of faith is not about judging others, but about accepting our role as loved and loving people of God, then we will not get past all this bickering and fighting that exists in our world.
So… if my path should ever cross with Teresa MacBain’s I will show her the sort of love and patience that Jesus has shown me, even at my lowest moments. And I think I’ll sit down with her and ask her about all those holes that were left in her story when NPR ran it. And maybe in a loving moment she will glimpse the Divine… maybe she won’t. It’s not my place to judge her. It’s only my place to love her.
Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven… so let me live in this moment as I would in heaven.