Relationship disappointments in the Church

Written by Andrea Nwabuike

In The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt, seventh-grader Holling Hoodhood is graced with an opportunity few baseball fans would dare to imagine: an invitation to attend a baseball signing with Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees. Holling’s elation is mellowed slightly by his unfortunate role as Ariel the fairy in the local Shakespeare company’s production of The Tempest. His acting debut wouldn’t be so burdensome if it weren’t held on the same day as the ball signing event and if his costume didn’t include a pair of yellow tights. 

After a dazzling opening night, Holling makes a nail-biting dash from the theatre to Baker’s Sporting Emporium. Upon his arrival, Holling approaches Mr. Mantle with reverent anticipation, holding out his baseball like a precious offering. Mickey Mantle, sitting with the confident air of someone accustomed to admiration, inspects his young fan. He scoffs and announces that he doesn’t sign baseballs for kids in yellow tights. What Holling expected to be the best moment of his life ends in devastation. Under the crushing weight of his disappointment, Holling laments, 

“When gods die, they die hard. It’s not like they fade away, or grow old, or fall asleep. They die in fire and pain, and when they come out of you, they leave your guts burned. It hurts more than anything you can talk about. And maybe worst of all is, you’re not sure if there will ever be another god to fill their place. Or if you’d ever want another god to fill their place. You don’t want the fire to go out inside you twice.”

Countless men and women have found themselves in Holling’s place, sitting at the graves of gods that have abandoned them. Even Christians, convicted of the reality that there is one God worthy of our worship, are not spared the gut-burning disappointment that arises when adored heroes let us down. While Holling admired his hero from afar, many Christians have found heroes in their local church communities, giving them greater proximity and access to those they admire. And sometimes, the line between admiration and worship can blur.

Our first experiences of healthy relational vulnerability and intimacy are often through church discipleship and mentorship relationships. Men and women of faith sooth our loneliness and offer us an authentic sense of belonging. But in many cases, these relationships carry an expiration date. The youth leader who moves away and makes little effort to keep in contact. The pastor who keeps their distance in our moment of need. The brother or sister in Christ whose careless words leave us reeling. The more intimate and meaningful the relationship, the more painful the wound.

When spiritual heroes abandon us, the risk of vulnerability becomes far less attractive.  

Some of us internalize the expiration date on these relationships as an expiration on our importance and significance. Loneliness is painful, but there is another level of heartache experienced in the loss of meaningful relationships. According to W. Brad Johnson, a professor in the department of leadership, ethics, and law at the United States Naval Academy, “…an absent mentor, somebody who never responds, can be profoundly toxic. It may unintentionally convey to the mentee that they are just not that worthy or important.”

During my undergraduate studies, I was discipled by a woman a few years older than me. It was my first experience of someone intentionally setting aside time to encourage, teach, and instruct me on a weekly basis. The newness of our discipleship relationship was uncomfortable at first. Was it okay for me to be honest about what I was struggling with? Would she judge me for not having everything together? Instead, she answered these questions by demonstrating vulnerability and honesty. She invited me to witness her own struggles and triumphs. Her transparency encouraged my own vulnerability. We became natural fixtures in each other’s lives and as our friendship developed, I experienced a greater depth in my relationship with God. 

After about a year, my mentor felt called to move to a different city. Zoom was non-existent at the time, so our weekly meetings fizzled out to irregular text check-ins and the occasional meet-up. Eventually, we stopped speaking altogether. Our lives both moved forward, but it felt like the loss of that relationship slowed me down. Whenever someone asked me how she was or mentioned her name, I felt the dull ache of abandonment and grief. I could have been more vocal about my desire to maintain our discipleship relationship and made more of an effort to reach out, but a mixture of fear and pride prevented me from taking those steps. 

Our cultural context can fuel this fear and pride, informing the patterns and behaviours that disrupt our sense of community and connection. One of the culprits of disconnection in North America is individualism. Individualism values individual freedoms, self-expression, and autonomy as the primary means of human flourishing. When adopted by the Church, individualism leads to a prioritizing of individual spiritual growth and gospel engagement. 

I suspect that the lack of continuity in our relationships—particularly in mentorship relationships—is partially caused by the Church’s embrace of individualism. We come to church to hear what God will say to us individually. We pray for God to reveal His will for our individual lives. When God calls us to a new relationship, ministry, or season of life we follow that calling without considering its connection to the communities and relationships God has already entrusted to us. To express our need for each other or show any sign of dependence feels like a weakness and a betrayal of who we should be.   

When Marshall Shelley, a contributing editor at Christianity Today, interviewed immigrant pastors in the United States, they identified individualism as a key difference between North American Christianity and the community-oriented cultures they had migrated from. One of the pastors Shelley interviewed was Jay Kim, a transplant to Nebraska from South Korea. Kim remarked, “The church in Korea is more interconnected, so much so that sometimes you feel like people know you too much. But in the US, though we go to the same church, the attitude is ‘your faith is your faith and my faith is my faith.’” 

It is easy to label individualism as an utter evil and collectivism as the solution. But that is far too simplistic. The truth is more of a both/and. We are saved according to our individual faith. At the end of our time on earth, we will give an individual account before God. Our faith is also intrinsically communal. We are saved into a family. As American pastor Jeremy R. Treat wrote in an article for Christianity Today, “God loves you as an individual—but not in an individualistic way. And I’m certainly not against the idea of personal salvation. The message of Jesus saving our souls is correct—but it is not complete. The finished work of Christ on the cross is not only for the salvation of sinners, but also for the formation of a community and the renewal of creation.”

The Apostle Paul traveled throughout the Mediterranean during his ministry to the Gentiles. When God called him to go, he went obediently and joyfully. But as he went, he carried the stories, prayer requests, burdens, and victories of the places he left behind. In each of his letters, Paul emphasized his love for the Body of Christ. Paul’s letter to his spiritual son, Timothy, highlights how he prioritized their relationship despite the distance. He wrote, “I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience as did my forefathers, as I constantly remember you night and day in my prayers. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy.”

Despite distance, imprisonment, and the demands of his ministry, Paul kept in touch. He did not serve God solely for his individual sanctification but for the good and blessing of his family of faith. 

We can take a cue from Paul’s example. Depending on each other is at the core of our design as the Church. Even if we’ve been hurt by relationships with mentors and leaders, we can still seek reconciliation and pursue vulnerability. The best place to find healing for the pain of heartache is in the context of healthy, nurturing relationships. If we’re in positions of authority and mentorship, we should walk humbly and prioritize our people. Know that when God calls us to leave behind friends, family, and communities, we’re also meant to demonstrate faithfulness to those we leave behind. Not every relationship will last forever, but we can make more of an effort to extend our relationships even when it inconveniences or challenges us. We can find the Holling Hoodhoods in our lives and let them know that they are worthy of our time and attention, even if they wear yellow tights.

Andrea Nwabuike is a Nigerian-Canadian mental health counsellor and writer. Her love of words began in childhood when she would hide under the covers with a flashlight and a juicy mystery novel. Those reading sessions expanded her imagination and ignited her curiosity. Andrea’s passion for the written word has drawn her to write about the intersections of faith, ethnicity, and gender. When she isn’t writing or counselling, you can find her eating plantain chips or belting out 90s R&B classics.