My Life So Far
By Martin Thielen
One of the great joys of my life is interacting with Doubter’s Parish readers. You often share your stories with me. And you constantly ask me about my experiences. Therefore, I thought it might be helpful to lay out, in broad strokes, my personal life story.
Air Force Brat
During the first fifteen years of my life, my father served as a military pilot for the United States Air Force, making me an “Air Force brat.” We lived in eight different states, from California to Maine, along with a stint in Hawaii, where I became an avid surfer.
Other than a handful of visits to military chapels for Christmas Eve and Easter services, I had no contact with institutional religion. As a result, I only had a vague concept of God and no understanding of Christian theology.
Unfortunately, I lived in a severely dysfunctional home, including a deeply strained father-son relationship. And given our nomadic military life, I did not have a stabilizing community network to help offset my troubled homelife. As a result of these unhealthy dynamics, I had no sense of belonging, meaning, or self-esteem. In short, I had a lot of unmet needs to be loved, affirmed, and connected. I felt “lost” in every possible way.
I Once Was Lost but Now Am Found
Soon after I turned fifteen, my father, who suffered a major heart attack two years earlier, unexpectedly took early medical retirement. Unprepared for civilian life and uncertain what to do, my parents decided to return to their hometown of Muskogee, Oklahoma.
On my first Sunday in town, my aunt, uncle, and cousin took me to their Southern Baptist church, where I heard, for the first time, a simple message about “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.” During the invitation, while the congregation sang “Just As I Am,” I walked down the aisle, took the preacher by the hand, and said, “I want to be saved.”
The following Sunday, as I stood in the baptismal pool, the pastor said, “In obedience to the command of Jesus Christ, and upon your profession of faith in him as your Lord and Savior, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” He then immersed me into the waters of baptism. I had indeed been saved. Nine months later I decided that I wanted to be a preacher, and I set my sights on that goal.
A Carnie, a Student, and a Salesman
Upon graduation from high school, I decided to take a great adventure. I took a job traveling across the country as a carnival worker. That mostly meant working ridiculously long hours under challenging circumstances for extremely low pay and living in an ice cream truck. All of which motivated me to get an education! One of my most vivid memories of that unique experience was speaking at one of the Sunday morning worship services for carnival workers. The small congregation sat in tiny vehicles at the bumper car ride.
That fall I enrolled at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Students used to joke that the university only had two requirements for graduation—the ability to spell Ouachita and Arkadelphia. I majored in religion and served as a university-sponsored youth speaker to churches throughout the state. By my junior year I found myself struggling with religious doubt and no longer felt sure about a life in ministry.
Over the next two years I fell in love, got married, graduated, had a child, and went into the insurance business. I rapidly became one of the top ten new agents of my company in the nation and made a boatload of money.
However, I could not shake my interest in a ministerial vocation. So, with the support of my wife, I made plans to go to seminary. When he heard the news, my father said, “You are a damn fool. You could have been the president of that company. Instead, you’ll waste your life baptizing babies and burying old folks.” Thankfully, he later changed his tune. And over the years, we eventually found a way to make peace with each other.
Becoming a Baptist Preacher
A few months later my wife and I sold our home, packed all our belongings into a U-Haul truck, loaded up our preschool son, and drove to Louisville, Kentucky, where I attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I greatly enjoyed my seminary years and received a high-quality tuition-free theological education, for which I am deeply grateful.
During seminary I served as a chaplain intern at a state mental hospital. My favorite memory from that experience is sitting in the lounge one afternoon watching all the residents enthusiastically sing along with Paul Simon (on the radio), “Still Crazy after All These Years.”
Upon graduation from seminary, I had the good fortune to land a job at a sizable “First Church” county seat Southern pastorate. It proved a wonderful start to my career in parish ministry. During those years my wife and I happily welcomed a daughter into our family.
A few years later I accepted a call to a larger congregation. During that pastorate I earned a doctor of ministry degree from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, did major research on the topic of worship and preaching, published extensively at my denominal publishing house, and got on the clergy speaking circuit.
In my early thirties I landed a plumb position in Nashville, Tennessee, at the national denominational headquarters for the Southern Baptist Convention. One of my friends called it “The Baptist Vatican.” I served as a worship and preaching editor, author, consultant, teacher, and conference leader. In spite of my growing discomfort with the conservative evangelical theology of my denomination, which was never a good fit for me, I felt well suited for the job, loved doing it, and hoped to stay at “The Baptist Vatican” for a long time.
An Ecclesiastical Takeover
However, during those same years, under the populist banner of defending the Bible and defeating liberalism, a powerful group of ruthless, mean-spirited, hard-core, politically partisan, religious-right extremists took total control of the Southern Baptist Convention. Unwilling to work in that hostile environment, I resigned my denominational position and took a large pastorate in Honolulu, Hawaii. But unfortunately, even in paradise, where I kept a surfboard at my church office and another one at home, I could not escape the relentless drumbeat of religious fundamentalism in my denomination.
In the most painful career decision of my life, I finally came to the realization that I had no future in the Southern Baptist Convention (or the wider evangelical world). So, with the generous support of my wife, son, and daughter, we made another major transition. I sold my surfboards, resigned my Honolulu pastorate, and said goodbye to the evangelical church forever.
After leaving Hawaii, my family and I returned to Nashville where I began a PhD program in liturgics and homiletics (worship and preaching for normal people) at Vanderbilt University. During my doctoral studies I taught worship and preaching courses as an adjunct seminary professor. Although I enjoyed teaching, I felt better suited for parish life than an academic career, so I began looking for a pastoral position. However, given my theology, which grew increasingly liberal every year, I needed to find a more progressive denomination.
After investigating half a dozen mainline denominations, my search for a new church home narrowed to either the Episcopal Church or the United Methodist Church. The Episcopal bishop offered to place me in a three-year aspirant program, with no guarantee of a parish after the process ended. The United Methodist bishop offered me a pastoral appointment beginning the next Sunday. It wasn’t a difficult decision.
In the twenty-four years that followed, I served churches of various sizes, from a student pastorate with a few dozen members to a ten-thousand-member megachurch. I also mentored young clergy, spoke at numerous events, and continued to publish lots of books and articles. In many ways, life as a United Methodist minister in a denomination of “open hearts, open minds, and open doors” felt good for a long time.
Dark Night of the Soul
However, as the years rolled along, I felt a growing discomfort deep in my gut. My faith struggles, which I had grappled with since high school, became significantly more pronounced.
For example, I had a hard time affirming traditional Christian doctrines. I found it difficult to recite the Apostles’ Creed. I no longer resonated with historic orthodox theology. The Bible became more problematic. I grew increasingly disillusioned with institutional religion. I lost faith in the providential care of God. Prayer became challenging. Faith felt ambiguous. And, after a brutal pastoral experience at a megachurch, my vocational joy dissipated.
In light of these troubling dynamics, I began harboring serious doubts about the viability of my faith and ministerial career. Although I attempted to downplay these disturbing and threatening thoughts, I knew I was experiencing a significant transition in my spiritual and vocational life. And it felt deeply disconcerting.
A Life-Altering Dream
In the midst of all this troubling uncertainty, I had a vivid and frightening dream. Before that night, I never put much stock into dreams or their meaning. But this dream changed the course of my life.
In my dream, I found myself working at a church. For some bizarre reason, the congregation met on the top of their building, which had a steep-pitched roof. As hard as I tried, I could not keep my balance. Other people navigated the roof without any problem but not me. On multiple occasions I almost fell off the roof. One time I had to grab a tree branch to keep from falling. Another time a member of the congregation grabbed me before I fell off the edge. Near the end of my dream, I slipped and almost fell to my death but managed to grab the gutter just in time. The dream ended with me hanging onto the gutter for dear life, precariously swinging above the parking lot ten stories below.
I woke up in a panic. My mind raced, my heart pounded, my emotions stirred, and my body, wet with sweat, felt exhausted. The meaning of the dream was instantly and unequivocally clear: I could no longer keep my balance in church work.
The next morning I called my best friend, who also served as a minister. For years, we commiserated with each other about our mutual loss of traditional faith, our struggles with institutional religion, and the difficult career questions those issues raised. We spent many hours deconstructing and reconstructing our faith, wondering if what remained was enough to sustain our ministerial vocations. I told him all about the dream, its obvious meaning, and everything it had churned up in me. I concluded by saying, “All of my doubts about God, faith, church, and ministry seem to be coming to a head.”
My friend, a professionally trained therapist, mostly listened. But given our close friendship and long history of discussing these issues, he made some final comments. He said, “Martin, your conscious mind has been telling you for a long time that you cannot keep your balance in church work. Now your unconscious mind seems to be telling you the same thing. Not to mention your body” (referring to my long-standing career-threatening vocal cord disorder, which had recently flared up again). “The only question is, What are you going to do about it?” A few weeks later I initiated the process for early retirement from vocational ministry. For an overview of my faith struggle see My Long Farewell to Traditional Religion and What Remains.
A Pastor to Doubters
After retirement, in a therapeutic effort to make sense of my rapidly changing faith, I wrote a novel about a doubting southern clergyman who lost traditional faith, quit the ministry, and forged a new life and faith beyond the constraints of institutional religion. I titled the novel An Inconvenient Loss of Faith.
After completing the novel, I created a website for religious doubters, seekers, and strugglers called Doubter’s Parish. Being a “pastor” for people grappling with faith in the twenty-first century brings me much fulfillment and joy.
Beyond my writing, I’m enjoying family and friends, keeping physically fit, pursuing nonwork-related interests, doing a lot of reading, and appreciating the simple gifts of living. The Talmud says that over a lifetime a person should have a child, plant a tree, and write a book, and I’m glad to have done all three. At this chapter in life I mostly find myself grateful for the past and hopeful for the future. And the story continues.
~ Martin Thielen, 2024