Saturday, July 08, 2006

A Review of Barbara Brown Taylor's 'Leaving Church'

When I began hearing rumblings about this book, I was of two minds. On the one hand, I quickly became interested. Barbara Brown Taylor is well-known in both preaching circles and Christian feminist circles, so her books (and in one instance, her self) showed up at my seminary quite often...and she's just a good writer. In addition, this is a book about her journey out of the church, particularly local church ministry, and I've been reading a lot of those types of stories the past few months. So to hear Taylor's story might be fascinating in itself.

I was hesitant to pick up this book for many of the same reasons. Taylor is a name that people are more likely to recognize than any other person I've heard tell their story of disillusionment, dissatisfaction, 'wanting to be free,' and so on. Her story, thus, will be more widely read and perhaps for many hers will be the first and only such story. But for me, this wasn't the first and thus part of my reaction was to question why hers should be more highly regarded or given closer attention. Taylor probably wouldn't suggest that it should, but I could see others elevating it due to her credentials and reputation. So I asked myself why I should bother with this book. True, it would be Taylor's story and no one else's, but it would be the latest in a long string of stories...not the first, not the best. There is no best, actually. In the end, obviously, I gave it a shot.

Taylor divides her book into three sections: 1) 'Finding,' during which she gets caught up in and burnt out by the busyness of ministry and ultimately abandons it, 2) 'Losing,' the interim period during which she discovers what life is like without the daily tasks of ministry, and 3) Keeping, where she's back on the upswing after 'detox' (my word, not hers).

During 'Finding,' Taylor details some of her experiences in the two churches in which she has served: first an urban parish in Atlanta and then a rural parish in northern Georgia. She is fairly successful in both, if indeed success is measured by attendance and attentiveness to daily work. She ends up moving from the urban church to the rural because she's anxious to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life to her romanticized notion of a quiet country church where you can hear the birds and see the stars. Once she moves there, she reasons, she'll have more time to spend with God, which only proves to be a setup for disappointment. She's no less busy in the country setting, and she actually becomes disillusioned with the country church quicker than she became disillusioned with the city church.

I had some big issues with 'Finding.' Taylor operates largely under the assumption that if she can find a job that is 'less busy,' she can have more time for personal contemplation. This communicates a few things. First, Taylor seems to be looking for the Perfect Job, which comes off a little self-serving (and naive) as she moves from country parish to her eventual landing spot as a college professor. In addition, I found myself saying out loud to the cats, 'The pastor/priest is not unique when it comes to lamenting a lack of personal/devotional time, nor are we unique when it comes to feeling overworked and wanting more time off. But not everyone is able to just walk away in search of something less busy...whatever that means.' So I can't say that I had a lot of sympathy for the first section in that sense, but could identify as a pastor with the busyness, the desire to feel important and needed, and some of the conflicts that she has with parishioners.

'Losing' is sort of the meat of the book, because here she shares her revelations post-ministry. Here is where she sits on her porch on a Sunday morning for the first time without worrying about leading a service or preaching a sermon. Here is where she visits a few different churches and has to come to grips with not being in the spotlight (and looking at the back of people's heads). Here is where she discovers something about God's wildness and unpredictability that the church has tried to tame through endless doctrinal bickering and declaring God safe and unthreatening in theology and practice. Here is where she doesn't have people trying to act more holy around her because she's wearing a collar. This is the most revelatory portion of the book. The only gripe I have with it is that she has a three-month reprieve before her new job starts. This is helpful to her transition, but the relief that she feels when she is suddenly not busy anymore is a luxury, given that she doesn't have to start teaching until the following semester.

'Keeping' is sort of Taylor's epilogue. She first lists what she's kept from her life as a priest, and then moves to what she has realized since her initial move into a post-church life. This part of the book could have, in some ways, been included with 'Losing,' but given the amount of time that has passed between the two it is perhaps appropriate that they are separate.

All in all, for me personally this was not a revolutionary read. I attribute that to my own familiarity with most of her ecclesiological and theological reflections through other authors, books and media. For one brand new to such concepts and/or steeped in church life, this may be challenging, scandalous, eye-opening or even affirming. If it is your first brush with a story of this stripe, it is a good place to start. If it is your second, third, fourth, or more, you can read it if you want. Taylor is an excellent writer. Read it if you want to hear another exodus-from-church narrative, and if you do, pay close attention to the second section because that's where you'll find its heart.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for reviewing this! I have been going back and forth on whether to read it, but Taylor's reputation as a writer definitely made me interested in the book.

The pastor/priest is not unique when it comes to lamenting a lack of personal/devotional time, nor are we unique when it comes to feeling overworked and wanting more time off. But not everyone is able to just walk away in search of something less busy...whatever that means.

Amen to that. I believe some people are genuinely called to a contemplative lifestyle, and those people can bear tremendous fruit for the whole church. But if we as clergy fall into the trap of believing that we could meet God so much better if only we had ten or twenty more hours free a week to pray and contemplate -- well, what kind of spirituality can we offer to our parishoners, who are probably busier than we are? The Eastern discipline of praying ceaselessly comes to mind -- the ultimate goal is to work to bring awareness of God's presence into our everyday lives all the time, no matter what we're doing, not to carve out increasing amounts of time devoted to prayer and nothing else.

The book definitely does sound interesting though.

Steve said...

Thanks for the heads up on this book....

Detox... now there's an interesting concept. Guess there is really nothing new under the sun.

Mike L. said...

Thanks for the review. I too just finished this book and really enjoyed it. I had almost the same reaction as you, but I think that I was more taken in by the skillfull writing. Taylor is a master with words.

My favorite line was "Seeing their priest in a blue sequined dress at a New Year's Eve party was like running into their dentist in a speedo at the beach".

Anonymous said...

Glad to find your blog, i googled "review barbara brown taylor" looking to see if I should read this book. I found all I needed to know. As a professor myself, I find the premise somewhat laughable. Professoring isn't really leaving the's serving the church. That is, church rightly understood. But who needs to split hairs. I wander if she simply came to a different season in life and was following God's gentle guiding to a better fit for the next season. Church is busy. I felt trapped at times (problem with the way we do church, and the view of a pastor/priest).

I am with you in saying this sounds a bit old and trite. And escaping church just because it is busy seems like a cop out to me. But at the same time, some people find it busy, love it, and stay their entire professional lives.

Her three months just sounds like a normal pastoral sabbatical to me. :) Maybe if more pastors practiced a life of sabbath and eventual seasons of sabbath church itself would become a better place.

Interested to read your future reflections!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your blog. I am not sure if below i can communicate my feelings and thoughts i unfortunately have been harboring for over 15 years. It so interesting how for years I have been such a fan of Barbara Brown Taylor. Her words really connected to my spirit and offered understanding and strength when I required it most. I followed her sermons and bought her books and spread her words to friends and collegues. When finally having the courage to introduce myself and offer thanks to her I cannot remember feeling so slighted and pushed aside. On two occasions at sermon lines and gatherings I have had the opportunity to have my hand limply held and pulled aside from her as she looked beyond and through me to what I could have only guessed was a better opportunity for her. Your blog has helped me feel better that she, although, has worth to many has her own insecurities and shortcomings that will keep her away from personal connections that seem to drain her spirit and keep her on a personal quest of enlightenment and freedom. For me I have moved on and past her writings and will keep her in my prayers.

The Rusty Buddha said...

I have read this book twice. I keep thinking that I've missed something. I was a member of All Saints' Atlanta and love(d) it very much. The thing I can't get past in Brown's book is the focus on "I." It seems to me that everything is ordered to suit herself personally. I want this country church; I want this land to build on.....etc. When she decides to move to North Georgia, it is to make herself happy. Even when she and her husband finally set foot on the piece of land they buy, it is all about her view out the window as she washes dishes, etc. No doubt, she is a good writer in the style of perhaps Annie Dillard, making a diary of her newfound country experiences....alas, she is awfully self-centered and petty. That is why it is so strange to read of her transcendent experiences in nature and her silly notions about wearing a collar for the first time. Maybe she is just like the rest of us......for me the jury is still out....