“My church isn’t affirming.” “My dad won’t use the right pronouns for me.” “My pastor keeps preaching anti-gay sermons on Sundays.” “I’m not allowed to be in leadership at my church.”
I hear some version of these four comments several times each week. People are writing and asking for advice. They are struggling with what to do. They are in pain. And I empathize. It’s really hard to be in a situation where you are not being affirmed, where people are refusing to respect your identity, where you are hearing toxic theology preached over you week in and week out.
I usually offer some form of the same advice: It might be time to think about leaving. Immediately the excuses start up:
But, you know, they are really great in other ways! But I can’t just leave home! But if I don’t stay, how will they change? But I really want to stay here because I have so many friends!
And I sit there and shake my head because I know that in three months or six months or a year, after nothing has changed, they will leave. But in all of that extra time they will continue to be beaten down, hurt, disparaged, and preached at. They will continue to internalize all of those awful messages. And it will seriously damage them.
Now, I know that sometimes you literally cannot leave for a multitude of reasons: You are a minor who lives with your family. You don’t have the financial means to go out on your own. Your parents pay for a significant part of your schooling/bills and you need that in order to survive. You are dependent on their insurance/care taking, etc. You are the caretaker for your parents. Any number of reasons might exist that prevent you from leaving a non-affirming place. That’s not what what I’m talking about here.
I know from my own experience that it is very easy to convince yourself that you don’t have a choice. It is easy to tell yourself that you are in a position of not being able to leave when the reality is that you could leave you just don’t want to or aren’t ready to yet. I lived at home for a long time. I told myself that I had to because I didn’t have the money to live on my own. But I could have. It would have been tight, I might have needed a roommate or three. I would have had to eat some ramen noodles, but I could have gotten out.
You can leave your non-affirming church. Even if it means not having another church to go to. You can listen to sermon podcasts online, find affirming Christians from other areas to Skype with and pray with. You can listen to worship music and sing in your car.
You can set boundaries with your parents. You can tell them they need to use the right pronouns or you’re not coming over any more. You can correct them over and over again. You don’t have to just sit there and take it.
You can go to a place where your leadership will be welcomed.
How long have you been at the church you are trying to change? Are they listening to you? Do you even ever get to speak to them? How long has your dad been using the wrong pronouns? Have you bothered to correct him?
You do not need to stay in a place that does not love, welcome, and affirm all of who you are. You do not have to be a martyr. Not for your family, not for your church, not for God. Not in this situation. You do not have to listen to toxic theology. You do not have to be insulted day in and day out.
There is this line in Who Has Eyes To See (a play I wrote) where Jamie is expressing shame about leaving his family a decade early. Jamie is transgender and left because he wasn’t being accepted or respected. But he feels like it was cowardly to leave. His wife, Alison, says this: “There is no shame in leaving a place that can’t love you.”
There is no shame here. There is courage in leaving. There is courage in saying “I will not stay in a place that harms me” even if that harm is coming from your own family. Even if it comes from the church that raised you and baptized you.
It is painful? Hell yes. Does it suck that you even have to consider it? Absolutely.
But you are worth it. Your spiritual and mental and physical health is worth every bit of the pain that leaving will cause. Because on the other side? On the other side is life.