It’s hard to make friends when you are a grown-up. One of the blessings of childhood seems to be that friends are a touch easier to come by. You meet them at school, at sporting matches, parks, parties, jobs. But as we age, we seem to bunker down into the world of routine. We meet people through work, then fail to keep in touch with the majority of them (Facebook notwithstanding) when we move on. This is despite our best efforts. We might meet people through sport, or common interests but that’s sort of it. That is one reason why leaving a church is hard. I’m sure its even a reason many people over the years have stayed, or stayed longer than they should, at a church that was toxic or damaging to them.
Like it or not, a church is a social club of sorts. You join one, you make friends there. You have a common interest, a similar way of seeing the world. You meet through activities run by the church and the fact that you keep running into each other at church events manages to sustain the relationship to a point. So what happens when you leave the church and lose that community?
Let me tell you from experience: hurt. Hurt is what happens. Anger happens. Misinformation often happens. I’m currently watching from a distance as someone I know had her support network disappear overnight. I’m not sure of the particulars of her case, but I’m sure the dynamics would be the same: hurt, anger, disbelief. Potentially rejection and the shattering of an illusion. I’m looking at Josh Harris (author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”) and given his recent renunciation of faith, I’d say he is going through a lot of this too.
So what do you do when something happens and *poof* up goes your support network in a puff of smoke and you find yourself all alone? This is my 100% unqualified, non-exhaustive list. But I’ve experienced this and I wanted to offer a little wisdom if I could be so presumptuous.
- Find a good therapist. I’m putting this first on the list because frankly, I think everyone needs one. Science is starting to catch up with just how profound the physical effects of stress or emotional upheaval can be. So a good therapist (emphasis on the word *good*) should be in everyone’s bag of tricks. It’s especially important when it comes to reinventing your social circle or your community of trust for one good reason though: if you’ve just been through a situation that wounded you so deeply and turned your world upside down, you need to vent to someone and learn some strategies to get your resilience game on point. If you go looking for friends at the same time as you go looking for someone to vent to, and you don’t have positive mechanisms for emotional recovery in place, the two worlds may collide and you may become that person who always wants to bitch about the people who let you down.
Don’t get me wrong. You need to do that. Just do it constructively so it doesn’t poison or define your new friendships. When my husband and I started redeveloping our tribe, we knew our story was pretty dramatic. We also knew there would be a lot of curiosity about it. We had to decide who was in the very small, trusted circle of people we confided in and who was in the circle of people we just got to know from a place of fun, shared interests, and doing life together. We also got a good therapist. Oh boy! She is worth her weight in gold, and the three-hour drive to get to her. (It’s also a night off kids though so I’ll be honest, sometimes I’m more excited about that than therapy.)
- Understand, it’s different in adulthood. Friends don’t just fall in your lap. This takes effort, and sometimes that means confronting a bit of social anxiety! I used to do things like invite other mums to the park. That way our kids could play, there could be something there for us to talk about (i.e kids and playing) and I could leave at any time. Through that, I got the feel for who was easy to be around and who I could connect with. We also joined groups – things like playgroups, writing groups, book clubs, and theatre groups. Through them, we have met some amazing people.We also had a look at our Facebook friends list. On it, there were a few people we had often thought “Yeah, I bet we would get along great.” So we took the plunge and invited them out for dinner. (Risky move, seeing if it went terribly, it would have been just hideous!) Thankfully, the conversation came very easily! But still, the friendships we cultivate in adulthood do require cultivating. You don’t have a long shared history. You have to invite them to things. You have to put in the effort to work it. It’s 100% worth it because loneliness and social isolation are killers for mental health. All I’m saying is that it needs to be approached proactively.
- Look for common interests. I remember chatting to this couple that makes “cool” look completely effortless. Like, these two were just so insta-perfect its not funny. I figured they were out of my league, socially. (Cue massive social anxiety!) But as we chatted in the foyer of our new church (which was scary at first! Whole other story in that…), we realized we both had an interest in the Middle East. My hubby was like “Great! You guys should come over and we can cook Middle Eastern food and watch movies about the Middle East.” I was petrified. This sounded like the perfect recipe for awkward. I usually invite new friends out for dinner at first so I can fake digestive distress and RUN HOME TO CRY if it’s awkward.Fast forward two years and they are among our closest, bestest friends. Yes, I just used the word “Bestest.” We actually didn’t end up talking about the Middle East at all though, and as it turns out that was absolutely fine.
- Be ready to correct wrong beliefs about friendships. The tough truth of the matter is that, if you lost a church community overnight and had all your friends disappear with it, you might have been gifted with trust issues, God issues and friend issues all in one. I’m not going to trivialize that, because that is big. You’re going to need time to heal from that. You know that therapist in point number 1? Well! He/She is there for a reason. Depending on the reason for you leaving a church or changing churches, you may be going through some pretty deep personal upheaval. It can be easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater and lose sight of what was real and what wasn’t. Perspective will come in time, and hurts will heal in time. But while you walk that journey, you can’t just hide your heart from the world in the hopes you won’t get hurt again. Inevitably. you will be the one who inflicts the damage of loneliness on yourself if you do that.But just because your old pond somehow became poisoned doesn’t mean there aren’t good people out there. Over the years, I have had to confront some false/unhelpful beliefs I had about friends, and replace them with new, helpful paradigms to think about friendships through. It takes time, and a bit of conscious reflection, but its doable. Perhaps with the help of some good books, or good therapy, but it is doable.
Take courage friend. Put yourself out there. Do it proactively. Do it bit by bit. Do it so you feel like you are in control and not in over your head or unsafe. Do it so you’ve got something to talk about (like kids, or a hobby, or a book, or whatever). Do whatever you need, but do it. If you put yourself out there, there is a pretty darn good chance that beautiful connections will be made: connections that can be deepened over time and cherished for a long time to come.
I’m sorry that you’ve been through such a tough time. My hope for you is that you discover resilience you didn’t know you had, that you go deep and rid yourself of unhelpful beliefs about yourself, or friendships, or life, or God, and that this time of pruning old branches results in rich new growth in your life. It sucks. It’s hard. It hurts. Nothing will ever erase the difficulty that you are going through right now…
But its just possible that you will look back on this time in years to come and see it as the making of you – a time when beautiful friendships were formed, when you realised how strong you are, how resilient you are, and how much life truly has to offer when you are pushed out of your comfort zone.
Wishing you peace and strength