In the following essay, Dr. Devlyn McCreight reflects on his experiences with the institutional church and how this has shaped his sense of calling. McCreight challenges notions of where we might expect to encounter God, while also encouraging readers to consider ways in which ministry happens beyond the bounds of traditional congregational life. His full bio is below.
A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying [God]. It “consents” so to speak, to [God’s] creative love. it is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.
The more a tree is like itself, the more it is like [God]. If it tried to be like something else which it was never intended to be, it would be less like God and therefore it would give [God] less glory.
But what about you? What about me?
It is true to say that for me sanctity consists in being myself and for you sanctity consists in being your self and that, in the last analysis, your sanctity will never be mine and mine will never be yours, except in the communism of charity and grace.
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
In my life, I have attempted to be a great many things: son, grandson, brother, boyfriend, fiancée (multiple times), husband (one time), father, writer, artist, rock-and-roll singer, actor, and prophetic mouthpiece of the one true God (self-appointed, admittedly). I have also held various positions of employ as a means of formulating an identity: barista, video-store clerk (multiple times), bookseller, fast food chef, pizza delivery guy, rental car agent, journalist, blogger, cartoonist, academic, tutor, adjunct faculty member, and youth pastor. I have also accumulated three academic degrees as a means of attempting to figure out of the nature of God (BS in Religious Studies), how to help people heal (MA in Pastoral Counseling), and how to teach others to help people heal (PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision). For the past 12 years, I have devoted the majority of my professional time and attention to being a mental health counselor across a variety of inpatient and outpatient settings.
Although it has taken me a long time to figure out what kind of tree I am, I think my bark might be close to accurately reflecting that sanctified self that Merton references above. But why share this specific revelation here? What would my very personal journey have to do with the wider world, especially when being trumpeted in an essay with a borderline blasphemous title?
First and foremost, I do so to openly claim fellowship with those who struggle to align with and/or submit to the watchcare and authority of a corporate church. Fun fact: I have walked away from being ordained three times in my life because I could not accept the role of being an official theological flag-bearer for any denomination. (Another fun fact: “Peter” was the name I chose when going through the Confirmation ritual in the Catholic Church. I think there’s some nice symmetry in that.) As a four-decade veteran of multiple Christian denominations (Catholic, Original Free Will Baptist, American Baptist, and Presbyterian so far), I have always struggled with some theological tenet and/or polity that fails my internal “compassion test” in praxis. The prospect of having to publicly defend a corporate belief that I did not agree with never sat well with me, so it has been healthier for me to set myself apart from the church instead of playing the role of “reformer-from-within”. To all my brothers, sisters, and non-binary family members who also struggle with the theological and political fences which border any corporate church community, know that you are not alone!
Secondly, I write this to acknowledge that historically, I have struggled to know and experience God, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit within a corporate worship environment – be it a formal mass with a codified liturgy, a come-as-you are contemporary service (now complete with rock band!), small group or home church. I have heard brilliant biblical exegesis effortlessly bridge the chasm of generations, have been rightly chastised for my community apathy through deftly-delivered prophetic messages, and have had the too-small notion of my “self” be cracked open by truths so large that I can barely comprehend them. I have prayed in unison for babies and newlywed couples to be held forever in God’s love. I have sung hymns which sometimes left me in tears – and other times left me roiling in anger. I have helped build habitats for humans, collected canned goods, and taught Sunday school. I have done whatever it is that Deacons do, offered and attended countless altar calls, and even preached a few sermons along the way.
I have done a lot of church related things with very little sense of the God those churches claim to know, love, and exalt. Although I have made lifelong friends, adopted new family members, and wrestled with the existential questions about the purpose of life and how to live it, these things are not the same as coming face to face with the unmistakable Holy other. But how could I make such an outrageous claim, especially after describing my inability to feel the Trinity in a vital and discernable way in a corporate church environment?
Because for the last 12 years, only the therapy room has held that liminal space where God, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit seem present, accessible and active.
Over the past several years, I have become less concerned about believing the “right thing.” Instead, I have sought to understand how what I believe causes me to treat myself and others. Along the way, I have bought deeply into the idea that the point of life (especially as expressed through Christianity) is to reduce suffering. And yes – this language is lifted directly from the core of Buddhist philosophy – this is neither accident nor coincidence. This guiding principle is also woven into the very fabric of Christianity, found countless times in Jesus’ repeated pleas to care for the least among us to the very heart of the second-greatest commandment: Love thy neighbor as yourself. It is my belief that to be able to love others and help reduce their suffering, you need to know them - and this is where, for me, the corporate church experience splits violently from the potential healing intimacy of the therapy room.
It is a basic human drive, I believe, to know and be known by others (although I concede to what degree varies widely from person to person). Churches, by their very nature, can be great places to hang out and hide – after all, merely showing up at a Sunday service can lead others to presume shared values and theological solidarity. Every church cultivates their own expectations for participation, volunteering, and sharing of personal information (either consciously or unconsciously), and more often than not, church leaders and congregants tend to be very understanding and accommodating of the introverts who prefer to cede the spotlight to the high extroverts in the crowd. In therapy, however, it is much more difficult to remain anonymous, especially when the attending professional has been trained to create an environment safe enough to risk revealing onself.
The immediacy and intimacy of the therapy room can make showing one’s self be a daunting proposition, especially when the wounds of physical and emotional trauma, abuse, neglect, indifference and deprivation still ache and bleed. However, when wounded client and wounded healer meet in a space bounded by authentic empathy and deep understanding, this is the entry point into the liminal space where God dwells. To me, this is what makes therapy seem like church – the meeting of two (or more) souls in pursuit of true knowing of one another in an effort to accept the unacceptable, heal the unhealable, and chart that first step through the darkness into a future once thought impossible. While I can concede that the corporate worship experience might inspire, incite, and bring to fruition these same liminal moments for others, that has never been my experience. Part of the difficulty for me, I believe, lies in the largely prescriptive nature of corporate church teaching and learning versus the projective/subjective experience of well-done therapy.
I understand the necessity of any organization (for-profit, religious, professional, non-profit or otherwise) to coalesce around a defined set of principles, beliefs, and actions to further its mission in the world and safeguard its continued existence. However, once these foundational pillars have been erected, then the terms and conditions of group membership become inexorably linked to an individual’s ability to think and live in a way which adequately reflect those terms. Having failed repeatedly to be the “right kind” of Catholic and various flavors of Protestant as set forth by those communities, I am particularly sensitive to the prospect of having my seat at the table withdrawn because I often think, feel, believe, interpret scripture, and speak wrongly.
To wit: even the act of writing this essay could potentially disqualify me from teaching and/or speaking at churches and universities that do not value “progressive” thinking.[i] Within the corporate church, what is “true” and “real” is primarily determined by the structural hierarchy and local clergy, which can often marginalize, dismiss, or demonize those in the congregation who openly disagree or actively entertain doubt and ambivalence. Furthermore, congregants whose life experiences and choices (such as having suffered or committed sexual, physical or emotional abuse, having miscarried or chosen to abort a fetus, or instigated divorce proceedings, for example) run afoul of what their corporate Christian lifestyle demands also have to deal with stigma, self-recrimination, and shame. So, for some, the risk of being truly known by the corporate church is to risk alienation, rejection, or even expulsion.
Therapists are trained to take special care to not reject clients when they risk revealing these burdens, traumas, and deep hurts. What’s more, almost no theory of counseling advocates for “saving” the client by having them confess to a specific “truth” – especially truths which would constitute a betrayal of their authentic self. (One notable exception being “conversion therapy” – which has been declared an illegal practice in several states, and unequivocally rejected by both the American Psychological Association and the American Counseling Association.) While there are modalities of therapy which are more directive in nature (Brief Solution-Focused Therapy, for example), these are still undertaken with the belief that the client knows what is true and good for them – they simply need help finding out how to translate their desires into action. When done well, even basic psychoeducation around mental health diagnoses, confrontation of problematic behaviors, or challenging unhelpful client beliefs are done in a way which “normalizes” the client’s experience and way-of-being, instead of resorting to stigmatizing, pathologizing, or terminating the relationship.
As a therapist, I believe my commission is to close the distance between myself and those who have been wounded – which is no different than how I understand the Christian commission. As a therapist, I believe that my job is to listen well and ask good questions – which is no different than I understand how to be in relationship with anyone, client or otherwise. When I find myself rejecting others (clients, friends, family members, politicians, people on Twitter), I try my best to understand what is being triggered in me and find a way to avoid treating them as an “other.”
Sometimes I do this pretty well…and to varying degrees, I also routinely fail.
However, I am fortunate to be surrounded by family, friends, colleagues, professional mentors and a host of guides and angels who see me when I fail and still work to close the gap between us. I believe they do this because they know me, because they have some belief in my basic goodness. And it is this knowing – this intimacy that forgives human shortcoming, secret sins, and deep shame – this is where God lives. A knowing which understands without criticizing, invites possibility without championing certainty, and offers to walk alongside another without needing to plot the course – this is the where the Christ resides. A knowing that digs hands into dirt, languishes in the valley, and gently reminds fellow travelers of the dawning day and the forthcoming starry night – this is where the Holy Spirits moves.
For me, God most often makes Godself known in those sacred moments when a client says “I have never told anyone this….” For me, it is the presence of the Christ that creates hairline cracks in the ruined self-image my clients carry like a cross. For me, it is the Holy Spirit that speaks when I am struck dumb and have lost of my grip on what to say or do. It is in the deep knowing of another that I encounter the Trinity, and this is why, for me, therapy is my church.
[i] This is not hyperbole. I was recently denied a teaching position at a private Christian university for not affirming that same sex relationships are “sinful” during my HR interview.
Dr. Devlyn McCreight PhD, LPC, NCC is the owner of McCreight Psychotherapy & Clinical Consulting, PLLC located in Pinehurst, NC. He has facilitated therapy in various clinical settings since 2007, and is currently presenting, writing, drawing and conducting research which explores the intersection of comics and mental health. He can be reached at email@example.com, through visiting www.drdevlyn.com, and on Twitter @drdevlyn.