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Where did they go?

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Where did they go?

by Dennis Diehl
The writer is a former pastor in Ohio, Kentucky, New York and South Carolina of the Worldwide Church of God.

GREENVILLE, S.C.--After having served for 26 years in numerous WCG congregations in five states, and after having gone through the theological slaughter of the '90s inflicted on the membership by that church's "leadership," I have to ask a question: Where did all the friends go?

About the only time that the people who have hung onto the new and improved version of the WCG see those disillusioned members who left is during former church friends' final days in hospice care or at their funerals.

Some who left the WCG did so to join a splinter group that professes to keep alive the old ways. Others have moved on to pastures they hope are greener and more stable.

Sad, isn't it? You must be dying or dead (and having an out-of-body experience) to realize you had friends after all.

After I'm dead maybe members of my old congregations will recall that we were friends. Maybe dealing with a dead Diehl is easier than dealing with the real Diehl.

How infirm a foundation

When churches implode, as they are prone to do, friendships explode. I can count on one hand my friendships that have stayed intact since my church labeled me "a minister who knew a lot about Jesus but did not know Jesus" and then terminated me.

Please don't misunderstand. I was emotionally and theologically done with it all.

But transitions are messy. Reckless change and careless administration of policy are the culprits that can rend friendships asunder among the folks who profess to be the people of the Book.

Local ministers, who are sometimes as dictatorial as their bosses in the church denomination's administration, can destroy friends as well by inspiring church members to take sides in endless and stupid disputes and personality cults.

Just walk on by

I have experienced more than one former member of one of my congregations, whose children I had married and whose husbands I had buried, hurriedly walking by me at the lobby desk in a hospital where I work to make ends meet. I simply do not exist to them because I am no longer one of them, whatever that might mean.

It's not just me. Many others have experienced a debilitating loss of fellowship.

Minister friends of mine have drunk themselves to death after the church's policies of reckless change confused them. Their fellow ministers and other church members marginalized them because of their hurt and confusion.

One minister friend, in about 1995, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge as an apparent reaction to the church's changes, if you can imagine that.

If you can take the drastic step to end your own life, you must believe you have a total lack of friends to help you through your sore trial. Very sad. But I understand.

Three categories

The friendships you acquire in a church setting fall into more than one category. Each category's dynamics differ from the others.

First, the folks in any particular religion-based fellowship believe they all have to be friends, because, well, we're all in the church. The common bond of similar or identical beliefs is what gives birth to the friendship in the first place.

In any other setting we would not be friends with most of these people because we have nothing in common with them apart from a formal set of doctrines.

Thus, when the church implodes, the friendships explode. They fall apart and are seldom salvageable. They are based on shared membership in the shared church with a shared set of beliefs.

If you leave the church discouraged, angry or theologically fatigued, you are (as far as your erstwhile friends are concerned) showing yourself to be a seed fallen on bad ground.

Those you leave behind will read about you in Matthew 13 as one of the seeds that fell on "stony places," and, when trials and tribulations came along, they could shake their heads (and feet) and conclude that you lacked the character and conversion to survive.

Feeling good

In my opinion this analysis is balderdash, as Garner Ted used to like to say. But it makes the brethren feel good to realize they are off the friendship hook with you during your time of pain, marginalization and fatigue wrought by endless internecine controversies.

These kinds of friends disappear when you begin to wake up to the fact that no church knows enough about the Bible to legitimately claim to be the one true church.

The next step up is to realize that never in history, from day one, was there one true, coherent church. Where two or three are gathered together, one wants to be in charge, one wants to follow, and one has to clean up.

Of course, since no one attends the one false church, you will find yourself labeled, disfellowshipped, avoided and cast into outer darkness, hell or some other appropriately bad place for the wicked person you have become.

Since you made the decision to move on, you have defined yourself as no brother of theirs, and they don't have to feel badly about acting as if you no longer exist.

Agonizing decisions

The second kind of church friends you will cultivate are friends in spite of church. But even the ties with these brethren are not everything you thought they were.

You have kids, ideas and needs in common and have developed a brotherhood and camaraderie outside of just church stuff.

But your friendship began with the church. You met at church. Your kids grew up together in the church.

If you leave the church or the church leaves you, these loved ones will have agonizing decisions to make. If you are out of the church and they're still in, they might sneak around and maintain the friendship. But many of your friends in this category will eventually find it more convenient to leave you alone, high and dry.

They might even leave the church themselves, but if they move on to an even more righteous church than the one they left, and you sit at home disillusioned and noncommittal, they will lose interest in you if they cannot talk you into following them into the truer church.

They mean you no harm. In fact, they will feel sorry for you for not moving into the better group. But they can hardly help from subtly projecting a sense of superiority that will soon wear thin with you.

When this happens chances are you will move on as well, because this friendship is not the lasting bond you thought it was.

Giddy moments

A third category of church-related friends is those who are like you in their skepticism of church stuff. They, like you, have learned more from their ecclesiastical experience than the church wishes they had learned.

You'll have your bellyaching about the past in common with these folks. You will spend some giddy moments mulling over, analyzing and joking about your shared experiences.

But eventually you will tire of all that and realize your life cannot move forward while you're stuck in your history and endless repeating of the "old, old story" that we love to tell. Therefore these friendships will also dry up and blow away.

Friendships based on a shared bad experience are doomed. You'll know a friendship is almost over when the friend keeps sending you updates on the goings-on of a church you no longer care about.

In the world of blogging and E-mail you may be attracted to these types of friends because of your common unhappy past, but you have never even met these people in real time and would not know them if they sat next to you.

But you're their friend, until you aren't anymore.

The old songs

I am writing this while listening to recordings of the great old hymns. Me, Mr. Skeptical himself, listening to the old songs.

I get teary-eyed because the music invokes the chemistry of a simpler time, when I was younger and didn't know I would learn and experience all I would with regards to ministries, church administrations, theology, politics, behavior, humans and reality.

Wait a sec. "It Is Well With My Soul" is playing. Teary for a minute. Now I'm okay. I'm back.

The ties that bound

So where did all the friends go?

The ties that bound us evaporated because we had connected them based on a shared set of ideals we had not carefully thought through.

I know there can be exceptions to the rules I've noted here. I know that hard and fast friendships have stood the test of time--and the tests of doctrines and schisms and the unfortunate regimes of authoritarian or reckless leaders of religions.

But the Bible says a friend "loves at all times" (Proverbs 17:17), and that ideal for me has proven elusive, to say the least.

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