Church: The Third Parent

I regularly dream about the church where I grew up:  A soaring Protestant-plain structure built in the early 1800’s with a handful of parishioners clustered in the first few pews.  I doubt more than twenty people have attended a Sunday service in the last three decades.  The congregation was vibrant when I was eight but then got hit by a parade of inept and at times unethical pastors.  By the time I was in high school, the church probably should have shut its doors.

That congregation loved me and raised me in the faith.  They were my first community—adults who winked at me during the service and attended my piano concerts and taught me about the Bible, youth who dared one another to explore the endless basement or climb up onto the roof, a family broader and stranger than my immediate family but just as reliable.  I see the same thing happening for Gwyn, who at five helps the usher light the candles and converses with grown-ups at coffee hour.  Church throws a wide blanket of people around my daughter.  She may someday stop attending or reject its teachings, but she’ll never not know this family.

I once had a therapist say that, for those raised in the church, the church is like a third parent with all of the psychological and emotional baggage of any dysfunctional family.  I worked through most of my unhealthy relational patterns with my own parents decades ago, but the church?  The church still haunts my dreams, triggers inexplicable emotions, and won’t let me go.  As infuriated as the institutional church and the messy local church make me, I can’t leave.  Church is in my blood.  I’m glad enough for it that I’m inflicting it on my daughter—and gracing her with it.  When she grows up, like it or not, she’ll have this foundation.

Last night, I dreamt that the church of my childhood was full of a great diversity of people.  The pastor led a processional; there were huge palm trees and singing.  In the dying church of my psyche, something new is happening.  I hope to God it’s life-giving and fruitful.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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