Finding Belonging as a Christian Misfit

Out of Place – Joy’s Story

All that mega-church money, and none of it had reached this little room. Orange plastic chairs tucked under the chipped veneer table, cold and full of static under buzzing fluorescent tubes. 

This, the pastor had promised from stage on Sunday, is where I would experience life-changing community.

I had mistimed my entrance, being one of the first people there, so had nothing to do but observe all the other women entering for Bible Study discussion group.

They came in twos and threes, conservatively dressed, embroidered Bible clutched with Beth Moore curriculum; purses packed with lipstick and teething toys drooping down their arms.

They took their seats, glancing around the table—we were all glancing around the table—to see who else was here, all of us making microcalculations about ourselves and each other.

“Welcome, ladies!” said the Discussion Leader, who proceeded to lecture us that the only way to truly grow and connect in our six weeks together was for everyone to participate and be vulnerable, and we duly commenced the discussion questions.

My hopes for thoughtful and encouraging conversation were quickly disappointed by a predictable parade of low-hanging application and Christian cliches.

Fine, I thought. You want vulnerable? I’ll bite.

“Actually,” I haltered, “I’m not sure I totally agree with what Beth is saying here. This verse has a lot of other things surrounding it. I’m wondering if it could also have other implications for us as well.”

I looked around, hoping for any spark of connection, but all the other eyes had diverted. Oh no, I could see them thinking, she’s one of THOSE PEOPLE. Doesn’t she know this is BETH MOORE? The best friend of the leader finally broke the tension and authoritatively disagreed with me, everyone nodding in relief as she confirmed their systemized beliefs.

I didn’t say much else that day, and dropped out of the Bible Study a few weeks later. I might have even left the church, except that I was employed in full-time ministry there.

I wish I could say this was the only time that happened, but it wasn’t. Small groups, large worship services, one-on-one conversations and more. In my Christian world, there wasn’t much room to question, think, or be myself, especially as someone whose livelihood depended on faithfully repeating doctrinal and liturgical traditions every week.

My faith was at odds with my faith community. 

My relationship with Jesus was real: full of push and pull, real conversations and real tears, and I was confident in the constancy of his kindness and grace toward me. And yet being part of the group calling itself “the body of Christ” was awkward, lonely, and confusing. Authenticity was rewarded with judgment, and vulnerability with shame. Even from childhood, I found myself loving church for how it taught me to connect with God, and fearing inevitable rejection from church people.

My relationship with Jesus was real: full of push and pull, real conversations and real tears, and I was confident in the constancy of his kindness and grace toward me. And yet being part of the group calling itself “the body of Christ” was awkward, lonely, and confusing.

After 15 years in church ministry, I was devastated to be let go from a pastoral role. And yet, I also found myself relieved. Without the scrutiny of being in leadership, I was released to explore a lifetime’s worth of questions about God, myself, and his intention for his church.

I dug through each painful memory of church, church camp, Christian college and more, looking for patterns along the way. I honored the emotions I felt reliving them, legitimizing my past self and giving her voice. I created a name for the dichotomy I felt, owning for myself the new identity as a Christian misfit. (if you’re interested, you can read my Diary as a Christian Misfit here).

It wasn’t all imagined pain. Retelling my own story and hearing similar stories from others revealed systemic and cultural tendencies in Christianity that have created an epidemic of misfits like me. 

I also realized that some of my theological doubts and questions were well-founded. By embracing curiosity as a form of worship and welcoming new and diverse voices, I have been (and still am) re-examining everything I’ve been taught. Some of it holds up, and I’m more compelled than ever in its truth. But some things I once thought true, I now believe to be not just mistaken, but downright harmful and misrepresentative of Jesus’ nature.

But along with these external considerations, I also had to confront myself. The common denominator in all my experiences was me, seeing myself as a misfit. My disposition and personality, coupled with childhood wounds, have created cyclical mental ruts I can’t escape on my own. I opened up to a spiritual director, and later, to a therapist. What a gift to my hurting little heart it was to understand what triggers insecurity and why rejection is so painful to me. I expect to be on that particular journey for the rest of my life. 

I think I will always wrestle with being a Christian misfit. Simply put, I long for connection in matters of faith and have a hard time finding (and keeping) it. But by doing the work of naming my pain and owning my desire, seeking to know God’s heart for me and for his church, I’m starting to embrace my identity as a misfit as a gift, not a curse. 

If you ever find yourself sitting awkwardly in Bible study, looking for connection across a well-worn table, knowing deep down that you’re not actually wanted there, I share with you the truth I remind myself whenever I’m feeling lonely, insecure and misunderstood:

Jesus is the one who invites you to be part of his church, and no one else can uninvite you. His body, his blood, his choice… and he picks you. There’s no other demographic that matters.

You don’t have to fit in to belong.

If you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong, this series is for you! Every Monday, we’ll hear from someone who has also struggled to belong. Be sure to subscribe below to get The Scoop so you never miss a post! As a thank you, you’ll receive access to belonging-themed scripture cards and adult coloring pages in the free for you library!

Thanks! I can't wait to connect with you!

Meet Joy Vetterlein

Joy Vetterlein is a writer, pastor and Christian misfit. With a lifetime in church and a career in ministry, she’s exploring what it means to follow Jesus when you don’t fit in to church, and inviting others to do the same. She and her husband have two kids and live nearish the beach in Orange County, California. Connect with Joy on her website, or follow her on instagram, facebook, and twitter.

*Feature Photo by Allen Taylor on Unsplash

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Sarah K. Butterfield is an author, speaker, and ministry leader who has a heart for empowering women to grow in their faith and be intentional with their time. She and her husband and two boys live in San Diego, where she writes about pursuing a deeper relationship with God in the midst of motherhood.

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