Jenny Call: Why I Left the Church…and Why I Returned


It seems that for every happy, churchgoing Christian, there is another who has a painful story of how they’ve been wounded by the church. As a college chaplain, I encounter more reasons for why my students don’t go to church than reasons why they do. Of the 58% of our students who self-profess the Christian faith, only a small percentage go to church regularly. This seems to mirror a growing trend as many articles and studies point out, and it’s not just among young people. I received a message from someone who had left the church and found life to be surprisingly comfortable without the Sunday commitment. She asked me, “Why do we need to go to church when it seems that churches only hurt people?”

I found myself an unlikely advocate for the church. I’ve have my share of scars from churches behaving badly. My beloved home church that I grew up in does not support women in ministry, and instead of celebrating my call to ministry, denied it. My first church internship was in a “purpose-driven” church that seemed to be more about stage lights, catchy music, and attendance numbers than authentic faith (although, to be fair, I met wonderful people there that are still part of my life, and the church has grown to create some wonderful outreach ministries for the community). I watched my fiancé (now husband) get battered by one church, then another, and the bitterness still rises whenever I see those self-righteous committee members that declared him unworthy, while the staff stood by silently, continuing to pat themselves on the back and rake in their big paychecks. After 5 years of being in a much better place in terms of our careers, finances, family, and church, I still struggle with anger over how we were treated, and how common our painful experience really is.

It took a lot of searching and a lot of healing (still in progress, obviously) to find a safe place for us to return to church, and that was only with the understanding that we would just be pew-sitters for a while. The community of faith that we found was not what we expected. From the surface, they looked like a dying congregation, their numbers decimated and aging in a large and mostly empty sanctuary that reflected better days. There were few programs, and no Sunday School class for us; our kids and the pastor’s children were almost the entirety of the children’s department. It did not look promising, but, oh, how they reached out to welcome us. Against our initial impressions, we felt like we had found a home. We knew things weren’t perfect, but we were able to let our guard down. As the first year wound down, we felt ready to get involved again. When the cracks began to show, we were already committed. Our kids had been dedicated, one had been baptized, and we had made friends as more young families began to join. Our pastor was a wonderful preacher, a compassionate leader, and a friend and mentor to me. We spoke up in strained business meetings, we stepped up to fill leadership roles, and we prayed that the ugliness of the past would not repeat itself. At least this time, we weren’t in paid staff positions.

But now, the brokenness is undeniable, and I wonder if it’s irreparable. We are saying goodbye to our beloved pastor who is resigning after doing her best to hold things together for the past 18 years. There is grief with all its stages: sadness, denial, anger, bargaining…I want to run away one minute and fight the next. So the question, posed the day before the straw that broke the camel’s back, becomes even more relevant and personal: “Why do we need to go to church when it seems that church only hurts people?”

My answer would be a little more hesitant and uncertain than it was just a few days ago, but deep in my heart I believe in the power of a church community . . .

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Rev. Jenny Frazier Call is an ordained Baptist minister serving as university chaplain at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. A graduate of the College of William and Mary and the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, she learns the most from her precocious children, Brady (7) and Maryn (5). She couldn’t juggle it all without the loving support of her husband, John

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