More entries on our series for women who convert to Orthodoxy without their husbands.
I grew up in a family that didn’t really practice any religion. My father had grown up in the Roman Catholic Church and left as a teenager. My mother had grown up in the Southern Baptist tradition, but from a very young age in a family full of difficulties had decided she didn’t believe in God. So my parents raised me to be a very free thinker, but we would go to occasional church services from time to time. As a small child I remember being in AWANAs for a time due to my parents’ then circle of friends and we would sometimes go to the Catholic church for certain family events and holidays. We would say a prayer at big family holiday meals like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
In high school, I had declared my own atheism. Religion seemed a crutch for people and a fairytale. I couldn’t understand how people could be so delusional. Religious people, from my perspective growing up in a very conservative and Protestant city, seemed unfair, bigoted and not very intelligent.
I was on the debate team and there were a few Christians on our team that would regularly debate the existence of God with anyone that wanted to go toe-to-toe with them. I remained unconvinced. But then a series of events happened along with an ongoing battle with depression and eating disorder that brought me to a real low point in my life. The monotony of life and a seeming lack of meaning made me question my own existence. What was the point?
Those same “intelligent Christians” from my debate team seemed a safe place to turn to. They brought me to youth group and it seemed fun. The sermons were full of good life advice for a bunch of teenagers. I started reading the Bible and a lot of things made sense in there. Some people at that church were very attached to their “born again” date when they said the sinner’s prayer, but I never really had a specific moment like that. The ability to have faith slowly unfolded for me over a few months of discussions and reading. This became a slight problem though when I decided I wanted to be baptized. We had a small class on baptism and the pastor wanted to know what our born again date was. This was very important that we were actually saved and had actually said the prayer. I just said I knew it had been sometime in November of that year. The pastor let me slide, but he seemed a bit flustered by this.
My husband and I met in youth group at this same non-denominational church. The church had started out as a Calvary Chapel in the 80s and gone through a few church splits over the years. During our time there, several more church splits happened and they wound up rejoining Calvary Chapel. My husband was our youth group worship leader fresh out of high school and I was a senior in high school when we first met. The first day I walked into that church was the first day he officially became part of the church staff as the high school worship leader. I remember I liked that there was someone else having a first day.
The following summer, now graduated and freshly saved and baptized at our Spring church picnic, I became a youth leader. With a background in speech, debate and theater, I became the high school group drama team leader. I too joined the church staff. Looking back, this quick appointment seems absolutely insane to me. I had barely started coming to church and now I was thrust into a leadership position with no idea what that meant or what I was doing other than the actual acting instruction. That I could handle. We performed little skits at the beginning of a service that had something to do with what the pastor’s message would be on that day. The music chosen would also have themes that related to that message. Sometimes we would have visual things up on television monitors or even commissioned artwork. Other times there would be candlelight in the evenings. I think this multi-sensory approach would later help me in accepting the multi-sensory parts of Orthodoxy.
What I could not handle and was in no way prepared for was counseling the students on my team or during summer camp when I would be a cabin leader. To this day I feel horrible about some of the advice I gave students that really needed to be speaking with a licensed therapist and not someone a year or two older than them that really did not know what they were doing.
My husband had grown up in a very fundamentalist and sheltered home. He was banned as a child and teen from certain music, video games and movies. His family had very strong views about being Protestant, which their family had been for generations. The differences in our families and upbringing could not be starker.
One of the things that attracted me to him was how much he seemed to love God and try to do so much for the Church and God. He was paid part time, but often worked the hours of a full time employee on top of having other regular jobs. When he led all of us in singing and praying, he exuded devotion. I wanted to be like that. And if I was going to date and marry someone, I wanted it to be someone like that. That was the basis of a huge crush that started as I was finishing up high school and continued over the next year until I was finally able to spill the beans to him about how I felt.
We were married in 2003. As we transitioned more into adulthood with this marriage of ours, our time in our youth group began to become less and less. My husband was asked to serve in the adult ministry more and more, but the youth pastor would still have us help out with camps and retreats or fill in from time to time. The transition to “the sanctuary” where all the adults worshiped was a tough one for me. The senior pastor was a no-nonsense man that often came down hard on our youth pastor for his “emergent church” approach to the worship environment in the high school room (the multi-sensory approach). The worship team in the sanctuary on the other hand, sounded like they were stuck at an old Jimmy Buffet concert, complete with the Hawaiian shirts.
“It’s the team uniform,”
my husband was told one Sunday when he filled in over there. The staff even bought him a Hawaiian shirt one year for his birthday hoping he’d wear it for Sunday services.
I was not the only one that had a hard time with this. There was a huge drop off rate from the high school group to the sanctuary. Frustrated that high school grads were sticking around in the youth group or not coming at all, the senior pastor made a new rule that all high school adult leaders had to attend one service in the sanctuary in addition to serving at one of the high school services if they wanted to be a leader. Failure to do this meant you could not be a leader in the high school group. He also started banning some things like commissioned artwork. This did not really help things out much.
In addition to the worship style that was hard for me and others, the senior pastor had some views that not everyone agreed with on education and politics that he presented as being central to the Christian faith from the pulpit.
A few years later our youth pastor said he felt called to go to a church on the coast to be raised up and trained to be a church planter. This caused major waves in our church, heated staff meetings, and in the wake of his leaving, another church split along with a huge drop off in the youth.
In the midst of all of this, my husband and I secretly visited other churches around town. We would do one service at a different church either in the evening or double up on Sunday so that we were still attending and no one would notice we were gone. The turmoil in our church was uncomfortable and we were craving closer relationships with other people to help us on our spiritual journey. When we got married a lot of our peers stopped hanging out with us, so we had spent a few years feeling a bit lonely yet surrounded and involved in a large Christian community.
Our visits to other churches were pretty fruitless. We found pretty much the same thing all over town and so we decided that we should just do the “right” thing and stick it out at our “home” church instead of leaving our “church family” like we had witnessed others doing.
In the Spring of 2009, about a year after our youth pastor left, my husband had an opportunity to join his brother-in-law at a start-up on the coast. One of our first weekends after the move we decided to make the 30 min trip north to visit our former youth pastor’s church. We loved it there. Much like our youth group, this church engaged in a multisensory approach to worship: candles for evening services, songs that were chosen for themes that tied directly into the pastor’s message, excellent and engaging teaching that was not full of personal opinions on politics or education being central to the faith, commissioned art work and videography, etc.
We had dinner with our former youth pastor a few times, but he was already getting ready to be sent out to plant a church in a new city so we did not have much time with him. We compared notes a bit about our leaving our mutual former church and he was surprised our move had been so peaceful. I think since we were leaving for a secular job opportunity, it neutralized things for us. It was a cause for thankfulness for us. We were sad that things had not been that way for our former youth pastor and some of the treatment he received.
As much as we loved our new church there were a few things that started to become hard for us. In 2008 we had become a family of 3. This family of churches was quickly becoming a mega-Church situation. Thousands of people filled the three Sunday morning services and were traveling as far as an hour or two a way to attend. During peak vacation months we would be slammed with beach goer traffic on our way to and from church turning our 45min drive into several hours at times. There were many times with a fussy baby in the back that we just turned off at the beach and spent our Sunday there instead. If we made it to church, but did not get there early enough the nursery would be full and we would be turned away. Children were a distraction, even happily cooing ones, from everyone else trying to worship.
To deal with the growing crowds our church opened a satellite campus much closer to us, but still not close enough to solve the beach traffic problem. It quickly grew as well and we would have the same full nursery problem many Sundays. Our church back home at the time had seemed large, probably 500 or so regular members, but this was a sea of people compared to that. Even if all went well, we got out the door (which is challenging with a child) on time, and made it there, we often felt lost in this sea of people. My husband, a former worship leader, also felt sidelined not using “his gifts,” but with so many people had no clear path for getting involved or need for his involvement since there was no shortage of talented musicians.
We decided to try and find a church closer to us to eliminate the beach traffic problem and something smaller where we could get closer to people and be more involved on a regular basis. We really had not tried anything outside of Calvary Chapel before, even this mega-church we went to now was a Calvary Chapel offshoot. My husband was really into history reading at the time and our five-year-old church seemed to be a bit of a baby within the history of Christianity.
We knew that mainline Protestant churches tended to be a bit smaller and historic so we started researching some of them. Roman Catholicism was off the table, due to my husband’s upbringing which included a lot of anti-Catholic sentiments. As we researched many of these mainline Protestant churches we quickly became discouraged. They all seemed to be voting on and changing their position on very controversial issues.
At the end of this brief online research we decided to stay put at our mega-Church. They may be new and crowded, but at least we knew they taught and believed the “right” things about God and the Church. In millennial fashion, I posted a summary of this decision into my Facebook status. A family friend of my husband’s asked if we had ever heard of the Orthodox Church. I said we had not, but had made up our minds to just stick it out where we were. I forgot about her statement for months.
Julianna’s Journey: Part One