A Reluctant Pastor

Up until a year ago, if you had asked me to list every possible profession that I might like to try, “pastor” would not have been one of them.  I have known many pastors and even liked several of them very much.  But I never wanted to be one.  Ever.  My dream job always involved animals.  I imagined having lots of land and providing sanctuary to animals in need.  Yet in spite of this, my time, energy, and resources were never invested in making that happen, other than acquiring many needy pets along the way.  My theology may be a bit slippery here, but I think God tricked me.  My trait of procrastination and my love of lounging allowed my life to be shifted without my even being aware of it.  And quite frankly, I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Instead, here I am at 45 with a whole lot of passion and energy for connecting with people meaningfully.  My spare time is spent considering God, implications of theology, how faith helps and hurts, what church could be. None of these was on my radar professionally.  It just happens to be what energized me.  My resources have been spent on coffee, meals, books, conferences, and conversations with people who wanted to talk, explore, question, and share.  I even went to seminary for pete’s sake to further train myself, and at a time when it didn’t make any sense financially to do so.  I can’t tell you how many times while sitting in a class I wondered what in the world I was actually doing there.  But I continued anyway, and I graduated.  I am either the biggest idiot, or my life has been co-opted.  I’m thinking it’s the latter, but maybe with a dash of the former thrown in.

I had a major confrontation with self when my theology professor said to me, “I’ve never met someone who had so much passion for reforming the church and yet who also seems to have no need for the church.”  Huh?  How stupid does that sound?  And yet he was right.  I have chosen to be involved in the church throughout my life.  But equally I viewed my faith as my responsibility.  The church sometimes helped and sometimes didn’t.  As I processed his observation, I realized that for much of my life, I didn’t need the church but I saw what the church could be – a place that proclaims good news of God’s presence and love, a place to experience a healthy community, a place to both encourage people where they are and challenge them with where they might go next.  Church was a place of potential, but equally full of disappointment.  It was a complicated relationship.

In addition, I had several qualities that I never saw in my pastors, my less-than-stellar qualities.  I knew pastors were imperfect, but I felt a sterility about them.  Their articulated struggles included things such as not getting up at the crack of dawn to do their one hour time of reading, prayer, and meditation. My struggle was doing that at all or not saying the “f” word in front of my children.  We all know statistically that pastors are real people.  But most pastors seem to keep up appearances that further the sterile perception which says, “I’ve pretty much got this God thing figured out and I’m here to help you.”  I feel like I need to walk around with a sign that says, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”  I’d like to illustrate my point with a visual.  I have an armoire that holds important papers.  The outside looks like this:

This inside looks like this:


No matter how hard I work to be good, to do good, my life always has imperfections.  Lots of them.  I could pretend that when I’m showered and nicely dressed, my appearance is an accurate reflection of my inner life, but that simply isn’t the case.  I’ve always got at least a little bit of chaos, some damage I’ve done that I’m processing, and some hurts that still haunt me.  And those are the good days.

So what happened to change my mind?  I saw Nadia Bolz-Weber speak, a Lutheran pastor from Denver.  She uses salty language, speaks in very real terms, is open about her struggles, and is doing some amazing, practical theology.  She melds the inspiring and encouraging work of God with the very real complexities of people and life.  Listening to her, I thought “I can do that.  I can be that kind of pastor.”  Then I realized I already am that kind of pastor.  I didn’t need to emulate her.  I was already doing the work.  I finally caught a glimpse of what others had been seeing in me for awhile.  I was already a pastor to people, not because of my credentials but because of who I was.

I’m still not sure how I feel about being a pastor.  Quite frankly, animals are easier than people.  But I now see how my life has been shaped by this unexpected role.  I can no longer deny that I have invested and sacrificed to be more equipped for the job.  When I experience the divine in a way that makes my heart fill with love, when I am part of a conversation that seems to transcend time and space, when I feel a peace that reassures me all will be well, when I am reminded that I am not alone and am able to pass that along to someone else, when I am inspired to do the hard work of making the world a little bit better, I know that I am doing what I was meant to do.  I’m still in negotiations about certain specifics.  But as long as I can (occasionally) curse and drink beer, I think it’s going to be okay.


Why I Left the Church to Start a Church

I spent most of my life being part of a church.  Growing up, we went every Sunday morning.  When I was old enough, youth group was added.  Sunday after Sunday, and then Wednesdays too, from birth through high school, I went to church.  I did other things such as school and sports, but the majority of my family’s life was connected to the church or people from the church.  Then at 18 I had a brief departure from church life, about four years total.  I was going through a lot of upheaval personally.  I clearly remember thinking that my questions, disappointment, and anger had no place in church.  It was okay to question if you were new to church or not really involved.  But the seasoned folks didn’t question God.  So I did the work on my own and eventually made peace with God.

In my early 20’s, married, and looking for a community, I decided that I wanted to go back.  More than anything else, it was the relationships I was looking for.  But this was easier said than done because I have always had an edge to me – my personality, my humor, my outlook.  I didn’t quite fit in with the “Snow White” types at church, but neither was I a rebel without a cause.  I had a cause.  It was depth mixed with a strong dose of reality.  So I would look and sometimes find that ragtag group of people who took their faith seriously and knew how to have a good time.  These are great people to hang out with because they’ll challenge your mind, warm your heart, and make you laugh.  And they know how to have fun.  Life is too short not to laugh heartily and regularly.

As I got older, I found myself not only growing comfortable with mystery and unanswerable questions, but insisting on them.  I couldn’t profess a simplistic faith in a complicated world.  I encountered realities that made me angry with God and I needed to be honest about that.  And in this process – years of work – something incredible happened: God became bigger.  The benefit of a big God is that this God can handle big questions and big emotions.  The downside is that this God is significantly more aloof.  Assurances didn’t come as quickly, but what I did have I could hold onto firmly.  That is not to say I don’t have days and weeks at a time of doubt.  In fact it would be more accurate to say that doubt is a regular guest at my dinner table of faith.  But I believe the big God can handle it, one of my few assurances.

Along the way, I have learned that not everyone is okay with this kind of God.  Some people need a very black-and-white God, to know who is in with God and who is out, what God requires and what God hates.  Bible passages are picked and contextualized in modern circumstances to support this God.  I have found this to be true in both conservative (right belief) and liberal (right action) churches.  This kind of environment became increasingly unhelpful for my faith journey.  I was aware that either my faith would be extinguished or I would eventually start fires all over the place.  But I found people and people found me, other outsiders of the church, who were hungry for sharing a journey with a big God faith.  Hearing about a God who could handle their shit, and hearing about a follower who had her own shit she was carrying turned out to be good news to people.  I would like to say that it is my personality that drew these people to me.  But I know better.  It was the message I spoke that was resonating so deeply with some.  And so I became increasingly drawn to the faithful and the questioning who lived outside the church, or least were on the parameters of the church, the questioners who were not quite mature enough for church leadership.

In the beginning I had hoped I could do my work in collaboration with the church.  I did not want to be a pastor.  I saw a beautiful partnership emerging in my imagination.  I knew there were still many folks who found the existing church meaningful, and the church could continue to serve them well.  And for the increasing population who had dismissed the church, those were the people I felt called to serve, and I wanted to do so with the church’s help and blessing.  I believed both communities of faith would benefit from the other.  But my church was not interested.  I looked into other churches and talked to many pastors.  Unfortunately there was baggage that seemed to keep getting in the way.  The baggage carried by the church concerned its hierarchy, dwindling membership, and/or fear.  The baggage carried by those outside the church concerned hurts, misunderstandings, and/or apathy.  Perhaps I am oversimplifying but in my experience and the research I have done, I found these threads: the church is insisting on its relevance, and the people outside the church don’t care.  If I stayed within the church walls, I would have to invest time and energy in serving, reassuring, and helping those already part of the church.  Stepping outside those walls would allow me to devote all my energy to those who had no faith community yet desired one.  My decision was an easy one to make.

Next : a reluctant pastor