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.