After a lifetime of attending evangelical churches, Lyz Lenz went on a journey to find a place where she didn’t need to pretend to be an obedient wife, and not much else.
Since moving to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2005, my husband Dave and I had attended almost 20 churches. One church we went to never invited us into a Bible study. When I asked a pastor or a Sunday school teacher about Wednesday night Bible studies, I was always told to ask someone else, who told me to ask someone else. This went on for five months, until one Sunday the pastor preached a sermon about the importance of small groups and said from the pulpit that all we had to do was ask to be invited. We never went back.
Or there was the church we visited in 2006 that sent three teams of elders to prayer walk around our townhouse. I sent them packing after I opened the door and asked them what they were doing. “Can we speak to your mom?” asked one of the older gentlemen in a suit and a tie.
“I am the mom,” I said and slammed the door shut. They left a flyer under the door and walked around our townhouse praying once more, for good measure.
After three years of searching, Dave and I finally ended up at an Evangelical Free church. There we met other couples and got involved with the youth group. But even then, that church wasn’t an easy fit for us. Or, I should be clear, it wasn’t an easy fit for me.
The church was a lot like the Evangelical churches Dave and I had attended as kids – raucous music, a pastor who gave sermons that often included video clips and pop culture references. There was no liturgy, there were no organs and most of the people who attended seemed to be our age. Few people drank, no one smoked and they all loved to discuss the Book of Revelation after one too many Mountain Dews at a church party.
While I loved the people there, I didn’t like the church’s theology. The church was and is very conservative; their theology was that of the Evangelical Free Church of America, which doesn’t affirm women or gay people as pastors or elders. Strict gender roles were enforced and even seen as freeing. Everybody was white.
As someone who doesn’t like to wear bras on principle, I frequently found myself chafing against the strict orthodox interpretation of the Bible and the long lectures I was often given by male members of the church about how if I believed women could be pastors I was questioning the inerrancy of the Bible.
But in those early days of my marriage and my adult life, I thought that these problems were minor squabbles. Something to be hashed out over late nights playing board games and drinking wine, or wine for me, Fresca for the rest of them. It was a breezy naivety, born of my childhood raised in an Evangelical homeschool subculture in Texas. Until I went to high school at a public school, everyone I knew believed in a literal six-day creation by the hand and voice of God. Everyone believed that being gay was a sin.
I was used to being the outsider – the lone voice of dissent. I was comfortable with this role because I wasn’t threatened by it. Not yet, anyway. I wasn’t gay. I wasn’t a person of color. I was a woman, but the gentle grasp of patriarchy hadn’t yet threatened to strangle me, because I hadn’t yet tried to get free. Or perhaps I had, but I was so used to a religion that told me I was wrong and objectionable, it never occurred to me there could be another way.
Faith was also so much more to me than a God I occasionally sang songs to in church or prayed to over meals. Faith had provided the entire fabric of my existence. It was the cytoplasm in which I existed – the amniotic fluid that sustained my relationships with my husband and my family. It’s the air I was raised with. My mother read the Bible to us in the mornings, and my father read it to us before I went to sleep at night. I could not conceive of myself outside of religion.
Because I could not imagine life outside the womb of my faith, I struggled inside its limitations. I thought there would always be room for me. But the reality was, there was only room for me if I made myself smaller and smaller and smaller, until I disappeared. Or else I’d be pushed out into a bright new horrible, beautiful world, where I would gasp and scream and try to breathe, for once, on my own.
But in those early days, I kicked around, trying to make my place, approaching my disagreements head on. During a membership class at our Evangelical church, the one we’d later leave, I eagerly debated the head pastor, Travis, over whether the Bible supported female ordination. My husband, who agreed with the church’s stances, sat stony-faced as I recited the arguments I’d learned from my Lutheran friends and from reading books such as Ten Lies the Church Tells Women. The pastor gamely debated me, but stood strong. “I agree the topic needs more investigation” was all he would allow.
I didn’t need to be right, I just needed to be treated like someone smart, someone with something to offer besides filling a nursery volunteer spot on Sunday mornings
And I took it, that proffered breadcrumb, as a promise to journey together – to listen to one another. I took it as a sign of respect. And that’s all I needed. I didn’t need to be right, I just needed to be treated like someone smart, someone with something to offer besides filling a nursery volunteer spot on Sunday mornings. I needed to be treated like a person.
The promised investigation never came. That offer was just a way of putting me off, shutting me up. A year later, when I asked if we could have a Bible study that opened up the topic, I wasn’t shut down, I was just ignored. I asked the question of the pastor and he smiled and said: “I’ll think about it.” Nothing else. And every time I brought it up, that’s what I was told. “I’ll think about it.”
Death by a thousand maybes.
It’s a passive-aggressive technique – a denial by silence. There is nothing to fight against. Just resolute lips and an unfocused gaze, that refuses to see you, your desperation, humanity and longing. I’m used to that look. I get it a lot. Or at least, I used to.
I’ve spent my whole life in conservative Evangelical churches. Born the second of eight kids and raised in Texas, I spent my spiritual childhood hearing hour-long sermons in humid, brown churches filled with the Holy Spirit and brisket and pastors who sweat through their shirtsleeves proclaiming the second coming of the Lord.
In Sunday school, we looked for signs and revelations of the impending apocalypse: the tentative peace recently brokered in the Middle East, the talk of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, the war on religion we were told that Janet Reno was perpetuating with the attacks on Ruby Ridge and Waco. I went to sleep afraid I’d wake up to find my whole family raptured. When I went to the toilet, I prayed to Jesus not to call me up to heaven right then and there with my pants pulled down.
At home my father taught us that numerology showed Hillary Rodham Clinton’s name worked out to 666. My mother made us read The Hiding Place, and we talked about what we’d do in the end times when we were persecuted for our faith.
I read Frank Peretti’s books, hiding under the covers, dreaming about the thin veil between the spiritual world and the one where I bit my nails and prayed for Jesus to make me good. I was no good in the churches of my childhood – I was too loud, too demanding, I looked too much like a boy, I asked too many questions.
By the time I was 18 years old, I’d been in small churches where pastors slept with congregants and in megachurches where youth pastors slept with teens. I’d seen gay women kicked out of the congregations they loved because they wouldn’t apologize for who God created them to be. I’d seen my friend, pregnant at 16, asked to stop singing with the worship team, while the boy who was the father still led prayers on Wednesday nights. By the time I finally went to college, I had given up. For four years, I never went to chapel. I still believed in God, but I didn’t believe in church.
After I graduated and married Dave, who’d been raised in the soft evangelicalism of the upper-middle-class white midwestern suburbs, I was determined that we would find a new church together; one that fit both of us.
We moved to Cedar Rapids for his job, and the first thing he did was make a list of all the churches he wanted to visit. Without my input. In hindsight, this wasn’t a good sign. But it’s also how he put together our budget, planned vacations and bought cars. I had a choice – and that choice was to choose from the options on his spreadsheet. And when you are young and in love and used to the patriarchy as a modus operandi, well, you put up with a lot of things without thinking.
We weren’t looking for perfection, we just wanted a home
Dave and I worked through the list in alphabetical order until we finally settled into the Evangelical Free church. We weren’t looking for perfection, we just wanted a home. Or, more accurately, I wanted a home. I wanted a place that would accept all of me. Where I wouldn’t be forced to hide my questions and my doubts, swallow my fears and outrage and get along. Perhaps that’s why, when Pastor Travis told me we’d talk about it later or that he was thinking about my idea of the Bible study examining the woman’s role in the church, I took him at his word.
Compliance is easier than questioning. The appearance of unity is easier than the messy actualities. And I think part of me always understood that if I pushed too hard, I would be cast out of everything I knew. That I’d lose everything. So I smiled during sermons I hated. I kept silent during Bible studies where people spoke of dinosaurs and humans roaming the earth together before Noah’s flood.
Dave and I put everything into that church. We volunteered with the youth on Wednesday nights, I helped with the coffee every Sunday and in the nursery, and we went on a trip to Israel and on a mission trip to El Salvador.
On that mission trip, everything fell apart. It fell apart because I asked to lead the prayer during devotionals one morning. Steven, the pastor leading the group, had frowned and told me that wasn’t my place. I was furious. I had a specific story I wanted to share. One of our local hosts, a woman and a pastor, had taken me with her on her visits to the sick people in the village. I’d used my Spanish-English dictionary to talk to a man about how my sisters had been hit by a car, just like he had. How one of my sisters also had a hard time walking. It was a small moment of connection that I wanted to tell everyone about, and I wanted to pray for him.
But Steven was upset because I had been with a female pastor, and he didn’t think it was my place to be leading even devotions in our majority male group. Steven’s approach even angered Dave. When I had told Steven that nothing in the Bible prevented me from talking out loud in a small group, he replied by saying: “It’s there in the scripture, right here where you are told to submit.”
When Dave and I returned from the trip, we met with Pastor Travis and voiced our concerns. We had heard that other people had similar concerns with this same pastor, and I said that.
“What? Who?” Travis said.
“You know who,” I said. “They told me they told you.”
“No one told me anything,” he said.
My husband spoke up. “We know people have talked to you about how this man treats people.”
Pastor Travis bowed his head and folded his hands for a moment. When he looked up, he met my husband’s eyes and said: “You are right. I don’t know why I lied and I apologize to you.”
“Apologize to me,” I said. “You lied to me, not to him.”
“I did apologize to you when I apologized to your husband,” Pastor Travis replied, looking not at me but at Dave. We had been going to that church for five years together and here I was, not even worthy of an apology.
We had been going to that church for five years together and here I was, not even worthy of an apology
I had trusted Pastor Travis. I had believed that, even though we disagreed, he saw me as a human – smart, worthy of time and consideration. But in that moment, with his resolute lips and gaze focused somewhere over my head, I saw that I wasn’t a whole person to him. I wasn’t even worthy of my own apology. Whatever story I had told myself about mutual respect turned out to be just a lie. That offer to “journey together” was just a coded way of saying: “You’ll eventually grow up and agree with me.” It wasn’t the last time I heard that phrase.
Pastor Travis and Steven did try to reach out with apologies for the misunderstandings, but I refused to speak to them. There was no misunderstanding. I thought I was a smart person, fully capable of studying the Bible and engaging with spirituality on my own, and they disagreed. When someone denies the very core of who you are, it’s hard to dialogue.
There are so many churches that remain strong while being awful to women or providing safe havens for the power hungry. And there are so many good places that close despite being a home for the hungry, the lost and the hurting. To brush off problems with churches as the problems of the inherently flawed nature of people is to miss the bigger picture: that life and faith can function together in a place where all are welcome and respected.