Reclaiming Progressive Christianity, Starting with Remembering Our Values

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post that two weeks later is still getting a lot of traffic. The title of the piece is “I Don’t Think I Want to Be a Progressive Christian Anymore“, and it is an accurate depiction of how I was feeling at the time. After a little time, though, I’m realizing I was wrong: I do still want to be a progressive Christian.

But here’s the challenge; in the very recent past the term “progressive Christian” has come to be conflated with “emergent Christian” and “post-evangelical Christian”. And I’m not saying that you can’t be one of those things and also be a progressive Christian. This is a big tent movement, and you can. But I am saying that it’s not right to co-opt a term that has been used for several generations to define a theological movement for your own benefit. And it’s especially not right to do it when you are not familiar with, or not willing to honor, the values that progressive Christianity has been trying to model for the larger church for years.

10245585_250411955164792_8829165948251833523_nMy elders in the progressive Christian movement, some of whom are now dead and cannot speak for themselves, deserve more than to have their legacies misrepresented by those who never knew them. And those of us who came of age in the progressive movement over the last few decades are now being called on to bear witness to the history and values of this tradition, and to help to articulate a vision for the future for the movement.

So, I think I do still want to be a progressive Christian. But I want to say a little about what I understand that term to mean, starting with a few values I’ve learned along the way. Here is what I think the progressive church is called to be:

– Transparent

The progressive church has taught me again and again that Jesus’ was right when he said “the truth shall set you free”. It has also taught me that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. One of the Christian men I respect most has a habit of telling organizations with which he works that “I will not be your institution’s secret keeper”. They hire him anyway, and they’re better for it.

– Accountable

We don’t just answer to ourselves (or kid ourselves and others by saying “I answer to God”). We need accountability from our peers. Denominations get a bad rap with some, but a healthy denomination is one of the best ways of making sure that a Christian leader will be held accountable to a high standard. It’s when a clergy person or other leader becomes a long ranger that the trouble happens.

– Prophetic

Wayne Gretzky famously said, “I skate to where the puck is going; not to where it has been.” For progressive Christians that means that we have to be future focused, and innovative. For instance, the progressive church started talking about LGBT rights in the early 1970’s. By contrast, some well-known leaders who are now claiming the progressive labels have just come forward as allies in the last several years. That’s not being prophetic. That’s being popular.

– Repentant

We will make mistakes. We will fail people who could have used our voices. But when that happens, we need to be the first to stand up and apologize. As a former Presbyterian pastor, I often saw people who sat in positions of power never speak as allies. In the past few years many have now come out as allies, which is great. But sometimes I just want a little acknowledgement that they regret not having done so earlier. Likewise, I know there are probably many things I am not doing now that I should be. When I realize what they are, I hope I have the character to confess, apologize, and make amends.

– Humble

True humility is not about putting yourself down; it’s about raising others up. And what I valued most about the progressive leaders in the generations before mine was their humility. They admitted there were things they did not know. They listened to those who were marginalized in some way. And they stepped aside and gave up the mic when they didn’t know from firsthand experience what they were talking about. (And they never drew attention to themselves when they did it.)

– Witness-oriented

The other thing I learned from progressive Christian leaders over the past twenty years is that they were never, ever, interested in celebrity. In fact, they were quick to shy away from the lime-light. They didn’t mind teaching, or speaking, but only if it helped others in their Christian journey. Karl Barth kept a picture of John the Baptist above his desk. In that picture John was pointing towards Christ. For Barth it was a reminder that the task of every Christian was not to gain followers for one’s self, but instead to use one’s life in order to witness to, and glorify, Christ.

– Bold

The progressive Christians I have know are bold people. That’s different than being brash or provocative. Instead, being bold is about being willing to risk one’s status or power for what one believes is right. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s I watched people risk their pulpits and ordinations to stand up for people like me. Some of these same people had done the same thing a 35 years before that when they stood up against segregation. They weren’t fearless; they were scared to death. But they did it anyway. They are some of bravest people I have ever met, and few in my generation can hold a candle to them.

– Non-idolatrous

The progressive Christians who taught me were also well-trained Reformed theologians. They lectured constantly about the importance of confronting idols. And they practiced what they preached. They refused to worship anything other than Christ. They would not worship at the altar of money. They refused to collude with empire, as Walter Wink taught us, choosing instead to confront it. They would not profit on the backs of others, particularly those who have been in any way marginalized. They did not seek power or status or comfort. They sought only God’s will for God’s people.

– Hopeful

When Rev. John Robinson sent the Pilgrims, ancestors of today’s progressive Reformed Christians, off across the ocean he said God had “more truth and light yet to break forth out of (God’s) holy Word”. It was a message of hope. And hope is central to the message of progressive Christianity. Every piece of writing, every sermon, every speech must point to the fact that our hope comes not from our own words, but from the one who is constantly working in this world to create all things anew. And living into that hope means that we get to make the choice to either participate in that work joyfully, or get out of the way.

– Community focused

Progressive Christians value the life and stories of the individual, but we also highly value the community. Our interdependence on one another is what makes us stronger, not weaker. And so we need the voices of many, and not just a few. And so, because progressive Christianity is bigger than any one of us, this needs to be a group discussion. What values would you add? I’d love for you to tell us all about them below.

What Kind of a Pastor Does Your Church Really Want?

About six months ago I started a new call as the senior pastor of a church in New Hampshire. I truly loved the congregation I previously served, but with a wife who had just graduated from seminary herself, and a feeling that God was nudging me to something new, I began the long discernment that comes with a pastoral search process.

Unlike my first search process, where I sent my profile (the UCC version of a pastor’s resume) to just about every church that was searching, I was more selective this time. I wasn’t willing to move for anything less than the right call, which is a great luxury for a searching pastor. But it also meant that I ended up saying “no” a lot. I love a challenge, but I did not feel called to a place where my understanding of ministry, and the church’s, were so radically different that we were in fundamentally different places.

The Rev. John Wheelwright, the first Pastor and Teacher of the church I now serve.

The Rev. John Wheelwright, the first Pastor and Teacher of the church I now serve.

The biggest thing I learned is that everyone says they want a pastor, but not everyone means the same thing when they say that. Here are just some of the understandings of what it meant to be a pastor that I encountered in my search:

Chaplain – No disrespect meant to chaplains (I was one for eight years) but the role of a parish pastor and that of a chaplain are very different. And yet, over and over I met parishes who wanted someone to spend most of their time “doing home and hospital visits”.

I’m always glad to visit, but the first question I had for churches who wanted this was “Who does this now?” Most of the time the answer was “no one…that’s the pastor’s job”. This was always a huge red flag for me because the work of visitation is supposed to be done by all Christians, not just the pastor. In fact, having a strong and vibrant network of lay visitors is a great sign of church vitality. You don’t have to go to seminary to make a visit, after all; you just need to love the people of your church.

Fundraiser – In my interviews when the time came for me to ask questions I asked “What’s the biggest crisis facing this church right now?” More times then not I was told “money”. Churches said they didn’t have enough of it, or people weren’t pledging like they used to, or expenses were too high. Then they often asked me, “How can you help us fix that?”

The reality is that I like talking about stewardship in the church. I think it’s a key part of the Christian life. But, the pastor can’t be your church’s “fundraiser”. The pastor can help to set the tone for the conversation, but they cannot control the bottom line. The money has to come from the congregation itself, and the stewardship campaign itself needs to be run by faithful and creative lay leaders. A new pastor will not be the magic bullet that balances your church’s budget.

Complaint Box – This works two ways. First, people complain to the pastor about everything that they think is wrong with the church, and expect them to immediately fix it. Later, when they don’t, people complain to the pastor about everything that is wrong with the pastor.

Some of the churches I talked to spent their interview complaining about everything from the fact not as many people came to church anymore to the fact their last pastor was “terrible” (a red flag for interviewing pastors if ever there was one). Those were the churches that I knew were ready to blame everyone else for what wasn’t going right. And every pastor knows that it only takes so long until they will become the sacrificial lamb in a church like that.

Entertainer – I will be the first to say that pastors need to do their best to not preach boring, lifeless, irrelevant sermons. And yet, so many churches I talked to wanted someone who would be “funny”, or “tell us stories” in the pulpit. A few even noted that they loved when their pastor sang solos on Sunday mornings. They wanted a pastor who would entertain them!

But that’s not the role of a pastor in the pulpit. The pastor’s job in preaching is to present the text in a way that is faithful to Scripture and relatable to the congregation. Hopefully they won’t do that in a way that puts everyone to sleep, but at the end of the day the church would do better with more faithful preachers than more “entertaining” ones.

Recruiter – “What will you do to increase our membership?” It’s the question candidates get all the time from churches. The expectation is that a new pastor needs to come in and build up Sunday attendance and church membership. In this way the pastor becomes the church recruiter, and is even seen as a sort of potential savior. (That should be a red flag, if it’s not.)

But while a new pastor might draw a few more visitors, they can’t be the person responsible for building church membership up. Even if they go door to door to invite new people to church, if those people come to church and don’t feel welcomed by the congregation they will not stay. Instead, every church member needs to be responsible for inviting others, welcoming them on Sunday, and then helping to make them part of the congregation.

Kept sheep – My go-to “softball” question for search committees was a no-brainer: Do you want a pastor who is involved in your community? Usually search committees jumped on this and said “yes, of course!” But in one interview I asked the committee this question and, instead of hearing “yes”, I instead heard “well…maybe”. The committee then went on to say that they thought their pastor would have enough to do just serving them. They didn’t want their pastor to get involved in local organizations, to hold drop-in hours out in the community, or to do much in the wider church.

This interview reminded me of a question I heard someone ask a church years ago: “Do you want a shepherd? Or a kept sheep?” Of course almost every church will say the former but, the egregious example above aside, how many mean it? Do you really want a pastor who will serve your community and the wider church? Or do you just want a pastor who will serve the people who are already in your church? Healthy congregations don’t just “allow” their clergy to engage the world beyond the church’s four walls; they encourage it.

Pastor and Teacher – This is the one I was looking for, and the one I found. The Letter to the Ephesians talks about how Christ has given each of us different gifts and graces. The author writes, “The gifts (Christ) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”

For most of us in the United Church of Christ our call agreements state that we are becoming “pastor and teacher” of a local church. At the end of the day, that’s what I believe a clergy person is called to be. We are called to faithfully shepherd a congregation in their life together, and to teach that congregation about Christ’s love for all.

Signing the pastor making me "pastor and teacher" of my current church.

Signing the pastoral contract making me “pastor and teacher” of my current church.

What that entails can look different for each congregation, but at the end of the day your pastor should be doing the ministry that they have been prepared for through calling and training. And they can’t do that ministry well if they are also taking on the responsibilities that belong to, and can and should be carried out by, all members of your congregation.

So, what kind of pastor does your church really want? If you are a congregation in search, or even just a congregation trying to figure out where it wants to go, take the time to ask yourself this question. And then, if necessary, adjust expectations. If you do, you will free your pastor to do the ministry God has equipped them to do best. And, more importantly, you will see the people of your church stepping up to do the ministry God has equipped them to do as well.

Privacy, Secrecy, Transparency and the Church

Let’s talk about the difference between privacy and secrecy. But before we do, let me say that this post is not inspired by any one recent event. It is, however, inspired by a number of recent events in the larger mainline and progressive spheres of the church over the past six months or so, all of which have caused me to clarify my thinking on the difference between the two. Here’s how I understand them: privacy is about keeping things that are personal, but not harmful to others, confidential. For instance:

A person’s personal finances are private.

A person’s sex life is private.

A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity are private, unless they wish to share them with others.

A person’s participation in a 12 Step group is private.

Secrecy, however, is different. Because secrecy has to do not with confidentiality, but with concealment. And when the church tries to conceal something, it’s usually people with little-to-no power who pay. Let’s take those examples from above and see how they can become secrets:

A person’s personal finances are private, and we aren’t going to ask why the church books aren’t adding up.

A person’s sex life is private, so I’m not going to say anything about the fact the pastor is sleeping with someone they are counseling.

A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity are private, unless you wish to share them with others, so you are going to need to stay closeted to work in this ministry.

A person’s participation in a 12 Step group is private, so someone’s addiction should be too, and none of us are going to tell Bob that he needs help because he is drinking too much.

IMG_4707Here’s the issue for the church: we often can’t tell the difference. I am all for privacy. I’m a big fan of it. But I’m not a fan of secrecy because it tends to breed more dysfunction. Secrecy is about covering up what is harmful. And so, it’s little wonder that we have a saying in the recovery community: you’re as sick as your secrets. That applies to being the church together too. When we mix up privacy and secrecy we end up creating the perfect atmosphere for people to get hurt. Our job, then, is to challenge secrecy. That might look something like this:

A person’s personal finances are private BUT the church’s financials are not.

A person’s sex life is private BUT if you are having sex with someone who is underaged, unable to consent, or with whom you have a pastoral relationship, that is not.

A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity are private, unless you wish to share them with others BUT if you are telling others to remain in the closet for the “greater good” that is not.

A person’s participation in a 12 Step group is private BUT your unchecked addiction and the destruction it caused is not.

Jesus told us “the truth will set you free”. I believe that. And we, the church, are supposed to be the ones who do this whole Jesus thing better than anyone else. So why, when there’s a public crisis in the church, do we revert back to secrecy and call it privacy? Why do we hint to others “if you knew what I knew, you would feel differently”? Why do we cover up, refuse to challenge, or look the other way in the belief that “it’s not my business”? Why do we enable addiction? Why do we push obviously wounded leaders back into the public arena before they have a chance to get well? In short, why do we fail to accept the freedom the truth can bring? And, what if we church leaders changed the discussion? What if our greatest concern had to do not with protecting secrets but with transparency? Let’s take the same examples from above:

A person’s personal finances are private BUT the church’s financials are not AND SO this church is going to have an open-book policy when it comes to our joint accounts.

A person’s sex life is private BUT if you are having sex with someone who is underaged, unable to consent, or with whom you have a pastoral relationship, that is not AND SO this church will neither tolerate nor shelter clergy who break these covenants.

A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity are private, unless you wish to share them with others BUT if you are telling others to remain in the closet for the “greater good” that is not AND SO this church will allow clergy to live openly as the beloved children of God that they are.

A person’s participation in a 12 Step group is private BUT your unchecked addiction and the destruction it caused is not AND SO this church will encourage discussion about addiction and provide support to those wishing to be in recovery.

Transparency takes the conversation one step further. It’s not just exposing secrets. It’s changing the way we respond so that the whole church benefits. It does not violate the privacy of individuals, but it also does not allow for the destructive actions of individuals to continue unchecked.

So what happens when it becomes clear that something that has been kept/is being kept secret is hurting the larger body? That’s the tricky part. Each church or denomination has different accountability structures, and so each process will look a little different. But here are some things that should not happen:

– Don’t absolve the system too quickly. What was known? What did others in positions of power avert their eyes from rather than address? How did the system allow harmful behavior to continue.

– Don’t undermine the credibility of someone seeking answers, or try to silence them. Don’t orchestrate smear campaigns against them, either overt or by whispers.

– Don’t accuse those who are trying to tell the truth or ask hard questions of gossiping. Those aren’t the same things. Do not misuse Scripture to silence conversations that need to happen.

– Don’t violate someone else’s privacy in retribution. Even if you think they are the worst people in the world (which they’re not) don’t share private/covenanted information out of spite.

– Don’t create an atmosphere that will make it hard for someone with a similar problem to come forward either for fear that they will not be taken seriously or fear that they will be scapegoated for the actions of another (for instance, all clergy recovering from addiction being punished for the actions of a clergy member who was never in recovery from their addiction).

But here are some things that can help:

– Do welcome outside perspectives and the fresh eyes of those who are impartial and wise. They will be able to see things that others cannot. Their observations may be painful at times, but they may also be vital.

– Do admit that you might not have all of the story (even if you are really, really sure you do) and therefore may have misjudged things.

– Do encourage dialogue on the larger issues that come up, and provide spaces to talk about them.

– Do ask, “What can the larger church learn from this, and what can we do better in the future?”

– Do pray for all involved.

I don’t profess to have comprehensive answers on any of this, but I do believe these are critical distinctions. What would you add?

Advent Hope (Or, Why I Quit My PhD Program)

Over the last few years I have written short daily devotionals for each day of Advent and Lent. I enjoyed doing it, but there were times when it felt a bit draining, particularly in the clergy obstacle course that is the season of Advent and Christmas planning.

So this year I am doing something a little different. I am not writing daily posts, but I am committing to blogging. Maybe it will be once a week; maybe more. But, if I miss a day I won’t feel like I’m failing Advent. (Ever feel like you get grades for your liturgical seasons? Just me?)

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

Today seems as good a day as any to start in Advent because it is a memorable one for me. Thirteen years ago today I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. When I knelt in the chapel of Columbia Theological Seminary and my friends and colleagues laid on hands I thought I knew how this journey would go. I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to a specific call as a hospital chaplain. I thought I would spend a few years serving as a chaplain, go to graduate school and get a PhD, and then teach in a seminary somewhere. I had hopes, and I was going to work to make those hopes realities.

And for a few years I was on that exact course. I spent hours in a pediatric emergency room responding to the families of children with traumatic injuries. I crammed for the GREs. I earned a second masters degree in systematic theology that would boost my chances of getting into a PhD program. And then, early in 2005, I dropped six PhD applications into the mail and waited.

Here’s the part where you expect me to say I didn’t get in anywhere, and I had to change my hopes. Part of me wishes I had received back rejection letters. But I didn’t. Instead six offers of acceptance came back bringing with them my choice of programs. In the end I picked the one I thought made the most sense and headed off for the ivy tower, ready to join the ranks of the academy. My hopes had been realized.

Except for one thing. I hated academia.

Sure, I’ve never met a PhD student who was thrilled with their life. Graduate work is quiet drudgery. You live in a little apartment while your friends are buying houses. You drink too much coffee and eat too much crummy food. You feel grateful for the meager stipend you are lucky enough to get for being a teaching assistant. And you read. A lot. And you write. A lot. And you try to make your professors happy, but you get a sense that this is going to be a years-long academic gauntlet.

I expected all that. I expected things to be hard, and I was fine with that. But what I didn’t expect was how empty the whole thing would make me feel. I didn’t expect that each class and paper would feel meaningless. I didn’t expect the existential angst that would come from devoting years of my life to a dissertation that would most likely sit in an university library unread. I didn’t expect that I would feel like I was on the sidelines, sitting on the bench, while all my other clergy friends got to play in a game that mattered. And I didn’t expect that I would start to think about how to get through the next 35 years doing something I hated.

It wasn’t until later that I came to realize that, no matter how much we complained, a lot of my classmates actually didn’t hate it that much. I began to realize that they had a legitimate calling to academia. And, more importantly, I did not.

And so, I had to go back to what got me there in the first place. And I realized that becoming a PhD student had little to do with my hopes, and everything to do with my fears.

The reality is that when I was ordained in 2001 the Presbyterian Church (USA) (the tradition in which I was ordained) still prohibited practicing LGBT people from being ordained. (Despite recent news reports to the contrary, this is still the case in many presbyteries.) I had been out since I was 18, a fact that did not change while I was in seminary, and I know my ordination committee was well aware of this fact. (One member pulled me aside to assure me of this.)

And yet, I was never asked whether or not I would abide by the rules as they then stood. It became our little game of chicken. Our own ecclesiastical “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

If I had it to do over today, I might do things differently. But I was 24 when I was approved for ordination, and living in the South. Not even the local United Church of Christ jurisdictions were approving LGBT people for ordination yet. And so, cheered on by professors and well-meaning clergy who assured me I could do more good “inside the system” than outside, I played the game, and I was ordained.

But I knew that there were still things I could not do. I could not pastor a church, because I could not love a congregation the way a pastor must love their church and not be honest with them. Likewise, though I was not yet partnered at the time, I knew in the future that I could not love someone as a partner and ask them in any way to hide who they were in my place of ministry. I knew plenty of clergy who did this, and I saw what it did to them and their families.

And so, even though I loved preaching, even though I loved the parish, I convinced myself that I didn’t belong there. And I instead came up with a new set of hopes; ones revolving around chaplaincy and academia, relatively “safe” places full of LGBT clergy.

But deep down inside I knew it wasn’t my calling. No wonder I was miserable. I had traded in hope for convenience and safety. And hope, real hope, rarely guarantees us either.

I left my PhD program after two and a half years. My only regret is that I didn’t leave earlier. I also left the Presbyterian Church, choosing instead to transfer my standing to the United Church of Christ. And, finally, I went out into the parish, the very place I’d been so terrified to go, but yet the one place I was sure God wanted me.

Along the way I learned something about hope. It’s not about goals or plans or hoping that everything will work out easily and with the least degree of resistance. Instead, it’s about trust. It’s about trusting God enough to believe that God is creating something new and good, and God will make a way for you to do exactly what you are called to do.

And it’s also about knowing that if your hopes aren’t big enough, if they are in any way dictated by fear and not faith, you will end up settling for being miserable.

Thirteen years later, my ministry has taken me to a place I never expected. I’m not at a seminary teaching. I’m also not living with a tacit understanding between self and denomination. And I’m not compromising my hopes anymore.

Instead, I wake up in the morning next to a wife I love dearly. One I will never ask to hide for me. I walk from our home down the street to my study in the church office. I spend my days preaching, writing, praying, talking to parishioners, working for peace and justice, and serving the church and community. But, more than that, I truly believe I spend them (to steal a phrase from the Westminster Catechism) glorifying God, and enjoying God forever. And I am truly, deeply happy.

And now I know. On that day thirteen years ago, I may have had hope, but my hopes weren’t nearly big enough. And so this first week in Advent, when hope is what we think about, that is what I know about the subject: A hope that depends on our fears, and not our faith in what God can do, is no hope at all. And I truly believe that God wants more for us than that.

Falling: Recovery, Silence, and the Church

Untitled copyTwice in my life I have competed in contact sports. After a childhood spent envying the boys on my block who could play on the football team, I joined my college’s rugby team. It was a club sport at my school, more adventure than varsity, but it was one of the few places I had found where women could play a rough-and-tumble game without others trying to protect us. After college I found my way to the local judo dojo where that same truth held. There on the mat we sparred together, a mix of genders and abilities, starting standing face-to-face and ending with throws and pins to the floor.

What struck me about both sports was what I learned at my very first practice. My first night on the rugby pitch I learned how to throw a tackle. But, more importantly, I learned how to be tackled. A friend of mine knelt down on the field and, as I ran at them, threw a perfect tackle just above my knees. I soared over their shoulder and hit the ground safely. We did this again and again that night until being tackled was second nature.

My first night in the dojo was similar. Before I was allowed anywhere near the other students, I spent an evening sitting on the mat and practicing falling backwards. Each time I fell backwards I would strike the mat with one arm to absorb the blow. Once I mastered the art of falling down from a sitting position, I fell backwards from a standing position. That first night I thought judo must be the most boring athletic endeavor ever, but after I was thrown to the mat the few times I realized the point.

With both sports the idea was this: you’re going to fall. You’d might as well learn how to fall safely, with minimal injury, so that you can stand back up.

So what does this have to do with the church? At first glance maybe not that much. But last week I found myself lying face up in our village market’s parking lot thinking otherwise. I’d slipped on a patch of Vermont black ice while carrying a bag of groceries, but as soon as I had felt myself lose balance I immediately, instinctively, did what I had learned in the dojo: I fell back, didn’t panic, and tried to distribute the impact as broadly as possible. In the end the only thing injured was my pride. I stood back up, picked up the groceries, and drove home unscathed.

And that’s when I started to think about the church. Recently a clergy friend told me that he had been advised by older clergy mentors to hide the fact that he is in recovery from addiction. I immediate felt sad about that. This is a person with sustained sobriety, and an incredible story of recovery. His testimony could be a powerful witness to God’s healing, as well as one of hope to those “still sick and suffering”. But his congregation might never hear it.

My friend had been told that clergy shouldn’t show weakness. They shouldn’t admit to perceived failures. They should allow those around them to live under the impression that, no matter what is going on, everything is fine. And, while I do believe clergy need to be careful not to overshare our personal lives or to preach our own stories more than the Gospel, I believe this is the attitude that not only contributes to clergy burn-out but hurts our whole church.

The reality for all of us is this: we fall short, we mess up, we lose our traction, and end up on the ground. In short, we live life. Clergy and lay together. But often we don’t talk about that in church. Instead we bring ourselves to worship in our Sunday best and hide the truth that sometimes things just aren’t that great.

It’s no surprise. For too long we’ve been taught to do just that. We clergy have taught, often by our own example, that appearances are more important than honesty. We’ve taught that appropriate vulnerability is career suicide. We’ve taught that falling down defines us no matter whether or not we get back up. And, inadvertently, we’ve taught a sanitized, powerless Gospel.

Somehow we have taught that Christians are people of perfection, and not people of redemption.

This past year, as the Boston mayoral race heated up, eventual winner Marty Walsh ran television ads that briefly mentioned his recovery from alcoholism. I watched the ads and thought, “that’s brilliant”. He, as Robert Kennedy used to say, hung a lantern on his biggest problem, the thing that might have come out in sneaky attack ads and bombed his candidacy. Instead, his recovery became a part of his story. It showed that he knew how to get back up and rebuild.

But the more I thought about it, the more I felt sad for the church. If an admission of being in recovery can actually help someone in the hardball world of politics, why is it so feared in the very place where redemption should be celebrated? Why aren’t we, people who talk about grace and forgiveness and new life, in the business of teaching people what to do when they fall? Why don’t we acknowledge these things so that we can help people know where to turn when they need help to get back up?

In my ministry I’ve never hidden the fact that I am in recovery. I’m blessed to be able to say that because of that I’ve been able to be a first call for parishioners and non-parishioners alike when they finally hit rock bottom. But I’ve also never talked about it in my writing all that much.

This Sunday marks another year of sobriety, one day at a time, for me. It doesn’t matter how many years, but I can say that it’s far more than a much younger me ever thought I could string together the first time I admitted I needed help. I give thanks every day that I got it.

I also give thanks for the ones who I’ve met in recovery who have taught me that falling down in life is as inevitable as falling on the rugby pitch or in the judo dojo. Most have had much more dramatic and devastating falls than my own. Most have made far more dramatic and inspiring recoveries. And, though they may not have realized it, and though most have never stepped into a pulpit, they have preached the Gospel to me in the most powerful ways I have ever heard it.

I only wish that those of us who did occupy the pulpits could preach the Gospel of redemption with such power and transparency and strength.

But then again, maybe we can.

What Growing Up a “None” Taught Me about Church

I was raised a “none”. That is, I was raised outside of organized religion, in a spiritual-but-not-religious home. I hear that “nones” are all the rage now, so I just want to point out for the record that for once in my life I was ahead of the fashionable curve.

I obviously did not stay a “none”. I’m a pastor in the United Church of Christ and I try, for better or worse, to live my life according to the teachings of Jesus Christ. I am a Christian, not because I was told by family that I needed to be one, but because the faith spoke to me in a way nothing else did.

In seminary I was aware of the uniqueness of my situation. Almost all of my classmates had been raised in the church, and most in the denomination of the seminary. A good number had been raised in the homes of clergy parents. They had grown up going to the same church camps, and knew the same people. I certainly never felt unwelcome because I hadn’t, but I was frequently aware of how radically different my journey to faith had been.

But in the last few years, I’ve seen a lot of questions from Christian clergy about how we can reach out to the growing number of “nones” out there. Christians are baffled as to how the church should speak to this alien group. They confuse us. They challenge us. And, if we are really honest, their very existence threatens our sense of security.

That’s not such a bad thing, honestly. We could use the shaking up. But as a former “none” who is watching this, I wanted to offer some insights. These are the top five things I learned from being a “none”:

1. 29671_389906276786_3698836_nBeing a “none” is not always a bad thing.

Truly. People come to faith from a variety of different places. For some that starts on the cradle roll at church, right after their parents bring their infant selves to the baptismal font. But for others of us, we arrive at the church via a different route. We explore other options, not because we are consumers, but because we want to find the place to which we are truly called.

The result is that converts often come to church full of commitment, resolve, and excitement. They also come with different perspective, and without assumptions about how the church should and should not work in the world. Sometimes new Christians can bring fresh ideas to the church. (Just ask St. Augustine, or former Archbishop of Canterbury George Cary, both of whom became Christians at a later age.)

2. “Nones’ are not Godless heathens.

I attended a church conference at a large United Methodist congregation earlier this year and I was shocked to hear a speaker refer to non-Christians as “essentially heathens”. I’ve since heard that word used by others who seem to believe Christian faith is simply a battle for converts. I’m not sure how the “heathens” are supposed to respond positively to that rhetoric.

The reality is that “nones” are not heathens. They are often extremely thoughtful, highly ethical, people who have not yet connected with an organized faith that speaks to them. When I first came to the church at age 17, I already knew I believed in God. I just wasn’t so sure I believe in church. Had someone insinuated that I was a “heathen” because I didn’t possess the same baptismal certificate as my classmates, I likely would have walked out the door.

3. “Nones” aren’t (necessarily) looking for a big conversion experience.

I never had that mountain-top moment that revival preachers always say they had. I never fell to my knees crying. I never had a moment of sudden, clear belief. There was never an altar call. And that’s okay. I didn’t need becoming a Christian to be a melodramatic moment. Instead, I felt a small urging in my soul that called to me to take the next step, to keep asking the questions, and to keep exploring. Conversion was a gradual, and thoughtful experience.

It also was, and is, continuous. Conversion is not a moment. It’s a lifelong process. While there may be moments that a Christian makes a deeper commitment, there are also countless moments of doubt, and of questioning, and of disconnection. These are not crises, but rather markers on the journey. But continual conversion means that a “none”, like any other Christian, ultimately is called to  continue down the path of faith.

4. Churches need to check assumptions about common knowledge.

When I first began attending church at age 17, I was highly embarrassed by the fact I didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer. I remember reading it over and over again to myself, trying to memorize it. (Add to that the fact that not all Christians say it the same way, and I was highly confused.)

Recently I heard someone complaining about visitors to their church that didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer. She went on and on about how anyone could grow up not knowing the Lord’s Prayer. I felt those old feelings of embarrassment. And so I went home and started printing all the words to the Lord’s Prayer in my own church’s worship bulletin.

“Nones” might not know all the right prayers, or when to sit down and stand up. And, believe me, they are conscious of not knowing. So we who are familiar with the language of church have to be careful that we are not making assumptions about shared language. Explain what might seem foreign. Talk about why you do certain things. You may find that even some lifelong Christians benefit from this.

5. Don’t dumb it down or make it easy.

When I started looking for my faith community there were a lot of options. My town offered plenty of churches that wanted converts, and that handed out pamphlets about becoming a Christian and “making a decision” for Christ. They said it was so easy. Just accept Christ into your heart, and everything else would make sense.

I never went to any of those churches. Instead I went to the places that didn’t try to make it easy. I found the ones that didn’t dumb it down. I didn’t want answers or to be entertained. I wanted to wrestle with the big questions. I wanted to worship in authentic community. I wanted to make the hard choices that faith demands. I wanted to follow Jesus. And I wanted a church that would show me how to do that.

And, at the end of the day, I think a lot of “nones” might like that too.

Journey Through Lent: Day 14

I’m not Catholic, so you might think that the events taking place today in Rome mean very little to me. The tradition that my denomination is a part of broke away from Catholicism nearly 500 years ago. My own family left the church, led by my grandmother, two generations ago.

The new pope, whomever he may be, will have very little direct bearing upon my life.

But I am still interested. And I’m particularly interested in the very unusual circumstances surrounding the end of this Pope’s reign. I’ve heard the rumors of why he is leaving. People say he has been forced out by blackmail, or that something is being hidden. And I do believe that churches, Catholic and Protestant, have at times been bastions of systemic dysfunction. But, I’m inclined to take Pope Benedict at his word on this one. I think he’s just stepping aside because he can’t perform the duties of his office in the manner that it deserves any longer.

That in itself is worth consideration. We sometimes don’t know when to step aside. We are sometimes so filled with our own self-importance, and our own belief that we alone can do things the right way, that we fail to see when we are starting to become ineffective. We are so afraid to admit our brokenness, that we break the things that surround us.

In Lent we are reminded of our limitations. And I think that’s why Lent is so scary to some Christians. No one wants to admit that they are powerless. And no one wants to admit that one day, if we are fortunate enough to grow old enough, we just won’t be up to the job anymore.

I don’t agree with Pope Benedict on a lot of things, but I give thanks for his example today. I give thanks for the reminder he brings to us in Lent that we are fallible, and finite, and that one day we will have to step aside and let someone else take over. It’s a huge gift to give to the church, and especially to we who are clergy. It’s not about us. It’s about something much bigger. Thanks be to God.

10 Things You Can Do to Help Confront Bullying

On this day after Spirit Day, I’m committed to keeping awareness of bullying at the forefront of my mind. I just shared these ten suggestions with my parishioners. What would you add?

  1. Let the youth in your life know how you feel about bullying. Just like you talk to them about other life choices, talk to them about how you expect them to treat their peers. Encourage them to covenant with others to make their school, team, etc. a bullying-free zone.
  2. Whenever possible, talk about the deeper reasons we do not bully. Make connections for the youth in your life between respect for all of God’s creation and respect for all people. Talk about why your faith teaches you not to bully.
  3. If you were bullied, tell your story. Sometimes youth who are being bullied feel ashamed of the fact. Or, they may not realize that people they love have gone through the same thing, and have come out the other side.
  4. If a young person who is being bullied comes to you for support, encourage open dialogues with them. Do not shame them for being bullied or tell them they need to “get a thicker skin”. Stress that this is not their fault.
  5. Don’t dismiss bullying as “kids will be kids” or say “this has always happened, and it always will…they’ll be fine”. Besides the fact that these statements do nothing to comfort a bullied kid, things are tougher than ever now. Because of Facebook, Twitter, texting, and other forms of communication, today’s bullied youth can now be targeted 24 hours a day, even in their own homes after school. Take bullying seriously, and be aware of how social media might be abused for this purpose.
  6. If a young person in your life is the bully get them the help they need. Bullies are not born. If they are targeting other young people it is often because they are learning the behavior from someone else.
  7. Model non-bullying behavior in your work, church, and home life. Bullying, unfortunately, does not end with high school. Adults are often just as guilty. Show the young people in your life what it means to treat everyone with respect and civility. Confront bullies with love, but firmness.
  8. Help shape anti-bullying programs in your local community. Take a public stand against bullying. Encourage parents and other adults to talk about the issues. Participate in honest dialogue.
  9. Grow your youths’ confidence in their ability to stand up to bullies. Teach them to be strong without being a bully. Praise them when they stand up for more vulnerable classmates. Differentiate “turning the other cheek” from allowing one’s self to be continually abused.
  10. Give them hope. It does get better, and you should make sure they know that, but don’t leave it at that. Give them a reason to find hope now. Remind them of their value. Tell them they are loved. Talk to them about their future. And, if you are worried, talk to them about whether they are considering hurting themselves. It is worth it to have the conversation.

When Wearing Purple Isn’t Enough – New post on HuffPost Religion for Spirit Day

Check out my new post on Huffington Post Religion about what being bullied has taught me as a clergyperson:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/when-wearing-purple-isnt-enough-telling-the-truth-about-bullying_b_1987128.html?fb_action_ids=10100160786150108&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map=%7B%2210100160786150108%22%3A440237262678258%7D&action_type_map=%7B%2210100160786150108%22%3A%22og.likes%22%7D&action_ref_map=%5B%5D

The Unexpected Pastor

When I graduated from seminary eleven years ago I did so proclaiming that I would never serve as a parish pastor. I, arrogantly I now see, proclaimed that “real ministry” wasn’t done in churches. It was done in hospitals, schools, battlefields, and the streets. I then headed off to a pediatric hospital where I spent the bulk of the next two years with the families of traumatically injured children.

But two years ago the winding course of my vocation brought me to the front doors of not one, but two churches nestled in a small community in the mountains of Vermont. Here I was, an urban, Southern, gay minister in my early 30’s whose most recent address had been Provincetown. I think my friends may have been taking bets on how long I would stay.

There was good reason. By the time I arrived in town I had been well Googled. Despite the fact I was met with a congregation of parishioners who are immensely good and fair people, there were plenty of occasions for self-doubt. One local clergy member refused to co-officiate at a service with me. A local supporter informed me of an angry Scripture-quoting man who had been yelling about the new gay minister in the 7-11. I began to wonder if my presence in the community was an unnecessary burden upon my congregations.

On the darkest nights I told myself, “I think I made a mistake.”

I didn’t leave, though. In the church we believe pastors are called, not hired, and we believe the process of uniting pastor and congregation is vastly different than a secular hiring process. By the time a pastor starts serving a congregation an intense period of discernment has taken place with the church, pastor, and denomination all affirming that it is God’s will for these parties to join together in ministry. I trusted that faith, and I stayed.

I’m glad I did. Because in the past two years I have seen God’s love become incarnate in more ways than I could have believed. And along the way I’ve learned that real ministry does in fact take place in the church too. The young seminarian who saw parishes as the territory of the privileged and comfortable is gone, replaced by a pastor who understands that crisis and pain know no boundaries. I’ve learned to look out on Sunday mornings and understand that everyone in the room is facing something they’d rather not. Doctors call with bad news. Loved ones die. Kids fight. Marriages get rocky. And in the midst all of these things, those who come and fill the pews on Sunday mornings look for God. Every week. The reality of that is sobering for a preacher who once thought they’d learned all there was to know about pain in a trauma bay.

I’ve learned about pain, but I’ve learned other things as well. I’ve learned that congregations are full of human people with human faults. The stained glass can hide the very real pain inside a church. And yet, they are also places of celebration and life. A few months after I arrived, I baptized a baby. During the service I felt joy welling up inside of me. I didn’t understand why it had affected me so much until later when I realized I’d never baptized a child who was not actively dying. That made sense. I figured that I’d find the pain when the funerals started coming. But to my great surprise, even in the midst of very real mourning and grief, I saw the promise of the Resurrection in families’ laughter and the triumph of goodness in the hope of friends. My parishioners have taught me to find joy even in the darkest places.

They’ve also taught me to find grace. I’ve learned over the past two years that no matter how deeply I may disagree with someone in the most fundamental of ways, there is always a place for us to connect. I’ve played golf with people whom I’m quite sure have never voted the same way as I do in November. I’ve learned to appreciate the self-sufficiency of hunters despite the fact I’ve never picked up a gun. I’ve come to respect the honesty of those who can’t quite wrap their heads around the fact a pastor is gay, yet who still love me and try to understand anyway.

I’ve even come to love Yankees fans.

But more than anything, I’ve learned this: being a pastor means finding the holy in the most unexpected places. I’ve done ministry at the counter of the local diner. I found grace while blessing a parishioner’s 900 lbs. pig who was about to be euthanized. I’ve witnessed new life in the stories of people in recovery. And I’ve seen resurrection happen in a town that was devastated by a flood and that, through the efforts of a community united, rose again.

It sounds cliche to say that being a pastor is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s true. Physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, I’m challenged everyday. The calling requires sacrifice in every sense of the word, and pastors are not immune from the proverbial “dark night of the soul”.

And yet, I can’t imagine doing anything else. Not because I couldn’t do anything else, (clergy generally do not embrace the calling due to lack of other options) but because I can’t imagine feeling right doing anything else. Two years ago I never imagined how hard parish ministry would be. And I never expected how much I would love it.

I suspect that if I went back in time and met that newly minted seminary grad from eleven years ago, they would never have believed they would end up a small-town pastor in Vermont. But that’s the beauty of calling. The holy is often found in the unpredictable. Every day I get to serve I’m thankful for the divine nudge that calls us out of the places we think we belong, and into the places that have already been prepared for us.