Why I left the church

For those of you interested in the back story:

  • I have been pursuing full ordination for 10 years.  When I first asked for the paperwork during my last year of seminary, I was interested in working only part-time and staying home with my young children.  I was told that I needed to wait until I was willing to work full time.  I will note that men were allowed to pursue full ordination while working part-time because they were employed elsewhere.  My role as a stay at home mother did not count as work.  After seven years as an LLP, I began to work full-time and could enter the provisional process.   Over those years I have written numerous papers and been reviewed by either the District Committee for Ordained Ministry or the Board of Ordained Ministry at least 8 times, as required by the Book of Discipline.  

  • I started my journey to ministry in the Episcopal Church.  I was first asked to wait on pursuing my call to ministry so that I could focus on my marriage.  After a year I was asked if I felt that I could be both a pastor and a mother.  After several meetings and searching other avenues I left the Episcopal Church.   

  • My doctoral paper was on Women’s Leadership in the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church.  In that paper, I noted some of the problems the conference is facing surrounding clergywomen retention rates.  I also noted some of the hardships that women face in the solo or lead pastor position.  I received my Doctor of Ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary in May of 2018.  I spoke about my journey and research at a Clergywomen’s Retreat in the fall of 2018, and I have written about my research here on this blog.  

  • My journey is part of who I am.  At times I have been frustrated, angry, sad, and disappointed in the institutions of organized religion.  At times I have remained silent about my own story of struggle in the church, thinking the problem was with me.  I choose to speak out and tell my story because I remain ever hopeful that the institution will repent of their wrongdoing and find a new path forward.  I worship Jesus Christ who defies our rules and institutions so that God’s gift of life and wholeness might be a gift for all. 

  • This is the letter that I sent to my congregation on Friday, March 8, 2019.

Dear Saint Andrew’s Family,

Ecclesiastes says, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” For over ten years I have diligently worked toward ordination in the United Methodist Church. I served in a variety of settings and was largely successful and fruitful in my ministry. This year I had the opportunity to go before the Board of Ordained Ministry to interview for full ordination.  This process consisted of a variety of materials including papers and interviews. I did not pass my interviews. The Board noted that I did not clearly proclaim the good news or show a path to discipleship, nor were my sermons scholarly enough.  There were problems with my leadership surrounding justice issues.  And I was too outspoken on systematic problems within both the provisional process and with our female clergy, it was noted that I would be a better leader with coaching to help me move past my challenges with the provisional process and if I expanded my focus on gender injustice in favor of seeking justice for all.  Also, I was asked how I could relate to men if I understood myself to be a female prophet.  I had hoped for a different outcome but was prepared for the results.

Who I am as a leader and a preacher does not fit the Methodist mold today.  I have a distinctly female voice when I preach.  I am comfortable with my failings as a mother, a Christian, and a leader; I am not perfect, nor do I pretend to be.  I am practical in the ways I lead and preach. I have a hard time living with the inconstancies that I see between the world now and the world the way it should be, and I am outspoken about this.  I remain ever hopeful. I am always willing to be a better version of the person Christ called me to be, but I am unwilling to be someone different than me.

Last year, after a period of prayer and discernment, RJ and I decided that I would speak to the injustice that I see in our United Methodist institutional structure.  We knew that by voicing my opinion, I could endanger my ordination. We did not come to this decision lightly, and while it has been difficult, it is the right decision for us.  I could interview again next year; however, I feel to do so would mean putting on a façade so that I could pass.  In addition, it would mean remaining silent on issues I am passionate about, such as gender injustice and institutional abuse. I am happy to deny myself for Christ, but not for a broken and flawed institution.  On February 14, I submitted my letter of withdrawal to the Director of Clergy Excellence and my District Superintendent.  This means that effective July 1, I will no longer be a United Methodist clergy person. Please know that both Saint Andrew’s SPRC and the Richmond District Superintendent have written letters on my behalf to the Bishop, unfortunately in our system, there is no appeal.

I recognize this puts Saint Andrew’s in a challenging position and for that I am heartbroken. I had planned on staying several more years and continuing the work I had started; I will now be unable to complete my race with you.  Know that over the next few months, the church leadership and I will be busy preparing for the next pastor, so that he or she will not be hampered by my departure.  I will do everything within my power to make this a smooth transition for all.

In times of grief and pain, I often recommend people to read a few Psalms.  My favorite is Psalm 139.  It states,

“Lord, you have examined me. You know me.  You know when I sit down and when I stand up. Even from far away, you comprehend my plans. You study my traveling and resting. You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.  There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord, that you don’t already know completely.  You surround me—front and back.  You put your hand on me (CEB, Psalm 139:1-6).”

It reminds me that no matter where I serve, God is there to guide me.  No matter how much pain I feel now, God and God’s call on my life has not left me.  While this chapter is ending another chapter is beginning, and for that, I am excited and grateful.  I have loved being a part of the Saint Andrew’s family these past three years.  I am encouraged by the way you all invite people to be a part of your extended family.  Your warmth and welcoming nature are signs of the Holy Spirit’s work in you.  I look forward to the future and how God will continue to be at work in us all.

Grace and Peace,

Erin Reibel