Jenny McIntosh – A Spirited Exchange
Jenny McIntosh works 2 days a week for Wellington Central Baptist in New Zealand. That role focuses on developing a new worship space for people who don’t fit into traditional church models. She is also involved in pastoral and strategy areas of the church. The rest of the week Jenny leads Spirited Exchanges (an umbrella name for groups, seminars and resources for people who have left church or are struggling with their faith). Jenny is a counsellor and minister.
How was Spirited Exchanges conceived? What was happening for you, and what were you encountering both within and without church that helped you identify the need for an initiative?
In my late teens and into my adult life I engaged with and lived, to the very best of my ability, the Christian faith, as taught by the church and groups I was involved in. This included full involvement in a local church (my husband was in full time Christian work), my continually looking for ways to connect my faith with life and people around me, and time spent as an overseas missionary. While my faith journey was not seamless, not without risk, nor always certain, I tried to live an engaged Christian faith and poured a lot of energy into it.
I remember that what I actually thought and what I perceived you were supposed to think as a Christian were not always the same, so while continuing to work hard for the ‘Kingdom of God’ I kept trying to figure ‘it’ out, all the while denying my own sense of “self” and my own experience when I couldn’t reconcile my beliefs and experiences with ‘official’ church teaching, or what appeared to be normative Christian experience. I do recall that my experiences of God were not always the same as those experiences that others shared. More than once I wondered if there was something inadequate about my own experiences, or whether there was something wrong with me.
Towards the end of an 8-year stint living in India, a few things started to clamour for attention. I became more ‘rebellious’ about going to church and at every opportunity stayed away. Church and the ways in which we were church lacked relevance to my life, it was boring, it didn’t connect me to God, and it felt like a complete waste of time.
I was experiencing what I can best describe as a growing ‘internal unease’, a term Sue Monk Kidd uses in her book “When the Heart Waits”. She lists three things that propel one into a crisis of faith:
- Internal unease
- Intrusive events
- Life stage change
The second of Sue Monk Kidd’s big three hit soon after our return to NZ – ‘Intrusive events.’
The sudden death of my husband turned every aspect of my life upside down. I don’t think anything remained the same. Now, I’m sure grief was a part of the mix, but there were definitely other ingredients in the faith-struggle mix. I was aware of a whole range of issues that raises significant questions for me. Among my observations and experiences of church at this time were:
- People in the church preferred a more hidden, stiff upper lip and tidy grief process to the very real one that I was experiencing. They were great with practical support for a time, but not good at offering emotional and spiritual support.
- The church’s response to a couple who made the agonizing, though well processed choice to terminate the pregnancy of their unborn child (because of numerous extenuating circumstances, including a recessive inheritent illness which had already affected their first child). I thought that this couple needed loving support while others thought they needed discipline and ostracism.
- The church’s attitude to homosexuality. I have two family members who are gay and the typical church response to homosexuality was to alienate gays by categorically denying them the possibility of being Christian and gay at the same time.
- I was feeling a growing disparity between my faith experiences and a church perspective that felt constrictive and confining. I increasingly felt like a sardine in a can – a sardine being squeezed and forced into a pre-determined size and shape. There was no room to stretch and breath, no room to be different, or in fact to be myself in relation to God.
- In a transactional analysis sense, I increasingly experienced the church as a parent that made decisions on behalf of its ‘children.’ Rather than being treated as a capable, intelligent adult able to make decisions and participate in the decision-making process, I felt increasingly disempowered and disrespected.
- The suicides of two people, both with a Christian faith. One was a friend, and the other my daughter’s fiancé. Her story and successive faith journey can be read in Issue 20 of the Spirited Exchanges newsletter (available at www.spiritedexchanges.org.nz)
- I increasingly came to realise that there was more to church than I was experiencing, more to being a human being, and more to being a Christian. I realised that I had never had a faith that didn’t own the messiness and pain of life, nor did I hold to an illusion that somehow believing in God made messiness and pain go away.
The third of Monk Kidd’s ‘triggers’ is that which is associated with life stage change, and I was definitely in the midst of mid-life transition. For me, all three ‘triggers’ increasingly converged and I found that the church I attended didn’t have anything that came near to being helpful or relevant to the space I was in.
In the midst of this convergence I read an article by Alan Jamieson (author of A Churchless Faith), which had been born out of his PhD research into why people left churches. It gave me hope that there was a way forward, that there was something else beyond the ‘sardine can’, and it alerted me to the fact that there was someone who was thinking about these things. Up until this point I had felt very alone with regards to my experiences of church and Christian faith. I’d felt that somehow my questions around church and faith were my problem, more than that, I felt that I was the problem, as though somehow it was my fault that I didn’t fit, that I was dying on the inside, and that I was dissatisfied, disconnected, and longing for more.
Leaving that particular church was a hugely difficult decision to make, but the long and short of it was that I did leave and a while later found myself ‘testing the waters’ at Wellington Central Baptist, the church that Alan Jamieson had just been called to as a minister.
A year later he was thinking about how to make a response to people leaving churches based on what he had learnt from his research, and it just so happened that I was looking for a job and new direction for myself. It was out of both Alan’s hope and my passion that Spirited Exchanges was begun.
Why the name Spirited Exchanges? What did you want to convey?
We (Alan Jamieson and I) had heard of an initiative called Spirited Conversations and we thought that the name nicely articulated our sense of the ‘thing’ we were trying to name. “Spirited” captured the sense of something lively, energetic, and robust. It also acknowledged the reality of the Holy Spirit as an integral part of faith-development and the faith-journey. While, “Exchanges,” our choice to differentiate ourselves from “Spirited Conversations,” acknowledged that we were about the “exchanging” of ideas and experiences. We wanted people to learn from each other and we wanted to honour the importance of that mutuality and sharing.
Spirited Exchanges is a genuine exchange between persons, and in those exchanges people are helped to find a way forward for themselves.
What is it about Spirited Exchanges that energises and nourishes your own sense of Christian journey?
I love these groups, their raw honesty and energy, and the realities of people’s lives and faith journeys. Things stop being controlled, nice, and safe. People can tease things out and really grapple with the issues without thinking that they are somehow disturbing or unsettling someone else’s faith. There is no predefined orthodoxy that has to be conformed too.
Time and time again I’ve discovered that the concerns and doubts that I have had are shared by others, or I find narrated, issues that I’ve struggled to name and describe. Through the experiences, opinions, and stories of others I find that I’m nourished too.
Spirited Exchanges regularly provokes me to think outside the square and thus to continue stretching and growing. It has helped to make me feel okay about a very different sort of faith from the kind of faith that I’d felt I had to hold to previously. Faith development is a journey. Spirited Exchanges has gifted me some incredibly sacred moments and in many ways I think I feel more at home and connected to God there than in church most of the time. These are God moments for me.
Beyond that, I think Spirited Exchanges also energises me to imagine what church could be. As such I continue to work within the religious institution and to share the Spirited Exchanges experience and learning with established churches and denominations.