Nadia Bolz-Weber makes me want to be a better pastor. She also reminds me that I'm bound to fuck it up.
In her new book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, Nadia chronicles her upbringing in a fundamentalist church, her path to self-destruction as a young adult, her improbable call to ministry, and her journey with her people at House for All Sinners and Saints.
It is beautifully written, funny, and heartbreaking. It will make you laugh out loud and, if you're like me, choke up and wipe away the tears pooling up in the corner of your eyes. Often all on the same page.
Surely, Pastrix is one of the first great spiritual memoirs of post-American-Christendom.
Pastrix speaks profoundly to those who are alienated from the church. I want to buy a copy for all my friends, and I've got plenty, who have given up on church long ago.
For my part, I can't help but read Pastrix from my own perspective as a ministry practitioner and Lutheran pastor.
What I have learned from Nadia, in our conversations and again in Pastrix, is that being a better pastor is not about accumulating skill sets and eventually, finally, getting it right. Its about being open enough to God (who she refers to as "Jesus the Boyfriend," who gets all up in our shit) and God's people to have your heart broken.
Lately, I've been practicing a lot of what I have been thinking of as theology without a net.
Theology without a net happens in public spaces. It does not involve a presentation, PowerPoint slides, or a written text. It does not rely on the expert knowledge of professional ministry-types.
It does not offer or promise neat answers. It is an ongoing conversation, which is shaped by whoever shows up that day. It is responsive, not leading. It listens more than speaks. And it has to be authentic. It lives at the intersection of faith and life.
This is different from how I was trained to do theology. Theology happened controlled environments: in church or academic buildings, classes, and worship, with subject matter experts (pastors and professors), who were training me to become one too. And, hey, I loved it. I absorbed it. I got good at it.
But the world we live in demands that we do theology in a different way, on-the-fly, in different places, with different people, on someone else's turf: theology without a net.
Last night I attended broken liturgy with Pete Rollins.
Wow. It was amazing.
broken liturgy is, as the creative team behind it (John Hardt, Christopher Cocca, and Lin Preiss) will tell you, hard to describe.
It deconstructs liturgy and church (the tag line is "church undone") and at the same time is incredibly generative. It is avantgard and ancient. The MacBook sits on the piano. Hand cut figures are hand-placed on the the digital projection screen. It does not promise answers. It offers an experience, which is open to whatever you bring to it. It doesn't explain. It doesn't tie things up neatly at the end. The lights just come on. The ending is liminal: no permisson, no instruction, no dismissal. (Unlike my Lutheran tribe, which can't leave a room unless someone says, "Go in peace. Serve the Lord.") It is music, poetry, art, and story, beautifully and carefully combined. And it is broken. Over pints afterward, the team and Pete recounted some of the hiccups in the program and also noted that that's kind of the point. We are broken people—and this is a liturgy by and for broken people.
It’s a lie we tell ourselves: “I am too busy to exercise. This work is too important.”
Pastors are among the biggest culprits in perpetuating this myth, and not surprisingly suffer from high rates stress, emotional distress, addiction, and burnout. Many pastors sacrifice their short- and long-term health in the name of their ministry, which to them seems too busy and important to pause for even a 30-minute workout. In the end, their ministry suffers and, at times, is even cut short.
I was struck by a recent profile Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball, The Big Short, and The Blind Side) did of President Barack Obama, in which Obama talks about his exercise regimen. Lewis writes,
“When he awakens at seven, he already has a jump on things. He arrives at the gym on the third floor of the residence, above his bedroom, at 7:30. He works out until 8:30 (cardio one day, weights the next)....”
“‘You have to exercise,’ [Obama] said, for instance. ‘Or at some point you’ll just break down.’”
You have to exercise or at some point you'll just break down.
We all have models of ministry we emulate, ministry leaders we look up to. These are mostly those who model success, who are able to perpetuate good times and positive ministries. But what about when things are hard—really hard?
We often lack for ministry models in those time, in part, I suppose, because we like to talk about our successes far more than our failures. We don't as easily celebrate people for their brokenness and struggle, and yet, in ministry, we all wind up there at one time or another.
At some of the most difficult times in ministry, I found an unlikely ministry model: Frodo Baggins.
Frodo is the main character in J.R.R. Tolkien's book trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. During the toughest times in my ministry I found myself watching the recent movie versions often, not merely for escapism, but because in those times I came to strongly identify with Frodo Baggins.
You'll remember Frodo as the diminutive Hobbit, who is charged with carrying the burdensome ring of Sauron across Middle Earth in order to to destroy it at Mount Doom in the forsaken land of Mordor.
The ring weighs more and more heavily on Frodo throughout the story. The carefree life of his home in the Shire is replaced with a grinding pilgrimmage through unforgiving terrain. He tires and ages before us. The evil influence of the ring threatens to corrupt is kind heart.
Ministry, whether in good times or bad, is about ring-bearing. It is about carrying the burden for your people—for the congregation itself and for the larger church. Always, we hold the hopes and dreams, and aspirations of our people. In difficult circumstances, we also carry their fear and their anxiety. We are often the recipents of criticism and bad behavior. The weight of the task of guiding a congregation through difficult times can take an enormous toll on the ring bearer.
On December 5th I had the honor of preaching the funeral sermon for my mentor and friend, The Rev. Dr. Ronald Thiemann. We lost him too soon and will miss him greatly.
I remember the first time I met Ron Thiemann. It was 1996 and I was a newly minted first year Master of Divinity student at Harvard Divinity School and Ron was the Dean. I was invited, along with all first years, to the traditional welcome cookout at Jewett House, the Dean’s residence. We shook hands in the receiving line and said hello. And that was it. In that brief moment, neither of us could have possibly imagined that our journeys would somehow lead us here today.
I never had a class with Ron, a fact he would later tease me about frequently. I tried to explain that he just wasn’t in my area, but he didn’t buy it. But I did see him often. You know, at Harvard, professors are our versions of celebrities and Deans all the more so. I remember seeing Ron walking hurriedly across the Div School campus. I’d say, “Hey, there’s the Dean!” It was like seeing a theological rock-star. I knew that he was brilliant, important, and busy teaching and guiding the Divinity school, which he did for 13 years.
So, perhaps you can imagine that when Ron and Beth appeared unannounced for Sunday worship here at Redeemer when I was serving as pastor, I had to do a double take. I peeked into the sanctuary from the back door and said, “Is that the dean? That’s the dean!” I walked up and, I’ll never forget, I nervously said, “Hello, Professor Thiemann, I’m Keith Anderson.” And Ron said, “Yes. I know.” Eek! And then I had to preach in front of him a sermon I didn’t particularly like. My heart thumped in my chest as it did for my sermons in the weeks to come. After weeks of calling him Professor Thiemann, he finally had to say, “Keith, please, call me Ron.”
And in the time since, I came to know Ron, not only as the incredibly accomplished scholar and institutional leader, advisor to political, religious, and business leaders, but as a colleague, a wise mentor, and, truly and most of all, a friend.