Megachurch to Mother Church

I never really intended to leave the Catholic Church. It just happened, kind of how most people stopped watching ER. There’s just this institution that has been around forever, it’s part of your weekly life, you stop going regularly, and next thing you know, Goose is gone, and John Stamos is in the cast. I’m talking about ER there and not the Church.

Perhaps I shouldn’t beat myself up over it. It’s not like I was trying to get out of going to church altogether. But, let’s just say that it became clear to me that if I wanted to marry a Christian girl, I was going to have to become a better Christian myself. And Catholicism wasn’t asking enough of me in order to make that happen. Also, there were no ladies there in the first place. My reasoning was a combination of noble and shallow, not unlike the passerby who gives a homeless person $10 because they are moved by pity, and also because they are on their way to a job interview and need the karma.

Eventually, I found my way to a megachurch (I was living in Austin at the time). Megachurches are magnets for criticism, but the problem is, they run the gamut. Some, like Joel Osteen’s, reduce God to a genie and court heresy as often as they take a collection. Others manage to navigate the ecclesiastical/cult of personality minefield pretty well and do a fair amount of good, both for this life and the next. But, at the end of the day, they aren’t Catholic. And while I could poke some holes into aspects of it, when it gets down to it, I’m better for having gone to one of these churches and met a good deal of people who have taught me more than a thing or two.

At some point in my involvement, I started volunteering with the children’s ministry. I figured that dealing with kids was one of those life skills I should learn that might someday come in handy — kind of like killing a rabbit and cooking it in the woods without modern tools. I never learned how to kill and cook that rabbit, but giving the massive dating slump I endured during my late twenties and the slim procreation prospects that it afforded, killing the rabbit, cooking it, and maybe even making a leisure suit out of the fur might have been the more practical skill for me during that time period.

Eventually, I met my now-wife there. A few months after we married, I achieved the goal of just about 70% of megachurch attendees: I got a job at the church. Mine would be working with the kids. At the entry level, these positions tend to enter and exit at a pace normally reserved for models in the Kennedy White House. Unfortunately, my mellow was harshed due to my wife’s sister and her husband converting to Catholicism at pretty much the exact same time as when I secured the job. A chance conversation with my brother-in-law about contraception a few days before my start date planted seeds of doubt that never fully went away.

I pushed the doubts to the back of my mind and powered through the months. Strangely, I was good at the job more or less from jump street. It basically just required energy and knowing the people at the church. Knowing the people was no problem, it was a large church, but my years as a sort of ecclesiastical boulevardier made this easy. Energy, on the other hand, isn’t normally my specialty. However, I had just quit a job as a middle school teacher, so there was a hop to my step.

My wife soon became pregnant with our first child. The faith doubts (fueled largely by John 6) came and went. There were a few levels between myself and head pastor, and I was able to talk to my immediate bosses pretty frankly about everything. They were understanding and, as usual for them, a credit to the Christian faith. The church was orthodox Christian, but drew from many backgrounds, so as far as they were concerned, if someone below the pastor level wanted to explore within the context of Christianity, have at it.

In the midst of all of this, after a staff meeting in which the head pastor told us we could talk to him about anything, I naively took him up on it. I talked to him about the denominational doubts I had been having, and even that I was considering applying for the police academy. I left the meeting with his respect, but also with the clear understanding that while Catholics very well might find their way to heaven, they didn’t make the best employees at a non-denominational church. He didn’t set a time frame, but it was clear I was on borrowed time and we would need to work something out.

Eventually, my immediate bosses smoothed things over and got my job back on sure footing. It seems, even though I wasn’t sure what I was to do faith or career-wise, I came across kind of cocksure in the meeting with the head pastor, so that kind of factored into what he told me. It all threw him for a loop, so in his defense, maybe he thought I didn’t care about my job. Anyway, given how confused I was, it was a nice lesson in the gap between my reality and others’ perceptions. So apparently, for all of the times I tried to unsuccessfully gin up confidence when I needed it, this time it accidentally appeared just so it could bite me in the ass.

In early October of 2008, a few weeks before the birth of our son, my wife and I got a surprise baby shower by the staff and a lot of the church members after the Sunday services. It was really above and beyond the call of duty. As I was thanking everyone, I honestly remember this thought: I had the feeling like I was speaking at my own funeral. Two days later, this was confirmed as I was pulled into a meeting and informed that the church was facing cutbacks due to the cratering economy. Some positions were eliminated and others were cut back. Mine was cut back to part time.

It was a big church and I wasn’t the only one affected, but I was the only one with a kid due in 10 days, so I made a good Bob Cratchit-type story. Plus, the handful of people who were completely laid off switched churches, as tends to happen in such cases. So, my half-alive corpse remained as an economic totem to the church’s ill-advised (in retrospect) plans to expand as the economy burned. Everyone felt pretty awful, especially the pastor and my immediate supervisors who attended the shower knowing I was a dead man walking. I knew that I had been doing a good job and was appreciated, so that helped, somewhat. Also, while my part-time pay would be decent, no one could deny that this was a step backwards.

I’m not always the most spiritually astute person. However, it didn’t take St. Ignatius to see the good in this, even as the disaster unfolded and I prepared for my son to enter the world with a father who was basically half a man (he’s since gotten used to it). As an employee of the church, I knew I had to be all in. Now, everyone knew I was leaving sooner rather than later, and the part-time status was merely cushioning the fall. That being said, I unintentionally taught them a lesson by staying another 14 months, a move partially inspired by necessity and George Constanza's run at Play Now. So I explored Catholicism with no worry of derailing a legitimate career in non-denominational ministry. Since then, my wife has converted, we’ve switched states and had three more kids, and all four are baptized. Things worked out. Not pretty, but it got me to where I am today.

During the months of wrestling with reverting back to Catholicism, I remember being very concerned about what I would be leaving. I had a bunch of friends at the Protestant church, a job, and kids there who looked up to me. But looking back on it, at the core, it seemed that few of my concerns were based on issues of faith. I was more concerned about losing a community. That's important, but that’s not a good enough reason to stay, especially considering how temporary communities can be. The church I worked at had a pretty big back door, and members and staff didn’t exactly stay around forever. Many people simply went to another megachurch, as they tend to swap members. Some started churches of their own (and given what I know about these people, may God bless their efforts). The kids I worked with who looked up to me grew up, and as I became a father, what they thought about me, good or bad, wouldn’t have mattered in comparison to what my own kids thought of me. And, actually, I don’t even care about that most of the time.

Even my closest friends, the group of men who navigated singlehood with me, have experienced a diaspora. Mercifully, most are still Christian, but, as stated  above, they have drifted to other churches. Interestingly, despite my detour to Rome, I’m probably doing at least as good of a job keeping up with the other guys as everyone else. Some have even remained close friends.

But the point it, I was trying to hold onto something that was going away or changing one way or another. I was prepared to sacrifice the eternal for something temporary. And it’s not that Protestants have no hope for the eternal, but unlike many of them, I had an idea as to what I would be giving up by forgoing Catholicism. I had taken the metaphorical red pill. Or was it the blue pill? Whatever, I just know it wasn’t a birth control pill. So, I couldn’t claim ignorance. I had to act on what I knew about the truth of Catholicism.

And what did I gain from Catholicism? Well, a lot of new friends, not that Catholic friends can replace Protestant friends, and vice versa. But, while the broad Catholic label may have its share of heretics and whackos, there is a little more uniformity of belief among those going to Mass every Sunday. So there is more shared values and dogma among our Catholic friends. People differ in terms of execution and emphasis, but there is a comfort in knowing that even before speaking of them, we already agree on many of the issues of both the day and beyond.

During the height of my singlehood, I remember thinking about how small Austin felt to a Christian who was somewhat involved. And it’s still true. But while my non-denominational Christianity made a city seem small, Catholicism has shrunk the entire world for me. But, of course, none of what I think matters. Want the truth? Read John 6. That will tell you where truth lies. Then, it’s up to you to do something about it.

Doug Connolly