What I think I’m looking for and not finding is something that will give me hope. At this point, I won’t be persuaded by guilt or by empty platitudes. “You just need to do it because it’s what we all need to do” just isn’t cutting it. Having people tell me that it’s a broken place and I shouldn’t expect anything else from a group of flawed human beings doesn’t make me want to run for the entrance of the nearest church.
– The Other Side of the Donald Miller Post: Church PTSD
Anonymous post on Jesus Creed
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One of the men who was formative in my spiritual development used to apply Hebrews 13:12-13 to the church of our day:
And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.
He had been a pastor, but found he could not function as he thought he was called to do within the structure of congregational ministry. So he went “outside the camp” and started his own ministry. I remember him emphasizing the theme of “the remnant” a lot in those days. Like a modern day representative of early monasticism, he had come to see the churches as inherently corrupt. Therefore, he sought ministry elsewhere, and often encouraged others to follow him away from the status quo.
Exegetically speaking, I don’t think my friend was on the mark when he used this text to frame his own story and encourage people to leave their congregations. Also, I know far too many examples where this kind of thinking went terribly wrong. Nevertheless, the image of going “outside the camp” is striking, so if one extracts the metaphor from its biblical context and simply uses it on its own, I think it can be useful.
Going “outside the camp” means leaving the community and taking one’s place on the margins. It means being cut off from full participation in that community. It means becoming an outsider and likely having to bear criticism from those who find it hard to understand why anyone would separate from the fellowship. It signifies going into the wilderness, becoming an exile, being cut off from the life of the community.
There are many reasons people find themselves “outside the camp” or, as we like to say here at Internet Monk, “in the wilderness.” The woman quoted above said the way she and her husband were treated in churches where he served left her with something “akin to PTSD.” She has not, up to this point, found anything in church culture to give her hope that she can return and find a safe, healthy place in which to grow and serve. So she remains “outside the camp.”
I’d love to hear what her husband, who served in three church ministry positions, might say on this subject. I’ve had some personal experience here, and out of that I expect he would lament losing at least a portion of his identity. And then there is this question: what does someone who has been affirmed as being “called to ministry” think about the subject of vocation when his experiences in ministry devastate him and his family? It can get awfully confusing. Sometimes it gets desperate, when you need to find gainful employment out there in the wilderness.
I was one of the lucky ones in this regard. When I left the pastorate, a friend recommended me for a hospice chaplain position, and it may very well be that I discovered my true vocational calling outside of congregational ministry. At the same time, however, I have continued to remain confused about what my relationship with the local church should be, how it should look, and in what ways I should participate. In this past decade I have often found myself in the bizarre position of being a minister in my chaplaincy work yet remaining “outside the camp” in my comfort level with regard to a congregation.
Today, I want to encourage those of you who find yourselves in wilderness places, separated in one way or another from active church life. You are not alone. You are not crazy. You are not without God and without hope.
The story of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 21:8-21 reminds me that God hears the cries of those who wander in the wilderness “outside the camp.” He has promises for you, too. Don’t give up. Please.