Why I Left the Church of the Nazarene

          Thank you everyone for reading and sharing my story. The reach and response have been absolutely overwhelming! Thank you for all your comments on this page, on Facebook, and through private messages. I read all of them, though I may not be able to respond to all of them. Thank you again. I have also made one correction below: the church that I served and worshipped at while I was in college was an Evangelical Methodist Church, not a Free Methodist Church as I had thought. 

          About 5 years ago, I left the denomination that introduced me to Jesus. I didn’t walk out of the Church of the Nazarene with fanfare, fireworks or middle fingers. My relationship with the CotN had more of a soft closing. But I did leave. I let my credentials lapse.  I’m currently serving, preaching, and pursuing ordination in the United Methodist Church. When I first left the CotN, I got emails left and right from different pastors and friends wanting to know if it was true that I left, why I left, and if I’ll consider staying. Eventually, those kind of emails stopped. Now, I get emails from young Nazarene ministers asking me why I left, if they should leave, where they could go, and how to leave gracefully. I haven’t been shy about this conversation in person, but I haven’t Facebooked or said anything publicly about leaving the CotN, mostly because I love the CotN and I don’t want to hurt my friends there or somehow appear bitter. But I think it’s time I shared my story because I am entirely uncomfortable caring for so many ministry hopefuls who feel like they can’t serve in a church they love.

         Before I get into my story, let me say a few things. First, I do not think my experience is in anyway normative for young Nazarene ministers. I know plenty of friends who love and effectively serve in the CotN with support, fulfillment, and joy. Secondly, I do not think that my conversations about young ministers leaving are in any way shocking or revelatory. I’m not an alarmist, and this is not ground-breaking news. This is simply my story. I hope it helps. Fair warning: there’s gonna be a lot of Nazarene lingo non-Nancy-Nazzes might not get. Here we go.

Shallow Roots

         My family isn’t Nazarene. My parents experienced Christ and conversion just before and just after I was born. We went to the Church of the Nazarene because it was the closest to our house when I was baby. When our neighborhood church was suffering, we moved to a larger CotN church in town.

         I felt a call to ministry at about the age of 14. A couple years later, I was given a local license by my pastor and church. My pastor instructed me to study Religious Studies at his alma mater, Southern Nazarene University. Because of a regional scholarship, my family and I decided on Northwest Nazarene University. The scholarship worked like this: the local church would scholarship me, and the region would match it 7 times over. My pastor would not scholarship me. However, he allowed my parents to give to the church the amount of the scholarship, and the church would then forward that money onward so that we could receive the regional scholarship.

         After two years at NNU, my home church felt like I should be licensed at the church that I was currently serving and worshiping at. I did not disagree with them, but I was worshiping and serving at an Evangelical Methodist Church at the time. My local license lapsed, which was not a big deal to me. I knew that it would only set me back one year when I entered the process again, which I did in my senior year of college. My parents started worshiping at another church, and by the time I left NNU, I had little to no connection to the CotN church that raised me in my teenage years.

Storming the Ivory Towers

         Something was happening in the church that I was not aware of. I was naive in thinking that the pursuit of more education (especially within the denomination’s own institutions) would always be encouraged and esteemed among church leaders and DS’s. While I was at NNU, I slowly became aware of grumblings about how “liberal” the religious faculty was. People started attacking my Old Testament professor. This professor taught me Hebrew and how to use the Psalms as a pastor. Among the students, he had a reputation for being dry. But I will never forget the day in class when he told us to learn the Psalms because one day, someone will ask us a question that we cannot answer, and all we will be able to say is “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” At that moment, he became too emotional to continue the class and dismissed us. I knew then, that he loved God, loved people, and I wanted to be a pastor like him.

         When I went through a big breakup in college, it was one of my religion professors that cared for me. She welcomed me into a small group that met in her home. She welcomed me into her church family, where I began vocational ministry. She obviously challenged me in the classroom but also walked with me in my faith over the years. She offered premarital counseling for Joanna and me, and she still checks up on our marriage from time to time. My point here is that my religion professors modeled pastoral ministry for me and shaped me as a pastor more so than anyone else. Still, they were constantly under fire from other leaders in their denomination.

         I chose to go to seminary so that I could be a better minister for future congregations. NTS did that for me. Just over 20% of Nazarene pastors attended seminary or have Mdivs. Of course, this does not mean they are ineffective pastors, but I’m sure it plays into the tense relationships between local church governance and the educational institutions. The Concerned Nazarene movement began while I was in seminary. All the institutions (it seemed) were being attacked by the parishioners they committed to serve. Graduates from these institutions, especially the “liberal” institutions (which, of course, weren’t liberal), were often met with skepticism. This was experienced implicitly in local church ministry and expressed explicitly in my interviews for ordination, which I’ll get to.

         While I was in seminary, I served at two different CotN churches, moved my membership with them, and kept my district license in Kansas City. My membership never had a strong “home base.” This is as much my fault as anyone else’s.

My Last Interview

         I think it was my 4th district interview. I had enough work experience to seek ordination that year, but I was in no hurry. The board that interviewed me was comprised of pastors in the area. I didn’t know any of them personally, and I don’t remember any of them now. They described the interview as a test of biblical theology, which is certainly was not. 

         I was excited about biblical theology. I minored in biblical languages in college,  I had scored pretty high on the biblical entrance exam for seminary, and I focused on New Testament interpretation and Greek in seminary. I always felt a strong call to preach and challenged myself to know the Bible well. I was excited to be tested on biblical theology.

         The interview began. The lead pastor on the board said these exact words to start the interview: “Healing. Go.”

         I was confused. I asked, “Healing?”

         “Yes, healing.”

         I asked for clarification. He explained to me a scenario in which a little old lady comes up to me after the service and asks, “Pastor, where in the Bible does it say we should pray for healing?”

         Well no problem, I responded with James chapter 5 and explained the content of that chapter and connected it to the question “why should we pray for healing?” I was pretty sure I nailed it. They were not satisfied.

         “Okay, but not James 5.”

         So I offered John 5, and described how Jesus offers healing to a paralytic man by asking him, “Do you want to get well?” Once again, not good enough.

         “Okay, but not James 5 or any of Jesus’ miracles.”

         To test my biblical theology, I was to answer where in the Bible it says we should pray for healing, but I’m not allowed to use James 5 or any of Jesus’ healings. I did not know what they wanted. So I confessed my ignorance, and without Jesus and James I probably wouldn’t be able to answer the question.

         The board of interviewers gave each other disapproving looks. Then, one spoke up, “Isaiah 53:5, by his stripes we are healed.” This is what they were after: They would throw a word at me, and I was to recite a verse with reference.

         I hope I don’t need to explain why “by his stripes we are healed” is an inappropriate answer to a church member’s questions about praying for healing. This line of questioning was not about biblical theology or pastoral ministry.

         This interview was about shaming a kid who was the product of Nazarene educational institutions.

         They asked me the same with the word “glory” and another word I can’t remember now. I did my best. I quoted verses, albeit the wrong ones for them. My blood boiled, but I wanted to respect my interviewers. I did not challenge their questions.

         At the end of the interview, I received a lecture about how my education has not prepared me for ministry. This lecture is the reason I believe that the purpose of the interview was to shame me and/or attack Nazarene Theological Seminary and/or Northwest Nazarene University. They told me that for all my studying, I had not moved closer to being ordained. They told me that ministry was about more than book-smarts. One minister on the board led the tirade against my education. Other ministers were visibly uncomfortable with what was being said, but they didn’t speak up.

The Soft Closing

         I think I knew that I was leaving the CotN after that interview. I kept my district license for another year.  The next year, I received a call from Boise First United Methodist Church about interviewing for a youth ministry position. Before I applied for the job, I called the assistant DS of the Intermountain District to ask about special assignment and transferring my membership to a church in that district near NNU. The church that held my membership in KC was a new start, with an extremely small attendance, less than 10, and I didn’t think it could hold my membership much longer. I did not hear back from the Assistant DS. I interviewed at Boise First UMC. They offered me the position. We accepted and moved. 6 months after accepting the position at Boise First UMC, the Assistant DS called me back and told me there was no possibility of transferring my membership and serving on a special assignment. So, my credentials lapsed. The church that held my membership disbanded. I left the Church of the Nazarene.

         I assume people think I left over denominational stances on alcohol or LGBTQ inclusion or other theological reasons. Those almost feel like nobler reasons. I left because I had shallow roots. I left because the people who taught me to be a pastor, who were the greatest examples of pastors in my life, seemed to be constantly under fire by the church they were serving. I left because I felt unwanted precisely because I was a product of those educational institutions.

         Finally, I want to stress my feelings. My feelings were hurt. I felt unloved and unwanted. I felt like the family that raised me was now too suspicious of my years in their educational institutions to allow me to serve them. Perhaps if I had deeper roots, I would have endured some of these feelings. As I said above, I don’t think my experiences are normative. I love the CotN. In many ways, they are my first family. I have many friends in the CotN, and I pray for them and the denomination.

         I offer my story in the hopes that it does no harm, that it does some good, and that it moves us all to fall more in love with God and connect people to God.

         Even though this is a ridiculously long post (thanks for reading), this doesn’t cover all the experiences of the years I spent growing and serving in the CotN. I’m more than happy to answer any questions. Blessings.

Peace to your souls †

Ric Shewell