I have been enthralled with the story of a missing young woman in the Pacific Northwest since mid-August 2018; so much so, I wrote an article about her for Nancy Grace’s website, Crime Online (If you’re interested, you can find the link to my article on the publications page.). The experienced hiker left for a solo day hike on August 1st on a difficult but manageable trail. Many hikers recounted seeing her, speaking with her, and one had a video from his hike in which she could be seen in the background in no duress. Large search parties with trained searchers and dogs, helicopters with infrared imaging, and drones with cameras were used in one of the largest and longest searches in the history of the area, but the search was unsuccessful. She is still missing today, somewhere in the vast wilderness around Vesper Peak, nearly a year later.
While some can read a news story and stay emotionally detached, I cannot so easily turn away from stories like this one. I have dedicated over 36 hours to examining video drone footage and scouring pictures taken from all angles of the mountainside, looking for even the smallest clues to help rescuers find this young woman. My husband questioned me a lot in the beginning, “Why are you searching so much?” And I began to question myself too... Why am I so captivated with this story?
I recognized a trend among the stories I follow, many of them involving “missing persons.” I am particularly fascinated and saddened by cases involving people missing from hikes or mountaineers never returning from climbs of the world’s largest peaks. But why do I obsessively follow stories of those lost in the wilderness? Frankly, I don’t know. I follow stories of missing women more often, maybe I see a bit of myself in each of them. I love the outdoors and wonder how normal and ordinary these women’s lives were when they laced their boots and started up the trail head. Possibly, these stories brush the surface of my deepest fear-- isolation. And not only isolation, but the horror these people face knowing they are lost in a vast expanse of nature, understanding there may be very little they can do to save themselves, and then watching death slowly consume their bodies. The thought of this reality is worse than any horror movie.
Isolation can result from becoming lost. Of course one can become physically lost, but an individual can more often become “lost” in a metaphorical sense. How many times have you said, “I just feel lost” or “I need direction”? I know I’ve said these things a record-breaking amount of times since becoming a mother and balancing a career. Feeling lost is a shared human experience.
For the last 18 years, I have been a minister in conservative, moderate, and liberal Baptist churches. The very nature of my job was to help lead and guide people in their faith journey. Rob Bell said in one of his recent podcasts that those of us in ministry are essentially “paid to be found.” While Rob was not endorsing this was the most healthy view of ministers, he continued by adding about congregants in our churches (with more than a hint of sarcasm), “They cheer you on to know the way… you’re professionally found… you help them get unlost.”
Rob’s podcasts echo in my laundry room weekly, along with a laundry list of others (pun intended). Since I am a mom of four, laundry is a never-ending task, and there is always an Everest-sized mound of clean clothes to be folded. Last week one of my five year-old boys caught me sitting in my laundry room floor listening to a Robcast, holding someone’s Batman underwear, with tears rolling down my cheeks. He asked if I was sad about the underwear’s logo starting to crack apart and peel. It wasn’t the crumbling logo that concerned me. It was the realization I was starting to crack and crumble. The pressure I felt building up over the last decade of work in ministry was finally being articulated in a way that broke open something inside me. It was like an “aha” moment crossed with that moment you realize Santa’s not real-- a mix of relief and sadness.
Ministers are tasked to guide a journey we have not yet traveled. Sure, we may have studied the maps, traveled some of the trail, or ventured off into the brush discovering new trails, streams, waterfalls, an old mine shaft, or a dangerous drop-off, but no minister speaking truth would be able to say he/she has never been or will ever be lost along the way. Minister’s don’t have supernatural powers, we are just called to fulfill, what feels like, supernatural needs.
What happens when the person behind the pulpit doesn’t have all the answers? What happens when your minister can’t tell you what decision is best or how you should feel? What happens when she is unable to explain why God didn’t save your child, heal your mom, fix your marriage or stop that disaster, illness, wreck, bankruptcy, or overdose? What happens when the person behind the pulpit becomes like the Wizard of Oz and is exposed? The curtain is pulled back, the charade collapses, the truth comes to light; and the person behind the pulpit is seen for who she truly is: a woman seeking the Divine but not absolutely sure who or what that is, a woman earnestly looking for answers but honestly only discovering more questions, a woman willing to serve but resistant to compromise healthy boundaries, a woman willing to wait her turn to speak but unwilling to be silenced or censored, a woman called by God to speak prophetically even if it causes others to feel uncomfortable, a woman created and called by God just as she is and unapologetic in her advocacy against the mediocrity, misogyny, and money-driven decision making of many of our churches and denominational bodies. Would they want to follow her?
Many congregants count on ministers in their churches to be confident guides, with clear answers, and unwavering faith, all while appearing with a tour-guide like charm and a smile. There are expectations for and about our families, marriages, finances, salaries, homes, vehicles, vacation time, children, work-home balance, maternity leave, attire, make-up (as in too much or too little lipstick), self-expression, language, political views, emotions, and mental health.
Ministers live in a glass house with the unspoken expectation that our lives are an open book for all to consume. Those who set more rigid boundaries and seek privacy are often scrutinized for resisting full transparency, causing a slow and steady chasm to form between the minister and congregation. Life in a glass house under constant surveillance, with the additional pressure of presenting the “correct” character on social media, perpetuates the myth of the minister as a person a little less than God, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, without faults or flaws, and never, ever lost. After all, how can one be lost if always held hostage in a glass house?
The truth is, no matter what our profession, all of us can become lost at some point in our lives, maybe more than once. When we are willing to admit and be still in our lostness, we are able to connect with those around us in more authentic ways. The simple act of acknowledging we are not alone in our feelings of lostness helps us to be found or at least takes the fear out of setting up camp and sleeping under the stars for a night or two. And while many of us want desperately to be found, most of us simply desire a companion on our journey. Someone willing to admit they may not know the way, but are willing to walk every single step with us.
I have been wandering for several years now, feeling desperately lost at times. It feels as if I have been trapped inside one of those mirror mazes at the county fair, unable to escape the endless hallways, paralyzed by fear and shame and doubt, stuck looking at countless rows of my own empty-eyed reflections in the mirrors, with this mantra constantly scrolling in my mind, “A lost leader is no leader anyone would want to follow.”
Weeks ago, I made the decision to resign from the safety and security of my church staff position to continue following God’s call for me outside the walls of a religious institution and unbound by expectations. Over the years, I have discovered my lostness has led to the most life-giving intersections with others searching for something they were unable to find in institutional churches. For years, I thought I was lost because I wanted to go in a different direction than others; but it turns out, I was heading the way God was calling me all along. It is frightening to strike out into a vast unknown and trust you will be able to emotionally and financially survive this call into the wild, but it’s more frightening, for me, to live my whole life looking through the glass at the wilderness I longed to wander through.
I am thankful for the places I have been and the people I have encountered. I am grateful institutional churches can provide community for so many, while also recognizing the broken parts that have caused pain for just as many. While it feels like my ministry in the institutional church has reached its summit, I am reminded of the words from a wise Sherpa who has guided many mountaineers up and down Everest, “Remember when you’ve reached the summit, you’ve only actually gotten halfway to the goal. The goal is to finish... alive.”
To Barbara Brown Taylor, Thank you. Your words from Leaving Church have held me through a decade of ministry.