Guest writer Joy Vetterlein shares her story of the connection between deconstruction and mental health.
I started following Joy when we met through Hope Writers and a group coaching program on social media growth. Joy calls her community “spiritual misfits”, a group for those that don’t find themselves fitting into church. Joy describes her transition from working as a pastor of worship at a church to being laid off to realizing how unhealthy her church experience was.
Ultimately, Joy’s deconstruction led her away from church, the Bible, and evangelical theology and to embrace a more open-ended spirituality. While this has not been my path and may not be yours, I think it’s important to listen and learn from those who have different experiences with deconstruction. Joy’s journey shows us what deconstruction may look like for those who find themselves outside of traditional Christianity.
I didn’t realize how much my faith was harming my mental health.
If I had met you four years ago, I would have shaken your hand and said, “Hi! I’m Joy, and I’m a Pastor of Worship Arts and Communication!” I was proud of reaching the pinnacle of my career goal as a woman who had dedicated her life to the “business” of church. I had two beautiful children and a supportive husband. I was pleased with my normal, daily life.
Except that I thought that losing sleep every night due to volunteer and staff conflict was normal. I thought that coworkers criticizing me publicly was normal. I thought that pastors saying hurtful things to me and yelling abusive words at me was normal. I thought that being bone-tired all the time was normal. I thought that taking the stress out on my kids was normal. I thought that crying daily was normal.
The only thing that didn’t feel normal were the questions growing louder and louder in my rare moments alone. Questions like, “I was taught women can’t be pastors, but now I’m convinced this is what God wants for me. If I was wrong about that… what else was I wrong about?” Or questions like, “Why isn’t anyone else seeing that the performance culture of Christian worship is SO riddled with arrogance and immature but handsome worship leaders?” I had questions about the crucifixion, the Bible, and other key aspects of faith that were bubbling up, unbidden.
But I couldn’t give voice to those questions, because my livelihood was on the line. My ability to take my kids to the ER or to get affordable antibiotics was dependent on my signature at the bottom of a page called “Statement of Faith” that said I could only have this job if I agreed with these beliefs in good conscience. When it comes to protecting my family or fudging the “good conscience” part of the agreement? I’ll lie to myself all day long.
Until, suddenly, I didn’t have to lie anymore: a church plant folded back into our campus, there were now two of us with my job, and the other guy had been there longer. I got dismissed in one day with a cardboard box, the notification of my email address being revoked buzzing on my phone as I drove out of the church parking lot for the last time.
I was free.
And I promptly fell apart.
Without any ties between my survival and a religious institution, I was free to process any and every question and concern I’d ever had about church and Christianity as a whole. The trauma of my family losing our whole community in a day broke any rose-colored glasses I had about this church, any church, and even my faith.
Over long walks on empty weekdays, I got honest with myself about just how unhealthy I was, and how unhealthy my church experiences had been. I was like a frog who’d been simmering in a toxic pot of over-spiritualized water who found herself dumped out into fresh water, breathing and drinking deeply for the first time, only just now realizing how close she had come to being poisoned and boiled alive.
I got honest with myself about my questions about God. I realized that if God was as good as I believed, I could question everything as hard as I wanted with absolutely no fear of repercussion.
Over the next few years I continued healing and asking. I started therapy, I got honest about a lot of things, and I started doing the work on myself that I had always thought would happen automatically if I read my Bible and prayed enough.
I found that I couldn’t address my mental health without addressing my spiritual health. As I tried to figure out what was behind so many of the lies I believed about myself, I was startled to realize how much of them were wrapped up in what I believed about God and what I thought God wanted from me.
It became impossible to deconstruct myself without also deconstructing my faith. It also became clear that this was not a one-time event, but, similar to how therapy empowers us to continually grow, I was also going to be continually growing and rethinking faith as a new way of life. My beliefs aren’t certain and set in stone, and never will be, because I’m not certain and set in stone, and never will be.
Today, I’ve come to terms with much of my past, and have somewhat reliable self-care routines and coping skills in place for when old triggers come up. Part of that has been embracing spiritual practices that bring me life, and rejecting spiritual practices that bring stress.
I no longer attend church, realizing that one verse in Hebrews about “not giving up meeting together” doesn’t mean I should force myself to return to a place where I experience post-traumatic stress every time I sit in the pews and hear the band play softly under the offering prayer.
I no longer read the Bible, realizing that having it jammed down my throat irrevocably damaged my taste for it, and I don’t think that God speaks to me any less or is disappointed in me for it.
I no longer subscribe to evangelical theology, realizing that what works for some people as a meaningful path toward God no longer works for me, and that God doesn’t have one favorite path over another.
I see deconstruction as God’s grace to me, in allowing me to lose the particulars of my beliefs so that I can stay connected to my own Spirit and seek Divine Spirit without having to dissociate myself every time I think about God.
I used to think that people who decided to leave the faith must never have been true believers. They never could have experienced the true God or the true love of Jesus, because anyone who had experienced God’s love would never be willing to walk away.
Now I realize that sometimes, when you’ve tasted the true love of Jesus, it gives you the confidence to follow that love, even if it happens to lead you out of the religion bearing his name.
Joy Vetterlein is a writer and spiritual misfit. Once a worship pastor in a church who tried to help people practice Christianity better, she now encourages other spiritual misfits on the Internet to pursue healthy, authentic spirituality—however it looks for them. Joy is the host of the Band of Spiritual Misfits, an online community for anyone trying to make sense of rethinking faith. Joy, her partner Jeremy, and their two kids live near-ish the beach in Orange County, California.