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Have you ended a relationship to get relief from tension and conflict?

Do you struggle with developing a clear sense of boundaries around what’s your responsibility and what’s not, especially when feeling responsible for how others think and feel?

When relationships are toxic, abusive, and oppressive and the other person does not have the interest or capacity to work on the relationship, ending the relationship can bring grief but also relief, emotional healing, and health.

But when you regularly use emotional cutoffs to protect yourself from hurt and discomfort, you create a world that feels dangerous and small when the slightest sense of conflict or overwhelm arises. 

But if two people can come together with clear boundaries, shared values, compassion, curiosity, humility, and support to work through conflict and disagreement, an emotional cut-off may become unnecessary.

My guest today returns to the podcast to share his experience of an incident that could have ended his relationship with his father, and how they both committed to working through the conflict to maintain their connection, even through their differences.

Jonathan Merritt is a prolific and trusted writer on faith, culture, and politics whose articles have appeared regularly in outlets such as The Atlantic, The New York Times, USA Today, Christianity Today, and The Washington Post. He is the author of numerous critically acclaimed books, including Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing and How We Can Revive Them, which was named Book of the Year by Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of the forthcoming children’s book, My Guncle and Me, releasing in May 2024.

Jonathan has become a popular speaker at conferences, colleges, and churches and guest commentary on CNN, Fox News, CNN, NPR, PBS, and ABC World News. He holds graduate degrees from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

Listen to the full episode to hear:

  • How being publicly outed forced Jonathan into a reckoning with his faith, his identity, and his family and community
  • The role that dreams and expectations play in the way both parents and children respond to fundamental differences between them
  • Why an expectation of change cannot be a prerequisite for a relationship
  • Why Jonathan says he and his father fight with each other in private and for each other in public
  • Why finding healthy surrogates or outlets for processing is vital for healing when we truly can’t continue the relationship
  • Navigating past avoidance and confrontation to renegotiating the relationship with necessary boundaries and guardrails
  • How “flash-card faith” stifles the questioning and openness to possibilities that underpin trust and faith and breeds binary divisiveness

Learn more about Jonathan Merritt:

Learn more about Rebecca:



Rebecca Ching: This is episode 99! 99 has an interesting vibe to it, right, in the countdown, the anticipation of it, and for episode 100, I do look forward to doing a little bit of a recap on what I learned and sharing some juicy behind-the-scenes tidbits. But I just want to make sure to thank you all again, those of you who’ve been here from the beginning to those who have joined me along the way, to listening, to investing your time into these important conversations and for sharing this with those in your community.

If you haven’t yet, I’d love for you to join me in the celebration of this Unburdened Leader episode 100 milestone and leave a review, a rating, or share this podcast with someone you think may benefit from it. All of those things really help support the show getting out there in the algorithmic world of the interwebs and the socials.

So that would be a huge way to honor this milestone, and thank you again for being here, for listening, and for showing up day in and day out in all that you do. All right, now onto the show.

[Inspirational Intro Music]

Jonathan Merritt: There is a trauma that lives in your body, and it can be triggered, and that’s what happened to me that day. You know, it’s funny because until I had walked in that building, it hadn’t occurred to me. The last time I shared a stage I was weeping, snot coming out of my nose before a crowd of thousands of people, confessing to something that, neither then nor now, do I believe is a sin, and doing it next to my father who was so imperfectly trying to love me in the best way he knew how.

Rebecca Ching: Have you ended a relationship to get relief from tension and conflict? Do you struggle with developing a clear sense of boundaries around your responsibility and what’s not your responsibility, especially when feeling that you’re supposed to care for and carry the weight for how others think and feel about you? And what do you do in a toxic, untenable, or intolerable relationship?


Now, when relationships are toxic, abusive, and oppressive, and the other person does not have the interest or capacity to work on the relationship, sure, ending the relationship can bring grief but also needed relief, emotional healing, and health. But when you use emotional cutoffs to protect yourself from hurt and discomfort as a regular form of navigating these emotions, you create a world that feels dangerous and small when the slightest sense of conflict or overwhelm arises. But when two people come together with clarity of boundaries, shared values, compassion, curiosity, humility, and needed support to work through conflict and disagreement, an emotional cutoff is unnecessary, and witnessing this can offer hope to those of you who do not feel like there is another alternative.

I’m Rebecca Ching, and you’re listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with humans who navigate life’s challenges and lead in their own ways. Our goal is to learn how they address the burdens they carry, how they learn from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.

Our relationships teach us so much about ourselves and others. Because our relationships are complex and often very dynamic, they can find our growth edges, triggers, and fears with immense precision and speed. Now, in my work with my clients and leaders and organizations, I regularly see the impact of the protective tool called emotional cutoff as a tool to get relief from discomfort, and this leaves folks still carrying the weight of unmetabolized hurt, betrayal, anger, and grief.


Now, while you get immediate relief from the pain in an emotional cutoff, if you don’t do the work to heal the burdens from that painful relationship, whenever anyone else in your life reminds you (consciously or not) of those same feelings, the desire to emotionally cutoff again becomes strong, leading to a lot of distress, especially if these relationships show up in your places of work or in spaces you can’t easily leave without some serious consequences and impact.

I studied many Systems theories around dynamics and relationship change in my graduate and post-graduate work, and one of the most beloved and popular theories that drew many of my classmates and colleagues into their own work is Bowen Family Systems founded by Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist in the early twentieth century.

Now, Bowen theorized a lot about how we respond to anxiety and the impact that it has on the relationships within the systems we live and work in. And one of Bowen’s terms that he uses a lot is called the emotional cutoff, which I’ve referred to already. And we see this as a way of protecting playing out on steroids right now in many spaces we do life in, and the online spaces only aggravate this need for emotional cutoffs. While utilizing an emotional cutoff may seem like a viable solution to any kind of relationship problem, we end up experiencing significant adverse effects in the long run, which can be detrimental to how we lead ourselves and others.

So when you use an emotional cutoff as a regular practice, not as one where there’s a lot of harm being done but a regular day-in, day-out practice to protect yourself without unburdening the wounding from the original relationship, you likely may feel like you have limited or no emotional support.


You may also ruminate a lot and perseverate a lot about unresolved issues. You may find it difficult to form deep and trusting relationships, and you may feel like your anxiety does not diminish as a result of the cutoff but instead it increases. Gosh, I think this is most noteworthy, you may replicate the exact patterns you want to escape.

Today, I see how emotional cutoffs seem reflexive, almost welcome, leading us to make decisions in our relationships and our businesses out of fear instead of needed courage. These cutoffs make our world very small and reactive.

I just want to take a beat on this and note there’s a lot invested in all of us continuing to emotionally cut each other off and stay in silos, emotionally reactive, angry, and frozen in our pain, because, goodness knows, when we are able to come together to collaborate, to compromise, to build consensus, to grow, to heal, to change, man, there’s a lot of force here for change, for growth, for justice that a lot of folks are invested in us not achieving. Because when we develop and deepen the capacity to sit with discomfort and disagreement and do our own YOU-turns, get curious about what we feel, why we feel what we do at the moment, and how we feel towards what we’re feeling instead of shutting things down and cutting off our feelings from ourselves and others, we not only could claim our personal power again, but we increase our self-leadership and we become contagions for courage and trust when things get really complicated, and, y’all, right? What’s not complicated? Right now, things are tough in so many of our relationships, so we need more of this.


I believe the way to achieve and maintain a level of differentiation from your (capital S) Self from others occurs when you do the deep work to not need cutoffs, to be safe and develop an appreciation of the healthy need to depend on others, while staying calm and clear-headed enough in the face of the common relational trailheads like conflict, criticism, and rejection, and we can still see clearly without being overwhelmed. That’s a lot to ask, and I think this is what we’re being called in for right now.

So when I heard about an experience my guest in this episode had with his father that understandably could have ended their relationship and instead they decided to do the private and hard work to stay in the relationship, and as a result, they’ve shared the frameworks on how they continue to stay in connection even amidst their differences, I immediately asked him to come back on the podcast.

Jonathan Merritt is a prolific and trusted writer on faith, culture, and politics whose articles have appeared regularly in outlets such as The Atlantic, The New York Times, USA Today, Christianity Today, and The Washington Post. He is the author of numerous critically-acclaimed books including Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing– and How We Can Revive Them, which was named book of the year by Inglewood Review Books. And Jonathan has a brand-new book. He has entered into the foray of children’s books, and he has a book coming out March of 2024 titled My Guncle and Me. So make sure to check that out and share it with those that you think would be impactful because I think this is gonna be a really good book. Jonathan’s become a popular speaker at conferences, colleges, churches, and offers guest commentary on CNN, Fox News, NPR, PBS, and ABC World News.


Now, listen for Jonathan’s response when he shares his experience of being outed by a former friend and his approach to owning all aspects of his identity versus living in the prison of other people’s expectations. Pay attention to when Jonathan identified the trauma his body still held from the last time he was onstage with his father as he prepared for a recent speaking engagement with him. And notice when Jonathan discusses the boundaries he developed with his father to protect the relationship when they navigate disagreements. These guardrails are templates for us all to use.

All right, y’all. Now, please welcome Jonathan Merritt back to The Unburdened Leader podcast. Jonathan, welcome back!

Jonathan Merritt: Oh, my gosh. Thank you so, so much for having me on. It’s a pleasure.

Rebecca Ching: Well, I’m excited to dive into our conversation today, but it occurred to me as I was prepping for this conversation when we first talked, you were holed up in someplace out in the sticks in New York right after the shelter-in happened. [Laughs]

Jonathan Merritt: Mm-hmm.

Rebecca Ching: A lot of life has happened since then. You’re back in the city now, right?

Jonathan Merritt: I am. You know, right when the pandemic struck — and it was actually a real blessing. I have a friend with a farmhouse upstate, and I said, “I am out of here. I am not getting locked down on this island.” And so, I was there for several months. So when you saw me, I was losing my mind, and I’m much more sane today. So thank you for having a better version of me on.

Rebecca Ching: Well, I’m so thrilled to have you back, and I’m really excited to dig into this conversation because you had posted something and I immediately DMed you. I’m like, “Do you want to come back on the show to talk about this?” and about sharing the stage with your father for a conversation about your relationship, noting that you’re a progressive gay man and your father is a well-known pastor and leader in the conservative Southern Baptist denomination, who you stated is right of Ronald Reagan (and those of a certain age will understand that).


Jonathan Merritt: Oh, yes.

Rebecca Ching: But before we get into the conversation and the key learnings, can you just take me back to that moment and share a little bit about the context of the conversation and where you were speaking and who was in the audience?

Jonathan Merritt: So I’ll take you back even further. We’re gonna give folks a real tour of life.

Rebecca Ching: Ooh, let’s go.

Jonathan Merritt: So in 2012, I was a teaching pastor part-time at my dad’s mega church in Atlanta, and I was outed by a former friend of mine and as a result, had this moment where I stood on the stage with my dad and had to sort of confess to our church. It was incredibly painful. It was traumatic. I had to, then, repeat that for the second service so that we made sure everybody got their exposure.

And a year later, I packed up, left Atlanta, and moved to New York City to start a new life. I just knew that I had a choice. I was either gonna be who I was, who I knew that I was, or I was gonna continue to live in the prison of other people’s expectations.

Rebecca Ching: I want to pause you real quick though.

Jonathan Merritt: Mm-hmm.

Rebecca Ching: You said you had to confess or that you were confessing.

Jonathan Merritt: Yes.

Rebecca Ching: Could you say a little bit more? I mean, for me, as a person of faith, I think I understand but I just really want — there’s some context there around what that meant for you and what the agenda was at the time.

Jonathan Merritt: Yeah, you know, you can’t be gay and an Evangelical leader. You have to choose, and so, when I was outed for — you know, I had an encounter years prior, and this person was upset with something that I had published in The Atlantic, and so, he outed me online.


And when he did, you have to provide an accounting. “Is this who you are? Is this who you’re gonna be? Is this how you’re going to live? Because if you’re not choosing to be celibate for the rest of your life, to be alone, to be single, to commit to this life, really, of isolation, then you have to leave your community, and I wasn’t ready to leave my community. I wasn’t ready to have the world know this thing. I mean, in fact, I had already scheduled a retreat with a therapist, and I was just processing how can I begin to live in a way that’s consistent and true with what I now know to be my identity.

And so, before the church, I had to at least give them the impression, first, to explain what had happened. This was an encounter. It was not a relationship. It was not recent. It was an isolated event, and to reaffirm that I was committed to a life with Jesus, and that’s what I said. You know what, the truth is I didn’t lie. I was committed to that life, just not in the way that they assumed I meant that. That bought me a little bit of time to figure out an exit strategy. And so, a year later, I packed up my things, I left, I moved to New York City to become a full-time writer, and that’s been where I have lived now for the last ten years. Well, I have not shared a stage with my dad in ten years, and then I received a speaking request from a Southern Baptist association in Missouri.

Rebecca Ching: Wow.


Jonathan Merritt: Missouri can be a very conservative state. And, you know, I said yes, and he said yes. I mean, obviously he said yes. It was a really comfortable space for him. It was a courageous space for me. And I didn’t think it would be a big deal until I walked in the door and began to feel a tightness in my chest and began to feel my blood pressure rise and my heart rate increase. And it was a tough situation to sand onstage and begin to answer questions about how we have maintained, over the last ten years, a close relationship before an audience of people who have very strong opinions about my own rightness or morality or standing with God, or whether or not I’m contributing to the downfall of Western civilization, for example. That was the origin story of that post that you mentioned.

Rebecca Ching: Wow, thank you for taking us back a little bit more. You talk about that. You’re walking into the speaking engagement and you’re feeling that tightness in your chest and that discomfort. What was going on there with you? What were some of the things you were feeling, some of the images or thoughts that you were having as you were getting ready to share the stage with your dad a decade after that experience at your home church?

Jonathan Merritt: You know, the church felt, in the aesthetics, like my home church. Now, I still go to church. I’m an elder here at a church in New York called Good Shepherd. I love it. We meet in this gorgeous 200-year-old chapel. But I haven’t been in the kind of smoke-machine-and-light-show Evangelical church in a hot minute, and so, there was something about entering that place that, really, it was like a flashback from Vietnam or something where you haven’t been in this place and felt like this in a minute, and I felt very disembodied.


I used to hear about people who had survived religious trauma, and they would talk about being triggered by sounds or images or symbols, and I used to think it was kind of dramatic and overwrought until this moment where I was like, “Oh, that’s what they felt.” I mean, I thought I would have to leave. I thought I’d have to call an Uber, get out of there, I’d made a mistake, and I began to really panic on the inside, and that for me was a totally new experience. Honestly, it validated for me what so-called ex-vangelicals or “recovering Christians” experience that. There is a trauma that lives in your body, and it can be triggered, and it is outside of your control, and that’s what happened to me that day.

You know, it’s funny because until I’d walked into that building, it hadn’t occurred to me the last time I shared a stage, I was weeping, snot coming out of my nose before a crowd of thousands of people, confessing to something that, neither then nor now, do I believe is a sin and doing it next to my father who was so imperfectly trying to love me in the best way he knew how.

Rebecca Ching: So then take me back to this moment where you’re about to share the stage with your dad again. Who was in the audience, and what was the invitation for you to speak about?

Jonathan Merritt: Well, they asked him to preach, and they asked me to sit on a panel with him, which was controversial enough. In some communities, in fundamentalist communities, most American Evangelicals are fundamentalists to some degree, and Southern Baptists certainly are fundamentalists in their orientation.


So fundamentalism implies a separatism, right? You have to separate from people who are not like you, and so, it’s controversial for a person who’s gay to speak words into a microphone where you can hear them —

Rebecca Ching: Mm.

Jonathan Merritt: — primarily in a “holy” space.

Rebecca Ching: “Holy” with air quotes, right?

Jonathan Merritt: Yes, “holy,” “sacred,” “holy space,” right? There’s this kind of idea of the separation between the so-called sacred and the so-called secular in fundamentalism. And so, it was controversial that they would even hear from me, and the organizers even said they took a lot of heat for this.

So I was in a room with 300-some-odd people, pastors and their wives, who presumably were uncomfortable or unsure about my presence there. My dad preached a sermon that was unrelated to the topic of sexuality, and then they brought us up to have a conversation. The reason that I said yes was, as the organizer had mentioned to me, he said, “You know, we have a lot of pastors in this area who have children who are queer or who have parishioners who have children who are queer, and they don’t really know what to do. And so, we want to show them through your relationship that it is possible, even amid disagreement, to be loving.”

And so, you know, I even thought in that moment, “This is gonna be uncomfortable, but if 300 queer kids or more who are living in homes who maybe are struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, who are fearing for their lives, if those parents and those pastors can hear from a person like me, who has so much more in common with them than they even know, who may never encounter a person like me if I don’t step into this space, if I can ease the pain of those queer youth, even a little bit, then it’s worth uncomfortability for an hour.” And so, that’s why I decided to do it.


Rebecca Ching: Wow, thank you for sharing that. And no doubt lives and families are being saved. But lives most importantly, because as you know, the suicide rate within the LGBTQ+ community is atrocious, and especially because of this particular narrative.

So you’re onstage with your father. Did they give you questions, or did you just have a conversation? How did this unfurl? And then I want to get into some of the key learnings you had from that conversation.

Jonathan Merritt: Yeah, you know, we had asked for questions ahead of time. And so, we did a Zoom call, they talked us through the questions, and I think that was symbiotic (mutually beneficial). No gotcha moments. This is not that kind of event. This is supposed to be an event where we are learning from each other, I am not gonna be pitted against him. That’s one of the things that I’ve realized is that I cannot be pit against my father in public. It’s not healthy for me. It doesn’t benefit anyone. But we can talk about, practically speaking, how we have built bridges to each other’s hearts amid deep irreconcilable disagreements.

And so, we had gone through some of those questions, and they were really basic questions. Some of them were personal. I remember one of the questions that they asked was, “How do you manage this with family members and what is their role in your relationship?” And that’s a big question, right? Because a lot of people, you might find that the parents and their siblings have different views.


And so, how do you avoid creating a rift in the family where everyone is recruiting other family members to their cause. So that your disagreement between you and a parent or parents now becomes a wider rift with your immediate or even extended family. I mean, that’s where it can blow up, right? Because now everyone starts to have a vested interest in it and it becomes like a rift, this wider rift. And so, you have to figure out how are you gonna manage a system now that spreads well beyond you and not injure yourself unnecessarily by recruiting other people to your cause.

So there were a lot of really, really helpful questions, not easy ones to answer, but I think that they really got to the heart of this relationship, which a lot of people are having to manage.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, absolutely. And you had some really powerful key learnings from this talk. And one of them you wrote: “It’s impossible to love someone when you’re constantly trying to change who they are, and this works both ways.”

Can you say a little bit more about how you came to this learning?

Jonathan Merritt: What is expected and typical is that a person, a conservative Evangelical or even anti-gay parent, enters into this conversation trying to change their child, and there’s a reason for that because they have spent their entire lives falling in love with their dreams for you and now those dreams are dead.

Rebecca Ching: Ooh.

Jonathan Merritt: And it can be really hard to let dead things die, to let dead things go, to say goodbye to the things that we wished for, and we wanted for and we longed for and we fantasized about for 15 or 20 or 30 years for our children. And so, they have decades, many times, investing their energies in these dreams.


The first stage of grief, they don’t want to believe that they have to let these go. And so, they think, “If there’s some way that I can change you into being the person that I wished you’d be or wanted you to be, then I can keep those dreams for you, my visions for your life, intact.”

So we expect that, but what is also true is that a child has their own dreams for the way that their parent will love and accept them and their future partners. And so, they come with an expectation that eventually they can change their parent as well, perhaps through manipulation or coercion or waiting them out or they’re gonna make a better argument or they’re gonna enlist other people to kind of covertly make the case for them and kind of come in the back door, and they’re gonna have a miraculous change of heart. We have to be honest in these situations that both parties have an expectation for change, and that in many cases, that expectation for change becomes a prerequisite for relationship.

Rebecca Ching: Wow.

Jonathan Merritt: “If you don’t become this person that I want you to be, then I can’t be in a relationship with you, then I can’t love you or receive love from you.”

And so, what often happens is that a party will enter in expecting the other person to do what they’re not willing to do themselves. They say, “I know where I am, and I’m not willing to change, but you need to enter into this relationship being willing to change.” We expect from someone else what we’re not willing to give, and that’s not a level playing field, right? That’s not a position of mutuality. You can’t build love like that. I can have hopes that my dad can change. But what I can’t have is demands that my dad will change.


And so, I have had to learn that if I want my dad to learn to love me without expecting or demanding that I will change to become the person he wants me to be, then I have to be willing to extend to him that same grace to say, “I will find a way, if possible –,” and it’s not always possible. But, “If possible, to love you and receive love from you without asking or demanding that you become the person I want you to be.”

Rebecca Ching: Absolutely. Another one that really stood out to me, and you alluded to this, another key learning from that conversation with your dad was: “We fight with each other in private and fight for each other in public.”

Can you say a little bit more about how you came to that learning?

Jonathan Merritt: You know, we’re in a moment now where the spirit of our age is fundamentalism, and it’s not just from the right. A lot of people from the left are incredibly fundamentalist, not in a historical sense, but in their posture. And so, many of those people (I have a theory) grew up fundamentalist and then they converted to progressivism, and when they did they left behind all of the religiosity, let’s say, but they took all of the anger and all of the marginalization tactics and all of the victimization and all of the villainization and all of the cancel culture with them, and now they deploy those same tools in the opposite direction.

Now, you have fundamentalists from the left and the right who are attacking, canceling, trying to assassinate each other across a divide that media exploits, that nonprofits and advocacy organizations exploit, that churches exploit, that politicians exploit.


And so, what I’m saying is that you can find a lot of both things to praise about the people you love even in the midst of deep disagreements with those people. I love that my dad has a deep and abiding commitment for the Christian scriptures, even while I so deeply disagree with what I believe are destructive interpretations of that text. But, you know, I can honor the loyalty and the passion and the deep commitment that he has even if that deep commitment is driving him on a journey that’s taking him to a destination that I don’t have a lot of love for. And I think people who are like my dad can look at someone like me and say, “You know what, I may have theological reservations about gay marriage –,” but you can affirm that someone wanting to be loved, someone wanting to give their life to adopt a child who would otherwise be languishing in foster care or a group home, that there is something that you can laud and celebrate about that person.

And there are things that I can celebrate unrelated to this issue, right? That, in many ways, my dad is a loving and committed father because he’s been willing to stay and figure it out despite the difficulties. There are a lot of fathers who have cut off their children, who have publicly condemned their children, and my dad’s chosen not to do that, and it has cost him, and that has taken a lot of courage, and I can celebrate that.


And so, we can choose how we are going to interact both in public and in private and those ways of interacting don’t have to be the same in those different forums, and we can make these decisions for the sake of our own health and wellbeing within our family unit, and in order to preserve the thing that we need, that we, all children, need from their parents, which is the love and affection and affirmation of their parent in so far as you can receive that and be safe.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah.

Jonathan Merritt: And so, I am not making this decision because I have Stockholm Syndrome. I’m not making this decision because I’m afraid of what would happen if I criticized my father in public. I’m making this decision because I love myself enough to make a path to give myself what I know every child needs and wants and deserves in this world in so far as that’s possible.

Rebecca Ching: And those younger parts in our grownup selves still need to, if they didn’t get it. So, yeah, you kind of touched on the other learning of loving across differences is difficult and messy but worth it. I think that’s so essential, too, because it keeps us out of echo chambers. It always has us checking what we believe. Maybe this just comes from my time in DC where we debate for fun. That was fun, you know, within a respectful relationship, and I think we’ve lost that. But this piece about fighting with each other in private but for each other in public really stood out to me because that’s so antithetical to the culture we’re in where everything — you know, some folks just want to get the popcorn and see the fights, but that boundary that you have on really important relationships to say, “We’re gonna hash it out, but that’s not for the world to see. This is for us, and we are for each other,” and not in a spinney, inauthentic, fake posturing way, but because you’re naming these differences.

Jonathan Merritt: Yeah. 

Rebecca Ching: So I just really appreciate it.


One other learning that you had probably seems obvious but it’s really important to note. You said: “The people who cry at your funeral matter more than the critics in your social media feeds.”

Do you want to say a little bit about that? [Laughs]

Jonathan Merritt: Yeah, because it’s related actually. It’s related to this last point. The idea is that when we are in this place of conflict, particularly with someone whose affirmation and acceptance we crave (like a parent) —

Rebecca Ching: Right.

Jonathan Merritt: — if that person will not accept us, we will often have this inner conflict where we go, “Are we right?”

Rebecca Ching: Yep.

Jonathan Merritt: Even if it’s on an unconscious level. And so, what we do, then, is we reach for acceptance from someone else to get what we want from our parent by proxy. 

Rebecca Ching: Yeah.

Jonathan Merritt: So we think if we hang our parent on a cross on Twitter (X) or Instagram or whatever, and we get all these people in the comments to tell us how brave we are and how right we are, that it will somehow fill the hole that we have, which can only be filled by the parent, and what we end up doing is realizing that it doesn’t fill that hole. And so, we just recreate it again and again. We have to keep recrucifying the parent, right? We have to keep litigating. It’s an ongoing and perpetual patricide online over and over and over.

And the truth is what we need instead is acceptance, that I can accept — in lieu of what I wish my parent would give me, I can accept that I am good and safe and whole and right, and that I’m doing the best I can with what I have, and I can resolve that myself. The journey is to resolve it myself. Instead, what we have a lot is we have, on social media, the unhealthy externalizations of people’s trauma wounds.


Rebecca Ching: Yep.

Jonathan Merritt: People are trying to heal their traumas in spaces that simply are not equipped for the task. And so, I have had conversations with my therapist, and what I’m not going to do, which is what that kind of unhealthy trauma-healing cycle, what that does is it ends up prioritizing the wrong people. You know, at the Cleveland Coffee House 1987 does not matter. But you’re acting like they matter more than the person in this primary relationship who, for better or worse, has a connection to you and your heart and your psyche and your spirit that Cleveland Coffee House 1987 will never have, and they can never give you what this other person can give you.

And so, rather than prioritizing that person and making it more difficult, by the way, to get what you need from the person you really need it from, a lot of people will flip this dynamic, and it actually becomes self-injurious. They actually are doing all this self-harm without realizing it, and what I say instead is pretend these problems or these disagreements don’t exist, that there isn’t any difference, but have those conversations with the person who you need to have them with in a forum where it can be done in the most healthy way and focus your energy there.

Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm, you know, and for folks who maybe are in a situation where they don’t have a relationship like the one with your dad that you do, where that actually is not possible, and that longing, that hardwiring to be connected with our primary caregivers, to find healthy surrogates in addition to doing that for ourselves is appropriate. It’s just when we don’t do it in real life and the online stuff — and, I mean, I’ve met some cool people online, but not in that kind of way. It can be very dangerous and very toxic, and it feels like healing, but it actually deepens us more into that pain.


So, yeah, thanks for unpacking those and taking us back to that talk. And I want to talk a little bit more about how you distinguish between family, non-family, and chosen family, and do you see any substantive differences? And if so, what?

Jonathan Merritt: Yes, there are huge differences. One thing I love living here in New York is I have a lot of chosen family that has sort of incorporated me in some really beautiful ways. And also they will never be my biological family. That’s just the long and short of it. I think that there is a kind of rosy way of seeing chosen family that overlooks that there’s a difference, and as a result, then, can prevent you from expressing and processing the grief that you should naturally feel from the fact that you may have to cultivate what you need from a surrogate family by admitting that it is both of those things. It is both beautiful and wonderful and not the same. I’m able to have both joy and grief intermingled, which are appropriate, in my interaction and experience with my chosen family.

Rebecca Ching: Mm.

Jonathan Merritt: The other thing is one of the distinctions I’ll say. There are things that we fight through, endure, put up with when it comes to a father or a mother —

Rebecca Ching: Yeah.

Jonathan Merritt: — that I wouldn’t put up with when it comes to a second or third cousin even, right, or a neighbor.


Your parent can say something that is completely offensive, and the temptation is, “Ah, I ‘m just gonna write them off,” and if that person were your neighbor, that might be the option. That might be the best option is you need to separate from this person, but we’re learning a lot now, particularly through Family Systems Theory, that when you sever a primary relationship, what you think you’re getting is you think you’re getting healing. You’re not. That problem is never resolved, and now, all of the tension that you feel from that problem is outsourced. So people who cut off a parent will often find that they experience marital difficulties, or they begin to have conflict in the workplace that didn’t exist before because all of that unresolved anxiousness and anger and energy is still there.

Another thing is that primary relationship, there’s a part of a parent that lives inside the child, you know? When I moved to New York, I began to realize I had a lot of — my dad had a little bit of a temper growing up, and I started to realize I had a temper. And I was like, “Where did this come from?” What I realized is that if I could learn to heal the relationship between my dad and I, then I also was able to heal what was going on inside me. But if I sever that relationship, then I sever the potential for true healing. And so, now, again, this is not always possible.

Rebecca Ching: No.

Jonathan Merritt: If you have a parent who, say they’re incredibly verbally abusive, they have a chronic inability to respect boundaries, they’re physically abusive, they make you feel unsafe in some other way, then you sometimes have to walk away, or you have such a reduced relationship that you almost have no relationship.


And so, you have to begin to figure out, when it comes to your primary family, how do you form appropriate boundaries that make love, acceptance, and healing possible in so far as they are possible?

Rebecca Ching: And I love that you brought up the cutoff phenomenon that is talked about in Family Systems. It’s something that I talk with a lot of people about, and we can do it in a healthy way when it’s necessary. The healing doesn’t always have to happen with a person who wounded us, where the betrayal was, where the wounding was, but if we are cutting off to get relief, what happens in our nervous system is we stay frozen in that moment in time, so whenever any type of dynamic in our life pokes that memory, we’re gonna respond the same way we did with the person that we were trying to exile. And so, we exile that within and then in our world, and then we end up just spinning out.

So to metabolize that, again, it’s not always possible. Sadly, it seems to be more often than not, and when you can but even if the person, particularly if it’s a parent, doesn’t have that emotional literacy and maturity to sit with discomfort (t’s been a big issue), how do we go through the grief that’s at the top of the list and very, very strong boundaries are not cutoffs, even though they may feel like cutoffs to the other person with their expectations. But it is so important.

[Inspirational Music]

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[Inspirational Music]

Rebecca Ching: I’m curious, too. What are the tradeoffs you make in deciding how to move forward in a relationship that’s not family where finances, reputation, and security are often at play? I ask this because a lot of times people are tolerating a lot more in a relationship because of just basic needs or fear of losing community or belonging.

Jonathan Merritt: This is super hard, and we’ve lost the ancient art of discernment. So everything for us is sort of binary and black and white, and in many cases, there’s not a right and a wrong way or a right and a wrong decision. There are these series’ of imperfect paths that you can walk, and each of them have their own pitfalls and risks and liabilities.


So, you know, do you quit your job because of XYZ? Do you cut off a best friend who you’ve known for 40 years? These are hard, hard, hard questions, and I think that, for me, you have to first begin to try your best to redesign the relationship.

Rebecca Ching: Mm.

Jonathan Merritt: So, for a lot of people, the relationship is not working, and the way it is right now is unsafe or it’s unhealthy, it’s just untenable, it’s just a source of stress and discomfort. And the question is, first — it’s not do I stay in relationship or cut this person off. There are a whole bunch of things in between those two things.

I always look at things like how much do I have invested, right? How much do I have at risk if I walk away? I’m a really sentimental person, so how many years do we have in this relationship? I look at a lot of these things to determine how much energy am I going to put into this. I’m not even going through this triage if it’s my next-door neighbor. “Goodbye. You’re out of here.” If it’s someone, though, that I have some, what I would say, city miles with (like we have lived it, we’re survived some things together), the one thing you can’t make in life is old friends, and I value those. There is a real value to somebody who has known you when. So I’m willing to invest some time and energy to preserve those long relationships.


And so, in between tolerating and reflexively cutting off someone is a process of negotiation. For a lot of people — you know, there’s been a life cycle even with my dad and I, and it begins with avoidance. “Let’s just pretend this isn’t real,” right?

Rebecca Ching: Yeah.

Jonathan Merritt: And we have this kind of Clintonian “don’t ask, don’t tell” thing going on, right? “Maybe he’s dating, but I’m gonna pretend he’s not. I’m just saying he just moved to New York, and he’s living a celibate lifestyle,” and I’m thinking, “You know what? If I don’t think about this and we don’t talk about LGBTQ+ theology, politics, inclusion, then it’s almost like it doesn’t exist. He’s not this person who has these different views.” And so, we lived in avoidance for a while.

Avoidance, you will never resolve the problems. You will never resolve the tensions. It is a posture that is almost assuredly to keep you stuck where you are. So, for us then, we began to kind of renegotiate our posture toward each other, and we entered into a period of confrontation. So it left avoidance and now it was confrontation. And so, then, what you do is you just drop a firebomb in the family chat and walk away, right? Or you just casually ask at the Thanksgiving table a charged question when everybody else is there to kind of weigh in. You begin to exert a lot of heat directed at the difference but not a lot of light, and there are no rules or boundaries in play, so it’s the wild west. You’re just firing at will.


This is not only like avoidant, you’re less likely to resolve the tension and stay stuck, but it’s the posture where you’re most likely to sever the relationship. You’re offending each other. You’re becoming less likely to change because you’re defensive. You’re entrenched. You can move beyond that. That’s where a lot of people move to cut off. They go from confrontation to cut off, and what I say is you can move from confrontation to engagement. You can begin to think about, “What are the boundaries that you need and what are the boundaries that I need, and can we respect those. What are the forums in which we will engage, and what are the forums where we will commit together not to engage?”

We don’t talk about these things on family group threads. We’ve said, “This is off limits.” There is no politics. There is no sexuality. None of that is on family group threads. We may say we can only have these conversations face to face. We won’t even have time over text. We won’t even have them over the phone. We may not even say that we’ll have them over Zoom. In my family we have them over Zoom, but you may say, “That doesn’t work for me. We can only have these in person.” You may set time limits. “We’ll discuss these things for 60 minutes, and then at 61 we can talk about football, we can talk about the latest book you read, but the conversation shuts down because if we exhaust ourselves emotionally and mentally, that’s where we get in trouble.” So you begin to kind of build this in.

Now, if a person is unwilling to meet you in this place of engagement, then cutoff may be necessary. If a person says, “No, I will not meet you here. I will not respect your boundaries. I will not accept any guidelines or restrictions on this. It’s my way or the highway,” then it may need to be the highway. But for many people, they will enter into a place of engagement.


Rebecca Ching: I would say that’s not even a cutoff then. After trying to make some bids for some negotiations, and if they’re not met with reciprocity and mutuality and negotiation and curiosity (which I have a question I want to get to about that), then it’s like, “Okay, now I need to go into grieving what I hope for isn’t and what is tolerable with this person.”

Jonathan Merritt: That’s right.

Rebecca Ching: And I’ve talked with a lot of people over the years, too, how someone who may be a best friend or a really close family member may be still someone in your life but they’re like a person of history, is what we call them. They’re maybe not your go-to person anymore even though maybe parts of you want that, to be able to still go back and have them be your person you call in the middle of the night or with something or share your best news. They may not be that person to hold that vulnerability and hold that trust. But, like you said, there is something so rich with those folks that you can sit down with and you don’t have to explain anything, and you do that on occasion, but it might just have to be renegotiated externally but most importantly I think internally. Like, “Okay, this person isn’t in the inner circle anymore, but I’m still choosing to keep them in this capacity if there is in that.”

Jonathan Merritt: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: But you gave a beautiful framework. But it’s about mutuality, and if there isn’t this commitment to let’s work on it together, it can’t move forward, and so, then we have to make that decision. Is it gonna be a firm, “You’re out,” or a big distance in that. And that’s sad. There’s a lot of grief to work through that.

But I want to touch on this article. You wrote an article recently in the Religion News Service, and it was a wonderfully nerdy, heady article. I loved it. Maybe not heady, but you’re going deep into some theological stuff that the Catholic Church is referencing. But you had this quote that really stood out to me that I think is applicable to so much, and you said that we should hold our conclusions loosely with deep humility, which is like, “Yes!” And I’m wondering if you want to say a little bit more about how this is different from what you were taught growing up and in some of the professional circles that you’ve worked.


Jonathan Merritt: Well, you know, growing up in conservative Evangelicalism, you don’t have a lot of tolerance for evolution. I mean that both in the Darwinian sense and also in terms of human evolution.

Rebecca Ching: Right.

Jonathan Merritt: People are not allowed to grow and move beyond, and it is the nature of conservatism, right? Progressivism loves to progress, loves evolution and change, assuming that change is always progress. Conservatism is trying to protect what is. And by the way, it’s not one’s good and one’s bad, necessarily. Sometimes from a macro level these can be sort of countervailing forces that can be, to some degree, healthy and help each other to kind of coexist in a way that’s healthy. They’re not working very well in our society right now. But those impulses to preserve what was and to embrace what is or should be can be both healthy and they can coexist healthily.

So that’s what conservatism does, and conservatism does that by saying, “This thing was and is good, true, right, and therefore, should not be changed,” right? That can be true for customs and traditions, it can be true for cultural hierarchies and orders, and it can be true for belief systems and spiritual conclusions, intellectual conclusions. And so, there are ideas about a woman’s place or the origin of the world or whether or not someone can or should be attracted to someone of the same gender, and those things are calcified. They’re not up for debate or discussion. They are conclusions that should only be protected, not discussed.


They should be protected, and they should be propagated. So you defend them if they’re challenged, and you train your foot soldiers, particularly young and impressionable youth, to believe these things at all cost and to believe that if they abandon these things, then they are not just wrong-headed but they’re bad. And that’s how conservatism, which wants to protect what is, keeps what is and was in place, right? That’s what I grew up with.

What I realized later is that this kind of what I call flashcard faith that thrived on having the right conclusions actually prevented us from encountering the space where faith lives, which is in that space of questioning, asking questions. And I talked a lot about this in the article that there are hundreds and hundreds of questions in the bible, that wherever you find God arising, almost always you find God showing up and asking a question. “Jesus, who do you say that I am,” right? And, by the way, he doesn’t answer that question. He just poses it.

Faith is the ability to trust, and trust is only formed when we’re willing to enter into a space where there are possibilities and then we choose to trust one of those possibilities. That’s faith, and faith is not certainty that you’re absolutely right and you don’t have to think about it anymore. In fact, it’s questions that have this kind of cyclical nature that drive us back again and again. “Well, I kind of thought that, but was that right?”


That’s the thing that keeps our minds always set on the things of God, right, from a faith perspective. Always asking and reasking and reasking and reasking all of these questions. Questions become a threat in fundamentalist communities because questions imply possibility. There’s the possibility that somebody may reject your conclusion. And if that’s the thing that you most fear, then you have to prevent that possibility from ever emerging.

That’s why a lot of faith communities, if you go into those faith communities, you tell me what community you’re a part of and I can give you three questions right off the top of my head that if you ask those things more than a few times, you’re gonna be shown the door. They’ll give you the answer once or twice, but if you keep raising those questions, you’re not gonna be around very long, you’re not gonna be asked to serve on that committee or you’re not gonna be the valued volunteer. They’re gonna get really annoyed with you real quick because that community is not interested in asking questions. You know, the Rabbis used to say, “God is in the question.” God is in that space between wondering and accepting or trusting the possibility. That’s where God shows up, and that’s where God lives.

Rebecca Ching: The fact that there are spaces that have no room for questioning, it feels like this is where white, Christian, supremacy culture in particular is hunkering down, right, in the binaries that you spoke about, like either you’re right or wrong, same or not same, good or bad, straight or gay, in or out, us or them. There’s no room in these spaces for ambiguity or nuance, and that is the natural result of divisiveness and power over, because how could there be anything else.

So how are you moving (even since we last spoke) through these binaries and really kind of healing and untangling from that white, Christian, supremacy culture? How is that impacting how you write and lead yourself and others?


Jonathan Merritt: Well, what I realized (and I started to realize it right about the time that we did our first interview) is that I had done in my career what I’d just described to you a little while ago. I had become a kind of leftist fundamentalist —

Rebecca Ching: Mm.

Jonathan Merritt: — who was operating in my own binaries, I just had flip flopped. I just said, “No, I’m good; you’re bad. No, I’m right; you’re wrong. No, you’re the one who should be driven from acceptable society, and I’m the one who should be centered, or people like me or people like that or people like –.”

And so, what I have begun to do is to, one, stay away from those spaces that encourage us to weaponize binaries. For me, that’s always been Twitter. So I don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter. I used to be a big Twitter warrior. I built a big platform there. It was a place that I got a lot of action, and it’s not healthy for me, and I couldn’t find a way to be healthy in those spaces. I began to realize that I was talking to everybody harshly and that there are a lot of people, maybe you’re a woman of color who, when a white man uses the same language that he would use for a white man and in that same tone of voice, it has a different impact no matter what his intention is.

Rebecca Ching: Yep.

Jonathan Merritt: And I couldn’t regulate in those spaces, and I was doing harm in those spaces. That was a sacrifice I had to make. I had to say, “You can’t have this anymore because you cannot be trusted with this. It doesn’t work for you.” And I had to walk away from that, unfortunately.


I write a lot fewer articles than I used to because there was a time where I was writing three, four, five articles a month. I mean, that’s an unbelievable amount of production. Those articles tended to be whatever the issue of the day (the debate) was. I was just jumping from debate to debate to debate, and what I was doing was I was using the Bible to shame people or scold people or attack people or dismantle people. I was using my own wit, my own arguments to do that. It doesn’t mean that you can’t take that position and that somebody shouldn’t stand up and say, “This isn’t right.” 

Rebecca Ching: Right.

Jonathan Merritt: You should be able to do that. But I was doing it with anger and snark and bitterness, and not all the time, but oftentimes.

And so, what I had to do was I had to take a time where I stepped back, and I began to write about things that I felt like were life-giving and loving. This article that you mentioned, it was a cultural critique. You know, there’s a news hook in there about what was going on in the Vatican. And so, it is a cultural and religious critique, but it’s a different kind of critique. It’s not the kind of work that I was doing before, and that has been important for me. It’s also involved a lot of loss because what I realized was that I grew up in a culture where I became an Enneagram three, an achiever (where I was loved for what I produced and accomplished) and a performer as a result of that. And so, what I realized is by everything that I was doing on Twitter and in a lot of my publishing was I was being seen and heard and understood. I lost the ability to just keep ringing that bell, and instead I had to find harder but better ways to be seen, heard, and understood by people that I really care about and by people who can really coexist in my life in an enriching way.


And that’s different than just anytime that you feel unseen or unheard or unknown, running to Twitter and getting 200 likes or getting a bunch of people to respond. When you don’t have that tool anymore, you have to do a lot of hard work, and so, it was not only the loss of those tools, but it was the beginning of work that I’ve been avoiding for many, many years.

Rebecca Ching: So just in the spirit of our conversation around relationships, how has your understanding and expression of success in relationships changed since you were younger, and what does it mean to you today to be in a successful relationship?

Jonathan Merritt: Oh, man. And I’m assuming when you use the word relationship that’s broad, right?

Rebecca Ching: Super broad. Super broad. Yes, thank you for asking.

Jonathan Merritt: Yeah, now, this is for me, because of my orientation as an achiever, a lot of my relationships were transactional.

Rebecca Ching: Mm.

Jonathan Merritt: And particularly once I — not even just when I was younger. Although, when I was younger, it was that too, right? “Who are the people that can give me popularity?” If there was somebody who was more “popular” and they wanted to do something on Friday, I would cancel plans with somebody else who was less popular or unpopular. I was always that person. I wasn’t aware of it. It was totally unconscious that that was happening.

When I became an adult and I began to do this job, the relationships I value the most are the relationships that create enough space where I know that I can be exactly who I am without judgment and with total acceptance. And I don’t have to perform because I’m tired. I’m tired of having to perform or to produce or to genuflect and show you how holy I am in order to receive your —

Rebecca Ching: And hustle.


Jonathan Merritt: Yeah, to hustle for your acceptance and affection. There are a handful of people (fewer than most people might think) that I have in my life who are those people, and those are the people that I really try to prioritize.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, thank you so much. Thank you for sharing all of that. I feel like we could keep talking. I have so many follow-up questions. But before we wrap up, though, I have some quickfire questions that I’ve added since you came on the show.

Jonathan Merritt: Yes.

Rebecca Ching: So what are you reading right now?

Jonathan Merritt: Oh, my gosh. What am I reading right now? I’ll tell you what I’m reading. This summer I was blocked as a writer, and I took a group study. I joined this group in New York for 13 weeks studying The Artist’s Way. Some people will know – Julia Cameron. And let me tell you, it lived up to the hype.

So, after the course ended, I continued to do the morning pages, the artist dates, all these kinds of spiritual practices. I found out that she has a new book that came out this year called Write For Life, and so, I am knee deep right now in Write For Life, which I love. And I’m gonna give you one other book because it’s apropos to what we’ve talked about, and it is BEA-utiful. It is a book by Jedidiah Jenkins called Mother, Nature. I haven’t finished it yet but it’s the story of him. He’s a gay man who travels America on this 5,000-mile journey with his mother to try to bridge their differences, and it is funny, and it is heartbreaking, and it is beautiful, and I wish that I could write like he writes, and I would say either of those books.


If you’re looking for self-improvement, go with the first. If you’re looking to take a beautiful journey that will open up your heart and really pour in some gorgeous, gorgeous words and lessons, then I would suggest his book.

Rebecca Ching: I actually just ordered The Artist’s Way and the workbook because I was at a retreat and Alok Vaid-Menon was talking about their writing and how it just blew up when they were stuck, and I’m like, “Okay, game on!” So, all right, I keep hearing this.

Jonathan Merritt: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: What song are you playing on repeat?

Jonathan Merritt: Well, listen, let me tell you, right now it’s Christmas, and I don’t know when this is gonna air, but I am a non-stop Christmas person. Now, if you want to know what is the one that I’m really, really putting on repeat in the Christmas season, it is by the band Over the Rhine. Do you know Over the Rhine?

Rebecca Ching: Oh, gosh. Yes, yes.

Jonathan Merritt: So I just finished an article about the lesser-known Christmas songs that you should know. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous song called “Darlin’, Christmas is Coming,” and I’ll tell you one other one actually that’s, again, apropos to our conversation. It’s a song by Phoebe Bridgers called “If We Make It Through December.” It’s an old Merle Haggard song that she covers, and here’s what I would suggest your listeners do. That song was released by Merle Haggard in 1973. Listen to Merle Haggard’s version and listen to her version because you will know what deconstruction looks like.

Rebecca Ching: Whoa.

Jonathan Merritt: She takes this kind of follow-the-bouncing ball, slick Nashville production, and she strips it down and makes it somber and reflective and the song is about loneliness and unemployment and financial hardship, and if we can only make it through December.


It’s a song of solace for those for whom the holidays are hard or even painful, and so, I definitely suggest that one too. I’m playing that one on repeat.

Rebecca Ching: What is the best TV show or movie that you’ve seen recently?

Jonathan Merritt: Oh, my God. I have this one. I have this one.

Rebecca Ching: Okay.

Jonathan Merritt: Let me tell you. I am loving Julia on Max.

Rebecca Ching: Oh, so good!

Jonathan Merritt: I’m right in the middle of the second season. I absolutely love it and telling you why. It’s gonna do two things for you. One, it will scratch the itch that everybody wants scratched right now for nostalgia, and this show will do that for you. The other thing that’s really interesting that you’ll find is it is a commentary on the evolution of media. If you’re looking for it, and if you’re aware of it, because it’s packaged in this unassuming way, it is one of the most beautiful critiques (and soft, it’s gentle) of the culture that we live in now where media is always selling us something, trying to divide us, trying to sort of force us into an echo chamber. That, to me, is something that makes it not just sweet and entertaining but poignant.

Rebecca Ching: What is your favorite eighties piece of pop culture?

Jonathan Merritt: What is my favorite eighties piece of pop culture? I have three of them in my mind. I am going to say —

Rebecca Ching: Say them all. Say them all!

Jonathan Merritt: All right. I love a Rubik’s Cube. I have never been able to beat one, but I absolutely love a Rubik’s Cube. I love a slinky.

Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh.

Jonathan Merritt: I love a slinky. A slinky is so underrated. I think they probably discontinued them because babies were choking or something.

Rebecca Ching: Yep.

Jonathan Merritt: There was some harm that they caused, but I love a slinky, and I’ll tell you something that I also love. I love a cassette tape, and a cassette tape forced you to take a journey, and we don’t have to take a journey anymore. Now we don’t follow — you know, it used to be that an album was orchestrated to take you on this journey from start to finish.

Rebecca Ching: Right.


Jonathan Merritt: And there were high points and low points. Now, we don’t follow albums. We follow songs. We put them in our playlist, and that’s the end of that, and I feel very sad because technology makes things possible that weren’t possible, which is great, but there’s always loss that comes with that, and I feel like we’ve lost something in the kind of chopped up digital presentation of music.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, with you on that. What is your mantra right now?

Jonathan Merritt: Well, I posted about this online recently, and I’m saying this one a lot, which is “this or something better.” My prayer to God used to always be, “This. God, give me this. God, give me this. God, give me this.” And then I went through a period where I said, “You shouldn’t ask God for things because it’s just too transactional, and you’re just gonna become some prosperity Gospel diet coke knock off of a transactional prosperity Gospel preacher.” And so, I stopped asking God for things. And then I started to realize Jesus said, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Jesus said, “Ask.” “You have not because you asked not.” It doesn’t mean that God’s always gonna give you what you ask for.

So I said, “Okay, well, maybe I should pray. This. God, give me this.” And then I thought, well, you know, there were a lot of times in my life where the this wasn’t very good for me, that actually, I wanted a job only to realize that there was a better job and that job was never suited for me to begin with, or I asked God to make a relationship work, and that relationship was toxic, and I was just stuck in the codependency and I was infatuated with somebody who was not good for me.


And so, what I now say to God is I’m still willing to do what you do in a good relationship, which is to name what you want, but I’m also willing to create enough space and to hold it with humility to say, “This may not be good for me, and if it’s not good for me, I don’t want that.” So I’m now constantly saying, “I want this or something better.”

Rebecca Ching: What’s an unpopular opinion that you hold?

Jonathan Merritt: Oh, now you’re gonna get me in trouble, Rebecca. I don’t like that question at all!

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]

Jonathan Merritt: That is a tough one. Well, what one do I want to give you —

Rebecca Ching: The juiciest one.

Jonathan Merritt: — that will not get me canceled on here.

Rebecca Ching: Oh, jeeze.

Jonathan Merritt: All right, I’ll tell you this. I’ll give you one. This one could get me in trouble. I think the best candidate for President right now is RFK Jr. You’re welcome. You got it. I’m in trouble for that one. I’m in trouble for that one. And by the way, that’s not saying much, right? That’s the best candidate for President right now, but if I had to pick one to be President, that’s the one I would pick. So throw your —

Rebecca Ching: All right.

Jonathan Merritt: — rotten fruit at me, folks.

Rebecca Ching: I’m not gonna throw rotten fruit, but I’m more than happy to engage with you in a conversation with a mutual contract set and established.

Jonathan Merritt: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: Okay, and let’s wrap up. Who or what inspires you to be a better leader and human?

Jonathan Merritt: Who or what inspires me to be a better leader or human? You know, maybe this sounds cliché. But it’s my nephews and nieces.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah.

Jonathan Merritt: I have a children’s book coming out in May that my nephews and nieces inspired, and you start to realize when you hit mid-life, which is where I am now, that I’m not gonna be here forever. But they’re gonna be here after I’m not here, and I have to live in such a way that I’m helping to, in some small way, create the kind of world that they want and need. I used to hear people say that all the time when I was little, and I thought it was just cliché. And now I’m feeling it in my bones, and I feel this real responsibility to make this world less awful. I mean, it’s so awful right now, and to make this world less awful and not completely obliterate it and destroy it by the time I am done with my time here because they’re gonna have kids and they’re gonna have nephews and nieces of their own, and what about them?


And so, I’m entering that stage of life, which says I’m definitely getting older because I’m starting to think about what life on earth will look like after I’m gone and trying to live in such a way that takes that into consideration.

Rebecca Ching: Thank you, Jonathan, for coming back on the show and for this important conversation today. I look forward to connecting in the future and probably sooner than later so we can talk about who’s best for President. But other than that —

Jonathan Merritt: Oh, my gosh, yes.

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]

Jonathan Merritt: Oh, my gosh, please tell me all the reasons I’m wrong, and I may be! And I may be.

Rebecca Ching: I plan on sending you lots of bullet points on that one. Thank you so much for your vulnerability and just sharing your heart and your experience. Just thank you so much for your time.

Jonathan Merritt: Oh, my gosh. My pleasure. Thank you!

Rebecca Ching: All right, everyone, before you go, I want to share some key learnings from this important Unburdened Leader episode with Jonathan Merritt. Jonathan shared the choices he faced with his father and his former faith community after being outed by a former friend. Now, Jonathan eventually chose to be true to his identity instead of choosing the detrimental path of trying to be who others thought he should be, and by detrimental I mean life changing. A lot of lives are lost when people deny who they are in their existence and trying to mask that to be who other people want them to be can come at a cost where people don’t even want to be here anymore.

So instead of turning to that level of harm or cutting off from his father, which a lot of people have had to do (they’ve had to end relationships with family members when faced with dehumanizing rejection of their identity), how Jonathan instead moved forward with his authentic life, how they chose to stay in conversation, and since they’re both public figures, how they moved forward with conflict privately and built a practice of being for each other, not against.


They also entered into discussions of disagreement and conflict without the agenda to change the other. Imagine that, y’all. That’s a tough one! That is a really tough one, if I’m gonna be honest with you because I’m like it’s hard pressed to find conversations where there isn’t a good little cluster of parts of me saying, “Well, I’m right, they’re wrong. How can I get them to see the light,” right? But that’s not loving. And as Jonathan wisely noted, loving someone when you try to change them is hard. It’s near impossible.

So, I’m curious. Do you use emotional cutoffs as a form of protection in how you lead yourself and others? What burdens do you need to address so you can build a deeper capacity for courage in the face of conflict? And what support do you need so you can lead with more differentiation of self when the world feels so polarized and cut off?

Jonathan shared with us how hard it is to choose to do the work to heal instead of defaulting to emotional cutoffs. And he also shared the fruits of what can happen when you move forward and do this deep work to achieve a lot of healing, growth, clarity of values, and mutual respect. And even if the other person involved can’t honor your dignity in conflict, you can move forward with healing and growth to avoid repeating this toxic dynamic in your relationships wherever you live and work, and this — oh, gosh, and this is the ongoing work of an unburdened leader.

[Inspirational Music]


Y’all, thank you so much for joining this 99th episode of The Unburdened Leader. You can find this episode, show notes, and free Unburdened Leader resources, along with ways to sign up for the Unburdened Leader weekly email and ways to work with me at www.rebeccaching.com.

And if this episode impacted you positively, I’d be honored if you would leave a rating, review, and share it with somebody who you think would benefit from it. And this episode was produced by the incredible team Yellow House Media!

[Inspirational Music]

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meet the founder

I’m Rebecca Ching, LMFT.

I help change-making leaders get to the root of recurring struggles and get confidently back on track with your values, your vision, and your bottom line. 

I combine psychotherapeutic principles, future-forward coaching, and healthy business practices to meet the unique needs and challenges of highly-committed leaders in a high-stakes world.

This is unburdened leadership

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And clearing the way for a more innovative, inclusive future.

Unburdened Leaders are breaking
cycles of workplace burnout…

Are you about this, too? Let’s meet and see if I’m your coach – no expectations. Just connection.