Part I: Church Hunting
So! You’ve moved to a new area or you’ve found yourself at a crossroads in life and you’d like to try attending an organized religion, going to a series of workshops or classes, or wanting to attend a retreat or a camp or a revival. Maybe someone has recommended something to you, or you’ve seen some flyers or billboards, or you’re intrigued by something you Googled or a by book you’ve read, or you’re simply musing about giving the spiritual life another go.
Let me give you a bit of advice, or rather a loose collection of notes I’ve made after years of studying religions, living and extinct. I don’t have any particular religion in mind to recommend or disparage and I hope this notes can apply to any spiritual community — whether familiar, ancient and established or fresh from the New-Religion-O-Rama.
Look at your options: get out the phonebook or crack open the internet and see what online and actual gatherings are available. Think about what you’re looking for: are you interested shopping all your available options, are you looking for a community within a certain spectrum of traditions, or are you trying to reconnect with the tradition you grew up in or near?
Take the Beliefnet’s Belief-O-Matic test. I’m serious. Yes, the quiz is a bit farcical, but the results can be genuinely intriguing and thought-provoking. You may learn something about yourself in taking the quiz or in researching the results that will help you on your journey.
Think about what you want out of your new community (or set of workshops or weekend in the mountains.) Are you running from a particular bad experience in the past? Have you always thought very highly of the prospect you’re considering? Are there possibilities you’re afraid of? Will you be disappointed if the group or its clergy fall short of a certain idea of morality or virtue (or wisdom and enlightenment)? It may be helpful to run your hopes and fears by a trusted friend, a councilor, or a member of the clergy from another (or your) tradition. Sometimes people go into romantic relationships that are about what they’ve already been through: the same applies to entering into spiritual fellowships. Check that you’re in the right place, yourself, to start afresh.
Remember that if you’re looking for a place to volunteer for issues that concern you, for a group of friends to socialize with, for people to talk about the big questions with, for help with personal or spiritual issues, for a leader to admire for their wisdom or character, for something that will give your life meaning and purpose – that you can find all of these things in a non-religious setting. There are many non-profits that would welcome dedicated volunteers, you can make friends anywhere in life, people of wisdom and depth are also everywhere, there are many kinds of help (often from unexpected or overlooked places), and that artists, authors, scientists, ordinary people, and philosophers can also be wonderful life-guides. You will ultimately be responsible for answering life’s questions to your own satisfaction and for crafting a life that seems good and meaningful to you: whether you turn to a spiritual conventicle or not, that power is still yours – and the many of the good things religions provide are not unique to religious institutions.
Do a bit of homework on what you’re attending before you go. Read How to Be a Perfect Stranger. Find out — what were the experiences of other people who went to that retreat or class or workshop? Who’s sponsoring it or what does the name on the placard at your prospective house of worship mean? Surf the internet, read books and magazine articles, and keep the following things in mind:
Scores or hundreds of negative accounts from former attendees or members (or several books by them) is probably a bad sign. Although the religion may characterize them as embittered or disgruntled, have a look at both sides of the story. Do the ex-members sound hysterical and bitter – or do they sound like they’ve made peace with a bad patch in the road? How does their former organization treat ex-members (both on paper and in practice)? Religions with a history of harassing or mistreating ex-members should be scratched of your list, no matter how attractive they look at the outset.
Glowing, beatific praise for the group (or advertisements of its unique benefits – or advertisements, period, for scriptures/healing aids/things absolutely necessary for worship or meditation or membership) may also be a bad sign. If you feel like you’ve entered a late-night infomercial, then take a step back, regain a cool head, and ask yourself some common-sense questions about the group. No movement is uniformly terrific and inspiring to every member, every single time; think of the other things advertised as a bed of roses (new car ownership, marriage, home juicing machines) and look for a mix of experiences/benefits/connectedness from present and former members that reflect real life.
Trust books and websites that use psychological criteria and words like “manipulation” and “coercion” in making lists of what religions to avoid. Sites and books that use theological criteria often reflect internal religious polemics that have nothing to do with the quality of experience in the groups they disparage. You may find your spiritual home in a place that seems strange at first blush or like an unlikely prospect: but do try to avoid religions (organizations, businesses, investment opportunities, human potential seminars, study groups, prayer meetings, meditation classes, philosophies, book groups, exercise/bodywork classes, informational meetings) attached to groups with a history of caring more about their membership rolls or their bank balance than their actual members. Back off of any group that asks you to leave off your friends, family, and hobbies; that uses pressure or any kind of ‘hard sell’ encourage you to tithe or donate more than you can afford; that uses pressure to encourage you to give more of your time or involvement than you feel comfortable with (no matter how worthy or urgent the cause seems to be); that uses pressure, threats, or shame to get a certain amount of attendance; that forbid you to talk with fellow adherents (at your spiritual level or not) when your have doubts or questions; that pressures you to achieve a certain level of spiritual attainment or asks you to advance more quickly than you’re ready for (this is especially suspect if the religion stands to make money from your advancement…); or that pressures you to only use doctors, gardeners, car mechanics, hairdressers etc. from their own faith. (Supporting your own community is good, but never feel arm-twisted out of shopping around for the service providers who you personally feel are best for you.)
Unless you have knowingly and willingly signed up for a monastic novitiate, a balanced religion should let you have an ordinary, worldly life: control of your own finances, schedule, and associates; thoughts and interests, media and reading matter that don’t involve religion; and time away from services or religion-related-activities (and members.) Be wary of requests to change your dress, personal adornment, or hairstyle (unless you are already part of that tradition and know why the request is being made.) Run any requested changes of diet by a non-affiliated nutritionist or doctor (no matter how sacred or ancient the religion says it is – malnutrition is also quite ancient, I’d be happy to show you the archeology of it), if you think you are getting too much or too little exercise, if you consistently can’t sleep, or if you think a proscribed schedule or a regimen of meditation or other devotion is affecting your health – then see a non-affiliated doctor. Any religion that cares about your welfare and feels secure in the safety and merits of its own practices should not object to you seeing to your own well-being. In short: avoid any religion that acts like a controlling boy/girlfriend (and like one, controlling religions often appear all-wonderful and kind at the beginning – this is why checking with ex-members is necessary.)
Manipulative religions survive on subverting your ordinary decision-making as quickly as possible and on making the voices of anyone who would say, “Um, are you sure about these people?” sound ridiculous and hostile as soon as possible. (They also may want to hurry along whatever process would make you a full member or adherent.) As soon as you discover something suspect about a prospective religion, stop attending or speaking to their outreach people – back off, give yourself some time away, and discover as much as you can about both sides of the story, and make up your own mind in your own time. (God/Salvation/Enlightenment/Immortality will still be there when you’re done thinking it over: I can’t think of a single case where any of them has expired like a loaf of bread. Give yourself all the time you need and trust that they are also looking for you, in their own way – they won’t evaporate if you don’t do a certain thing by a certain date.) Also, how does the religion handle bad press or scandals (whether current or as part of their history)? Do they act like a large company trying to cover for a tainted product line or an embezzling CEO, or do they squarely addressing the matter, speak openly about it, and admit wrongdoing – just ask they would ask of you? (Double standards of any ilk are also reason for caution.)
Attend your prospective religions. Choose a place of worship that makes you feel comfortable and happy. Do you find the worship space beautiful or contemplative? What’s the ‘energy’ of the congregation? Do you like the music (if any) or way in which the room focus your attention on the Object of your attendance? How do you feel after the gathering – was it a waste of a perfectly good chunk of weekend or do you have something uplifting or useful to take home with you? Did you like the people? The leader or clergy person (if any)? How’s the childcare/religious instruction? Is the drive and time of the service something you can accommodate regularly? How’s the food? Does the worship community have people at various levels of understanding and attainment? Does it seem canted towards people at any particular level (i.e. is it all going over your head, week after week, or is it far too basic?) Does it make a place for different kinds of people and does it let people with ideas or talents or leadership abilities flourish to the benefit of its gathering? Do services cover something of the width and depth of the theology or tradition, or is it too much of a one-note-samba? Does it have volunteer opportunities or social mixers or spiritual advancement groups that appeal to you? Can you live with the mix of pluses and minuses you encounter or is anything a deal-breaker or too good to pass up?
Be wary of any religion that treats you like a celebrity just for walking in the door or just for showing up at a class/event/seminar/study group. If you suddenly find yourself the center of attention, if everyone in the room stops what they are doing to pay attention to you in some positive way, if you abruptly find yourself with an entourage or handlers – back away sooner rather than later. Most religions wish to be warm and welcoming, but a group that flatters you or overwhelms you with positive attention (like a used car salesman) is probably trying to sell you something or undermine your better judgment…. Also, if a religion begins to act like an over-critical friend – “What are you doing wearing that? Why are you hanging out with those people? Why are you eating this? Well, if you really liked me, you’d be doing _____.” – probably does not have your best interests at heart. Most bullies (be they institutions or people) start out with small, reasonable-sounding, “helpful” suggestions to get you accustomed to saying ‘yes’ before graduating to the black-belt grade arm twisting. Never be afraid to live by your own lights, ask questions (of fellow members or authority figures), or to be a bit rude. If something about your new path makes you uneasy, take time out to do more homework on the group, run it by unconnected people you’ve long trusted, and listen to your instincts.
How are the building and grounds? How’s the parking? How’s the roof? How’s the sound system? What are the kitchens and restroom and childcare rooms like? A place that’s too much like a movie set or a fancy hotel may be too interested in impressing you, for whatever reason – and a place that’s a bit long in the tooth may simply suffer from the malady all non-profits suffer from: lack of funds. That said, be cautious of a place that’s too perfect or unexpectedly decrepit. Who looks after the children, cleans the kitchen, answers the phone, mows the grass, hands out the pamphlets? Who makes the items used in worship, proselytizing, rituals, or private devotion? How are they treated? How are they paid? (If it’s in primarily spiritual currency then that may be an opening for abuse or exploitation.) Do they seem a bit too cheerful or mysteriously dissatisfied? (Ditto the clergyperson (if applicable), who is also a kind of employee.)
What kind of people attend this group? Is the congregation a mix of ages, races, social strata, education levels, new converts and old families? Is that mix (or lack of mix) typical for that gathering or tradition? Is that something you’re comfortable with? Are there young families and elderly people? Is the gathering terrific when talking to one group of people but at sea with another? (Or great with one set of needs or interests but at sea with another?) How well is the house of worship integrated into the community – do they ever open their building for cultural fairs or special holiday events or open houses or concerts or community festivals or ecumenical/inter-faith meetings? What is their history (and how is their relationship) with neighboring houses of worship from other traditions? What is your group’s presence in the community – do they have booths at local fairs, do they encourage members’ participation in local events or in charities or in the wider community? Do they do this primarily to attract more members or do they take a sincere and genuine interest in their neighbors of every faith and in their neighboring (but perhaps quite different) houses of worship? What do people who aren’t members have to say about that particular house of worship and its congregants? Does that sit well with you?
Attend several services: you may have hit the week the leader/clergyperson/convener had the flu. If you like that tradition, try other services in that tradition to see how your local one compares. Ask about the differences you see.
Talk to present and former members, face to face if you can – has your group just come off of a huge argument about their building? Have they just booted a bad leader? Did they just expand the parking lot? Take sides in a nationwide argument on a social issue? Break off from or join a national body of similar houses of worship? Embark on a campaign to build a school?
Do you like the particular branch of tradition you’re thinking of joining? Do you have differences with their doctrine? If they express a concern for the poor – or the home country – or for something about the state of the world, what do they do about it? How do they treat members who don’t completely agree with them? How do they treat other religious gatherings in your community? Are you completely happy to have your name linked with theirs or would you rather try a somewhat different group to get a closer fit?
No gathering is going to be perfect and no member of the clergy will shine at every aspect of their role. You always have the option of choosing “none of the above” and spending your weekend hours at a book group, a charity, at the gym, at a crafter’s group, a lecture or philosophical society, hiking, boatbuilding, volunteering, at a library, at a bridge tournament, in a gallery or museum, in the park, at the seashore, at a soccer or basketball match, fishing, painting, reading, parasailing, or online. I can’t tell at a glance who does or doesn’t go some particular place each weekend, but I can tell who benefits by being refreshed, renewed, and relaxed by whatever they do choose to do: I hope you are, and that you have a wonderful weekend, however you wish to spend it.
(Note: This post was the reason I started the blog. The horse-sense that people bring to buying car or looking for their next home is sometimes set aside when religion is involved. It shouldn’t be. Like people, some religions only want you for your checkbook or your mere presence. Look for a religion that values all of you and that is humane to your doubts and differences.)
Whether you call it a donation, a membership fee, a love gift, a prayer offering, a tithe, or any other name, at some point money leaves your hand and goes to your new religion. By itself this is not a bad thing: every religion needs a clean and sound place to meet (usually a building), food for celebrations and holidays, utilities and climate control, educational materials for children, seating, backing for charity work, advertising and missionizing funds, money for administrative costs and staffing (including clergy salary), places for congregants to park; bulletin, newsletter, newspaper, and book printing expenses; and many require music, vestments, and ritual supplies (including what would be called ‘art’ in a secular setting.)
How does your new community ask for money? How do you feel when the request is made – not ‘how should you feel’, but how do you feel? How often do they ask? How does the religion determine what an appropriate contribution level is? Is this standard applied in an evenhanded way? Are exceptions (for hardship or other reasons) made in a fair and reasonable way? How does the religion respond if you come upon unusually good (or unusually bad) financial circumstances? Would the religion treat you (or any adherent) the same way if tomorrow (and forever after) you found yourself absolutely unable to contribute to the collection plate? How are volunteers treated? Are people who give more (or less) treated differently or given a different status based on their contributions?
Can you look at the religion’s books? At every level – your gathering, your region’s gatherings, and nationwide (or worldwide)? Can you ask for a breakdown of where your contributions go, in general, and do the actual account books support this information? Do independent sources? Former members? Does money seem to pool in any part of the organization or go overwhelmingly to a particular cause or priority? Do you agree with this? What power do you have to change things if you don’t? (It may even be a good experiment to ask for a financial report or a breakdown of, say, administrative costs per dollar given – just to see how your new community handles such questions.) I’m not asking you to write an investigative news report or audit the religion – but try a bit of looking around and watch for defensiveness or a sudden influx of theology (minus hard figures.)
Religions say a lot of things about money to make it easier to part with – set them aside, for the moment, and ask yourself if you’d accept the same treatment from a secular charity (say, the Red Cross/Crescent) or from a nationally-known business. Your income is yours to disperse as you please (I spend too much of mine on fountain pen ink…), and a bit of skepticism may serve you well. It is often valuable to check whether any group’s spending matches its publicized goals and ideals, and at best the honesty, administrative efficiency, and funding of the greater good in your religion will be as advertised. (If not, then as an adherent you are in the idea place to ask for the changes you’d like to see.)