Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Detox Discoveries

The early months of our season of detox were an interesting mix of trying to find work, figuring out how to buy and pay for a house with no fixed income, getting the kids into a school, caring for a newborn baby, and – in our spare time – starting to process our pastoral and “laity” experiences up to that point (we’d been volunteers for six years with George Mercado, and later, pastors for seven years).

We ended up buying an upper/lower duplex in Winnipeg’s North End, renting out the top floor to three friends (all musicians), I joined a “secular” band as a missional presence in Winnipeg’s vibrant musical scene, and Wendy began to adapt her hobby of photography (started as a way of dealing with our first son’s death) into a business.

Early detox discoveries:
  • You don’t realize how common it is for the “official” people to receive many prophetic words of affirmation – and how rare it is for the “laity” – until you’ve moved from one group to another.

  • The people most needing encouragement rarely received it, because encouragement (prophetic or otherwise) seemed to be directly connected to your perceived value to the machinery organization.

  • Many times, I found myself looking in the mirror and really wondering, “Maybe the problem really is me...”

  • When you’re in pain, you’re not the nicest or most consistent person to be around. Although we had legitimate wounds that needed healing, we were kinda prickly, moody, and at times fairly toxic ourselves as we detoxed.

  • Which, being interpreted, means (A) we shouldn’t act so self-righteous or adopt a detoxing-martyr complex if other Christians aren’t rushing to hear us vent (yet again) about church, and (B) we need to find others who understand where we can safely vent, puke, cry, and hash through the issues (for me, that meant starting up the Dead Pastors’ Society at the King’s Head Pub every Monday night)

    1. Dead Pastors Society Rule #1: It’s safe place to vent, and to recount the gory details of what led to the disillusionment and detox.

    2. Dead Pastors Society Rule #2: But it isn’t okay to stay bitter or feed bitterness. A safe place to vent was for the purpose of healing.

    3. Dead Pastors Society Rule #3: It’s a process. Not a quick fix. Sometimes, we met and all we “accomplished” was the quaffing of Guinness and the watching of hockey. And that was (and is) okay.
  • Detoxing takes time. I really resented, at first, that it felt like the Enemy was taking me out of the game for – who knows, maybe a year? But I quickly realized that I had no option but to “embrace the crash” and let it run its course. It turned out to be over a year and a half before I felt myself “coming back to life”.

  • Sad but true: there are a lot of house/simple churches full of detoxing people that are just as sick, controlling, and abusive as their CLB’s – the only change is that now they are in charge. House/simple church is not a magic-wand abra-cadabra solution to the issues of power and control. This realization, in itself, was tragic: you start to wonder if anyone, anywhere is actually capable of living in Christian community.

  • I recognized very early on that despite what some extreme anti-leadership people assert, there is a Biblical role of leadership, as some are gifted by the Holy Spirit with leadership, and part of the wrestle as we RE-construct after critique and deconstruction, is about the heart and manner of how people (like me) will understand and function as missional – and charismissional – leaders of communitas.
The comic strip Dilbert is a very funny metaphor for those of us who see similarities between the insanity of corporate bureaucracy & policies, and many church leadership structures (see Don't Step In The Leadership, for example). If you want to understand the perception and reaction of many “laity” to church power structures, just read Dilbert. And for those in the midst of a season of detoxing from church, I also recommend Dilbert, as laughing is an important part of the healing and reconstructing journey.


  1. Hey Rob, it's good to hear some more of your journey. I'll have to drop by more often.

    Personally, I grew up in the Brethren tradition. No paid pastors, just an elders board that was re-elected/chosen every couple of years. It's amazing how much better leaders are at relating to folks when they're out there in the "real world" slugging it out just like you are. And interesting how they don't fit in the clergy circles.

    So I never really have understood the whole paid pastor/levels of leadership thing. I may have gleaned a few things from my stint in the charismatic circle, but an understanding of leaders isn't among them.

    We've been floating "between" churches for over a year now (that's code for "we're not going anywhere"). If you have any ideas for us...

  2. Rob

    Amazing how similar things can be 1/2 a world apart

    Two interesting points. Firstly that healing takes time. That still gets to me, sometimes I feel I have been in detox for 10 years or more! I would like to think I have had some progress in this time! (of course I have, but some days it doesn't feel like!)

    Secondly that hurt people can be rather nasty to be around. I find that some days I am not that pleasant - and tend to rub people the wrong way. Yet other days I am quite a nice day. I guess that what close freinds are for, being there for you oen the bad days and the good.



  3. hey Robby- thanks. I just signed up for the Dilbert email. My days could use a boost right now. BTW, that first comment wasn't me, this one is me. :-)

  4. We detoxed alone for over a year with no understanding of what we were going through.

    It was so helpful finding others who understood the experience and had words to describe it. This gave us a grid to understand our own experience.

    I can relate to resenting the time that the process took, but agree that the only way through it is through it. I like your phrase - embrace the crash. For us, I'd say the detox phase was about 2 years.

    I'm wondering about the aspects of detox. Healing from spiritual abuse was part of our detox. It was what actually propelled us into the deconstruction process. However, I wonder if there are others who are deconstructing who haven't necessarily had to deal with all the baggage of an abusive experience.

    I will be forever grateful for the first articles on detox that I read, yours and Jason Z's, and for some of Len's articles also.

  5. I subscribe to Dilbert and I usually laugh because of what I see in the the same as what I see in my job.

    Funny..but kinda sad.
    Wonder if I should start reading the 'ol Bloom County again?

  6. My wife and I have been going through something similar. It was tough for us to try and explain it to our friends, as several times the comments, "Can't you try harder?", and "Church isn't just about what you get out of it, you know," made us feel misunderstood and alone. When the solution to all problems with the church is to "plug in more, serve more, get busier and try not to rock the boat," I think it becomes understandable why people leave - although hopefully, as the rules for the Dead Pastor's Society say, it will be for healing and not for continued bitterness.

  7. About two years is typical for acute grieving of a major loss. It sounds like detoxing is that kind of grief, with all its stages.

    Thanks, Rob, for making thoughts and space so welcome for others to work through it too. It's so helpful in many ways. My detox wasn't as steep, but it was real.


  8. Hey Cindy,

    The first pastorate I had was in a Plymouth Brethren church -- well, in background it was Brethren. The fact that they had three full-time pastors meant they were not typical of other Brethren churches in the area.

    The thing I loved about the Brethren was their observance of the Eucharist every week; some youth from my home church once asked how we could stand having Communion every week (we had done it once-a-month, and it was a dull & boring ritual tacked on to the end of an already-long service). It was hard to communicate just how vibrant and meaningful our weekly Communion times were (we also had Communion regularly at our youth worship nights and also in our weekly visits to a local Episcopalian church).

    The downside that I'm aware of with the pastor-less Brethren churches, gained from comments of those who attended such churches, was that often one or two individuals or families controlled the meetings, and it amounted to the same as the clergy-dominated churches.

    Can I ask what led you to be "between churches" at this point in your journey?


    Nothing new under the sun, eh? Yeah, I often found it difficult to embrace the idea that I was "out of the game" for such an extended period of time -- and the year-and-a-half later that I felt myself "coming back to life" doesn't mean I came back to life instantaneously. It was just the beginning. And in hindsight, at times I was definitely not the most pleasant person to be around, and I remember reading Keith Green's biography No Compromise, and saying to Wendy, "Where are these kind of passionate Christians now? I want to hang out with them!" And then realizing, "Would I want to hang out with someone like me?" Ouch...

    (other Cindy),

    Good to have (both of) you dropping by! Dilbert is medicine for the soul, indeed. Anything specific we could be praying about for you?


    We often felt alone (aside from the Dead Pastors Society), as many of our co-detox-ers were fairly brittle & toxic, as we were, and the house groups we hung out in were (speaking very frankly and bluntly) cesspools of anger where we passed around the chalice of bitterness and pretended we were an "authentic community". The best thing for that group was when it imploded six months later, and we could all get on with our detox in more positive ways (the DPS, in my case).

    "Embracing the crash" was a phrase that Wendy & I used to describe, to each other, our own growing understanding that there would be no quick fix. We didn't like it, but realized that we needed to not fight it, but rather embrace it and walk it through, however long it took.

    Spiritual abuse wasn't a big part of our detox, although there were some things in our church experiences that at time bordered on it. For us, it was the huge disillusionment of seeing how far the power-hierarchies approach to leadership had infiltrated churches. And, even though we had always been seen (and liked to be seen) as the radical challengers of the status quo -- my tongue-in-cheek mantra was always "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" -- we were still getting perks from the system, and therefore participants in a system that we couldn't rationalize with the Scriptures.

    I haven't met many who have detoxed without baggage; if any readers here would consider themselves in that category, I would be very interested in hearing your stories. Leave a comment or send me an email.

    I'm glad you found the original Detoxing From Church article helpful. I wrote it several years after the detox had largely run its course (in some ways, as David pointed out, it's an ongoing process for many years, just with less intensity).

  9. David,

    Bloom County is my favourite comic strip of all time. I think Billy & the Boingers Bootleg was my fave rave, although Wendy & I have the complete collection of Bloom County and Outland. Our personal library is an odd collection of theological and missiological books, novels by Grisham, Ludlum & Crighton, and Bloom County, Dilbert, Calvin & Hobbes and various titles from humour columnist Dave Barry. The combination keeps us sane.

    Stu Bish,

    I see you've recovered from the Frostbite Tour '07!

    Leonard Sweet had a similar statement to yours that I think we all need to take to heart: "We won't reimagine the church for the 21st century by lobotomizing the previous 20 centuries of Christianity." (Aqua Church)

    The end result of the detox, for me, was to heal up and get back on the horse of ministry again -- but with a very different paradigm of how leadership functions (since I am a leader, no matter how low-key I try to be). I'll be blogging soon on Hirch's Forgotten Ways which I'd recommend as a great place to start if you've got some spare time for some mind-stretching and encouraging reading.

    I hope to come to Vancouver sometime in the near future, but we've got a Crossroads Discipleship Training School starting in just a week and a bit, so we'll be kinda busy for the next five months. But be assured, we WILL be coming for the quaffing of Guinness (God's favourite beer) at some point (I think Mark's got me on his list for teaching at the next DTS at your base, so maybe then?)

    Grey Owl,

    Most of us who have left have felt like we had no other option; my first preference would always be to try to work within the system as a catalyst for change, but even saying that can be misinterpreted as offensive by some people -- "What? You think you have a better idea?" (Translation: Who do you think you are?!?)

    And if there was one phrase that made my fellow detox-ers go into convulsions and start to foam at the month, it was that pithy little phrase "plugged in". :)

    I'd suggest contacting Bro. Maynard or Jamie Arpin-Ricci, and do your own version of the Dead Pastors Society; you're all in the area of the King's Head Pub, so perhaps some of the "anointing" will still be there (get "our" table inbetween the two front windows on the first floor).

  10. Dana,

    I hadn't made the connection between detox and the normal duration of grief recovery; what a brilliant insight!

    There's as many journeys of detox as there are people, I suppose, but the important thing for me is that we all set our sights on the Author & Perfector of our faith, and allow Him to both heal and re-envision us again.

  11. Thanks Robby, as the G add says, wise words softly spoken! I agree Dilbert is healing stuff :)

  12. McRob,

    As my wife was reading this post over my shoulder she identified with your observations about the lack of prophetic words over the "commoners".
    Sceptically, I wonder how often prophecy (or even just encouragement) is used for the purpose of building the machine. Who's kingdom is being built? Since we've shared the news of us moving west, the amount of encouragement we've received from our church 'family' has dropped off substantially while on the other hand, our encouragement of them has purposely increased...

    Grey Owl's comments, "When the solution to all problems with the church is to "plug in more, serve more, get busier and try not to rock the boat," I think it becomes understandable why people leave"
    In my experience most people actually follow this advice, they do think it is “just them”. A friend and his wife had visited another friend’s church while on holidays and was amazed at the amount of liberty they experienced and so they wrote a letter to their pastor, Pastor X, expressing themselves regarding the legalism and guilt they feel while in church. Pastor X’s response was a 3 hour lecture where they got loved on a little bit along with the “serve more” speech.
    They did what he said (because bandaids DO make it feel better).

    Is it working?

    For now it is, but how will it last? Personally I just really glad I won’t be around to find out because I think they’ll bleed bad. I hope I’m wrong, but the past is littered with the walking wounded.

  13. KSG,

    Is prophecy/encouragement used only the "build the machine"? Yeah, it appears that sometimes this is true.

    What that does for me is to sharpen and strengthen my resolve to see prophecy and encouragement restored to their rightful place: to nurture, build up, and encourage the Body.

    Not used as reward or bait; not used as a "platform" sideshow; just everyday, normal people, full of the Spirit, going about their business of speaking life to each other, and sometimes using prophetic gifts to accomplish this.

  14. You're right, Rob. I have seen some of the dynamic of a few families ruling the roost. But I've also seen a broader base in at least one of the assemblies I was a part of. Perhaps it was because we met at the Brethren Bible School and there was an influx of new blood every year. There is definitely a tendency for one to romanticize the past a bit once there's been some distance. There were real reasons for us to leave there at the time.

    As to our current space... Doug and I were at WCV for 10 years. It started shortly after our miscarriage and we were immediately thrust into small group leading because we had a fair bit of experience. Unfortunately, it was too soon for us. We weren't ready yet, and were more or less gone from the leadership radar from that point on. I spent the next years on worship team, while Doug tried unsuccessfully to find relationship. House groups were filled with nice people who had relationships with others in the group that went beyond the group meeting - except for us. It was really hard to enter into those conversations. Funny, but all the Worship Team social events felt the same way for me. I nearly always left wondering why I'd come.

    Then we adopted M. Surely that would be our "in" to relationship with all the other young families, right? Wrong. We remained just as isolated and M's diagnosis of FASD made things even harder. His unpredictability and oversensitivity to stimuli left us unable to even try to go to social things like potlucks and such. During the final years as WCV was in transition Doug pretty much stopped coming and just stayed home with the boys. He made a last stab at it in our final year, but even with the game-boy M could be heard shouting that he wanted to go home by about the second song.

    I was a public face. I was on worship team. Jude and I (and various committees) ran the women's retreat for eight years. And I was a regular at the mom's group. Still, there are very few women whom I feel I can really call friends.

    In the end, though, I couldn't hold out any longer once I lost respect for the leadership. The few I still had some regard for were leaving to start something new, and among the ones who were left I found some incredibly condescending. I was beginning to hear some really "iffy" exegesis, and when I got up the nerve to confront the pastor (by e-mail) I was ignored. That was it. If there's no accountability for what you're saying from the front then I'm out. Too many Brethren roots in me to sit by and listen to bad exegesis.

    We talked with Jude and Rob about creating something new, but they weren't ready at the time, and we didn't feel we were in a space to just "make" it happen.

    So that's where we are. I say "between churches" because there's desire in us for community (not to mention desperate need), but a need for a decidedly different structure in order to meet the needs of our kids, in particular. And we just don't know where to start looking.